How I accidentally saw the Torah through Wellhausen’s eyes

“In my early student days I was attracted by the stories of Saul and David, Ahab and Elijah; the discourses of Amos and Isaiah laid strong hold on me, and I read myself well into the prophetic and historical books of the Old Testament…  

“Finally I took courage and made my way through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers … But it was in vain that I looked for the light which these books were to shed on the historical and prophetical books…  Even where there were points of contact between them, differences also made themselves felt, and I found it impossible to give a candid decision in favor of the greater antiquity of the books of Mosaic Law…”

(Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 2nd 1883, ET 1885, p. 3)

It so happened that only a month ago and by accident I set myself a roughly similar ‘reverse course’ of reading in the Bible as described above – histories and prophecies first and Pentateuch second.  When by chance last week I read the above observation by Wellhausen, I recognized a certain ‘feasibility’ in his conclusion.

My reading had started with a desire to examine the parallels and differences between Chronicles and Samuel/Kings (which in some cases are remarkable).  After getting through these books twice apiece, I read the non-narrative portion of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Micah to see if their teachings could be found in the histories I had just completed (not much).  I turned to Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers to check their textual relations to Deuteronomy (interesting).  Before finishing I made a quick once-through of Joshua and Judges.

This unconscious preparation had me poised to see in the hint from Wellhausen the truth of this old critical hypothesis: that precious little of the specific practices and laws of Leviticus, Numbers, and Exodus, are present (or even alluded to) in the prophetic record or histories of the period between Joshua and Josiah.

It’s not patently obvious that any of the Kings of Israel or Judah or any of their priests and prophets knew of these alleged books of Mosaic law in the form in which they have come down to us.  What then?  Can the Torah be a work of post-exilic Judaism (5th-6th cent. BC) which only utilizes favorable bits of ancient Hebrew history (and constructs other favorable bits), to give a final, ‘received’ form that is no earlier than the Babylonian exile?

“In the course of a casual visit in Gottingen in the summer of 1867, I learned through Ritschl that Karl Heinrich Graf placed the books of the Mosaic Law later than the Prophets, and, almost without knowing his reasons for the hypothesis, I was prepared to accept it; I readily acknowledged to myself the possibility of understanding Hebrew antiquity without the book of the Torah.” (Ibid)

Note:  The idea is not that the Exodus, or Mt. Sinai or the wilderness never happened – only that our version of these events are those of a much later theological mind.

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5 thoughts on “How I accidentally saw the Torah through Wellhausen’s eyes

  1. Yes, John, I too have a great deal of truck with this reading of the Hebrew Bible. The presupposition of the prophets by the Pentateuch was a major theme of my undergraduate dissertation on the ark of Noah. My work to this point has led me to the conclusion that the Exodus narrative is an hidden polemic relating to the Ezra-Nehemiah reconstitution of the Jerusalem temple cult. There are a number of literary motifs in the life of Moses which link him to the style of competitive historiography found around the court of Cyrus the Great. I shall try and look some more material out and post it to you.

    Jason Michael

    • That would be interesting if not too specialized 🙂

      I have been a long time ‘believer’ in the evidence for late and major editing of the Hebrew writings in exile, but this experience of reading and seeing the initial overview of Wellhausen’s theory makes it very lively and got me back into studying the problem.

      I have opinions for and against the Graf-Wellhausen theory and its later development by others, especially in the details and sequence of its four major strands (JDEP).

  2. Lads I have not forgotten about this. I am in the midst of transcribing some it it up. Most of it is still in handwritten lecture notes and book references. Shall post as soon as I can. You may be aware that Ireland has recently fallen to pieces so my blog and social activity have taken a rather political turn. I will be back soon.

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