In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete discusses the legacy of Julius Wellhausen in biblical scholarship as he explores the following questions:
- Who is Julius Wellhausen and why was he so controversial?
- When did Wellhausen date the Law of Moses?
- What is the difference between the Law of Moses and the Pentateuch?
- What evidence did Wellhausen use to support his dating?
- What did scholars notice that caused them to question the historicity of some of the Bible’s claims?
- What is the documentary hypothesis?
- Who is Jean Astruc and why is he important?
- What idea of Astruc’s is still influential to biblical studies today?
- Why do our Bibles say LORD in stead of the divine name?
- What is the significance of Israel’s worship location in the dating the Pentateuch?
- Why did the priestly source write about the tabernacle?
- What are some characteristics of the J, E, P, and D sources?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete you can share.
- “It’s quite revealing to see how little a presence the detailed regulations of the Law of Moses has [in the prophets and book about Israel’s monarchy].” @peteenns
- “Jeremiah says that God never said what the Law of Moses said He said, and that’s at least worth thinking about.” @peteenns
- “Wellhausen and others read the Bible carefully and they saw inconsistencies.” @peteenns
- “It just strains credulity that this divinely commanded system for worship would have no controlling function for Israel’s worship when they settled in the land.” @peteenns
- “There probably was no Tabernacle, at least not one as elaborate, with a fully functioning and highly organized system as the one we read about in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.” @peteenns
- “The way the priestly editors present the story in the Bible by putting their stuff at the beginning, actually obscures Israel’s actual history.” @peteenns
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel
- Website: The Documentary Hypothesis
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Recommendations for Further Reading
- Book: Who Wrote the Bible?
- Book: The Bible with Sources Revealed
- Book: How to Read the Bible
- Book: Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch
- Book: The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures
- Book: Introduction to the Hebrew Bible
- Book: How the Bible Became a Book
- Website: Biblical Criticism
- Website: Bible Odyssey
Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People. The only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty Intro Music]
Pete: Hello everyone, welcome to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Well, you know there certainly are a lot of important things happening in our world at the moment and you know, things far more important than a podcast episode, but I want to thank you for listening. You know, we’re all carrying on as we’re isolating and that goes for me and everybody else, so, here we are. Right, well, let’s get started.
As you know, we’re committed to bringing other people’s big ideas to you, and especially the best of biblical scholarship down to earth for normal people, which brings me to today’s podcast. Today’s topic is a little different from others, but it’s something that we’ve been thinking about for a while. Now, you may have noticed that all of our guests thus far, over four seasons, have something in common. They’re all present voices. Well, beginning today and wherever else I might, in the months and years to come, feel like it, I’d like to switch gears and talk about voices from the past. So, you know, biblical scholarship has had a rich history with towering figures with big ideas who have asked perceptive questions about the Bible and given answers that have, you know, influenced generations of scholars, even shaped and redirected the entire discipline. Figures that our academic guests are familiar with, but that many normal people have never really heard of, so let’s fix that shall we? Yes, let’s do that.
Our first guest from the past is a good one to start with because he is, without question, the most influential, and probably controversial, and in some circles demonized Old Testament scholar of the modern period. His name is Julius Wellhausen and he was born in 1844 and he died in 1918, the year of the flu pandemic by the way, not to bring that up. He also lived in an era, the late 19th to early 20th centuries where other controversial, big ideas were challenging conventional thinking. You know this is the same era roughly as Charles Darwin who forced a conversation about human origins that’s still with us today or Sigmund Freud who said most of our actions are not under our rational control but directed by the subconscious. And no need to mention people like Albert Einstein and Karl Marx. Profound shifts in knowledge were happening all over the place and Wellhausen fit right into the spirit of the time. He also turned things upside down in the field of biblical studies and specifically what he did was he flipped the history of Israel on its head. What was thought to be first is actually last and fleshing that highly influential idea out is the topic of this podcast.
So, what did he do? Well, in 1898, he wrote this long book Prolegomena to the History of Israel. It always starts with somebody writing a book. We’ll come back to the title later, because it’s revealing, but for now it’s enough to know that it’s six hundred pages long and really detailed, because he’s German, but thankfully, in literally the first two sentences he tells you exactly where all of this is going and I just want to paraphrase. See, his focus is on the law of Moses, the law that Moses received from God on Mount Sinai, right? That stuff that’s found in Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy. So, here’s what he said, here’s how he flipped the history of Israel around. The law of Moses isn’t from Moses, rather it came from a much later time. Hundreds of years after Moses. Okay, that’s crazy. You know, what kind of a nutso theory is that? Has he never read the Bible? Well, he did, and his six-hundred-page book is the results of what he found. See, he argues – this is the thing – he argues that the biblical evidence itself drives him to his conclusion. Well, how can that be? We all know, don’t we, just from reading the Old Testament that Moses received the law from God on Mount Sinai early on in the story. Halfway through the second book, the second of thirty-nine Old Testament books in the Book of Exodus, and then continuing through the third book, Leviticus, most of the fourth book, Numbers, and then at the end of Moses life, in the fifth book, we have Deuteronomy where Moses just sort of reiterates what he received years earlier.
By the way, those four books plus the first one, Genesis, together are called the Pentateuch. Not everyone is familiar with that term, so that’s what it is, the Pentateuch, which means Five Scrolls or Five Books. In Judaism it’s called Torah, which means something like instruction or teaching, and sometimes those five books are simply called the Law even though there’s more than law in it, or the Law of Moses. I just bring that up in part because I use the word Pentateuch all the way through, but when Wellhausen says Law of Moses, what he means isn’t the whole Pentateuch, he means the laws, specifically the laws given at Mount Sinai, the actual laws found in the Pentateuch. Again, I just say that in case all these terms might get confusing. I’m using Law of Moses in Wellhausen sense, to mean those laws given on Mount Sinai which begins in the Book of Exodus. Alright?
Any who, the Law of Moses is frontloaded in the Bible. We all notice that, you know, over four of the first five books. And it’s clearly a big deal because it’s, it’s the foundation of Israel’s entire story. I mean, what could be more obvious? But, ya know, Wellhausen, this is his thing, he saw it differently. He said, you know sure, on the surface, okay, that’s how the story goes, but if you paid close attention to the details, because he’s German, it’s pretty clear that the Law of Moses is late. How late? Well, pretty darn late. Specifically, from at least the time of the Babylonian exile, which lasted from 586 to 539 BCE, if not later. Now, the time of Moses, depending on whom you ask, was somewhere between the 15th and 13th centuries, so if you’re doing the math, that means the Law of Moses, according to Wellhausen, did not appear until at least 700 years after Moses. And so, we can see why Wellhausen’s idea might have caused some problems.
Okay, to sum up the Law of Moses, it’s not chronologically first in Israel’s history, but basically last. It’s not the foundation for Israel’s history, but a later development, and not a very positive one for Wellhausen, we’ll come back to that a little bit later. But, you know, if Wellhausen is right, if the law is late, he just flipped the main storyline of the Bible front to back. It’s like saying the Declaration of Independence doesn’t stem from the 18th century but was written much later in the 20th century after the Vietnam War, that would take some getting used to.
Okay, so that’s the gist. Now, it sounds weird, I know, and I said he’s the most influential Old Testament scholar of the modern period, because he is, but I didn’t say that everyone agreed with him. I didn’t say he was right about everything. But I am saying this big idea shifted the field of biblical scholarship, and no scholar since, including today, who deals with the Pentateuch has been able to simply ignore him, because his work has stood the test of time pretty well. Not all of it, there are some problems, but the main idea. You know, I’ve heard it said, I was in graduate school and the professor said that the modern study of the Old Testament since Wellhausen is basically, simply, footnoting Wellhausen. And that’s an exaggeration, but you know, think about it, you still have to be a pretty big deal to get an exaggeration like that. So, Wellhausen was something.
Anyway, what exactly is the biblical evidence that the biblical storyline is wrong, which is Wellhausen’s point. And that’s exactly what the six hundred pages are for, but let me give you just two relatively brief concrete examples that I think will help us get a sense of why he thinks the Law of Moses was late. Okay?
Well the first, is from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived right around the beginning of the Babylonian exile, around 600-ish BCE and he was not a popular figure. He found himself butting heads with the people and the leaders. The Babylonians were coming, and it was assumed the sacrifices that they made would appease God and keep the Babylonians off their backs. Spoiler alert – it didn’t. See, Jeremiah really leans into this idea that gee, sacrifices should just appease God.
And in chapter 7, in verses 21 – 23, Jeremiah says something you can’t pass over, and he’s a little sarcastic too. This is what he says, he goes, “Thus says the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, eat the flesh,” it’s like ‘go ahead, knock yourselves out, it’s not going to make a hill of beans worth of difference.’ Then he continues, “for in the day that I,”… this is, you know, the prophet speaking for God, right, so he uses ‘I’, so this is technically God speaking, “for in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt,” right? That’s the time of Moses, right? “For in the day I brought your ancestors out of the Land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Hmm. “But this command I gave them, obey my voice and I will be your God and you shall be my people. And walk only in the way that I command you so that it may be well with you.”
Hmm. You hear that? See, whatever those commands were that they were supposed to obey, they apparently didn’t include commands about sacrifices and offerings, which God says through Jeremiah, “I never commanded.” Which is hard to accept if you’ve read the story of Moses. And yet, incidentally, I mean, not to dwell on this, but if you have the Bible on your computer with a search engine and maybe a couple of hours on your hands, type in words like ‘law’ or ‘Moses’ or ‘Law of Moses’ and see where they occur in the books of the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all that kind of stuff and the books that cover Israel’s monarchy, mainly 1 and 2 Kings. They don’t occur nearly as often as you might think. See, even without this passage in Jeremiah, it’s quite revealing to see how little a presence the detailed regulations of the Law of Moses has in these books. There are implications to that, we’ll get to it in a minute. And even when we see a phrase like Law of Moses or something similar, it’s either in books written later or maybe around or after the exile or the phrase in context Law of Moses clearly doesn’t refer to the whole Law of Moses, but part of it. Namely Deuteronomy or maybe even just some early version of Deuteronomy. Now listen, I know that’s a lot and maybe that’s more detailed than necessary, so, just listen, the bottom line – Jeremiah says that God never said what the Law of Moses said He said, and that’s at least worth thinking about.
Another example comes from the book of Exodus, chapter 20. Here God gives the Israelites instructions on how to build an altar for offering sacrifices. You know, they’re sort of being prepped to enter the Promised Land, so here is the blueprint. They are to build it out of earth or stone, and if stone, for some reason, they weren’t to use any tools. Okay, so what? Exodus 20:24 is the key. After telling them all this stuff about building an altar out of earth or stone, but not using tools if you’re going to build it out of stone, after all that, God says, “in every place where I cause my name to be remembered, I will come to you and bless you.” In every place, which means multiple places. Hence, multiple places for building altars for sacrificing. And wherever God’s name is remembered, basically means honored like this, God will show up and bless them.
Alright, Pete, you’re boring me. What’s the big deal? Here’s the big deal, this command in Exodus 20, given by God through Moses, runs up against later commands likewise given by God through Moses where sacrifice is restricted to one central place, namely Jerusalem. And the classic passage in the Pentateuch to see this is Deuteronomy chapter 12 where Moses says to the Israelites, “you shall not worship the Lord your God in such ways,” meaning like Canaanite ways, where there are altars all over the place, “but you shall seek the place out of all your tribes as His habitation to put his name there.” In Deuteronomy that’s all code for Jerusalem.
You shall go there, bringing there your burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes, and your donations, your votive offerings, your free will offerings, the firstborn of your herds and flocks, etc., etc. And that’s Deuteronomy 12, that’s verses 4 to 6 if you’d want to look at it later.
Okay. So, why would God give two commands to Moses? One saying I will bless you wherever you sacrifice, and the other restricting sacrifice to a central location? That’s a good question, and my point here is just that Wellhausen noticed things like this, like inconsistencies, contradictions, the presence of different voices in the Bible, and he treated those moments not, maybe the way we might be tempted to. He didn’t treat them as problems, but as clues, clues to a mystery. They revealed something under the surface about how the Bible came to be.
Now, I realize that this is a lot to take in, especially in a podcast where you might be driving or working out in your basement gym. So, to bring this down to earth, let me just give a hypothetical but entirely plausible example from my always exciting life as a college professor. Imagine a college student in a Bible class who hands in a twenty-page paper that he says he wrote. Okay? I’m always suspicious about that, but he says he wrote it. So, you read it carefully and you notice, in this paragraph he speaks in the first person, he says I, and then for a few lines he switches to the second person, you, and then back to first person. He does that later too. Okay, maybe he’s a lousy writer and doesn’t know how English works, but just something seems off. Did someone help him? Here’s my theory, maybe his smart friend did research for him and she kept writing you addressing him, and he’s a bit of a dolt, and just forgot to change the you’s to I’s, if you follow me. Anyway, you’re not sure, so you keep reading and you get to a part where he refers to David as the greatest king, but a paragraph or two later, he calls David an abysmal king, only to switch back a page later to David was the best. And then you notice, because you’re reading carefully, that the David is great parts, they line up really nicely with the first-person parts. And the David is abysmal parts, they line up with the second-person parts really nicely. Hmm. I’m sorry, something is going on.
And then a few pages later, you’re greeted later with a sentence you just know that he didn’t write. I mean, up to this point, he seems semi-literate. “The temple was a big building, and it was beautiful. It was in Jerusalem. I think the temple is way important and I think everyone should know more about the temple.” Okay. But the next sentence goes like this. “It goes without saying, of course, that the socio-culture milieu of Israelite temple architecture, to which we have already referred, is hidden behind the dark veil of antiquity, and yet the influence of Phoenician and Canaanite exemplars cannot be ruled out.” Alright, listen, this isn’t Agatha Christie, it’s pretty obvious this student did something weird, some pointing and clicking and cutting and pasting. So, now you’re on the alert. See, no way, no how, was this paper the creation of one person. He clearly edited together, badly, information from multiple sources, let’s call them, at least two, his friend and the internet, and not including himself. And these sources are signaled to me the reader, or to you the reader, by these abrupt changes in style and contradictions and inconsistencies.
Now, of course, that’s just an analogy. The Pentateuch is frankly a beautiful piece of literature. It’s much longer and more complicated and far better written than a half-hearted college paper, but the analogy still basically holds. See, Wellhausen and others read the bible carefully and they saw inconsistencies.
Tensions that jumped out at them and they wanted to explain them and the explanation at the time, was that the Pentateuch, as we have it in front of us, must have come from earlier independent sources. Now that explanation is called the documentary hypothesis. The hypothesis, it’s not proven, but the hypothesis that the Pentateuch was made up of previously existing documents, four to be exact, and those four documents were different versions of the same stories that an editor stitched together. And when you stitch things together, it leaves traces, what scholars call seams. You know, the unevenness, inconsistencies, contradictions, and some awkward transitions.
You know, I can’t help but think about the kitchen counter we had installed a few years ago. They had to do it in two pieces, and they did an amazing job of connecting the two, but the seam is there. All you have to do is run your fingers over the countertop and you know exactly where the seam is. Seams stand out. You can’t hide seams. So anyway, the student paper had seams, and so does the Pentateuch. Even though it’s incomparable to a student paper in terms of its value and its literary quality, it still has a lot of seams. And so, the documentary hypothesis is proposed by Wellhausen as an explanation for why the Pentateuch has these rough spots.
Alright, I just mentioned four sources and I just sort of dumped that on you, but I need to explain that just a little bit. Wellhausen did not come up with this idea; it was actually about a hundred years old by the time Wellhausen got a hold of it. The first person who came up with the idea, that there were these sources that make up the Pentateuch, is a rather unlikely figure, he’s a Frenchman by the name of Jean Astruc who died in 1766. Now, Astruc, he was, listen to this guy, he was a French professor of medicine and a physician to Louis XV, and I think, ya know, a busy guy by most people’s standards. But he apparently had enough spare time to more or less invent modern Biblical scholarship without even knowing it. See, he wasn’t a biblical scholar, but he knew Hebrew, of course he did, it was the old days, who didn’t know Hebrew? And he noticed that Genesis chapter 1 and chapter 2, right, the seven days of creation, that’s chapter 1, and the creation of Adam, that’s chapter 2. He said these are two very different creation stories. For a lot of reasons, but one difference that really grabbed him was the different names they used for God. In Genesis 1, it’s simply God, Elohim in Hebrew, begins with the letter E. In the Adam story, God’s personal name is used, Yahweh. Which I’m sure many of you have heard that name Yahweh before, but just a little sidebar and you may thank me. Don’t go looking for that name, Yahweh, in the Bible. You won’t find it anywhere because it’s always written as Lord, specifically where the Lord, the ‘o-r-d’ are in small capital letters. Okay, so why do our Bibles say Lord instead of Yahweh? Well, this follows Jewish tradition for showing reverence for the divine name, so much so that you don’t utter it. And to be safe, just hide it, just say Lord.
[Producer’s Group Endorsement]
So, if you want to know the details, Google is your friend, but if I may add a little comment here, you know, especially for people who are learning about the Bible, like college students for example. You know, I really respect the reverent reasons for doing this, for using Lord instead of Yahweh, but it’s sort of a shame that when the Bible uses God’s personal name, all we see is a title, Lord, and we lose something. I think God becomes a bit detached and distant. I feel a big difference between “the Lord is my shepherd” and “Yahweh is my shepherd.” Maybe that’s another podcast, but anyway, the Elohim/Yahweh thing in Genesis 1 and 2 isn’t exactly a cliffhanger, it’s right there and people have noticed. And, by the way, if you want to see that first appears in Genesis 2:4. But you see, here’s what Astruc did that kicked off modern Biblical studies, he didn’t just notice this stuff, he offered an explanation for why they are different. Why do we even have this situation? Sort of like questions we might ask of that student paper. Why does it look like this? Well, long story short, Astruc theorized, and with this, modern biblical scholarship is born, that these two very different stories that use different names for God, that are sitting right here in Genesis, two creation stories right next to each other. He said they were originally two separate documents written by different, anonymous people at some point or points in the past. Moses didn’t write either one, but he played the role of editor, tying them together and in doing so he left a seam, the change in God’s name from chapter one to chapter two.
Now, Astruc called the first hypothetical document, the one that uses Elohim, that’s in Genesis 1, he called that A. And the second in Genesis 2 that uses Yahweh, he called, wait for it, B. Not the most creative effort, but it is what it is. See that’s Astruc’s big idea. But yeah, he had some doubts about it. He wasn’t a biblical scholar. Not terribly confident he was right, so he didn’t really try to publish it, but he passed it around to some scholars, and lo and behold, guess what? They jumped all over it like he cracked the code, and the theory got expanded.
Now, we had to do all this, we have to jump back to Wellhausen now. See, by his time, these two hypothetical documents had become four hypothetical documents or sources as they were called. And they were all referred to by a letter and not A and B. One of these came to be called P, hmmm, meaning the priestly document. Why? Well, remember the student paper again, because there seemed to be a distinct language and a distinct style that was shared by certain portions of the Bible that dealt with priestly things like, well priests, and sacrifice, and laws of all sorts like not to eat pork. Just think of the book of Leviticus, the third one, the one we never read, and you’re basically in P territory. And P, by the way was Astruc’s A, so Genesis 1 is P according to Wellhausen. Okay, Astruc’s B document, the one that uses the name Yahweh, came to be called, and please hang with me here folks, it came to be called J. Not Y, but J. Why J? Because Germans don’t make the “yuh” sound with the Y but with the J. Hence, the source that prefers Yahweh over Elohim is forever referred to as the J source and its hypothetical author as the Yahwist. The two other sources, just quickly here, they came to be called E and D. The E source is called E because this author liked referring to God as Elohim, just like P does but without all that priestly stuff that we see in P. E contains a lot of stories and narratives, and some laws too, but mainly stories and narratives. And then D, that’s basically the book of Deuteronomy. So, you have these four sources: P, J, E, and D. And Wellhausen, see, he was down with all this. He couldn’t agree more. But had Wellhausen just said, yeah, this is cool, we wouldn’t be talking about him. See, for him, talking about sources was just the first step, it led to a far bigger, sweeping, and somewhat mind-bending conclusion for Wellhausen, and that’s the big idea we looked at, at the very beginning. Namely, the law of Moses is not from Moses, but from a much later time. And to see this, I think it’s best to go to another example.
Straight from Wellhausen’s book, in fact, it’s the example that he opens with. Okay, so Wellhausen begins his book by making, you know, a casual observation. He says, like, you know, in the Pentateuch you can’t help but notice chapter after chapter of specific, binding, unyielding regulations about offering sacrifices to God and the worship of God. It’s all structured, controlled, centralized, not free-floating, there are definitely rules. But have you ever noticed that when you turn to the next books, especially like Judges and Samuel, what do you see? Well, you see unregulated sacrifices offered on altars, plural, all over the place without a moment’s hesitation like it’s just a thing. You know in places like Shechem, or Bethel, or Hebron, or Beersheba, or Gibeon, Gilgal, Shiloh – you’ve got all these sacred sites and altars, like it’s just normal.
So Wellhausen said, how interesting. It seems to me that the only way to make sense of this is to say that Judges and Samuel had never heard of all these regulations. Now, of course, at this point in time, we’re talking about the time of Judges and Samuel, before you have a monarchy and all that kind of stuff. Now of course at this point, the time of Judges and Samuel before the monarchy, at this point there’s no temple. That won’t be built until Solomon’s time, hundreds of years later. So, maybe we can forgive books like Judges and Samuel for not having a centralized worship location, and that’s a fair point, but, they did have the Tabernacle constructed under Moses, that portable sanctuary they had for forty years in the wilderness and Wellhausen raises this point and he asks, and frankly it’s a good one, he says, what happened to it? What happened to the Tabernacle? See, its presence isn’t felt in these books. It seems to have dropped out of the story, like, what happened? Is it in the attic? Did they just misplace it? Did they forget about it? What happened? I mean, surely, they could have set it up someplace and carried through with what they had been doing those forty years in the desert. It just seems odd that the commands of God which had supposedly been followed for forty years would get tabled, forgotten so completely, and so quickly. It just strains credulity that this divinely commanded system for worship would have like, no controlling function for Israel’s worship when they settled in the land. That’s Wellhausen’s observation, you know, and it’s a pretty good one. And he launches a book with it.
So, you might be wondering, oh yeah, where is the Tabernacle? Never thought about it before. Well, Wellhausen argued, and this is a common academic view still, that there, hold on to your seats, there probably was no Tabernacle. At least not one as elaborate, with a fully functioning and highly organized system as the one we read about in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. A simple tent of some sort perhaps, okay. But a Tabernacle? And that’s not such a crazy idea, I mean, think about it, the Tabernacle, you have to admit, just read Exodus 25-31. The Tabernacle is a pretty elaborate structure. It’s made of twisted linen of various colors and embroidering along with all sorts of like high-end furnishings made of gold and silver. Hmm. Now I know, the Book of Exodus mentions that the Israelites left Egypt with gold and silver, sort of an act of plundering, but still. Smelting and weaving and all that stuff, it just seems like a huge task for a mass of humans moving from place to place in the wilderness for four decades.
And Wellhausen brings up another issue about the Tabernacle, he says when Solomon built the temple, and that’s in 1 Kings, it’s a pretty quick episode first of all, but you’d think he would’ve built it according to the predetermined design, according to the blueprint of the sacred tabernacle, the heavenly pattern as it’s called in Exodus, a design given by God Himself, it seems important. But the Tabernacle isn’t mentioned, not a word about how the temple is the permanent continuation of that temporary sanctuary. And Solomon actually seems to be so out of his element in building a sanctuary like this that he needed to hire people from neighboring Tyre, a Phoenician city, to do the work. And even some of the furnishings that are built for the temple, like the bronze basin for washing, Wellhausen points out this was made from scratch by Solomon rather than just, sort of taking it from the Tabernacle.
Wellhausen concluded, after all this, that the ancient elaborate Tabernacle didn’t exist, but was a, like a literary creation, more fitting a description for a temple than a portable shrine. In other words, the temple was written into the early parts of the story as a portable sanctuary. Now, that’s the theory, right? So, who’s responsible for this literary creation? Wellhausen said, well, it’s those priests who gave us the priestly source, the P source. And, this is really the crucial point, since Judges and Samuel and the temple building episode with Solomon clearly never heard of any of these regulations, Wellhausen concluded that the P source, did not yet exist. Right? The Law of Moses, the P source, did not yet exist, it was later. Which leads to a follow-up question: why did these priestly writers do this? Why did they create a tabernacle with an elaborate religious system around it on paper and then put it in Moses’s time?
And now we’re getting to the really uncomfortable part. They did it, the priests did it to legitimate the religious system with its complex, centralized sanctuary under their tight control. See, what we do is legit because it goes way back to the time of Moses. Now, we’ve all seen this sort of thing in our day, this kind of an argument. And, think of certain Evangelical Christians, not all, but definitely some, who claim that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were basically Republican, Bible-believing, church-going, prayer-in-school Evangelicals and if that’s how our country started, by golly and dagnabbit, that’s how it should be today. Our beliefs go back to the beginning, and therefore, we have history on our side. And if you’re against us, you’re against our founders and you’re against our very nation.
Now, I do think those Evangelicals who think that way are often times sincere. They just can’t imagine any other way. So, they read their way back into history, perhaps the ancient priests, by putting their beliefs into ancient times were likewise not deceptive, but simply unable to comprehend a time when there was any other way of worshipping God.
Either way, whether they meant it or they couldn’t imagine some other way, regardless of how it happened, the result, as Wellhausen argued, is that history was obscured and that priestly take on Israel’s history, it stuck, that’s the one that stuck because, again, as Wellhausen argued, the learned priestly class was largely responsible for shaping the Pentateuch and really the entire Old Testament as we know it. They were the final editors, the editors-in-chief so to speak. That’s the heart of Wellhausen’s very challenging idea. You know, you pay close attention to the seams of the Pentateuch that just jump out at you and that are evidence of these four documents, these four voices, and furthermore, if you pay attention, you’ll also understand what order the four sources need to be in.
So, for Wellhausen, the data, as he saw the data, P had to be last. So, you have these four sources and the order is very important: J, E, D, and P. In that order, P is last. Wellhausen even assigned dates to these four documents. J and E, basically and long-story short, nerds please do not email me, okay? You promise? Good. J and E stem from somewhere between, let’s say, the tenth and eighth centuries. They contain some laws, but they are mainly the stories we read about in Genesis and elsewhere. And then came the D source in the seventh century with laws and as we’ve seen, and very importantly, the first hint of centralized worship. Right? Not altars anywhere like J and E say. D is a move toward organization, toward institutionalized worship. Alright, remember Deuteronomy chapter 12.
And then, finally, P with all those endless strict and detailed laws about sacrifice, clean and unclean foods, pure and impure activities, how priests should dress, etc., sort of bureaucracy gone amuck. Again, in putting it that way, I’m sort of channeling Wellhausen, but see, his real legacy comes in taking that idea, P is last, a step further by being very explicit about the implications of P being late. And that gets us back to the title of his book which says it all – Prolegomena to the History of Israel.
Prolegomena, not a word you use every day, it’s a fancy word for a long and necessary introduction, something you need to grasp first before you move onto something else. And for Wellhausen, seeing four sources and putting P last, well, that was the prolegomena, that was the Prolegomena to the History of Israel. See, the Bible demands that you put P last, right, that’s his point, and when you do that, it’s clear that the way the Bible presents the story on the surface, where P is early, that that’s wrong. The complex system of sacrifice we see in Exodus through Numbers is presented as early, but it’s really late. But when we put P, the Law of Moses, last as it needs to be, we see that Israel’s worship evolved. Maybe not the best choice of words, but it’ll work. Evolved from simple, J and E, to more complex D, to highly regulated P. The way the priestly editors present the story in the Bible by putting their stuff at the beginning, actually obscures Israel’s actual history. The real history is seen only when you put the sources in their proper order, not giving the priestly source, the priestly editor, the final say.
Now the example of the student paper that we used before, it’s got a flaw. It doesn’t account for the passage of time that we see in the four sources that span, you know, four to five hundred years. All those sources the student used were contemporary. A better analogy would include sources that are actually chronologically distinct, so here’s a better analogy: the history of baseball. And indulge me here people, please? The 2020 season might not happen, so this might be it for me. Alright, so a history of baseball written in 1940 before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier would likely not address at all the racism in baseball that’s been there since the beginning. Ken Burns’ monumental PBS series from 1994, which is also a big book by the way, it made racism one of its central themes. Okay? Two different perspectives written at two different times. Now imagine weaving these stories together, and because you’re entirely sympathetic to Burns’ narrative of racism, you open your book with a scene that communicates the cruelty of racism that was, you know, part of baseball life from the beginning and you pass judgement on it. It’s very clear what your opinion is. And then as you continue, you weave together as best as you can, scenes from both sources, resulting, now and then, perhaps in some awkward transitions. Later, not only could someone come along and read your book and pick out the different perspectives, the different voices, but they could also take a really good stab at which came first. A history of baseball that you wrote that you edited together that begins with the scene that is fully-aware of the problem of racism is probably written around the time, or after the time of Jackie Robinson, definitely not in the 1860’s. And actually, it could’ve been written much later than the time of Jackie Robinson, we don’t know simply from that comment that’s, you know, condemning of racism, you don’t know exactly when it was written, but it wasn’t before Jackie Robinson and it wasn’t in the 1860’s when baseball more or less began, that’s for sure. And the editor, that would be me or you or whoever, has also obscured history by placing that later perspective first. To find the actual history of baseball, one would need to take that first story and put it where it belongs. Now, an editor might have a very good reason for doing what she or he did, like the need to stress the ever-present problem of racism at the time, and that motive is great, but a true history hasn’t been produced. If you want to know what really happened, which by the way, was like a rallying cry in Wellhausen’s day. To know what really happened, you need to follow the clues.
Alright, well this has been a lot to take in, I know that, though you might be interested in knowing that I’m leaving a lot of stuff out. But, if we had time, we could talk about something that a lot of people talk about with Wellhausen, which is his anti-Semitism.
You know, he thought the law of Moses, you know, courtesy of P, was a distortion of Israel’s simple religion, and that needed correcting. See, in fact, for Wellhausen, the gospel was essentially a correction of the P theology with all its rules and likewise a celebration of J and E, you know, a simple religion of the heart. Well, I mean Jews would and have begged to differ, you know the Law of Moses is central to their faith tradition. And now, you know, especially after the Holocaust, Gentile biblical scholars have been very careful to be more self-aware and not to repeat some of this rhetoric, but Wellhausen’s anti-Semitism so engrained in German culture and had been for centuries, it certainly had an effect on his handling of the evidence and people have pointed that out, and they’re right.
Also, if we had more time, we could talk about the various theories that spun out of Wellhausen’s scholarship, some that supported his view, others that nuanced it and maybe took it different directions, and some that rejected it. But you see, in a way that’s the point. When you’re taken seriously enough to engage a century after your death, I mean, that is a legacy. So, we began by seeing Wellhausen as part of his cultural moment as well as other movers and shakers like Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, and just know that you know, no evolutionary biologist today is Darwinian, I actually hate that term, is Darwinian, a disciple of Darwin. But there are still evolutionary biologists who stand in a scientific trajectory, let’s say, that Darwin began. And psychoanalysis has also grown and adapted to new data, but there are still psychoanalysts. You know, Einstein was flat out wrong about quantum physics, but that doesn’t erase his being one of the most influential humans of the 20th century.
Likewise, the field of biblical scholarship has changed in some rather dramatic ways since Wellhausen. In some respects its changed in ways that only experts care about, and in other ways that have sort of exposed Wellhausen’s blind spots, but the idea that the Pentateuch grew in stages, with the priestly stage being relatively late, not early, but also probably not quite as late as Wellhausen insisted or as negative a move as he thought it was, well that idea is still, I would say with confidence, foundational to any serious academic study of the Pentateuch that’s interested in answering the question: why does it do this? Why does it look the way that it does? And if you’ve read the Pentateuch and you’ve noticed things, these tensions or inconsistencies or whatever and if that’s your question, why does it look like this? Why does it do this? Then you are entering the legacy of Julius Wellhausen.
Pete: Okay folks, well that’s it. Thanks for listening and please keep listening. Consider supporting us on Patreon, we would love to have you on board. We have a list of projects we want to get moving on and your support is just so huge for that. And as always, thanks to our team, Dave Gerhart, our audio-engineer; Reed Lively, our community champion; Megan Cammack, our podcast producer; Stephanie Speight, our podcast transcriber. See you next time, when we return with real, live guests. Thanks folks!