Thursday, February 04, 2010

Sterile Ideas

I have been forced over the last week or so to become very familiar with the documentary hypothesis. For those who are blessed with ignorance of this matter, and who can't be bothered to look at the Wikipedia article (you should, it has a diagram which illustrates the idiocy of the idea right there), the documentary hypothesis (henceforth DH) is a theory that says it is possible to trace within the Pentateuch (i.e. Genesis through Deuteronomy) four distinct literary sources which have been patched together by redactors to form a whole. The four sources are labelled J (the Yahwist), E (the Elohist), P (the Priestly source), and D (the Deuteronomist). Many theorists hold that it is also possible to discern some elements added by redactors; some think it is possible to discern distinct layers within the sources, such that you end up with E1, E2 etc.

As far as I can see, and I may be wrong, this idea is utterly sterile.

By this I mean, the DH doesn't lead to anything. It bears no fruit. If you begin to think seriously about it, it will not lead you to think seriously about other things. Books on the DH all seem to start and finish with the DH. Those who take the DH seriously make claims like 'it is no longer possible to read the Pentateuch as a unity' - something which is manifestly untrue, since these books have been and still are the subjects of expository preaching and teaching all over the world. The DH doesn't help you to understand, but in fact makes the Pentateuch impossible to comprehend at all.

It got me thinking: what makes an idea sterile? How can we spot the ideas which are likely to become hopelessly self-referential and curved in on themselves, like the DH? Ideally, how do we spot them before we invest too much time and effort in them? I had a few thoughts.

1. Is it possible for this idea to be firmly established? The DH cannot be firmly established, dealing as it does with subjectivities and the attempt to get behind the text into unseen precursors. The result is that arguments go back and forth over its validity, or the precise form it ought to take, without any real conclusions being possible. It can be talked about forever, and we will never be able to view it as settled and move on. So it is sterile. What other ideas might be like that?

2. How many layers of hypothesis are there between the acknowledged facts and the conclusion? The DH has all the features of a cloud-castle. Layer after layer of supposition, sprinkled with interim conclusions that make good sense if and only if you accept the previous hypothesis. This gives lots to talk about that isn't really the substance, and keeps the idea in the conversation without it really having anything to say. Sterility. How much theological and philosophical construction works in the same way?

3. Can the idea be rephrased or summarised in a way which would be useful to the average chap on the street (or in this case, the average church-goer)? This isn't totally foolproof, but I think it is a warning sign to us if our ideas are useless for living. It's a potential sign that they are sterile ideas. I'm guessing quite a lot of thought falls under this heading.

Any other ideas?


  1. Is this what the Oxford theology faculty are making you study? I heard that they were still keen on this kind of thing. In Cambridge they have moved on, or so I hope.

    Have you read this?

    Whether you buy into redaction criticism or not, the text as it now stands is what we have and that is what is in the hands of preacher and congregant and is what we have to deal with. There is no benefit to dissecting the text into hypothetical sources. Even if it was woven together by later editors, we don't need to tease out the individual strands. If there were hypothetical editors, they would have had a purpose for putting everything together and the tapestry is what is in front of us.

  2. Tedious, isn't it? They basically said in the lectures 'if you were in any other University, this would be little more than a historical note, but here in Oxford...'

    Yes, I've read the redaction criticism of Pooh. Personally, I think it's at least as convincing as Wellhausen.

    They do have a funny relationship with the redactors. They have to say they had no skill at all - otherwise you wouldn't be able to discern the sources. But then sometimes they praise the redactors for making something so coherent that you would almost think it came from a single author! Sigh.

  3. I was just reading something only yesterday, a University Sermon, in fact, preached in 1860, which said:

    "Long since has the theory that Genesis is composed of distinguishable fragments, been exploded."

    This statement is footnoted:

    "The test of Elohim and Jehovah has been, by the Germans themselves, given up; and for this plain reason,— that in many parts of Genesis, [e.g. ch. xxviii. 16—22 : xxxi.: xxxix., &.] it is utterly untenable; the names being so intermingled as to admit of no such division."

    It says a lot about Oxford, I think.

  4. I found my 'Get out of gaol free' card was Brevard Childs.