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Review: The Formation of the Pentateuch

Jan C. Gertz, Bernard M. Levinson, Dalit Rom-Shiloni, and Konrad Schmid (eds). The Formation of the Pentateuch: Bridging the Academic Cultures of Europe, Israel, and North America edited by Forschungen zum Alten Testament I/111. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016. xii + 1,204 pp., € 269.00 hardcover.



There is no doubt that the Pentateuch lies at the center of Old Testament scholarship. There can also be no doubt that since Spinoza, de Witte, Kaufmann, and Wellhausen made their contributions to the historical study of the Pentateuch the tide of scholarship has been decisively altered. With the Documentary Hypothesis firmly ensconced in modern biblical scholarship, Martin Noth made his own well-known contribution before the mid part of the last century with his discovery/invention of the Deuteronomistic History. Together these historical reconstructions became for many decades the accepted gospel of critical scholarship. J, E, D, and P have become universally known and either loved or hated by seminarians everywhere, for professors rightly sense a compulsion to introduce pentateuchal criticism to their students, but few will teach this material dispassionately.


And yet, the picture as portrayed does not properly do justice to the ongoing and often intense discussion that continues behind the scenes. The apparent consensus is no longer such, and since the 1970’s there has been a growing number of scholars willing to reconsider theories of pentateuchal development that were previously taken for granted. Furthermore, this re-evaluation of old theories has also taken on different flavors in Europe, Israel, and North America (in some cases including the UK due to the English language). It is in response to this ever increasing fracturing of the field and a trend toward insularity that the editors offer this present volume.


Staggering in its scope, this tome contains fifty-six essays (all in English), contributed by forty-nine international scholars, and divided into ten parts. Not only does the volume as a whole open with an introduction, giving the history of the project and the many conferences convened along the way to publication, but each of the ten parts contains its own introduction. The aim of the volume is “less to provide a set of final answers than to open a dialogue that includes proponents of multiple positions, creating a shared conversation and inviting further participation and response” (6).


In part one, five essays present arguments for the dating and formation of the Pentateuch based on epigraphical and other manuscript evidence. Of particular note in this section are the extended essays by Christopher Rollston and Armin Lange. Both offer near encyclopedic treatments of inscriptional and manuscript evidence respectively. The aim in both instances is to use the material evidence available to shed light on the development of the canonical Pentateuch.


In part two, several excellent essays, by addressing the many issues surrounding narrative coherence, probe the relevant question of whether the Pentateuch can be read in its present form. While a few of these essays take up specific texts as the object of their study, the two stand-out essays are those of Jean Louis Ska and Joel Baden, who come to different conclusions, but offer essays that are broad in scope enabling serious dialogue to result.


In part three, ten essays take up the often heated debate of linguistic dating. Offering an overview, Shimon Gesundheit writes of the strengths and weaknesses of linguistic dating. On the other hand, Thomas Römer offers a “how to” on dating texts while Jakob Wöhrle declares that there is “No Master Key” (391). Other essays address specific texts such as the Abraham and the Exodus narratives. The reader is left with the clear understanding that this area remains a point of lively debate and a field of study with still a great deal to be discovered.


In part four, the contributors turn to the significance of second temple literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls for understanding the formation of the Pentateuch. Of note here is, as Bernard Levinson argues, that the reception and transmission of the Pentateuch is as important an element in understanding its formation as the process of growth that stands behind it.


In parts five and six two related issues are taken up, the existence and nature of the biblical redactor(s) on the one hand and the method of integrating preexisting material into the Pentateuch on the other. In the first case, the discussion is important as there is hardly a consensus view on how many redactors were active in the construction of the Pentateuch. In the second case, there is no agreement about how one might identify a textual block within the Pentateuch and how these blocks were brought together to form the whole.


In part seven, five essays address questions of geography and archaeology pertaining to the Pentateuch. These essays are, without a doubt, important and will certainly interest the many evangelical scholars that are concerned with matters archaeological.


In parts eight and nine, two similar contemporary debates are breached. In part eight the question of whether the pentateuchal sources extend into the former prophets is taken up. And in part nine, the focus of study is the relationship between the Pentateuch and the prophetic literature. The fact that part nine contains twelve essays speaks to just how lively this debate is at the present.


In part ten, four essays address theological implications of the study of the Pentateuch’s composition. For this reader, the real gem in this concluding portion of the volume is Benjamin Sommer’s essay on reading the Pentateuch as Jewish Scripture. In his typical eloquence, Sommers addresses the way that Jews have read the Bible, not as a united whole, but as a collection of verses that are read individually.


In the end, it becomes clear that this book could never answer all of the questions or settle all of the debates. In fact, an anecdotal account from one of the volume’s contributors betrays the fact that if anything, this volume is a 1,200 page testimony to how fractured the discipline has become in the past 50 years. On the other hand, no one can gainsay the benefits of bringing divergent voices together for the purpose of beginning an international dialogue.


This volume is, without apology, intended for a scholarly audience, and at its pricing level is hardly suitable for personal acquisition. The unfortunate side effect of this pricing, is that it becomes nothing more than a reference work in the library, when in fact the articles deserve long, sustained attention by serious readers. There is no doubt that this is a very important collection of scholarship. For one, it effectively brings together scholars from the three main centers of pentateuchal criticism into one volume. This has the immediate effect of both allowing readers to see side-by-side the various approaches and also providing the reader with a vast collection of bibliographic material from across the globe. The essays themselves are to be praised on their own merits, but the collection is even more valuable when brought together and contrasting arguments placed into context with one another. There is no doubt that this volume will become an essential source and we should all hope that the dialogue that the editors desire to start will continue and will be fruitful.


– Stephen D. Campbell, Durham University

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