I realize this may be more than you ever wanted to know about the process of studying the bible, but there will be some of you who think this is interesting so . . .
Okay, we have been through the idea of hermeneutics and exegesis. I have asked you to think about your own presuppositions and assumptions and your own social location. We have talked about different translations and the importance of reading several. Now let’s talk about actual techniques of reading or interpretation or exegesis, or whatever you want to call it.
In reading the bible we use a variety of techniques to try to understand what the original authors were trying to communicate. We call these techniques “historical criticism.” We are general trying to understand things like the historical context out of which the text came, the cultural context that the earliest hearers or readers of the story lived in, etc.
One of the techniques that has been used extensively is what has come to be called the “Documentary Hypothesis.” Those of you who have had Disciple Bible Study may remember this. In its original form it applied only to the Pentateuch (the first five books) but the basic idea has been applied to almost every book of the Bible, Old and New Testaments alike. So let’s take a closer look. I have never tried to do this online before, so please ask if something doesn’t make sense.
When people really started reading the bible again for themselves, and started looking at the original Greek and Hebrew texts, they began to notice certain things about the text. For instance, a French fellow named Jean Astruc noticed that different sections of the Old Testament, in particular the first five books, used different names for God. If you want to look at that for yourself, then read Genesis 1 and 2. (BIG HINT: When the English translations write ‘Lord’ in small caps then that word is translating the actual Hebrew word for the personal name of God which in English we transliterate as Yahweh. When it writes the word ‘Lord’, in regular letters, it is translating the Hebrew word Adonai, which literally means Lord. When the English text has the word ‘God’ it is generally translating the Hebrew word “Elohim.”)
Astruc he thought he saw a pattern to how the names were used. Other people noticed that the bible seemed to repeat stories with only slight variations and that sometimes those variations used the different names. [Read Genesis 6 and 7; and Genesis 12:10-20 and 20:1-18.] Without going into excruciating detail (which, once again, you can find in your friend and mine, Wikipedia) scholars came to the conclusion that there were four basic strands of stories in the Torah, coming from four different original documents. They labeled these documents J (for Jahwist); E (for Elohist); D (for Deuteronomist) and P (for Priestly).
This theory, most clearly stated by a German named Julius Wellhausen, was called the “Documentary Hypothesis.” Each of the four documents had characteristics and could be traced to a particular time in Israelite History. For instance, the Jahwist called God Yahweh, anthropomorphized God and presented a God that talked directly to human beings, tended not to moralize, but was interested in the origins of the family of David, i.e. in the tribe of Judah. The Jahwist was generally dated to about 1000 B.C. (or B.C.E.) or essentially the reign of King David. The Elohist used Elohim as the name of God, presented a God who appeared in dreams and visions, was concerned with a “prophetic” point of view and focused on the Mosaic tradition. This is usually dated from about the 750’s B.C. and people think that it was brought to the Southern Kingdom when the Northern Kingdom was taken into exile. The D strand was basically Deuteronomy. The Priestly tradition is usually dated from the time of the exile, uses the name Elohim for God, reflects the concerns of those who were responsible for worship and the cultic traditions of Israel, things like a concern with order, with dates and names, with sacrifices and worship.
These are only a few of the characteristics that Wellhausen and others thought they saw in the different documents but you get the idea. Someone, maybe those priests, put these documents together into the final form of the text that we have today. This theory can get very complicated and some scholars see a whole lot more different documents. Also, a lot of people in the more conservative Christian traditions, think Wellhausen was sort of like the anti-Christ because he was the one who made all of this famous. But the scholars were really just trying to answer questions that they had about the text and the documentary hypothesis seemed to answer those questions pretty well. Now we see problems with this hypothesis, at least in its details; but I think it is fair to say that most modern scholars in the mainline Christian traditions accept that the bible has developed over time from multiple documents and contains multiple voices. For those of us who think that God inspired the bible, this is no problem, because we think that God also inspired those who wrote down, edited, redacted and shaped these stories into their final form. We think that these multiple voices are a gift from God to show us all the many ways that human beings have heard the voice of God and responded to it; both in good ways and in less admirable ways.
So, just knowing this much, if I tell you that Genesis 1 and 2 come from different strands, that Genesis 6 and 7 have the strands all mixed together and that Genesis12:10-20 and 20:1-18 come from different strands, could you take a guess as to what strand matches which part? Try it! Which text comes from what strand? (You can use a strand more than once)