UNSOLVED ISSUES IN THE HIGH CRITICISM HISTORY
PhD Student, Bible and Archaeology of ANE
The impact that the high criticism has in the biblical studies since the days of Jean
Astruc (1684-1766) until now is unquestionable. Numerous exegetical volumes, biblical
journals, and thousands of books written upon the base of the critical methods
demonstrates its broad influence. However, the High Criticism formulated by Eichhorn,
evolved several times facing different challenges that threat its own existence. For
instance, Scott W. Hahn and Benjamin Wiker (2013) published few year ago
“Politicizing the Bible: The Root of the Historical Criticism and the Secularization of
Scripture 1300-1700”. It is obvious from the title that this book makes a connection
between secularization and the HCM1. In fact, in his conclusions we read:
“We have tried to demonstrate that root assumptions of the modern approach to
Scripture are only properly understood in terms of the larger secular revolution
that takes place on all levels, from the cosmological to the political, and that each
level reinforces all the others.” (Hahn, and Wiker 2013: 543).
This quote overemphasizes the relationship between philosophy and method,
being one a natural result of the other. In fact, some scholars would argue that the
complex processes that took place in the elaboration of the critical method came down as
a Lutheran legacy (Briggs 1897: 34, 35; Krentz 1975: 8-10).
1Perhaps this connection might be seen as a new approach to the discussion on the
nature of the HCM. However, the “secularization” or divorce between faith and reason
was in the front page of the HCM since its very beginning. In fact, this divorce has been
quoted as the main reason for exploring the Bible by using scientific methods (Krentz
Roy A. Harrisville makes this connection in his book entitled “Pandora’s Box
Opened: An Examination and Defense of Historical-Critical Method and Its Master
Practitioners” (Harrisville 2014). This one is a revision of the antecedents of the HCM as
an extension of the Enlightenment. In the first pages, he reviews the necessary
contribution of Luther and other reformers to the secular interpretation of the Bible. At
the end, he also examines the current state of the method.
Since this is still an ongoing discussion, which have polarized the interpretation of
the Bible, it seems that it is necessary a reevaluation of the initial objectives of this
debate. Some essential questions to explore are: To what extend have been accomplished
the Historical Critical Method’s goals? Are its theories responding to the philosophical
agenda of the method?
Perhaps a historical review of the method might help to answer these questions. I
intend to organize the main phases of the evolution of the method and to assess the
internal consistency of its explanations. This journey is not a reaction against the method,
but a reflection of how further the method was able to succeed its own challenges.
Since more thoroughly attempts to trace the development of the method are
focused on historical and philosophical details, we will be able to revisit some of these
elements on solid ground, adding our particular perspective of pondering some of its
achievements and frustrations.
A logical organization of this discussion would be divided in three parts as
follows: The pre-critical, the critical, and the post-critical period. The critical period starts
with Jean Astruc (1684-1766) as the originator of a system to recognize the jahvist and
elohist sources. The conditions that foster and nurture this period will be called pre-
critical period. The theories presented after Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), who brought
maturity to the documentary hypothesis, will be called post-critical period. This division
is arbitrary and its only purpose is to visualize the major landmarks. However, our main
attention will be on the critical period that deals with the evolution of the documentary
After the Lutheran reform, several scholars discussed the possibility to interpret
the Scripture beyond the authority of the Church. Humanism and rationalism played an
essential role. For instance, Baruch Spinoza published Tractatus Theologico-Poloiticus in
1670 where emphasizes than reason is a better guide to men’s minds (Krentz 1975: 14).
He proposes a dualism where philosophy and religion work in two different spheres that
do not contradict each other. Therefore, science must work independently to faith. Some
phenomenon such as the revelation and miracles do not exist. Miracles were provisional
explanations for secondary causes.
Other scholars such as Christian Wolf (1679-1754) followed Spinoza reasoning.
He proposed the use of logic in the interpretation of the Bible (Harrisville 2014: 66). In
his system, the intellectual human faculties are able to explore the natural and spiritual
world because reason and revelation have the same author: God.
Later, Sigmund Jacob Baumgarten (1706-1757) distinguished between revelation
and inspiration. He accepted that all scriptures were inspired by God, but not necessarily
revealed by him (Harrisville 2014: 75). He emphasized the study of the original
languages of the Bible since inspiration only extents to the original texts. Some of its
descriptions that are in opposition to the reason might be a product of the
accommodation. In other words, the men of God could use some expressions out of
condescension to people’s least understanding. This adaptation originated the apparent
errors of the Bible. Thus, the inerrancy of the Scripture is preserved. This posture was a
breaking point with the orthodox doctrine by accepting that there may be unscientific
declarations in the Bible that were accommodations to a prescientific era (Harrisville
Joahnn Georg Hamann (1730-1788) continued the discussion about the nature of
inspiration. He opposed the enlightenment arguing that the classical division of reason
and language, discussed since Descartes to Kant, was an artificial division. He claimed
that language is reason (Harrisville 2014: 84). His particular vision of unity between
reason and language, lead him to link the Scriptures and History. He assumed that the
Biblical text is an allegory of the personal journey to God. Surprisingly, he admitted that
reason refuses to know God, or if it knows him, it doesn’t serve him (Harrisville 2014:
Following the allegorical interpretation of biblical history, Johann Christian
Edelmann (1698-1767) declared that Moses never existed and that the real Moses was a
renegaded Egyptian priest who intended to introduce some reforms into the unbearably
superstitious (Harrisville 2014: 98). So the Pentateuch was a priest's’ invention and it
should be studied as any other book. Reason must prevail on the interpretation of the
Johann Salomo Semler (1725-1791) considered “pioneer of modern biblical
science” (Harrisville 2014: 105) followed the spirit of Edelmann by orienting and laying
the foundations for the demythologization of the Bible. He introduced the concept and
terms of “textual criticism” into the scholarly debate. Besides, he differentiated between
the oral tradition and the textual tradition. The later would contain the basic elements of
the first, but might include contamination. He made a clear distinction between the word
of God and the Bible. The process by which the God’s word became the Bible was called
accommodation. This concept was also used by orthodoxes to support the verbal
inspiration of the Bible, but for critical theologians it supported the etiological
interpretation of historical texts (Harrisville 2014: 110).
The enlightenment influenced the interpretation of the Bible. Its search for an
independent understanding of the cosmos beside the religious authority is a clear
extension of the Lutheran reform. Spinoza was among the first scholars to divide faith
and science into two different fields, disregarding miracles and creating a close system
where reason should be able to interpret the natural world. Therefore, the secular
interpretation of the Bible became the norm by which all traditions must be tested.
Following the spirit of the epoch and the emphasis on reason as the clear guide for
understanding the Bible, other scholars will construct upon the foundation of Spinoza.
Given the conditions for the appearance of the high criticism the initial question that must
be responded is: What is the explanation for the origin of the biblical text within a system
where miracles are not possible? As we will discuss later, this unique question will be the
underlying agenda for the high criticism.
Jean Astruc (1684-1766) created the first systematic critical study of the
Pentateuch (Orr 1906: 196). He noticed that the divine names Elohim and Yahweh were
used predominantly in some sections of the Genesis, so he divided the book into two
great memoirs and nine lesser ones2 (Briggs 1897: 46). His explanation solved the
problem of the apparent singularity of the use of the divine names in different portions of
the Pentateuch. For instance, in accordance with Ex. 6:2-3 the name Yahweh was first
revealed to Moses, however this divine name is found in the mouths of the antediluvians
and patriarchs from Genesis 2 and after (Briggs 1897: 47). The hypothesis of Astruc
seemed to resolve this problem.
This apparent solution was confronted by other difficulties. The divine name
Yahweh is used in conjunction with Elohim or Adonay in several parts. Some
combinations include: Yahweh your God, Adonay my Lord, Adonay Yahweh (Briggs
1897: 48, 49). One provisional solution for that is the hypothetical existence of the
Ephraimitic author with a particular style.
Subsequently, Johann Gottfried Eichhorn (1752-1827) published his Introduction
to the Old Testament in 1780. He embraced the ideas Astruct and elaborated an organic
method which he called the Higher Criticism3 (Briggs 1897: 49; Eichhorn 1888) whose
main task consists in the restoration of the original documents by all means as much as
possible4 (Eichhorn 1888: 237). As Astruct did, he separated the Elohist and Jehovistic
2These sections of Genesis were: 7:20-23,14, 19:29-38, 22:20-24, 25: 12-18,
26:34-35, 28: 6-9,34,35,28:36.
3Eichhorn’s particular vision of the term cannon assumes a relatively recent
sacred used of this term (Eichhorn 1888: 55, 56).
4He assumes that most of the original content is lost because of the natural process
of transmitting the text from one generation to another. The original shape was deformed
by errors and mistakes of the transcribers (Eichhorn 1888: 237). Therefore is imperative
the study of early sources as the Samaritan Pentateuch, and later variations in Masoretic
recessions, quotes of Church fathers, the Talmud, Rabbis manuscripts, and the Masora
itself (Eichhorn 1888: 237, 38).
documents5 but he added the literary peculiarities6 as another element of distinction
besides the divine names (Orr 1906: 197). He considered Exodus, Leviticus, and
Numbers as a collection of documents, which have been evolved separately, and that
were connected by historical narratives such as those happening at the Mt. Sinai and in
the land of Moab. He distinguished two traditions: the priests’ code and Deuteronomy as
the people’s book (Briggs 1897: 51). He declared that the Pentateuch itself does not claim
Moses as the author of all sections, but some, and so the rest of the Old Testament does.
The impact that Eichhorn had in the formulation of the foundations of High Criticism was
fundamental (Briggs 1897: 52). After Eichhorn other scholars, shuch as G. L. Bauer,
Rosenmüller and Jahn, elaborated similar conclusions.
A common argument used by critics to support the existence of different sources
for the Pentateuch is that some early Jewish documents support the idea of an “editorial”
process. One example is the reference of the Talmud to Moses as the author of his book,
but it distinguishes the narrative regarding Balaam from the whole book (Gast 1882:
181). Following this line, Gast declared that the Fathers of the Church never investigated
the authorship of the sacred Jewish books, but welcome them as they were from the hand
of the Jewish community. He also said that most of them did not meet the qualifications
for such endeavor (Gast 1882: 182). However, Jerome as a competent scholar was aware
of the difficulties of accepting Moses’ authorship, as he remarks: “whether you wish to
say that Moses is the author of the Pentateuch, or that Ezra is its restorer, I have not
5His division were Gn 2:4-3:24,14,34,49:1-27
6Orr believes that the literary and vocabulary differences are arguments that will
not be overturn (Orr 1906: 197).
objection” (Gast 1882: 182). This and other internal and external arguments were used to
reinforce the idea of different sources for the Pentateuch.7
Fragmentary and Supplementary Theory
Two additional theories proposed for the composition of the Pentateuch came
later: the Fragmentary and Supplementary Theory (Orr 1906: 201). The first supported
the idea that the Pentateuch was made up from small fragments instead of continuous
documents, while the second introduced the concept of a fundamental document (Elohist)
that was later supplemented by the Jehovist (Orr 1906: 201). Historically, the second
theory superseded the first.
The fragmentary theory came through Alexander Geddes (1752-1827), a catholic
priest who published “Critical Remarks in the Hebrew Scriptures, corresponding with a
new translation of the Bible” in 1800 (Cheyne 1893: 6). He believed that the Pentateuch
was composed somewhere between David’s and Hezekiah’s kingdoms, but its sources
could have come partially from Moses and some even before him (Briggs 1897: 57;
Cheyne 1893: 7). This formulation rested on any of two options: The Pentateuch was no-
existent since the exile until the monarchy or it was at least unobserved (Briggs 1897:
58). As we will see later, the second opinion has been never seriously considered by most
of the critic scholars.
Following Geddes, Johann S. Vater assumed that the Pentateuch and Joshua were
composed from several fragments of different authors.
7Some internal evidence rests in the narrative of the discovery of the book (2 Kg.
22-23; 2 Chr 34-35) of the law during the Josiah’s reign (Briggs 1897: 15-16).
Several scholars were responsible for the formulation of a new approach called
the supplementary hypothesis. Probably Heinrich Ewald (1805-1875) is the main
expositor of this theory. He published “The Composition of Genesis Critically
Examined” in 1823 (Wolf 1991: 74). He recognized a strong unity of Genesis that could
not be produced by several fragments, but by a main document that was augmented later.
The elements before Moses belong to the Elohist that were later supplemented by the
Jahvist. He distinguished other important group called the Priest source (P), which
includes the Book of Origins or Toledhoth, Genesis 1, a treatise of universal history and
priestly legislation. The dating for the Priest source would be during the time of Solomon
(Carpenter 1902: 113). The Deuteronomist would later add most of Deuteronomy during
the reign of Manaseh. Bleek adopted this view later, including Joshua as part of the
Pentateuch and considering the whole collection as the Hexateuch (Briggs 1897: 58, 61).
By grouping the text into different sources, Ewald formulated and summarized the classic
High Criticism sources of PJED, even when the order and chronology of these sources
will be reexamined for a more solid chronological fundament (Carpenter 1902: 77-79).
In Ewald’s particular vision of the composition of the Hexateuch, the Jahvist
edited the previous source of the Elohist, revising and updating information. This process
is known as the Crystallization theory (Wolf 1991: 75).
Georg Heinrich August Ewald (1803-1875) waged the most significant war
against Strauss-Baur School (Harrisville 2014: 130). He wrote in the second volume of
his Die Lehre der Bibel von Gott that Strauss-Baur school seeks to destroy all historical
certainty of the biblical narratives (Harrisville 2014: 132). He proposed a distinction of
two hermeneutical tasks: explanation and application. Being the first the task of
understanding the intended message of a particular text to its particular context. For this
matter it is a necessary a consideration of the time when this message was originated. The
second task has infinite possibilities and it is only feasible when the first task is conveyed
First Attempt to date the Pentateuch
Despite the several suggestions for dating portions of the Pentateuch, no
systematic attempt was made until Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette (Rofé 1999: 62).
He was born at Ulla in 1780. His religious background as a son of a pastor came to a
maturity under the influence of a little know philosopher J. F. Fries who sought to unite
the criticism of Kant with the faith-philosophy of Jacobi (Cheyne 1893: 31, 32).
De Wette (1805-06) introduced a further elaboration upon the documentary and
fragmentary hypothesis taking some elements of both (Briggs 1897: 60, 61; Cheyne
1893: 33). His points of view were introduce in his dissertation entitled “A Critical-
exegetical Dissertation Demonstrating That the Book of Deuteronomy Differs from the
Preceding Books of the Pentateuch and Is the Product of a Different and Somewhat Later
Author” (Rofé 1999: 62).
He proposed that Deuteronomy could not have been composed before Josiah (Orr
1906: 198) and that the unity of the Pentateuch reflex the plan of one mind (Briggs 1897:
60, 61). At this point, critics introduced the concept of a redactor who would gather all
documents and make them coherent. However, the book of Deuteronomy challenged the
existent theories regarding the composition of the Pentateuch, and as Westphal declared it
“…is the Ariadne’s thread8 in the labyrinth of the historical problem of the Pentateuch”
(Orr 1906: 198). It turns out that the “Deuteronomy problem” became the basic
chronological reference for De Wette (Rofé 1999: 62-65). Because of the many
admonitions of Deuteronomy regarding the centrality and unification of the cult, he sees
in the discovery of the “book of the law” in 2 Kgs 22:8 an explicit reference to the
Josiah’s reforms as the origin for these admonitions (Hur 2013: 60). De Wette’s
dissertation anchors the Deuteronomy’s centralization program into a specific time in
history, resulting in the basic argument for dating the Pentateuch and the Former Prophets
even today. Several scholars recognized the impact of Deuteronomy upon the language
and theology of later prophets (Person, and Schmid 2012: 1, 2).
A further elaboration came in two duodecimo volumes under the title of
Contributions to Old Testament Introduction in 1806-07 (Cheyne 1893: 32). There De
Wette attempted to conciliate the documentary and fragmentary theories. Despite of all
his efforts the means to generate a new theory were still reserved for the future. He was
nurturing the conception of the supplementary theory.
Unpredictable circumstances put De Wette into academic exile (Cheyne 1893: 44-
48). He was persecuted because of his critical views. A crisis in Germany forced him to
suspend his work. August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue, a German dramatist and
politician was designated to report upon literature and public opinion. The association of
liberal students in Germany reacted, and Karl Sand, one of its members, murdered him.
De Wette as a liberal thinker was linked to this account together with other liberal
8Ariadne’s thread is a metaphor referring to the Greek mythology where her
thread functions as a means of escape from a labyrinth (Hedreen 2011: 495) .
professors such as Arndt, Welcker, and Schleimacher. Consequently, he left his position
and eventually became minister in Weimar. However, he never resigned from his critical
The New Documentary Theory
Probably the contribution of Hermann Hupfeld (1796-1866) was the most
remarkable for the initiation of a new stage in the development of the High Criticism. He
divided the E source into two: the “older” Elohist and the “younger” Elohist (Baden
2009: 13). The younger Elohist was called the P source (Baden 2009: 11). It was a new
paradigm for the High Criticism.
The main reason for this distinction is the many contradictions between the early
Elohist and the Jahvist. He could not accept that the Jahvist did not attempt to eliminate
these contradictions and smooth the differences. Therefore, he postulated a redactor who
combined two different traditions of the Elohist, being the Jahvist the one who kept some
elements of broth sources (Baden 2009: 14).
A later elaboration of Schrader combined the documentary and supplementary
hypotheses (Briggs 1897: 65). Following the documentary hypothesis, he proposed two
chief documents: the Annalistic (Elohist) composed during the earlier part of David’s
kingdom, and Theocratic composed after the division of the kingdom about 975-950 B.C.
(second Elohist). A third prophetic narrator called the Jehovist, combined and edited the
previous two documents, adding new material during the reign of Jeroboam II about 825-
800 B.C. A final redactor of the Pentateuch would be the Deuteronomist who composed
the law of Moses in Deuteronomy during the reform of Josiah about 622 B.C. (Briggs
At the time when Schrader published “The Cuneiform Inscriptions and the Old
Testament” most of the critics agreed in the basic elements of the High Criticism
(Schrader 1885: XIII). Using the terminology of Schrader, four main documents were
accepted: the Annalistic Narrator, the Teocratic Narractor, the Prophetic Narrator, and the
Deuteronomic writer. The Annalistic Narrator is characterized by the used of the divine
name Elohim and composed in the early part of David’s kingdom. The Theocratic
Narrator or Second Elohist whose writings give special prominence to the patriarch
Joseph and special references to Bethel for which it was called the Ephraimite. The
Prophetic Narrator or Jehovist (Jahvist) written about 825-800 B.C. characterized by the
used of the divine name YHWH. Finally, the Deuteronomic writer who composed most
of the book of Deuteronomy and some portions of Joshua shortly before the reforms of
the reign of Josiah (Schrader 1885: XIII-XV).
The consolidation of the different theories of the high criticism gave birth to
“Newer Documentary Theory” as it was called (Baden 2009: 12). Some names associated
to this new stage are Karl Heinrich Graf, Abraham Kuenen and Julius Wellhausen. As we
have seen the basic elements of the high criticism were already established. Astruc
identified the two first sources of JE, Eichorn introduced the method, Ewald proposed a
main source or the Grundschrift, and De Wette offered a chronological framework.
The symbols E1(Early Elohist), E2/P (Later Elohist), J (Jahvist), D
(Deuteronomist) were already known and commonly used with some variations. La most
common formula for the formulation of the Pentateuch was EPJD, being the
Deuteronomistic the last source. Karl Heinrich Graf (1815-1869) would introduce a new
order. The “Grafian hypothesis” proposed that P is the latest of the pentateuchal sources
(Baden 2009: 19). This idea became the foundation for Wellhausen work.
As Hupfeld, Graf saw the growth of the Pentateuch as a process of accretion
(Baden 2009: 21). He assumed that the P source has early elements common to EJD, and
other later elements must be post-exilic. As Hupfeld did with the E source, Graf tore the
P source into two: the pre-exilic and post-exilic. P1 would contain the narratives elements,
and P2 the legal elements. The summary of this new formulation is “P1EJ”DP2. He later
reformulated it into “JE” DP.
Graf’s notion that the historical elements were early and the legal elements were
later initiated a new understanding of the composition of the Pentateuch. In addition, this
proposal made the distinction of J and E irrelevant for chronological purposes, since the
legal elements belonging to both were place later. J and E were treated as one JE.
Abraham Kuenen (1828-1892) agreed with Graf regarding the unity of J and E
and declared that E and J were combined (Baden 2009: 24-27). He observed the inability
and difficulty to separate these sources. Therefore, he lumped both into one, the JE
source. Additionally he postulated that the legal elements are referential for dating the
Pentateuch. This new system associated the priestly codes to post-exilic times.
The new documentary theory was reaching its climax. For the first time in the
high criticism history since Jean Astruct and Eichhorn, the method for dating the
Pentateuch based on literary elements (Orr 1906: 197) turned to the content analysis
instead. The analysis of the correlation between the actual Jewish history and the priestly
codes replaced the first attempt to construct a criticism devise of literary analysis.
The use of the divine names Elohim or Jahweh and the analysis of literary
particularities failed to provide a solid ground to distinguish the Elohist and Jahvist
sources. At this point, their existence were clearly hypothetical. The theories of Graf and
Kuenen were testimonies of this disappointment with the models previously proposed.
The coming of a new critic scholar will refine and unified the new documentary
theory. This place in history is reserved to Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). His main
contribution to the High Criticism was that of giving to the composition of the Pentateuch
a cohesive model that responded to the dissatisfaction with the preceding systems (Ausin
Julius was a son of the pastor August Wellhausen of the orthodox Lutheran
church. His personal convictions led him to resign from the theological faculty in
Greifswald in 1882 (Reventlow 2010: 312). In his opinion, his critical approach to the
Bible did not fit with the objective of preparing students for the service to Evangelical
Luteran Church. Ever more, he wrote “I render my hearers unfit for this office.”
(Reventlow 2010: 312).
His first critical work was entitled Composition des Hexateuch (Composition of
the Hexateuch) published in 1876-1877. He also wrote about the historical books for the
Fourth edition of F. Bleek’s Einleitung in das Alte Testament (Introduction in the Old
Testament). Later he compiled both parts for posterior editions. (Reventlow 2010: 312)
However, the major impact of his writings is due the Prolegomena zur Geschichte
Israels (Prolegomena to the History of Israel) published in 1878. A second edition of this
book appeared in 1883. Wellhausen planed to continue a second volume, but this project
was deferred until he was called to Göttingen as chair of the Old Testament department.
Then, he could publish the Israelitische und jüdische Geschichte (Israelite and Jewish
History) in 1894 (Reventlow 2010: 313-14). 2698303759
He suggested that the first books of the Torah were written based on four previous
documents or sources: Yahwist or Jahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D), and
Priestly (P). This theory came to be known as the documentary hypothesis.
The J source would be the oldest (X-IX century B.C.) and it would be composed
in the South Kingdom. The E (VIII century B.C) might be written in the North Kingdom.
The other sources would be written later: D (VI B.C.), P (VI-V B.C) during the exile
(Ausin 1991: 172).
As we have seen, other scholars have suggested different sources for the
Pentateuch before Wellhausen. For instance, H. Hupfeld published Die Wuellen der
Genesis (The sources of Genesis) in 1853 (Reventlow 2010: 316). There he distinguishes
three sources: the foundation writing called later the older Elohist, the later Elohist, and
the Yahwist. Wellhausen used the abbreviation Q for the foundational writing, but later
the abbreviation P prevailed. For Wellhausen this search for sources has the purpose of
reconstructing the history of the religion of Israel (Reventlow 2010: 317). Other example
of that is Eduard Reuss (1804-1891) who gave a lecture about the foundational writing
(Grundschrift) of the Pentateuch as its last source. This sources was called later the
Priestly writing (P) in allusion to its priestly content (Reventlow 2010: 315).
Wellhausen applied similar concepts to the New Testament. He came to the
conclusion that there is not so much information for a historical life of Jesus (Reventlow
2010: 314). His idea was widely adopted by the liberal theology of the ninenteenth
century. He divided the gospels into two sources: basic writing (A) and progressive
modifications (B) (Reventlow 2010: 315).
One reason for the success of Graf-Wellhausen theory is the failure of the
previous attempts to present a complete system to distinguish the sources of the
Pentateuch. As we have seen, Graf-Wellhausen’s major contribution to the high
criticism, besides the conglomeration of previous theories into a new model, is his
alternative method to date the Pentateuch base on legalistic elements. The Astruc-Eichorn
model of dividing the sources based on the use of the divine names Elohim and Jahveh
and a literary analysis was a fruitless attempt that only produced assumptions impossible
The necessity of an hermeneutic theory
Parallel to the development of a standard theory of the origin of the Pentateuch,
other scholars discussed the most appropriate hermeneutic theory that will fit with it.
Schleiermacher and the Strauss-Baur school introduced a supporting hermeneutic
approach that will grow together with the documentary hypothesis.
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) celebrated as the father of modern theory
of interpretation (Harrisville 2014: 113) established the basis for a theory of
hermeneutics. He defined the hermeneutics as the art of understanding (Harrisville 2014:
114). He introduced two areas of this art: grammatical interpretation - the historical
conditions, time, circumstances that can be grasp based on the study of language -, and
the technical interpretation - style, type of text, theme. Both elements have equal
importance. As it is related to Biblical interpretation, he believed that the general rules of
interpretation should be applied to all texts including the Bible, and that only a dogmatic
interest would make a distinction (Harrisville 2014: 117).
He also proposed a double nature of the Scripture as it was in Jesus: Human and
Divine. Both natures unite thought and speech, apostolic vocation and the impulse to
write. However, he made a distinction between the Old and New Testament by
considering inspired only some portions of the Old Testament that are messianic in
context (e.g. portions of psalms).
His studies on Plato and the First Letter to Timothy lead him to propose that the
apostle Paul couldn’t be the author of this letter (Harrisville 2014: 113-14). Then the
“deutero-Paulinism” phenomenon was for first time being exposed as an application of
the “higher criticism”. Similarly, he proposes that the Synoptics were raised from several
oral traditions that grew together and were in need of some kind of systematization.
Therefore, Mathews would be the first book, upon which rests Mark, and Luke relied on
both (Harrisville 2014: 123).
David Friedrich Strauss (1792-1860) explained that the greatest part of the Gospel
tradition was mythical composed of “pure myths” or ideas in historicized form
(Harrisville 2014: 126). This explanation is based on Hegel’s distinction between
“representation” and “conception”. The project of Semler that intended the
demythologization of the Bible found its way by separating the Bible histories
(representation) forms its real content or ideology (conception). The result for the gospel
would be the concept of “historical Jesus” or a “real Jesus“ shorn of miracles (Harrisville
After Wellhausen other critics proposed complementary models to sharp the main
assumptions of the new documentary theory. For instance, the Form Criticism
(Formgeschichtliche Schule) added the enquiry for the Sitz im Leven (context) to the
agenda. This context would be discovered by searching the original forms of the text
(either myths, poems, oral tradition, etc) of the sources and their theological aim (Ausin
1991: 172). H. Gunkel explained that some elements and histories of the Pentateuch
belong to a previous literary legacy. One example of this phenomenon is the creation
account of Genesis that has strong links to previous creation accounts of Mesopotamia
(Reventlow 2010: 341).
Alt (1883-1856) and his disciples M. Noth (1902-68) and G. von Rad (1901-71)
introduced a new perspective into the critical period by studying the history of the oral
traditions (Smend 2001: 239). Its main goal was to discover its origins, which probably
were elaborated from some rituals and believes coming from ancient institutions as the
holy feasts (Ausin 1991: 173). Later on, these traditions would be written independently,
and united by means of several editors. For Noth, this field of study was largely neglected
and its purpose was to investigate the roots of the oral traditions, their interconnections,
and their meaning in the light of the composition of the Pentateuch. He disagreed with the
existence of the Hexateuch and identified Joshua as part of the work of the
Deuteronomist author who lived during the exilic period (Nicholson 1998: 74, 75, 77).
He also postulated the existence of a G (common basis or Grundlage) source for the
whole Pentateuch that was either oral or written. It came into existence by mouth of
narrators in the context of public cult.
The new models built on top of the new documentary hypothesis suggested new
approaches to the reading of the Bible9. By 1938 G. von Rad declared that the study of
sources of the Hexateuch reached a stage of “stalemate” (Davidson, and Leaney 1970:
72). He saw that the fragmentation of the Pentateuch led to the scholars to an unfruitful
research (Nicholson 1998: 63). Apparently, part of this unfruitful research has to do with
the “Deuteronomy problem.”10 Some revised the “New Documentary Theory” into the
“Newest Documentary Theory”(Nicholson 1998: 61). In this way, the high criticism
seemed to have reached its peak and a posterior decline seemed to be eminent.
Another major attack against the criticism came under the archaeological school
lead by Albright (Cook 1932: 21-23). While several discoveries of the ancient world
seemed to confirm most of the Pentateuch, critics argued some other contradictions.11
In the meantime, the relationship between high criticism and hermeneutics
advocated for new paradigms of interpretation. One example is Karl Barth (1886-1968),
who tired of contemporary theology, and after his friend Eduard Thurneysen whispered
him the need for an “entirely different” basis, he turned to the Bible in need of
understanding the ABCs of theology (Harrisville 2014: 175). Under an apple tree, he
started reading the book of Romans in its original language. The result was a theology
9In the words of Robert Davison, the high criticism focused on answering “new
questions” (Davidson, and Leaney 1970: 101).
10Von Rad reject the common notion of sources for Deuteronomy (Collier 1983:
218). Since Deuteronomy repeats some of the Context found at the book of Exodus, he
suggested a covenant renewal ceremony instead as its origin. He concluded that
Deuteronomy reflects the same Sinai traditions.
11For instance, the critics argued that while some “external evidence” might
confirm the historicity of the Pentateuch, other gulfs were discovered such as the
background of Joseph during the time of the Hyksos, or the narrative of the fall of Jericho
and its archaeological counterpart (Cook 1932: 276).
based on his biblical studies. He presupposes the ability to understand the original
message of the author in one of his replies sent to Paul Wernle: “I went to the text firmly
assuming that everything I read there must make sense...Paul know what he wants and
what he is saying, and can be understood.” (Harrisville 2014: 181).
Apparently, the initial project launched by the Enlightenment could not be
accomplished by the high criticism. The nature of the Scriptures as such needed a
discussion in the philosophical realm. The different tools used by critics such as literary
analysis produced enormous information in need of being contrasted with an
Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) is one of the critic scholars who proposed a
hermeneutical model that could function as an intermediary for the critics’ research. His
main legacy is his existential theology. He did not set different rules of interpretation for
the Bible as a different book (Harrisville 2014: 184). The speculative philosophy about
human existence would superimpose over the meaning of the text (Harrisville 2014: 185).
For him, the author and the reading share a common life-relation. Therefore, the reading
of the text requires a previous understanding without what the interpretation is
impossible. He launched the “demythologization program” that was an attempt to
interpret the Bible without the worldview presented by the Jewish mindset. Therefore, a
new interpretation of the text that is relevant to the modern reader is necessary. This
would be the main goal of the demythologization program that can be called “existential
interpretation” for its emphasis in the current reader instead of the intended message of
the text. Thus he declared that some New Testament motifs are out of date and in need of
reinterpretation (Harrisville 2014: 196).
Under this and other new hermeneutical projects, the initial discussion of the
method became irrelevant. The existential interpretation of the text in tune with the post-
modernism blinded the pursuit for a satisfactory model able to explain the nature of the
In this new era, several methods of interpretation took hand of popular names of
literary analysis that were largely used by critics such (e.g. sitz im lebem, genre analysis,
etc.), but sometimes redefined or adapted to their convenience. Thus, the line between
critics and orthodoxes became unclear. As Edgar Krentz wrote in the book The Historical
Critical Method: “One can no longer distinguish liberal and conservative simply on the
basis of exegetical method, although they do reach different conclusions.” (Krentz 1975:
Currently the new formulations made to the standard theory set up by Wellhausen
can be divide into two groups (Campbell, and O'Brien 1993: 10): (1) more or less radical
modifications, (2) totally refection of the theory. Critic scholars could not make a
posterior development that reaches a consensus to replace the standard model. Several
aspects of the “New Documentary Theory” or “Standard Theory” do not represent the
unanimous are at least majority opinion as in the past.12 It seems that the text is
12Some of its main assumption under attach are the dating of “J” to the 9th/10th
century, the actual existence of “E” and the priestly material, and the limitation of
deuteronomistic and post-deuteronomistic elements to the book of Deuteronomy (Carr
extremely complex and impossible to fragment13 (Carr 1997: 22). Carr paraphrased this
argument as “the text is unified unless is it is proved disunified” (Carr 2014: 679).
We purposely avoided a full review of all details related to the development of the
Historical Critical Method, and pointed out only those remarkable ones that are
connected to our itinerary. Numerous books were written regarding historical topics of
the method. As an example, Joel Baden explored the historical growing understanding of
the sources J and E. He pointed out that the discussion about the method is still relevant
today (Baden 2009: 5).
Turning to one of the aspect of this debate, our agenda included the exploration
and assessment of the method based on its initial goals. As a sub-product of the
Enlightenment14, the method is tied to an interpretation of the Bible within a close system
where miracles are not possible. Therefore, an evolutionary process to explain the
emergence of the Hebrew text is an expected explanation within such paradigm.
13For instance, the recent “Computerized Source Criticism of Biblical Texts”
project proved the difficulty to separate the J and E sources because apparently these are
not sufficiently distinct form one another (Dershowitzet al. 2015: 270).
14Barton identifies the origin of the literary criticism with the Enlightenment and
the Reformation as an attempt to read the Bible without the filters of the official church
(Barton 2007: 121, 22). Maier would disagree with this association by asserting that the
method rests on a critical approach to the Bible, and not on a historical approach, that was
the spirit of the Reformation (Maier 1974: 13). However, the Reformation as well as the
Enlightenment brought a state of awareness and study of the Biblical and other classical
texts like never before (Campbell, and O'Brien 1993: 1).
The nature of the Scriptures, or as Baden said “its contractions”15 (Baden 2009:
2) should be explained by the method, otherwise it is useless. Sadly, as we have seen the
unfruitful project of Eichhorn could not give a satisfactory explanation to differentiate the
sources J and E, whose only purpose as a theoretical construct was to elucidate the
biblical “contradictions”. Despite De Wette’s efforts, the literary analysis of the method
proved to be ineffective to support these alleged sources and to give them a solid
chronological ground. This inadequate result was widely noticed, and became the
motivation for searching a new paradigm16. With a new hypothesis proposed by Graf-
Kuenen-Wellhausen the differentiation of J and E was only instrumental as well as the
literary analysis. The new project would considerer the legal content in order to
differentiate pre-exilic and post-exilic material.
The new methodologies after Wellhausen, crafted to sharpen his analysis,
accelerated the creation of a hermeneutic in tune with the method. However, the
discussion shifted from literary analysis to hermeneutical approach, remaining the initial
questions of the method still unresponded.
15These “contradictions” include the fact that the divine name YHWH was first
revealed to Moses but is found in the mouth of antediluvians. Cassuto resplied that the
personal name of God is YHWH and all others are only apellatives (Cassuto 2006: 32).
Therefore it is expected an irregular distribution through the Scripture. Cassuto’s
explanation of the use of the divine names, despite its simplicity, responds better to the
apparent contradictions of the Scripture than the complex systems proposed by critics.
16The JE material was considered extremely confused at the point that even
Wellhausen inserted new sources such as a secondary E and J (Bacon 1890: 23).