State of the Pentateuch: A Comparison of the Approaches of M. Noth and E. Blum

State of the Pentateuch: A Comparison of the Approaches of M. Noth and E. Blum / Genesis, The

Miscall, Peter D

DAMIAN J. WYNN-WILLIAMS, The State of the Pentateuch: A Comparison of the Approaches of M. Noth and E. Blum (BZAW 249; Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1997). Pp. xi + 263. DM 168.

HERMANN GUNKEL, Genesis (trans. from the 3d German ed. by Mark E. Biddle; Mercer Library of Biblical Studies; Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1997). Pp. [iv] + [9] + lxxxviii + 477. $60.

Wynn-Williams, in his dissertation done in 1996 with Antony Campbell, examines R. Rendtorff’s claim that the proper application of form-critical and traditio-historical methods to the Pentateuch undermines the presuppositions and conclusions of the Documentary Hypothesis. W-W. proceeds by comparing and contrasting the study of Rendtorff’s student, E. Blum (Die Komposition der Vatergeschichte [WMANT 57; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1984]), with M. Noth’s source-critical analysis (A History of Pentateuchal Traditions [Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972; German original, 1948]).

Wynn-Williams focuses on their respective treatments of the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25 33. He presents in full form the texts of Noth’s J, E, and P narratives and Blum’s division into an early story of Jacob and subsequent expansions. In evaluating Blum W-W also prints the full story with different typefaces to illustrate vividly Blum’s redactional analysis. This separate printing of the texts is an important part of W-W’s study, since the internal coherence and consistency of the present text of Genesis and then of a proposed source or tradition are main criteria for both Noth and Blum. W-W. is thorough in his presentation and criticism of the presuppositions that undergird the two different approaches; he evaluates results in view of the author’s own methods. He emphasizes that both Noth and Blum use similar criteria in their analyses and that they frequently agree in the division of the text, although they use different terminology for their divisions. The criteria include stylistic differences and variants of stories and vocabulary. W.-W’s work is worth reading for these methodological discussions alone.

Wynn-Williams describes Noth’s view of the sources as the literary end product of a lengthy period of oral transmission which is no longer accessible to us in the present text beyond vague outlines and hints. This acceptance of a preliterary stage permits some flexibility in understanding a source and does not lock Noth into the rigid notions of consistency that marked source analysis at the turn of the century. Noth regards P as a complete narrative (not the final redaction) into which J and E were inserted. He also defends the existence of E although he recognizes its fragmentary nature. Blum, in his theory of the development of the Pentateuch, distinguishes seven literary strata. Thus, the early story of Jacob (Gen 25:21-32:1), the subject of W.-W’s study, was expanded in six stages with the Priestly layer, similar to Noth’s P, as the latest. Blum says little about any oral stages in the formation of the narratives and their expansion. His study is strictly textual and is, in many ways, a return to the detailed verse splitting of older source-criticism and literary criticism.

Wynn-Williams regards Noth’s approach preferable to Blum’s because of its greater self-consistency in application and result, and he definitively rejects Rendtorff and Blum’s claim that they have disproven or discredited the Documentary Hypothesis and the methods of source analysis. But he neither rejects Blum’s work outright nor accepts Noth’s way as the way to proceed in pentateuchal criticism, although he finds that they both have many weaknesses and limitations. He does not want to abandon the historical-critical enterprise totally, since it draws attention to the complexities of the present text that “continue insistently to challenge readers to seek for explanations” (p. 252).

It is appropriate to combine W-W’s monograph with Biddle’s translation of the full text of Gunkel’s commentary on Genesis (based on the 3d edition, 1910), since W-W. often notes that both Noth and Blum argue that their approaches are developments of G.’s original insights. G. accepted the Documentary Hypothesis of his day and can thus be cited in support of source-critical arguments. Primarily, however, G. studied the preliterary, oral stages of the narratives in Genesis and developed the methods of form criticism. He focused on the stage that preceded the present literary shape of Genesis. Both Noth and Blum refer to G. in this vein, although for quite different purposes.

Wynn-Williams notes G.’s “extremely condescending attitude towards the intellectual capacity” of primitive and childlike societies such as that of ancient Israel (p. 216). G.’s fundamental assumption that the earliest forms of the narratives were short, independent episodes containing very little portrayal of character or development of plot is based on this attitude. (Blum reflects this assumption far more than Noth does.) G. assumes that the ancient Israelites, like most ancient peoples, were unable to focus their attention, as narrators or as listeners, for more than a few minutes. Therefore, the earlier stages, for G., were always short, simple stories, and it was only in the process of oral and literary transmission that the stories gained in length and complexity. Even in the present state of Genesis, the narratives are still simplistic and primitive. This negative and pejorative view runs throughout G.’s commentary and is a serious distraction for the modern readers. His commentary is of interest for what it reveals of the history of biblical studies and for the questions it raises about the relevance of methods, general and specific, whose original presuppositions are now widely discredited. But G’s commentary is now a great work of the past.

Peter D. Miscall, 1446 South Pagosa St., Aurora, CO 80017

Copyright Catholic Biblical Association of America Oct 1998

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