Monday, May 5, 2008

The Old Testament: Fact or Fiction or the bits in between?


Following on from the last post and the discussion it engendered, I take up the baton again. One blogging friend has posed the question on his site: The Old Testament – Fact or Fiction? My immediate response was to ask about the bits in between fact and fiction.

Literary analysis shows that the Old Testament was not written by one person, nor was one person God’s guided secretary: the process of writing and the construction of the canon took many, many generations. Multiple strands of tradition were woven together to produce it.

Now I know like me many of you know this already and I don't want to patronise anyone but for the uninitiated here comes the rationale:

Simply put, Biblical criticism has for many years recognised that the Torah was composed by a series of editors out of four major strands of literary traditions. These traditions are known as J, E, D, and P.

J (the Yahwist or Jerusalem source) uses the Tetragrammaton as God's name. This source's interests indicate it was active in the southern Kingdom of Judah in the time of the divided Kingdom. J is responsible for most of Genesis.

E (the Elohist source) uses Elohim ("God") for the divine name until Exodus 3-6, where the Tetragrammaton is revealed to Moses and to Israel. This source seems to have lived in the northern Kingdom of Israel during the divided Kingdom. E wrote the Aqedah story and other parts of Genesis, and much of Exodus and Numbers.

J and E were joined fairly early, apparently after the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. It is often difficult to separate J and E stories that have merged.
D (the Deuteronomist) wrote almost all of Deuteronomy (and probably also Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings). Scholars often associate Deuteronomy with the book found by King Josiah in 622 BCE.

P (the Priestly source) provided the first chapter of Genesis; the book of Leviticus; and other sections with genealogical information, the priesthood, and worship. P was the latest source and the priestly editors put the Torah in its final form sometime after 539 BCE. Recent scholars are more likely to see P as containing pre-exilic material.

Contemporary critical scholars agree that this general approach best explains the doublets, contradictions, differences in terminology and theology, and the geographical and historical interests that we find in various parts of the Torah.

When we look at a passage in the Pentateuch and there are two or three of the above categories clearly at work yet from different historical periods, are we not to recognise a process of revision at work? The Flood

If you are a literalist, what do you make of these editorial strands?