Review of The Formation of the Pentateuch: Bridging the Academic Cultures of Europe, Israel, and North America, ed. J. Gertz, B. Levinson, D. Rom-Shiloni, K. Schmid (Mohr Siebeck, 2016)


The major challenge facing current research on the Pentateuch is outlined in the introduction: “In the three major centers of research on the Pentateuch-North America, Israel, and Europe-scholars tend to operate from such different premises, employ such divergent methods, and reach such inconsistent results that meaningful progress has become impossible. The models continue to proliferate but the communication seems only to diminish” (p. 3). Thus the lofty aim of the volume, “to further the international discussion about the Pentateuch in the hope that the academic cultures in Israel, Europe, and North America can move toward a set of shared assumptions and a common discourse” (p. 4).

There can be no doubt that the massive tome represents a step in the right direction. Formation has contributions from a bevy of important scholars on topics relevant to Pentateuchal study, including empirical perspectives on the composition of the Pentateuch, narrative continuity, historical linguistics and the dating of biblical texts, Second Temple literature and Dead Sea Scrolls, evidence for redactional activity, integration of preexisting literary material, historical geography, the Former Prophets, the Law and the Prophets, and theological implications, and each section is prefaced with a helpful introduction to orient the reader, some making substantive contributions to the discussion in themselves.

The individual articles are by and large interesting, the scholarship well informed and original, and the presentation focused and succinct, which is a remarkable achievement considering the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of the contributors. I may quibble with the relevance or inclusion of certain papers, whose payoff is relatively light or whose discussion is speculative/idiosyncratic and diverts from the main themes, but such diversity and inclusiveness is perhaps a strength of the volume as well, documenting a range of views (though this is certainly not an advantage in terms of book length and price!). Formation reflects the state of contemporary Pentateuchal study and is particularly valuable for its self-conscious reflection on methodological and theoretical questions.

As far as whether any bridging of the various academic schools regarding the composition of the Pentateuch has occurred here, I am more skeptical. By my reading, the neo-documentarian and non-documentarian/source-supplement approaches are still like two ships passing in the night, both sides entrenched as ever in their fundamental assumptions about the literary formation of the Pentateuch. Thus, Formation is better seen as a prelude to future breakthroughs and mutually achieved insight than evidence of any movement toward shared methodological and theoretical principles.

Regardless, in my judgement the case for a source-supplement model comes off the stronger over the course of the volume. Carr’s discussion of documented cases of transmission history shows that scribal transmission was often fluid and characterized by secondary coordination and the partial preservation of precursor materials (pp. 87-106), which renders various arguments for a neo-Documentarian hypothesis problematic. Ska notes that the sources of the Pentateuch aside from P lack real plot continuity and that there are important breaks between narrative complexes (pp. 201-222), which militates against large-scale continuous sources in non-P. Zahn employs Qumran material to argue that significant portions of a text’s compositional history may be unrecoverable because of rewriting and interventions of various kinds that leave no trace in the textual record (pp. 491-500). Kratz proposes that the evidence for revision and supplementation in reworked Pentateuchal manuscripts from Qumran provide a model for understanding how the Pentateuch developed in earlier periods (pp. 501-24). Ska compares the MT, SP, LXX, and Qumran fragments to show that copyists and scribes worked with a degree of freedom in reproducing biblical texts (pp. 567-77).

Baden’s responses are limited to a defense of plot analysis as the key to identifying discrete sources (pp. 243-51) and the argument that gaps in literary continuity do not necessarily undermine the integrity of a source as a self-standing composition (pp. 283-92). For example, “Once the plot contradictions are resolved, if we are left with a narratively coherent text, that text can, like any text ancient or modern, accommodate stylistic and thematic and theological complexity” (p. 251). However, the resolution of contradictions into a seemingly readable text is not a reliable means for identifying continuous sources, since there are potentially many, many ways to construct such a text that do not bear on its original shape and it also ignores the diachronic complexity introduced by scribal transmission and revision as discussed by Carr and others. Baden’s point that a source may have severe gaps and still have once represented a continuous document is well taken. But he fails to note that such gaps make it all the more difficult to distinguish independent J and E documents per the neo-documentarian theory because it is difficult to know on strictly literary grounds what is continuous or discontinuous with what.

Although the discussion is still highly fragmented, the future of Pentateuchal study looks brighter today because of Formation and the kind of scholarly dialogue that its organizers are encouraging, and for that they are to be thanked and congratulated.

[Note: I received a free review copy from the publisher]