Pentateuchal Criticism and Genesis

About: this paper was delivered to Dr. Glenn Schaefer at Simpson University during my senior year for a class on Genesis.


B. T. Arnold wrote an article for Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch entitled, “Pentateuchal Criticism, History Of.” The article goes through in moderate detail the development of this criticism from the eighteenth century forward, highlighting the major contributors in each century and showing where critical and literary analyses came into effect. At the end of the article Arnold gave his own conclusion to the matter, which in fact served as the strongest point for the paper. However, due to the lengthy development of some of the key players throughout the centuries, his article lost some weight by taking away significant importance to the more influential people for pentateuchal criticism. Overall, this article serves its function to inform readers of no Old Testament critical background specifically how pentateuchal criticism started and how it exists today, and it particularly shows the importance of this criticism for Christians today.

Arnold opens up his article with a quick summation of the history of pentateuchal criticism. In this summary he notes that the tradition of Mosaic authorship for the whole Pentateuch in early Jewish and Christian sources went uncontested (2003, 622). Arnold notes several important Jewish literatures, the New Testament, and also Josephus as ones who support Mosaic authorship (2003, 622). However, as time went on, certain problems arose regarding Mosaic authorship. Several different ideas of authorship for the Pentateuch sprout out from here. At the start of the eighteenth century, “scholars sought to construct literary theories of pentateuchal authorship that would account for the internal features of the text” (Arnold 2003, 622). Arnold outlines where he will be taking his readers from this point: first, the eighteenth century; second, the nineteenth century; third, early and mid-twentieth century; fourth, late twentieth century; and fifth, his own conclusion.

In the eighteenth century, Arnold mentions, a reevaluation of traditional understandings of how the Bible was written, especially how the composition of the Pentateuch was done (2003, 622). At this point Arnold brings in Jean Astruc. Astruc is responsible for the “beginnings of a source-critical approach to the Pentateuch” (Arnold 2003, 622). Astruc was the one to establish “the divine names Elohim and Yahweh as the basic criterion for identifying and distinguishing the sources used by Moses in the compilation of Genesis” (Arnold 2003, 622-3). Arnold turns to Johann G. Eichhorn next. He attributed “E” to the Elohim source and “J” to the Yahweh source as established by Astruc 2003, 623). In the nineteenth century, the fragmentary theory came into play. Wilhelm M. L. de Wette suggested “that a group of J fragments and E fragments were behind the present Pentateuch” (Arnold 2003, 623). Next came Heinrich Ewald who opposed the fragmentary hypothesis by supporting the “supplementary” hypothesis that holds that a single E document was supplemented by parts of the book of Deuteronomy and J (2003, 623).

Wilhelm Vatke followed Ewald. He developed an understanding of “Israel’s religious history” (Arnold 2003, 624). Hermann W. Hupfeld and Eduard Riehm suggest that there are very intricate sources inter-woven throughout each other behind the Pentateuch (2003, 624). Karl H. Graf and Abraham Kuenen were addressed by Arnold next. These men introduced the idea that some of the sources were exilic and they attempted certain arrangements of the order of the use of the sources. Arnold comes to Julius Wellhausen next, the one who was able to “combine the prevalent source theory of Graf and Kuenen with skillful historical criticism in a way that appeared to explain the unity question” (2003, 625). Convincingly enough, Wellhausen “united the results of source criticism with the nineteenth century’s understanding of the historical and religious institutions in ancient Israel” (Arnold 2003, 626).

In the early and mid-twentieth century William F. Albright led the way for archaeology and scientific evidence to aid in understanding authorship of the Pentateuch. Albright “did not reject the Wellhausian documentary approach” (Arnold 2003, 627), but rather he “used archaeological parallels to argue for the plausibility of the ancestral traditions of Genesis and the general trustworthiness of other events of pentateuchal history” (2003, 627). Arnold brings in Hermann Gunkel at this point. Gunkel brought in form criticism that has at times “been viewed as an alternative to source criticism with its speculation about documents and their redaction history” (2003, 627). Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth enter the scene now, and they bring “form-critical techniques to the text in an attempt to discern the nature of OT law, the social organization and religious beliefs of the early Israelite tribes and biblical history in general” (Arnold 2003, 627-28). Following these two men, Arnold brings in Gerhard von Rad. Von Rad utilized form-critical and redaction-critical approaches in tracing creeds that he believed existed in the text (Arnold 2003, 628).

Arnold turns to the late twentieth century after his treatment of von Rad. Here he reviews the works and contributions of Thomas L. Thompson and John Van Seters, and Rolf Rendtorff. Thompson “refuted the archaeological evidence for a patriarchal age in Israel’s history (Arnold 2003, 628). Similarly, Van Seters “denied the second-millennium setting for the Abraham narratives” (2003, 628). Rendtorff “argued that the Pentateuch was composed of large strands of material that have been joined end to end” during the time of Solomon (Arnold 2003, 629). He eventually suggested the existence of not only a J and E source but also P and D documents as well (2003, 629). From here, Arnold quickly reviews canonical and literary criticism. These two criticisms are broad in methodology and are developed by North American Old Testament scholars (Arnold 2003, 629). Canonical criticism, developed by James A. Sanders and Brevard S. Childs, seeks “to find evidence of a consistent ‘canonical hermeneutic’ running through the tradition history of Scripture” (2003, 629) and a focus on “canonical context” (2003, 629). Literary criticism is “less concerned with investigating the historical evolution of the text and more interested in the literary artistry of the text as it now stands” (2003, 629).

Arnold concludes by saying that the numerous critical methodologies are necessary for serious biblical studies and productive in the hands of scholars who respect the unique nature of the Bible” (2003, 630). Certainly, all of these methodologies have something to offer in the study of the Scriptures, therefore “A Christian approach to the biblical text will be a holistic view, which means it will never appropriate only that portion which can be squeezed into a predetermined naturalistic system” (Arnold 2003, 630).

The strongest point of Arnold’s article is his conclusion. He states the necessity for a holistic view because “every hypothesis growing from the critical methodologies is inherently speculative, and indeed must be so. For this reason hypotheses are always in flux and conclusions tentative” (2003, 630). This is an important point because no one particular hypothesis can really stand on its own, and Arnold did well in presenting this truth and guiding his readers to a holistic view for the purpose of good critical study.

The weakest point of Arnold’s article was the lengthy treatment of some of the players in each of the significant centuries. Some of the critics were not as important as others and should have had less treatment so that the importance of the other ones would not be detracted from. A quicker treatment of Astruc, Eichhorn Wette, Ewald, Vatke, Graf and Kuenen, Albright, Alt and Noth, and Thompson and Van Seters would strengthen the article because it would yield more importance to Wellhausen, Gunkel, von Rad, and Rendtorff. Otherwise, this article was very well written and it is seemingly not lacking in any other area.

In sum Arnold’s article identifies the development of pentateuchal criticism throughout history and shows its significance for Christians today through his conclusion on the matter. Despite its only weakness, the lengthy treatment of several less important yet still notable scholars throughout history, the article served its purpose well. Arnold informed his audience who would not have any sort of Old Testament criticism background of this particular criticism and showed why it needs to be used as a whole today.


Arnold, B. T. 2003. “Pentateuchal Criticism, History Of.” Dictionary of the Old Testament:

Pentateuch. T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker, eds. Downers Grove:

InterVarsity Press, pp. 622-31.