Hypotheses, Theories, and Biblical Criticism, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love “Higher Antisemitism”

(Warning–this is not a post written for the linguistically or intellectually faint-of-heart. If you’re a casual reader, you’ve been warned.)

In response to my post a couple of days ago about the implications of biblical criticism for Jewish thought–which was itself a response to Jay Michaelson at the Forward–the Society for Humanistic Judaism in its Facebook feed asked when a hypothesis becomes a theory. I’ve been mulling that over a bit, and came belatedly upon TheTorah.com‘s meme about what biblical criticism is:

Bible Criticism – From TheTorah.com

TheTorah.com’s approach to biblical criticism is a more traditionally-oriented than I would sign onto–there are efforts there to salvage some notion of Torah Mi-Sinai by redefining the question, and I regard that kind of thing with tremendous skepticism–but this meme does bring up an important point: there’s more to biblical criticism than simply the Documentary Hypothesis.

That said, biblical criticism includes–in fact, you can really hardly credibly do modern criticism without accepting the validity of–the methods of the Hypothesis, even if you disagree on some of the details.

So, when does it become a theory?

The problem, I think, has to do with terminology creep and the course of Western intellectual history. Wellhausen was part of a broad movement in the wake of the Enlightenment to make scientific the various academic approaches to the humanities. The methodological problem inherent in this “scientific turn” in the humanities is that hypotheses are, in the scientific method, an effort to explain phenomena, with the explanation subject to continued testing.

The evidence upon which we can “test” the Documentary Hypothesis is, problematically, limited. It is really only the biblical text. And, if we’re honest, we need to be clear that what Wellhausen was up to is really the application of a basic approach to dissecting any literary source: it can be done to almost any other text. David Weiss Halivni and Jacob Neusner have endeavored to apply this general approach to the rabbinic texts, with excellent results. (In particular, Halivni’s Mekorot u-Mesorot, the summation of which has recently been translated into English under the title, “The Formation of the Babylonian Talmud,” has been instrumental in this on the Talmudic end. Neusner’s “Judaism and the Evidence of the Mishnah” has been very important in evaluating Judaism before 200 CE.)

Wellhausen’s specific version of the Documentary Hypothesis has lots of other issues. Wellhausen’s dating of texts and identification of source-specific terminology and sources depends heavily upon Romantic-era assumptions about the origins and development of religion. (This is the source of the “higher Antisemitism” claim frequently used by religious conservatives to dismiss all of modern criticism.)

That Romantic approach was the set of assumptions Wellhausen carried to his work, and is part of what renders problematic the supposed hard-science nature of his approach. Why? Because it brings into the source-critical tool a number of assumptions that may or may not be warranted. It fogs the methodological lens.

Thus, if we apply the list of terms purportedly specific to the various sources Wellhausen identified, we sometimes get difficult-to-accept results from the Hypothesis’s explanations. For example, if we use the list of words that supposedly characterize the J, E, and P sources in an effort to dissect the sources of the Noah story (an accessible English-language approach to this is in Richard Elliott Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?”), we have a single narrative sliced into small phrases, with two or even three sources apparently cut-and-pasted together, sometimes one or two words at a time.

And maybe that’s correct. Taking those pieces does create a pair of seemingly complete narratives–but not so complete that the story really runs smoothly in any of the reconstructed narratives. And that probably tells you that a redactor had a heavy hand in crafting that story. It is exactly those weaknesses in the Hypothesis that caused the development of other methods of biblical criticism. Specifically, form and redaction criticism come from this problem. These approaches seek to identify what the sources meant for their original audiences and what the redactors were thinking in putting the final product together.

Or maybe it tells you that the Noah story shows where the hypothesis breaks down, that it works in some places and not others. Because here is a text, the construction of which would really be immensely complicated if we hewed strictly to the “magic words” assembled by Wellhausen. That is, the Documentary Hypothesis’s explanation of the Noah story’s sources (as constructed by Wellhausen and other dedicated source critics), fails the Ockham’s Razor test of simplicity: it’s just really, really complicated as an explanation. Does the use of a specific word really, really, in every case tell us that we’re looking at one or another specific source? In broad chunks of text, it’s a nice set of clues. But factors are factors–they’re helpful, but not all-inclusive, and not always conclusive.

So is the Documentary Hypothesis destined to graduate to a scientific-type theory? I don’t think so. But as in the natural sciences, the fruitfulness of the work doesn’t always lie in the ready confirmability of the hypothesis–it’s in the development of the tools and the broader explanatory power that comes from working with the tools.

Can we credibly say the whole text was from one person’s hand? No–and Wellhausen’s Hypothesis helped develop the tools that got us to that result. But I don’t think the Documentary Hypothesis in all its details is conclusive; it will never be the Documentary Theory.

That’s just fine. Because scientific knowledge and human knowledge needn’t be one and the same. And it is important that humanists of every stripe avoid the problems that come from overreaching scientism.

But that’s a story for another time.