Whybray and Oral Transmission

I’m still working my way through R.N. Whybray’s Making of the Pentateuch.  In my reading today, Whybray continues his critique of the Documentary Hypothesis.  John Anderson has a summary of Whybray’s problems with the Hypothesis here.  And he also has an extensive outline on the history of scholarship regarding the composition of the Pentateuch here (this focuses on the past thirty years).  I’ll definitely be using his outline as I study for my Hebrew Bible comp—not as a substitute for my own reading and preparation, of course, but as a guide.

To set the stage for my discussion of my reading for today, I want to quote the back cover of the book.  This may look like I actually didn’t read today, but, believe me, I did!  The back cover just sums up the issue in a way that I cannot right now, since I’m rather tired:

“The second part casts doubt upon the applicability of Olrick’s Sage and Jolles’ Icelandic saga studies to the Old Testament, and rejects the assumption that oral traditions can be transmitted in a recognizable form over a long period of time.”

Whybray makes a lot of arguments in the second part of his book—against scholarly attempts to posit ancient oral traditions behind the stories in the Pentateuch, and even (if I’m not mistaken) to identify those oral traditions.  What I essentially got from Whybray is that there’s no proof for these oral traditions.  There’s no proof that ancient Hebrews told stories to each other on winter nights, or that a professional storyteller delivered them orally, and that those stories were passed on orally for generations until they found their way into the Pentateuch.  There are scholars who have tried to say that the transmission of oral tradition in ancient Israel resembled that of the Icelandic sagas, or the oral transmission of other folklore.  But there’s no evidence that ancient Israel transmitted oral tradition in the same manner that the sagas and other countries’ folklore were transmitted.  Moreover, the Icelandic sagas are poetry—which is easy to remember and to pass on orally—whereas the stories of the Pentateuch are prose.   Plus, there’s really no evidence that the Icelandic sagas had a long oral history.  I mean, we just have them in written form, right?  How do we even know that they were passed on orally for a long period of time?  “But there’s stuff in the Bible that sounds like it would have been oral at one point,” one can argue.  Whybray’s response to this is that perhaps stories in the Bible were written to be read aloud on occasions.

I’m not sure where Whybray is going on this, especially since he says on page 130 that the Documentary Hypothesis is problematic because “No allowance was made for the possibility that repetitions, doublets, and inconsistencies might have already been present in the oral stage of transmission of the materials used by the authors of the written text.”  I talked some about this yesterday.  Whybray wonders: why should we assume that repetitions, doublets, and inconsistencies indicate the existence of multiple, continuous written sources?  Maybe these bumps were present in the stories before they were even written down—in the time that they were still at the oral stage!

Even in the second section of his book, as he takes on the concept of a long oral tradition, Whybray appears to use this insight to take a swipe at the Documentary Hypothesis.  On page 177, he notes that Hermann Gunkel said that doublets exist because a story took variant forms “in the course of diffused oral transmission”.  And so that’s why there are doublets!  It has nothing to do with multiple written sources!  A variation of a story could have been floating around orally (you know what happens to stories when they’re told repeatedly), without being a part of a second full-blown written source.  But, believe it or not, Gunkel still believes in the Documentary Hypothesis: he thinks that the doublets originated orally, but that one version wound up in one source, while another version wound up in the other, and a redactor then put them together.

In any case, I’m puzzled that Whybray appeals to the oral stage of stories to critique the Documentary Hypothesis in the first part of his book, and he then challenges oral transmission in the second part.  But is he challenging oral transmission, or only the idea that it was a long process?  I notice on the back cover that he will argue that the sixth century author of the Pentateuch drew “upon folklore current in his own time but not of great antiquity.”

UPDATE: On page 236, Whybray says that ancient Israel “possessed [oral] traditions like any other people”, but “we have no certain method by which their antiquity can be discovered.”

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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6 Responses to Whybray and Oral Transmission

  1. James,

    I find Whybray’s comments to be thoughtful and on the mark. In my forthcoming book I describe him (though this may not be the exact phrase, but close) as the most comprehensive denunciation of the documentary hypothesis to date.

    A potentially interesting note: Whybray seems to be a bit curmudgeonly about the success of any ventures to ascertain the purpose or shape to various bodies of biblical corpora. He feels this way about the Pentateuch, and he has made similar arguments about the shape and shaping of the Psalter (saying there is no intentional organization to the ordering of the Psalter). I contend that the last 30 years of Psalms scholarship has very clearly proven Whybray wrong on that front.

    Where Whybray becomes problematic for many is in his final chapter. Spoiler alert! Whybray suggests a single author for the entire Pentateuch. But let me clarify; the word “author” is a bit misleading. He suggests that a single person, in a single lifetime, compiled the entire Pentateuch from extant sources, traditions, and at times created new pieces as well.

    In my view, the documentary hypothesis is bankrupt. If you want to read something current and cutting edge on the Pentateuch and its composition you could take a look at the Dozeman/Schmid edited 2005 volume A Farewell to the Yahwist (I trust you will forgive me for suggesting you read something!). It is in the vein of Rendtorff and Blum, who speak of complexes of tradition that come together over time. While I remain agnostic as to the success of being able to determine how the Pentateuch came about, approaches such as these are far more compelling (though still not without their obvious problems) than are classical source-critical designations.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Hi John. No, I take no offense at your reading suggestions! It just may take me a little bit of time to get to them. I saw Farewell to the Yahwist on your outline, plus I’ve seen it in other bibliographies, so I’ll probably read that.


  3. James,

    I’m glad to be helpful where I can.

    The list of books on the outline is actually a quite good order in which to read things and get a good sense of the discipline and how Pentateuchal criticism has evolved. Wellhausen–>Gunkel, von Rad–>Rendtorff, Whybray–>Blum, Schmid/Dozeman.


  4. Oooo, I forgot to mention David Carr’s Reading the Fractures of Genesis. That book, to me, is a pivotal book (literary, a pivot in the discipline) for several reasons: first, it is a return to Genesis, which is where all the hubbub about the documentary hypothesis started. Second, it evidences a shift in ‘source’ designations (Carr speaks only of one source, P, and then of non-P material).


  5. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Yeah, I know Carr doesn’t believe the E source. I heard him refer to some reasons in a class I took with him, but I don’t know the full basis of his reasons.

    Did you read all of Blum in the German, John, or parts of it? Or did you consult sources that summarized him? Or did you do both?


  6. Bits of both on Blum.

    The basic trends in Pentateuchal scholarship at present is the total elimination of E (good riddance!), a growing hesitancy to see J (see the Dozeman/Schmid volume), an increased emphasis on the importance of D beyond Deuteronomy (see especially Rendtorff and Blum on this), and focus on P as the one who brings it all together. (N.B. – what muddies this all up is that scholarship continues to use the same traditional source designations P, D, etc. when they aren’t talking about sources but instead blocks of tradition or material).


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