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.”