Challenges to the Documentary Hypothesis: Hermann Gunkel and Gerhard von Rad

(I have decided to do a series on challenges to the Documentary Hypothesis and subsequent attempts at explaining Pentateuchal composition.  See HERE and HERE for earlier posts in what has now become a series).

Both Hermann Gunkel and Gerhard von Rad can be seen as ‘refiners’ of the classical documentary hypothesis.  It appears, though, in hindsight that each of their refinements in reality introduced a certain crack into the once believed-to-be-unshakeable foundation upon which DH rested. 

Gunkel’s 1901 Genesis commentary begins a shift away from this reigning hypothesis, albeit an unintentional one.  While Gunkel does not question the existence of sources, he is not interested in their existence but rather in their oral prehistory.  As those who know Gunkel’s work may well expect, he deems it possible to establish the various Gattungen (types/forms) and Sitz im Leben (setting in life) of Genesis’ various narrative units.  What results from his investigation is that the Genesis narrative is seen as a collection of legends and sagas that achieves its ‘final form’ by means of oral transmission.  Emerging from Gunkel, then, one sees a shift from speaking of large-scale documents to small units, from texts to traditions, from authors to the preliterate society of ancient Israel.  And while Gunkel does not explicitly challenge documentarians, form-criticism and tradition history end up eliciting questions that proponents of DH would find difficult to answer (for instance, what is the relationship between the oral units and the larger documents?).

Gerhard von Rad’s seminal 1938 essay, “The Form-Critical Problem of the Hexateuch” is addressing, already, a stalemate in the field.  Von Rad says many have already gone too far in analyzing source documents and have lost sight of the final form of the Hexateuch.  He also agrees with Gunkel that the answers sought by source critics were to be found in the earliest periods of the oral traditions of ancient Israel.  These he finds in the kleine Credo, the little creeds out of which he believes the entire OT narrative develops.  The two primary creeds he focuses on are Deut 26:5-9 and Josh 24:2-13.  These creeds share a mention of the entry into Egypt, exodus and land occupation.  Conspicuous by its absence, however, is Sinai.  As a result, von Rad concludes Sinai belongs to a separate tradition.  The J ‘writer’ is the first to join the Sinai and Settlement traditions together during the United Monarchy.  J is also responsible for adding the Primeval History and Ancestral Narratives to create a national epic of Israelite origins.  J is seen as the controlling genius, governing the arrangement and establishing the overall framework of the Pentateuch to which others add.  Various criticisms have been levelled against von Rad in the present, among them that these creedal statements are actually more likely much later and could just as easily (more accurately) be viewed as a later distillation of an already extensive narrative.  Similarly, even those who still wish to speak of ‘sources’ (such as Van Seters’ Supplementary Hypothesis) accept von Rad’s J in many respects, save for the tenth century dating.  This was a pillar of DH.  It is now utterly problematic.  Von Rad, though, also propagated the challenge of Gunkel by affirming tradition-history as an adequate method to get behind the sources.  His critique that documentarians had already gone “too far” and failed to take the final form of the text into account serves as a further challenge to the traditional way of viewing Pentateuchal composition.  And while von Rad and Gunkel both saw tradition-history as feeding into and as intimately related to the construction of wholesale ‘sources,’ it would be a later scholar–Rolf Rendtorff–who would adequately demonstrate the two were incompatible. 

But that, my friends, will have to wait until the next installment!

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2 thoughts on “Challenges to the Documentary Hypothesis: Hermann Gunkel and Gerhard von Rad

  1. Iselchyresse says:

    Fascinating stuff and right up my alley. I want to express my appreciation to you, and hope to convey the importance of your blog to my life personally. For once again, my seminary education is on hold. Yet here I have access to the information that I genuinely wanted to study at this point: present thought on the documentary hypothesis. Your communications are a form of “beauty for ashes” for me. Since I just discovered them a few days ago, it looks like I will be busy for a while (thank you again!). I hope you keep it coming. Blessings on your family and endeavors!

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