Style and Contradiction: Methodological Problems in Source Criticism

I’ve been reading through George W. Coats’ 1976 study, From Canaan to Egypt: Structural and Theological Context for the Joseph Story, and was struck by an interesting methodological point he makes regarding the precise delineation of pentateuchal sources.  Now while certain forms of source criticism are compatible with confessional Old Testament studies, others are not.  Development of the form critical method in the past few decades has enabled even conservative scholars/pastors to benefit from the textual analysis found in form critical commentaries (e.g., the Forms of the Old Testament Literature series) even while disagreeing with some of the conclusions drawn from that analysis.  But I found the following paragraphs, one dealing with stylistic analysis and the other with apparent contradiction, to be insightful.

[D]iscussions of source critical problems tend to flounder in a methodological morass.  The problem is especially critical now because Pentateuchal critics do not commonly spend time in self-conscious examination of methodology for source analysis, or even extensive examination of criteria for making particular source analyses.  Wolfgang Richter, an exception to the rule, has helped to identify the extent of the problem.  He noted that of the three principal kinds of criteria basic for source analysis – style, contradiction in the development of narration, doublets – two must be judged as weak evidence.  Stylistic analysis presupposes a careful control of the peculiarities in an author’s work.  In the Yahwist, for example, style can be relatively well defined.  It is thus quite possible to identify where the Yahwist’s hand is present.  But the opposite side of the coin is more problematic.  A break in style may mean that a new source is present.  But it may also mean that the same source now employs traditional language for a particular genre of material, language stamped by long oral usage an thus outside the realm of the Yahwist’s peculiar control.

From Canaan to Egypt, pg. 56. (Bold emphasis added)

An argument from contradiction faces similar difficulties.  A critic of modern literature can expect narration of a plot without contradictions.  But literature from the ancient world may well reflect a different standard for handling contradictions.  This point is particularly important in dealing with narration formed through generations of oral transmission.  In such cases contradictions can be maintained within the scope of a single narration without resolution of tension.  Thus, contradictions do not necessarily mean that two different sources are present.  They may signal nothing more than a wedding of two stages in the history of tradition.  But even in narrative material that reveals the work of more studied composition, standards for consistency or concern for contradiction may not follow the same guidelines of current literary art.  Source critics must be careful to determine whether what they think might be a contradiction is in fact contradictory to the flow of the narration.  It is, of course, clear that contradictions may occur and may indicate source combination.  One should not be blind to contradictions, or dismiss them out of hand.  Yet, neither should one impute contradictions to the text if the flow of the narrative can be understood in other ways.  One should not assume that a narrative must have contradictions derived from source redaction.

From Canaan to Egypt, pg. 57. (Bold emphasis added)

Now of course I would part ways with Coats’ openness to calling tensions in the biblical texts contradictions in the true sense of the word since the word “contradiction” is fairly freighted.  What is more, the history of exegesis has shown numerous readings of purportedly contradictory passages which show how different texts can be read harmoniously side-by-side.  It is somewhat self-serving and arrogant to claim that all of these readings were simply misguided and/or worth ignoring.  Indeed, I don’t think Coats and others fully appreciate the import the final bolded sentence above.

Still, I like Coats’ care to note that interruptions to narrative flow need not indicate source division.  A careful reading of biblical narrative, and a willingness to grant literary sensitivity to the biblical authors, should lead us toward better understandings of how said interruptions might actually be intentional tropes that contribute to a unified plot-line.

Rev. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA


4 comments on “Style and Contradiction: Methodological Problems in Source Criticism

  1. Nevada says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Interesting observations. The question of methodology is really quite important. I recently finished reading Welhausen’s Prolegomena for the first time and came away with mixed feelings about source criticism. On the one hand, Welhausen and many of his disciples (old and new) can be extraordinarily thick when it comes to the literary artistry of Hebrew narrative. Also, the division of material at times seems quite arbitrary, and I find it interesting that Welhausen himself never elaborates on his method for sifting texts. (In fairness, the Prolegomena was really a summary of De Wette, Astruc, and others. So it assumes a great deal.) Often, I got the sense that aside from the traditional doublets, uses of the divine names, genealogical tendencies, etc., Welhausen was working with a kind of aesthetic method based on whether a particular text could have arisen within a specific folk-context. (Nineteenth century Romanticism drips from the pages.) Also, at least in Welhausen’s case, a strongly anti-semitic and anti-papist sentiment colors his dating of “P.” (It is fascinating how he repeatedly connects the “degradation” of the Priestly material with the clerical bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church.)

    On the other hand, I do think that sometimes confessional scholars can be a little overeager in trying to smooth out the rough edges of the biblical texts. While, like you, I’m not wild about the word “contradiction,” I do think that there are times when the various impulses do create tensions within the canon (or even tensions within a specific canonical book). So, for example, some of the material in 1 and 2 Samuel definitely has a “propagandic” ring to it (e.g., “David never lifted his hand against the Lord’s Anointed!”); however, within the larger context of the Deuteronomistic history, David looks like a pretty sorry excuse for a king (which is precisely the point of the history: even in its best king, Israel displayed disobedience). In the end, while the sifting of sources may be interesting, it is only helpful if it enables us to understand the movement to the final form (which is what we confess is canonical).

    I’m curious what your thoughts are on J, E, D, P. Personally, I find that such labeling of so-called “source” material can be helpful in distinguishing different genre types (i.e., epic, legislative, etc.). I also find that better source critics (like Samuel Terrien or Benjamin Sommer) tend to read the various sources in dialogue with each other (almost in a Talmudic manner). The results can be very fruitful for biblical theology (cf. Terrien’s “The Elusive Presence”).

    Just curious :)


  2. Hey Nevada, those are some good thoughts. My comment got a bit scattered – but it was fun to write! (If it can be called writing!)

    Wellhausen is such an interesting figure; his Prologomena is a fascinating read (I had to read through it for one of my M.A. comps), but his German Work “Die Komposition Des Hexateuchs” (or something like that) is a really interesting case study in his source delineation. I’ve slogged through portions of it, but what Marvin Sweeney always pointed out was that with Wellhausen, he traced sources through the beginning of Exodus or so, and then just started assuming them from that point on. My seminar was in the Wilderness Traditions (Numbers 10ff), so it was interesting to see where some of those divisions broke down at that point. It’s been several years though, so I’m a bit rusty…

    As for the JEDP labels, I use them in a similar fashion … they are labels, although not so much genera for me as content webs … (if that makes sense; I’m kind of shooting from the hip here!) … J and E have content typically characteristic to those sources (e.g., dream sequences, talking animals, northern or southern city emphases) so when I come across texts like that I’ll go ahead and talk about “J” or “E” even though I think they’re inadequate as designators of true pre-textual or textual sources. I’ve found it enables me to more easily “pillage the Egyptians” (so to speak) when reading through critical commentaries or books, just because it helps me to keep the categories straight. Anyway, my main interest is the north/south dynamic and talking about things like J and E are fascinating for seeing emphases on possible northern and southern themes.

    And yes, I totally agree with what you’re saying about tensions. My Coats post is just a kickback against people who seem to call anything and everything a “contradiction.” I am more prone to try to read these things in harmony, but that too is an apt metaphor – harmony is not unison. You mention David; I’m out of practice on how Samuel fits into the DtrH, but I tend to see the tensions evident in 1 Kings with the Solomon narrative. There is a combination of lionizing him and critiquing him. I’ve been especially interested, however, to situate these tensions within a larger redemptive-historical trajectory of the true Israelite King. My VERY preliminary thought is that the critique helps us to stay modest of our expectations of human kings, but the lionization reminds us of the importance of the kingship, a kingship that ultimately is fulfilled in the messianic King. I think some of the same themes could be drawn out of the David stories. It is a bit modest of a proposal, perhaps a bit truistic sounding, but it strikes me as having explanatory power for the praise/critique, while also allowing the tensions to stand. I’m finding similar tensions in the Joseph story; i.e., why is Judah the royal tribe and not Ephraim or Manasseh? I think some answers to those questions will fall along similar lines, though perhaps with an emphasis on the common idea of the chosen seed being God’s choice, not man’s. Something along the lines of the wisdom of God vs the “wisdom” of man, or else God choosing the weak things of the world …

    Well, I’m on a bit of a free-flow thought here …

    More on point, the problem with the tension passages is especially evident when conservatives approach it from an apologetics standpoint. That’s where I’ve found the bulk of the smoothing. Frankly, a lot of that isn’t even smoothing, it is filing and chipping away to awkwardly jam it in place! I would rather kick back against people who find contradictions too easily by exploring what the tension does to the narrative rather than just appealing to scribes who either mindlessly stitched sources together, or a supposed desire to “preserve the source” in that particular place (although I’ve found that such claimed “preservation” only happens selectively).

    I just bought Sailhammer’s “Meaning of the Pentateuch” (or whatever) and I’m interested in hearing how he articulates a second editing process to the pentateuchal books. (I know that even EJ Young was open to that, though I’m not sure the extent of his study on the Pentateuch.) Should be a fun read …

    Oh – and as for better source critics, I also like to add Sweeney and Knierim to that list (and frankly, any of Knierim’s students). Though I’ve found some of them to be a bit wooden about the sitz im leben of certain texts, the fact that they start with the MT as it now stands gives them a more controlled method and a more thoughtful engagement with the present unity of the MT. Then the “sources” aren’t an end in themselves, rather they help to better understand the warp and woof of the MT.


  3. Nevada says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Very interesting! I like the phrase “content webs.” That is helpful. In some ways, the documentary hypothesis works better as descriptive of content rather than prescriptive of content.

    Out of curiosity, what is your take on the date of “P”? One of the more incisive bits of Welhausen’s work seems to me to be his analysis of the problem of worship in the Deuteronomistic History (i.e., the recorded “inconsistencies” of cultic praxis in the monarchy) and the problem of the Levites and the Zadokites. While I believe that P (at least in some form) predates Ezekiel, I do think it makes sense that some of the P material was committed to writing post-exile (or that, at least, in F. M. Cross’s theory, P is the “R,”–i.e., the final macro-redactor). Given the destruction of the first temple, it seems plausible to me that much of the oral material would have had to be written down quickly to preserve it after priestly practice was no longer operational (at least until the end of the 6th century).

    I suppose my biggest problem is trying to account for the diverse “temples” that seemed to have existed at places like Shiloh, Shechem, and Bethel and the ease with which David and Solomon appear to have usurped priestly functions with no apparent repercussions. Of course, it is simply possible that God graciously didn’t strike them dead for perpetuating aspects of the chaos that ensued during the period of the judges. (It is also possible that the material has been highlighted in the DtrH to emphasize the decadence of Israel’s monarchy—even in its early stages.)

    I also find it interesting, as you note, to think about the possible differences between Northern and Southern “theologies.” In that case, P would definitely seem to be more “southern.”

    I don’t know… I’m shooting from the hip here myself…

    Just curious… :-)


  4. Sorry for the slow reply – it’s been a busy weekend!

    The dating of “P” is a hard question because I’m not sure exactly what to date. What is more, I’m not sure what “P” actually is! This is in part because I am trying to understand the “P” as having Mosaic origin (though possibly a later textualization and containing some later editing), and also because of scholarly disagreement of “P” itself. Because this is a tricky subject and I still don’t have a full understanding of all the variables, I’ll probably equivocate a bit here …

    Even though there are some really tricky cultic institutions and practices to sort out (centralization, Priests/Levites, etc.), I’m not sure that this is proof of a late date to “P”, or that it proves differing authorship with differing practices and ideologies. I fully understand why this approach carries the day right now, and I don’t want to gloss over these tricky passages either. But I also feel a bit uncomfortable assuming that there is inconsistency in the true sense of the word. I just haven’t spent enough time reading on the subjects to flesh out a fuller answer, I’m afraid.

    Also, as for the nature of “P” itself, I’ve always liked the redactional approaches (e.g., Cross) as they fit better my understanding of the “sources” as descriptive of idea clusters. Even then, however, I’ve noted in the literature that more recent approaches to “P” break it down even further. So Israel Knohl delineates between the Priestly Torah (the “P” school) and the Holiness Code (Lev 17-26), notes that the PT seems to predate the HC, and notes that the HC itself seems to be solidly pre-exilic. Now of course others will disagree with Knohl, but it is interesting to see the really problematic character of dating these texts when scholars start delineating different editions or sources, then start postulating which sources assume what from earlier texts and then create a dating schema for those texts. Again, not that it is impossible to think chronologically about this stuff, but it is just really challenging.

    Anyway, a couple thoughts there – also from the hip! (Lots of hip shooting going on in this thread!!!)

    Ok – gotta go get some cavities filled!


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