This is an important book and to understand how it contributes to biblical studies, it is crucial first to remember the present state of critical scholarship on the Pentateuch. Currently, two main approaches coexist. On the one hand, many exegetes in North America and in Israel still endorse the Documentary Hypothesis, albeit often in a refined version. According to Julius Wellhausen’s hypothesis, four documents (J, E, D, P) underlie the Pentateuch. While this theory came under heavy fire during the last quarter of the twentieth century, some scholars (the so-called “Neo-Documentarians”), building on the work of their mentor B. Schwartz, have skillfully renewed it, notably J. Baden (The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012]) and J. Stackert (A Prophet like Moses: Prophecy, Law, and Israelite Religion [New York: Oxford University Press, 2014]). On the other hand, most critical scholars in Europe have long ceased to believe in the existence of E (the so-called Elohist document), and more recently in J, that is, the Yahwist (see e.g., T. B. Dozeman and K. Schmid, A Farewell to the Yahwist? The Composition of the Pentateuch in Recent European Interpretation [Atlanta: SBL Press, 2006]). Accordingly, the main division in Genesis to Numbers is to be found between P (the Priestly work) and non-P, with some Deuteronomistic influence too.
Against this background, the idea behind this book was to gather scholars from three geographical areas (North America, Israel and Europe) to debate some critical topics, the object being to “further the discussion” and hopefully “move toward a set of shared assumptions and a common discourse” (p. 4). The book contains papers read during several international seminars and conferences that took place from 2012 to 2014, and this impressive scholarly endeavor results in a mammoth book of 1200 pages containing fifty-six essays written by forty-nine scholars. Space obviously prevents a discussion of each paper, but it is worth noting that the book is divided into ten topical parts and a brief look at their titles may give a sense of the variety and scope of the discussions:
- Empirical Perspectives on the Composition of the Pentateuch.
- Can the Pentateuch Be Read in Its Present Form? Narrative Continuity in the Pentateuch in Comparative.
- The Role of Historical Linguistics in the Dating of the Biblical Texts.
- The Significance of Second Temple Literature and the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Formation of the Pentateuch.
- Evidence for Redactional Activity in the Pentateuch.
- The Integration of Preexisting Literary Material in the Pentateuch and the Impact upon Its Final Shape.
- Historical Geography of the Pentateuch and Archaeological Perspectives.
- Do the Pentateuchal Sources Extend into the Former Prophets?
- Rethinking the Relationship between the Law and the Prophets.
- Reading for Unity, Reading for Multiplicity – Theological Implications of the Study of the Pentateuch’s Composition.
Beyond this topical arrangement, what can be found in this book are, I think, at least four different kinds of papers. First, a number of essays focus on foundational matters that must be taken into account for any attempt to reconstruct the compositional history of the Pentateuch. Indeed, these issues should define the perimeter of what is conceivable in terms of dating and of compositional techniques used by ancient redactors. Such is clearly the case for the papers of Part 1. In keeping with a growing interest in empirical evidence in current research, these chapters discuss material data that may inform the way scholars should make hypotheses, such as ancient inscriptions, manuscripts and Second Temple literary works that did not end up in the canon. For instance, C. A. Rollston rightly argues that epigraphical evidence contradicts the widespread notion that Israelite and Judahite scribes were not capable of producing literary texts prior to the eighth century B.C.E. At the other end of the chronological spectrum, A. Lange offers a thorough and very helpful review of data from the Dead Sea Scrolls, in particular regarding the proto-Masoretic text. In his view, since the Temple Scroll, Ezra-Nehemiah and 4Q365 are literarily dependant on the final stage of the Pentateuch, relative chronology provides a terminus ad quem for the latter in the fourth century BCE, possibly even the late fifth century.
Another kind of data that should be taken into consideration for dating texts is linguistics: this is the topic of Part 3. This is certainly one of the most significant contributions that this book makes to the debate. Whereas most scholars freely ascribe dates for redactional stages of the Pentateuch to various times from the Iron Age II to the Persian period regardless of their linguistic profile, linguists recognize that the Hebrew language evolved through time and that most of the Pentateuch is written in “Standard Biblical Hebrew.” For various reasons, “Standard Biblical Hebrew” is believed to correspond to the language spoken and written during the monarchy; it is during the sixth century that it transitioned toward “Late Biblical Hebrew.” In an important article, J. Joosten expounds the grounds for this widely accepted linguistic model and draws conclusions for the composition of the Pentateuch: “ascribing large parts of the Pentateuch to the Persian period, as is done routinely by many OT scholars, is impossible to reconcile with the linguistic data” (p. 336).
Of course, many exegetes resist this conclusion, but the fact that this issue is addressed already represents progress in the debate. Other scholars accept this linguistic model but underline its limitations; in particular, it cannot be used in a mechanical way to date a given pericope. The introduction by S. Gesundheit and chapters by E. Blum, W. M. Schniedewind and N. Mizrahi provide valuable related discussions, and T. Römer widens the perspective by way of a helpful overview of methods for dating texts. F. Polak offers another important contribution by pointing out the existence of two different linguistic registers in biblical narratives. On the one hand, the “intricate elaborate style,” pervasive in P, characterizes the written work of learned scribes trained in official bureaucracy. On the other hand, a “voiced, lean, brisk style” corresponds to most narratives about the Patriarchs and in Exodus; it “preserves an underlying oral-epic substratum.”
What scholars learn from manuscripts constitute another kind of empirical evidence, that illustrates ways in which the texts may have developed in the hands of redactors and scribes. Based notably on textual criticism and comparison between parallel texts (e.g., in Kings and Chronicles), D. Carr shows how the texts themselves may or may not give us solid data to inform the current debates. His own experience leads him to conclude, with characteristic caution and wisdom, that “we know far less than we think we do about the undocumented prehistory of these texts” (p. 106). Similarly, J.-L. Ska discusses textual issues that provide empirical evidence for scribal activity of a redactional nature. In addition, Part 4 deals with the Second Temple literature and the Dead Sea scrolls: for instance, M. Zahn deals with scribal revision in light of 4QReworked Pentateuch.
A second kind of paper concerns issues that are crucial for understanding the composition of the Pentateuch and that are successively examined here by proponents of concurrent models: for instance, the relationship between Pentateuchal sources and the Former Prophets (Part 8) and, most importantly, the relationship between the Law and the Prophets (Part 9). Part 5, which concerns the narrative continuity in Pentateuchal texts, represents a special case, since the main feature of these texts that is used, notably by Neo-Documentarians, to separate documents, is the presence of narrative tensions that would betray the merging of conflicting plots, stories and chronologies. Baden and Stackert insist that the Pentateuch in its present form is “unreadable.” In addition, the origins of overarching plots and themes that extend over long parts of the Pentateuch, like the promise made by God to Abram, is very debated today. Are they features made by late redactors to unify the narratives (as in the “European” approach) or were they integral part of these stories from the outset (as the Neo-Documentarians contend)? Hence the importance of essays on plots and narrative continuity, such as the thoughtful discussion of the notion of plot by J.-L. Ska.
All this being said, what we find in this second kind of papers is often parallel discussions by authors working in the framework of a given model, which is not the same as having scholars of different persuasions debating these issues among themselves. So, one may wonder whether these essays contribute much to the main aim of the book as defined by the editors, beyond the fact there must have been much discussion during the seminars and conferences that underlie it. At any rate, these articles certainly contribute to furthering research on a variety of subjects and are worth reading for themselves. Some are quite innovative, like C. Nihan’s discussion of the relationship between Ezekiel and the Holiness legislation.
A third kind of essay (notably in Part 6, but also in every other part) consists of case studies from which the authors draw conclusions that, incidentally, have implications for the model one should adopt for the composition of the Pentateuch. This may be of significance for the reader who is still trying to make up their own mind, since test cases are sometimes more convincing that general hypotheses. By way of illustration, M. Sweeney attempts to show that the book of Hosea presupposes an early version of the Pentateuch, including narratives about Jacob, the Exodus and the wilderness.
Finally, a fourth category includes innovative approaches, more precisely, new or neglected ways of tackling the problems of the Pentateuch. Thus, one finds a set of articles on historical geography and archaeology (Part 7), in which I. Finkelstein and T. Römer, for instance, try to show how material discoveries may help in understanding and dating texts from the Pentateuch, and T. Dozeman offers a thoughtful discussion on geography of religion (as opposed to religious geography). In addition, the tenth and last part of the book contains reflections on the theological implications of compositional models of the Pentateuch. In particular, B. Sommer offers a fascinating discussion of a Jewish theological appropriation of the Neo-Documentarian theory. According to the latter model, a redactor has brought multiple voices together to create the Pentateuch, without any attempt to make one dominate the others. Hence the result is a conversational dimension which is very similar to the culture of debate well attested in Judaism.
In the end, some papers are of primary interest for all Pentateuchal studies, while others are up-to-date discussions of precise issues from a given viewpoint. What may be lacking in the book is a more direct debate between “Neo-Documentarians” and “European” scholars, a discussion during which they would assess and criticize the strengths and weaknesses of the opposite position. (As it happens, such a fascinating debate took place publicly at the 2017 SBL Annual Meeting in Boston between J. Baden and J. Stackert on the one hand, D. Carr and K. Schmid on the other.) Yet this book is an important landmark in the ongoing debate and must be consulted by any Pentateuchal scholar. Besides having brought together scholars of very different views for discussions during international seminars and conferences, the main contribution of this endeavor for cross-fertilization among scholarship may reside in bringing into the debate considerations that are too often neglected in compositional studies, such as empirical evidence, linguistic dating, and historical geography. For this, and for the breadth of information contained in this well-edited book, the reader should be grateful, regardless of their own view on the composition of the Pentateuch.