Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Well? Wellhausen!

I finally read the infamous Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel by Julius Wellhausen. I bet not more than a thousand people have actually read the book itself in the past fifty years.

Some observations:

*It was exactly as wordy in that 19th century Germanic way that I expected.

*It was far less boring and technical then I expected.

*Wellhausen is as antisemitic as expected, but it doesn't overwhelm the work.

*It is competely true that many of his observations were well noted by classical Jewish sources.

*It is no mere apologetic to point out that a great deal of the contradictions, anachronisms and doublets which he noted were also noted by Chazal and our commentators (as well as the nature of Elokim and YHVH).

*However, much the way in which R. Aharon Feldman noted that the world really does appear to be billions of years old, by looking at the stars, Wellhausen's notes these problems (and others) and they need not be inherently antisemitic. If they were obvious to Chazal, why shouldn't they be obvious to Wellhausen--and more importantly, not based on dishonest reading?

*He indeed conjectures many things for which he has no basis conjecturing.

*His views kohanim as nothing but papal priests, which I needn't point out is an anachronism.

*Wellahusen looks exactly as you'd imagine he would:

Close to fifty years ago Herman Wouk wrote in his majestic This Is My God (one of my favorite books):

[Wellahusen's Prolegomena] is a museum piece now....Serious Bible scholarship has dropped it...
It is true that other respected methods of Bible scholarship are pursued today, including the literary method that treats it as a seamless document for the purpose of literary analysis (e.g., Robert Alter), and many of Wellhausen's assumptions have long been proved false, and neither a J nor an E nor a P nor a D has yet been found, but the documentary hypothesis did not wither and die and not every problem has been given a solution.

In the words of Dr. Shnayer Z. Leiman:
Some well-meaning Orthodox defenders of the faith delight in repeating the canard that through the heroic efforts of Rabbis David Hoffman and Hayyim Heller, the death knell was sounded for the documentary hypothesis decades ago--and it need no longer be taken seriously. Nothing could be further from the truth.
(Response to Rabbi Breuer by Shnayer Z. Leiman in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations)

Since Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis isn't dead and has not been definitively rebutted, despite what we might wish, I plan to post more about it*; on problems with it and problems without it. After all, I didn't plow through the Prolegomena because it was fun, believe me.

*probably in my post on the 8th of the Rambam's principles)

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