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Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament – 6

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Chapter 5 – Introduction to the Pentateuch

Childs begins his introduction to the Pentateuch with the history of the modern critical study of the Pentateuch, with the motivation that such history is indispensable for methodology and crucial for evaluating the continuing debate. He goes through the literary critical method, the form-critical method, archaeological method and finish with a postscript to the history of pentateuchal criticism. In tracing the history Childs observes that in the early part of the 20th century the opposition to biblical criticism from the established church and synagogue was almost universal, but by the middle of the century biblical criticism had been widely accepted, with opposition only from conservative groups in the periphery. Childs presents several reflections on this change of opinion, but concludes that the rise and fall of the Biblical Theology movement of the 50s and 60s has again raised the question whether the church’s relation to biblical criticism is settled, and whether “the reigning scholarly consensus” has only covered over many basic theological problems.[1]

The critical debate concerning the scope of the literary unit of Pentateuch is a continuum, whether the term Hexateuch (Gen-Jos) should replace that of Pentateuch (Wellhausen, Kuenen, Smend, Eissfeldt, von Rad), or if Deuteronomy should be separated from the first four books, forming a Tetrateuch (Noth). There is also a minority of scholars (Höscher, Schulte, Freedman) who have tried to expand the unity to include the historical books. Finally an increasing number of scholars (Fohrer, Rendtorff) favor a return to the terminology of a Pentateuch. In the debate of source criticism uncertainty regarding the criteria for determining literary strands is growing. The uncertainty becomes clear when individual sources of the Pentateuch (the Yahvist, the Elohist, and the Priestly) are discussed. Childs conclusion is that scholars have not reach an agreement regarding the classical source division, and efforts should instead be invested in establishing “a fresh consensus around a new proposal.” The last topic Childs mentions concerning the present state of the critical debate is form criticism and traditio-criticism, whose present debate (1979) regarding the Pentateuch is characterized by the dissolution of the older consensus and a search for new questions and answers (e.g. Alt, von Rad, Noth, Bright, Cross).[2]

The canonical approach to the study of the Pentateuch is described by Childs as a post-critical alternative.[3] Childs does not deny that historical critical method is useable at times, but maintains that to study the history of Hebrew literature is a different undertaking then studying the Pentateuch as canonical scriptures. The first issue that Childs establishes regarding the Pentateuch as canon is clear editorial evidence for a five divisions in the Pentateuchal material. He also sees a close inner relationship of the three middle books (Ex-Num). Regarding Genesis, the book was conceived by the final redactor as the introduction to the story of Israel, beginning with Exodus. The role of Deuteronomy is difficult to determined, but the final editor of the Pentateuch seems to have understood its role as a commentary to the preceding law. Childs’ conclusion is that Pentateuch is a purposeful whole, that established Israel’s understanding of its faith as Torah. These first five books constituted the grounds of Israel’s life under God and how the Mosaic tradition should be understood. Childs adds to this that also the promises of the land are forming the different parts of the Pentateuch into one continuous story. In sum, Childs says, “a theological force which reflects a knowledge of the whole Pentateuch has given it a final order.”[4]

Critical scholarship is virtually unanimous in denying the Mosaic authorship while conservative scholarship defends it. Childs argues however that the question of authorship has not been correctly formulated by either side because the issue has been treated apart from its canonical function. In the Pentateuch Moses’ writing activity is closely tied to the receiving the divine law of Sinai, and throughout the rest of the Old Testament the identification of the divine law with Moses’ writing is continued. There is no clear reference in the Old Testament which connects Genesis to Moses, but in Jewish tradition he became the author when the unity of the entire Pentateuch was assumed. Old Testament canon clearly assigns an important role to Moses, but still much material in the canonical Pentateuch is later than the age of Moses. The Old Testament does not explain this directly, but for Childs it seems clear that the authorship of Moses functioned from a very early period as a norm by which to test the tradition’s authority. Childs says: “The claim of Mosaic authorship therefore functioned theologically within the community to establish the continuity of the faith of successive generations with that which had once been delivered to Moses at Sinai.”[5]

[1] Childs., 112–19.
[2] Ibid., 119–27.
[3] The canonical approach as a post-critical alternative seeks to do two things: 1) To take seriously both the successes and failures in the history of scholarship, and 2) to mount a case for a very different approach to the study of the Pentateuch.
[4] Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, 127–32.

[5] Ibid., 132–35.


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