The Historicity of the Old Testament – part 1

LECTURE 1: A Short History of Liberal OT Criticism.


The Old Testament is a divine work, being the first part of God’s special revelation. Without it, it is difficult to imagine how the Israelites before the New Testament era could have ever existed. That extreme sounding statement is quite axiomatic for anyone who holds to the divine inspiration of Scripture, since without the Old Testament, the nation of Israel would have no laws, no promises, and no mandate – no “Oracles of God” as the Apostle put it. What is more, our Lord Himself would have no lineage of note. Neither could His teachings and claims be based upon a settled canon of Hebrew Scriptures. There would be no creation account; no record of the fall and the promise of redemption; no Abrahamic covenant with all its multiple ramifications. Therefore, it is of the greatest importance that we hold that the divine provenance of the Old Testament is rational, and, thus, defensible.

Basically, the kinds of criticism that we shall be looking at in this study stem from man’s old nature, which wants to assert itself as the final authority. It wants to be the arbiter of truth. God’s Word must pass muster at the judgment seat of human reason if it to have any binding authority. Then, after it has passed man’s tests, it will be assigned its place and given a degree of authority (if any) accordingly. The main thing, though, is that the unaided, unsanctified reason of the natural man is to judge the merits of Divine Truth. At the forefront of this “carnal ratification process” are the liberal critics

In this lecture I want first to trace the history of this Old Testament criticism, at least down to the recent past. What I want to do is to look at some of the more outstanding critics and their criticisms of the Old Testament. We shall start with the second century pagan Celsus and proceed right up till the beginning of the 1970’s. From about that time there has come about an important shift in the critical approach that calls for its own treatment in the second lecture. The present situation, which is far more radical, cannot truly be understood without the background of this first study. The final lecture will show that all the doubts cast by the critics are the products of their own minds.

Major Critics of the Old Testament:

Celsus (d. c. 180)

Celsus was a Platonist who wrote against both Christianity and Judaism, launching attacks against both Testaments. Very little is known about him, and, in fact, what we do know comes from Origen, who wrote Contra Celsus (c. 249), a reply to Celsus’s work, about 70 years after the former book was written (that is, c.178). The original work of Celsus was entitled The True Discourse (or, Word). He seems to have been ignorant of the history and religion of the Jews, but aimed his barbs at the Jewish institutions, which he caricatured. In fact, says Harrison, “His entire approach was derogatory, and to him belongs the dubious distinction of assembling most of the arguments which have been leveled against Christianity and the Bible by subsequent generations of rationalists, atheists, and agnostics.” Celsus did not reject the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.

Porphyry (c. 234-c. 305).

This man was a student under the famous Roman Neo-Platonist philosopher, Plotinus. He was religious by disposition but believed that the contemplative life of a platonic ascetic (the kind of thing Paul warns the Colossians about, though without the Jewish overtones). Like Plotinus, Porphyry set himself against Christianity, focusing much attention on what he thought were inconsistencies, particularly in the Old Testament record. He also was the first to say that Daniel must have been written in the second century BC, reasoning that since Daniel 11, for example, so accurately portrayed history; it could not have been written in the sixth century BC.

Astruc (1684-1766)

To the French physician and professor Jean Astruc belongs the origin of what would become known as Higher Criticism of the Old Testament. Astruc himself seems to have accepted Mosaic authorship of some parts of the Pentateuch, but he also saw Moses as a collector and editor of earlier traditions. Astruc himself only wrote on Genesis, but his conclusions launched critical scholarship in a direction from which it has only fairly recently veered. He noticed that the divine name Elohim was used in some parts of Genesis, whereas another name Yahweh was used for others. He made two other observations: first, that some events (e.g. Creation; the Flood) are recorded twice, indicating, to him, that the material came from separate sources. The other thing he noted was that some events were recorded apparently out of chronological sequence.
From this Astruc drew up columns into which he placed the material he had sorted. An example of what I am talking about follows:

Column A – Elohim: Gen. 1:1-2:3; 5:1-32; 6:9-22; 7:6-10, 22 etc.

Column B – Yahweh: Gen. 2:4-26; 6:1-8; 7:1-5, 11-18, 21 etc.

Column C – Repetitions in A & B minus divine names: Gen. 7:20, 23.

Column D – Events foreign to the Jews: Gen. 14:1-24; 19:29-38; 22:20-24, etc.

Column E – Unassignable verses: Gen. 7:24 (A, B, or C); Gen. 9:28, 29 (A or B).

Harrison states, “This kind of analysis seemed to [Astruc] to answer all the problems posed by the state of the text, and as a result of his researches Astruc felt confident that Moses had actually compiled Genesis on the basis of these…columns, which later copyists had edited and rearranged.”

Eichhorn (1752-1857)

Johann Gottfried Eichhorn was a professor of Semitic languages and then of philosophy at the German universities of Jena and Gottingen. He followed Astruc in his division of material on the basis of the divine names, but he added to this a criterion that examined literary style and word-use. Eichhorn was a child of the Enlightenment, but a rather conservative one. He did not like the doctrine of inspiration, and thought he saw nationalistic tendencies in the Old Testament, which he could not reconcile with what he imagined a divinely inspired writings to be. His three-volume introduction to the Old Testament “commenced the long series of modern introductions.”

German Higher Criticism.

Eichhorn has been called the “father of Old Testament criticism.” After him came a welter of German critics who would add their own arguments to bolster and refine Eichhorn. De Wette (1780-1849) was the first man to assert that the book of Deuteronomy (or at least it’s “original legal nucleus”) was the “book of the Law” discovered at the time of Josiah in 2 Kings 22 (c.621 BC). Ewald (1803-1875) suggested a “supplementary hypothesis” whereby the unknown compiler of the Elohistic source “incorporated into it older sections, e.g. the Decalogue and the Book of the Covenant.” Someone who employed the name Yahweh for God carried out this same kind of process later. Then another still later editor brought the two together along with his own document.

A major “advance” came in the work of Hermann Hupfeld (1796-1866), who, going back to the work of Eichhorn and others, thought he saw in the Elohist document a concern for priestly matters. Thus, he labeled this source P (Priestly source). Another Elohist was thought to have been responsible for the elohistic material from Genesis 20 on. To this document Hupfeld gave the letter E. Thus, Hupfeld’s scheme for what came to be known as “The New Documentary Hypothesis” was:

P – Priestly document/editor who used the name Elohim: 11th century BC

J – The Yahwist editor: 9th Century BC

E – The “second Elohist”: 8th century BC

D – The “Deuteronomist” (the author of Deuteronomy): 7th Century BC

These four sources were combined by a redactor (“R”); probably the “Deuteronomist.”

The names of Karl Graf (1815-1869) and Wilhelm Vatke (1806-1882) ought to be mentioned as furthering the critical consensus. Graf relegated the priestly source P down the order to the latest date. He thought that the Deuteronomist D was less advanced in his cultic references than P. Graf also argued, “that the references to the tabernacle in P were merely fictional. The tabernacle itself never existed; the detailed descriptions of it were based on the temple of the post-exilic period.” Vatke’s contribution was to align the Documentary Hypothesis with Hegel’s philosophy of history. As T. D. Alexander puts it:

“Vatke argued that there were three distinctive stages in the development of Israelite religion which could be aligned with the Pentateuchal sources. The earliest phase, as witnessed in JE, was a religion that emphasized nature/fertility. The next stage of religious development, as reflected in D, centred on the spiritual and ethical ideas associated with the eighth-century prophets. Eventually, there evolved out of these a conception of religion that was legalistic in outlook, emphasizing the importance of cultic rituals involving priests and sacrifices.

Wellhausen (1844-1918)

This brings us to Julius Wellhausen. It is Wellhausen who brought the Documentary Hypothesis to its most compelling and persuasive status. He had studied under Ewald, but credited Graf and Vatke as his major influences. He was a brilliant scholar, and a penetrating critic. Harrison states that, “he occupied a position in the field of Old Testament criticism analogous to that of Darwin in the area of biological science.” From Vatke he adopted the evolutionary philosophy of history of the idealist, G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831). This he wedded to the newly emergent Darwinianism of his day. In 1878 he published his conclusions in German, the English edition coming out seven years later entitled, Prolegomena to the History of Israel.

What Wellhausen did so persuasively was to demonstrate the complexity of the hypothesis along redaction-critical lines. The four main sources (J, E, D, P) underwent a number of editorial mutations. What he did not do so well was to extricate himself from his Faculty office and try to understand the ancients on their own terms. In fact, he treated his own theory as his darling, so that he would rather hurl abuse at orientalists than accept any conflicting data from that quarter. One modern-day authority observes:

“Not only did Wellhausen (like his peers) work in a cultural vacuum – that is how he wanted it to be, undisturbed by inconvenient facts from the (ancient) outside world. He resented being pointed toward high-antiquity data from Egypt and Mesopotamia, and damned their practitioners for it… Clearly, he resented any outside impact that might threaten his beloved theses on the supposed development of Israelite religion and history. And that attitude, one can detect in his equally resistant disciples today.”

Hamilton describes Wellhausen’s theses of “four literary strands” as follows:

1. The Yahwist (J) (850 BC – Wellhausen; 960-930 BC – post-Wellhaussen scholars), written anonymously in Judah during the reign of Solomon. The source traces Israel’s history from its patriarchal beginnings to its preparation for entry into Canaan; narratives from prepatriarchal times [e.g. Gen. 1-11] were added at some point. It may have functioned as the national epic for the Davidic/Solomonic kingdom.

2. The Elohist (E) (850 BC), also written anonymously in northern Israel, shortly after the collapse of the united monarchy. It covers substantially the same period of Israel’s history as J, but it starts with the patriarchs and not with creation.

3. Deuteronomy (D), written during the Josianic reform (c. 620 BC), but perhaps as old as E, and originally from northern Israel.

4. The Priestly Writer (P) (550-450 BC), heavily concerned with chronological, liturgical, and genealogical matters. Wellhausen’s major innovation here was to shift the Priestly code from the earliest document to the latest document, written sometime after the Babylonian exile. Unlike J and E, P is not concerned with presenting history as such, but with establishing the basis of Israel’s sacral institutions through their connection with history. Thus, the Creation story provides the reason for the Sabbath’s institution (Gen. 1), and the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17) establishes the reason for circumcision.

The so-called Graf-Wellhausen theory gained widespread approval throughout Europe, and made decisive inroads in North America. Alexander states that, “Indeed, the influence of the new hypothesis was such that by the year 1890 the views of Graf, Vatke and Wellhausen gained almost universal acceptance in the world of biblical scholarship.” In fact, Wellhausen’s work on the Old Testament was employed on the study of the New Testament by Johannes Weiss (1863-1914), the father of Form-criticism.

Troeltsch (1865-1923)

Including the name of Ernst Troeltsch in an overview of Old Testament scholarship might seem out of place, but Troeltsch’s theories of history were very influential and are important to understand. Famous for his book The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches (2 volumes), he was in large part responsible for introducing sociological studies into Biblical studies. He regarded all religions as sociological phenomena, and, as such, a human invention, characterizing the highest expression of human spirit. Thus, he was also a key player in the comparative religions school. Troeltsch’s “principle of analogy,” whereby the past was to be interpreted by our present experience (in general terms), “has been central to much historical endeavor since the nineteenth century.” Troeltsch divided historical study into ‘historical’ and ‘dogmatic’. “The historical method, which Troeltsch considered to be the only intellectually respectable option, treats the rise of Christianity merely as a cultural phenomenon. Just because it is a cultural phenomenon and is open, therefore, to historical investigation, Troeltsch supposes that God cannot be involved.”

Noth (1902-1968)

Martin Noth was an influential Old Testament scholar and Bible commentator who was a disciple of Albrecht Alt (1883-1956), a man who thought that there were not individuals of a family-lineage by the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but that these three names stood for three distinct peoples or tribes from whom the Israelite nation came into being. Each tribal group,

“had its own traditions about its particular ancestor and the god he worshiped. As these tribes settled in Canaan, their gods became identified with the shrines of local deities (the god of Isaac, for example, became identified with the shrine of Beersheba). Eventually these groups melded and merged their traditions in a fictitious genealogy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Noth’s major contribution included basing his view of Israel’s formation upon the kind of tribal leagues (amphictyonies) of ancient Greece. He utilized “the sociological theories of Max Weber,” as well as depending heavily on Form criticism. He used the oral traditions of other cultures (e.g. Icelandic sagas) to propound his theories.

Albright (1891-1971)

W. F. Albright was a world famous orientalist and archaeologist from the University of Chicago. Albright and his disciple John Bright (d. 1995) founded a school of Old Testament scholarship often called the “American Biblical Archaeology/theology School.” Albright had much more faith in the Biblical text than his German contemporaries, but he still believed that archaeology ought to be used, not only to vindicate the text, but to correct it too. He invented the so-called “Conquest model” wherein he placed the conquest of Canaan following the Exodus in the 13th century BC (instead of the traditional 15th century date).

Mendenhall (present)

The last name we look at in this section is that of George E. Mendenhall. In truth we could place Mendenhall in the next category, but we have decided to include him here because he acts as a kind of bridge to the revisionist critics of the present day. Mendenhall did some good work (along with conservatives like Meredith Kline and K. A. Kitchen) on identifying the book of Deuteronomy as a Suzerain-Vassal Treaty form known in some ancient cultures of the Near East. But his major contribution to the present debate was to propose that, in fact, there was no conquest of Israel at all! Thus, according to Mendenhall, “Israel” was formed out of indigenous tribes (probably peasants) who revolted against the Canaanite city-states.

The Conservative Response.

In replying to all of the above we can only provide a sketch of the kinds of counter-arguments, which have (or ought to have) dispatched what the liberal critics from Celsus to Mendenhall have adduced.

· As far as the trait of differing divine names in different sections of the Pentateuch (or Hexateuch ) is concerned, it has now been established that such a feature is not only common in contemporaneous ancient literature, but that it is theologically important to the work as a whole. The divine names mean something and are not there due to compounded editorial redacting. In fact, much of the text has been misunderstood by critical scholars.

· Studies in the use of parallelism and repetition (e.g. Creation; the Flood), “is a trademark of ancient narrative technique. The same can be said for many other stylistic variations in the Hebrew text.

· The use of oral traditions from different societies by Noth, Von Rad and others has been debunked. Garrett comments that these analogies “are frequently misapplied, inappropriate, or based on out-of-date research in folk studies.”

· The work of top-notch linguistic scholar Cyrus H. Gordon on showed that it was out of place for critics to use “ a critical methodology which was out of harmony with the observed facts of the ancient Near Eastern Sitz im Leben [life situation].”

· Gordon also argued cogently that there existed a large amount of existing documentation for the Pentateuch and the rest of the Old Testament, and that, therefore, there was no need to posit a gradual (evolutionary) accumulation of legends and myths like Wellhausen thought.

· Albright’s “Conquest model” runs foul of the details of the Biblical text, whichever date one proposes. As Merrill puts it, “A careful study reveals that during the conquest only three Canaanite cities actually suffered the full extent of herem, that is, were physically destroyed.”

· Finally, Mendenhall’s non-conquest “peasant revolt” model suffers from a lack of corroborating evidence. Although it has been abandoned by today’s liberal critics, his work is influential because of his insistence that the Biblical record does not supply the sort of information a historian needs to do his job – an opinion we shall be looking into later; and that ancient Israelite history must be examined by general economic, sociological, and political features, not the types of specific narratives found in the Bible. It is this sort of approach that will demand our attention in the next lecture.


In conclusion the most telling thing that can be said is that, notwithstanding all the scholarly ingenuity that has been displayed by the liberal critics, the fact of the matter is that they have had to constantly revise their findings to fit the evidence, whether linguistic, stylistic, scientific, or archaeological. This has produced the crisis situation in Ancient Near Eastern studies that characterizes much of the work that is done today. In the meantime, Bible believing Christians, be they regarded as, “ignorant fundamentalists” by the critics, have not needed to budge from the pages of Scripture to find the real truth of the history of ancient Israel.

One comment

  1. This is good work, I have met Veritas in Malawi where I am Director of TEEM and in my opinion you are doing sound hermeneutics and exegesis. Stay close to Scripture whatever critics may say. We are all more or less led and driven by the philosophy of our time. We need not escape from that. But when we stay close to Scripture we will have little to retract later on.
    God bless,

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