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There is a Q in Gilead: Applying the Documentary Hypothesis to Robinson

I’ve been watching Yale professor Christine Hayes’ lectures from her Hebrew Bible course recently, and, while I find much to disagree with in Dr. Hayes pronouncements, I must applaud both the depth of her knowledge and the accessible way that she brings that knowledge to undergraduates (even the high-caliber undergraduates one finds at Yale). However, my recent fiction reading got my mind to churning after Hayes went to the tried-and-true multiple-sources theories behind the Torah.

Specifically, in her fourth lecture, she pointed out the several obvious duplications that seem to appear in the early chapters of Genesis. We have two names for God, two Creation accounts, two sets of instructions to Noah, and so forth. Anyone who has spent any time around scholarly Biblical studies knows that Hayes is approaching the idea of multiple sources, probably in the form of Julius Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis. Toward the end of the lecture–around 42:30–Hayes sets up her students to draw the same conclusion that she clearly has drawn.

Suppose you came across a piece of writing that you knew nothing about–just lying there on the table. You didn’t know who wrote it, when, where, how, why. Someone says to you, I want you to draw some conclusions about this writing. I want you to draw some conclusions about its authorship, and the way it was compiled or composed. And so you pick it up and start reading and you notice features like this [the repetitions]. What might you conclude?

The question here is important. Hayes–and the great majority of academic Biblical scholars–takes that innocent question, “What might you conclude?” but then treat its answer as if the question had been “What must you conclude?”

What if you encountered a body of writing, contained in two smallish volumes, just lying there on the table. You know nothing about them, but someone asks you to draw conclusions. You realize, upon reading these texts, that they relate the same basic story or at least overlap profoundly. They feature the same characters, enacting the same major events, in the same town, yet these two accounts feature very different styles. In fact, one is written in first person with the other in third.  They draw different conclusions from the same events and include very different sets of events. In fact, one of the main characters is referred to by one name in one volume and a different name in the second. Why is Reverend Ames dying in one book and yet no mention of that appears in the other? What might you conclude from all of this?

If you know the work of Marilynne Robinson, you’ll see that the situation I have outlined applies to her novels Gilead and Home. Why is the older book in first person while the later is in third? Does this suggest the existence of two authors, perhaps the G-source and the H-source? And why is the Presbyterian minister of both volumes Boughton in the mouth of Gilead‘s narrator and “father” in Home? Surely these doublets and contradictions demonstrate that these two volumes were written by different authors and then redacted into the corpus of the (probably imaginary) author Marilynne Robinson.

Or, perhaps, the documents that lie before us were written by a single author, who repeated some things, omitted some things, changed some things, and inserted stylistic differences into the work in order to achieve artistic aims. Unfortunately, most Biblical scholars are not terribly good literary scholars–or at least that has been the trend over the past few centuries. If, as Hayes points out, Spinoza called for us to read the Bible in the same way that we would read any other text, then we need to read the Bible in the same way that we would read any other text. The substitution of one set of orthodoxies for an older one is not, I hope, what Spinoza had in mind. I must say that it is is a precious irony that Edward Ames, the brother of John Ames, returns home in about 1898, a confirmed skeptic after studying theology in Gottingen, meaning that he would have been at the university when Wellhausen held court there from 1892 until 1918.

All that being said, Prof. Hayes is giving me a good bit of material to gnaw on. I look forward to enjoying the remaining twenty lectures.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Christine Hayes Isn’t All Bad – A Noble Theme linked to this post on February 26, 2013

    […] Having just criticized what I took as Yale Professor Christine Hayes’ rather uncritical acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis, I continued in her video course and experienced this terrific and nuanced explanation of Wellhausen and associated critics. […]

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