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Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel

Julius Wellhausen

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Tags: Christianity »Judaism

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A critical investigation into Old Testament history and the composition of the Hexateuch. Wellhausen devised a new paradigm which explained many of the apparent inconsistencies in the Biblical texts. In the process, he upset many traditionalists who didn't like the concept that the early portions of the Bible were the product of four separate authors. Or that the Levitical code was redacted into the text by the priestly class at a very late date in the evolution of the Bible.

This book has 556 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1885.

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Excerpt from 'Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel'

In the following pages it is proposed to discuss the place in history of the "law of Moses;" more precisely, the question to be considered is whether that law is the starting-point for the history of ancient Israel, or not rather for that of Judaism, i.e., of the religious communion which survived the destruction of the nation by the Assyrians and Chaldæans.

I. It is an opinion very extensively held that the great mass of the books of the Old Testament not only relate to the pre-exilic period, but date from it. According to this view, they are remnants of the literature of ancient Israel which the Jews rescued as a heritage from the past, and on which they continued to subsist in the decay of independent intellectual life. In dogmatic theology Judaism is a mere empty chasm over which one springs from the Old Testament to the New; and even where this estimate is modified, the belief still prevails in a general way that the Judaism which received the books of Scripture into the canon had, as a rule, nothing to do with their production. But the exceptions to this principle which are conceded as regards the second and third divisions of the Hebrew canon cannot be called so very slight. Of the Hagiographa, by far the larger portion is demonstrably post-exilic, and no part demonstrably older than the exile. Daniel comes as far down as the Maccabæan wars, and Esther is perhaps even later. Of the prophetical literature a very appreciable fraction is later than the fall of the Hebrew kingdom; and the associated historical books (the "earlier prophets" of the Hebrew canon) date, in the form in which we now possess them, from a period subsequent to the death of Jeconiah, who must have survived the year 560 B.C. for some time. Making all allowance for the older sources utilised, and to a large extent transcribed word for word, in Judges, Samuel, and Kings, we find that apart from the Pentateuch the pre-exilic portion of the Old Testament amounts in bulk to little more than the half of the entire volume. All the rest belongs to the later period, and it includes not merely the feeble after-growths of a failing vegetation, but also productions of the vigour and originality of Isa. xl.-lxvi. and Ps. lxxiii.

We come then to the Law. Here, as for most parts of the Old Testament, we have no express information as to the author and date of composition, and to get even approximately at the truth we are shut up to the use of such data as can be derived from an analysis of the contents, taken in conjunction with what we may happen to know from other sources as to the course of Israel's history. But the habit has been to assume that the historical period to be considered in this connection ends with the Babylonian exile as certainly as it begins with the exodus from Egypt. At first sight this assumption seems to be justified by the history of the canon; it was the Law that first became canonical through the influence of Ezra and Nehemiah; the Prophets became so considerably later, and the Hagiographa last of all. Now it is not unnatural, from the chronological order in which these writings were received into the canon, to proceed to an inference as to their approximate relative age, and so not only to place the Prophets before the Hagiographa, but also the five books of Moses before the Prophets. If the Prophets are for the most part older than the exile, how much more so the Law! But however trustworthy such a mode of comparison may be when applied to the middle as contrasted with the latest portion of the canon, it is not at all to be relied on when the first part is contrasted with the other two. The very idea of canonicity was originally associated with the Torah, and was only afterwards extended to the other books, which slowly and by a gradual process acquired a certain measure of the validity given to the Torah by a single public and formal act, through which it was introduced at once as the Magna Charta of the Jewish communion (Neh. viii.-x.) In their case the canonical—that is, legal—character was not intrinsic, but was only subsequently acquired; there must therefore have been some interval, and there may have been a very long one, between the date of their origin and that of their receiving public sanction. To the Law, on the other hand, the canonical character is much more essential, and serious difficulties beset the assumption that the Law of Moses came into existence at a period long before the exile, and did not attain the force of law until many centuries afterwards, and in totally different circumstances from those under which it had arisen. At least the fact that a collection claiming public recognition as an ecclesiastical book should have attained such recognition earlier than other writings which make no such claim is no proof of superior antiquity.

We cannot, then, peremptorily refuse to regard it as possible that what was the law of Judaism may also have been its product; and there are urgent reasons for taking the suggestion into very careful consideration. It may not be out of place here to refer to personal experience. In my early student days I was attracted by the stories of Saul and David, Ahab and Elijah; the discourses of Amos and Isaiah laid strong hold on me, and I read myself well into the prophetic and historical books of the Old Testament. Thanks to such aids as were accessible to me, I even considered that I understood them tolerably, but at the same time was troubled with a bad conscience, as if I were beginning with the roof instead of the foundation; for I had no thorough acquaintance with the Law, of which I was accustomed to be told that it was the basis and postulate of the whole literature. At last I took courage and made my way through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and even through Knobel's Commentary to these books. But it was in vain that I looked for the light which was to be shed from this source on the historical and prophetical books. On the contrary, my enjoyment of the latter was marred by the Law; it did not bring them any nearer me, but intruded itself uneasily, like a ghost that makes a noise indeed, but is not visible and really effects nothing. Even where there were points of contact between it and them, differences also made themselves felt, and I found it impossible to give a candid decision in favour of the priority of the Law. Dimly I began to perceive that throughout there was between them all the difference that separates two wholly distinct worlds. Yet, so far from attaining clear conceptions, I only fell into deeper confusion, which was worse confounded by the explanations of Ewald in the second volume of his History of Israel. At last, in the course of a casual visit in Göttingen in the summer of 1867, I learned through Ritschl that Karl Heinrich Graf placed the law later than the Prophets, and, almost without knowing his reasons for the hypothesis, I was prepared to accept it; I readily acknowledged to myself the possibility of understanding Hebrew antiquity without the book of the Torah.

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