Preferring P. J. Wiseman to un-wise JEDP



 Damien F. Mackey


The JEDP documentists were right to claim that the Book of Genesis was compiled from a variety of sources and documents. But they were wrong regarding the nature of these sources.  



“Genesis was in fact the history of the great pre-Mosaïc patriarchs”.



Air Commodore P. J. Wiseman, a British officer who had visited many active archaeological sites during his career in the Middle East, subsequently wrote the highly important document, New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis (Marshall, Morgan and Scott, London, 1946). The great contribution of Wiseman to the subject of the literary composition of the Book of Genesis was that he was able to identify the very sources (or documents) of which Genesis is actually composed. Whereas the JEDP documentists had recognized that there were literary layers here and there – and invented or exaggerated others – the clear-minded and aptly-named Wiseman positively identified the Genesis sources from his first-hand experience of cuneiform documents.

Though himself an amateur (his son, D. J., would go on to become a foremost Assyriologist), P. J. Wiseman discerned what no one else had. He had the privilege of being in situ at times during Sir Leonard Woolley’s excavations at Ur and Professor S. Langdon’s work at Kish and Jemdet Nasr.

Though P. J. Wiseman himself could not actually read the cuneiform tablets being unearthed in their thousands by these legends of archaeology, he nonetheless took a vital interest in all that was going on and was able to cross check his own ideas with these experts.

Wiseman came to learn that the ancient scribes often added to a written series of tablets:

(i) a colophon indicating the writer and/or owner of the tablet, sometimes including a date.

He also learned of other literary devices, such as

(ii) catch-lines, used to link a series of tablets, and

(ii) parallelism between one tablet and another.

  1. J. Wiseman would come to the firm conclusion that the Book of Genesis itself gave clear evidence of its having been written on tablets according to the most ancient scribal methods, with 11 colophon divisions (the very key to the structure of the book, see his ch. V), also catch-lines and, in places, parallelism. {I. Kikawada and A. Quinn, in Before Abraham Was: The Unity of Genesis 1-11, ch. III, have also pointed to parallelism – adding to that chiastic structure that Wiseman does not address – to explain the complexities of Genesis 1, though they have completely missed out on the Wisemanian notion that this is evidence for ancient tablets.}

Wiseman concluded that the sources that comprised Genesis were determinable from the names featured in the colophon divisions (like signatures at the end of each section), basically the names of the biblical patriarchs from Adam to Jacob; that these were ‘family histories’ (Hebrew, toledôt). Genesis was in fact the history of the great pre-Mosaïc patriarchs. Moses was the compiler or editor of this, his family history collection going right back to antediluvian antiquity.

Wiseman did what many who approach a literary study of the Bible fail to do, including the documentists and even the astute Kikawada and Quinn. He read (with expert help) the entire Book of Genesis from the point of view of an ancient scribe, not from a modern Western point of view. And that is why he was so successful in unravelling the structure of the book and writing an even more compelling argument for literary unity in Genesis than Kikawada and Quinn could possibly have hoped to achieve.

P.J. Wiseman, being an amateur, could easily be dismissed by critics for that reason. His brilliant son, Assyriologist Donald (D. J.), did edit, and wrote the Foreword to, Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis, a single volume presentation of his late father’s study, New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis.

“Ancient Records …” was published as D. J. wrote: “In response to a growing number of requests …”. Perhaps D. J. thought that his father had done so complete a job and that there was no necessity for him to try to improve upon it, except for some minor editing.

What was P. J. Wiseman’s special insight?

All of a sudden he, having been an eye-witness to the birth of the ‘new science’ (archaeology) that would sweep away the very foundations of the documentary theory, can point to the documents that comprise Genesis and say who owned (or perhaps wrote) them. He could say, for instance, that this part of Genesis was Adam’s history, or that this one was Noah’s, and that this belonged to the three sons of Noah, recording their eye-witness account of the Great Flood.

Wait a minute, did I just say that one of the toledôt ‘family histories’ belonged to 3 persons? Even to 3 persons who had eye-witnessed the Flood?

But isn’t this exactly where the documentary theory first began, when the French physician Jean Astruc (late C18th) thought that he had discerned multiple versions of the Flood in Genesis?

Here is what biblical expert R. K. Harrison, himself a great promoter of P. J. Wiseman’s toledôt theory, has had to say about Astruc, and how close to the truth of the matter the Frenchman came (Preface to Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis):

Only in the seventeenth century did serious questions begin to be raised about the composition of Genesis, and even these dealt with source criticism rather than with the author himself. Thus Jean Astruc (1684-1766) published an anonymous work which maintained that the material in Genesis had been transmitted either in written or oral form up to the time of Moses, and that he organized these ancient sources by making a chronological narrative out of them.

Astruc was probably much closer to the truth of the matter than he realized. Had he been in possession of information that has since come to light, he could well have performed a valuable service to the scholarly community and others in isolating or characterizing the underlying literary sources of Genesis. But having no option save to speculate, he marred his observations from the beginning by speaking of “duplicate narratives” of the Creation and the Flood in Genesis.

Even a casual observation of the material involved shows that the sections are not in fact duplicates, but constitute passages in which the longer accounts represent expansions of summary statements, as for example in connection with the creation of humanity (Gen. 1:27 and 2:7-23).

While Harrison may well be right in his last comment, I think that his rejection of any notion of “duplicate narratives” in the Flood account is unrealistic. Astruc was, I believe, perfectly correct in this regard, since the account of the Flood was probably co-written by Noah’s 3 sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth (one could even add Noah’s partial account to make 4).

On the basis of Wiseman, the Flood narrative was not therefore written, as the documentists would claim, by un-connected writers scattered down through the centuries, one writer tending to prefer to use Elohim for God, hence the E document, exhibiting less familiarity with God than another who used Jehovah (in German), hence the J document. No they were written all at once, contemporaneously, by perhaps the three sons of Noah (though the general consensus, as we shall see, seems to be 2, not 3, distinct narratives here).

This, the case of the Flood narrative in Genesis, being the beginning of JEDP theory, gives us a perfect view of how right the documentists could actually be (recognizing sources involved), whilst yet – at the same time – being pitifully wrong (positing various post-Mosaïc sources).

Now here, in regard to the Flood narrative at least, is where the documentary scrutinisers may have provided a real service. Their analytical dissection of the narrative may enable some astute scholar ultimately even to separate from the Flood narrative the individual contributions of the sons of Noah (be they 2 or 3 as regards actual contribution).

But that may not be all.

Since another very useful possible contribution of the documentary theory, this time specifically in regard to Moses’s editing hand in Genesis, may perhaps be discerned in the writings of E. Speiser, I shall persevere a bit longer with Kikawada’s and Quinn’s account of the late source theory – still in connection with the Flood story in Genesis 6-10 – including how cleverly they thought JEDP theorist Julius Wellhausen had manipulated this narrative to his own seeming advantage. This biblical narrative certainly indicates a degree of duplication:

The narrator of [the story of Noah and the Flood] moves easily back and forth from Elohim to Yahweh, from an imminently anthropomorphic God to a supremely transcendent lawgiver, from formulaic expression to human drama. All the contrasts found earlier between separate sections are here together in a single story of considerable charm and power. The documentary hypothesis drowns in the flood – or so it seems.

Actually, the documentary hypothesis had its own Noah, and his name was Wellhausen. Perhaps Wellhausen’s greatest achievement was to show how the Noah story could be transformed from a decisive defeat into a decisive triumph for the documentary hypothesis.

  1. A. Speiser summarizes how this transformation was achieved in his own much praised 1964 commentary on Genesis: “The received biblical account of the Flood is beyond reasonable doubt a composite narrative …. Here the two strands have become intertwined, the end result being a skilful and intricate patchwork. Nevertheless – and this is indicative of the great reverence with which the components were handled – the underlying versions, though cut up and rearranged, were not altered in themselves”.

Firstly, here is Kikawada’s and Quinn’s impression of Speiser’s explanation [p. 22]:

The last sentence of this quotation is the key to why the documentary arrangement at this point is not circular. The claim is that the two flood accounts, although patched together, have been each kept intact. Hence each account can be almost completely recovered from the received text, and each of these will have a greater unity and coherence than the story as a whole. The claim is clear and germane – and the concrete textual argument in its favor is utterly stunning.

Important Comment: Speiser’s observation here, that so impressed Kikawada and Quinn, may actually provide us with a very good guide as to the degree of involvement of Moses in the editing of Genesis (significantly more than I had previously estimated), with a fair bit of cutting and pasting of the original that he had before him, to achieve his own literary creation, but without however altering the underlying texts out of “the great reverence” that he held for them.

The interested reader can look up for him/herself the painstaking comparisons that Kikawada and Quinn now have to undertake between the Priestly (E) and Yahwist (J) accounts of the Flood, beginning on their p. 24, and how cleverly the documentists have managed to ‘secure’ these in favour of their own theses (especially p. 30). Surprisingly, after all of this, Kikawada and Quinn will not themselves make their own critical analysis of these documents, saying that this has already been done by a new generation of scholars.

Fair enough.

But Kikawada and Quinn will later use these very same texts to show that they actually comprise a unity, not only within themselves, but in the context of Genesis as a whole. Here in brief, is their reference to this new generation of documentist refuters, thereby excusing themselves from what they would regard as further, unnecessary literary toil:

Indeed, to tell the truth, we are not going to attempt an original analysis of the Noah story. Over the past decade the Wellhausen interpretation of Noah has been systematically dismantled by younger scholars. There have been at least a half a dozen important contributions here. Typical of these critiques is the one made (almost by the way) in F. I. Andersen’s The Sentence in Biblical Hebrew.

Sentences used in the present chapter cut across passages generally assigned to ‘J’ and ‘P’ documents…. This means that if the documentary hypothesis is valid, some editor has put together scraps of parallel versions of the same story with scissors and paste, and yet has achieved a result which from the point of view of discourse grammar, looks as if it had been made out of whole cloth.

What Andersen has done from his own grammatical specialty, others have done from theirs. Objections to a unitary reading of Noah have, one after another, been explained, and objections to a documentary reading – apparently unanswerable objections – have been, one after another, raised.

Again the authors may be, at least here in regard to the Flood narrative – and due to their application of modern literary techniques, whilst apparently lacking any familiarity whatsoever with ancient scribal methods (Wiseman) – actually underestimating the insights of documentists like Speiser, whose view they now dismiss, though still tactfully, as outdated:

Speiser was accurately representing the situation when, in 1964, he wrote that the documentary interpretation of Noah was established beyond doubt, much as Gilbert Murray was accurate in 1934 when he said that no competent scholar believed Homer the single author of The Iliad. The wheel has now come full circle in Homer. And anyone who has examined recent studies of Noah will find it hard not to conclude that it is coming full circle here as well. (It is a measure of the strength of the documentary consensus that these specific studies have not been used to challenge the hypothesis in general).

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