Quelle is the German word for source and is used as a technical term by scholars who advocate source criticism. This approach to biblical texts was introduced briefly in an earlier post and the basic idea is a simple one. Its implications however are far from simple and raise a lot of questions. Source criticism assumes that behind many of the Hebrew Bible’s books there are previous documents or sources. This is neither controversial nor even surprising. Many biblical books even refer to their sources as we shall see in the next post. What can be more complex, and sometimes controversial, is the quest to recover these sources and what might be done with the results of such an exercise. In the Hebrew Bible the most famous example of source criticism is that applied to the torah/Pentateuch.
It was Julius Wellhausen (1844‒1918) who provided the first detailed hypothesis about the textual origins of the Pentateuch. He suggested that there had been four separate sources, or documents, which all originated centuries after the time of Moses, hence it became known as the documentary hypothesis. This is the first complication of source criticism: it challenges traditional views of authorship. The four-document hypothesis came to be generally accepted in the early twentieth century although like all scholarly proposals of this nature there are many rival variations on the theme. In its classic expression the four hypothesised sources were designated:
- J—a document which names God as Yahweh. The German for Yahweh is Jahweh hence the use of the letter J.
- E—a document which refers to God as Elohim.
- D—for essentially the book of Deuteronomy.
- P—for a document with a priestly outlook.
These four hypothesised documents were said to date from the mid-9th century BCE, mid-8th century BCE, mid-7th century BCE and around 500 BCE respectively. Despite its original popularity this model is no longer the consensus view. This is not to say that the idea of sources is wrong. Rather it is recognised that the use of sources and the subsequent editing processes will never be reliably recovered. To complicate matters further some of the features of the Hebrew Bible which were said to provide evidence supporting the fourfold documentary approach are quite possibly literary devices. For example the two accounts of creation are said by some source critics to be contradictory accounts. It is possible however that there is a deliberate theological point behind the two accounts—they are designed to be complementary since one conveys the story of creation from a transcendent perspective (1:1‒2:3) and the other from an immanent one (2:4‒25).
Robert Alter in his brilliant book The Art of Biblical Narrative  looks at type scenes and explores how similar events in a book are actually a reflection of literary artistry rather than an indication of a patchwork quilt of sources. He uses the conventions of Hollywood Westerns as a masterful illustration of how conventions can be misunderstood. In this way he shows just how wide of the mark some biblical source criticism is. His concerns it should be noted are not whether the events are true but simply squashing the hegemony of sources as the explanation of similar stories and narrative motifs.
From a stance of faith there is no sense in awaiting a final outcome of such critical work as this will never arrive. Instead the question must be faced: given that there are some complex editing processes and source texts behind the Pentateuch (as well as other parts of the Hebrew Bible), does this invalidate the possibility that we have Scripture, i.e. an authoritative religious text? If the Pentateuch is understood as Scripture, then even if some original texts could be recovered what would be done with them?
Reference / Further Reading
- Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, New York: Basic Books, 1981.