The Underbelly of Pentateuchal Research

So, lots of people ask me what it is that I actually do all the time. I figured this would be a good enough venue to write about that a bit and provide some concrete examples of what is up.

My life currently consists of the following elements: 1) limited social engagements (to my friends in Erlangen: “Servus!”); 2) researching the redactional history of the Pentateuch; 3) compiling a research project covering the text history of the dodekapropheton; 4) studying for my PhD oral exams (rapidly approaching on May 30, 2011); and 5) watching Scrubs and a variety of films on DVD.

Most people can probably associate something with numbers 1, 4 and 5, but perhaps not as much with 2 and 3, so I’ll offer a little bit more about them.

To 2): This is part of a research project that I am working on with the University of Essen under the tutelage of Professor Dr. Aaron Schart in combination with the Universities of Bochum (Professor Dr. Christian Frevel) and Dortmund (Professor Dr. Thomas Pola). What are we researching? The redaction history of the Pentateuch, most especially as it relates to the book of Numbers. Now that sentence probably requires a little explanation. I don’t know who’s reading this, but I’ll assume that not everyone is familiar with these terms. What is the Pentateuch? Rather than send you to Wikipedia to look it up, I’ll tell you that the term “Pentateuch” refers to the first five books of the Bible (whether in the Jewish or Christian canon), commonly called the Torah in the Jewish canon and traditionally associated with Moses, i.e. until about the 18th century most, but certainly not all, people generally accepted the precept that Moses wrote these five books. Even in antiquity Jewish scholars began to have some problems with this notion, as Deuteronomy 34 describes Moses’ death, and someone writing about his or her own death and burial is, as far as I know, still unknown from any historical personage. At any rate, the name Pentateuch comes from the combination of two Greek words, πεντα and τευχος, meaning “five” and “book” respectively. Thus, the namely Pentateuch means “Fiver-Book” because of its division into five parts, commonly known in English by the names Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Regarding the Pentateuch, we are focusing on redaction history. What that references is the way that the Pentateuch developed. Contrary to the opinion of some, the evidence strongly suggests that the Bible did not fall from the sky in its current form, but grew over a process of centuries into the amazing example of theological discourse spanning hundreds (if not thousands) of years that we find before us today. In the late pre-Modern period, people – not all of them theologians – began to notice tensions within the text of the Pentateuch which led them to postulate a variety of sources and redactional levels in the text. By redactional material, we generally refer to portions of the text added by an editor and not coming from source material. A general concensus began to develop over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries about what material came from which source, how the sources were chronologically related to one another, when they were added together, and what material came from the person(s) responsible for that textual editing. During the later twentieth century, especially in the last third, this consensus collapsed, especially in the continental European context. Now there are a variety of theories running the gamut from total atomization of the text (i.e. it is next to impossible to discern how many people took part in the writing and composing over how many centuries) to the text coming largely from a single author or a few authors, composing at a very late period. This research project hopes to tackle the problem in a new way, setting the book of Numbers as our starting point.

Why the book of Numbers? Well, the problem with Numbers is that it doesn’t really fit well into anybody’s theory. Numbers is a disparate work with material from a variety of genres and sometimes really barely seems to make sense (though loads of these problems have been removed from translations into English). This problem has led some to conclude that Numbers became kind of a catch all for the rest of the material that people wanted to put into the Torah and didn’t know where else to do it. I disagree with this opinion because I find it largely a cop-out and a devaluation of the traditions in the book. What I am not sure of is what theory better explains the circumstances, and thus, it’s appropriate that I take part in a research project researching this matter. If you take one thing from this blog entry though, it should be the impetus to sit down and read Numbers; there is some crazy stuff going on in that book.

To 3): What in the world is a “Dodekapropheton”? Well, we only have one of them, at least as far as I have ever discovered. It refers to the book of the Twelve Prophets, also known as the Twelve Minor Prophets. In the Christian canon they are the last books of the Old Testament, whereas in the Jewish canon, they conclude the prophetic materials and precede the Writings. These poor prophets are not called minor because they lack import – Amos and Hosea are my personal favorites – but rather because the books are vastly shorter than those of some of their prophetic colleagues, namely Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. If you have any background in the Christian or Jewish tradition, you have most likely heard of these three. (At least growing up in the United States, you should know the name Isaiah from Isaiah Thomas, Jeremiah the bullfrog, and Ezekiel from Weird Al) The other prophets are the ones that many, or most, have never heard of. Like if I were to tell you that there is a prophet in the Bible named Habakkuk, you probably wouldn’t believe me, but you know what, he’s in there, just like Obadiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and some other fun names. Look it up.

The Twelve Minor Prophets have been considered to be a single book since antiquity. Evidence from Qumran suggests that, at the latest, the Twelve were regarded as one book in the century before the Common Era. The name Dodekapropheton, like Pentateuch, comes from two Greek words: δωδεκα, which of course all of my D&D friends will recognize as meaning “twelve” (as in dodekahedron, as in being shaped like a 12-sided die [oh yeah, now I finally understand that Weezer lyric]) and, well, I imagine you can figure out the rest. It means Prophet (or better Prophet-Book).

Rather than focus on the redaction history of the Book of the Twelve, this project focuses on the textual history. As I mentioned before, the Bible didn’t fall from the sky in its current form – and even if it had, we have the problem that tons of people starting copying and translating it so that no two manuscripts are identical. That presents a problem, namely what is “The” Bible. This project tries to get behind some of that and see who is copying what, when, and where. Where there are differences in the text – and there are differences in the text, even though more often than not, they are minor – these differences should be explained. Was it a scribal error? Was there another version of the text being copied or translated? Did the scribe copying or translating change the text? Why? Can specific linguistic or ideological profiles be established for the people doing this work? This is the kind of stuff that I do.

So, that’s a little bit of behind the scenes. I hope to write more about the specifics of my work in the future and bring in some of the academic dialogue running in the background. Maybe you’ll find it as interesting as I do.

Leave a comment


  1. Nice.


  2. Bernd Robker

     /  20/08/2011

    Hi Jonathan,
    was just searching my family name (Robker) on the internet and found your space. As I live in Cologne, we seem to live quite close distance (actually, I travel past Wuppertal every 2 weeks or so).
    I hope everything went well with your PhD?
    Best regards,


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