Dating Pentateuchal Texts

Benjamin Sommer has shared with me an excellent article of his recently published, “Dating Pentateuchal Texts and the Perils of Pseudo-Historicism,” (The Pentateuch: International Perspectives on Current Research, edited by Thomas B. Dozeman, Konrad Schmid, and Baruch J. Schwartz. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 78 [Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011], 85-108). He has made the article available online, and it can be accessed along with other articles he has written.

Sommer, a distinguished scholar of the Hebrew Bible, has established a solid reputation of critical reflection on interpretive methodologies and sensitivity to theological interpretation, in particular Jewish theology (though Christians have as much to learn from him as Jews—and he is often gracious to point out where he has learned from Christians). Both of these traits are evident in this important article that investigates what is fundamentally wrong with how many scholars date biblical texts and with the significance they attach to these dating schemes. Sommer summarizes this (flawed) approach as follows:

A scholar ascertains the themes of a passage, then thinks about when that theme would be relevant, crucial, or meaningful to ancient Israelites, then dates the text to that time period. (85)

First, Sommer points out the mistake of scholars who too narrowly associate meaning and dating. He writes, “It is always possible that an author at one period came up with ideas that turned out to be peculiarly relevant at another period” (85). One cannot conclude on the basis of the relevance of a particular text to a particular period of time the historical provenance of that text. This picks up a point he makes from his recent book, and he again takes up the situation of Israel’s exile to illustrate his point:

the view according to which we must date Israelite texts that regard God as distant to some point after the catastrophe of 586 BCE is simply preposterous from the point of view of the history of religions. Israelites did not need to experience the disaster that took place in the summer of 586 to know that God can be exceedingly distant; no doubt, various Israelites in every generation had had manifold occasions to become aware of this fact. The insistence that this theology relates to the exile obscures the timeless nature of the religious dilemma at hand. (91)

And this is just the beginning of an excellent analysis of the motif of exile in the Hebrew Bible.

Second, Sommer observes that “even if a text’s ideas do somehow correspond to the date of its composition,” there is no control by which to determine whether this is “through a logic of presence . . . a text’s ideology reflects its setting positively, or through a logic of absence . . . a text’s author yearns for what is missing.”  He rightly maintains that, “In fact, both types of reasoning are possible – and consequently reasoning of this sort ends up providing no data that is usable for dating a text” (101). These two observations may seem simple and obvious, but they are often overlooked and Sommer’s argument is anything but simplistic. It is well documented and worth attending to in full.

This critical discussion about the dating of texts leads Sommer to introduce the concept of Pseudo-Historicism and the perils it poses to the those interested in Hebrew Bible theology (pp 101-108), a point to which I will turn in my next post.


3 thoughts on “Dating Pentateuchal Texts

  1. Thanks for this, Joseph. I am trying to do some “free writing” about “author’s intent” and the ways in which we extract our claims about the author from texts and from what we know of their contexts. Sometimes a scholar will go so far as to emend the text on the basis that “no writer from this context would say what is preserved in the MT” or similar. Sommer’s observation about ideas “out of time” is an important one.

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