Before Abraham Was:
The Unity of Genesis 1-11
Printable PDF version here
by Isaac M. Kikawada and Arthur Quinn
Reviewed by Leon J. Podles
TOUCHSTONE , Summer 1991
Medieval Catholicism was supposed to have kept the Bible locked away from the laity. Anyone familiar with medieval vernacular literature and its wide and free use of biblical stories would realize the injustice of this canard. Modern scholarship has done a far better job of effectively removing the Scriptures from the faith of the laity than any monk who ever chained a Bible. For today's ordinary reader is told by scholars that he cannot hope to begin to comprehend the meanings of biblical books without reference to the arcane knowledge of hidden sources. You see, though the biblical books may look to the uninformed eye like ordinary books, they are but patchworks of other sources, which themselves are the proper object of understanding. I refer of course to the documentary theory, which has reigned almost unchallenged in biblical criticism for a hundred years. Now, however, two scholars, Kikawada and Quinn have launched a new and intriguing attack on the presuppositions of this theory in their compact volume (only 144 pages), Before Abraham Was (originally published by Abingdon in 1985 and reissued by Ignatius Press in 1989). If such a challenge can be sustained and attract serious attention, it may do much to reopen the Scriptures to the responsible study of the ordinary intelligent reader.
In the nineteenth century geological and biological study concluded that time stretched much further back than anyone in the West (although not in the Hindu East) had ever imagined. And on this vast stage geology examined the strata of the earth and testified to unsuspected changes, in which continents had sunk and mountain ranges risen. Then Darwinism entered and attempted to show how species had originated from other species over the ages. The fascination with the evolutionary idea in history became vastly popular and affected other studies as well. Wishing to be in accord with the scientific spirit of the nineteenth century, literary critics sought to uncover the "strata" (a frequently used metaphor) in literary works to show that what the unenlightened thought were works of Moses or Homer were (frequently "only") amalgams of contradictory traditions that some ancient editor had patched together. Of course, the critics had no fossils or rocks, no data apart from the literary work itself. However, this did not stop them from dissecting works from antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Iliad and the Odyssey were thought to be patchworks of five, ten, twenty different poems. As George Steiner notes in Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays, "but though the problems [of authorship] remain, our methods of approach to them change, and the fascinating aspect is this: in each case—Homer, Christ, Shakespeare—the currents of scholarship and judgment follow the same pattern. In the late nineteenth century dismemberment was all the rage."
In the case of Beowulf, the great eighth-century Anglo-Saxon epic (a particular interest of mine), it too was subjected to similar dissection. I quote from Klaeber's comments in his standard edition of Beowulf.
"It has been the fate of Beowulf to be subjected to the theory of multiple authorship, the number of its conjectural 'makers' ranging up to six or more….Daring dissectors like Müllenhoff, Möller, ten Brink, Boer undertook to unravel in detail the ‘inner history’ of the poem, rigorously distinguishing successive stages, strata, or hands of authors and editors."
As Klaeber comments, such an enterprise was "truly, an ingeniously complicated, perplexing procedure." [However,] "there is little positive evidence to support positive claims of this sort.”
"It has been the fate of Beowulf to be subjected to the theory of multiple authorship, the number of its conjectural Medieval Catholicism was supposed to have kept the Bible locked away from the laity. Anyone familiar with medieval vernacular literature and its wide and free use of biblical stories would realize the injustice of this canard. Modern scholarship has done a far better job of effectively removing the Scriptures from the faith of the laity than any monk who ever chained a Bible. For today's ordinary reader is told by scholars that he cannot hope to begin to comprehend the meanings of biblical books without reference to the arcane knowledge of hidden sources. You see, though the biblical books may look to the uninformed eye like ordinary books, they are but patchworks of other sources, which themselves are the proper object of understanding. I refer of course to the documentary theory, which has reigned almost unchallenged in biblical criticism for a hundred years. Now, however, two scholars, Kikawada and Quinn have launched a new and intriguing attack on the presuppositions of this theory in their compact volume (only 144 pages), Before Abraham Was (originally published by Abingdon in 1985 and reissued by Ignatius Press in 1989). If such a challenge can be sustained and attract serious attention, it may do much to reopen the Scriptures to the responsible study of the ordinary intelligent reader.
After much consideration of this procedure and the realization that there was no sufficient evidence to prove it, twentieth-century critics of secular literature gradually abandoned this analytic approach. Beowulf and the Song of Roland are commonly held to be unified works; and the unity of the Iliad and the Odyssey has been increasingly upheld.
As an undergraduate English major at Providence College in the 1960s, I was told by my professors trained in the New Criticism that source criticism of the dissective variety was largely outmoded. In theology, I had the opportunity to study under Thomas Aquinas Collins, O.P. one of the editors of The Jerusalem Bible and a fellow of the Pontifical Institute of Biblical Studies. He was a strong proponent of the documentary theory of the origin of the Pentateuch. He used to recount how he taught nuns to go through their Bibles with four colors of outlining pens to mark each verse so that they could see what the Bible was really all about. I remember that as a lowly undergraduate I asked him if he knew that source criticism had been largely abandoned in the field of non-biblical literature, and had the biblical scholars considered whether it was really appropriate for the Pentateuch. My question was dismissed as arising from sheer ignorance.
So I feel vindicated to see that two scholars, one of whom is trained in the field of Near Eastern studies, the other in rhetoric, have raised the question. What is more, they have given an answer that I and many others had for some time suspected: the dissective approach of source criticism has no more validity in dealing with the Bible than with secular literature.
Briefly, the classic form of the documentary theory of the origin of the Pentateuch is that there are four sources, written or oral traditions of great authority, that were used by a final editor to compose the Pentateuch. The sources are J, the Yahwist, who used the name Yahweh to refer to God; E, the Elohist, who used the name Elohim to refer to God; P, the Priestly, who was concerned with temple matters, and D, the Deuteronomist, who was concerned with the Law. The editor(s) were supposed to have taken a "scissors and paste" approach to fitting these together—that is, they lifted lines and even half lines from each source to piece together a more or less continuous narrative. They did this because these sources were all of great authority, and the editors did not want to leave anything out. This approach is supposed to explain the repetitions and inconsistencies of Scripture, such as the two creation stories in Genesis 1:1- 2:3 and Genesis 2:4-2:25.
I might point out that one can just as well apply this approach even to shorter stories, such as "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." If the porridge was all made at the same time, obviously the father's could not be too hot, the mother's too cold, and the baby bear's just right. There were originally three stories, which we may call P, M and B, which have been edited into one story. The respect that the editor had for these ancient folk traditions of bear worship led him to preserve the inconsistency, which provides a clue for the keen eye of the critic trained in the documentary hypothesis who wishes to establish the lineaments of UrBear stories.
The question arises, what are the limits of speculation on theories of literary composition and a second question, what is the worth of such theory. It depends on how you use it. Now theologically, there is nothing inherently objectionable in the documentary theory. It can be used by eminently orthodox scholars. However the layman who reads criticism that follows this theory suspects that it can easily serve to convert Scripture into a mirror, in which each scholar darkly sees his own countenance: the pope, an orthodox theology of the relationship of man and woman; the feminist, hidden traces of female dominance and a female deity; the liberation theologian, the history of the class struggle; Harold Bloom in J, the worldview of a skeptical Jewish princess. The Scriptures become not so much a revelation of God's Word to us as means to reveal the preoccupations of the human mind that reflects on them.
Quinn and Kikawada, though not the first and surely not the last to do so, challenge the basis for the documentary theory. They see the supposed inconsistencies and repetitions not as the result of editorial carelessness, but as the result of rhetorical tactics. Indeed, they see a chiastic arrangement in Genesis and indeed in the Pentateuch (similar to that found in the Iliad and Odyssey) that strongly suggests a single author for the books.
Repetition is the soul of poetry, and indeed of literature. Metrical repetition is an obvious type: accents or quantities were repeated in regular patterns in a line of poetry. Repetitions of patterns of words structure language, both to give it greater emotional impact and to make it memorable. How easy it is to remember a song; how difficult it is to remember a paragraph of the New York Times. Memory is extremely important in cultures which are basically oral. In such cultures, written records may exist, but they are meant to be read aloud to an audience or performed alone by the reader reading to himself. (The custom of silent reading is fairly modern. Augustine was surprised to find Ambrose reading a book silently.) It was apparently the custom even then in a literate society to read books aloud to oneself.
The Hebrew Scriptures clearly belong to such a culture. They were normally read aloud in the synagogue. They bear the marks of oral literature, which tends to far greater repetition than is acceptable in modern written prose. A thing is said twice, in case the hearer missed it the first time. But the repetition is not mechanical: the second time something is told, it is told slightly differently, as if to give a different perspective on what is being said. This is frequently done in groups of a few lines in the Song of Roland, and on a larger scale in the Odyssey and in Beowulf.
Ancient literature has an affinity for a chiastic structure. Chiasm is derived from the Greek letter chi: X. It’s structure is a-b-b-a, which can be elaborated to great length: a-b-c-b-a, a-b-c-d-c-b-a, and so on. The Odyssey seems to have such a structure in its twenty-four books; there are strong traces of it in Beowulf. Chiasm may have a particular appeal for the mythical mind which sees the end as identical to the beginning, or as somehow reestablishing the beginning. In paganism this was elaborated into the Myth of the Eternal Return, in which a cycle of events recurs forever. Even the Christian Scriptures with their strong sense of linear history call the new creation Paradise, the name of the Garden of Eden, and describe in the last lines of Revelation the union of the Bridegroom and the Bride, Christ and the Church in a way that reminds one of the union of Adam and Eve in the first chapter of Genesis. The end is identified with the beginning, because all things have come from God in creation and return to him in the New Creation.
Kikawada and Quinn analyze the story of the Flood, which has been severely dissected by source critics, as a chiastic structure, in which details at the beginning are carefully balanced by details at the end, in an a-b-c-d . . .d-c-b-a pattern. It is most unlikely that this is the result of patchwork editing; it shows the marks of a careful literary artist. Kikawada and Quinn see this same structure in Genesis, and indeed in the Pentateuch as a whole.
Demonstrating a chiastic structure is crucial to the authors' argument; here is where they will either succeed or fail to make their points. In the main, theirs is an irenic, careful, and reasonable approach (although they
cannot resist an occasional potshot). They come across credibly and do cite the contributions of other scholars
who have come to similar conclusions, though they could have cited a few more. They do not come across as
fundamentalists or obtuse literalists who refuse to interact with critical analysis. In their enthusiasm for their
theory they occasionally may stretch things a bit too far or get a bit creative, and this is where they are most
Quinn and Kikawada discover through an analysis of Genesis, especially in light of parallels from pagan literature, a concern with the overwhelming goodness of human life and procreation." For Genesis the existence of
a new human was always good" (p. 51). They discover a binary pattern in Genesis and indeed throughout the
Pentateuch, a contrast between that which fosters human life (the pastoral life, Abel, the miraculous fertility of
Abraham, Noah) and that which puts something else above human life and therefore tends to sterility (the city,
Sodom, Lot, salt, incest, Babel). They even hint that original sin may have something to do with a refusal of fertility or its consequences by Eve. This application of their critical theory might seem far-fetched, but it does not af-
fect their main point about the literary unity of the first chapters of Genesis, any more than Harold Bloom's J in
itself calls into question the validity of the documentary hypothesis.
Criticisms of the documentary hypothesis, whether by Quinn and Kikawada or by earlier writers, have not
been greeted with overwhelming enthusiasm. Possibly the thought of having to redo one's whole approach to
the Bible is too daunting to those deeply immersed in biblical critical theory. Natural inertia predisposes one to
continue in the scholarly theory in which he was trained. Human pride also gets much involved in scholarly debate. But there is something here which deserves a fair hearing.
Also, let us bear in mind how difficult it is in this field to apply a "proof" with scientific precision. We are
dealing with scholarly explanations of past events, not repeatable experiments. So the scientific method cannot
be applied in its rigor. Other than disproving a rival theory with some vital fact, all one can say is that one theory
gives a more "satisfying" explanation of the facts than another theory. This applies as much to biblical criticism as
to Gibbon's analysis of the causes of the fall of the Roman Empire. "Satisfaction" is not entirely a subjective
standard, but there is certainly an element of subjectivity in it. This needs to be admitted by all the keepers of literary arcana. Why else would scientists, who start with the same set of facts, end with divergent or even contradictory theories? And it should be noted that although the documentary presuppositions have long been dominant in biblical scholarship, the resultant theories have been ever shifting and changing. There has been no stable consensus.
Physicists speak of the "elegance" of a theory; they find it aesthetically pleasing, because it explains many
things by reducing them to simplicity. Quinn and Kikawada's theory has that elegance, at least for me. They explain the facts of the biblical text, the repetitions and inconsistencies, by reference to a science of rhetoric which
is firmly grounded in both ancient and modern perceptions of how human beings speak and write so that their
words can be remembered. The increasingly elaborate documentary hypothesis, which finds four or more primary layers of tradition, each of which may have internal layers, is a little too like the Ptolemaic theory of demicycles within hemicycles within cycles, of wheels within wheels. In theory as in style, simplicity is a virtue.