Tradition-historical criticism takes as its starting point the notion that the biblical text is not merely a concatenation of various literary works, but that each of those works is itself the product of a long process of development. This process entails the accumulation, combination, change, and transmission of originally independent and usually oral traditions: sayings, stories, liturgical pieces, and other artifacts of cultural memory. The task of the tradition historian is to identify those earliest traditional units and explain how they were brought together, altered, and transmitted such that they resulted in the canonical text. Given the scope of the tradition historian’s task, in that it examines the entire history of the development of the biblical text, it is no surprise that tradition-historical criticism brings under its methodological umbrella a number of other critical methods and theories, including most prominently source criticism and form criticism, from which it emerged.

History of Scholarship.

Tradition-historical criticism began as an offshoot of form criticism. In the early twentieth century, Hermann Gunkel (1862–1932) recognized that the purely literary analysis of the biblical text as practiced most prominently by Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) and his contemporaries did not provide a complete picture of the textual history. In particular, Wellhausen’s view that the Pentateuchal sources are able to inform us only about the state of Israelite thought at the time of their composition, rather than preserving any genuine historical information about the times they describe, was considered by Gunkel to be faulty. Gunkel recognized that each of the sources must have had its own pre-literary history, that each author was as much a collector and editor as he was an original contributor. The search for the individual elements that the authors collected, therefore, needed to be undertaken, and the method that Gunkel used to do this was that of form criticism: the attempt to isolate individual oral genres underlying the text and to set each genre in its particular communal context (Sitz im Leben), such as the cult, prophetic circles, the village campfire, and so on. By getting back to the original cultural settings, it would be possible to reconstruct something of the Israelite society out of which the literary text eventually emerged.

Form criticism proper dealt only, however, with genre; to identify a cultural context for a genre did not, in theory, provide any information about a given specific representation of that genre. Thus, for example, the recognition that the various narratives in Genesis in which the patriarch builds an altar have their generic origins in the local cult etiology reveals only that in ancient Israel there were such etiologies; while this is no small historical matter, it does not speak to any of the specific episodes in Genesis in an independent fashion. Form criticism abstracts the biblical materials, thereby opening to view the broader culture in which they were created, but the process by which the actual text itself came into being, not in the abstract but in the very particular, is not part of form criticism’s purview.

This latter task falls under the heading of tradition-historical criticism (often simply called “tradition criticism”), which can be described as a move from genre to content. From the tradition-historical perspective, rather than examining the local cult etiology as a generic phenomenon, it is required to examine what a given manifestation of an etiology says and how it is to be understood as a tradition stemming from a particular place and time. Thus, for example, there are three narratives in Genesis about a patriarch at Bethel: one in which Abraham builds an altar (Gen 12:8), one in which Jacob builds an altar (Gen 28:18–22; 35:1–7), and one in which God appears to Jacob (Gen 35:9–13). Form-critically, these all exemplify the genre of the local cult etiology; tradition-critically, they all stem from a local tradition in Bethel that an ancestor founded the sanctuary there. Having established this, the tradition historian can then consider which elements of the three stories are held in common, and may therefore be understood as the earliest and most basic tradition out of which all three emerged, which aspects can be attributed to secondary growths of the tradition, and whether it is possible to put these secondary changes into chronological order. Tradition-historical criticism thus builds on the insights of form criticism by specifying and historicizing them.

Such tradition-historical investigations were already beginning to be incorporated in Gunkel’s own work (as with the earlier example, for instance); they were developed further by Gunkel’s close form-critical associate, Hugo Gressmann (1977–1927), in his study of the development of the Moses traditions. Gressmann systematically stripped away the layers of the Moses story in Exodus—Numbers, identifying the individual traditions at the base of the overarching narrative, though he refrained from any attempt to reconstruct the development of the text. Gunkel and Gressmann, in their concentration on the pre-literary history of the biblical text, prepared the way for the two giants of tradition-historical criticism, Gerhard von Rad (1901–1971) and Martin Noth (1902–1968).

Von Rad and Noth.

The fundamental flaw that von Rad identified in Gunkel’s work was that while it highlighted the diversity of materials evident in the biblical text it did not sufficiently explain how it was that these materials had come together to form narratively and theologically sophisticated overarching compositions. Von Rad therefore suggested that through a lengthy process of accretion of traditions the basic outline of Israel’s early history, from the patriarchs through the conquest of Canaan, had already taken shape by the time the Pentateuchal authors began writing. The evidence for this, according to von Rad, was the existence of the “historical credo” in Deuteronomy 26:5–9 and Joshua 24:2–13, which recounts in brief and stereotypical form the outline of the traditional narrative. Following this basic pattern, and incorporating numerous other secondary traditions, the Pentateuchal authors created their major literary works, beginning most importantly for von Rad with the Yahwist (J), who was the first to incorporate the Sinai event into the traditional outline.

Although von Rad suggested quite specific cultic backgrounds for both the “historical credo” and the Sinai event, for the most part he left the details of the formative process that led to the traditional outline unexamined, noting only that there must have been such a process, and that it was entirely an oral one. He did, however, formulate what may be the guiding dictum for all subsequent tradition-historical investigations: “None of the stages in the age-long development of this work has been wholly superseded; something has been preserved of each phase, and its influence has persisted right down to the final form of the Hexateuch” (Rad 1966, p. 78).

It is the challenge to scholarship implicit in von Rad’s classic dictum that was taken up by Noth. In his book on the tradition history of the Pentateuch, Noth attempted to provide a nearly complete picture of the growth of the Pentateuchal traditions. He began by isolating the “major themes” present in the text, taking his cue from von Rad’s study of the historical credo: guidance out of Egypt, guidance into the arable land, promise to the patriarchs, guidance in the wilderness, and revelation at Sinai. It will be noted that these are set not in the order in which they appear in the canonical text, but in what Noth perceived to be their tradition-historical chronology, from earliest to latest. To these basic themes were added numerous additional traditions, often independent and with their own lengthy pre-histories; these elements served to elaborate on the major themes, to give them particular shape and invest them with detailed specificity. For example, the major theme of the patriarchs, according to Noth, originally centered on the figure of Jacob (Israel), which was filled out with the various traditions about Abraham and Isaac. The Jacob tradition, for its part, was not of a single piece, but was rather the combination of several independent Jacob stories (and so, mutatis mutandis, for the Abraham and Isaac traditions).

These sundry traditional materials, both major and minor, were joined together by a variety of mechanisms. Episodes that once described anonymous groups or individuals were secondarily associated with specific figures who operated across traditional boundaries; perhaps Noth’s most striking contention in this regard was that the protagonists of the Exodus story were originally the unnamed elders, and that the thorough introduction and integration of Moses is a later tradition-historical development. Entire episodes could be adopted or even newly fashioned so as to link major complexes; here the Joseph story, which links the patriarchal traditions to those of the Exodus, is an easy example. Genealogical relationships were created to connect traditionally independent figures; thus Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were construed as related so as to bring together local ancestral traditions. Travel itineraries were inserted to bridge once-independent episodes into a geographical and chronological continuum; for example, the Korah story of Numbers 16–17, originally construed, according to Noth, without any specific location, was set in the wilderness of Sin to bring it into line with the overarching narrative.

Noth’s isolation of the earliest independent traditional units depended upon a set of methodological assumptions: that the smaller and more abbreviated elements in the canonical text are usually earlier, while longer and more coherent elements are later; that earlier traditions dealt with types more often than with specific figures; and that the earliest traditions emerge from specific localities (and are often etiological) and have a cultic background. To return as an example to the Jacob tradition: Noth separated the Jacob stories into two main units, those dealing with Jacob’s experiences in Shechem and Bethel and those dealing with Jacob’s interactions with Esau and Laban. The first of these, insofar as it describes the cultic activities of establishing sanctuaries, is deemed to be earlier, and even within this early unit the Shechem tradition, which can be reduced essentially to the notice that Jacob bought a piece of land in Shechem, is considered prior to the Bethel tradition. The second unit, later because of its secular nature, is itself composite, bringing together an early tradition of Jacob in East Jordan with a typological tradition equating Esau with the hunter and Jacob with the shepherd. It is clear how Noth’s analysis, both in identification of traditions and in their chronology, is dependent on his fundamental assumptions. It is not surprising that these assumptions are largely in line with those Gunkel used to identify the earliest form-critical units, since both approaches seek to isolate the earliest units.

Noth, however, was interested less in recapturing the cultural spirit of early Israel, as Gunkel was, and more with actually reconstructing the early history of Israel. To that end, the earliest traditions were associated with actual places and events experienced by Israel’s ancestors, and the combination of traditions spoke to the historical assimilation of various Israelite tribes and other social groups, especially in the centuries preceding the establishment of the monarchy. So the tradition of Isaac at Gerar in Genesis 26 can be understood as recording the historical experience of a group of people who identified themselves as descendants of someone called Isaac, and who would go to Gerar in the summer to use the well in the area known as Rehoboth but were forbidden to use the other wells. And the Abraham traditions, insofar as, according to Noth, they secondarily adopted many traditions originally associated with Isaac, provide evidence that those early people who worshipped the God of Abraham expanded into the territory of the Isaac-followers and thus appropriated their traditions. The combination of traditions equals the combination of peoples. In this way, Noth’s program was not unlike that of Wellhausen: while Wellhausen used the source-critical separation of the Pentateuchal documents as evidence for the development of Israelite religion, Noth used the tradition-critical analysis of the text to reveal the growth of Israel as a people and a nation. The literal historicity of the Israelite traditions is not of central importance, but the history of their conception and transmission is; for Noth, Israel’s history is essentially equivalent to its tradition history.

In the years since Noth’s work was published, however, a number of critiques have been leveled against his tradition-historical reconstruction of Israel’s past. Most prominently, Noth argued extensively for the existence of a twelve-tribe league (amphictyony) in Israel, with regular cultic celebrations at a central sanctuary; the bringing together of the tribes into this league and their mutual worship of Yahweh were, for Noth, fundamental to the process of the combination of the early independent traditions, for it was at these public events that the fictive kinships between the previously independent groups were created, their stories linked and assimilated. Yet the amphictyony theory has been almost universally discarded in scholarship, thereby undermining many of Noth’s most basic claims. In fact, the entire notion that the creation and recitation of traditional narratives can be linked to various pan-Israelite festival celebrations, central to both von Rad and Noth, has come under heavy criticism. The current intellectual climate is one of great doubt regarding the ability to reconstruct positively almost anything of Israel’s past on the basis of the biblical material. Although it may be that much of Noth’s work in uncovering the traditional elements underlying the biblical text is unaffected by this scholarly turn, his attempt to write a history of Israel on the basis of those traditions cannot be judged a success.

Like Gunkel, Gressmann, and von Rad, Noth accepted the basic source-critical conclusions of Wellhausen and understood that the tradition complexes at the base of the Pentateuchal narrative were essentially compiled before any of the Pentateuchal authors began putting them into a fixed written form. Unlike von Rad, however, Noth did not attribute the inclusion of the Sinai event to the Yahwist, but proposed instead that the first complete overarching narrative existed before either J or E. He called this rather shadowy narrative the Grundlage, or G, and allowed that it could have been either oral or written. Importantly, however, Noth also recognized that the date of the source in which the manifestation of a tradition is found has no bearing on the date of the underlying tradition itself. Thus, for example, Noth saw in the Bethel stories an earlier tradition, in which it was Jacob who founded the cultic site there, and a younger development of that tradition, in which the story originally associated with Jacob was transferred to Abraham. Yet the younger tradition of Abraham at Bethel appears in J, the earliest source according to Noth, while the older tradition of Jacob at Bethel appears in E, a later source. It is important to note that, in Noth’s estimation, the division between the oral and the written is not of particular relevance to the tradition history. Traditions could be and were created, adopted, and transmitted equally in both forms. Because of this view, Noth was able to trace the tradition history of the text from its earliest pre-literary origins all the way through the written biblical sources. Yet Noth’s treatment of both the oral and the written, and particularly his continued adherence to the classical Documentary Hypothesis, lies at the basis of the two significant schools that have challenged the tradition-historical program, that which arose contemporaneously in Scandinavia, and that which developed as an explicit reaction to Noth in Germany.

Scandinavian Scholarship.

A line of tradition-historical criticism arose in Scandinavia in the 1930s–1950s that pushed the notion of oral tradition to its limits. Beginning with the work of H. S. Nyberg (1889–1974) and reaching its most prominent expression in that of Ivan Engnell (1906–1964), this school of thought held that the shape of the biblical text is almost entirely dependent on oral transmission, rather than on written expression. It was argued that the main mechanism for the transmission of almost all of the biblical materials, law, narrative, and prophecy, were oral for much longer than had previously been thought—all the way through the exile—and that it was only in the post-exilic period that anything was written down. The various contradictions, duplications, and other disjunctures in the biblical material are not, according to this theory, the result of the interweaving of multiple written works (in the case of the Pentateuch) or of the successive layering of a single piece (in the case of the prophetic literature), but are rather the natural accumulation of oral tradition, the retelling and reinterpretation of stories and sayings within various circles.

Two significant claims were made along these lines. First, it was held that those traditions transmitted orally are fundamentally trustworthy, that those who passed on the traditions did so in a remarkably accurate fashion (frequently this claim was made on the basis of the Islamic transmission of the Qurʾan). This is not to deny that traditions were transformed over time, but rather that accretions to the traditions occurred organically over time, and are not part of a written process. The written text is little more than the transcription of the oral tradition as it had developed to that point. Second, and as a natural corollary to the first, it was claimed that it is not possible to distinguish between earlier and later traditions with any accuracy, since all of them were worked together naturally by those who possessed the traditions. The final tradition—that represented in the written text—despite the recognition that it is composed of various distinctive elements, is to be taken as a single tradition unit. This final form is the only tradition that can be considered; it is this tradition that needs to be interpreted and explained, because it is the authentic representation of Israel’s self-image. The Scandinavian school paid great attention to the prophetic corpus, where these claims may be exemplified by the notion that it is not only impossible but methodologically unsound to attempt to reconstruct the ipsissima verba of the prophet; the prophetic tradition contains words that are traditionally ascribed to the prophet, plus various other elements (narrative, other prophetic sayings, and the like), all of which were transmitted orally and all of which must be taken together. Because, it was claimed, the oral process of transmission was so definitive for the shaping of the prophetic corpus—with adherents selecting, reformulating, rearranging, and updating the prophet’s original words—there could be no hope of reaching back through the tradition to any firm authentic origin.

It is not the case that every major Scandinavian scholar adhered to this basic approach. Most notably, Sigmund Mowinckel (1884–1965) protested strongly against the complete abnegation of literary-critical methods in favor of purely tradition-critical ones, against the abandonment of the written in favor of the oral. He argued that each has its place, and that in fact it is necessary to bring some of the literary-critical techniques, especially of discerning layers, to bear on the pre-literary traditions. Otherwise, what we are left with is not tradition history, but merely tradition; without at least the attempt to stratify the traditions, to see how they grew, the historical aspect of the process is entirely lacking. It was also pointed out in response to the Scandinavian position that its first premise—that the predominant mode of transmission in ancient Israel was oral—has no evidentiary basis, but is rather an assumption made on the grounds of far more recent comparative studies. Indeed, it may be noted that the evidence from Ugarit and Mesopotamia, which had written texts (in some cases with a clear history of textual transmission) many hundreds of years before the composition of Israel’s own literature, stands in sharp counterpoint to the basic claims of the Scandinavian school.

The Scandinavian position was very important in its time, but lost much of its influence, in part because of the direct challenges to it, and in part because Noth’s work was so widely accepted. Yet already in the first generation after Noth, his theories were being challenged from the completely opposite direction.

Recent Trends in Pentateuchal Criticism.

In the late 1970s, Noth’s student Rolf Rendtorff (1925–) published a book in which he argued that Noth’s adherence to the Documentary Hypothesis had significant negative consequences for the logic of the tradition-critical method. He claimed that if the method is taken to its logical conclusion, then there is no reason to believe that there were sources as Wellhausen and others had argued; instead, it was necessary to begin with the smallest tradition-critical units and see how they have been brought together, without any a priori literary-critical assumptions. The Pentateuch, Rendtorff argued, was not primarily a literary product—that is, the compilation of multiple literary documents—but rather the result of successive layers, each building on and reinterpreting that which came before it. Continuous documents were no longer to be found; rather, we have to deal with original independent units and layers of redaction.

The major methodological distinction between Rendtorff and Noth can be identified in their conceptions of orality: for Noth, the traditions were brought together at the pre-literary stage, the evidence for which was to be found in the many traditions present in more than one of the Pentateuchal sources; for Rendtorff, the traditions were brought together entirely at the literary stage. The significant interpretive move made implicitly by Rendtorff, but explicitly by many of those who have followed him, is that the traditional units identified by Noth are no longer represented by the text; they are the text. For Noth, the earliest Jacob-at-Bethel tradition was oral, and it found a variety of expressions both orally and subsequently in the Bible. For those scholars who follow Rendtorff, especially his student Erhard Blum (1950–), the earliest Jacob-at-Bethel tradition is to be found in the actual words of the Bible; the narrative of Gen 28:10–22 can be stripped of its secondary layers until the original words of the tradition are isolated, and those secondary layers can then stand as evidence of multiple stages of reinterpretation and redaction. Noth’s oral traditions are transmuted into written texts. This obviously has a significant impact on the evaluation of the composition of the Pentateuch.

It also, however, has a significant impact on the nature of tradition-historical criticism. Even while accepting Noth’s basic divisions of the Pentateuch into various traditional units, from small to large, these recent Pentateuchal scholars have jettisoned the central theory on which Noth’s analysis was based: that there were recoverable oral traditions underlying the text. Tradition-historical criticism is, in this view, an entirely literary investigation. Because every layer is present in the text, it is therefore possible, according to this theory, to reconstruct in almost complete detail the history of the growth of the text.


Classical tradition-historical criticism, as exemplified by Noth, is no longer a productive part of current scholarship. The two sides of tradition-historical work—the exploration of the relationship between the oral and written aspects of ancient Israelite tradition and the historical analysis of the creation, transformation, and transmission of the individual pieces that came together to form the canonical text—have not been employed together in the way that they previously were. Instead, these two areas of research have developed their own scholarly trajectories, sometimes directly at odds with each other.

In recent scholarship the oral-written binary has been the topic of much discussion. Advancements in our understanding of oral literature, especially in light of the seminal Lord-Parry studies in the mid-twentieth century, have led some to detect in the written texts of the Bible a strong oral component. This view, associated largely with the work of Susan Niditch, argues for the mutual influence of oral performance and written text, and challenges the usual assumptions regarding the exclusively literary origins of biblical materials. It is argued that oral recitation remained a productive mechanism for transmission of traditional materials even after texts began to be written. Along these lines, scholars such as James Crenshaw and David Carr have begun to consider the ways in which written texts were used for pedagogical purposes in ancient Israel, as texts for memorization, or to instill certain viewpoints and values. Hand in hand with the recognition of a continuing oral tradition, recent scholarship has seen a rise in the consideration of the role that scribes played in the transmission and canonization of traditions and texts, with the result that much attention is now paid to the mechanics of writing in the ancient world (especially in the works of William Schniedewind and Karel van der Toorn). While this avenue of research has contributed greatly to our understanding of the cultural modes of oral and written expression in ancient Israel, it also suggests that it may be far more difficult than was previously thought to pin down the precise development of the biblical text in any comprehensive way.

On the other hand, the trend particularly in Pentateuchal research has been to continue down the road laid out by Rendtorff and Blum, and to reconstruct in painstaking detail the exact words of the text that can be attributed to the earliest isolated traditions and the subsequent layers of reworking that led to the final form of the Bible. In the work of Christoph Levin, for instance, we can see something of a return to Gunkel’s position regarding the Yahwist as a collector: Levin pulls from the canonical text those words that belonged to each of the individual written sources with which the Yahwist worked, those added by the Yahwist in bringing those sources together, and the layers of rewriting that accreted to the Yahwist. Similar attempts at isolating the earliest individual texts and the manner of their combination and redaction have been made by Reinhard Kratz. Scholars have also tried to work out Noth’s conclusions regarding the larger tradition complexes on a purely textual level. Thus Konrad Schmid has argued at length for the separation of the patriarchal and exodus traditions, taking each as an independent corpus until their late combination in the priestly work; Frank Crüsemann has claimed that the primeval history of Genesis 1–11 was originally a separate unit; and Jan Christian Gertz has examined the independent Exodus narrative. As noted in the preceding, the tradition-historical work of Noth has been transformed into purely literary criticism, as traditions have become identified with actual biblical texts.

There is some irony in the fact that these Pentateuchal scholars, who have most closely appropriated Noth’s conclusions, have done so at the cost of the tradition-historical program itself. For there are no longer any oral traditions to be investigated in recent Pentateuchal criticism; everything is entirely textual. Thus it is possible for some current scholarship to hold that there were in fact no oral traditions whatsoever in ancient Israel; that if it were possible to ask an ancient Israelite who Moses was, for example, he would have no idea at all. There is a logical basis for such a claim, and it is not to be treated lightly. The theories of Noth and other classical tradition historians depended on the reconstruction of oral traditions, frequently very detailed, but for which there is no hard evidence. We have no real access to the oral traditions; all we have is the biblical text, and it is sensible to pursue analyses that take only the written material into consideration, as anything beyond that is purely speculative. At the same time, however, such logical arguments run up against the question of how likely it is that ancient Israelite culture had no oral traditions at all, or that, if it did, none of them are represented in the biblical text. The fact that our knowledge of Israel’s traditions is based solely on a literary work does not ipso facto mean that there were no oral traditions. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; but we are right to be cautious about just how much dependence is placed on the reconstructed oral traditions presumed to stand behind the written text.

Where classical tradition-historical criticism still seems to have some importance, somewhat ironically, is in the work of modern adherents to the Documentary Hypothesis. In the most current form of this theory, it is held that the three documents represented in Genesis–Numbers, J, E, and P, were composed independently of one another, without any mutual knowledge or influence. Yet it is abundantly clear that the three sources shared in common both the overarching framework of the narrative, from the patriarchs (or even creation) through the death of Moses, as well as many individual episodes, from the flood to Jacob at Bethel to the plagues. If the literary analysis suggests that these authors were not familiar with each others’ work—that one did not receive these stories from another—then the most likely explanation for these similarities is that each wrote on the basis of a common stock of Israelite traditions. This also explains the differences between the individual renderings of the common stories: the traditions developed differently in different times, places, and social settings. In short, the logical consequence of current documentary scholarship is not so very different from the conclusions of classical tradition-historical criticism.

At the same time, it seems that there can hardly be any going back to the positivistic historical reconstructions of von Rad and especially Noth. Where early traditions can be identified underlying the biblical text, there is little possibility of convincingly reconstructing any authentic historical event at its basis, nor is it likely that we can justifiably argue that the combination of traditions is the result of the combination of peoples. There is a far stronger sense now that what is lost to us in the mists of pre-literary transmission is, indeed, lost. Yet the fundamental notion of tradition history—that there were pre-literary traditions that became and shaped the written text we have today—is a valuable one. As Gunkel recognized in his form-critical work, tradition-historical criticism reveals aspects of ancient Israelite culture, in its various constituent parts and in its whole, that purely literary investigation cannot. Our sense of the environment from which the Bible emerged is expanded and deepened when we come to appreciate, even in a relatively vague way, the traditional background of the biblical materials.



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Joel S. Baden