Beyond Minimalism III: Tradition History

barre at barre at
Sun Sep 19 15:37:42 EDT 1999

Dear List,

In some earlier postings I argued that the dating of Ben Sira provides the ad quem for the 
development of the canon of the Hebrew Bible (c. 200 BCE), and that considerations 
regarding the history of Israelite literature excludes a post-exilic dating for the bulk of the OT.  
I further argued that the traditional methodologies of source criticism (better composition 
criticism) and form criticism provide two of the most effective tools for the historical 
reconstruction of Israelite culture, demonstrated first by Wellhausen and Gunkel respectively.  
Tradition history is a third methodology that logically follows from the others and has been 
developed and effectively brought to bear on Israelite literature especially by Martin Noth.

However, as many of you will know, research into the early period has fallen into something 
of a malaise.  Many have argued that we know virtually nothing about the historical Israel 
prior to the Monarchy.  Indeed, a learned skepticism has assault even the monarchic period.  
How did this happen, and is there anyway to assault the impasse?

One of the effects of form criticism has been a recognition of literary genre.  As a result of the 
generic classification of the literary components incorporated into the final form of the OT, 
form critics have demonstrated that these genres do not provide direct historical information 
in the "events" that they describe.  Rather, narrative material has been classified into genre 
that were not intended to provide direct, historical information.  Rather, they are seen as 
myth, legend, tale, and as other genres whose intention disqualifies from being read naively as 
descriptions of historical events.  Consequently, many have despaired of using them for 
historical reconstruction.

However, when adequately understood, source, form and tradition criticism provide means 
by which historical information may be extracted indirectly from fictional and quasi-fictional 
genres. In form criticism, it is a central tenet that genre and matrix (setting) have an integral 
relationship, allowing one to move from an understanding of genre to the concrete 
circumstances that generated and sustained it.  A similar situation obtains with redaction 
criticism, a method that is renown in NT studies but which is largely ignored among OT 
scholarship.  Yet, like form criticism, this method allows one to ground a tradition in its 
historical context.

Traditio-historical methodology complements and extends these other methods in that it too 
relates literature to historical circumstances.  Its additional feature is that it provides a means 
to present a synthetic understand of how a given tradition evolves through time.  It traces the 
history of a tradition in whatever literary form that tradition may take as it develops.  So the 
two major studies of von Rad and Noth sought to show how various Pentateuchal themes 
developed to produce the final form left to us.  However, the necessary relationship posited 
between tradent and tradition has not be fully exploited.  The emphasis has decidedly been 
on studying the growth of a tradition rather than investigating the tradents who created and 
passed them on.  Methodologically then, there is no reason why we cannot penetrate the pre-
monarchic impasse.  Only the conclusion that the OT contains no pre-monarchic traditions 
will condemn us to ignorance and such a conclusion is patently prejudicial if not downright 
absurd.  Therefore, the contemporary focus should be one in which attention is given to the 
concrete, historical communities that produced the biblical traditions.  In other words, the 
bipolar relationship of tradition and tradent needs elucidation.  Furthermore, a redressing of 
the ignoring of the tradent side of the relationship may draw upon a approach of sociological 
investigations of ancient Israel.  The approach is virtually the same as that of an archaeologist 
who interrogates artifacts in order to extract as much historical information as possible.  
Tradition history interrogates the traditions in order uncover various groups that produced 
and transmitted them.  Furthermore, the method allows one to produce a synthetic 
understanding of how a specific group developed historically as it is reflected in the group of 
their distinctive traditions.  Here I am thinking of groups such as the Levites, the sages or the 
prophets. In the end, one produces a description what is known as a "streams of tradition" as 
well as profiles of the groups that is reflected in them.

Therefore, there is no reason whatsoever why historians cannot write a history of pre-
Monarchic Israel.  In this regard, I have more than once encountered a certain smugness 
among those who counsel despair.  The problem is not with the task, but with methodological 
ignorance.  Indeed, in my opinion it is this issue that has generated the abandonment of the 
old paradigm to produce the alternative paradigm of minimalism.

Thank you for abiding this lengthy post.

Respectfully submitted,

L. M. Barre, Ph.D.

barre at

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