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The Composition of the Historical Books. From Joshua to 2 Kings (First part)

Martin Noth

Before the Second World War, many scholars believed that the sources of the Pentateuch continued in the book of Joshua, constituting the so called Hexateuch. In 1943, Martin Noth demonstrated instead the existence of three great histories of the Old Testament: the Pentateuch, the Deuteronomistic historiography and Chronistic historiography.

He argued that books from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings constitute an historical work composed after the last episode mentioned in 2 Kings 25, namely the release of King Ioachim in Babylon), i.e. after 562 BC. The Deuteronomist was an author who, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BC, did not go exile, but withdrew to Samaria and composed the nations’ history. He gathered different traditions with a precise goal. His purpose was to explain why the Jewish nation was destroyed. The answer was contained in the so-called deuteronomic code: Deuteronomy 4:44-30:20. The deuteronomistic author (= Dtr) inserted these laws into his work, collecting other traditions, composing speeches or reflections. For Martin Noth, the Pentateuch no longer existed. There were only the books from Genesis to Numbers, followed by Deuteronomy which was the first section of deuteronomistic work.

The history of Israel is divided into several periods, based on great discourses and some historical synthesis:

The period of conquest of Canaan (speeches in Gs 1:1-9; 21:1-6; 23:1-16)
The period of the judges and the beginning of the monarchy (summary of Gdc 2:1-3:6, speech of 1 Sam 12)
The first period of the monarchy (Solomon’s great discourse in 1 Kings 8-14).
The history of the kingdoms divided up to the fall of Samaria (reflection in 2 Kings 17:7-23)

Frank Moore Cross

Noth’s theory survived until the beginning of the seventies. Thereafter two schools prevail. The Anglo-Saxon school, represented by F. M. Cross, who argued that the Dtr had two editions. The first one at the time of Josiah (called Dtr1) and the second one during the Exile (called Dtr2). The first edition had positive tones in respect of the monarchy, the second edition had negative tones, since it was intended to show that the kingdom fell because of the infidelity to the law.

The German scholars believed instead that the Dtr history had three editions. The historical edition (DtrH), the prophetic edition (DtrP) and the nomistic edition, inspired by the law (DtrN). The representative of this school was R. Smend.

thomas-romer-coverMore recently, T. Römer, indicates the following phases in the composition of deuteronomic history. The first phase took place in the Neo-Assyrian period (911-612 BC), whose purpose was to legitimize the policy of Reformation and centralization of Josiah. The second phase of composition took place in the Babylonian era (626-539 BC), where the theme of the earth became important and the exile was the image of true Israel. In the third phase – in the Persian period – the aspect of separation of Israel over all other peoples prevailed.

Römer believes that the traditions contained in the Dtr originated from three groups. The first group was composed by the Northern Levites who moved south after the fall of Samaria (in 721 BC). Deuteronomy was composed by the southern levites. They adapted the oldest traditions to the changed historical conditions, also trying to counterbalance the concept of unilateral alliance, typical of the city’s environments, with a concept of conditional alliance (i.e. God blesses you if you observe … ). The second group would be that of the prophets who emigrated to the south after the fall of the Northern Kingdom, formulating a reform program to be implemented by the Jewish authorities. The third group was represented by the court scribes in Jerusalem. All these environments were linked by the concept of YHWH’s absolute sovereignty over Judah.

Apart from these studies on the origin of the Dtr, the debate concerns the extension of the Dtr work. The first problem concerns Deuteronomy itself. If it was originally the introduction of the Dtr work, when it was detached and attached to the Pentateuch? Some scholars recognize the Dtr hand anywhere in the Old Testament (OT). Other scholars argue that all the OT has been made up in the Hellenistic period. Consequently, both the Dtr and the Cronistic work would not have been written in different ages, but would simply originate from different environments. Moreover, those who believe that OT has been written in the Hellenistic era, also argue that the so-called primitive history (from Genesis to Kings) is the work of a single author who was largely inspired by Herodotus’s work.

What we could say after all these theories? It is undoubtedly that the books of Joshua to 2 Kings have a stereotyped phraseology – typical of each book – centered on the observance of the Law as the condition for the survival of the Kingdom.

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Simone Venturini

Writer and Researcher at Vatican Secret Archives, Professor of Bible at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross od Rome

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