Learning to Think Critically with Primary Sources

Prolegomena
Today’s guest post is by Elliot Ritzema, from the Logos Bible Software Design & Editorial team.

When I saw a few months ago that Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Israel was on pre-pub, I got excited. This is a book that I would love to see in Logos format. Lately it seems that the book has stalled in the “gathering interest” phase, so I’m hoping to revive progress by explaining why I think this book is so important.

When I took a class on biblical hermeneutics in seminary, we didn’t use a textbook. Instead, we studied the history of biblical interpretation over the last 150 years or so by reading primary sources (OK, in some cases they were English translations of primary sources). First we looked at Source Criticism, and the first reading was a selection from Prolegomena to the History of Israel.

Wellhausen’s name may not be familiar to everyone, but you can’t go very far in studying the recent history of biblical interpretation before you start to see his name or the initials “JEDP.” These initials come from Wellhausen’s version of the “documentary hypothesis,” in which he attempted to chop up the first six books of the Bible based on the argument that they came from four different sources. He wasn’t the only biblical scholar who did this, but his way of doing it became the most influential.

Now, you may like or dislike Wellhausen’s way of looking at the Bible (I certainly don’t agree with everything Wellhausen said), but it’s undeniable that he has had a huge impact on biblical studies. His name comes up over and over in all sorts of books, whether they are reference books or books that argue about his influence. He is mentioned in the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary 241 times, the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia 192 times, The New Bible Dictionary 51 times, and The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church 31 times. Issue 25 of the journal Semeia is devoted to him and the Prolegomena. The Fundamentals, written in part to counter his influence, mentions him 47 times and a chapter in David Breese’s Seven Men Who Rule the World from the Grave (part of the Moody History Makers Collection) is devoted to critiquing Wellhausen and his way of understanding the Bible.

If you can read about Wellhausen in other books, then why should you buy his Prolegomena to the History of Israel? Well, if you are like me, you like to read primary sources. It isn’t enough for me to read a short treatment of an author’s ideas in a textbook; I like to have access to what the author actually wrote so that I can see it in context and quote from the original if I need to. Textbooks are certainly useful to get an overview of a subject, but there’s no substitute for reading each author for myself. That way, I’m not just taking someone else’s word for it; I’m learning how to think critically on my own. The great benefit of my hermeneutics class was that it taught me how to recognize different schools of biblical interpretation and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think I would have learned nearly as much if we had not read primary sources. Reading Wellhausen is not for everyone, but for those (like me) who are interested in the history of biblical interpretation, he’s a must-read.

Before I go, let me put in one more plug: The week after we talked about Wellhausen and Source Criticism in class, we moved on to Form Criticism and read part of Hermann Gunkel’s book The Legends of Genesis—which is also on Pre-Pub as part of the Classic Commentaries and Studies on Genesis.

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One Response to “Learning to Think Critically with Primary Sources”

  1. Dan September 9, 2010 at 5:52 am #

    Elliot, I totally agree about the value of primary sources. I remember doing a paper on Bultmann, trying to read what everybody else said about him (to “help” me understand him). It was too truncated and confusing. Only after picking up Bultmann’s own writings was I able to really get a handle on him. Hope Wellhausen gets the bump you are looking for!