Sailhamer’s Meaning of the Pentateuch, Take Six

(Posted by Paige)

Here’s an updated Table of Contents for these reviews so far:

My Introduction
Sailhamer’s Introduction
Chapter One: Goal of OT Theology
Chapter Two: Verbal Meaning
Chapter Three: Historical Meaning of Biblical Text

Chapter Four: Finding the Big Idea

This chapter is so long and dense that I run the risk of either saying too much and exhausting you patient readers, or saying too little and failing to do justice to Sailhamer’s fascinating ideas. It’s another treat for the historical theologian, as Sailhamer explores the development of theories regarding the authorship of the Pentateuch, OT canon formation, and the theological significance of the compositional structure of texts. Here I will concentrate on issues of ideas, authorship, and the “compositional approach.”

“Finding the big idea,” for Sailhamer, means paying attention to the intelligent design of a text to find out where its author is taking us. As we gather clues – which may be as small as pronouns or as large as the whole Tanak – we begin to formulate an understanding of the “big idea” that the author intended to convey. But Sailhamer urges us to reread, ever more carefully, and always to be alert for details that check our understanding, on our way to an exegetically sound formulation of “the best (most valid) idea,” that is, “the one that explains the most and the most important parts of the Pentateuch” (152). “An idea,” he warns,

must not be allowed to drift like a distant cloud over the textual horizon. It must always be tethered to the text in ways directly associated with the intention (verbal meaning) of the author. Only then can such ideas be considered part of the author’s intention and find exegetical warrant in the text. (159)

Sailhamer’s own reading and rereading have brought him to a particular conclusion about the role of the law in the Pentateuch, especially in light of its rather late appearance (more than 50 chapters in!). He suggests that

the “big idea” of the Pentateuch is about both “obedience to the Mosaic law,” and “living by faith”…Ultimately, I believe, these two themes of law and faith will find their place alongside each other as a juxtaposition of law and gospel. The gospel, that is, justification by faith, is God’s means for our fulfilling the law (cf. Rom. 8:4). (156)

The current chapter sets the stage for a later exegetical defense of these “big ideas,” mainly by laying out Sailhamer’s conclusions about the authorship of the Pentateuch. He clearly assumes both the intelligent design of an original individual human author and the divine purpose underlying the text:

Behind our quest for the (human) author’s intent is, of course, the conviction that the divine intention of Scripture is to be found in the human author’s intent. (159)

But which human author? One set of Pentateuchal puzzles, of course, concerns questions of Mosaic authorship: Did he really have anything to do with it? If so, did he write the Pentateuch, or merely write it down? Did he use any prior written sources, or did he inscripturate (verbatim!) an oral revelation that had been passed along since Adam and Abraham’s time? What are we to make of the evidence of later editing here and there in the Pentateuch? Are these glosses random, or in any way related?

Sailhamer traces in this chapter some of the historical answers to the “Whodunnit?” question, beginning with the Reformers, who posited an unwritten but eyewitness oral revelation behind the material transcribed by Moses, especially in Genesis. Later evangelicals, he notes, were willing to concede that Moses may have used some written sources, but they gave little thought to how he put his book together. Finally Sailhamer offers a description of his own preferred “compositional approach,” summed up neatly as follows:

An evangelical compositional approach to biblical authorship identifies Moses as the author of the Pentateuch and seeks to uncover his strategy in “making a book.” (200)

Thus Sailhamer intends to account for the biblical witness to Mosaic authorship while also making up for the lack of discussion about what it meant for Moses to be that author. And here he makes his unique and intriguing contribution to that discussion: namely, the suggestion that there were really two human authors involved in the making of the Pentateuch. Not only does he attribute to Moses an intelligent, deliberate crafting of his material (whether gathered from other sources or composed himself), but he proposes that a second, chronologically later mind was behind (most of?) the editorial glosses that he identifies in the text of the Pentateuch. In fact, this later author/editor had the task of adding “redactional glue” throughout the Tanak, at the spots which Sailhamer calls the “compositional seams” of the text. We’ll hear more details about this later; the point here is that Sailhamer posits a single editor who held the big picture of the whole Tanak in mind, and so tweaked earlier texts now and again to reflect a theological message. As he puts it,

The present canonical Pentateuch is thus an updated version of the Mosaic Pentateuch produced, perhaps, by the “author” of the OT as a whole (Tanak). (200)

The idea of a “canonical Pentateuch,” which Sailhamer playfully dubs “Pentateuch 2.0,” requires some discussion of canon formation during the intertestamental time. I’ll not go into this here (though see the quote in the first comment below), but it’s worth checking out Sailhamer’s thoughts on this on pp.162-175, if you have the book. This is one area that I’m eager to see addressed in Reformed scholarly reactions to the book.

I’d be happy to clarify any of the above if you have questions.

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  1. paigebritton said,

    April 28, 2011 at 7:03 am

    We had some discussion elsewhere about canon formation around the time of Jesus…Here’s an interesting point made by Sailhamer about the situation on the ground in the 1st c. Jewish world:

    In terms of everyday realities, the OT at that time did not have a specific physical shape. Multiple copies of the whole or parts of the Hebrew Bible were not widely available, even in fragmentary form, much less single manuscripts or whole books (codices). Such things were a physical reality only much later, from the time of the development of the codex, or single book. Any talk of a specific shape of the OT canon at that time would necessitate approaching it not in terms of its physical reality, but as a mental construct. (211)

  2. Richard said,

    May 2, 2011 at 11:21 am

    Interesting; does he dialogue with Konrad Schmid (Erzväter und Exodus)?

  3. paigebritton said,

    May 2, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Sorry, no! He is not listed in the author’s index. The scholars he mentions & interacts with in this chapter include Rolf Rendtorff, Hartmut Gese, Vos, Kaiser, Hengstenberg, and Wilhelm de Wette. (Sailhamer specializes in untranslated Germans!)

  4. Richard said,

    May 2, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    He must be a brave fellow then! With reference to #1, when he is talking about the ‘shape of the OT canon’ is he refering to structure in terms of the ordering of specific books or is he refering to the contents of the canon (i.e. inclusion v. exclusion)?

  5. paigebritton said,

    May 2, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Sailhamer is referring to the order of the books. He notes that if the Tanak ends with Chronicles, there is a sense that there is a future fulfillment ahead, beyond the return from exile. This is the arrangement behind the LXX, and it fits with what Sailhamer believes he has observed about the canonical redactor’s hand (which seems to reinforce the Pentateuch’s initial emphasis on a coming King from the tribe of Judah).

    If the Tanak collection ends with Ezra/Nehemiah, there is the sense that immediate history serves as the fulfillment of earlier promises and prophecy, as the exiles return to their land and rebuild the temple. (This is the arrangement behind the MT.)

    That’s just a short summary from my notes — I’ll look for some good quotes later, but just now I’ve gotta find out what the crock pot cooked for us. :)

  6. paigebritton said,

    May 2, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    Okay, here are some Sailhamer paragraphs to chew on, regarding OT canon formation:

    At least two “final shapes” of the Tanak appear to emerge from these compositional considerations. One leaves us with a Tanak that concludes with Ezra-Nehemiah and identifies the return from Babylonian exile as the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of seventy years. This represents a Tanak with a historical fulfillment that it seeks to identify with the immediate postexilic age. The return from Babylon was a well-known reference point in early biblical interpretation. The other Tanak finds its reference point in the book of Daniel, particularly Daniel 9, and closes with the book of Chronicles (2 Chron 36). In doing so, it extends Jeremiah’ seventy years beyond the time of the return from Babylon, closing the whole of the Tanak with a decidedly future reference. That shape fits well with the sense one gains from the study of the Hebrew text (Vorlage) of the LXX of Jeremiah and the reading of these texts by the NT. Both this Tanak and the NT are open to events that look beyond the return from Babylonian exile.

    The points raised in this chapter show that changing attitudes toward the OT have opened the door to a range of new possibilities for constructing a biblical theology of the Old and New Testaments. There will continue to be those who seek the earliest forms of the OT texts, but a growing number of others have turned their attention to the “final shape.” This should not be construed as a turn away from an interest in history; rather, it is a focus on a largely overlooked and textually prolific stage of Israel’s history, namely, the history of Israel immediately prior to the coming of Christ and the writing of the NT. (pp.173f.)

  7. David R. said,

    May 4, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    If Sailhamer is correct, then wouldn’t we have to say that the OT canon dates back only to some post-exilic redactor, rather than to Moses and the Prophets?

  8. jedpaschall said,

    May 4, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    David ,

    Are you referring to the canon in final form, or to the books that comprised the OT? To me they seem like two separate questions. Hopefully I am reading you right.

  9. paigebritton said,

    May 4, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    David -
    Maybe this illustration will help: Sailhamer talks about the formation of the Tanak (OT), and especially the Pentateuch, as being like “punctuated equilibrium” in evolutionary theory — not a gradual, amorphous process with no particular oversight, but something that happens in bursts of activity separated by long periods of time. (Of course, he sees this really as “intelligent design”!) That is, “Pentateuch 1.0″ becomes “Pentateuch 2.0″ by way of the relatively small editorial additions that are made by one who knows the content of the Tanak forwards and backwards, and who has read the Pentateuch through the prophets, and who wants to tie it all together for the reader.

    This is way different from any documentary hypothesis or form-critical theory that imagines different disconnected authorial voices with various religio-political agendas sort of randomly contributing to a textual stewpot. (Most of these theories would be happy to date most of the Tanak back only as far as a post-exilic redactor!)

    In contrast, Sailhamer manages to preserve the idea of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, make sense of the occasional redactional tweak in the texts, and incorporate the long-range view of someone who is standing at the end of OT revelation (after the exile) and is looking forward to the world of NT rev that is just around the corner. And as Jed hints, the “final form” is just a way of saying that the Tanak is more than just the sum of its books — that is to say, it’s a book in itself, the older books being incorporated into a whole by someone who knew what they meant to say.

    Make sense?

  10. David R. said,

    May 5, 2011 at 12:25 am


    I think Sailhamer views the final form of each book, as well as the final form of the entire Pentateuch (and for that matter, of the entire OT canon), as the product of a post-exilic editor.

    Thanks, Paige. I think I appreciate what you’re saying about Sailhamer’s view of the “intelligent design” of the Pentateuch as well as Mosaic authorship. My perhaps simplistic understanding of the traditional view of canon formation is that the original autographs were preserved, copied and eventually compiled. But this compilation process didn’t involve any editing of the original material. But in Sailhamer’s view, the post-exilic editor had a hand in the authorship of some of the material and is thus “inspired” in the 2 Timothy 3:16 sense. Is this correct? If so, this seems somewhat radical as we would now have to view the final form of the Pentateuch (as well as of the individual books) as dating back only to the post-exilic period.

  11. paigebritton said,

    May 5, 2011 at 6:04 am

    David –
    Yes, this is a new way of looking at it, which is why I am writing these reviews! It’s either wishful thinking on Sailhamer’s part, or something startlingly good to know about the text. I appreciate your concern, there, but add these three thoughts to the mix:

    1. He means early in the 2nd Temple period, like about when they got the cornerstone in (I believe he suspects Ezra as the prophet-scribe who added the redactions.) (Sometimes we forget that the 2nd temple period began while the last OT books were being written!)

    2. He is able to show that the supposed additions are in keeping with the original meaning of the Pentateuch as understood by the prophets — so what he sees as coming from an editor’s hand really acts like the tying of a string around a package, just to make sure you get it all safely delivered. The package is still the original package.

    3. It’s undeniable that there are editorial additions in the Pentateuch. (Just think, “Who wrote the part about Moses’ death in Deut. 34??” :) Sailhamer points out more subtle ones than those you’d notice right off, lots about how poetry has been tweaked here and there — I personally cannot judge the validity of those more subtle claims, so I’m eagerly awaiting some scrutiny from the right quarters. But his case is compelling, if he’s right about them. Anyway, we have to make sense of the redactions because they are there; and Sailhamer makes sense of them in a way that does not cost us inspiration, Mosaic authorship, or the intelligent design of the human author.

    Sound intriguing? Stay tuned… :)

  12. jedpaschall said,

    May 5, 2011 at 10:14 am

    There is a great review of Sailhamer in the most recent issue of Themelios. It is definitely worth checking out. Here’s the link –

    Magnum Opus and Magna Carta: The Meaning of the Pentateuch

  13. paigebritton said,

    May 5, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Thanks for finding that, Jed! Good stuff — and I appreciate how the writer lays out some of the points where Sailhamer’s ideas need to be reexamined. (We will get to them here soon.) Hopefully IVP has done an upgrade on the text of Sailhamer’s book by now (I passed along about fifty typos, and found another just this morning!). Definitely a text in need of a redactor.

  14. David R. said,

    May 6, 2011 at 11:12 am

    Thanks, Paige. Yes, it does seem like that last paragraph of Deuteronomy would have had to have been written toward the end of the Deuteronomic history.

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