Antony F. Campbell and Mark A. O’Brien, Rethinking the Pentateuch: Prolegomena to the Theology of Ancient Israel.
(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005). Pp. xv + 183. Paper, US$29.95. ISBN: 0-664-22809-7.
Reviewed by Lissa M. Wray Beal
Providence Theological Seminary

Campbell and O’Brien propose a “radically new insight that eliminates the documentary sources from the Pentateuch altogether” (p. xiii). It is not an “obligatory replacement” (p. 5) of the Documentary Hypothesis, but a non-exclusionary possibility for describing the pentateuchal compositional process and purpose.

Two “major transformations of mind-set” (p. 16) are argued. First, the pre-canonical text is not composed of fragmented sources but is a base-text of acknowledged varying and optional traditions. Second, users (storytellers and others) found in the base-text a resource for instruction and entertainment by the narration of Israel’s story. The first transformation moves attention away from recovery of sources behind the variant and seemingly repetitive traditions; sources are no longer a necessary explanation. The second transformation focuses attention on the given form of the user’s base-text as a resource for theological reflection. Rethinking, in a conscious reference to Wellhausen’s seminal work, is a prolegomena to this new enterprise.

The need for such a new proposal, its shape, and its consequences are treated in the preface and chapter one. Chapter two presents evidence for moving from a source approach to a base-text approach, namely, the lack of a P text in Genesis (and the Pentateuch [which then suggests the elimination of a J or E text]), and the brevity and variance (repetition) of story texts, which suggests user-selection to build a sustained narrative. Chapter three applies the base-text-for-user approach to the Pentateuch. Identifying varying traditions within the base-text (e.g., Abraham family traditions, El-Shaddai tradition, Rebekah tradition, etc.), the authors present “one possible outcome” of the method (p. 25). This outcome traces the story in Genesis as stories of humanity, the Abraham and Jacob cycles, and a Joseph story; in Exodus-Numbers as two alternate narratives of the exodus; and in Deuteronomy as a call to ideal human living. The chapter demonstrates the places where choices of expansion, selection, and enhancement of the text were made by users. For instance, options are present in Jacob’s reunion with Esau: one recounts reconciliation; the other hostility (p. 44). Reuben’s part in Joseph’s tale is a “valued enhancement” (p. 64). The storyteller selects the options, enhancements, etc. according to the theological reflection pursued. Appendices, including an annotation of base-text Genesis 1-Exodus 40 and Numbers 1-24 revealing expansions, enhancements, and alternate traditions, support the arguments.

No longer fragmenting the text in a search for sources, Campbell and O’Brien work with blocks of narrative supplemented by editorial enhancements, blendings, and linking bridges in a manner similar to a redaction-critical approach. The approach is selective, however, as it does not apply to legal texts. Only narrative texts, and specifically, “storytelling texts” provide the base for such selection (comprising less than 45% of the Pentateuch by the authors’ calculation [p. 18]).

It is partly on these criteria that Leviticus is not considered base-text, and a slight page is devoted to it (p. 89). This appears problematic on three counts: first, narrative still exists within the legal materials of Leviticus, and Leviticus is an integral part of the pentateuchal narrative complex—can it be so readily set aside without further comment or exploration? Second, traditional P texts are included elsewhere in the base-text (p. 15); if such texts are included as base-text, why not Leviticus? Third, Campbell and O’Brien pass over Leviticus because of its “unmoving focus on the life of the postexilic community [which] gives Leviticus a unity of its own and withdraws it from the purview of the discussion here.” But since dating of the base-text is not explored, it seems arbitrary to limit the process to a period before the postexilic era. Finally, even Deuteronomy, although described as a legal and hortatory text, is given several pages; why not the legal narrative of Leviticus?

The work is presented as prolegomena to a new possibility. The new nature of the text as base-text-for-user raises questions for further exploration: while it is possible, is it probable? For instance, if a base-text-for-user approach was accepted in ancient Israel, why were there not other such collections produced by different communities of thought? Would not such alternate (or earlier) versions be extant? How to account for a text of alternates and options that can be read as a coherent presentation (a coherency argued by recent narrative approaches)? Why not simply collect the traditions thematically, or by affiliation to group? Why go to the effort of combining the various alternates only for disbanding in selective retellings? The idea of base-text-for-user is one of the areas that this prolegomena must explore further.

Finally, it is claimed that the base-text approach “gives identity, meaning, and a sense of destiny to a people” (p. 100). But, can a strong identity be forged when one’s past recorded in a discrete collection is intentionally able to be told differently every time? Does that not instead suggest an amorphous identity shaped by the exigencies of the storyteller’s situation?

This book enables a new way to think about the text’s nature and its users, and refocuses on the theological reflection the present text supports. Although its vision is possible, the above comments limit its probability in this reviewer’s mind. I would recommend this book for those interested in exploring issues of pentateuchal composition.