Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

John Van Seters, The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the “Editor” in Biblical Criticism (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2006).  Pp. xvi + 428.  Hardcover, US$44.50.  ISBN 978-1-57506-112-2.

            The Edited Bible is a massive book both in quantity and quality. The author brings us back to the basic principles of the philological-literary and historical foundations of Biblical criticism. His goal is to examine fundamental notions that are taken by scholars as axiomatic and are instrumental in the realm of Biblical studies. The fundamental issue of this book is the critical matter of editorial or redaction criticism. Since the days of Julius Wellhausen scholars maintain that the Pentateuch is actually a composition of three or even four edited works that were put together by final editors as one book and that its origins might be reconstructed due to a careful philological-literary analysis.  In contrast, Van Seters argues that the notion of “editors” is actually a scholarly invention and not more.

            Van Seters’ methodology is a comparative study that is based on the study of the "classical world." In this regard, he provides detailed studies of scholars in Classics in order to draw proper conclusions regarding biblical scholarship. Van Seters’ review of classical literature indicates to him that the role of the editor or the redactor is confined to matters of textual criticism, and the poets or authors took responsibility for their own work, so there is no such a notion of an editor but rather of an author.

            Actually, Van Seters regards the entire scholarship concerning editors and redactors in the realm of Biblical studies as a mistake, due to the early influence of Classics scholarship.  Van Seters claims that the model of editors was rejected in the twentieth century and since then the study of the Classics regards the model of editors as a useless anachronism.  The problem with biblical criticism is that it imitated earlier Classics scholarship but ignored this newer development in the Classics. In brief, Van Seters insists that there are authors—not editors—who take full literary responsibility for the biblical compositions moving from the oral sporadic fragments into written works of their own.  They are the biblical authors.

            No doubt, Van Seters has engaged Biblical scholarship in an important debate regarding the methodological essence of the profession. How did this happened?  How did biblical scholars not notice that the core of their scholarship was faulty?  Van Seters argues that this central model has controlled scholarship; scholars have been enslaved to the paradigm. Scholars working outside these paradigm would have excluded themselves from the mainstream and would have been dismissed.

            There is much in favor of this explanation.  In spite of a fresh interest in theories of literature which could have altered the paradigm of editors, many Biblical scholars read in a fragmented way theories of literature and establish literary axioms that are quite artificial in the eyes of well trained literary scholars. As a result, the methodology criticized by Van Seters remains not only alive but energetic. The conservative guild of scholarship dominates the field.

            There is merit in Van Seters’ claim that biblical works are literary compositions produced by authors and not compilers. This is a significant argument that might turn critical biblical scholarship upside down. However, I am skeptical if Van Seters will succeed in his ambitious task. The point revolves around his methodology. For the crucial argument that the biblical works are actually literary products of authors one cannot rely on the scholarship of the "classical world" and maintain that it has changed its direction. Van Seters relies on secondary sources but not on a detailed literary-stylistic analysis. He explains that he is not a classical scholar but this is a poor excuse. He does not present the internal debate in the study of "classical literature." Actually, it might happen that Classicists of the twentieth century became tired of the analytical-archaeological survey of their own 19th century scholarship and found more attractive subjects of scholarship which pay attention to the work as a whole.

            The model of authors rather than compilers in Biblical studies provides a careful paradigm of literary criticism that asks one fundamental question: What is a literary work? How is it designed? How is it represented? These are difficult questions that are not treated with the necessary depth by Biblical scholars.

            To sum up, this is a coherent book expressed in a clear and loud voice, which opens the door for a review of Biblical critical scholarship. This is an ambitious work which should be read and studied.

Yehoshua Gitay
The Free State University
South Africa