Before Abraham Was: A Provocative Challenge to the Documentary Hypothesis.

by Isaac M. Kikawada and Arthur Quinn. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1985. Paper. $12.95. 144 pages. Bibliography.

       Challenges to the Documentary Hypothesis from fundamentalist and evangelical authors are not unusual. From the moment the hypothesis was first proposed, it was challenged. The German scholars Keil and Delitzsch were two of the first, back in the second half of the 19th century.
       What makes Before Abraham Was so significant is the fact that the authors of the book and their publisher could not be found guilty of the charge of fundamentalism. Abingdon is an old Lutheran publishing house, and the authors are both (or were at the time the book was published) professors at the University of California, Berkeley -- hardly a hotbed of evangelicalism.
       So what do these two Berkeley professors do? According to the blurb on the back of the book:

       Rebelling against a century of Old Testament scholarship, Isaac M. Kikawada and Arthur Quinn persuasively argue that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are not a literary patchwork by different editors as widely supposed, but are the work of one author of extraordinary subtlety and skill.
       Comparing Genesis 1-11 with primeval histories from the Ancient Near East, Kikawada and Quinn urge their readers to appreciate the ingenuity of Genesis's author: "When we think we find this author napping, we had better proceed very carefully. As with Homer or Shakespeare, when you think you have seen something wrong, there may well be something wrong with your own eyes. You are more likely to be wrong than either of them."
       Providing a solid case for the unity of Genesis's first eleven chapters, Kikawada and Quinn move on to show how these chapters provide a formal structure for other Old Testament histories....

       This is remarkable; as an evangelical, I was excited by the prospect of mainstream scholars finally facing the difficulties with a theory that I had rejected on my own after studying about it in high school and college. Kikawada and Quinn point out the value of the theory in that he pointed to the difficulties with the biblical text, but the challenge the validity of the theory as an explanation for those difficulties encountered. In other words, though 19th century scholarship was useful for pointing at problems and pushing readers past a naive approach to the materials, it failed at coming up with an explanation for what was really going on.
       Kikawada and Quinn have done a remarkable job at explaining why the documentary hypothesis is untenable, and clearly explain what is going on in Genesis 1-11. Moreover, they make the following important point in the epilog:

       We would be remiss if we did not raise one final issue. The documentary analysis of the Bible, whether intentionally or not, has gone hand-in-hand historically with an ethical condescension to, or even rejection of, the Bible. The documentary analysts conclude that the Bible is literarily primitive; cultural critics conclude that it is morally backward as well.
       To our mind this ethical anti-Semitism has received its most forceful formulation since Nietzsche in Simone Weil's profound and justly famous essay on The Illiad. There she contrasts the humanity of the Greeks with the chauvinism of the Hebrews. She groups the Hebrews with the murderous Romans as peoples who "believed themselves exempt from the common misery of man" and who therefore treated their "vanquished as an abomination." She adds, "The Romans and Hebrews have been admired, read, imitated in actions and in words, cited every time there was need to justify a crime through 20 centuries of Christianity."

       Kikawada and Quinn are not the first to point out the anti-Semitic character and motivation of the Higher Critical approach that arose in Germany in the middle of the 19th century. It is useful to see it coming from mainstream scholars outside Israel.


Reviewed by R.P. Nettelhorst
Academic Vice President, Quartz Hill School of Theology
Editor, Quartz Hill Journal of Theology