Since the beginning of modern biblical studies, there have been various theories about how the Pentateuch came to be composed from earlier sources or layers of tradition. The method for reconstructing these earlier sources or layers is known as literary criticism. Literary criticism seeks explanations for the various signs of disunity in the text, such as contradictions, inconsistencies, two versions of various stories (e.g. the story of Abraham’s wife Sarah in Egypt), redundancies, and other such features which readers have noticed in the biblical text. Literary criticism’s explanation is that these problems are a result of the development of the text from earlier sources or traditions.
How did these developments take place? The current biblical text might have been added to by supplements over time, or by editors making minor adjustments here and there, or perhaps an author combined multiple sources at one point in time. For about 100 years, one theory dominated literary criticism of the Pentateuch, and that was the Documentary Hypothesis. Under the Documentary Hypothesis, it was posited that the Pentateuch was primarily a combination of “Priestly” and “pre-Priestly” written sources (or “documents”). The Priestly sources are denoted by the siglum “P”, and the pre-Priestly sources by a variety of terms, the Yahwist “J” (after the German “Jahwist”), Elohist “E”, and various pre-J sources. In addition, a deuteronomic author “D” was responsible, primarily, for the book of Deuteronomy. Proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis concluded that Priestly and pre-Priestly sources could be traced throughout the books of Genesis-Deuteronomy.
Over recent decades, however, the Documentary Hypothesis has been criticised on various grounds. For example, the traditions identified as Priestly in Genesis and parts of Exodus seem to have a different character from those identified as Priestly in Leviticus and again from those in Numbers. The so-called Priestly traditions in Numbers generally seem to be a later development, dependent on those in Genesis-Leviticus. Also, there does not seem to be any Priestly source that continues to the final chapters of Deuteronomy. And therefore, there are no longer good grounds for viewing the so-called Priestly source as a continuous source stretching throughout the Pentateuch. It has become very difficult to identify continuous written sources, or documents, behind the Pentateuch. Pentateuchal scholars have suggested, instead, that the process by which the Pentateuch was composed may have involved sources or traditions that did not span the whole Pentateuch. The process seems to have involved more fragmentary sources or traditions, and there is more importance given to the role of the author or authors (or “redactors”) who were responsible for bringing the five books of the Pentateuch together.
However, none of this undermines literary criticism’s identification of disunity in the text. Just because it has become difficult to show how the whole Pentateuch came together does not mean that literary criticism has nothing to contribute to individual passages within the Pentateuch. We need to distinguish the big project of Pentateuchal criticism, the macro-level in which the whole Pentateuch was composed, from the micro-level in which we can identify the joining of sources and traditions.
The classic example demonstrating how literary criticism works is the story of Noah’s Ark. Genesis 6-9 provides a reasonably clear example of the joining of two sources (identified as J and P under the Documentary Hypothesis). But I want to suggest that we should start somewhere else entirely: with the story of David and Goliath, outside the Pentateuch, in 1 Samuel 16-18!
The story of David and Goliath, in contrast with the story of Noah’s Ark, has survived in two quite different manuscript traditions, one much shorter than the other. The shorter manuscript tradition is represented by the Greek Septuagint (LXX). The LXX provides us with actual empirical evidence for one of the sources in the longer story of David and Goliath. The longer story is found in modern English versions of the Bible, and is based on the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT). Therefore, by comparing the LXX and MT, we can see how the MT has combined two earlier sources. The MT has combined the LXX source and (at least) one other source.
What do we gain when we compare the two sources within the story of David and Goliath? There are many inconsistencies and contradictions in the longer story of David and Goliath (the one in your English version of the Bible). But all of these inconsistencies and contradictions are explained as the combination of the two earlier sources – one of which still exists in the LXX!
One of the best discussions of the two sources within the story of David and Goliath is by Emanuel Tov. Please have a read of his article, “The David and Goliath Saga: How a Biblical editor combined two versions”, first published in Bible Review 2:04, Winter 1986.
Once we see that the Bible combines earlier sources, we can make sense of the inconsistencies in the story of David and Goliath.
For example, the LXX has King Saul taking David into his service and making him his armour-bearer. Goliath – standing at an impressive 6′ 9″ – would challenge Israel in the hearing of Saul and David (1 Samuel 16.1 – 17.11). But the other source in the longer MT has David suddenly switch to being a young shepherd boy. David arrives at the battle scene only after Goliath’s challenge, and in order to bring his older brothers some food (1 Sam. 17.12-31).
In the LXX, David, as Saul’s armour bearer, recounts how he used to kill lions and bears with his bare hands, back in the days when he was a shepherd boy. David then volunteers to confront Goliath, and kill him with his slingshot (1 Sam. 17.32-49). But in the longer MT, David, is still a young shepherd boy. David defeats Goliath without any sword in his hand. In this MT, the dead Goliath grows to a superhuman 10-feet tall (1 Sam. 17.50; cf. MT 17.4)
In the LXX, David takes the giant’s sword in his hand and chops off Goliath’s head, taking the head to Jerusalem – ignoring any Jebusites currently in residency there (1 Sam. 17.51-54). In the additional sections in MT, Saul does not recognise the boy, because he hadn’t been in his service as his armour bearer. David returns from battle for a second time, this time as a shepherd boy. David has the head of Goliath in his hand, which for some reason is no longer in Jerusalem (maybe the Jebusites gave it back?) Saul asks “who the hell are you?”, as though he had never seen him before, and David introduces himself to Saul as though the man and boy had never met (1 Sam. 17.55-58).
The two different versions of the David and Goliath story provide empirical evidence of what literary criticism has argued about the development of the Pentateuch. 1 Samuel 16-18 is, then, a good place to start in explaining what Pentateuchal literary criticism seeks to achieve.