The Imaginary Deuteronomists

I enjoy Margaret Barker’s work, but I take it with quite a few grains of salt. One of the basic assumptions of her work is that the Hebrew bible was corrupted by a group of people called the “deuteronomists.” This is derived from a theory in biblical studies, articulated in the work of Martin Noth beginning in the 1940s.

Noth imagined that a single deuteronomist was responsible for producing an ideologically slanted history from the book of Deuteronomy to 2 Kings. Later scholars ran with his idea and found “deuteronomic” influence elsewhere, eventually seeing a deuteronomist conspiracy in the time of Josiah and beyond.

Like anything in biblical studies, what started as a simple discrete theory was turned into THE GRAND EXPLANATION for huge numbers of things we see in the bible. And again, it’s a core assumption in the work of Margaret Barker.

But is it true?

Well, that’s hard to answer. But what we can say definitively is that the biblical scholarship supporting the idea of “deuteronomists” has become a joke.

What follows are some quotes from biblical scholars frankly acknowledging this in the excellent book Those Elusive Deuteronomists. Enjoy…

Today all is changed. The additional adjective ‘Deuteronomistic’ has been coined, and its influence is all-pervasive. Graeme Auld refers to Deuteronomism (sic) as ‘an internationally traded currency’. I myself wrote recently that ‘the Deuteronomists have sometimes been praised or blamed for virtually every significant development within ancient Israel’s religious practice’, and tried to warn against the danger of ‘pan-Deuteronomism’. The problem has been steadily increasing.

We thus find ourselves confronted with dates ranging from the eighth to the third centuries as the suggested period in which Deuteronomistic influence was at its height. (All this, of course, is purely within the range of critical scholarship; if we include within our consideration conservatives who claim to detect signs of traditions going back to Moses himself that will of course extend the range of possible dates still more widely.) Yet of so wide-ranging and influential a movement there is no external evidence of any kind; the whole history of tradition has to be worked out by inference. Deuteronomistic influence may be traced, but there is still no agreement as to who the Deuteronomists were.

-Richard Coggins, What Does ‘Deuteronomistic’ Mean?

According to O.H. Steck, the Deuteronomistic movement, supported by Levites from the Judaean countryside, existed over an astonishing period of half a millennium! For him, the movement persisted and produced literature until around 200 BCE, when it broke up into the vast Hasidic movement. Such a prolonged duration of the ‘Deuteronomic’ or ‘Deuteronomistic’ movement seems also to have been accepted without reservation by Old Testament scholarship.
In the meantime, of course, the members of this movement are hardly thought to be passing through the villages as Levite preachers; the teachers of the Deuteronomistic school never do this. However, the Deuteronomic movement and the Deuteronomistic school, as categories in Old Testament exegesis, are constantly appealed to, particularly in Germany, and recently in the form of an even more imprecise term, ‘Deuteronomism’. The number of authors belonging to this ‘movement’ constantly increases—especially in the exilic, Persian and Greek periods—and the number of biblical texts composed, edited or at least added to by them also expands. Some years ago, in order to be considered good, an Old Testament specialist had to reconstruct a primitive decalogue or a new festival; today, a self-respecting doctoral student has to find the hand of a Deuteronomist somewhere in the Bible. This is the only way into the guild.

-Norbert Lohfink, Was There a Deuteronomistic Movement?

First, if Deuteronomistic literary activity was as extensive as the pan-Deuteronomists have suggested, then it may be necessary to alter our concept of Deuteronomism. Instead of thinking of the Deuteronomists as a small discrete group working at a particular time (whenever that may have been) and with particular interests in mind, it may be necessary to explore the possibility that Deuteronomism was a wide-ranging movement that was much more diverse than scholars commonly think and that was active over a very long period of time. There is, however, a second alternative. Recent research may in fact have demonstrated, unwittingly, that the concept of Deuteronomism has become so amorphous that it no longer has any analytical precision and so ought to be abandoned. At the moment I still lean toward the first alternative, but the second is becoming increasingly attractive. It is one that the ancient author of the Sumerian King List would have understood. If everybody is king, then in fact nobody is king. Current trends in Deuteronomistic research may thus force scholars to take seriously the possibility that if everybody is the Deuteronomist, then there may be no Deuteronomist at all.

-Robert R. Wilson, Who Was The Deuteronomist? (Who Was Not The Deuteronomist?): Reflections On Pan-Deuteronomism

So how are scholars finding these imaginary “deuteronomists” all throughout the Hebrew bible? Here’s a relevant YouTube video:

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