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Wiseman hypothesis

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The Wiseman hypothesis, sometimes called the tablet theory, is a third theory of the authorship and composition of the Book of Genesis, occupying a medial position between traditional Dictation Theory (that God dictated Genesis to Moses on Mount Sinai) and the Graf–Wellhausen or documentary hypothesis, popularly known as JEDP. The theory suggests that many passages used by Moses or other authors to compose Genesis originated as histories and genealogies recorded in Mesopotamian cuneiform script on baked clay tablets, handed down through Abraham to later Hebrews.

Subsequent studies

Wiseman hypothesis

Air Commodore P. J. Wiseman, a British officer who visited many active archaeological sites during his career, proposed that the key to separating the original tablets could be found in the ending colophon (publishing) of each. In his forward to the revised edition of Wiseman's book, his son, Donald Wiseman, wrote the following concerning subsequent research that has elucidated the place of colophons in ancient literature from the second millennium BC and before:

Since this book was first written there have been many more colophons discovered among the cuneiform texts which have been found in Babylonia. They have been published by H. Hunger, Babylonische und Assyrische Kolophone (1968) and by E. Leichty, "The Colophon" in Studies Presented to A. L. Oppenheim (1964), pp. 147–54. These substantiate the references to this scribal device which is the "key" to the elucidation of the documents which were composed in Genesis.
    Recent discoveries of Semitic literature from Syria and Mesopotamia, among them many dated texts ca. 2300 BC – notably the finds in 1975–76 from Tell Mardih (Ebla) and, from a millennium later, the Akkadian texts from Ras Shamra (Ugarit) – show the continuity in tradition both of scribal education and literary practices. In many instances tablets show them to have continued virtually unchanged for a further two millenniums. Unlike the Wellhausen theories, based on subjective assessment of the Hebrew text alone, these extra-biblical documents give us fixed and dated points along this stream of tradition . . . To the present writer the particular value of this theory in relation to Genesis is the implication of the early use of writing, with the possibility that Genesis 1–37 could be a transcript from the oldest series of written records.[1]

In essence the Wiseman Hypothesis is that the phrase "these are the generations of ...", which is found repeatedly in Genesis (Genesis 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1; 36:9; 37:2)is a typical colophon found at the end – not the beginning – of a tablet containing family history. The name which follows the colophon is that of the author or the owner of the tablet, not necessarily the subject of the tablet. Thus the first of these toledoth (Hebrew for "generations") passages, Genesis 2:4, refers to the preceding account of creation rather than being the introduction to the succeeding account.

Although most passages can be conformed to this pattern, there are several that do not appear to follow it. It is difficult to see Genesis 36:1 as referring to the preceding passage regarding the activities of Esau's rival, Jacob and even less likely that Jacob would own a tablet listing the rulers of Edom (37:2) apparently long after his time! On the other hand, if we consider that 36:1 and 36:9 introduce the tablets that follow, we would have to consider them clumsily interpolated into the account of Jacob's life story to which 37:2 forms the colophon.

Support for the Wiseman Hypothesis is found in the works on textual criticism and literary analysis of the Hebrew Bible by R. K. Harrison, notably in his massive Introduction to the Old Testament, where he wrote, "His [Wiseman's] approach had the distinct advantage of relating the ancient Mesopotamian sources underlying Genesis to an authentic Mesopotamian life-situation, unlike the attempts of the Graf–Wellhausen school, and showed that the methods of writing and compilation employed in Genesis were in essential harmony with the processes current among the scribes of ancient Babylonia."[2]

These examples are discounted by scholars who follow Wellhausen and the Documentary hypothesis, since the central basis of the Documentary hypothesis is that the Pentateuch is mostly a work composed by unknown editors and authors who lived much later than the time of Moses. R. K. Harrison asserts that this approach means these scholars often miss valuable information, as derived from archaeology and a knowledge of literary conventions in the ancient Near East, which helps explain the Biblical text.[3]

See also


  1. D. J. Wiseman, preface to Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis, pp. 8,9.
  2. R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969) p. 64. See also Harrison's elucidation of the use of colophons in Genesis, and their archaeological background, on pp. 543–552.
  3. Harrison, Introduction p. 545.


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