Review of Peterson, “The Authors of the Deuteronomistic History”

I recently received a review copy of Brian N. Petersons’s The Authors of the Deuteronomistic History: Locating a Tradition in Ancient Israel (Fortress, 2014). My research involves the book of Judges, and so I was eager to read this account of the authorship of the Historical Books, of which Judges is of course a part. I was particularly intrigued by the auspicious word “Ancient” in the title, as it gives a sufficient clue as to just what the book aims to do.

In sum, Peterson undertakes the task of identifying specific persons and their provenances who were responsible for the authorship and later handling and editing of the books of the Deuteronomistic History, or “DtrH” (Deuteronomy – 2 Kings). In his attempt to do so, Peterson suggests that this large section of the Old Testament canon was originally written by Abiathar, high priest of King David from Anathoth, who passed it on to his sons and later Anathothian priests, and was eventually finalized by Jeremiah or Baruch. Abiathar, to Peterson’s mind, had the knowledge, opportunity, and personal motivation to begin compiling the Deuteronomistic History, and to then bequeath it to the later custodians to continue the enterprise. He calls his book a “whodunit?” sort of investigation.

Locating a Tradition in the Academy

Of course, Peterson must deal with the mountain of secondary literature on this topic, the vast majority of which is set against his position. The default position is rooted in the work of a figure no less formidable than Martin Noth. Essentially, Noth was the first to suggest that the Historical Books were written not by anyone contemporaneous to the events themselves, but by a 6th century BCE author who was prompted by the events of the fall of Jerusalem and subsequent exile.

Martin Noth and a cigar

This anonymous author set out to account for those traumatic events using the language and theology of the book of Deuteronomy (hence “Deuteronomistic History”). Not long after Noth put forward this idea, Frank Moore Cross developed it by suggesting that the DtrH was initially part of King Josiah’s legal reforms, only to be later revised by Noth’s initial proposed author. The Deuteronomistic History hypothesis has undergone countless tweaks and re-evaluations in the last fifty years, even as it has become the default critical position in the academy. For his own part, Peterson poses his thesis as in fact not contradictory at every point to Noth’s view, but suggests that the holes in the consensus view commend reconsideration.

Evaluation & Prospects

Personally, I found this work refreshing. It was good to read a book that treats the Old Testament texts as credible within their own purported historical setting, rather than as necessarily late, retrospective efforts at national identity formation, or theological power claims within a dispossessed community. At the very least, I hope the broader academy can accept Peterson’s efforts as an interesting intellectual exercise in that respect, even if his thesis will face staunch opposition (if it is given attention at all). I have since read at least one other review of the book that is nothing more than a “mightier than thou” dismissal of Peterson as “naïve.” This type of dismissing attitude is unfortunately acceptable, or at least expected, in the biblical studies community.

While I am not entirely convinced that Abiathar is the “culprit” for original authorship, it is very plausible, and Peterson’s case is persuasive overall. His proposed time frame for its original composition and later growth certainly provides a suitable interpretive context. Furthermore, Peterson’s argumentation considerably strengthens the warrant for holding to early authorship of the DtrH.

Review of Peterson

Without further delay, here is my full review, which will come out in due time in JETS.

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