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What is Deuteronomistic History?

Deuteronomistic History audio

Deuteronomistic History is the name given to the group of books known as the “Former Prophets” in the Hebrew Bible (Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 2 Kings) as well as the book of Deuteronomy. Proponents see the Deuteronomistic History as originally a single work composed during the exilic period. The Deuteronomistic History theory holds that, rather than being recorded at the times of the events themselves, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and the books of Samuel and Kings were compiled later to explain why, in light of Israel’s covenant with God, it appeared that God had forsaken Israel, allowing their defeat by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The Deuteronomistic History is seen as an extension of the theology of Deuteronomy—especially the blessings and curses of chapter 28.

Old Testament scholar Martin Noth of the University of Bonn is the name most often associated with the Deuteronomistic History theory, which arose in the first half of the 20th century. Noth considered the book of Deuteronomy to be an introduction to the books of history, rather than a summary of the preceding books of law. He viewed Deuteronomy as having less in common with the first four books of the Bible, in terms of literary style and theological theme, than with the books that followed. Those who have expounded on Noth’s theory thus speak of a Tetrateuch instead of a Pentateuch.

Some aspects of the Deuteronomistic History theory are feasible. For example, there is nothing in the biblical text that would prohibit the “Former Prophets” from being the single work of a single author. Nor is there much of a problem with the exilic date of the work or the perspective of the work, which demonstrates the grace of God as He gave repeated warnings to the monarchs who stubbornly continued in their idolatry. Although there were a few kings who attempted reform in the southern kingdom of Judah, the overwhelming disposition of the kings after David was to forget the commands of God. The writer or writers of the “Former Prophets” would naturally have had a particular perspective and theological agenda governing the production of their work, under the superintending inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The books in question do not claim to be eyewitness accounts, and the author(s) refer to source materials that could be consulted at the time of writing (e.g., the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel, mentioned in 1 Kings 14:19).

Conservative scholars generally reject the idea that the “Former Prophets” are the work of a single author due to stylistic differences among the individual books. Since Scripture does not designate the author(s) of the “Former Prophets,” both a single author and multiple authors are within the realm of possibility. Also, conservative scholars usually date the works in question a little earlier, closer to the time that the events actually happened. Since Scripture never makes a claim as to the dates of these books’ composition, one’s opinion on the dates that they were written is not an issue of inerrancy or inspiration. The exception may be Deuteronomy, which actually claims to be substantially the work of Moses (Deuteronomy 31:9). Jesus also affirmed Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy in Matthew 19:8.

Whether the books of Joshua through Kings were written or edited by a single individual at a later, exilic date or whether they were written by various individuals closer to the times the events recorded happened, there is no objection to referring to Deuteronomy and the “Former Prophets” as Deuteronomistic History as they do share a similar perspective.

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This page last updated: September 15, 2023