John Van Seters

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John Van Seters (born May 2, 1935 in Hamilton, Ontario) is a Canadian scholar of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Ancient Near East. Currently University Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, he was formerly James A. Gray Professor of Biblical Literature at UNC. He took his Ph.D. at Yale University in Near Eastern Studies (1965) and a Th.D. h.c. from the University of Lausanne (1999). His honours and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEH fellowship, an ACLS Fellowship, and research fellowships at Oxford, Cambridge, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, and National Research Foundation of South Africa. His many publications include The Hyksos: A New Investigation (1966); Abraham in History and Tradition (1975); In Search of History (1983, for which he won the James H. Breasted Prize and the American Academy of Religion book award); The Edited Bible (2006); and The Biblical Saga of King David (2009). [1]



Van Seters did his undergraduate degree in Near Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto (honors B.A., 1958) and his graduate studies in Near Eastern Studies at Yale University (M.A., 1959; Ph.D,1965). He also received a theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary (B.D., 1962).


Van Seters’s first academic appointment was at Waterloo Lutheran University (now Wilfrid Laurier University), Waterloo, ON, Canada, as assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies (1965–67). He then accepted a position at Andover Newton Theological School (Newton, MA) as associate professor of Old Testament, 1967-70. From there he returned to his alma mater in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto, 1970-77. In 1977 he accepted the position as James A. Gray Professor of Biblical Literature in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (1977–2000). He retired in 2000 as Distinguished University Professor of Humanities (emeritus) and returned to Canada where he resides in Waterloo, Ontario.

Research and Publication

Van Seters’s doctoral dissertation was on the problem of the Hyksos (Yale, 1965), and published as The Hyksos: A New Investigation (1966). It challenged the consensus view about these foreign rulers of Egypt in the mid-second millennium BCE on a number of points. On the matter of their origins, they were not Hurrians from northern Syria and Anatolia, they did not invade Egypt with chariots and horses and their capital city of Avaris was not to be located in the vicinity of Tanis. Instead, these foreigners came from southern Palestine, migrating into the eastern Delta during a period of political decentralization in the Second Intermediate period and eventually established the capital of their kingdom, Avaris, at Tell ed-Dab‘a. All of this was later confirmed by archaeological excavations at Tell ed-Dab‘a and at Tell el-Maskhuta in the Wadi Tumilat, one of the overland routes of entry into Egypt from Asia.

Van Seters's Abraham in History and Tradition (1975) argues that no convincing evidence exists to support the historical existence of Abraham and the other Biblical Patriarchs or the historical reliability of their origins in Mesopotamia and their exploits and travels as depicted in the book of Genesis. This book attempts to undermine both the Biblical archaeology school of William F. Albright, who had argued over the previous fifty years that the archaeological record confirmed the essential truth of the history contained in Genesis, and the "tradition history" school of Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth, which argued that Genesis contained a core of valid social pre-history of the Israelites passed down through oral tradition prior to the composition of the written book itself. In the second part of the book, Van Seters went on to put forward his own theory on the origins of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), arguing, with Martin Noth, that Deuteronomy was the original beginning of a history that extended from Deuteronomy to the end of 2 Kings. However, against Noth and others, he held that the so-called Yahwist, the oldest literary source in Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, was written in the 6th century BCE as a prologue to the older Deuteronomistic History, and that the so-called Priestly Writer of the Pentateuch was a later supplement to this history. This approach represented a revival of the "supplementary hypothesis" of a previous era of Pentateuchal studies. This literary hypothesis was expanded and defended in several of Van Seters’ later works. Along with similar revisionist works by Hans Heinrich Schmid of Zurich and Rolf Rendtorff of Heidelberg, published in 1976 and 1977, this led to a major reevaluation in Pentateuchal criticism. Abraham in History and Tradition, alongside The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives of Thomas L. Thompson, created a paradigm shift in biblical scholarship and archaeology, which gradually led scholars to no longer consider the patriarchal narratives as historical. [2] [3]

Van Seters next undertook a major comparative study of ancient historiography, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (1983), which was recognized by the awards of James H. Breasted Prize of the American Historical Association, (1985), and the American Academy of Religion Book Award in Historical Studies (1986). The book made a comparative study of early Greek historiography down to the time of Herodotus, and various genres of Mesopotamian, Hittite, Egyptian and Levantine historiography as background for understanding the rise of historiography in ancient Israel. Special attention was given to a critical literary analysis of the so-called Deuteronomistic history from Joshua to 2 Kings.

Van Seters combined his strong interest in historiography with his revisionist work in Pentateuchal criticism in a detailed study of the Yahwist as an "antiquarian" historian writing about Israel’s origins under the influence of Babylonian civilization while in exile in Babylonia during the 6th century BCE. This study is reflected in Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Genesis (1992) and The Life of Moses: The Yahwist as Historian in Exodus-Numbers (1994).

Most student handbooks on Pentateuchal studies are committed to a particular methodological approach or school of thought and largely ignore alternative theories of the Bible’s compositional history. Van Seters’ introduction, The Pentateuch: A Social-Science Commentary (1999) attempts to summarize the complex state of Pentateuchal research at the end of the 20th century and to locate his own method of Pentateuchal criticism, which is socio-historical and literary, within this scholarly context.

A dating of the Yahwistic source in the Pentateuch as later than Deuteronomy also has serious implications for the history of law in the Pentateuch, because it means dating the so-called Covenant Code of Exodus 21-23 later than Deuteronomy instead of earlier and suggests a major revision in the development of Hebrew law. Van Seters attempts just such a reevaluation of legal history among the biblical codes in A Law Book for the Diaspora: Revision in the Study of the Covenant Code(2003).

One of the foundational concepts in the literary criticism of the Hebrew Bible in general and the Pentateuch in particular is the notion that the various literary components, whether small or large, were put together by redactors or editors rather than authors in the modern sense. Furthermore, this editorial process is thought to have continued until the whole biblical corpus reached a definitive "canonical" form in the early Roman period. Van Seters, in The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the "Editor" in Biblical Criticism (2006), in his most radical work to date, seeks to completely demolish any such notion of ancient editors, which was introduced into classical and biblical studies in the late 18th century. The study traces the long history of the use of "redactors" in higher and lower criticism in both classical and biblical scholarship, and he concludes that scholarly editors responsible for the reproduction of classical and biblical texts only arose in the 16th century. Such editors are completely anachronistic when applied to ancient literature.

Some regard part of the David story as the pinnacle of ancient Israelite historiography and a product of the Solomonic "enlightenment." As such it is considered indispensable for understanding the history of the Davidic-Solomonic period. Van Seters, in The Biblical Saga of King David (2009), argues that the David story does not reflect the conditions of a rather small settlement in Jerusalem in the 10th century.


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Related Research Articles

Book of Genesis First book of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament

The Book of Genesis is the first book of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. In Judeo-Christian traditions it is viewed as an account of the creation of the world, the early history of humanity, Israel's ancestors, and the origins of the Jewish people. Its Hebrew name is the same as its first word, Bereshit.

Documentary hypothesis Hypothesis to explain the origins and composition of the Torah

The documentary hypothesis (DH) is one of the models historically used by biblical scholars to explain the origins and composition of the Torah. More recent models include the supplementary hypothesis and the fragmentary hypothesis. All agree that the Torah is not a unified work from a single author, but is made up of sources combined over many centuries by many hands. These models differ on the nature of these sources and how they were combined.

Historicity of the Bible Relationship between historic and Biblical events

The historicity of the Bible is the question of the Bible's relationship to history—covering not just the Bible's acceptability as history but also the ability to understand the literary forms of biblical narrative. One can extend biblical historicity to the evaluation of whether or not the Christian New Testament is an accurate record of the historical Jesus and of the Apostolic Age. This tends to vary depending upon the opinion of the scholar.

The Deuteronomist, abbreviated as either Dtr or simply D, may refer either to the source document underlying the core chapters (12–26) of the Book of Deuteronomy, or to the broader "school" that produced all of Deuteronomy as well as the Deuteronomistic history of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings and also the book of Jeremiah. The adjectives "Deuteronomic" and "Deuteronomistic" are sometimes used interchangeably; if they are distinguished, then the first refers to the core of Deuteronomy and the second to all of Deuteronomy and the history.

Elohist One of the four sources of the Torah in the documentary hypothesis

According to the documentary hypothesis, the Elohist is one of four source documents underlying the Torah, together with the Jahwist, the Deuteronomist and the Priestly source. The Elohist is so named because of its pervasive use of the word Elohim to refer to the Israelite god.

Jahwist One of the four sources of the Torah

The Jahwist, or Yahwist, often abbreviated J, is one of the most widely recognized sources of the Pentateuch (Torah), together with the Deuteronomist and the Priestly source. The existence of the Jahwist is somewhat controversial, with a number of scholars, especially in Europe, denying that it ever existed as a coherent independent document. Nevertheless, many scholars do assume its existence, and date its composition to the period of the Babylonian captivity or perhaps somewhat later. The Jahwist is so named because of its characteristic use of the term Yahweh for God.

Priestly source One of the four sources of the Torah in the documentary hypothesis

The Priestly source is perhaps the most widely recognized source underlying the Torah. It is both stylistically and theologically distinct from other material in the Torah, and includes a set of claims that are contradicted by non-Priestly passages and therefore uniquely characteristic: no sacrifice before the institution is ordained by Yahweh (God) at Sinai, the exalted status of Aaron and the priesthood, and the use of the divine title El Shaddai before God reveals his name to Moses, to name a few. In general, the Priestly work is concerned with priestly matters – ritual law, the origins of shrines and rituals, and genealogies – all expressed in a formal, repetitive style. It stresses the rules and rituals of worship, and the crucial role of priests, expanding considerably on the role given to Aaron.

The Exodus Founding myth of the Jewish people

The Exodus is the founding myth of the Israelites. It tells a story of Israelite enslavement and departure from Egypt, revelations at biblical Mount Sinai, and wanderings in the wilderness up to the borders of Canaan. Its message is that the Israelites were delivered from slavery by Yahweh their god, and therefore belong to him by covenant.

<i>Abraham in History and Tradition</i>

Abraham in History and Tradition is a book by biblical scholar John Van Seters.

The Covenant Code, or Book of the Covenant, is the name given by academics to a text appearing in the Torah, at Exodus 20:22-23:19; or, more strictly, the term Covenant Code may be applied to Exodus 21:1-22:16. Biblically, the text is the second of the law codes given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai. This legal text provides a small but substantive proportion of the mitzvot within the Torah, and hence is a source of Jewish Law.

Rolf Rendtorff was Emeritus Professor of Old Testament at the University of Heidelberg. He has written frequently on the Jewish scriptures and was notable chiefly for his contribution to the debate over the origins of the Pentateuch.

Mosaic authorship Belief that the Torah was dictated to Moses by God

Mosaic authorship is the traditional Judeo-Christian belief that the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, were dictated to Moses by the Abrahamic God. The books do not name any author, as authorship was not considered important by the society that produced them, and it was only after Jews came into intense contact with author-centric Hellenistic culture in the late Second Temple period that the rabbis began to find authors for their scriptures. The tradition that Moses was this author probably began with the legalistic code of the Book of Deuteronomy and was then gradually extended until Moses, as the central character, came to be regarded not just as the mediator of law but as author of both laws and narrative.

Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels is a book by German biblical scholar and orientalist Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) that formulated but did not found the documentary hypothesis, a theory on the composition history of the Torah or Pentateuch. Influential and long debated, the volume is often compared for its impact in its field with Charles Darwin's 1859 work, On the Origin of Species.

The Making of the Pentateuch by R. N. Whybray, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament Studies at the University of Hull (UK), was a major contribution to the field of Old Testament studies, and specifically to theories on the origins and composition of the Pentateuch. Its originality lay in its detailed critique of the documentary hypothesis, and it remains a standard text on many reading lists.

Bernard Malcolm Levinson serves as Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies and of Law at the University of Minnesota, where he holds the Berman Family Chair in Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible. He is the author of Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, "The Right Chorale": Studies in Biblical Law and Interpretation, and Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel; and is the co-editor of The Pentateuch as Torah: New Models for Understanding Its Promulgation and Acceptance. He has published extensively on biblical and ancient Near Eastern law and on the reception of biblical literature in the Second Temple period. His research interests extend to early modern intellectual history, constitutional theory, the history of interpretation, and literary approaches to biblical studies.

Alexander Rofé is Professor Emeritus of the Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Supplementary hypothesis

In biblical studies, the supplementary hypothesis proposes that the Pentateuch was derived from a series of direct additions to an existing corpus of work. It serves as a revision to the earlier documentary hypothesis, which proposed that independent and complete narratives were later combined by redactors to create the Pentateuch.

Hans Heinrich Schmid was a Swiss Protestant Reformed theologian, University Professor and University Rector.

Gary A. Rendsburg

Gary A. Rendsburg is a professor of biblical studies, Hebrew language, and ancient Judaism at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He holds the rank of Distinguished Professor and serves as the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair of Jewish History at Rutgers University (2004–present), with positions in the Department of Jewish Studies and the Department of History.

Composition of the Torah The origins and composition of the Torah

The composition of the Torah was a process that involved multiple authors over an extended period of time. While Jewish tradition holds that all five books were originally written by Moses sometime in the 2nd millennium BCE, by the 17th century leading scholars had rejected Mosaic authorship.


  1. Equinox Books - Author/Editor Details: John Van Seters
  2. Dever, William G. (2001-05-10). What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 98. ISBN   978-0-8028-2126-3. There are a few sporadic attempts by conservative scholars to "save" the patriarchal narratives as history, such as Kenneth Kitchen [...] By and large, however, the minimalist view of Thompson's pioneering work, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, prevails.
  3. Grabbe, Lester L. (2007). Some Recent Issues in the Study of the History of Israel. British Academy. doi:10.5871/bacad/9780197264010.001.0001/upso-9780197264010-chapter-5. ISBN   978-0-19-173494-6. The fact is that we are all minimalists -- at least, when it comes to the patriarchal period and the settlement. When I began my PhD studies more than three decades ago in the USA, the 'substantial historicity' of the patriarchs was widely accepted as was the unified conquest of the land. These days it is quite difficult to find anyone who takes this view.
  4. Seters, John Van (2010). The Hyksos: A New Investigation. Wipf and Stock Publishers. ISBN   978-1-60899-533-2.