Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Authorship of the Pentateuch

Who wrote the Pentateuch?

Easy answer, of course: God.
"The books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself" - Vatican II's Dei Verbum

This truth is not negated by the fact that there is also a more complex answer to this same question. While other religious traditions often claim divine inspiration for their sacred text to have come directly from a locution from God (e.g. Islam's Koran), Christianity makes no such claim for its sacred book. Oh sure there are many visions that take place in the Bible, but with only a few exceptions the texts were written down in a different time and place than the events which are contained therein. Furthermore, each book was written by a different author, using linguistic styles, genres, and patterns of thought particular to that author's time and place. It is the Christian view that it was through this marvelous interplay of time, space, and authorship that the Holy Spirit used men as the instrument of recording spiritual truths, and that the result we have today is, in fact, a reliable product of the Word of God.

So, back to the original question, phrased a little more pointedly: what human agent did God use to record the spiritual truths He conveyed to us in the first five books of the bible?

Now that one's a little more tricky.

The traditional position has always been that Moses authored the Pentateuch. Even the New Testament makes a reference to a passage in Deuteronomy, referring to the "book of Moses" (2 Chr 25:4). Yet, if the reference is to be interpreted to mean that Moses physically wrote down all that was contained therein, it makes one curious how Moses could have written thus: "So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-pe'or; but no man knows the place of his burial to this day. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated." (Deut 34:5-7)

Now it should be noted that, although for most of Christian history the literal Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch has been pretty much taken for granted (with the possible exception of ascribing that last passage to Joshua), there have been a few voices all along, that were attentive to this potential discrepancy, and sought to find other explanations for it. St. Jerome, for example, who translated the scriptures into Latin, thought that the Pentateuch had been assembled by the Old Testament priest Ezra, who pieced it together from notes handed on from Moses. No one else, however, picked up on this idea, and it fell out of favor.

Enter the "Documentary Theory." In the 1700s, a French theologian made the astute observation that some portions of Genesis used the Hebrew word "Elohim" for God's name, while others used "Yahweh." In and of itself, this observation doesn't necessarily mean much. But over time others began to discern that, in addition to these differences, there were other differences in style between different books, and even within the same book (For example, some sections are fond of geneology lists, others use narrative stories, others are more prophetic, etc.). Furthermore, there are several rather curious repetitions of the almost identical story, such as when Abraham, not once but twice pretends Sarah is his sister, for fear of having a king kill him in order to steal her for his wife. The strategy almost caused disaster the first time, so one would think that Abraham would have learned and wouldn't have tried it again...

Over time, scholars have taken all this data, and added it to others, to come up with what is called the "Documentary Theory." The specific details of the theory are, well, rather boring, but the overview is, to me at least, interesting. In short, the idea is that there were four separate sources which were later edited and compiled together to form what we now know as the Pentateuch. These sources are the Yahwist (J, because Yahweh begins with "J" in German), Elohist (E), Priestly (P), and Deuteronomist (D). Various passages throughout the five books are then assigned to a particular source, based upon the style of language, and the particular emphasis of the text. Now, by "source", it should be noted that a source didn't necesarily correspond to an individual author - it could have been a group of people over time. Specifically, much of the text could have developed from oral history traditions, which were part and parcel of the ancient cultures. If this is the case, how could they have ever been ascribed to Moses, you ask? Well, for one thing, ancient Israel wasn't burdened by zealous copyright laws, like we are. By ascribing something to an individual, it didn't necessarily mean that that individual had said or written that exact text. It certainly included that as a possibility, but it also could mean that the author was merely ascribing their words to be "in the tradition of" the individual. So, for example, Moses certainly handed a wealth of knowledge on to the Israelites, who then could have passed them on orally from generation to generation, finally writing down pieces of the teaching, perhaps adding some reflections of their own gained from hundreds of years of living under the Mosaic law. Finally, the process could have ended with the oral teachings being committed to writing in forms J,E,P, & D, and then undergoing a period of several hundred years' worth of editing and merging, to finally produce the version we have today, which is known to go back at least to around the year 450 B.C. Or so the theory goes.

I should note that this is only a theory, but it really is an intriguing theory. My Old Testament professor indicated that he doesn't ascribe to this theory exactly, but personally ascribes to a different modified form of it. He didn't go into detail. The problem is, there's a lack of archaeological evidence to either support or disprove this theory - it's simply a hypothesis gleamed from reading the styles present in the text. So someday it's possible that there could be a discovery which enables us to know more for certain, one way or the other, but at present it's all speculation.

One final point I should also make: I suppose it's possible for someone to wonder why we should be concerned with this at all. If we know the Bible to be the word of God, then what difference does it make how the text came to be in the first place? It's a good question. In fact, for many years the Catholic Church was even critical of efforts which used these methods known as "historical-critical methods", and for a particularly good reason - the Modernist crisis was brewing and many opponents of the Church were using these methods to "disprove" the Bible. But fortunately that time is past, and the Church recognizes that, when used properly and not to the exclusion of other methods of scriptural interpretation, these methods can serve to help further illustrate the truths in the Bible, and help propel us to a deeper understanding of God's saving action throughout history, and in many cases a more accurate interpretation of the texts themselves. Pius XII in his 1943 encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu said "Let those who cultivate biblical studies turn their attention towards this point and let them neglect none of those discoveries, whether in the domain of archaeology or in ancient history or literature, which serve to make better known the mentality of the ancient writers, as well as their manner and art of reasoning, narrating and writing." That's a pretty tall order, and we can feel confident that there will be enough discoveries throughout our entire lifetime to always keep things interesting. And more importantly, that the Church will always be there to help discern the good fruits of these efforts from the bad fruits.

I'm learning some fascinating stuff in this class...


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