Did Moses Write the Torah? (2)

This and the forthcoming post outline the centuries-long discovery that led careful readers, professors, and clergymen alike to conclude from the accruing textual data that the Torah was composed out of, primarily, 4 once separate sources which were later redacted together. This centuries-long discovery culminated in the 19th century with the Documentary Hypothesis, which is still the most reliable hypothesis that explains, and continues to explain with its variations, the textual data observed. The following is again excerpted from my Introduction. It follows directly from Part 1.

Early evidence of post-Mosaic authorship: anachronisms

Not only was the account of Moses’ death to continuously resurface, implying, as the text itself does, that it was written by a later author—“no man has knowledge of his burial place to this day” (Deut 34:6)—but as early as the eleventh century, educated readers of the Bible, Jewish rabbis, and Christian clergy alike, began to notice and comment upon other textual peculiarities and anomalies which the Pentateuch revealed when one assumed the traditional, and then authoritative, designation of its authorship as Moses. The Jewish court physician Isaac ibn Yashush, for example, observed in the later half of the eleventh century that the Edomite kings list in Genesis 36:31-39 could not possibly have been written by Moses; the list recalls names of Edomite kings who were active in the times of David and Solomon. Furthermore, Gen 36:31 strongly implies that its author was writing after the monarchy was established in Israel, since he possesses knowledge of a monarchal period in Israelite history: “These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites.” This passage must have been written by someone living in the 9th century BC at the earliest.

The particular textual anomaly here is what is commonly referred to as an anachronism: something in the time-frame of the narrative actually occurs or transpires much later, outside the time-frame implied by the narrative, and in fact this something often belongs to the historical time-frame of the actual author of the text. This is one means by which scholars are able to date a text. If, for example, a narrative which presents itself in the historical context of the 1920s has its characters use cell phones we would be skeptical about the narrative’s historical veracity. Rather, this would be an anachronism, revealing the narrative’s late twentieth century date of composition and its historical environment. Centuries after Isaac ibn Yashush’s find, biblical scholars will add to Genesis 36’s anachronism by pointing out several other anachronisms in the Pentateuchal narratives, such as the mention of the Philistines in the time of the patriarchs (Gen 26), who, we know from archaeological and extra-biblical records, did not actually occupy the land prior to the 12th century BC; thus, their mention in the time of Abraham is an anachronism and most likely represents the geopolitical world of the 10th and 9th centuries BC when the Philistines played a major role in the politics of Israel. Another commonly mentioned anachronism in Genesis are references to domesticated camels (e.g., Gen 24). Camels were not domesticated until much later and, therefore, reflect the historical reality of a later author’s time period. Indeed, the mention of the caravan of camels in the Joseph story carrying “gum, balm, and myrrh” (Gen 37:25) highlights products that were part of the Arabian trade that flourished in the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Thus whoever authored this passage must have been writing in the 8th or 7th century BC and retrojected the features of his geopolitical world onto the narratives he was composing.

There are additionally numerous political and religious institutions, and even city names throughout the Hexateuch (the books of Genesis through Joshua) which did not exist in the time of the patriarchs, the exodus, the wilderness narratives, or the conquest narratives. That is to say, they did not yet exist in the narrative’s purported historical setting. They are anachronisms and reflect the geopolitical world of a much later time period, the actual author’s time period. The 9th-8th century BC border between the Israelites and the Philistines, for example, is anachronistically portrayed as a treaty made between Abraham/Isaac and the Philistine king Abimelek in Genesis 21:30-32 and 26:32-33. Likewise Israel and Aram’s 9th-8th century BC political border is portrayed through the covenant made between Jacob and Laban. As is visible from these two examples, tribal or kin relationships depicted in the book of Genesis often recall the political realities of a much later time period, that is of the author of the text’s own time period. The relationship between Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25 and 27, which our narrative informs us are eponyms for Israel and Edom respectively, reflects the political relationship between Israel and Edom in the 9th and 8th centuries BC—the time in which this narrative was most likely written, and thus it aims at explaining the origins of its own historico-political circumstances. There are many more anachronisms throughout the Hexateuch and they have served later generations of biblical scholars and readers as clues to the dates of composition of the texts and traditions that make up its books.

An early hypothesis: Moses’ text supplemented by later writers

We should additionally note that Isaac ibn Yashush’s anachronism was never intended to dispute Mosaic authorship, nor to bring it into question. As we shall see throughout the early stages of this brief survey, Mosaic authorship was the traditional given; the textual data observed at this early stage were explained through hypotheses that attempted to preserve Mosaic authorship. Thus, the textual anomalies observed by the twelfth century Spanish rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra—namely that the Pentateuchal phrase “beyond the Jordan” (e.g., Deut 1:1), verses which spoke of Moses in the third person, and descriptions of places where Moses never visited—reflected, he silently acknowledged, the knowledge of a writer of another time and locale. He argued that passages which speak of Moses delivering the covenantal law “beyond the Jordan” is irrevocably penned by someone who lived on the other side of the Jordan, that is by a writer who lived in Israel, west of the Jordan, speaking about Moses giving the law “beyond the Jordan.”

Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah of the thirteenth century additionally observed that whoever penned Genesis 12:6, for example—“at that time the Canaanites were in the land”—must have done so from the perspective of a later time period, that is from the perspective of someone looking back to the era when the Canaanites were indeed in the land. The accumulating evidence led Joseph Bonfils to suggest in the fourteenth century that clearly there were verses and passages in the Pentateuch which were written by later prophets. None of these observations threatened Mosaic authorship per se. In fact, the conclusion drawn from these textual data was that the original Mosaic document must have been supplemented with additional texts by subsequent authors at later periods. One of the last proponents of this thesis was Richard Simon, who, in the seventeenth century claimed that at its core, the laws were derived and penned by Moses; however, much of the remainder of the Pentateuch was added by a later scribe, Ezra for instance. Thus the reigning paradigm, with exceptions, until the beginning of the nineteenth century was the assertion that Moses wrote the laws, and later prophets and writers added material to this.

This paradigm more or less governed the religious thinkers of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, with, however, some significant alternatives in the work of Hobbes and Spinoza. The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes was the first to suggest that Moses did not write the vast majority of the Pentateuch. In book 33 of his Leviathan, published in 1651, Hobbes not only lists many of the textual anomalies already assembled in the centuries leading up to the seventeenth century, but added to these many others. Frequent references by the author(s) of Pentateuchal passages to the political or religious institutions of his day via the expression “to this day,” accruing anachronisms, and the mention of a source by the author of Num 21:14, namely “the scroll of the wars of Yahweh,” are just some of the data that led Hobbes to conclude that Moses did not write the Pentateuch at large. Accordingly, Hobbes asserted that Moses only penned the law code in Deuteronomy 12-26, which he also identified as the “scroll of the torah” found under Josiah’s reign as described in 2 Kings 22:8. The Jewish philosopher Spinoza was less bashful than Hobbes. Contributing to the ever growing list of textual oddities and anomalies which reveled themselves when the Pentateuch was approached from the traditional interpretive belief of Mosaic authorship—frequent references to Moses in the third person, the phrase “to this day,” place names that did not exist at the time of Moses, political events that happened centuries after the time of Moses, etc.—Spinoza, in his 1670 publication Tractatus Theologico-politicus, came right out and boldly asserted that the textual data clearly indicate that Moses did not author the Pentateuch.

Another attempted hypothesis: pre- and post-Mosaic sources

Two other events in the seventeenth century worth mentioning. Both the French Calvinist Isaac de la Peyrère and Richard Simon, a French Catholic priest, published works, which in the light of Hobbes and Spinoza were mild in their claims. Nonetheless, both their books were banned and burned. In his 1655 publication Systema theologicum et praeadamitarum hypothesi, Isaac de la Peyrère suggested, from the growing list of passages that required knowledge of historical circumstances centuries after Moses, that the Pentateuch in its present form is actually a copy of Mosaic material mixed with pre- and post-Mosaic material. De la Peyrère was arrested and forced to recant his position. Richard Simon, likewise, who in his 1678 publication Histoire Critique du Vieux Testament posited that the laws were authored by Moses but the Pentateuchal narratives were penned later by Ezra, was expelled from the clergy. Simon’s appeal to potential sources that Moses used, and conversely those of later writers supplementing Moses’ work, was drawn from accumulating textual data: political and historical anachronisms that were clearly written centuries after Moses, duplicate narratives that often contradicted one another, narratives that often presented poor arrangement and order, and most significantly the observation of different styles, vocabulary, and theological emphases throughout the many Pentateuchal passages—all of which indicated a plurality of authors. For Simon, these differences were explained by postulating the use of variant sources, those used by Moses himself and those added centuries later by Ezra. Although Simon never refuted Mosaic authorship, one-thousand three hundred copies of his book were nevertheless destroyed, and Protestants quickly armed themselves with lengthy refutations of his claims.

Simon’s claim that sources were used in the composition of the Pentateuchal narratives fueled the next century’s biblical discoveries. Three intellectuals of the eighteenth century each independently drew similar conclusions in their assessment of the Pentateuchal text—namely, that it was composed of (at least) two distinct sources.

The two-source hypothesis: the ‘Yawhist’ and the ‘Elohist’

The German Lutheran minister Henning Bernhard Witter, the French physician for Louis vx, Jean Astruc, and a professor of Göttingen University by the name of Johann Gottfried Eichhorn each separately came to the conclusion that the Pentatuech must be a composite of, primarily, two sources. It was Witter, who in the early century (1711) postulated a two-source hypothesis based on the distinction of two different appellations for Israel’s god in the opening creation accounts of the book of Genesis. Witter observed that Genesis 1:1-2:3 consistently and exclusively used the Hebrew word elohim (“god(s)”), while Genesis 2:4-3:24 consistently and exclusively used the Hebrew name Yahweh when referring to the deity. It should also be mentioned that Witter was still working within the paradigm handed down to him by the previous century’s critics—namely that Moses used sources in his composition of Genesis. Thus for Witter, these two sources distinguished themselves from each other not only by the difference in portrait and appellation of Israel’s god, but also in terms of doublets and differing styles.

It was not, however, until the 1753 study by Astruc, Conjectures sur les mémoires originauz dont il paroit que Moyse s’est servi pour composer le livre de la Génèse (Conjectures on the original sources which Moses apparently used in composing the book of Genesis), that the impact of this discovery was felt. Astruc not only labeled these two sources the Elohistic (from the Hebrew elohim) and the Jehovistic (from the mistaken medieval pronunciation of the tetragrammaton, YHWH), but he also noticed that these two sources exhibited other differences besides the two distinct appellations of Israel’s deity, and furthermore that these differences extended throughout the book of Genesis. For example, these two sources also displayed differences in style, vocabulary, and even theological emphasis. Most impressively, this two source hypothesis was able to explain successfully the book of Genesis’ duplicate narratives, discordant chronologies, and even contradictions. Astruc claimed that these discrepancies were the result of the combination of these two sources by Moses. The work of Eichorn follows more or less that of Astruc: Moses used two identifiable and independent sources, whose separate identities are discernable from the difference in their appellation of Israel’s deity—Yahweh and elohim—as well as differences in style, and narrative repetitions of the same event.

It should be stressed that Witter, Astruc, and Eichorn were not arguing against Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Rather, the critical discussion revolved around the potential sources that Moses used in composing the Pentateuch, and the post-Mosaic sources used by later writers who appended material to the core Mosaic text. In fact Astruc was a stanch defender of Mosaic authorship: Moses had allegedly used antiquarian sources for his composition was the claim.

The beginning of the nineteenth century, however, was marked by a radical shift in the understanding of the compositional history of the Pentateuch. Noting the Pentateuch’s anachronisms, numerous contradictions, duplicate stories, and stark differences in style and vocabulary was just the tip of the iceberg in unraveling the Pentateuch’s complex compositional history. Now, all indicators suggested that the text could not possibly have been penned by Moses, let alone any single author. By the beginning of the nineteenth century nearly all critical scholars of the Old Testament rejected the idea of Mosaic authorship. ….  Stay tuned to find out why….

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2 Responses to Did Moses Write the Torah? (2)

  1. Ania McElroy says:

    “Yhvh alhim” ( just between Gen 2 and Gen 3 mentioned at least 30 times ) means existing forces/ powers in exact , grammatically accurate Hebrew translation designating plural and multiple .
    If we could use idiomatic translation this phrase should be translated as ” forces of nature” .
    The idea of “one god” never appears in the Pentateuch , but it comes from rabbinic interpretation .
    How can you study this text without learning Hebrew first is beyond my comprehension .

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