Category: Soul Sightings Published on Thursday, 03 February 2011 00:00 Written by RABBI JACQUELINE ROMM SATLOW - Director, Center for Jewish Culture, UMass Dartmouth
God told Moses on Mount Sinai and Moses wrote it down, word for word, and told the people. Those are the simple origins of the Bible according to Jewish (and Christian) religious tradition.
The first five books of the Bible are also known as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Together, those 5 books are called the Torah or the Pentateuch and religious tradition directly attributes those books to God through the mouth of Moses. For many centuries, serious readers of the text have had real questions about this tradition. First of all, it is a supernatural explanation and the world we live in seems to be lacking in supernatural elements. In addition, the style of the writing (in the original Hebrew) is not consistent throughout the entire 5 books. Moreover, the Bible contains phrases which seem to indicate that it was edited many years after the events described. For example, many things are said to happen, "even until today." (Gen. 20:37). Often the text describes the same events twice and the details are different. (Gen. 1-3). In the book of Deuteronomy, the text describes Moses' death. How could that description have been written down by Moses? (Deut. 34) Moses is frequently described as the humblest man on the earth. (Num 12:3) Humble men rarely describe themselves in that way. The Edomite kings in Gen 36 lived long after the death of Moses. How would he know about them? The text refers to land "... on the other Side of the Jordan..." (Deut 1:1) as if the speaker was standing west of the Jordan River, and Moses never crossed to that side of the Jordan.
Many famous thinkers in the history of Western thought asked these questions. Those people included Rabbi Ibn Ezra in 12 c. Spain, the early Christian theological writer Origin in 2nd c Alexandria, Thomas Hobbes in 17th c Britain, and Baruch Spinoza in 17th c Amsterdam. There were many others. Some of the people asking these questions came up with elaborate answers. Some were severely punished by the authorities. Some of them came up with the idea that the Bible was actually written down over a period of 1,000 years by several different writers and combined by a later editor. We call this theory the documentary hypothesis. If you would like to know more about it, “Who Wrote the Bible?” by Richard Elliott Friedman does a good job of explaining earlier scholarship as well as supplying some of his own ideas.
Who cares? The implications of the documentary hypothesis for the authority of the text are enormous, but I am out of space now. I look forward to writing more on this question in the future.