Is the Old Testament a Hoax?
Written by Paul D. Race for School Of The Rock
One of the most complex and widespread attacks on the traditional view of the origin of the Hebrew Scriptures is sometimes called the "documentary hypothesis." Simply put, this is a sort of conspiracy theory that claims that most books of the Old Testament were spliced together (centuries later than they purport to be written) by one or more unknown scholars who were combining multiple sources, sometimes with great cleverness sometimes with unforgivable stupidity. According to the documentary hypothesis, these unknown editors and authors deliberately rewrote history to give the Jews a sense of national origin and purpose that did not align with the facts.
God's Name in the Creation Accounts - One thing that seemed to make this hypothesis compelling is that splicing of at least two sources is apparent in the early chapters of Genesis. (There is probably no other reasonable information for the fact that the creation of mankind is related twice—1:27 and 2:7.)
One highly poetic account describes the "grand scheme" of God creating the universe in six days; another, more prosaic account focuses on God's interactions with mankind from the creation of Adam to the Fall. No one should be upset by the fact that the accounts overlap chronologically; the Old Testament is known for completing one story line, then going back in time to pick up another.
Most interestingly, the two accounts in the early chapters of Genesis use different names for God. (Note: I am no Hebrew scholar, so I'm relying on the work of other people for the next bit—if I've misquoted anyone or gotten anything turned around, I apologize.)
The God of the Old Testament has many names and titles, including Jehovah (Yahweh or YHWH), Elohim, and Adonai. To some extent, which name is used in any given passage of the Hebrew Bible seems to depend on the context and on which aspects of God are being emphasized.
In some contexts, the use of Elohim seems to emphasis the authority and sovereignty of God. I am told that Elohim is actually a plural, which might be the reason God says "our image and likeness." Elohim might occasionally be translated as "the Godhead" without doing damage to the apparent meaning of scripture.
Because the name Jehovah (YHWH) means "I AM WHO AM," it technically refers to God's eternal nature (it is translated "L'Eternal" in French translations of the Old Testament, if that's any help). But in many contexts, the use of the name Jehovah (YHWH) seems to refer to God's covenantal and personal relationship with the Jewish people and with individuals. You can tell where the name Jehovah (YHWH) is used, even in English Bibles, because it is shown by the word "LORD" with little capital letters like the example in this sentence. In Genesis 1:1-2:3 Elohim is used by itself. But starting with Genesis 2:4, the name Jehovah (or Yahweh or YHWH, if you prefer) is added.
Jews and Christians alike have long believed that the author of Genesis was recording accounts that had originally been created by other people and had been passed down orally for generations. So the fact that one account calls God "God" and the other account calls God the "LORD God" shouldn't challenge anyone's faith.
Slicing and Dicing
Nevertheless this difference between which name of God is emphasized in a passage led some scholars on a sort of scavenger hunt for evidence that the entire Pentateuch (not just the first three chapters) was cobbled together from different sources. If a verse used the name Elohim and the next verse used the name Jehovah (YHWH), they must have been written by two different people. In a number of cases, individual verses were cut apart and assigned to different authors.
Eventually, the folks doing this realized that, if their hypothesis was true, there must have been more people involved, including the unknown genius who supposedly pulled together all of these different sources into a sum that was greater than its parts, and then convinced his contemporaries that the end result was five or six centuries old. Needless to say, that would have been a literary feat unequaled in any age. Imagine someone with the ability of Tolkien to weave classic myths into a grand coherent sequence, a con-man’s ability to represent a contemporary work as a centuries-old manuscript, and a Machiavellian approach to his own religion that allowed him to lie to his countrymen about the most important spiritual writings of his own faith. So if you go along with the people who believe that the Pentateuch that has come down to us is, essentially, a forgery, and if you’ve ever read anything else written before, say 500BC, you have to credit this “redactor” with being the greatest literary mind of the millenia. Why haven’t we heard more about this towering genius? Because he doesn’t exist in history - he only exists as the theoretical construct necessary to explain how all the other supposedly individual strands of text were eventually woven together into what we know as the Pentateuch.
But if you start with the fictional guy who mostly called God Jehovah (YHWH), add the fictional guy who mostly called God Elohim and the fictional genius who pulled it all together, you still haven’t invented enough fictional authors to cover all of the ways God was discussed in the Pentateuch. So instead of admitting that maybe it was one guy who changed his tone and vocabulary when he changed topics (like virtually every great writer ever), you have to invent two other fictional authors to fill in the gaps in your own hypothesis.
These hypthetical sources were each eventually assigned names - well, initials:
- J refers to a hypothetical source that used the name Jehovah (YHWH) extensively.
- E refers to a hypothetical source that used the name Elohim extensively, and often exclusively.
- D refers to the hypothetical author of Deuteronomy, which doesn't break down conveniently into J and E.
- P referred to a hypothetical unknown priest who supposedly added information that was devotionally or ceremonially important.
- R referred to the hypothetical brilliant, but historically invisible redactor, the editor who did the final combining of source materials into something like the Pentateuch we have today.
It's not surprising that the documentary hypothesis is often called the JEDP theory. One problem with the theory is that once you get past the early chapters of Genesis, you no longer find the obvious distinctions in the usage of God's name that you find in the first few chapters. However, this didn't stop the intrepid theorists from identifying verses throughout the Pentateuch (and some other books as well) with one or the other of their hypothetical contributors.
As time went on, each of the hypothetical contributors was assigned certain characteristics based on what content each seemed to emphasize. Then, as scholars waded into passages that they couldn't sort out by simply looking at the name of God, they began sorting by what topics were being emphasized or what kinds of lessons were being taught, as though they could "read the minds" of their hypothetical authors and editors enough to claim that "This sounds like something P would say."
The documentary hypothesis claims other supporting evidence, such as the fact that some events seem to recur, albeit with slight variations. The classic JEDP explanation is that one event was J's version, one event was E's version, and so on. Then they assume that "R" or some earlier editor was alternately too stupid to realize that he was dealing with duplication of subject matter in some instances and brilliant enough to weave both accounts seamlessly into the same chronology in others.
A person who is new to this sort of slicing and dicing might reasonably ask, "Why should JEDP theorists treat Moses as a myth at the same time they were treating the entirely hypothetical constructs J, E, D, P, and R as real persons?" Another question might be: why would apparently intelligent men base their academic reputations, if not their souls on a hypothesis that is based on another hypothesis that is based on another hypothesis, an intellectual house of cards? One answer is that there was a 60–100-year period (depending on where you were) in which, if you did otherwise, your papers wouldn't get published and you wouldn't get the best jobs in the most prestigious seminaries. In some cases, professors addicted to JEDP have made it virtually impossible to get through seminary if you were "stupid enough" to believe anything else.
Rewriting Israelite History to Support the Documentary Hypothesis
Worse yet, the JEDP house of cards became the foundation for another round of increasingly subjective guesswork about the history of the ancient Hebrews. In order to buy enough time for all these original texts to be created, cobbled together, and then accepted as scripture, JEDP theorists placed the final redaction ("R") at a relatively late point in history, after the return from the Babylonian Exile, about 539 BC. If you can make people believe that the documents supporting monotheistic Judaism as we know it did not really solidify until the sixth century BC or later, and that you have deciphered the true (J, E, etc.) original versions of those documents, you can rewrite the intervening history any way you wish. So a new "history" of ancient Israel, based on the JEDP guesswork, arose and began to be taught as fact in seminaries that had taken all of the underlying hypotheses to heart. One short version of that history could be summarized as such:
- Abraham probably never existed and the Hebrews' ancient migration from southern Mesopotamia probably never occurred.
- Rather, the ancient Hebrews (according to this theory) started out as a loose confederation of Canaanite tribes that clustered in the defensible hills and shared much of the culture of their Canaanite neighbors.
- As the fortunes of these tribes waxed and waned, a growing sense of nationalism began to make the Hebrews feel more akin to each other and more distinct from their neighbors.
- Encouraged by their religious leaders, the Hebrews gradually disposed of some of the other Canaanites' offensive practices (such as temple prostitution) and allowed themselves to be herded toward monotheistic religious principles.
- Nationalistic visionaries began weaving the tribal myths into a supposed national history, and religious visionaries were clever enough to begin writing down religious precepts and crediting them to mythical figures, such as Moses.
- Then came a massive deportation of Israel's intelligentsia into Babylon, followed by their children's return a generation or so later. This bitter experience both filtered and galvanized the beliefs and traditions of the Jewish leaders into something resembling Judaism as we know it.
- About this time, an unknown scholar commited the greatest hoax of history - he reworked a large and diverse body of historical and religious material into the books that we've come to know as the Pentateuch and pretended that a fictitious figure named Moses had written written it. He or some contemporary edited other bits and credited them to other potentially fictitious figures such as Joshua, David, Solomon, and many others. (In other words, according to folks who promote the JEDP theory of Biblical authorship, the Old Testament is a great hoax and forgery. Which, of course would make both Judaism and Christianity frauds by any definition.)
- Eager to see their ancient history in flattering terms (and perhaps to avoid offending Jehovah and getting deported again), the Jews who had just returned from Babylon and Persia universally accepted the recently-completed Torah as a reliable ancient document and spent the next two and a half millennia treating it as if it were divinely inspired.
This is one, simplified version of the scenario JEDP theorists present for the origin of the Pentateuch. There are others. Some of them push the redaction (or assembly of the Pentateuch into something like its present form) two or three centuries earlier. But few of the "alternate histories" are any more palatable than the one I have outlined to anyone who is used to thinking of Abraham, Moses, and David as historical people. Today, quite a few people in positions of religious or academic authority "know" that the history I just described (or something similar to it) is the "real one," and will become angry and insulting if you tell them it is only an unproven theory based on other unproven, and increasingly untenable theories.
Archaeology Tends to Discredit a Late Redaction
It is worth knowing that the foundations of the JEDP theory were laid at a time when we had few Old Testament manuscripts that dated from before 900 A.D., in an era when archeologists knew only a fraction of what we know today about the history of ancient Israel and the surrounding nations. Since then, the Dead Sea Scrolls have given us much additional light on the age of Hebrew Scriptures, and archeologists have found many pieces of archaeological evidence that support Biblical accounts of ancient Jewish history. Chances are very good that if the JEDP hypothesis and the resulting revision of ancient Jewish history were not already ensconced, they would not receiving a hearing at this time—there is too much evidence to the contrary. But since they have become entrenched in so many institutions, they are likely to continue to plague "Bible scholarship" and diminish the faith of the credulous for years to come.
Internal Literary Evidence Discredits a Redaction of the Historical Books
One of the most compelling non-archaeological arguments I have read against the documentary hypothesis came from a Hebrew scholar who looked at the literary integrity of the Old Testament. In 1981 Robert Alter listed and defined close to a dozen literary conventions that are visible throughout the "historical narratives" of the Hebrew Scriptures. As a sometime literature professor myself, I had noticed some of these, but I don't know Hebrew, so I wasn't certain how much of what I was witnessing was the result of the translations I was using. Fundamental Christians should note that Alter does not make the claim that the Bible is inspired or that Moses actually wrote the Pentateuch. However he does make the claim that the Pentateuch and similar "historical" books of the Old Testament show unity of theme, purpose, and technique, that have been totally overlooked by the JEDP theorists. In some cases this unity goes a long way toward disproving the claims of the documentary hypothesis. Instead of a redactor cutting and reassembling multiple source streams with alternating spurts of genius and cluelessness, Alter hypothesizes that each book could have been written by a single intelligent author who is consistently and remarkably sensitive to many demonstrable nuances of Hebrew language and literary conventions. In one summary, Alter lists [my bullets]:
- the deployment of thematic key-words;
- the reiteration of motifs;
- the subtle definition of character, relations, and motives mainly through dialogue;
- the exploitation, especially in dialogue, of verbatim repetition with minute but significant changes introduced;
- the narrator's discriminating shifts from strategic and suggestive withholding of comment to the occasional flaunting of an omniscient overview;
- the use at points of a montage of sources to catch the multifaceted nature of the . . . . subject.
—Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, (Basic Books/Perseus Books Group, 1981) (ISBN: 0-465-00427-X) p. 176
For the last century or so, it has been common for JEDP theorists to hypothesize multiple authors whenever the tone or emphasis of a book changes (I would hate to see what they would do with the works of Twain, Joyce, or Faulkner). In contrast, Alter and others have pointed out the core conventions of Hebrew writing that remain consistent across such shifts, implying a singularity of purpose and technique throughout passages, and entire books that the JEDP theorists have traditionally "sliced and diced." Alter's observations, of course, do not "prove" that any particular person authored any particular book but it makes the documentary hypothesis even less defensible, no matter how strongly it is entrenched in certain academic and religious institutions.
And the Beat Goes On
In recent decades, the attraction and apparent usefulness of the documentary hypothesis has waned; but scholars who have been telling their students for decades that Moses is a myth are loath to admit they could be wrong. So the documentary hypothesis, and the resulting "histories" of Judaism as a gradually evolving Canaanite sect will likely continue to hold sway in many circles.
There is no question that I have failed to explain all of the arguments in support of the "documentary hypothesis" clearly. But neither have I explained all the arguments against the hypothesis. This is simply a review of the issues involved and an effort to show that no one has definitively taken any particular ancient author such as Moses out of the equation yet, in spite of all claims to the contrary. Rather, the last millennia's most comprehensive and self-confident attack on the reliability of the Old Testament scripture is rapidly losing steam, even in circles that are loathe to return to the possibility that the books are as old and as inspired as they claim to be.
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