Traditional View vs Historical Criticism
The Context of the Bible
The word “Bible” derives from the Greek “Ta Biblia,” which means “The Books.” It is the sacred text of Judaism and Christianity, arguably the most influential book of all time.
Throughout the centuries, the Bible has enthralled people of all walks of life and personal backgrounds through the timeless power of its message and through the beauty of its literature, and scholars throughout the centuries have devoted to its study an entire apparatus of critical analysis — called biblical exegesis — generally approached in one of two ways: Jewish and Christian scholars study it with the belief that it is the inerrant and inspired Word of God, whereas the scholars of historical criticism, whose origins go back to the medieval period and reached their peak with the German scholar Julius Wellhausen in the nineteenth century, attempt a critical evaluation of the text, unbounded by its religious constraints.
The Bible is a collection of books that naturally lends itself to critical examination; a collection of over sixty books, written by over forty authors over a period of time spanning fifteen centuries, and addressing timeless issues that speak to the deepest recesses of our soul, from death to meaning, from suffering to love, from punishment to a promised future without tears and pain, it is also a book solidly grounded on historical events and physical places that have led archeologists to important recoveries in the Middle East and Egypt.
Because of this human workmanship and of their placement in a definite temporal and spatial dimension, yet addressing eternal truths and the Divine, the Scriptures have always given scholars a reasonable motive to critique them.
This critical exegesis of the Bible, however, has morphed throughout history. Although early scholars, such as Saint Augustine, attempted a critical study of the biblical text in the light of their coeval scientific views of the world, they always attempted biblical exegesis under the conviction that the divine aspect of the text had the absolute preeminence over the human, thus preventing the scholars from attempting a more “sacrilegious” critical analysis of the text.
This all changed between the 18th and 19th centuries, thanks to the discipline of historical criticism, as it emerged in Germany and was devoted to the exact and profound evaluation of the biblical text.
Historical criticism has generated a towering resistance from people and scholars championing the accuracy and truthfulness of the Bible; yet, however controversial, it has produced a penetrating investigation of the text of the scriptures, and must therefore be examined in the light of its claims and findings.
Historical criticism asks questions regarding the authors of the books of the Bible, their sources and relative reliability, as well as the accuracy in the transmission of the text.
Even though Jewish and Christian experts may complain about the fact that such an approach lowers the Scriptures to the level of any other human literary work, critical scholars have the right to analyze a text written by fellow humans with the intent of deciding upon its veracity.
Historical Criticism has the merit of having shown light on many biblical accounts, based on archeological recoveries and historical cross-references, and has fostered a more mature and critical approach to the historical aspect of the text.
So, who wrote the Pentateuch? One of the claims of modern critical scholars following Julius Wellhausen is that the first five books of the Bible, known as “The Torah” (from the Hebrew, “instruction”), or “The Pentateuch” (from the Greek, “five scrolls’) were not written by Moses, as Jewish and Christian traditions claim, but by various authors over a long period of time, between the ninth and the fifth or fourth century B.C., thus reflecting different social and historical changes.
The Traditional View
I will first present a broad evaluation of Moses’ alleged authorship of the Pentateuch, with an analysis of a specific account taken from the five books traditionally attributed to him. I will then follow with the view put forward by the scholars of historical criticism, and see how the two views stack up.
According to Jewish and Christian tradition, internal evidences lead to think of Moses as the one and only author of the Pentateuch; first of all, the Pentateuch was written by a Hebrew familiar with Egyptian and Arabic cultures. Since strangers were not taught Egyptian learning, which was for priests and the royal family only, Moses was the only known Hebrew that met this qualification (Acts 7:22; Hebrews 11:23-29).
Furthermore, a few circumstances seem to suggest that the writer of the books was not familiar with Palestine and knew of it only by oral tradition: for example, the crop sequence connected with the plague of hail in Exodus 9:31-32 reflects familiarity with the Egyptian climate.
Also, typically Egyptian are the trees and the animals mentioned in Exodus through Deuteronomy. They are also found in the Sinai Peninsula, but not in Palestine; for example, the shittim or acacia tree, whose wood was used for building the Tabernacle, is found in Egypt and the Sinai, but not in Canaan. The lists of clean and unclean animals of Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 also reflect species not native to Palestine.
In support of Moses’ authorship of all the five books of the Pentateuch, the traditional biblical scholars mention geographical references as well. In Genesis 13:10, for example, the writer compares the vegetation of the Jordan Valley with the eastern part of the Egyptian Delta region. This detail seems to indicate that he was writing to people not acquainted with the Geography of Palestine. The reference to Kirjath-arba (pre-Israelite name of Hebron), which in Numbers 13:22 is placed “seven years before Zoan in Egypt,” seems to imply that the readers were acquainted with the details about the founding of Zoan, but not with the founding of Hebron, destined to become one of the most important cities in Israel.
Furthermore, Genesis 33:18 mentions “Salem, a city of Shechem in the land of Canaan.” Traditional scholars highlight the fact that people living in Palestine around 800 B.C. already knew that Shechem was located in the land of Canaan. Instead, the reference would be pertinent for people living at the times of Moses because they were not yet settled there.
Also, the surrounding environment of the desert is a persistent trait from Exodus 16 to the end of Deuteronomy; this, together with the vast information given on the Tabernacle, sounds anomalous to people living in Palestine more than seven hundred years later, acquainted only with the temple of Solomon.
Traditional scholars point out that it is strange for people living at the times of Ezra to be so interested in the specific details regarding the Tabernacle to devote fifteen chapters of Exodus, three-fourths of Leviticus, and all the references in Numbers and Deuteronomy. No other literary work in history dedicates such careful consideration to a structure that had no connection with the generation for which it was written.
There is more. In the Pentateuch, there are more Egyptian names than in any other part of the Bible, which leads the traditional Jewish scholars to believe that the authorship of the Torah is to be attributed to Moses, who was brought up in Egypt.
Also, if the Pentateuch was composed over a long period of time – usually between the ninth and fifth century B.C., according to the critical scholars – it would be reasonable to find a similarity of key pivotal terms. In fact, the very titles by which God is referred to (YHWH, ELOHIM) are used by the critical scholars to prove the existence of multiple authors for the Pentateuch. Traditional biblical scholars reason that, following the same logic, the readers should find a correspondence or a parallelism of key terms between the first five books of the Bible and other successive books. For example, between 850-450 B.C., the title YHWH seba’òt (translated in English as “the Lord of Hosts”) is used several times; Isaiah (late eighth century, as recognized even by the critical scholars, at least for the first half of the book attributed to him) uses it sixty-seven times, Jeremiah (late seventh and early sixth centuries) uses iteighty-three times, Zechariah (late sixth to early fifth centuries) uses it fifty-one times.
These authors cover more or less the span of time during which the Pentateuch was composed according to the historical criticism position. Yet, this title is never found once in the entire Pentateuch.
Lastly, one more proof brought up by the traditional scholars in favor of Moses’ authorship of the Torah is the agreement in style and terminology of the five books, fact recognized even by the critical scholars.
The View of Historical Criticism
On the other hand, the position held by the critical scholars is that the discoveries made in the past two centuries point towards multiple authors of the Pentateuch, at least four, identified as J (because he always calls God as YHWH), E (because he calls God ELHOIM), P (interested in accounts regarding the priesthood), and D (author mostly of Deuteronomy).
Some scholars of this branch of biblical study think that J, E, P, and D are not single persons, but rather groups of people, even though there seems to be not enough evidence to reach this conclusion.
Furthermore, J and E wrote their text between 922 and 722 B.C., much later than the dates held by the traditional view.
How do they draw such conclusions?
First, the traditional interpretation of Moses as a single author of the Torah presents problems. In the text they find contradictions, repeated stories in different order, duplications, discrepancies, things that Moses could not have done, and words he could not have said – how can the humblest man on earth say he is the humblest man on earth? It sounds a little presumptuous.
One of the first aspects that led the first critical scholars of the medieval period to doubt the authorship of Moses was the presence of doublets, that is stories repeated twice and differing slightly in details. They found many such examples in the book of Genesis, such as the creation of the world, the flood account, the covenant between God and Abraham, and so on. Such doublets are present in all the other books of the Pentateuch.
Another important aspect was the fact that, in one of the two accounts, the text referred to the Deity as YHWH, and in the other one simply as God. Their interpretation was that the two accounts were two different versions of the same story, written by two different authors and later compiled together by a redactor.
A later discovery was that J and E wrote the text at an early stage, when the Israelite religion was connected with nature, D wrote at a middle, more spiritual stage, and finally P wrote at the final stage, when the Israelite religion was more organized in a priestly structure.
Why do we have two different versions like J and E? The explanation given by the critical scholars is that at Solomon’s death, c. 930 B.C., his son Rehoboam was appointed as the new king of Judah, but was rejected by the northern tribes that elected Jeroboam as king of the northern kingdom of Israel. The two kingdoms lived side by side, sharing the same traditions, language, and religion. J lived in Judah and E in Israel during this period. They wrote each their own version of the story of ancient Israel, demeaning the other side’s position. Most of the stories were similar, but the terminology, the representation of God, and the details differed. Then, in 722 B.C., the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and most people fled from Israel to Judah. At that point, the two different versions of E and J were integrated and amalgamated into a single text by a redactor with the purpose of giving the people of Israel and Judah a unified text that could be seen as authoritative by the people of both kingdoms.
Analysis of a Specific Biblical Account
So far I have broadly introduced the traditional and the critical interpretations of the biblical text. I will now take a specific case into account, and will interpret it in the light of both positions. My intent will be to establish whether we are actually facing different and contradictory accounts of the same story, discrepancies, and duplications, or whether these accounts reflect only stylistic variations that can been reconciled in a uniform explanation.
In this case, I will first present a brief description of the context, then the comments and conclusions drawn by the scholars of Historical Criticism and by the Jewish and Christian tradition. Finally, I will try to establish which of the two parts holds the more convincing interpretation.
Our case is the story of Balaam. In Numbers 22, we read that King Balak of Moab is afraid of Israel because of what Israel has done to the Amorites. Thus, he sends his messengers to the prophet Balaam to ask him to curse Israel. Balaam informs them that he could never do or say anything contrary to the command of God. Later on, God gives Balaam permission to go with the messengers. So, Balaam leaves (v. 21), but is stopped by an angel of the Lord (v. 22). After his conversation with this angel, Balaam expresses his intention to go back home, but the angel replies that Balaam can go with the men, but he has to say nothing more than what he is told by the angel.
This seems to strongly indicate an intrusion of a different tradition into the original plot, as seen in the middle part of the account. Why does God send His angel to stop and kill Balaam, after telling him he could go with the messengers? According to the traditional scholars, the middle part of the account might be in harmony with the rest of the story: it can be considered a frightening reminder that the prophet is never to speak any other message than what God is going to reveal him in the presence of Balak, the Moabites, and the Midianites. By agreeing to inquire again of YHWH after knowing already the will of God, he revealed a secret desire for reward and going as far as he dared, instead of definitely ending all negotiations. The author of 2 Peter 2:15 seems to confirm this interpretation since he speaks about “the way of Balaam the son of Bosor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness,” Even the author of Jude 11 speaks about people who “ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward.”
Finally, Balaam is given permission to go down to Moab but, because of his struggle between duty and greed, God threatens him of death if he is not completely faithful. YHWH gave Balaam specific instruction to rise up and go to bless Israel if the men came to call him (v. 20). Balaam did not wait for this, but rose up, being anxious to go, thus making YHWH angry with him. Hence the dramatic scene at the mountain pass, where God uses the donkey as His mouthpiece to rebuke the stubborn prophet and warn him of his mortal danger.
This experience with king Balak was the turning point in Balaam’s life. He became a backslider, degrading himself as a soothsayer. The very next mention of him classes him as an enemy of Israel who was slain (31:8). Joshua calls him a soothsayer (Joshua 13:22). Once departed (Numbers 24:25), he made new plots against the people of YHWH and perished (Numbers 31:8, 16) (Dake 299, 324).
On the other hand, critical scholars see the story of Balaam, as narrated in Numbers, chapters from 22 to 24, as an organic unity of its own, not related to the rest of the book.
The first evidence is the contradiction in chapter 22, when God first allows Balaam to undertake a journey with Balak’s messengers (v. 20) and then tries to stop him two verses later.
There is further evidence that Balaam’s story is an independent tale: at first, Balaam is seen as a faithful servant of God and then as a challenger of God, his ass brings him through fields and vineyards instead of the desert expected when coming from Balak’s home. But why is this episode inserted in the text? Critical scholars explain that its purpose is to humiliate the heathen seer Balaam, who was about to curse Israel. Many references in the text lead them to believe so: Balaam says he is a seer, but he cannot see what even his ass can see, the wise Balaam is engaged in a conversation with his ass, one of the stupidest among animals, Balaam claims he can kill people with his words and yet needs a sword to kill his ass, and so forth. Thus, according to the critical scholars, this is a folktale narrated with the purpose of downgrading a pagan seer, and inserted in text with artistic skillfulness.
A complex book like the Bible has always been, and will always be, subject to analysis and criticism. It was inevitable since it is a very complex and articulated book written by more than forty authors over a period of fifteen centuries.
Furthermore, it is a book touching on several disciplines: philosophy, poetry, eschatology, prophecy, and history.
Biblical scholarship arose because the Bible is a book written by human beings narrating human experiences and transcendental aspirations.
I have analyzed two branches of biblical scholarship, the traditional Jewish and Christian one, and the one known as historical criticism; the latter gained ground and visibility in the nineteenth century and advanced thought-provoking theories and hypotheses on the biblical text. We have examined one of its conjectures, that is, that the five books of the Pentateuch or Torah, traditionally attributed to Moses, are to be ascribed to various authors covering a span of time of many centuries and thus reflecting different social and historical outlooks and frames of reference.
The Pentateuch is known as the “Book of the Law,” and many of these laws are repeated more than once, thus sowing doubts in the mind of the reader regarding possible repetitions, discrepancies and inconsistencies.
The postulates advanced by the documentary hypothesis are compelling and provoking, but however fascinating, they fall short of proving that the five books of the Torah were written by several authors or groups of authors, simply because it generates more problems than it resolves.
Even the critical scholars admit that some of their conclusions are in the realm of hypotheses. For example, one of the main reasons behind the documentary hypothesis is that it is possible to recognize two separate authors, or schools of authorship, (J and E), for the first four books of the Pentateuch, based on the fact that each one calls God with a different name. But, at a certain point, E starts calling God with the same name used by J. Why? It is controversial, and none of the answers are really satisfactory.
Also, why are there so many similarities between J and E? The style is similar, the terminology is similar, the stories narrated are similar. How do we explain this? And why were they merged into a single text? Some critical scholars answer that, keeping the two texts separated after the re-union of the to kingdoms in 722 B.C. would challenge the authenticity of both. But a fusion of the two versions would not solve the problem. On the contrary, up to that moment, the peoples of the two kingdoms had been accustomed to listening to their received texts as written in a certain way, and suddenly these texts were pasted through skillful work of scissors by a redactor. Such a fusion of the two versions would have produced a weaker, and not a more authoritative, text.
Moreover, why should the people of Judah have accepted the text coming from the northern kingdom of Israel? J in Judah and E in Israel had spent decades writing a text downgrading the other kingdom’s leaders and traditions. It seems unlikely that when the Israelites came to Judah as refugees fleeing from a conquered kingdom, Judah gladly and lightheartedly accepted a fusion of its sacred text with the one of its rival kingdom.
Also, since the documentary hypothesis requires a redactor who was not overly worried about apparent contradictions, why do we discard the possibility that a single author might have been similarly unconcerned? And if the latter possibility is not discarded, could we assume that these contradictions are intentional stylistic contrivances that were part of the oral tradition of that time and place? And if this is the case, could not these alleged doublets, contradictions and discrepancies be themselves evidence of a deeper unity and design? Why, rather than look for such unity and design, do we suppose that the redactor was unable to recognize such difficulties, which indeed were discussed in the Talmudic literature at least two millennia ago?