How the Bible was discovered to be a collection of contradictory texts


Did Moses write the Torah?

The traditional view held in both Jewish and Christian circles was that the Pentateuch, the Torah, was penned by Moses under divine inspiration. This traditional claim, however, should be tempered by a couple of initial observations. First, the Torah makes no such claim. Nowhere does the Pentateuch claim to have been written by Moses, or anyone else for that matter. In fact, the sparse references to Moses writing in the Pentateuch are rather specific in nature. For example, it is claimed that Moses writes a memorial reminding later generations that the Amalekites must be exterminated (Ex 17:14); Moses writes “the words of Yahweh” (Ex 24:4) which contextually most likely refer to the Covenant Code of Exodus 21-23; in Ex 34:27 Moses is instructed to write “these words” which again are contextually the ten commandments (Ex 34: 14-26); and finally in Deut 27:8 and 31:9 we are informed that Moses wrote “this torah” (i.e., this teaching or instruction), which again most likely refers to specific instructions within its context, possibly even the core of the book of Deuteronomy. It should furthermore be mentioned that just because the text claims particular words, commandments, or even sections were penned by Moses does not mean that this was actually the case. Ancient Near Eastern literature—not to mention the ancient literature of Greece, China, and India as well—is full of these sorts of practices. Authorizing a politically or religiously oriented text by assigning its authorship to an ancestral hero, or even a god, is common practice in the ancient Near Eastern world. Second, Israelite writing, or writing in antiquity in general, required large economic and political institutions that would have necessarily been absent in the context of the wilderness narratives of the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy—institutions that would have been quite present in the late 8th century BC and onwards however.1 Third, there is strong evidence from the biblical texts themselves for a post-Mosaic, late monarchal, and even exilic date for the composition of much of the Pentateuchal narrative, especially the book of Deuteronomy whose date of composition has unanimously been shown to be the 7th century BC, under king Josiah’s reign (see here). Furthermore, as we shall see, the actual 8th through 6th century BC authors of the Pentateuch’s texts and traditions had specific theological and ideological agendas in claiming that Moses wrote such and such part of the text, many of which were used to legitimate and authenticate political and/or religious claims of the factual author’s time period, and often against other and earlier authors who had also employed the same literary technique. As a final note, the process of collecting and canonizing the various texts and traditions that now make up the Pentateuch was a lengthy one that culminated in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Due to specific social, religious, and even pedagogical needs of this period, Israel’s ancient writings were not only collected and read as instruction (torah) to the public, but they were authenticated, that is hailed as authoritative, by appealing to, and even creating, Mosaic authorship.

It may more appropriately be asked, then, how and why did the traditional belief of Mosaic and/or divine authorship arise in the first place. The view that the text was somehow divinely inspired is itself an interpretive stance that gets formed from the specific theological, ideological, and even polemical concerns of late antiquity. In fact, it is already an interpretive claim that rests on another a priori assumption, namely that we are speaking about a canonical text, “the Book.” In other words, not until after these diverse texts came to be canonical scripture, a long process itself which started in the 5th century BC and culminated in the 3rd century AD, did one then claim divinely inspired authorship for “the Book.” Consequently, from late antiquity through the Dark Ages and into the Middle Ages, the biblical text was received, understood, and read by means of this prevailing, and rarely questioned, theological interpretive framework. Against this traditional view, however, it should be recalled that the biblical texts make no such claim. The scholastic endeavor, therefore, might be seen as one that pushes back beyond this traditional and theological understanding, which in the end is not founded on any textual data but carved out of theological conviction, to get at the texts before they came under the scrutiny of this theological postulate.

The traditional claim of Mosaic authorship for the Pentateuch first emerges in, and thus seems to have been fabricated for, a specific time—the 5th century BC religious reforms and scriptural canonization of the Torah under Ezra in the Persian period. This canonical view soon became authoritative and through subsequent centuries more books were added to this growing canon. Finally, this canonical and authoritative interpretive framework extended itself into the late Judaism and early Christianity of the 1st century AD. Both Jewish writers, such as Philo of Alexandria and the historian Josephus, and the writers of the Gospels acknowledged the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, or Torah. Just a couple hundred years later, however, the authors of the Talmud advocated a position that saw Joshua, Moses’ military successor, as the author of the last verses of the Pentateuch, those which described Moses’ death in other words. How could Moses have written about his own death? was the guiding exegetical query in this early stage of examining the Bible’s composite nature.

The problem of the authorship of Moses’ death did not subside throughout antiquity; in fact, more vexing questions emerged, those that not only questioned the Mosaic authorship of an ever increasing number of Pentateuchal passages, but also those that questioned whether the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible—was even authored by a single individual. Not only were educated and informed readers of the Bible observing anachronisms, geographical anomalies, phrases that suggested a later post-Mosaic audience, and events that happened long after Moses died—all of which presented problems to the traditional claim of Mosaic authorship—but they were also observing textual duplicates and contradictions throughout the Pentateuchal narrative, which in general questioned the authorial integrity of the text as a cohesive unity penned by a single author, or inspired by a single god for that matter. The staunch response to these claims by the Christian apologists and church Fathers of the 2nd to the 5th centuries AD was a massive re-interpretive program that sought to harmonize such contradictions, inconsistencies, and anachronisms through an elaborate process of figurative reinterpretation, which, obviously, never addressed the compositional nature of the biblical sources nor their origins, and moreover proceeded from a theological base that already presumed what the Bible was. In fact, much of the biblical commentaries written by the church Fathers were an attempt to ward off three distinct groups of opposition (the literalists, the Jews, and the gnostics) and at the same time apologetically defend their orthodoxy. This was done to support a canonical and theological reading across the Testaments. Little if any knowledge of the origins and compositional nature of the biblical texts were known then. Rather, the Christian interpretive tradition, prompted by ever-changing religious and social circumstances, as well as the transition from the designation “books” to “Book” for this collection of diverse texts, became the authoritative spokesperson for the various biblical texts themselves. Nevertheless, this was to change in the early beginnings of pre-modern scholarship, when learned and invested individuals sought to read and understand the texts on their own merits, beyond what the authoritative interpretive tradition maintained.

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 anachronism 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 geo-political 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. 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 wilderness narratives, or the conquest narratives. They are anachronisms and reflect the geo-political world of a much later 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 (#28). 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.2

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. 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.3 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. 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.

Nineteenth century scholarship: post-Mosaic by centuries

The observable textual data collected over the centuries leading up to and including the nineteenth century no longer supported the long-standing traditional and pre-critical claim that the Pentateuch was written by Moses—a traditional view, moreover, that the text never claimed to begin with and which only came into existence through culturally conditioned theological and ideological interpretive agendas of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. By the nineteenth century the large majority of biblical scholars realized that the Pentateuch was composed out of a variety of sources, all of which postdate Moses by centuries. It was the work of Wilhelm de Wette (1780-1849) that ushered in this new paradigm.

Previously commentators had claimed that the textual data suggested that much of the Pentateuch’s narrative displayed knowledge of later time periods and thus the hypothesis drawn was that Moses must have nevertheless penned the laws, while later writers added narratives to this. De Wette’s work on the book of Chronicles and the books of Samuel-Kings was to change all this.4 He noticed that while the author of Chronicles, which chronicles the history of the Judean monarchy, placed a huge emphasis on ritual law, the legal system, and the importance of the Levites throughout the history of the monarchy, the author of the books of Samuel and Kings, which is an earlier narrative work of the same historical period, never mentions ritual law, the legal system, nor the importance of the priestly class. In other words, the books of Samuel and Kings display no knowledge of the giving of the law at Sinai, no knowledge of the systematic ritual law outlined in the book of Leviticus, and no knowledge of the law code in the book of Deuteronomy—that is, the whole matrix of ritual and ethical law that Moses was to have apparently promulgated from Sinai in the remote archaic past! This complete absence of Pentateuchal material in the books of Samuel and Kings led de Wette to conclude that the Sinai event, Levitical law, and the Deuteronomic law code were actually compositions of the late monarchic and exilic periods. In other words, the emphasis on ritual law in the books of Chronicles represents the religious institutions of that author’s own time period, the 4th century BC. The chronicler’s primary aim was to legitimate and authenticate these 4th century BC religious institutions by retrojecting them back into the pre-exilic era in his reshaping of Judah’s monarchal history. However, according to the earlier composition, the books of Samuel and Kings, those very religious institutions were not present. The ritual and legalistic material in the Pentateuch, therefore, does not detail the historical events of an archaic past, but rather the reality of a much later Israel which then pictured its own historical past in the terms that would eventually authenticate and legitimate its present ritual and legal institutions. This also explains why the ritual law code so present in the books of Chronicles was completely absent from the earlier narrative of the same historical period in the books of Samuel and Kings. It had not yet been written.

De Wette furthermore argued that the law code in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut 12-27) was a product of Josiah’s religious reforms of the early 7th century BC. Thus de Wette is responsible for the identification of yet another source in the Pentateuch’s complex compositional history: D or the Deuteronomic source. The identification of D—largely based on its very different theological tone, message, and unique style and vocabulary—with its date of composition in the late monarchal period complemented de Wette’s claim that the Deuteronomic law code was not know in the pre- and early monarchal periods of Israel’s history. This too was rather a late creation, perhaps indeed drawing on earlier traditions. Thus de Wette convincingly demonstrated that not only were the sources from which the Pentateuch was composed post-Mosaic, but they were also post-monarchal, that is, compositions of the late monarchal and (post-)exilic periods!

De Wette’s thesis was verified and supported by the research of later scholars. Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, Hermann Hupfeld, for example, observed that none of the pre-exilic prophets display a familiarity with the Mosaic ritual and legal code neither, and moreover, familiarity with stories of the patriarchs and the garden of Eden were also lacking in pre-exilic texts. In other words, mention of Abraham, Jacob, and the garden of Eden narratives only resurface outside of the Pentateuch in texts composed during or after the exile!5 This implies that these Pentateuchal passages were also of an exilic origin. Thus, not only did it appear that the Mosaic ritual and legal system as presented in the book of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and parts of Exodus, were exilic or post-exilic creations, but now it appeared that the stories of the patriarchs and the garden of Eden so central to the book of Genesis were also exilic creations!

Hupfeld was to contribute another significant discovery which furthered the understanding of the Pentateuch’s composite nature: what had been labeled as the Elohist (E) source in the previous century was actually a composite of two sources, both of which had a preference for the use of elohim to designate Israel’s deity. Hupfeld was thus able to distinguish the Priestly (P) source from the Elohist on account of its inexorable emphasis on cult, ritual law, and genealogies. It was Karl Heinrich Graf, however, who provided the proof that P’s sacrificial legislation was unknown to the book of Deuteronomy, the Prophets, and Joshua to 2 Kings.6 In other words, the cultic legislation which encompasses the book of Leviticus was written after the law code of Deuteronomy and the narratives in the books of Joshua to 2 Kings. In this manner, nineteenth century biblical scholarship revealed that upon close examination the Pentateuch was not only not composed by Moses or any single author for that matter, but was composed of sources that most likely had their origins in the late monarchal and exilic/post-exilic periods. All of these discoveries were still leading up to the work of the most influential biblical scholar of the nineteenth century, Julius Wellhausen.

The Pentateuch: a product of the late monarchal and (post-)exilic periods

The German scholar and professor Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) was primarily interested in what the Pentateuchal sources told us about the history of Israelite religion.7 Wellhausen’s task of reconstructing the historical development of Israel’s religious ideas and institutions was accomplished by arranging the biblical sources in chronological order. Following on the work of de Wette, Hupfeld, and Graf, Wellhausen claimed that the Mosaic ritual and legal institutions stood not at the beginning of Israel’s historical development in some remote archaic past, but at its end, that is in the exilic and post-exilic periods. To a large extent this was merely a rearticulation of the observations made by his predecessors. However, Wellhausen pushed further. Since Deuteronomy (D) and the Priestly source (P) were already claimed to be products of the late monarchal and exilic periods respectively—based on the textual evidence that the ritual, ethical, and cultic laws and practices proclaimed in P, and secondarily in D, were not present in the pre-monarchal and monarchal periods per our biblical sources, the books Joshua to 2 Kings—Wellhausen further concluded on thematic and theological grounds that the Priestly source was composed after Deuteronomy. This he based on the observations that D (Deuteronomy) displays no familiarity with the ritual system of P (Leviticus), and secondly, while P assumes that centralization of the cult of Yahweh at Jerusalem is a given, D has to argue for such centralization. Thus Deuteronomy’s argument that the cult of Yahweh must only be practiced at Jerusalem predates P’s ritual law code which already acknowledged the cult’s centralization at Jerusalem. This, along with the fact that neither Joshua through 2 Kings nor the pre-exilic prophets display any knowledge of the laws of P (the book of Leviticus), led Wellhausen to argue for a late date of composition for P, most probably of a post-exilic origin. In other words, the ritual law and the cult surrounding the tabernacle which the biblical narrative presents as part of the wilderness experience in the books of Exodus and Leviticus is actually a later post-exilic composition that reflected the cultic and ritual concerns of the community of exiles who, returning from their Babylonian captivity, resettled in Palestine in the Persian period and rebuilt Yahweh’s temple and cult. Accordingly, Wellhausen hypothesized that the sources that now make up the Pentateuch were composed in a series of successive stages and redacted together at a later date. From oldest to youngest the sources run: J-E-D-P.8

The Documentary Hypothesis: J, E, D, P

Wellhausen’s hypothesis came to be known as the Documentary Hypothesis and quickly established itself as the orthodoxy in critical scholarship. All introductions to the Old Testament published throughout the twentieth century contained in some form or another the Documentary Hypothesis, which in short, stated that the Pentateuch was a composite of (at least) four sources that could be identified and arranged in chronological order according to their theological, linguistic, and historical emphases, and whose final form came about through a series of redactional stages that dovetailed these sources together. J was dated to the Solomonic era (9th c. BC), or a century afterwards, and seems to have been a product of the Judean scribes of the southern kingdom. E was seen as a literary product of the northern kingdom and therefore must have been composed prior to its fall in 722 BC. J and E were redacted together probably not much later than the fall of Israel. To the composite JE text, D was combined, which most probably occurred sometime in the 5th century BC. A further redactional process probably occurring in the 5th or early 4th century BC added the post-exilic composition P to this JED document.

It must be borne in mind that the Documentary Hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis. And as such there is a scientific rigor to it. As one critic writes: “A hypothesis is a conceptual structure which serves to organize and render intelligible a mass of otherwise disparate and disordered observations.”9 Like the model of an atom, which also is a hypothesis constructed out of what is observable from data collected from photon accelerators, so too the Documentary Hypothesis. It is still the best and most reconfirmed hypothesis that explains the textual data observed in the Hebrew text: duplicate stories, competing theologies and ritual systems, contradictions, differences in style and vocabulary, etc. More than a century after Wellhausen no alternative model explains the observable textual data as well as the Documentary Hypothesis. Certainly the Documentary Hypothesis as Wellhausen conceived is reproduced with considerable variation, and has had, and continues to have, its critics. It would be beneficial to quickly look at how the Documentary Hypothesis has been re-envisioned by successive generations, and additionally what have been its challenges.

Now you’re ready to learn about the specific features of the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Deuteronomist, and the Priestly Writer and what distinguishes these textual sources from each other.

Modern challenges to the Documentary hypothesis

The challenges brought to bear on the Documentary Hypothesis by Hermann Gunkel (1852-1932) are perhaps the most significant.10 Hermann Gunkel’s interests lie in the pre-literary culture of Israelite religion, in other words, the oral traditions and cultural contexts that stood behind the literary sources proposed by the Documentary Hypothesis. The challenge was formulated in such a way as to ask whether or not our sources, J and E in particular, can be spoken of as whole independent literary documents. Or are they rather a collection of oral traditions, whose settings were liturgical and cultic in nature? Gunkel postulated that it was more likely that these documents emerged gradually from prior oral recitations within a variety of cultural settings: the family gathering around the hearth, public festivals, and local shrines and cultic sites. It was these settings that produced the first narratives. Gunkel’s work also brought to the fore questions not only pertaining to the function of these traditions in their cultural settings, but also those relating to the audience for whom such traditions existed and to whom they were eventually written. Thus one of the main challenges to the Documentary Hypothesis was the question of whether we can accurately speak of separate literary compositions—whole documents—that were then redacted together at a later date. In other words, Gunkel’s work has forced us to examine the oral traditions and the cultic/liturgic settings lying behind the texts, moving the discussion from documents to oral traditions, from authors to products of specific cultural events. This has had its greatest effect on J and E, especially the latter. No longer is E unanimously seen as an individual literary unit prior to its redaction with J. A number of scholars are now willing to assert that the so-called E document never existed; it is rather a collection of diverse cultural and cultic traditions from the north that were later supplemented to J. Additionally, J and E were not conceived of as authors for Gunkel, but rather interpreters of oral traditions who modified such traditions when they were put into writing. In sum, Gunkel’s work has affected the field of study in that there is no longer a consensus on the existence of independent and continuous literary documents prior to their being combined together. This is especially pertinent to E, and to a lesser extent J. D and P, however—the two youngest sources—were clearly literary compositions, even to Gunkel.

Another challenge to the Documentary Hypothesis has been the growing proliferation in the number of sources within sources proposed by critics. In an ever-growing desire to peel away redacted layers, biblical scholars have subjected many of the sources to an increasing subdivision of its editorial layers. Wellhausen had himself proposed a J1, J2, and J3—each representing a revisional layer in the source itself. Obviously the problem presented here is one that again attacks the hypothesis of whole individual literary documents. If a supposed literary document can be dissected into various redactional layers, then can we properly understand the source as a whole literary unit? The Priestly source (P) has been especially susceptible to this endeavor, in an attempt to see compositional layers between its ritual legislation and its narrative components. On the other hand, this enterprise has produced positive results. For example, many scholars now agree that whole sections of P can be distinguished mainly on account of its linguistic differences and ritual reemphasis. Within P we find another source, the Holiness Code or H (Leviticus 17-26), which was redacted into P. Scholars have additionally asked wether P can be confidently seen as a separate individual source, or should it be envisioned as a redaction and reinterpretation of the JE document. In other words, did a later redactor stitch together the JE and P documents? Or, was P himself the redactor who composed his document around the JE narrative, and more importantly, as a means to modify and reorient the JE document toward the beliefs and concerns of the author and community of P? As a growing number of scholars assert, P texts seem to be inserted at important places in the JE document with the goal of reinterpreting, and even replacing, the emphasis or theological point of the earlier JE narrative.  

Another challenge to Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis revolves around the issue of the dates of the sources and their order of composition. Since Wellhausen’s work, the date of composition for J especially has moved more and more into later time periods, with a growing number of scholars now assigning its date of composition to the exilic period. The reason for this is the recognition of reoccurring exilic themes that make more sense seen as addressing the concerns and hopes of the exilic community in Babylon. Certainly J contains material, oral or written, that dates back to the monarchy, but in its present form it displays the hand of an exilic author these critics assert. There has equally been some debate over the date of composition for the Priestly source as well, with arguments on both sides of the debate: pre-exilic or post-exilic.

Distinguishing between pre-exilic and post-exilic themes—before and after 587 BC—within a source, in an attempt to better understand its compositional history, is especially important. In this respect, the work of Martin Noth on D should not go unmentioned.11 Noth was the first one to notice that the stark theological emphasis and tone of the book of Deuteronomy was in fact not present in the other four books of the Pentateuch but rather in the books that followed. Thus Noth surmised that whoever penned the book of Deuteronomy also penned the books of Joshua through Kings. Although Noth proposed a single exilic author for this work, scholars now unanimously agree that D went through two primary editions, a pre-exilic edition celebrating and culminating in king Josiah’s great levitical religious reforms and an exilic edition that now had to account for the demise and fall of Jerusalem, its temple, and the Davidic line. Thus many scholars recognize a Dtr1 and Dtr2—the latter reflective of the new historical situation prompted by Jerusalem’s fall in 587 BC which now necessitated a reinterpretation of Israel’s history as depicted in Dtr1. Thus, the exilic Dtr2 paints a history ominously marching toward its destruction by inserting passages of prophetic doom and catastrophe into the optimistic Josianic Dtr1 that fueled the Deuteronomist scribes under Josiah 20 years earlier.12 We must keep in mind that like D, other sources that were composed in the pre-exilic period also went through revisionary stages during the exilic/post-exilic periods, and the form in which we now have them represents this fact.

Finally, there has been a trend in recent scholarship to revisit other hypotheses advanced in the earlier stages of this discovery. In addition to the Documentary Hypothesis, which asserts that our sources were documents prior to their being redacted together, the Supplementary hypothesis asserts that one document, such as P, served as the base text to which other sources, whether fragmentary or whole, were added. It was Noth, for example, who first suggested that P provided the structural frame of the book of Genesis, to which J was appended. The other is the Fragmentary hypothesis, which states that prior to their being combined together these sources existed in fragmentary form. This hypothesis is the most amiable toward Gunkel’s work on the pre-literate oral traditions of sources. In many regards the fragmentary hypothesis might even explain the composite nature of the book of Genesis with its seemingly separate segments of J material.

In conclusion, we should note that the disagreements among scholars concerning whether or not we can confidently speak of literary sources, does not invalidate the view shared by all these scholars: the Pentateuch’s complex compositional history involved the combination and use of post-Mosaic sources, whether oral or written, fragmentary or supplementary.

Enough with these preliminaries, now it’s time we actually took a look at the points of convergences between these sources, that is their contradictions. We will try to keep in mind that our goal is to understand these contradictory texts, their authors, audiences, and historical circumstances, on their own terms.


  1. For a more extensive treatment of this topic see: See W. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel (Eerdmans 2001); I. Finkelstein and N. Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (Touchstone 2001); and W. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (Cambridge 2004).
  2. For a larger list of anachronisms revealed through modern archaeology see Finkelstein & Dever…
  3. The divine name for Israel’s god, Yahweh (transliterated as yhwh), is rendered in the majority of English translations as LORD. This practice, which is misleading as well as misrepresentative of the Hebrew original, follows a late Judaic oral practice of substituting the Hebrew adonai (lord) for yhwh in the reading of the Torah, since later Judaism—well after these texts were actually composed—conceived the name as sacred and unspeakable. Modern translation practices have regrettably chosen to follow this later oral tradition rather than the actual Hebrew text! Thus everywhere your English translation has LORD in small caps, the Hebrew manuscript has Yahweh, or more precisely yhwh.
  4. De Wette’s main contributions to biblical criticism can be found in his Latin dissertation on the book of Deuteronomy (1805) and his 2 volume work, Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Alte Testament (1806-1807).
  5. The one exception is Hosea 12, which knows of traditions surrounding the patriarch Jacob.
  6. Graf, Die geschichtlichen Bücher des Alten Testaments, 1866.
  7. The German original, Prolegomena zu Geschichte Israels, was published in 1883 and republished in 1885 in an English translation, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel.
  8. In all fairness this chronology was already postulated by Karl Heinrich Graf in his 1866 publication Die geschichtlichen Bücher des Alten Testaments.
  9. Campbell & O’Brien, Sources of the Pentateuch, 3.
  10. Particularly his Genesis, originally published in 1901.
  11. Noth, Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien, 1943.
  12. The most thorough presentation of the compositional layers of the Deuteronomistic History (D) can be found in: Anthony Campbell and Mark O’Brien, Unfolding the Deuteronomistic History: Origins, Upgrades, Present Text (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2000).

20 thoughts on “How the Bible was discovered to be a collection of contradictory texts

  1. Hello and greetings from Mexico. So far, I am loving your posts but I have got one question in my mind and I hope you can give an answer. Concerning to anachronisms and anachronistic words in the Biblical books (though this might well be a pleonasm) any believer or apologist might say in his or her favour that when these book were codified, the codifiers use contemporary words such as daric or dram in a time when they were not supposed to exist.

    I wish you an excelent day and thank you before hand.

  2. Dr. DiMattei:

    “I concede; you’re correct: biblical scholarship cannot prove that all of what you say here is not the product of divine inspiration. However, Biblical scholarship can prove with a fair amount of accuracy I might add that all of what you sat here is the product of human, political, and religious agendas, concerns, attitudes, etc. Doesn’t that in itself negate, disprove, divine inspiration?”

    No, of course it doesn’t. 19th and 20th century Protestant fundamentalism aside, Christianity (rather unlike orthodox Islam) has always insisted that inspiration, whatever it is, manifestly isn’t “divine dictation” or a divine-rape of the human mind. One doesn’t even need to be a Biblical scholar to realize that, and Christians have from the get-go; several Biblical authors (especially in the New Testament), explicitly refer to their very human selves, obviously in such a way that they are clearly not delphic oracles or mere secretaries transcribing what’s being dictates. Christians have always believed that their Scriptures came about through a synergy of divine inspiration and (not necessarily conscious) human cooperation. There are all sorts of philosophical reasons why inspiration needn’t amount to dictation or a kind of divine-rape of the mind, but for an example of serious scholarly discussion of this subject, I’d strongly urge you to consult the discussion of the concept and history of inspiration found in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary.

    And just let me be clear: while Biblical scholarship cannot pronounce on the validity of the doctrine of Biblical inspiration per se, the findings of modern historical criticism absolutely have helped Christians to deepen their appreciation of all the human “messiness” that went into producing “The Bible” as we know it, a “messiness” somewhat analagous to the corruptible and perishable flesh of Jesus, Whom we believe to have been God in the flesh. Indeed, scholars like Pete Enns (an Evangelical, but not a Fundamentalist) have promoted and defended historical criticism precisely in terms of what they call an “Incarnational view” of the Bible.

    These assertions might be controversial in conservative Protestant circles, but (for the most part) not in Catholic ones. The Pontifical Biblical Commission has written quite a bit on this subject, too.

  3. Dr. DiMatteri:

    For someone graduated from the Sorbonne, you really should know better.

    I do not claim that any of the Biblical authors knew they were writing under divine inspiration, nor do I claim that divine inspiration is something that can be discovered through mere studies of these texts. Inspiration is not an empirical claim, it’s a metaphysical one; therefore it isn’t a claim that is empirically verifiable or falsifiable. If it is denied, it must be denied on theological or philosophical grounds, not textual ones.

    You speak as if the only articulation of divine inspiration is that made by the most vulgar of Anglo-American Protestant Fundamentalists; I realize you teach in Texas, but you should be aware there’s a wider Christian world out there, and the findings of you and your colleagues have done nothing — absolutely nothing — to discredit the doctrine of Biblical inspiration per se, though they have forced Christians to re-examine some of their presuppositions of what inspiration (and inerrnacy) entails and what it doesn’t.

    The fact remains: Biblical scholarship cannot prove or disprove that all of the dynamics that went into producing the books that make up the Bible — the historical events, their theological (re)interpretations, the writing of the original sources, the dismemberment and re-assembling of these sources, their later editing and redaction, the compilation of these separate books into one collection, and the canonization of this collection by the Christian Church in the 4th century, etc. — were or were not the product of divine inspiration.

    1. The reasoning is flawed. If I claimed that the recent Spiderman movie was authored by God almighty himself isn’t this, well not only stupid, but negated by the cinematographic data!? Indeed, the empirical evidence negates such a claim. This is analogous to the Bible, except that the non-empirical theological claim, which originates circa the 1st c., is a longstanding accepted tradition and “truth.” But indeed, the empirical evidence of the textual data itself exposes this claim as untenable. Again, such textual data—empirical data—can be laid out in a larger book length project. Indeed, hasn’t the empirical data of many academic fields and sciences disproven the mere speculative whims of our ancient predecessors? If G.W. Bush makes the theological claim that God told him that there were WMD in Iraq, are we to engage him on the same level, or have the empirical evidence refute him? — a good ‘ol Texas example.

      Pertaining to your very nice assessment here:

      The fact remains: Biblical scholarship cannot prove or disprove that all of the dynamics that went into producing the books that make up the Bible — the historical events, their theological (re)interpretations, the writing of the original sources, the dismemberment and re-assembling of these sources, their later editing and redaction, the compilation of these separate books into one collection, and the canonization of this collection by the Christian Church in the 4th century, etc. — were or were not the product of divine inspiration.

      What if I put it this way: I concede; you’re correct: biblical scholarship cannot prove that all of what you say here is not the product of divine inspiration. However, Biblical scholarship can prove with a fair amount of accuracy I might add that all of what you sat here is the product of human, political, and religious agendas, concerns, attitudes, etc. Doesn’t that in itself negate, disprove, divine inspiration? Again, see #120-122.

  4. I’m not missing the point at all, Dr. DiMattei. I agree that to refer to this collection of books as “The Bible” is already to make a theological claim. My point is that Biblical scholarship is absolutely unqualified to speak to the validity of this theological claim. You can discover as many real or apparent contradictions as you want to, but you can never prove — with the tools of your scholarly trade — that the finished, canonized product is not the object of divine inspiration. When you claim the texts are not divinely inspired, you’re not engaging in textual argument at all: you’re making a theological claim.

    I also want to make clear what I perhaps I haven’t already: I do subscribe to the documentary hypothesis; and while I also believe that The Bible is a divinely inspired collection of books, I don’t subscribe to theories of plenary inerrancy that claim that these books are free from all factual (or even theological, in the case of the earlier works) whatsoever.

    1. No, again, I am not making a theological claim; theological claims are speculative, tradition, or (mostly) non-textual. In fact, I am not making a claim at all. THE TEXTS are making the claim. It is the textual data, not theological speculation. The Hebrew text itself reveals its sources, reveals its editorial workings, reveals its human-hands in its composition and redactionary processes. Again, this is more a book length subject. But I can assure you, well perhaps I can’t, that there is ample textual evidence to negate the theological claim of divine authorship. Similarly. the claim that the Torah was not written by Moses is also a textual argument—objective study of the texts reveal this—and likewise it is a textual argument which refutes a longstanding theological claim.

      I implore you to look at other posts here and maybe move the conversation to a specific textual example if you’d like. For example, the redaction of the two crossing of the red sea stories (#120-122) might be a good starting point. Read the post—it’s rather lengthy and detailed on purpose because I wanted to walk the reader through the process of having the text itself reveal that it is a composite of 2 once separate stories of this event. After arriving at that realization, then the more speculative questions emerge: why did the later source feel obliged to retell the story differently? And why did a later redactor decide to keep both, and in the manner that he did? And lastly, in reference to your claim, show me with the text itself that this particular redaction was guided by the hand of God, Yahweh, or some other supernatural agent.

  5. Dr. DiMattei:

    1) Certainly your discipline is competent to assess whether any of the original authors/editors of any of the Biblical books intended that their volumes be read in light of a canonical whole completed in the 1st century A.D. And I would agree with you, 100%, that they manifestly did not. But whether or not these volumes *do* belong to a canonical whole, millenia in the making and finally compiled and canonized by a religious community, is a theological claim, not a scientific one. Whether these texts are divinely inspired, and, in some sense and in what sense, inerrant is not a claim Biblical scholarship can answer either (though in the case of inerrancy it can offer some clues by pointing out obvious factual errors in these texts). That’s my only point. The Biblical scholar simply doesn’t consider these questions qua Biblical scholarship, in the same way that a biologist cannot, qua biology, make metaphysical determinations like what or what doesn’t pertain to morality. These are distinct disciplines.

    Again I should make clear: to the extent that theologians make claims that overlap the subjects proper to empirical science (e.g., declaring the age to be only a few thousand years old, claiming that the books of the Bible are all historical, or all factually inerrant, etc.), science (including historiography and archaeology) absolutely can address these questions. And so I would argue that Biblical scholarship is certainly able to refute certain claims made by Protestant Fundamentalists, but certainly can’t refute more sophisticated articulations of the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy.

    2) Maybe my question here wasn’t too clear. I’m referring to the theories put forward by the likes of R. N. Whybray. As Wikipedia summarizes his argument:

    “[W]hy, for example, should the authors of the separate sources avoid duplication, while the final redactor accepted it? ‘Thus the [documentary] hypothesis can only be maintained on the assumption that, while consistency was the hallmark of the various [source] documents, inconsistency was the hallmark of the redactors!'” {}

    3) It’s been a while since I’ve read Plutarch’s ‘Lives’ (my undergraduate degree is in Classics), but I’m pretty sure Plutarch does not posit a “virgin birth” for Alexander the Great at all, let alone of Aphrodite. Doesn’t Plutarch, writing several centuries after the fact, report a story that Alexander was conceived by carnal fornication between Zeus and Alexander’s mother, Olympias?

    1. ESG, I think you’re missing my point and your thinking on this topic may be guided by a couple of presuppositions. For instance, the claim that the Bible, so already we’re talking about a canonized collection of texts that doesn’t come into existence until the 2nd c., is divinely inspired or the word of God is a theological claim, mainly foisted upon these texts by late readers and through longstanding and authoritative traditions. Indeed, this tradition passed into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The dawn of biblical scholarship, i.e., placing the claims of tradition aside, setting aside “what the Bible is” according to what tradition has told us it is, and instead examining the texts themselves commences, roughly in the 18th c. In short, and again, it is the biblical texts themselves which refute this theological claim of a longstanding interpretive tradition. Since the Bible, its texts, is indeed the topic of study for the biblical scholar, yes, it is in our are of study to support what these texts say and do not say. And careful, earnest, and honest study of them reveals that the theological claim of divine inspiration is invalid. The biblical texts themselves refute this claim time and time again. The contradictions collected here on this website are only one small part of the textual data used to demonstrate and reveal what the authors of these texts were doing, writing, believing, propagandizing, etc. So when I make the claim that the biblical texts themselves are claiming that they were not inspired by God (rather they reveal that they were inspired, each by different ideologies, agendas, competing belief systems and even laws, competing political views, etc.) this is by no means theology. I don’t dabble in theological speculation; this is a textual argument.

      #2 is still dealing with, still approaching an understanding of, these ancient texts through the concepts and prejudices of modern ideas of text, authorship, etc. Besides that, your quote is terribly misleading. The public, unfortunately, knows very little about what the source hypothesis is and furthermore how the textual data has reaffirmed this hypothesis over and over and over again over the last 2 centuries. Friedman’s Introduction, in his The Bible with Sources Revealed briefly discusses 7 textual criteria that reveal and support the Pentateuch’s sources: linguistic, terminology, consistent content, continuity of the narrative, connections to other parts of the Bible, relationship among the sources themselves, and lastly convergence—namely that when we observe a linguistic or terminological difference in the Hebrew text, we also see differences in content, theme, narrative sequence, etc. In other words, it’s not one of these criteria that makes or breaks the source hypothesis. If you’re serious about seeing what textual data supports the source hypothesis and how scholars have used it, I’d recommend these excellent scholarly works: Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (1987); Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible (1992); David Carr’s The fractures of Genesis (1996); Levinson, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation (1997); Campbell & O’Brien, Unfolding the Deuteronomistic History (2000); Doorly, The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law (2002); Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed (2003); Knohl, The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices (2003); Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book (2004); Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1 (2010); Carr, The Formation of the Hebrew Bible (2011); and most recently Joel Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (2012).

      With respect to #3, maybe I’ve overstepped the text; it’s been a while since I’ve looked at this text myself. My point was merely that bringing elements of the supernatural particularly in the births of real historical people was part of the literary world of antiquity. This was not a technique to deceive, nor did people read this literally.

  6. Fair enough, Dr. DiMattei. Might I add a point and two questions?:

    1) I think in your writing you ought to make a distinction between theological claims that do not implicate empirical science, and theological claims which do. For instance, you’ve absolutely spot-on when you note that to call these texts “the Bible” is already to make a theological claim. But whether one’s *should* receive and interpret these texts according to their placement within a canonical whole is not a question that you or any other Biblical scholar, qua Biblical scholarship can make, because the truth of such a claim is not one that the tools of your discipline enable you to judge.

    On the other hand, questions of genre, authorship, date, etc. *are* questions that pertain to your expertise.

    So I would suggest you make clearer distinctions between Biblical-scholarly claims and claims you might make which are theological or philosophical (e.g., your clear conviction that the Biblical texts are not divinely inspired and do not properly belong to a canonical whole).

    2) What’s your response to the argument raised in some scholarly quarters which, while denying Mosaic authorship, claim that the entire Pentateuch was the work of a single author, during and/or after the Exile? The gist of this argument, as I understand it, is that if the Pentateuch as it now stands contains multiple redundancies and contradictions, and that was perfectly okay to the original readers and recipients of the supposedly redacted Pentateuch, why is it less plausible that a single author would have been okay writing such a document? In other words, if a redactor could cut-n-paste and edit such a text and be okay with the contradictions, why not a single author?

    3) Do we have any evidence that ancient peoples did not regard their creation stories, epics, sagas, etc. as literal history, that they were okay with pseudonymity, and took these works less literally than believers in subsequent centuries did? In other words, were the writers and redactors of the Pentateuch really writing and redacting according to established literary conventions that did not regard these techniques as dishonest, or were these writers/redactors out to deceive people, who would have been upset had they known what was being “sold” to them as their scriptures?

    Thank you for your patience!

    1. Many of your questions and comments already rest on certain “givens” or presuppositions that actually guide, even dictate, the answers to the questions. One of the reasons that the task of biblical education is so daunting is that not only does the scholar feel it necessary to educate the public, on say the texts and their historical contexts prior to the creation of a canonized Book, but he/she must also, as an a priori activity, reveal or get his/her audience to realize preformed notions they already harbor about the text before even engaging the text. Even the label “the Book” already “necessitates” that its content be read as a book. Its a prescriptive label, not descriptive. But I don’t want to veer to far from your points.

      1) First, I agree with your appeal to distinguish different claims, although I might not like the categories you’ve chosen. I really try to do no theologizing here, no voicing om my personal beliefs or disbeliefs, etc. Certainly this may come through in an occasional rant. So “my” claim as you put it of a “clear conviction that the Biblical texts are not divinely inspired and do not properly belong to a canonical whole” I would argue is not theological nor speculative, nor my beliefs. It is a claim that the biblical texts support AND are making themselves. To put forward the biblical data that supports this claim, that demonstrates this claim, would be too long here. It is a book project I hope to come back to. But briefly, when we observe numerous biblical authors consciously and freely rewriting, modifying, even contradicting earlier texts and traditions—both of which later become canonized as “the Bible”—and when we observe that their reasons for changing these earlier texts and traditions was to have “history” or the story of Israel better align with their own theological beliefs and ideological agendas, then the conclusion drawn from this data is that these texts are very human in nature. This is studying the biblical texts objectively. If Yahweh is presented as commanding one thing in one textual tradition and yet he is presented as commanding another thing in another textual traditions, and furthermore we see that what Yahweh commands in the first text is supportive of an Aaronid-led priestly guild and in the other text Yahweh is seen as advocating a pan-Levite ideology, and we observe hundreds of these cases so that we are confident in concluding that the first text was actually written by an Aaronid priestly guild who used Yahweh as an authoritative mouthpiece to legitimate their own views, and ditto for the other text but now Yahweh is seen as legitimating contrary views, i.e., those of this scribal guild…. And again, this happens in numerous places. And I have not even brought in extra-biblical data which would corroborate our conclusion. The Qu’ran, for example, is a text that more clearly and emphatically claims to be from God, but these rhetorical and literary techniques were common in the ancient world. Scribes used these techniques to legitimate their own views. Indeed, this is a life-long educational endeavor. It’s a shame I have not even one book out yet.

      2) The presupposition here is thinking an ancient text is similar to a modern text, ancient authorship is similar to modern authorship, and that modern ideas such as narrative, unity, coherence, and purpose of a text were the same in antiquity. As one scholar and theologian put it: it might be more accurate to imagine that scribes (monarchal, exilic period) saw the biblical text as a repository of different textual traditions, stories told differently, archival material from divergent sources, etc. so that contradictions were not problematic as they are to us who impose modern ideas of narrative. Still, the documentary hypothesis is the best solution for explaining a text’s contradictions, differing styles and emphasis, different theologies and ideological thrusts…. Check out these two contradictions where I ponder this same question further.

      #72. Who sells Joseph to the Ishmaelites: his brothers OR the Midianites? (Gen 37:27 vs Gen 37:28)
      #73. Who sells Joseph to Potiphar: the Midianites OR the Ishmaelites? (Gen 37:36 vs Gen 39:1)

      #120. How is the Red sea dried up: Moses divides it with his rod OR Yahweh with the wind OR Yahweh with his own breath OR with a shout? (Ex 14:16 vs Ex 14:21 vs Ex 15:10 vs Ps 106:9)
      #121. Do the Israelites advance through the sea bed followed by the Egyptians OR do they remain on the shore and only the Egyptians enter the dried sea bed? (Ex 14:23 vs Ex 14:13-14, 25, 27)
      #122. Do the Egyptians get washed up dead on the sea shore OR do they sink to the bottom? (Ex 14:30 vs Ex 15:5)

      In fact, all the contradictions thus far posted here is an attestation to the human factor in these texts composition.

      3) Terms like dishonest are also assumptive, in that it assumes that the author is trying to deceive, but furthermore they once again expose OUR understanding of these texts and the redactional process, not necessarily those of the ancient scribes. Yes, is the answer. When I teach the New Testament, I often have my students read Plutarch’s biography of Alexander the Great, whose virgin birth Plutarch assigns to the goddess Aphrodite. Is Plutarch trying to deceive us, or is this the literary conventions of his time? And thus is this also what the gospel writers are doing?

  7. I appreciate your response Dr. DiMattei:

    To be clear, I don’t suggest that any of the Biblical authors wrote history according to modern historiographical canons, or that they wrote objectively, without an agenda. But why is it that *only* in the case of the Biblical texts does this arouse a radical hermeneutic of suspicion, but never when it comes to assessing other ancient chronicles and history? *No* ancient historian — and arguably, no modern historian either, yourself included — writes without an agenda and without a bias.

    It’s one thing to say that the Biblical texts are not modern histories, and are certainly not inerrant in all their factual detail, and quite another to say they aren’t histories at all. The ancients sure seem to have believed their scriptures communicated real history, I don’t think modern archaeology has even come close to refuting the gist of this story, and your comparisons to Spiderman and Superman stories are silly. We know that the authors of these characters do not intend them to be historical in any sense of the word. What justifies this assumption about all of the Biblical texts? By the way, I agree that some of the Biblical books are clear fictions, e.g., Genesis 1-11 (more properly “myth”), Job, Jonah, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Daniel, etc.

    1. ESG, these are good questions and comments. I’m going to respond to them at length, perhaps just to clarify to you and other readers what my position is here, and why.

      “But why is it that *only* in the case of the Biblical texts does this arouse a radical hermeneutic of suspicion, but never when it comes to assessing other ancient chronicles and history?”

      This is a good question. My guess is that the insistence by many biblical scholars, including myself, that the biblical scribes were not recording history is in large part a reaction to centuries of “learned” patterns of behavior and thought handed down by traditions, claiming that the Bible is true and accurate or in the extreme, the infallible word of God—as well as a reaction to a good dose of modern fundamentalism and literalism. These are all reader-oriented perceptions forged from long and authoritative interpretive traditions, and not from the texts in their own historical contexts. But for me, the issue really is “forcing” the public, as it were, to understand more about what ancient literature is in general: who wrote ancient texts and why, under what historical (religious and political) circumstances were texts composed, to whom, and for what purpose? I react largely to many modern readings of these ancient texts from individuals or even faith communities claiming this-and-that particular meaning, but having no knowledge about ancient literature in general nor the historical and literary worlds from which these texts came, nor their authors (and thus authorial agendas) and their audiences. Granted, even much of this knowledge is still debated and lost to history. But I’m grieved by the fact that what is in general most important about these texts from the modern reader’s point of view is supporting modern beliefs, values, worldview (from 2,5000 year old texts I remind you!), while neglecting things such as the author’s meaning and purpose for writing, or the historical circumstances or crisis that prompted him to write what he did in the first place, and even the cultural (and ancient) worldview, customs, and patterns of thinking that prompted him to believe what he did! This is further complicated by the fact, and much of what I do on this website, that the text is seen, understood, and read differently, indeed packaged differently, depending on whether one is reading the Bible (a 2nd c. creation composed from once separate texts, all of which were written over a 1,000 year period; or the Torah, a 5th c. BCE creation from older textual traditions and sources) or one is trying to read and understand the texts of the Bible before the Bible or Torah was even created. For me, getting back to the texts is getting back to their authors and the historical and literary contexts from which they wrote, while the Bible is reading the texts through a later, and imposed I might argue, interpretive framework forged by readers living centuries after these individual texts were written and who knew nothing about these texts’ authors and historical and literary contexts. I don’t mind if there’s disagreement and debate here. But in general I feel that all of this needs to be brought to the public’s attention and discussed.

      On a final note, I guess I’m advocating that if earnest and honest study of these ancient texts on their own terms, before the were codified and authenticated as “the Book” by a later generation of readers who had their own agendas, reveal that they do not support our modern worldview, practices, beliefs, values, etc.—and why and how could 2,000-3,000 year old texts do that?—then here too is a place were discussion is needed. In other words, I’d rather be honest to these ancient texts and their authors (and there’s room for disagreement and debate here) and have us realize as a culture that we manipulate these texts, since they’re deemed authoritative, to have them support our own beliefs, ideas, worldview, ideologies, etc., with no concern for those of the individual 70 some authors of this, properly, anthology of ancient literature. Expressing this idea more provocatively, I would argue that cultures, ours included, (re)create religion and (re)create God, so that religious beliefs and God support and legitimate our modern notions of justice, equality, our values and beliefs and ideologies. Yet this is subversively done when we claim that our notions, beliefs, values, ideologies, etc. come from 2,000-3,000 year old texts—and this methodology is only promulgated because of the authoritative (even divine in some circles) stance that tradition has assigned to this “Book.” In other words, because of the status awarded to “the Book”—its authoritativeness—the Bible merely becomes a vehicle to promote modern ideas, beliefs, ideologies, etc. I would like to see a more mature human race that can on the one hand acknowledge that the ancient texts of “the Book” represent many ancient cultures’ beliefs, worldviews, values, ideologies even, and not ours, and on the other hand the acknowledgement that we recreate religion and recreate (our ideas of) God in order to address ever-changing attitudes, historical circumstances, values, and even beliefs. Indeed the Bible, as an anthology of ancient texts spanning 1,000 years, many of which rewrote earlier texts both of which are preserved, bears witness to this claim: that religion and God are recreated.

      “We know that the authors of these characters do not intend them to be historical in any sense of the word.” Granted, my Spiderman analogy may not be most effective here, but you’ve articulated the point I was perhaps trying to make. “We know” because this “literature” is part of our culture. But say a culture who lived 2,500 years from now in some post-apocalyptic world that knew nothing about our world, this “knowing” might not be evident. But the analogy’s real purpose is to have us as a culture living some 2,500 years after these texts were written acknowledge that before we can make claims about the meaning and purpose of these ancient texts, we must learn something about what ancient literature is, thus my first point. I agree with you when saying “The ancients sure seem to have believed their scriptures communicated real history”—and here we’re already talking about the readers of these texts after “the Book” is created, for the most part. But I find it increasingly more difficult to have this same conviction when speaking about the authors themselves and what they were doing. For example, both the later Deuteronomic author and the Priestly scribe consciously re-present, modify, and even contradict the “history” of Israel as it was told in the earlier sources, which, unbeknown to them a later editor decided to preserve right next to their updated edition of “history” as it were.

      The book of Deuteronomy gives the clearest example of this, and will be the most persuasive illustration of this website’s thesis when we get to it. Having in front of him the traditions now preserved in Exodus 18-24 and Numbers 12-13, 20-21, the author of Deuteronomy has Moses—thus an authoritative mouthpiece—renarrate this “history” but in radically different and contradictory ways. Take two examples. 1) In the Exodus tradition Yahweh is presented as giving both the Ten Commandments (Ex 20) and the Law code (Ex 21-23) to the people, to which the people acknowledge its reception. However, when the Deuteronomist has Moses renarrate this event, he had Moses claim that Yahweh only gave the Ten Commandments to the people. We must acknowledge this contradiction and then in an attempt to understand the author of Deuteronomy and his purpose for writing his text, ask why did he change “history.” 2) In the older stories now preserved in Numbers, we are told that the Israelites do not pass through Edom; they are not given food and drink; and the Edomites come out to do battle and the Israelites flee. Yet when “Moses” renarrates this in Deuteronomy, he claims that the Edomites allowed the Israelites to pass, were given food and water, and that the Edomites were fearful not the Israelites. Again, being honest to these texts, we acknowledge the contradictions and ask: why does the author of Deuteronomy have (use!) Moses modify and contradict these earlier stories. This happens at about 30 other places! And the point that I wish to make is that if the Deuteronomist is consciously changing these stories, this “history,” in numerous places (in order to have “history” confirm with the Deuteronomist’s beleifs and ideologies—the answer to the why of our question), then does he see these stories as history?

      We will spend a lot of time on this question when we get to the book of Deuteronomy, or perhaps I will make this material available for download. It’s already a completed chapter to a book I’m working on.

  8. Dear Dr. DiMattei:

    I think some of your claims need a little scholarly updating. Among others, Kenneth A. Kitchen of the School of Archaeology and Oriental Studies at the University of Liverpool has documented numerous correspondences between the patriarchal narratives and everything else we know about the ancient Near East in the time period covered. See:

    For example, it just isn’t true that camels are necessarily a textual anachronism. See page 75 of her “Ancient Orient and Old Testament.”

    Also, I think we need to be very careful about taking the claims of archaeologists at face value, especially when they make broad pronouncements about entire regions of the world instead of specific sites. In the big scheme of things, only a fraction of a tiny fraction of the Middle East (or any part of the world) has been excavated, and absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence (though in the case of domesticated camels, we do in fact have evidence of their existence in the patriarchal period). Also, let’s be careful about begging questions. If we claim that something a Biblical text says cannot be so because, say, “we have no evidence from that time indicating such,” (as one often hears), that just begs the question: What if the Biblical text is itself that evidence, especially in light of everything else that seems to show us that, allowing for what we should expect to have been the authors’ unique literary and historiographical conventions and limitations, we do have a basically historically reliable text, notwithstanding the contradictions?

    Indeed, these sentences themselves are just one large begging of the question:

    “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 (#28). 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.”

    These are just conclusory statements.

    Just to make clear: I do not believe Moses penned the entire Torah, maybe not even most of it. But I do believe the five books have a Mosaic core. The evidence does seem to coincide with the gist of the tradition of Mosaic authorship, if not its most primitive or fundamentalist articulation.

    1. ESG, let me see if I can address your critiques one at a time.

      Fist, it’s really not an issue of Kitchen’s work being more “up to date.” Although I am unfamiliar with his work, the scholarship in this post comes from the work of colleagues in the field as recent as 2012 (e.g., Joel Baden’s The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis, 2012; David Carr’s The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction, 2011, etc.). The difference rather is one of approach and presuppositions. In general I agree with your caution about taking archaeological claims at face value, and many archaeologists are hotly debating this topic (Finkelstein, Dever, Tompson, Lemche, etc.). But the new approach to archaeology (see mostly Dever’s books), is labeled Syrio-Palestinian archaeology rather than biblical archaeology as it was in the golden age of Albright, et alia. In other words, the approach has been to evaluate the archaeological data apart from preformed assumptions brought to the field by having preformed assumptions about the biblical texts and their authors. Thus, much of this early archaeological approach, fueled by conservative theological traditions, sought to “prove” the Bible true on the misinformed assumption that the biblical writers were writing history. The early years of archaeology, and it looks like this is what Kitchen still ascribes to, is guided by the erroneous presupposition that the Bible is historical or true. We now know this is not the case and the largest supporting data of this does not come from the archaeological record, but from comparative analysis of the biblical literature itself and parallels to other literature of the ancient Near East unearthed in the last centuries. The archaeological data, or the lack thereof for many of the biblical stories, now corroborates the biblical and extra-biblical data.

      On another note, anachronisms are not discussed in the scholarly literature in isolation. There are literally dozens of anachronisms in the Pentateuch and as a whole this too was a literary phenomenon found in other ancient Near Eastern texts.

      I might additionally add that just because a narrative does indeed reference historical places, events, persons, etc. that is no evidence for a narrative’s historicity, especially when, again, a reader is not taking into account, not knowledgeable of, the historical and literary worlds within which a particular text was written. Take a modern day analogy. Say 2,500 years from now the only superhero film that survived was the latest version of Spiderman. Imagine too that the public opinion was that it was historical and true since indeed it references, accurately we might say, historical cities, correct subways, restaurants, dates, historical customs, pants worn then, etc. Yet a group of scholars who unearthed fragments from Ironman, Superman, concluded based on the textual or cinemagraphic data that these films were not historical, even though they referenced historical place names, etc. You see the problem inherit in the approach forged by public opinion. A piece of fiction, indeed almost all fiction, can and does reference historical realities, cities, institutions, etc. But this is not data that proves a texts (films) historicity and “truth” value—far from it.

      On another project I’m working on, I’ve written this:

      One of the largest factors contributing to the misreading and misunderstanding of much of the biblical corpus in the public sphere is in fact just that—ignorance of the larger literary, political, and religious contexts out of which the biblical texts emerged. This problem is exacerbated by an even more pervasive educational lacuna among modern readers of the Bible: namely, not knowing how to read ancient texts in general—indeed, not knowing anything about ancient literature as a whole. In fact, many modern readers do not even realize that they are reading ancient texts, written by authors whose concerns and reasons for writing were prompted from the circumstances of their own historical era. Instead, the Bible is often approached as if it were written to address the modern reader’s concerns, with little or no acknowledgment of the real historical and religious issues that prompted Israelite scribes, priests, and prophets to write in the first place. ….

      Another common misconception about biblical literature that the field of archaeology has changed indefinitely is the assumption that the biblical writers were writing history—in other words, that their aim was to record historical reality. This is far from the case. That is not to say that the biblical texts do not contain historical data, nor on occasion reference real historical events. Of course they do, but the authors of the Bible’s various traditions were not historians by any measure of our modern sense of the term. Most, in fact, were theologians (priests with particular theological agendas and worldviews), court scribes (the political elite who wrote to support or denounce monarchal policies and ideologies), or simply believers advocating their case—writing, as the author of the Gospel of John put it, “so that you may believe.” The so-called “histories” they wrote—indeed created—were more properly theological, even ideological, narratives whose aims sought to present “history” through particular theological biases and perspectives. How do we know this? Because, on the one hand, a comparative analysis of the literary remains of the ancient Near East for the Hebrew Bible, and of the Greco-Roman world for the New Testament, attests this fact (chapters 5 & 6), and on the other hand, the archaeological record reveals in most cases a completely different history than that outlined by our biblical authors (chapter 4). Not only do we now possess numerous annals, archives, inscriptions, and other texts from the ancient Near East, which narrate divergent “historical” accounts from those recorded in the Bible, but we are also able to see that these literary traditions were likewise recording historical events through their own unique theological and political interpretive grids…..

      I might add to this, the most valuable evidence, data, for supporting the claim that the biblical writers were not writing history comes from a comparative analysis of the biblical literature itself. For example, compare the author of Deuteronomy’s “history” which is authenticated by having Moses speak it, with the version of “history” of the same stories renarrated in Deuteronomy in the books of Exodus and Numbers. I will explicitly enumerate their contradictions when we get to Deuteronomy. You may be interested in How we know that the biblical writers were not writing history. Or even, Stories from the North and the South, which discusses the role of story-telling in the ancient world, and for the biblical writers in particular.

      Lastly, your comment “These are just conclusory statements” is indeed correct. It is the conclusion of scholarship, data, biblical, extra-biblical, and archaeological, that have been accumulated over the last century! If interested in the methodology employed here, read Studying the Bible objectively and scientifically. Like any science, one collects data about the object of study—here the biblical texts and their historical and literary contexts—and proposes hypotheses that best explain the data under observation. This particular hypothesis has been validated, affirmed, and reaffirmed throughout the scholarly literature over the last century. If you wish to ignore this data, that’s a whole other story. If you wish to challenge the conclusions drawn, then on what grounds? Using what textual or archaeological data? Again, without ignoring extra-biblical data, i.e., texts from other ancient Near Eastern civilizations.

  9. Very impressive, Steven. I just discovered your rich site and I’m looking forward to learning a lot from you.

    For now, just one question (which you may have answered elsewhere). I’m surprised you use BC and AD, whereas most scholars I’m familiar with have converted to BCE and CE respectively. What’s the reason for that?

    1. Welcome Paul! Nope, nobody’s ever asked me that. I suppose it’s just force of habit. I was actually living outside of the States when this transition really took force, and when I came back to the States I never fully understood why it was adopted. I mean, to me it just seemed to be yet another example of America’s (humanity’s) inability to have real thoughtful conversation, and in lieu of that employ rhetorical sophistry that rested on some fallacious idea that one can change something by changing its name. I rail against this. We, as a species, have let language substitute for real independent discursive dialogue. This just seemed to be another example of that. The fact is, for right or wrong, our Western culture rests on a calendar system created by early Christians; calling it something else does not change that. That said, you have now started me re-thinking my whole position, since in using AD (anno Domini) I could be misconstrued as making a faith statement of some sort, and I wouldn’t want that to happen.

  10. Dr. DiMattei, first off I want to say thank you for this blog. It is extremely refreshing to find such a detailed and substanatiated examination of the Bible that doesn’t have an agenda behind it and only seeks to explain what is in it.

    I do have a question though. You used the term “hypothesis” in a way that I think may be incorrect. You likened the Documentary Hypothesis to the atomic hypothesis. This is incorrect because it is known as atomic theory. To my understanding a hypothesis is simply a statement that seeks to explain an observed phenomenon while a theory is a well-tested hypothesis that has “moved up a rank” and is backed up fairly heavily with solid testing and evidence.

    Since I am the one without a PhD (or any college degree for that matter) perhaps I am wrong. I just wanted to find out what you meant exactly. Is the Docmentary Hypothesis just a hypothesis? Or would you consider it a theory?

    1. Micah,

      The use of the word hypothesis in Documentary Hypothesis is now more of a nomenclature. Indeed it was a hypothesis when it first surfaced 300 years ago. But the biblical texts have continuously revealed, verified, and reaffirmed its composite nature. Most, if not all, biblical scholars would say this is fact. We may quibble about certain passages belonging to which source, or that perhaps some of the sources did not exist as whole literary narratives prior to being edited together, etc.

      In my post, Studying the Bible objectively I use the model of scientific inquiry to explain the study of the Bible: one observes the phenomenon at hand, collects data, and forms a hypothesis that best explains this data, if this is independently reaffirmed and verified enough it becomes scientific truth. Here, the Bible’s contradictions are merely one form of the textual data gathered, and a meager part, the least significant part, of the data in corroborating the documentary hypothesis.

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