John Loftus begins a final section in his book Why I Became an Atheist with this coup de grâce: Jesus attested that Moses was the author of the first five books, but subsequent analysis proves Moses could not have written the first book and did not. Jesus was wrong.
That should seal the deal. Not only is the traditional understanding about the authorship of the
I encountered something like this charge while in college 45 years ago. It was a shock to my faith. And it seems to have been a shock to the faith of many who now consider themselves atheists, perhaps John Loftus is included. If the Bible cannot be trusted, if Jesus cannot be trusted, what is left?
I recovered. I thought it through. I did the research. And I was satisfied then that the Bible could be trusted. Jesus could be trusted. My faith was strengthened. But in the intervening years the attacks on the historicity of the Bible and upon Jesus have gotten more sophisticated. More scholars from the mainstream academic world have joined the ranks, names like Bart Ehrman and Hector Avalos and John Crossan. They hold professorships in well known universities. And they are trusted to speak for mainstream Christianity on national news programs. Their critiques have gotten louder and more public. So I thought it through again. My conclusion is that their argument that the Bible could not be trusted to be accurate historically - and therefore, could not be God inspired - has gotten more complex, but it has not gotten stronger. So let's look at the case against the Torah.
Loftus has done us the favor of summarizing most of the key points of the New Biblical Scholars' arguments. I'll examine them point by point in what follows.
I begin with the charge that Jesus affirmed that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy were written by Moses. Is that true? A closer examination of the verses quoted by Loftus to demonstrate that Jesus referred to the five books of the Torah as written by Moses reveals that Jesus actually only referred to Exodus and Leviticus. Check them out: Matt. 8: 4; 19: 6– 8; 22: 24; Mark 1: 44; 7: 10; 10: 3– 4; 12: 19; 26; Luke 2: 22; 5: 14; 16:29-31; and 24:44. But the tradition, even in Jesus' day, was that the Torah was given by Moses. Did Jesus mean all the books by reference to Moses as the author of several of them? Clearly the Jews did hold to the tradition that Moses wrote the all five books. But does it matter?
The Torah is about Moses. From Exodus through Deuteronomy the Torah is the story of his life. Genesis provides the background necessary to understand that story. They are the books of Moses in at least the sense that they are the story of Moses' life.
But they are more than that, and certainly the Jews regarded them so. They are the message of God through Moses' that established the nation of Israel. They speak God's words to his people. But if parts of the books were written by others, if a later editor or translator or compiler added explanatory information would that be an argument against the authority of the books? The answer is no. The integrity of the books is not damaged by explanatory or editorial comments. So what follows here from Loftus and the New Biblical Scholars he quotes may argue against the tradition. But it is not an indictment of the Bible.
For some Christians, however, even the idea that the books of Moses may not all have been written 100% by the hand Moses or that Genesis, in particular, was not dictated by God to Moses is troubling. That is our tradition: They were written by Moses, and that's that. It is what we have been taught from Sunday school on. But the reality is that some parts were obviously not written by Moses. Even the untrained reader can identify some of those places. Simply read Deuteronomy where Moses' death is recorded. That part could not logically have been written by Moses. A later editor must have inserted at least that part. Genesis 36 could not have been written by Moses for the same reason; it records events that happened after his death.
What if a later editor added those explanatory comments? Would that destroy the value or the inspiration of the books? What is important is not the authorship. What is important is the authority of the books. That I will defend.
That defense might seem easy if a few editorial comments are all there are. But the situation is more complicated than simply an editor wrapping up the story - as Loftus points out. So let me take each of the observations Loftus makes, particularly those relative to Genesis, and the conclusions he draws one by one.
Anachronisms. An anachronism is something that is out of place in time. A reference to something that happened long after the events recorded in the story would be an anachronism. Loftus points out a number of places where people and places are mentioned in the books of Genesis (and Deuteronomy) that could only be known long after the time of Moses. And he is right. One example is in Genesis 36 where a list the descendants of Esau includes kings who lived long after Moses. Moses could not have written this chapter.
But almost all biblical scholars notice that anachronism. My Hebrew professor called our attention to it in seminary. Clearly chapter 36 is an insertion by a later editor to make sense out of the family of Esau. Chapter 36 answers the question about what happened to Esau and his family after he and Jacob buried their father Isaac (Genesis 35:29) Since many of these men in Esau's line show up later in the biblical narrative, seeing their connection to Esau seemed important to the editor who also lived later. (BTW this insertion also can be used to identify the approximate time when the insertion was added. It was added during the time of the kings of Israel.) The interruption of chapter 36 in the narrative of Genesis does not undermine the authority of the book.
But the problems with anachronisms do not end there. As Israel Finkelstein writes: "the biblical text was filled with literary asides, explaining the ancient names of certain places." The Bible Unearthed.
All of this assumes, almost requires, that we understand the book of Genesis to have been redacted (texts from several sources combined in one document) by an editor at a date later than Moses. That may disturb some Christians who haven't thought about it before. But it should not disturb those who understand that the books of the Bible have a history. They have been copied and edited and even redacted. But the integrity and authority of the book is not undermined by that reality.They have not been distorted by editing.
I go on. The problem of the name Yahweh in Genesis prior to the moment in Exodus 6 where God identifies himself to Moses as Yahweh is for John Loftus a serious contradiction. God specifically says to Moses that he had not revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as Yahweh. Could the same author have written both Genesis and Exodus? Could Exodus possibly be accurate and inspired when God is caught in the contradiction? I smile.
There is an old joke based on the same twist of words Loftus uses. It goes this way. A man to his friend: "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" Both a yes or a no implies that the premise of the joke is true; I have been beating my wife. But everyone sees through that and laughs.
In this case Loftus implies the premise that there is a contradiction. But there is not. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not know God by the name of Yahweh. So how is it that the name Yahweh shows up so prominently in Genesis? It was added in place of an older name. It seems to me that editing in the name Yahweh by a later editor is by far the simplest explanation and the one to be preferred in lieu of other evidence.
In what is an early story in Genesis 14 when Melchizedek came to Abraham to bless him, he and Abraham both refer to God as El Elyon, the Creator of heaven and earth. Since by every other measure chapter 14 is a very old story and accurate to the place and time of about 2000 B.C. we might assume that the name for God, El Elyon, is also accurate to the place and time. El Elyon is the name by which both Abraham and Melchizedek knew God.
There is, however, one reference to Yahweh in the pericope. It is in verse 22. Here God Abraham names God "Yahweh, El Elyon, the Creator of heaven and earth." Why not simply El Elyon? The most probable explanation is that later readers who knew the God of Israel as Yahweh and not El Elyon would better understand that the God Abraham knew was the same as Yahweh.
That same conclusion may be drawn from the book of Job. The central poem of the book is perhaps the oldest piece of biblical literature. The geography and customs and archaic words used in the poem reveal, in a close examination of the poem, a time of about the same time Abraham lived and a place not too far from the land where Abraham came from, Ur in Mesopotamia. In Job the name for God is consistently Shadday (Almighty) and Eloah (God). (The only use of Yahweh comes in the sections at the beginning and end, sections that were added to the poem later, and in 12:9.)
It is clear in the poem that Job is referring, as Melchizedek did, to the Creator of heaven and earth, yet he did not know the Creator by the name Yahweh. He knew him as El Ekoah and El Shadday (which is how Moses knew God in Exodus 6 prior to God revealing his personal name). So it appears that in the oldest texts the name Yahweh was not known. But how then is it that we find Yahweh so consistently used in Genesis? The answer again is that a later editor inserted the name for the sake of the readers in his day who knew God as Yahweh. That is not so hard.
However, we need not conclude that the later editor is other than Moses himself. The events in Genesis happened before Moses' time. And it seems clear that many of the stories were stories passed down from the past and worked by the final writer (redacted) into the coherent narrative of Genesis. If so, why is it so difficult to see Moses inserting the name Yahweh into the stories in those places where a more ancient name had been used? Moses might have done that to avoid implying that there was more than one God. But there is really a more important reason.
Yahweh is the personal name for God. It is the name by which he expresses his personal relationship to people. The other more general name for God is Elohim. It is by that name and by the similar names of El, El Elyon, El Shaddy, and Eloah that God is spoken of more impersonally as Creator or judge. It was by that name that the Canaanites knew God. That pattern is quite consistent throughout the Old Testament though not absolutely so.
Camels are another anachronism often identified in Genesis. In all there are twenty passages in which camels are mentioned. The earliest is in Genesis 12 where the text says Abraham had camels, among the many other livestock. That would have been about 2000 B.C. Critics have long contested the possibility that camels had been domesticated that early. Recent research by two archaeologist " Dr Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the moment when domesticated camels arrived in the southern Levant. They found camels came in the 9th century B.C. Camels in the Levant
But their conclusions ignored a mass of evidence that camels were in use in the Middle East including the Levant as early as the third millennium and earlier than any reference in Genesis. Biblical Archaeology Review And there are pictures to prove it. So no anachronism here.
Doublets. Finally, John points to the doublets. Doublets are stories found in Genesis that appear to be told twice, but from two sources. One perhaps from the memory of the northern kingdom of Israel the other from the memory of the southern kingdom Judah, or so Loftus argues. But Loftus is simply alluding to what the New Biblical Scholars have been saying for many years. Again Finkelstein summarizes the case:
Thus one set of stories consistently used the tetragrammaton — the four-letter name YHWH (assumed by most scholars to have been pronounced Yahweh) — in the course of its historical narration and seemed to be most interested in the tribe and territory of Judah in its various accounts. The other set of stories used the names Elohim or El for God and seemed particularly concerned with the tribes and territories in the north of the country — mainly Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. In time, it became clear that the doublets derived from two distinct sources, written in different times and different places. Scholars gave the name "J" to the Yahwist source (spelled Jahvist in German) and "E" to the Elohist source.
The distinctive uses of geographical terminology and religious symbols and the roles played by the various tribes in the two sources convinced scholars that the J text was written in Jerusalem and represented the perspective of the united monarchy or the kingdom of Judah, presumably at or soon after the time of King Solomon (C. 970-930 BCE). Likewise, the E text seemed to have been written in the north and represented the perspective of the kingdom of Israel, and would have been composed during the independent life of that kingdom (C. 930-720 BCE).
One such story is the story of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt and the story of Abraham and Sarah in Gerar. In both Abraham presents Sarah as his sister in order to avoid being killed.
But the stories are too dissimilar to be considered one story told from two sources. They sound more like two different experiences. And I think that is the best solution to the puzzle. Of course, both explanations could be true; the stories each might have been collected from a different sources by the redactor of Genesis, though from the traditions of later Israel and Judah seems more of a stretch than necessary. But there is the additional feature, which Finkelstein points out. Abraham in Gerar, refers to God as Elohim and in the other of Abraham in Egypt as Yahweh. If that feature is put forth as evidence for a later story tradition, it assumes that the northern kingdom had abandoned using the name Yahweh. But there is no evidence for that. And Finkelstein provides none in his short summary of his book.
If we look to the biblical history in Kings, in all the places where the northern kingdom is described in 1st and 2nd Kings - and there is virtually no textual history of the northern kingdom outside the Bible - there is no evidence that the name Elohim had replaced Yahweh. There had been syncretism with other religions, notably with Baal worship, but there seems to have also been a retention of Yahweh as God. Of course, this history is told from the point of view of the southern kingdom. But it remains that to presume that the name Elohim was used rather than Yahweh is one bridge too far. So some other explanation is needed. This one falls flat.
A better explanation is that in Gerar the king knew God by the name Elohim, he was after all a Canaanite and that was the common name for God among the Canaanites. The compiler Moses simply retained that name, perhaps to show that the king of Gerar was actually a believer in the one true God. And that seems clear in the story itself since Abimelech the king of Gerar has great respect for Elohim.
In Egypt the Pharaoh did not know God at all and makes no reference to any god. In that case the compiler Moses used the name Yahweh in the one occurrence in the pericope because that reference is to the God of Abraham.
A second and rather popular example of a doublet proposed by the New Biblical Scholars is the two creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2. A close reading of those chapters reveals, however, that they are not two creations stories at all. They are one story in two parts. Chapter one speaks about the creation of the heavens and the earth. It is concluded by a toldoth in Genesis 2:4. A toldoth is a stylistic device marking the end of a story and the beginning of another. It is translated "the generations of." The "second story" does not reiterate the creation narrative of Genesis 1. It is a sequel. It goes on to speak of Adam and his line. They are two stories connected by the creation of man.
Simply recognizing that there are two different stories and not doublets may not be a solution to every case where doublets are identified by the New Biblical Scholars. But this solution highlights the probability that there are more complex solutions than Loftus or Finkelstein allows.
What these issues do not do is shake the conviction that Moses was the writer or compiler of the Genesis narrative. He clearly obtained the stories that make up the book by ordinary means rather than by divine dictation. There are too many examples of archaic origin and hints at a reworking of an older story to assume that. The Genesis narrative was also edited by a later editor some time after Moses, perhaps in the period of the kings. But the idea that the book was wholly written by a later compiler is not borne out in the text.
What is also not shaken is the conviction that the book is authoritative. But what does that mean? At this point I defer to N.T. Wright. "God’s authority vested in scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is designed, to liberate human beings and to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human." N.T.Wright
In my simpler words, "authority" is the power of the written word of God to connect us to God TRULY. The written word is not merely good advice. It is not merely inspirational. It is not simply a collection of doctrines or even truths. It is not a record of history. It has power. It is true. It touches the reader who will receive it on a level that brings conviction of sin and the confident hope that God pushes through my sin to speak and touch me and call me to him - just as he did with Adam. And Genesis does that powerfully.
Genesis is, of course, part of a bigger narrative and therefore does not tell us everything. It does not, for example develop in detail how God reconnects us to himself. That is left for the New Testament to complete, though the foreshadowing of that completion is there in Genesis. Genesis, however, gives us a foretaste of that good news, what we call the gospel, in chapter three and illustrates the gospel again and again and again in the stories of people like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
Indeed, the book of Genesis, if we had it alone, would be enough to do all that the Bible is intended by God to do. It gives us hope in God's mercy. It is a magnificent testament to God. And it is difficult to imagine how any man could write such a book. Far from being flawed as the New Biblical Scholars imply, it is a treasure of incredible beauty. It is a jewel which, if we gaze into its depths, reflects back intimations of eternity.