Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus. How do you understand this interpretation of it?
In my first post in response to this question–which is really about the authorship of the whole Pentateuch, not just the creation accounts–I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses, such as the account of his death and the various explanations that his contemporaries would not have required. Recognizing this helps us not to have to ground our confidence in the inspiration and authority of these writings on the belief that Moses wrote every single word of them.
It’s one thing, however, to acknowledge a few likely additions to a body of material that we still consider to have been written almost entirely by Moses; it’s another thing to argue, in keeping with the so-called Documentary Hypothesis, that the Pentateuch was actually woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places at later times in Israel’s history. In this post I will summarize the basic claims of that position. In my next post, I will discuss some of the biblical evidence that is offered in support for it. And in my final post in this series, I will then try to show how the traditional belief in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch can be put in positive and constructive dialogue with the Documentary Hypothesis.
The best popular description I know of that position is found in the book Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman. He argues that some time before the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C., two complementary accounts of Israelite history from the patriarchs up to the time of Moses, “J” or Yahwist and “E” or Elohist, were composed in the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel, respectively. When refugees from the northern kingdom of Israel escaped from the Assyrians into the southern kingdom of Judah, they brought their historical epic with them, and the two versions were woven together to form the historical portion of the books we know know as Genesis through Numbers.
During the reign of Josiah, Friedman continues, someone else picked up the story starting in the time of Moses and carried it up through the time of that king, finishing the work “around the year 622 B.C.” This document, “D” or Deuteronomist, eventually comprised the books from Deuteronomy through Kings.
Then, Friedman says, “someone who was alive and writing before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.” and who “knew the JE text, in its combined form, intimately” composed or assembled a “collection of Priestly laws and stories . . . as an alternative to JE,” to bring out different themes and emphases as lessons from Israel’s history. But finally, in what Friedman calls a “great irony,” someone (he believes it was Ezra, upon the return from the Babylonian exile) combined this work, the “P” or Priestly account, with JE and D to produce the continuous work, Genesis through Kings, with which the Old Testament as we know it now opens.
Is there any biblical evidence for this version of the way the Pentateuch (and the next several books of the Bible) were put together? I’ll look at that question next time.