Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 3)

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, I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses.  In my next post, I explained that many scholars believe that the Pentateuch was instead woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places at later times in Israel’s history.  I’d now like to discuss the biblical evidence these scholars offer in support of this belief.

First, throughout the Pentateuch, the God of Israel is referred to by different names, two in particular: Yahweh, translated in most English Bibles as “the Lord” (in small caps), and Elohim, commonly translated “God.”  The original arguments behind the so-called Documentary Hypothesis held that these different names signaled the work of different authors.  One was the “Yahwist” (abbreviated J from the German version of that name), working in the southern kingdom of Judah where the covenant name Yahweh was in common use. The other was the “Elohist” (E), working in the northern kingdom of Israel where the worship of Yahweh was in decline.

We have at least one strong suggestion elsewhere in the Bible that these two different names were preferred in the two separate kingdoms.  Psalm 14, a “psalm of David” according to its superscription, and thus likely of Judean origin, primarily uses the divine name Yahweh.  Psalm 53 is a near-verbatim version of the same psalm that was apparently adapted for use in the northern kingdom because it consistently replaces the name Yahweh with Elohim (as shown in red):

Graphic C
Click to enlarge

We can tell that the Elohistic version of the psalm is a later rewrite because, as shown in blue above, the stanzas in Psalm 14 that have two lines in exception to its overall three-line pattern (perhaps originally a musical “bridge”) have been recast into a single stanza of three lines, no doubt to fit the new tune “mahalath.”  And this has been done by creating a new line out of the consonants of the second two-line stanza, using them to make new words with different meanings!  The consonants are shown in blue below, with the rewrite placed on the line above the original (the different divine names are in purple):

Graphic D

However, we shouldn’t push the idea too far that different divine names indicate different authors in different kingdoms, because as Psalm 14 itself shows, a single author can use both names for poetic variety; to speak of God either more generally (Elohim) or more specifically in covenant terms (Yahweh); and even for purposes of characterization:  note that it is the “fools” who say there is no Elohim, while Yahweh is the refuge of the poor.

For these reasons, proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis have moved away from reliance on divine names, to the extent that they now sometimes call the J document the “Judean” source and the E document the “Ephraimistic” source (using a popular biblical name for the northern kingdom).  To support their view they rely far more on the phenomenon of “doublets” in the Pentateuch, that is, places where the same incident seems to be related twice, from slightly different perspectives.  This phenomenon is illustrated most vividly in cases of doubled accounts of where the name of a person or place came from.

For example, when Abraham entertains the three visitors, one of them tells him that his wife Sarah will bear a son.  She laughs incredulously, and Yahweh (in the person of this visitor) responds, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for Yahweh?”  This story explains the derivation of the son’s name, Isaac, which means “laughter.”  But later on, after the child is born, a different explanation for his name is offered:  Sarah exclaims joyfully, Elohim has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”  Not only do we have two different accounts of how Isaac got his name, the key phrases in these accounts use different divine names, leading Friedman, whose work I discussed last time, to assign them to J and E, respectively.  They also represent different perspectives on Sarah–one less favorable, the other more favorable.

The Pentateuch also offers two different explanations of what happened at the place named Meribah, where, after a quarrel (hence the name), God brought water out of a rock for the Israelites in the wilderness.  In the account in Exodus, Moses strikes the rock at God’s command, and his leadership is vindicated.  But in the account in Numbers, Moses strikes the rock in anger and desperation, and Yahweh interprets this as an act of mistrust and tells Moses as punishment that he will not enter the promised land.  Friedman attributes the former account to E, and the latter to P, who, he says, belonged to a rival priestly order and was not hesitant to diminish Moses.  There are many similar “doublets” in the Pentateuch.

However, one could just as easily argue that cases like these are not actually doubled accounts of the same incidents, but instead accounts of separate incidents that followed one another in Israelite history.  For that matter, one could also warn of the danger of circular reasoning if certain parts of the Pentateuch are first assigned to separate sources, and then the particular emphases found in those parts are argued to be characteristic of those sources and proof that they originated there!

But in any event, these are the kinds of evidences that are typically advanced to support the belief that the Pentateuch has been woven together from a variety of different documents.  Does a person have to choose definitively between this belief and the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch?  Or is a way that the two positions can be put in a positive and constructive dialogue?  I’ll explore that question in my final post in this series.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 2)

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.

Did the apostle John write the book of Revelation?

Q. Thank you very much for your recent post about whether the apostle John was the author of the gospel of John. This has been a question at the back of my mind for some time and it’s great to hear your reasons for believing John to be the author. I was also wondering about the authorship of the book of Revelation. In your study guide to Revelation you state that its author was unlikely to be the apostle John since in the Gospel of John and his letters he never refers to himself as John, but goes by “the elder” or “the one whom Jesus loved.”  Along with that textual evidence, I was wondering what other evidence supports this view. Has the church traditionally seen the apostle John as the author, or is that a more recent phenomenon?

“St. John Receiving His Revelation” from the Apocalypse of St. Sever (11th century). Church art customarily follows the traditional view in ascribing the book to the apostle John.

We need to recognize that there was a tendency within the early church to accept that the books they read in worship and considered reliable had been written by the apostles or else by their close companions (such as Luke).  This was in keeping with the growing belief within the community that these books were authoritative.  And so we find early figures such as Ireneus, Tertullian, Origen, etc. ascribing the book of Revelation to the apostle John.

Even so—and by contrast with most other New Testament books—there were some who questioned Revelation’s apostolic authorship.  In his late third-century Ecclesiastical History, for example, Eusebius quotes Dionysius of Alexandria (who lived a generation earlier) as saying the following about Revelation:

“That this book is the work of one John, I do not deny. And I agree also that it is the work of a holy and inspired man. But I cannot readily admit that he was the apostle, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, by whom the Gospel of John and the Catholic Epistle were written.  For I judge from the character of both, and the forms of expression, and the entire execution of the book, that it is not his . . .  I do not deny that the other writer saw a revelation and received knowledge and prophecy. I perceive, however, that his dialect and language are not accurate Greek, but that he uses barbarous idioms, and, in some places, solecisms.” (VII.25)

So in the case of every New Testament book, when asking about authorship, we have to reckon with the tendency of the early church to ascribe accepted books to apostolic sources.  And we need to be prepared to critique this tendency in light of evidence that is internal to the book (as Dionysius did in the case of the book of Revelation less than two hundred years after it was written).

When it comes to the authorship of Revelation, in addition to the evidence you cited (the author’s own self-description), we can note, as I also say in the study guide (you’ll hear echoes of Dionysius here), that “the language, themes, and perspectives of the apostle’s writings are very different from those in Revelation.”

This is not a simple matter of style or genre; great authors can write in a variety of styles.  (If we didn’t know better, we’d never imagine that James Joyce wrote The Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in a more conventional style, and then changed styles so drastically to write Ulysses, and then did so yet again for Finnegan’s Wake.)

Rather, the perspectives are different.  The gospel of John is said to have a “vertical eschatology.”  That is, eschatological realities are understood to be present now, breaking in from the heavenly realm.  For example, when Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again,” and she replies, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day,” Jesus counters, “I am the resurrection and the life” (now).

Revelation, by contrast, has a “horizontal eschatology.”  Eschatological realities are coming in the future and believers must await them faithfully and hopefully, enduring in order to “overcome.”

For reasons like these I consider someone other than the apostle John, but a person who was nevertheless named John, to have been the author of Revelation.

Did the apostle John really write the gospel of John?

Q.  I’m reading through your study guide to the gospel of John and getting a lot out of it, but I do have one question for you.  Why do you consider the apostle John to be the author of this gospel?  Isn’t it the consensus of New Testament scholars that it was instead the product of a later community that looked back to John as its founder and inspiration?

To begin to answer your question, let me appeal to a helpful distinction that Raymond E. Brown introduces as he is discussing the issue of authorship in his influential commentary on the gospel of John.  Brown notes that ancient works had both an “author” and a “writer.” He explains that “the writers run the gamut from recording secretaries who slavishly copied down the author’s dictation to highly independent collaborators who, working from a sketch of the author’s ideas, gave their own literary style to the final work.”

I think it is quite possible that the writers of the gospel of John were disciples or followers who worked the apostle’s recollections and teachings into the form we find them today.  But I would still say that the author of this work, in the sense of the person essentially responsible for its content, was indeed the apostle John.

The scholarly debate about authorship is ongoing (some leading New Testament scholars continue to argue for John as the author in the most active sense), but I won’t review it here in this post.  Good summaries of it can be found in most commentaries on the gospel of John, and I would recommend Brown’s particularly.  Instead, let me discuss one feature of the gospel that I feel points strongly in the direction of John having been recognized from a very early date as essentially responsible for its content.

The gospel appears to end with the assertion that “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”  This rounds out the main thematic development nicely.

But then there is an epilogue, apparently added later, whose main purpose seems to be to correct the mistaken impression that Jesus had said the apostle John would not die before he returned.  Reading between the lines a bit, we can recognize that when this epilogue was added, John had just died, and  his death was undermining confidence in the gospel of John itself, on the part of those who believed he wouldn’t die.  That’s why the disclaimer was needed.

The fact that it was necessary to attach such an epilogue to the gospel, to preserve its credibility, strongly suggests that the gospel was largely completed before John died, and that it was considered within his lifetime to contain his teachings and recollections.  Otherwise, his death would not have affected the reception of the written gospel so strongly.  And it’s hard to imagine that anyone responsible in any sense for a work whose ethical teachings are so elevated would have allowed this belief in his authorship to persist if it had been inaccurate.

In short, I feel that the epilogue that has been added to the gospel of John constitutes very early evidence, from just after the apostle’s own lifetime, that he was considered its “author” to such an extent that its credibility rested on his personal credibility.

That is why I am very comfortable, despite the ongoing scholarly conversation, with the idea that the apostle John was the author of the gospel of John.  But even so, the meaning and the message of this gospel can be appreciated without a commitment to any particular theory of authorship.

The image of John the Evangelist from the Lindisfarne Gospels.