Yesterday I began a short thread dealing with problems in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament, as a kind of foreshadowing of the sorts of things I’ll be covering in my online course of eight lectures, that I’ll be giving live, with Q&A, on December 10-11; again, if you’re interested, you can find out about the course here: Finding Moses – Online Course Covering the Historicity of the Pentateuch – Bart D. Ehrman – New Testament Scholar, Speaker, and Consultant (bartehrman.com)
The course will be a followup to my earlier one on Genesis (called “In the Beginning”). Many of the same problems that I have discussed on the blog and in my course about Genesis apply to the other books of the Pentateuch as well. For many of us, some of the most interesting ones involve contradictions among the various narratives.
I talk about that a bit in my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction. Here’s some of what I deal with there, edited here and there for the blog.
You find them right off the bat in Genesis, in the two creation stories of chapters 1-2, which simply can’t be reconciled, no matter how hard you (or your favorite televangelist) try. Less well known: the literary inconsistencies of Genesis are not unique to these two chapters. On the contrary, there are such problems scattered throughout the book. You can see this for yourself simply by reading the text very carefully. Read, for example, the story of the flood in Genesis 6-9, and you will find comparable differences. One of the most glaring is this: according to Gen. 6:19 God told Noah to take two animals “of every kind” with him into the ark; but according to Gen. 7:2 God told him to take seven pairs of all “clean animals” and two of every other kind of animal. Well, which is it? And how can it be both?
Similar differences occur in other parts of the Pentateuch, as I’ll be discussing in my course. One of my favorite examples comes in Exodus, where Moses miraculously performs the “ten plagues” against the Egyptians in order to convince the reluctant Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go free from slavery. These are terrific stories, as good as the accounts of the Patriarchs in Genesis. But scholars have long detected similar discrepancies. It has been noted, for example, that in the fifth plague, the LORD killed “all of the livestock” of the Egyptians (9:6). So, based on this account one would think that “all” of the livestock were, indeed, dead. But then, just a few verses later, Moses performs the seventh plague, in which a terrible hail storm killed not just humans, but also all the “livestock” of the Egyptians that had been left in the fields (see 9:29-20; 25). Livestock? What livestock? Worse still: the poor livestock get destroyed again in the tenth plague! It has been widely concluded that this story was patched up from at least two earlier accounts, which, when spliced together, created a rather curious inconsistency.
Such differences occur not only within this or that book of the Pentateuch; similar problems were found to occur between one book and the next, making it appear that the same author is not responsible for the entire work. And so, for example, in Exodus, in one of Moses’ early encounters with the deity, God tells him “I am the LORD (Yahweh). I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty (Hebrew: El Shaddai), but by my name ‘The LORD’ (Yahweh) I did not make myself known to them” (Exod. 6:3). Here God is saying that the patriarchs of Genesis did not know the personal name of God, Yahweh; they only knew him as God Almighty, El Shaddai. But that will come as a very big surprise to a careful reader of Genesis. For it is quite clear in Genesis not only that God appeared to the patriarchs as The LORD (Yahweh), but that they called him by that name. Consider Gen. 4:26: “At that time people began to invoke the name of the LORD (Yahweh).” Or even more telling, Gen. 15:6-8:
And he [Abraham] believed the LORD (Yahweh), and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. Then he said to him, “I am the LORD (Yahweh) who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, O Lord GOD (Adonai Yahweh), how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
According to Exodus, God never appeared to or revealed himself to Abraham as Yahweh; according to Genesis, he did. There are clearly different sources that have been incorporated into these stories. That is made all the more evident by the doublets (and the triplet) that we observed earlier in the Patriarchal narratives.
Anyway, I’ll be talking about this kind of thing in the course — not as THE major point, but just as one of the intriguing features of these most important books. In my Genesis course, and several times on the blog before, I’ve explained why such problems have led scholars to assume that the Pentateuch was not written by a single person (let alone Moses) (for one thing, the narrative describes his death!) but is the product of a group of sources edited together into the five books.
Here for those who need/want it, is a brief summary of this “Documentary Hypothesis” for the Pentateuch.
The Documentary Hypothesis
The most popular solution to the problem of the authorship of the Pentateuch is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. In its most widespread form, this is the view that behind the Pentateuch there are actually four different written sources (all of them based on oral traditions), written by different authors, living at different times in the history of ancient Israel, with different points of view and emphases, that have been edited together into one long five-volume work.
The scholar whose name is most widely associated with this hypothesis was a German Professor of Hebrew Bible named Julius Wellhausen, who lived from 1844 to 1918. Wellhausen did not invent the documentary hypothesis, but he did work out its details in a more compelling way than any of his predecessors. And he managed to convince an entire host of fellow scholars of its persuasiveness, starting with his major 1878 publication (in German), History of Ancient Israel. Among other things, Wellhausen claimed that the four sources of the Pentateuch were written centuries after the events they narrate, and by authors living centuries removed from one another. As a result, the accounts do not represent eyewitness reports (for example, by Moses) and are not historically reliable. We do not know who the actual authors of these sources were, but Wellhausen called them by four initials, the J source (possibly written in the 10th c. BCE — that is some three centuries after the latest part of the narrative action), the E source (9th c. BCE), the D source (7th BCE), and the P source (6th c BCE). Sometimes, as a result, this is known as the JEDP hypothesis.
Since Wellhausen’s day, scholars have seen more complexities among our sources, but some form of the Documentary Hypothesis is widely held still today.