In my last post, I promised to discuss other problems with the idea that the bible is the “Word of God”, especially with respect to the collection of books referred to by Christians as the Old Testament (often called the Hebrew Bible by folks who are not connected with Christianity, such as myself).
In order to do this, I must introduce the concept of Source Criticism, which is another thorny issue of the bible: This is simply the question of who wrote the various books of the bible. This brings up a rather controversial subject which I will touch on briefly, before turning to the issues of the Old Testament.
Paul is once again an excellent example. It is very likely that Paul wrote many of the books attributed to him, including Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and so forth. However, the authorship of the so-called “Pastoral Epistles” (i.e. I and II Timothy and Titus) is in grave doubt, despite being traditionally attributed to Paul. The reasons for this have to do with inconsistencies between the writings of Paul in the books we know he wrote (for example Romans) vs. these books. Remember that all we have is the text of the available manuscripts. Only by comparing the texts of the various books attributed to a given author, and exploring differences in style and content, can we attempt to determine if a book was actually written by the author to whom it is attributed.
In the case of the Pastoral Epistles, there are many problems. Perhaps the most glaring issue has to do with the passage in I Timothy 2:11-15 relating to the role of women in this church:
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent…
The issue is that there is a glaring inconsistency between this passage and Romans 16, which contains many personal greetings for women, one of whom is identified as a deacon, another as a co-worker, and another an apostle. In order to reconcile I Timothy 2 with Romans 16, we would have to assume that either Paul was incredibly inconsistent in this area (almost insultingly so, given his greetings of these women in Romans), or radically changed his views regarding women between the times when he wrote Romans vs. I Timothy. Another scenario that seems more likely than these is that I Timothy (as well as II Timothy and Titus) were simply not written by Paul, but rather by someone else who wants us to think that he / she is Paul. In the biblical scholarship community, this person is generally referred to as pseudo-Paul.
The technical term within biblical scholarship for a book like this is “pseudonymous”. It is common in present times for an author to write under a false name: In ancient times, apparently it was fairly common (although it was considered naughty, as it is now) for writers to write under the name of another actual person, thereby borrowing their credibility and reputation, a form of identity theft, if you will. Hence the Source Criticism problem: If a book was not written by the apostle to whom it is traditionally attributed, what does that say about the authority and divine inspiration of the book? Many would maintain that a book which is a forgery and thus based upon a lie, cannot by definition be divinely inspired.
The Source Criticism problem plagues many of the books of the New Testament to a greater or lesser degree. These include all of the gospels and the book of Acts (all of which are actually anonymous books; the authorship attributed to them is simply traditional), as well as Hebrews, James, the epistles of Peter, and, of course, the book of Revelation.
Getting back to the Old Testament, there is a critically important difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament in the area of both Textual Criticism and Source Criticism: With respect to the New Testament it is possible to have a conversation in which we discuss the authorship of these books, as well as imagine discrete events where the books of the New Testament were written by a single person. Thus, we could, theoretically, listen in on the Divine Conversation, assuming we could travel back in time, and read the mind of the apostle as God spoke the book into his (her) mind. With the New Testament, we can at least attempt to discover the content of the Divine Conversation in some way. The trouble with the Old Testament is that this is simply impossible. Let me explain.
When I was beginning my search, I wandered into the Duke Divinity School Bookstore in Durham, NC, the city where I live. One of the first books that caught my attention was Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliott Friedman. I found this book simply irresistible. Friedman describes the Documentary Hypothesis, which is presently the best explanation we have for how the Old Testament came to be. Another excellent book on this subject is A History of God by Karen Armstrong. I have been reading a lot of Karen Armstrong recently, and I will admit that I really like her. She seems to “get it” with respect to this stuff very well.
One thing pointed out by Karen Armstrong, which is somewhat implicit in the entire Documentary Hypothesis idea, is that the God of the Old Testament was originally a pagan god, and evolved over the course of centuries into the monotheistic deity that we have today. As you may know, the God of the Old Testament is frequently referred to as El, often with suffixes like El Shaddai, and El Elyon. It turns out that there was a pagan god in Canaan at the time of the Jewish patriarchs named El. Further, this pagan god had many of the same suffixes as the God of the Old Testament. There is also some evidence (a bit more sketchy than El) that Yahweh, the other name frequently used to refer to the God of the Old Testament, was a pagan god as well. El was a sky god and a storm god, similar to Zeus in the Greek tradition or Jupiter in the Roman tradition. The center for the cult which worshiped El was around the area that is now Shiloh in Northern Israel. Yahweh was probably a god of craft, smithery, and the hearth, similar to Hephaestus in the Greek tradition or Vulcan in the Roman tradition. The pagan god Yahweh also had a daughter, the Canaanite goddess Sophia, who was the goddess of wisdom (similar to Athena in the Greek pantheon and Minerva in the Roman). Sophia is frequently referred to in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, where her name is translated “wisdom”. However, she is uniformly referred to in Proverbs as an actually person, and always in the feminine. The center of worship of Yahweh was in Jerusalem in Southern Israel.
There is a fascinating tie-in between the Canaanite god El and the God named El in the Old Testament which is contained in Exodus 32. Here, when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of the law, the children of Israel quickly turned back to paganism and asked Moses’s brother Aaron to make an idol for them. Aaron fashioned a golden calf (actually a young bull). The Canaanite god El was also represented as a golden bull in the archeological record. Apparently, Moses was worshipping Yahweh up on the mountain, while the children of Israel were worshipping El down in the valley!
The Documentary Hypothesis assumes that the people centered around the cult of El in the North developed an oral tradition which included a creation myth, a flood myth, and all the rest, all couched in terms of the dominant god being El. A similar oral tradition developed in the South around the god named Yahweh. In the 8th century BCE, the Assyrian invasion occurred, and the Northern people were decimated. A remnant made it to the South as refugees (the tribes of Benjamin and Judah in the biblical account). For a couple of centuries, the Northern and Southern people lived alongside each other in the area described in the Old Testament as Judah. Then the final invasion occurred in the 6th century from Babylon, and all of the remaining inhabitants (consisting of a mixture of the Northern and Southern cultures) was thrown into exile in Babylon for 70 years. Finally, when the Babylonians were conquered by the Persians, some of the territory which is now Israel was restored to the former inhabitants, and they were allowed to return and rebuild the temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem.
At this point, we see the Old Testament suddenly burst onto the scene. Which is just weird, frankly. The Documentary Hypothesis assumes that there was a person referred to as the Compiler. The identity of this person is the subject of much debated, but Richard Elliott Friedman believes it to have been Ezra the High Priest. One of the challenges this person would have faced would be the diversity within the Israelite community. He needed to create a way for the people to gel around a common set of beliefs. For this reason, the Compiler took the oral tradition from El (referred to as the E voice) as well as the oral tradition from Yahweh (referred to as the J voice), and wove them together into the Old Testament books we have today. Richard Elliott Friedman points out that this was one of the greatest works of human genius in history. It is very possible (easy actually) to trace both the J and E voices (as well as the other two voices referred to as the priestly, or “P” voice, as well as the Deuteronomist, or “D” voice).
Here is the rub: If the Documentary Hypothesis is true, then there is no discrete point at which the books of the Old Testament were written. Instead, they were compiled from previous sources. These original sources were oral traditions and thus have been lost. Further, there may have been numerous versions of these oral traditions. For this reason, discussing things like Textual Criticism and Source Criticism with respect to the Old Testament is simply nonsense. There is no way at this point for us to ever determine the original content of these books. And for this reason, referring to the Old Testament as the “Word of God” is also simply nonsense at this point.
In my next post, I will get into more detail about the religions (and there are more than one) that are contained in the bible.