October 07, 2014

Atheist Bible Study: What is the Pentateuch, and who wrote it?

Yesterday, we talked about the ways that the bible can be studied and interpreted. Today, we are going to talk about the Pentateuch, what it is, why it is important, and who wrote it.

Also, a note that I neglected to mention yesterday: This bible study isn't written for those that are well-versed in the Christian bible already, and it's written purely as a study of the Christian bible--not the Hebrew. If you are already well-versed, you'll probably find this a rehashing of what you already know.

That said, let's dig in.

What is the Pentateuch?

The Pentateuch is simply the first five books of the Christian bible. It's the beginning of the Old Testament.

Those books are:

  • Genesis
  • Exodus
  • Leviticus
  • Numbers
  • Deuteronomy

Points if you are now singing that song that helps you remember all of the books of the bible. Eek.

Why is the Pentateuch important?

Well, that depends on who you ask.

Under the dispensational model, the Old Testament has been entirely done away with and thus the Old Testament (and Pentateuch) have little relevance.

However, in Covenant and New-Covenant models, the Pentateuch carries the seeds for most other doctrines. It's in the Pentateuch that we see:

  • God's plan for the world (perfection in the Garden of Eden)
  • Man's fall
  • The redemption promise
  • The fall-judgement-redemption cycle
  • Characteristics of God (most of them not pretty, but who's to judge?)
And that's just a handful of the ones that are most relevant (and least harmful). We'll dive into much more as this series goes on.

Who wrote the Pentateuch?

That's a topic of some debate.

Traditionally, the Pentateuch is accepted as having been authored by Moses. However, this traditional thought is hard to reconcile with passages that appear to have been written a long time after Moses's death, as well as passaged that appear to have an entirely different style linguistically. Genesis in particular is rife with duplicate and even triplicate passages, which lead some to question whether there was a single author.

What's the documentary hypothesis?

The documentary hypothesis is simply the idea that the Pentateuch "derived from originally independent, parallel, and complete narratives, which were subsequently combined into the current form by a series of redactors (editors)". [Wiki]

This is not a new hypothesis. It began with doubts as early as the 17th century, when Thomas Hobbes disputed passages in Leviathan that could not possibly have been written by Moses. He was not alone--other prominent thinkers of the time period also voiced doubts about the authorship.

In 1753, John Astruc began sorting two distinct variations, which he labeled Elohim and YHWH. Following Astruc, a series of other scholars began sorting out different variations, some coming to the conclusion that Moses couldn't have written the Pentateuch at all.

The primary organization of this is this Wellhausen hypothesis:

Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis proposes that the Torah was originally four distinct narratives, each complete in itself, each dealing with the same incidents and characters, but with distinctive "messages". The four were combined twice by editors ("redactors") who strove to keep as much as possible of the original documents.

These four sources are the Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly. Under Wellhausen, they were dated in that order, but there's a good deal of speculation today on what was written when. For instance, the Jahwist seems to have been aware of the prophets while the prophets were not of the Torah, indicating that those portions were written after the prophets.

Each source seems to focus on different aspects of Israel's history, Judaism, and even God--some portraying him as cold and interested in ritual, others as warm and personal.

Today, Wellhausen informs the debate but no longer dominates it. Other models, including single author or community collaboration, are also suggested.

What are the different models for the Pentateuch?

There are three composition models for the Pentateuch:

  • Documentary: It's a compilation of separate but complete books.
  • Supplementary: It's a single original book, supplemented with later additions and deletions.
  • Fragmentary: It's many fragmentary works and editions combined.
Which model a scholar subscribes to can significantly impact their interpretation of the work.

Most conservative Christians accept that the Pentateuch is Documentary--each book is complete, and they were compiled as separate but intact entities.

Wrapping It Up

Because the Pentateuch contains those seeds of future doctrines, it's important to have a firm grasp not only on the individual books, but on the overall group and how they relate to each other.

As we go through, we'll be looking at what source under the documentary hypothesis passages relate to, and how that source approached the materials in question. It should be fairly fascinating, I think.

Tomorrow we'll look at Genesis as a whole and the doctrines that it "seeds".

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