Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. The children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days: so the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended. Now Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him: and the children of Israel listened to him, and did as the Lord commanded Moses. Since that time there has not been a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face…
Moses wrote all of the Pentateuch? Really? For those familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis, rejection of the traditional account of the Pentateuch’s composition is nothing new. But the Documentary Hypothesis is itself under attack these days in academia. There are questions regarding the methodology, the dating of certain parts, and the distinction between certain traditions. That is not to say that scholars are returning to the traditional Mosaic view; they are not.
The question of how the various books of the Bible were composed raises deeper concerns about how we read the Bible. Often debate becomes heated as people fight for opinions that are important to them. People who take a more mundane approach to the composition of the Bible get accused of having a “low view of Scripture” as if God’s guidance and human free will were somehow incompitible. Conversely, those who insist on a process of “divine dictation” like the Qur’an’s composition find themselves in quandaries when their interlocutors point out “errors” and “contradictions” in the Bible. Does God make mistakes?
The attempt to harmonize seemingly contradictory parts of Scripture and to explain “mistakes” has produced much fruitful work, but it has also resulted in ridiculous assertions and convoluted contrivances that create barriers to evangelization in intellectual circles. That is not to say that we should be ashamed of our faith or that we should downplay the importance of faith. However, the Church’s primary task is “saving souls”; like Saint Peter and the Apostles, we are called to be “fishers of men”; we have been given the Great Commission. It is our obligation, therefore, to do what we can to persuade people of the reasonableness of our faith and of God’s love and mercy. We cannot show God’s love to people if we are constantly belittling them or refusing to engage with sincere and reasonable concerns that people may have (although one must also recognize “smokescreens” that people create to avoid having the “real conversations”).
Within the Church also we must acknowledge that many believers have questions and doubts. Failure to meet these needs has at times resulted in apostasy and withdrawal. Today there is a great polarization that is occurring in Western Christianity: at one extreme are those who devalue the intellect and those who wish to use it; at another extreme are those who value human reason to such an extent that they are unwilling to leave room for mystery and the supernatural in their relationship with God.
Much harm can result from either of these extremes. A smart, academic-leaning Christian in a culture of resentful anti-intellectuals can feel isolated and can experience low self-esteem. A Christian in an evironment that eschews supernaturalism may feel he has no one to talk to about dreams, visions, hopes for healing, or words of knowledge from the Lord. Suspicion and distance, tools of the enemy, occur when we gravitate towards extremes such that we become unable to talk to one another.
We need a way forward. We need to affirm the fundamental truths and lessons of Scripture, while understanding that Scripture’s human authors wrote in a specific context with its own needs and norms. Comparison between Scripture and other Mediterranean and Near Eastern works helps to shed light on the customs and polemics of the Biblical authors. The writers of Scripture were not Enlightenment thinkers in northern Europe. Their concerns are not identical to our own. Nor, it must be said, were Greek writers of the same mind as modern academics. Our own Chalcedon, in writing a history of a period would not dream of saying, “I have put in their mouths what they should have said.” But Thucydides, the father of modern historiography, said just that. He did not shrink from the kind of fabrication that served the interpretation of the Peloponnesian War that he wished to promote.
This is the world in which the Bible’s texts were written, redacted, transcribed, and interpreted. But the core message is still there for anyone to read: God made the heavens and the earth; mankind and the spiritual beings sinned; God sent His Son to redeem us; we must choose to accept God’s mercy or to go our own way; we shall all be judged. These are the points that we must emphasize in our conversations with inquirers. Whether God chose to use guided evolution or whether he literally made the first man from a lump of clay is not the point: the point is that God is the author, maintainer, and judge of creation. He is sovereign; He is good; and He loves us. The Genesis account was written as a polemic to denounce rival creation stories of the kind found in works such as the Enuma Elish and the Atra-Hasis. It was intended to assert the fact that Yahweh, the God of gods, made the universe. There is none like Him in the heavens above or the earth beneath.
Did Moses write the creation account? We cannot say for certain, but the idea that it was composed during the Babylonian Captivity should not disturb us: the truth of its fundamental claims is unaffected by the dates of composition and redaction.
Something to think about.