Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Where Did the Bible Come From? Part I

           In the fall I asked some friends and family what kinds of questions they had about the Bible, and one of the topics that came up the most frequently had to do with the composition, compilation, and canonization of the Bible (Yay, alliteration! I think I'll refer to these as the Three Cs). In short, people want to know how the Bible came to be. Most folks are well aware that it didn't just drop into the lap of some ancient religious leaders by the Holy Spirit. But a lot of people still aren't really sure about the Bible's actual origins.

            As I have insisted in my earliest posts, the Bible is not really a book, but more like a library of books. It is a whole corpus of literature composed over a period of a thousand plus years or so, and its content concerns events that range over two thousand years of history (delving into some undatable, legendary periods as well). The books of Bible are compiled somewhat according to the order of the over-arching narrative – where there is a narrative to follow – but certainly not according to when they were written. Some of the older books of the Hebrew Scriptures predate some of the books of the Torah (those first 5 books). Matthew's Gospel precedes Mark's in the New Testament, but Mark was almost certainly written first – not to mention the letters of Paul before any of the Gospels. And Romans is the first letter to appear among Paul's epistles, but it was likely one of his later letters. Basically, the ordering of the books in the Bible has little to do with the date of their composition.

            The who and when of biblical authorship is a rather complex issue. Regarding the Old Testament alone, most of the books were not composed by single authors but were more so the product of collaboration "– collaboration of a special kind because the various authors were widely separated in space and time, had no knowledge of one another, and certainly had no conception of the form that their work would finally take."[1] The Hebrew Scriptures had a slow development that included various authors, sources (both oral and written), editors, and compilers. This is especially true for the Torah, which brings me to source analysis and the "Documentary Hypothesis." (Exciting, right?) As technical as these sound, they're really just fancy terms for talking about how the Torah is a compilation of several sources with varying origins and points of view.

            Personally, I am a fan of the concept of the Documentary Hypothesis, and I have no problem believing that the Scriptures were developed from various sources. As with many things in academic disciplines however, it's a theory, and scholars continue to debate and dispute the dating and nature of the proposed sources. However, as Michael Coogan concedes, "the data must be explained, and almost all scholars agree with the general principle that underlying the present text of the first five books of the Bible are distinct sources."[2]

             One way we can think about the use of various sources in the formation of the Torah is to imagine writing a book on your family's ancestry. You might have heard family stories from your grandma Dorothy, but then you also have a diary written by your great-aunt Bertha. Maybe you find a few legal documents that have to do with your great-grandfather Robert on, so you decide to add those to the mix as well. And then there are always those family legends – the ones that have been passed down from generation to generation with a few variations here and there. You're not sure if they actually happened in the same way that they've been related, but they reflect an important part of your family's character and identity, so you put them in too. Some of the materials may seem to contradict each other. Perhaps Dorothy tells a story that disagrees with Bertha's diary, but you choose to put it all together anyway and try to make a somewhat homogenized story of your family.

            All analogies fail at some point, of course, but I hope this kind helps to put in perspective what I mean by the use of sources in the Torah's composition. Just as the family stories were passed down orally before writing this book from the example, the oral traditions which influenced the biblical texts also had a long-standing history before they were committed to writing. But just like Bertha's diary or Robert's legal documents in the analogy, it wasn't only oral traditions that were used as sources in the development of the Torah. Some written material was produced as early as the monarchy, which began around the 10th century BCE (the 900s).These sources, both oral and written, would eventually would lead to the formulation of parts of the Torah.

            With some confidence, scholars can point to the reign of Josiah of Judah (640-609 BCE) as a datable period for an early edition of what would become the book of Deuteronomy. At that time, a so-called "Book of the Law" was "found" in the Temple (see 2 Kings 22:1- 23:30). Later, with the experience of the Babylonian exile and the threat of their religious faith disappearing altogether, there was an unprecedented need "to fix [their] traditions permanently as canonical documents."[3] So by about the 4th century, a good while after the exile, the material that made up the Torah was collected, compiled, and redacted to form more or less what we know as the Torah today.

            So, okay, by that time we pretty much have the Torah, and it evidently was an authoritative text for its readers (i.e. canonical), since the post-exilic Judahites needed to preserve and pass on their religious faith. But what were those sources that made up the Torah? Here is just a bird's-eye view of the four classical sources and some of their characteristics.

J (Jahwist): This source, pronounced YAH-wist (because them Germans have the market on biblical scholarship, and they pronounce Js like Ys, as in Jägermeister) is so named because when referring to God this source uses the Divine Name, YHWH. English Bibles typically never use the Divine Name, and rightly so out of respect. Instead, whenever the Divine Name appears it reads the LORD, and in fact, whenever Jewish people read from the Scriptures and encounter the Divine Name in Hebrew they instead say Adonai, which more or less means "Lord." J is probably the earliest of the traditions, and it likely developed in the southern Kingdom (Judah). God is depicted as more humanlike and speaks more directly to human beings rather than through messengers.

E (Elohist): This source is so named because it uses the Hebrew word elohim to refer to God – at least up to the revelation of the Divine Name in Exodus 3. Elohim is usually simply translated as "God" in English Bibles. In E, God is more distant and communicates through dreams and messengers (angels). Geographically it has a more northern perspective. The term "prophet" is favored in this source, for even Abraham is called a prophet. Also, the mountain known as "Sinai" in J is here called "Horeb" (as well as in the D source, but I'm not there yet). Since E is very fragmented and intertwined closely into the J source, the two are sometimes indistinguishable.

P (Priestly): The Priestly source gets its name because it deals so much with religious matters and instructions: rituals, sacrifices, Sabbaths, etc. It was likely the last of the four sources to develop – probably during 6th century, given the need to preserve the traditions in the midst of the turmoil that occurred in that period (destruction of the Temple, exile, return and reconstruction; let's face it, the 500s were a trying and pivotal century). Almost all of Leviticus is from the P source, but P is interlaced in all of the books of the Torah. God is more remote in P than any other source. The light-filled cloud described in Exodus is an example of P's distant and transcendent depiction of God's glory.

            If you're wondering how all of these sources got pulled together, you can thank the P source for at least being the final editors of the source materials, which is why their contributions  are found in all five books. In fact, chapter 1 of Genesis and the last chapter of Deuteronomy are from P, so it basically bookends the  whole Torah. It may have been a later source, but the Johnny-come-latelies got the final say.
D (Deuteronomic): You can thank the Deuteronomists for a good chunk of the Hebrew Scriptures. A type of religious/intellectual movement which scholars refer to as the Deuteronomic School developed as early as the 8th century in the northern Kingdom (Israel). That school later moved to Judah after the fall of Israel to the Assyrians. Surprise, surprise, the Deuteronomic source was responsible for most of the book of Deuteronomy (from which the D source gets its name). But the Deuteronomists were also the authors of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. These books make up what is known as the Deuteronomic History. They also edited and possibly collected material from a number of the earlier prophetic books, most particularly Jeremiah, who himself may have been part of the Deuteronomic School. Obviously this school of thought didn't have much to do with what we mean by "schools" today, but if it did and had I lived back then, I would have had a closet full of their T-shirts and gone to all their games with a big foam finger. I am that much of a fan of their accomplishments. Go Deuteronomists!

            This is merely a rough sketch of the four main hypothetical sources originally proposed by Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918).There were indeed other source traditions in existence. For example, chapters 17-26 of Leviticus probably derive from a separate source known as the "Holiness Code." And the book of Numbers is a patchwork of not just J, E, and P, but of other folklore, laws, lists and accounts that were passed down.[4] Some of the books of the Old Testament even refer to non-biblical textual sources (e.g. the Book of Jasher) which have since been lost to us.

            Lastly, we cannot pretend that the literature and oral traditions from the surrounding cultures and nations had no effect on biblical writings. The Israelites settled among Canaanites and were under Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Greek domination at different periods of their history. Naturally, some of the literature and lore of their neighbors and captors would have rubbed off on them. It's no surprise, for example, that multiple flood stories occur in ancient Near Eastern literature. But comparing biblical and other ancient Near Eastern texts is a topic for another day. The point is that the formation of biblical literature was a rather organic process and consisted of much more than just a handful of individual authors. Even the Documentary Hypothesis can be critiqued for oversimplifying what was certainly a complicated development.
            But why does any of this matter? What sort of effect will it have on our biblical reading? Why am I going into a whole rant about source analysis? One reason is simply because I find that people are hungry to know where the Bible comes from. How did this anthology of books come about that has had so much influence over history and our lives today. The best way I could think of to approach that question was to write a bit about the ever-enthralling Documentary Hypothesis. The other reason, however, is because I am edified and mystified by the wondrous way in which God communicates God's self. As I said in my previous post, the Truth has a way of making itself know to us. The fact that multiple sources and traditions – some of which differ greatly in perspective from one another – can all be brought together to proclaim the word of God says something about God's infinite greatness and inclusivity. We find that God is more "both/and" than "either/or." Some lament the apparent contradictions in Scripture. I prefer to see them as an example of the fine tension in which all things are held, tempering extremism and giving us the freedom to stretch our arms out wider to embrace even more of the mystery of our faith.

            For this week, I recommend reading chapters 1 & 2 of Genesis. They're a perfect example of two separate sources at work. If you compare these creation myths, you'll find distinctive and differing characteristics between them. Gen 1-2:3 is from the P source, and in it there is more of a sense of bringing order out of chaos. It orders creation with the perfect number, seven, and concludes with Sabbath rest. God is more distant in chapter one; God speaks, and creation is made. On the other hand, Gen 2:4-24 is from the J source. God is more humanlike, forming a man out of the earth like a potter, planting the garden like a gardener, building up a woman from the man's rib. The narrative is much more story-like with explanatory asides and a developing plot which will unfold in the following chapters. You don't have to try to pick out all the differences in the two accounts, but I would encourage you to see how each one is unique but at the same time speaks a truth about God, humanity, stewardship, the goodness of creation and the preeminence of relationship.

            Since this post is only Part One of a series of entries on the Bible's origins, I hope to go over other areas of the Three Cs in subsequent posts. Today's has only covered a tiny speck of what is certainly a topic best explored in a lecture series with an actual professor. Nevertheless, I welcome questions and comments via e-mail, Facebook, or this blog page. And now you can even follow the Codega on Twitter (@biblecodega). Come back next week for more about the origins of the Bible, and until then...

Peace and all good!

[1] John B. Gabel and Charles B. Wheeler, The Bible as Literature: An Introduction, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 9.
[2] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 28.
[3] Ibid., 76.
[4] Ibid., 145 & 153.

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