Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch and Inerrancy

Patty David had a good follow up question on the Facebook edition of the third Chicago Statement post (hope you don't mind me responding this way :-). I thought I would dedicate a whole entry to the question of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the gospels, and the Chicago statement.

Here is her thought, "Is it too simplistic to hold that Genesis became 'inspired' at the time Moses put the Pentateuch together (presumably during the wilderness wanderings if you're not a JEPD advocate)? If Moses indeed met with God for 40 days on Mt. Sinai and in the tabernacle, isn't it at least plausible that God is the one who told him which accounts to include (maybe even 'tweaking' them so that what was written was actually true)? And wouldn't the Israelites have at that time, when God commanded them to keep the book of the Law, begun to view this material as inspired and authoritative?"

Here's what I am arguing for:

1. In my opinion, we don't even get into any really thorny issues if we consider the legal material of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy to go back generally to Moses. In other words, when Jesus says in Matthew 8, "Go offer the gift Moses commanded you," we believe that part of Leviticus does go back to Moses.

But here's my thought here. Believing this does not require us to conclude that Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in their current form was compiled by Moses. From a standpoint of inductive Bible study, none of these books want to be read as if they were written in their current form by Moses, since Exodus through Deuteronomy are about Moses. And Genesis doesn't mention or have anything to do with Moses.

I put it this way in my earlier post: Thinking that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, given the way it is written, is a little like thinking that Jesus must have written the gospels since they are about Jesus.

Another problem is that the earliest instances of the Hebrew language we know of date from about 1000BC. In other words, it is not at all clear that Hebrew existed in anything like the form it appears in our Pentateuch at the time of Moses.

So in answer to your question, I don't have a problem per se with the idea of God telling Moses which traditions to include in the Pentateuch. The question is whether all this material was assembled in this way at the time. Jeremiah doesn't even seem to be aware of Leviticus!! (Jer. 7:22). A good argument can be made that when Joshua and Kings refer to the book of the Law, they only mean Deuteronomy or part of Deuteronomy (cmp. Deut. 31:26 with Josh. 1:8). It is only from the time of Ezra that we find the phrase, "the Book of Moses," presumably including the books we now think of as the Law (Ezra 6:18).

As far as Israel is concerned, they seem to know almost nothing of the fine points of the Law from the times of the Judges to Josiah. Even Elijah violates the Law regularly by offering sacrifices outside of Jerusalem. I find it hard to believe he had a clue he was doing something wrong. The same with Gideon and a host of others who seem to offer sacrifices with no clue they should only be doing it at the tabernacle.

So my first point is that I don't think there is much to worry about in terms of inerrancy if we at least believe the legal material goes back to Moses but was put into its current form later. Of course it's not hard to see from the data of the last two paragraphs why some have suggested that some of the material does not actually go back to Moses, when it would seem that the vast majority of spiritual leaders of Israel were vastly aware of very key items (like only sacrificing in Jerusalem, the sacrificial rules of Leviticus) until the time of Ezra!! See my third point below.

2. I'm also convinced that we tend to bring a literary worldview to documents that were part and parcel of an oral world. Oral cultures tend to pass on tradition with core material that stays fairly constant, with a good deal of variety around the edges. So it is no surprise to me that, for example, we have some minor variations between Deuteronomy and Exodus when they treat exactly the same material.

And from a practical standpoint, the question of Scripture is, by its very nature, a question about us today at a given moment in time. I thought of the requirement of Greek in the curriculum. The standard way of thinking is, "They should be able to read the real biblical texts as they were actually written in their real original languages." But in terms of usefulness, you have to wonder about the fact that 1% of those forced to take it actually can use it 5 years later to any significant degree.

In the same way, something might be 100% inspired, inerrant, infallible, the greatest truth that holds the secret to everything... and if I am not capable of understanding that, it means nothing to me. The most important moment of inspiration, from the standpoint of any individual reading Scripture, is the moment of reading it. I hope you will hear what I'm saying when I say that the original inspiration of Scripture is completely pointless if we as readers are not inspired today to read it in the way God is speaking to us today.

The fact that we as Protestants--especially outside the holiness and Pentecostal traditions that are open to "more than literal" meanings--have spent so little time thinking about this part of the equation demands some fundamental hermeneutical rethinking!

3. I see no problem with #1 as far as inerrancy. In the name of truth, as I've written in post #3, I think we need to give our Old Testament scholars room to explore more canonical models of reading the Old Testament without necessarily forcing them to think a certain way about the precise historicity of the material. I want to allow this because 1) they're not stupid or faithless, 2) we want to listen to the texts more than to preconceptions about what they can and cannot tell us, and 3) because the original meaning really does turn out to be secondary to the canonical meaning, which is not located in the ancient near east, but a) in the New Testament use of the Old and b) in the Christian use of the whole.

Those are my thoughts today, open for critique, correction, and affirmation :-)

7 comments:

mortalquestions said...

I am not aware of any inerrantists who hold that Moses wrote the Pentateuch in its present form. You are showing that you have not read the position of those you critique.

Ken Schenck said...

mortal, I was responding to a question that more or less did make such an assumption, and the series was responding to the Chicago Statement of 79, no doubt a group of people for whom the importance of Moses' involvement was probably greater (e.g., Josh McDowell, who signed it).

I see Beale speaks of the "Genesis narrator." Interesting and corroborates that evangelicals have tended to broaden these last thirty years, across the spectrum. Just some have broadened more than others.

Sweetness said...

If the Israelites didn't have the law in its current form until the time of Ezra (4th or 5th century), then what are they referring to when they speak of the Book of the Law?

Ken Schenck said...

This is not my area, sweetness, but my amateur sense is that the "book of the Law" refers to the legal material of Deuteronomy. It is mentioned in Joshua and then never again until it is discovered in the temple in the days of Josiah some 600 years later.

In general, we find very little practice of the law in the intervening years other than a yearly festival of Yahweh and sacrifices. I'm sure they circumcised and did other parts of the law, but Judges, Samuel, and most of Kings don't tell us much of anything about them celebrating even basic things like Passover. They seem like the Dark Ages of Israel's history!

Keith Drury said...

As a member of the academic community I appreciate the discussion on “inerrancy” and the Chicago Statement…

However “on the street” in local churches as a teacher or pastor words like “inerrancy” play a minor role, if any role at all.

As ministers we know the Bible tells the truth about God and His purpose, and we've seen how potent a tool it is in forming the people of God. We don’t treat it as a history book, a science text or a dry religious manual but as a mighty tool of God used by the Holy Spirit through us to “fashion a holy people.” It is the sword of the Lord in our hands.

We scholars know it is important to distinguish between iron, copper, bronze, steel, and chromium steel and we are keenly interested in the process of how swords are made and developed through the ages… but as pastors and teachers we simply draw the sword and weild it to shape the people of God. (OK OK--I mnow I'm mixing metaphors.) We know the Bible is a powerful tool in the hands of a trained minister under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

I suspect when denominations make statements about the Bible, using whatever term we select at the time, we really mean mostly to describe this power of the word of God.

Ken Schenck said...

I hesitated to do this series for that reason, Keith. It seems so tangential to how God uses the Bible in the lives of Christians in the church. The thought of going through Beale's book had run through my mind months ago, but I resisted because even going through these issues runs the risk of giving them an importance they don't have in our church today and, I think, shouldn't have.

The paper read at the symposium, and recognizing that there is more than one legitimate view in the Wesleyan Church out there, was what triggered me doing the piece in this way.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I would much prefer using other literature to "form" others, as other literature is more universal. Any classic work has as much "wisdom" about humans, morals, and "life", as Scripture.

When one adheres to "one" piece of literature and tries to force it into a historical TRUTH, it becomes untruth and it is dangerous, because of the various ways in which the text is understood in the hands of the ill informed.

Because apologetics is only an attempt to underwrite polemics, I find that the whole "ball of wax" falls apart. The "forming" becomes a narrowly focused and forced "conforming", which can be damaging, and is limiting.