Missing Author

empty-bibleWho wrote the Torah? Most people you ask — depending on your circle of friends — will answer, “A group of very wise men got together and wrote it.” For the past 3,300 years the Jewish people have lived with the consciousness that the Almighty dictated the Torah to Moses who wrote it down word for word, letter by letter. Every Torah-educated Orthodox Jew believes that. Are they fools, fantasizers, misguided religious fanatics?

It will surprise some people to know that for the past 3,300 the Jewish people have taught their children the evidence for the belief that there is a God and that He dictated the Torah to Moses. Actually, I am sure that for the first hundred or two hundred years after the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai the authorship of the Torah was not even a question. For generations all a Jewish child had to do was to ask his father if he was at Mt. Sinai or if his father or grandfather was there. Even Moses himself tells all generations to “Go and ask … has a people ever heard the voice of God speaking … as you have heard and survived?” (Deuteronomy 4:32-35).

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Vaeira
Aish.com

This post may trouble some readers. It really shouldn’t. Religious leaders in some circles have sought to suppress the overwhelming evidence that something like the Documentary Hypothesis is true. Attacks against this idea usually claim that those who believe this theory simply disbelieve God. Such attacks also tend to refer to Julius Wellhausen and his views, which actually do not represent what is essential about the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis (DH) has many forms and is better known as JEDP. In my opinion, the best developed understanding of the DH is found in Richard Friedman’s work, including the very readable Who Wrote the Bible? (which was a bestseller).

-Derek Leman
“Exodus 6:2-3 and the Documentary Hypothesis”
Messianic Jewish Musings

I haven’t revisited this topic in a long time and even after I read Derek’s blog post, I was determined not to regurgitate it again from the murky depths so that it could come back up into the cold light of day. Then I read Rabbi Packouz and I was reminded that there is a fair distance between the stories we tell ourselves about the Bible and the story that the Bible tells us about itself (I know these gentlemen are specifically discussing the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, but I’m choosing to expand the discussion to the Bible as a whole).

I don’t mean the story the Bible tells in the actual text, but the history and evolution of the creation of the Bible as we have it today. I’m no scholar, but even I’ve read enough to realize that the Bible has lots and lots of warts, bruises, wrinkles, and other imperfections. No reliable and trustworthy Bible scholar would suggest that God literally dictated the Bible word-for-word to its various human authors.

So where is God in the Bible? No I don’t mean where is God mentioned, but is there anything of God in the actual composition of the Bible? Or is the Bible just the stories we tell ourselves about it? Frankly, we have told ourselves some pretty interesting stories about the Bible.

One way to establish and support an acceptance of Talmudic interpretation and judgment relative to Torah for post-Second Temple Judaism is to project the values and even the “reality” of Talmud (and later, Kabbalah) not only forward in time but backward. Peering at the Patriarchs through this lens, we can indeed “see” Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob studying Torah and Talmud in the study house of Shem when by historical knowledge and a plain reading of the Torah, such events seem very unlikely to have actually taken place.

-from my blog post:
The Rabbinization of Abraham

study-in-the-darkI periodically wrestle with this issue. Back on my previous blog, I wrote such articles as Reading the Bible in the Dark, The Bible is a Mystery Novel, and Who to Believe. I manage to “tame” the questions and conundrums by reading the Bible as if it were a series of Chassidic, or in my case, Messianic Tales. Maybe that’s the only way to make sense of the Bible, and especially the Gospels.

He read the Gospels in German. Then he obtained a Hebrew version and reread them. Though he was in the midst of a Gentile, Christian city where Jesus was worshiped in churches and honored in every home, Feivel felt the Gospels belonged more to him and the Chasidic world than they did to the Gentiles who revered them. He found the Gospels to be thoroughly Jewish and conceptually similar to Chasidic Judaism. He wondered how Gentile Christians could hope to comprehend Yeshua (Jesus) and His words without the benefit of a classical Jewish education or experience with the esoteric works of the Chasidim.

Taken from Jorge Quinonez:
“Paul Philip Levertoff: Pioneering Hebrew-Christian Scholar and Leader”
Mishkan 37 (2002): 21-34
as quoted from Love and the Messianic Age

But this presents a problem. During last Sunday’s sermon, Pastor said (I don’t have my notes with me, so what I’m about to write isn’t an entirely accurate quote) that the only way to show an unbeliever how to encounter God and come to faith in the Father through Jesus Christ is by reading and using scripture.

Um…whoa. Waitaminute.

Given everything I’ve said above, plus Derek’s commentary, plus just a boatload of Biblical scholars , scripture is not and cannot be the literally dictated words of the God of Heaven as whispered into the little, shell-like ears of the prophets and other writers of the books of the Bible.

In fact, I’m hard-pressed to tell you what the Bible is and who actually wrote it. Even portions of the New Testament weren’t in all likelihood, written by the people whose names are attached to them. Not all of the epistles written by Paul? Probably not. Did the Apostle John who (supposedly) wrote the Gospel of John also write Revelation?

Once you stop taking the Bible for granted, a lot of new territory opens up in front of you…in front of me.

In defense of the Bible (the Torah actually), Rabbi Packouz has this to say:

Perhaps the most powerful example is Shmitah (the Sabbatical year for the land). Modern agriculture science has taught us the value of letting the land rest and replenish itself. A sensible law would be to divide the Land of Israel into 7 regions and each year let one region lie fallow while people eat from the crops of the other 6 regions. However, that’s not the law of the Torah! The Torah writes, “For six years you may plant your fields … but the seventh year is the Sabbath of the land in which you may not plant your fields nor prune your vineyards (Leviticus 25:36).

The WHOLE land is to rest all at the same time! What happens to an agrarian society that stops farming for one year? Starvation! And how long does a religion last that advocates letting the whole land rest in the 7th year? My guess … about 6 years!

Perhaps they could avoid starvation by buying food from surrounding countries? A good idea and a reasonable idea … but the Torah has other plans. The Almighty says, “I have commanded My blessing to you in the sixth year and you will have produce for three years” (Leviticus 25:20-22).

Either one has to be God to have the “audacity” to make a law for the whole land to rest and then to promise a bounty crop 3 times as large as usual in the sixth year — or a stark raving mad lunatic!

Yet, the Jewish people neither starved nor abandoned the Torah! 3,300 years later a sizable portion of our people still adhere to the laws of Torah and still trust in the promises of the Almighty!

How could any human being promise in writing something that requires powers totally beyond his control?

And furthermore, why would anyone be willing to risk his own credibility and the legitimacy of his religion, when it would be easier to present a more rational solution and avoid the credibility issues.

Going to GodCan we accept that somewhere in the pages of the Bible we might actually be able to encounter the Divine? If so, where and how (apart from Shmitah)? If we can’t take the Bible as literally, page-by-page, the Word of God, then what do we consider it? If God is in there somewhere, then is it an intellectual and scholarly race to discover the secret location of the well of God’s Spirit?

Derek Leman seems to think that it’s possible to have a very questioning view of the Bible and yet still have faith:

People get from their religious background the idea that “Moses wrote all” or “Moses wrote almost all” of the Torah. For example, people will say “Moses wrote Genesis.”

This is complicated by things like Yeshua referring to “Moses and the prophets.” People take this to mean that Yeshua, who they suppose was omniscient during his earthly sojourn (but he was not) affirmed that Moses wrote all of Gen-Deut. He did not. His references to Moses actually writing all concern commandments, not narratives. With Moses as the originator of the commandments (or original vessel through whom they were revealed), all the five books are called “of Moses” but this need not mean authorship.

Anyway, because some of the earliest people to doubt Moses as the final author of Torah were skeptics, it is common for people to think anyone with a more complicated view than “Moses wrote it” are doing so because of a small faith or a lack of faith or a dislike of faith.

But I’ve never heard a satisfactory explanation of how other people do it. I only have how I do it and my “method” requires usually suspending disbelief for the sake of faith. I have encountered God before, so in an extraordinarily subjective way, I know He is real, He is alive, and He is God. I’m not going through the crisis of faith I had when I first faced this particular realization, but I do allow myself to periodically become aware of just how fragile a knowledge of God is if based solely on the Bible. On the other hand (and I’ve alluded to this already), basing knowledge of God solely on our experiences with the Holy Spirit can be just as hazardous, because most human beings have very little ability to tell the difference between an emotional experience and a spiritual one (barring the occasional saint or tzaddik).

I may not be able to take everything I read in the Bible and everything that Christianity and Judaism says about those events as actual, factual events (though some of them probably are), but I can still take what I read and what I study and try to apply them so that I can learn to live a better life.

The Patriarch Abraham was tested (by God) ten times and withstood them all. This proves Abraham’s great love for God.

-Ethics of the Fathers 5:3

Abraham was tested with ten trials of progressively increasing severity, ultimately culminating in the test of sacrificing his beloved son Isaac if God so willed.

Abraham successfully passed all the tests. Still, while he did demonstrate his intense loyalty and devotion to God, how did it prove his love for God?

In yesterday’s message we learned that God does not challenge people beyond their capacities. It follows, then, that as they advance in spiritual growth and strength, they actually render themselves vulnerable to trials of greater intensity. In the course of his many trials, Abraham detected this pattern. He could have logically decided to avoid any further spiritual progression, because it might subject him to even greater ordeals than those he had already sustained.

Abraham decided otherwise. He desired so much to come closer to God that he was willing to pay any price. Thus, when he was put to the ultimate task – to sacrifice Isaac – Abraham was not taken aback. He had fully anticipated such an eventuality.

We are not of the mettle of Abraham, and we pray every day, “Do not put us to test.” While we indeed wish to advance spiritually, we ask to be spared the distress of trial. Yet, should we experience adversity in life, we would do well to realize that this may be a testimony to our spiritual strength.

looking-upToday I shall…

try to advance myself spiritually. Although I pray to be spared from distress, I will try not to recoil if adversity does occur.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tevet 26”
Aish.com

Thomas Gray once penned the famous words, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise” (in the poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” 1742). I suppose many “Bible-believing Christians” feel very blissful as long as they don’t consider the rather troubling questions I’m bringing up this morning. On the other hand, once the “bliss bubble” is popped, then we can only face the painful trial of reality, if not the wisdom, of whatever we have left.

Chances are, Abraham never faced the ten challenges, at least as we see chronicled in Pirkei Avot (but not the Bible). Chances are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never studied Torah in the academies of Shem and Eber as we learn from the Talmud. Maybe the only place we really encounter God is in our prayers. Or maybe we encounter God everyday, as long as we continue to seek Him.

According to Gedaliah Nigal’s book The Hasidic Tale, some of the goals of the hasidic story are to “rouse its hearers into action for the service of God” and to win “adherents, among them some outstanding individuals, to hasidim.” In relation to this, I’ve said:

The “Chasidim” of Jesus also made sure the stories of their Master were passed on from generation to generation, eventually being recorded and passed on to the future…to us.

Paul Philip Levertoff thought that the teachings of Jesus read like a collection of Chasdic tales. Perhaps as Gentile Christians reading tales of the Chasidim, we can also find a connection to the Messiah, the Prophet, and the greatest Tzadik, whose own death atoned for not just a few, but for all.

Having gone through all this again, I feel reassured.

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11 thoughts on “Missing Author”

  1. Hi James,
    As one who has believed since (very) young childhood and was told the bible is Gods Word from the church, yet in a home where neither God nor the bible we’re believed in (it’s complicated), I have a different perspective.

    Coming to maturity with all of the challenges of youth in the 70’s and without much direction due to the fragmented nature of my religious and family life, I put my “faith” to one side (compartmentalized it) as I lived “real life” and took on the attitudes of my generation in society.

    After a number of failures trying to do “life” like my non-believing peers, I reached a desperation and what constantly rang in my ears was “come to me all who are burdened and heavy laiden,my Yoke is easy. And concepts like “God is reliable”, “the bible is His revelation of Himself”, “there is no higher thinking than what’s found in the bible” and similar “simplistic” faith sayings) this ringing in my ears is what encouraged me to eventually TRUST those concepts, (as opposed to only “believing” them) since I was literally at the end, if you know what I mean.

    That trust transformed me, my life, and by extension those in my life. While I appreciate very much an orderly and intellectual pursuit of the scriptures i.e., determining the context of it, the history, the purpose, and not believing it was written to me (read Jacob Fronzaks latest Ffoz blog) and not jumping to an “application” as soon as a cherry-picked verse is read, still, there IS a supernatural component to the scriptures which is why most thinking Christians say “God wrote the bible”. They (thinking Christians) don’t actually mean that literally, it’s idiomatic.

    So I always wonder, when I encounter perspectives like yours today, is why worry so much about it? None of us were there and it really isn’t “more intellectual” to deny the reality of the accounts in the bible than it is to accept them, when you think about it. Apply it to other things and you’ll see what I mean. How can the denial of one who wasn’t there thousands of years after the fact be more reliable than the testimony of one who was there? Especially regarding the bible which has proven time and again that it changes lives…

  2. So I always wonder, when I encounter perspectives like yours today, is why worry so much about it? None of us were there and it really isn’t “more intellectual” to deny the reality of the accounts in the bible than it is to accept them, when you think about it. Apply it to other things and you’ll see what I mean. How can the denial of one who wasn’t there thousands of years after the fact be more reliable than the testimony of one who was there? Especially regarding the bible which has proven time and again that it changes lives…

    I suppose I could play “devil’s advocate” (if you’ll pardon the reference) and say, what makes the Bible different than other holy books of other religions such as the Koran, for example? That would be the most obvious reason to perform such an examination, especially if our faith hinges upon a certain amount of accuracy in the Bible. Can the Koran be said to “change lives” as well? I suppose we’d have to ask a lot of Muslims, but from their point of view, the answer might also be “yes.”

    I’m not advocating for Islam, but I am trying to illustrate how all this might look from an outsider’s point of view. As I said above, I can find a way to read the Bible that continues to sustain my faith and bring order to my understanding of the Bible’s “issues.” By the way, I’m continuing this theme in tomorrow’s “morning meditation,” dovetailing off of both Cohen’s book and Friedman’s Who Wrote The Bible which I just got from the library yesterday and started reading last night. Hopefully, rather than causing too much distress, my humble investigation will result in a strengthening of faith through education and understanding.

    We’ll see how it goes.

  3. Always an interesting subject, scripture and it’s historical exegesis.

    For me, I tend to “supplement” my reading and subsequently, faith in scripture, with complimentary material and spiritual knowledge.

    When I read material on the miraculous, and it’s happening today, my reading of Jesus healing a sick man becomes concrete and all the more truthful.

    When I read material on demon possession, spiritual deception, the like, in the modern world, my reading of exorcisms and demonic infiltrations mentioned in scripture is made ever real.

    When I read material found in the Talmud (Yoma, 39b) that seems to “coincidentally” match a New Testament expectation of atonement being taken up by Jesus, and the “odd” string of happenings thereafter that occurred in temple after 30 AD, my belief in and conviction in Jesus as an atoning sacrifice is made all the more profound.

    I do believe scripture is, at the end of the day, the most important thing we have concerning placing faith in G-d through Jesus Christ. That being said, my supplemental reading and increasing of knowledge in related subjects has only confirmed this all the more.

    The realization that there are discrepancies and historical challenges concerning the authority of scripture, it’s historical character, etc, at one point in my journey of faith, almost destroyed my trust in Jesus and the Bible completely.

    However, the more I dug around and began to examine the evidence, and that means all of the evidence (scripturally and extra-biblical, as mentioned above), my faith surprisingly grew ever stronger; to the point where now, I have no doubt in my mind that scripture speaks the truth and that I can trust it’s inspiration.

    Now, this doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge all of the “difficulties” that emerge when a careful study of scripture is conducted. But a thorough (non-confirmation bias seeking *I know, I know, that sounds incredibly ironic*) buttress of worldview through “secondary” source material can incredibly diminish the “power” such realizations of exegetical issues might have over the placing of our trust in scripture, and subsequently, G-d Himself.

    Anyways, just my two-cents!

    Peace to you, James.

  4. “I suppose I could play “devil’s advocate” (if you’ll pardon the reference)”

    Sure 🙂

    “what makes the Bible different than other holy books of other religions such as the Koran, for example? That would be the most obvious reason to perform such an examination, especially if our faith hinges upon a certain amount of accuracy in the Bible. Can the Koran be said to “change lives” as well? I suppose we’d have to ask a lot of Muslims, but from their point of view, the answer might also be “yes”

    But James, this endeavor would only have any real purpose (besides the shear “argument” aspect) if one was trying to decide between faith systems.

    You’re not.

    You’ve already decided to follow the God of Israel and have experienced Him (in some fashion) in relation to His Word, i.e., scripture, or a faith system in our culture based on it. Additionally, although He is talked about in other writings besides the bible, He is represented most accurately according to it, as everything about the God of Israel apart from scripture stems from those writings in scripture!

    Experiencing the God of Israel as outlined in the scripture have caused folks like William Wilberforce to stay in the (long) fight for ending the slave trade because scripture gave him the idea that humans were created by God and deserving of freedom and dignity (and founding the SPCA too, btw).
    It inspired John Newton to give up his slave ship and instead serve the God of Israel with the remainder of his life.
    It inspired people like Irena Sendler and Corrie Ten Boom (and family) to hide Jews and lose everything for that endeavor because they knew Jews were Gods chosen and they honored Him.

    The God of Israel, as known in the scriptures, inspired most of our Founding Fathers, imperfect men who nonetheless implemented an “experiment in freedom” in our country the likes of which have not been known, and has given untold refuge and blessing to all people groups, not the least of which are Jews.

    It inspired higher education, hospitals, orphanages, selfless giving, sacrifice, comfort, and healing to all different people groups.

    These things cannot be said of Islam.

    Just sayin…

  5. However, the more I dug around and began to examine the evidence, and that means all of the evidence (scripturally and extra-biblical, as mentioned above), my faith surprisingly grew ever stronger; to the point where now, I have no doubt in my mind that scripture speaks the truth and that I can trust it’s inspiration.

    I’m hoping that’s the result of my current reading as well, Nate. It worked for me before.

    But James, this endeavor would only have any real purpose (besides the shear “argument” aspect) if one was trying to decide between faith systems.

    You’re not.

    True enough, Lw. I was just saying why anyone might pursue such a line of investigation. As Nate said above, sometimes the result is that faith becomes stronger.

    Experiencing the God of Israel as outlined in the scripture have caused folks like William Wilberforce to stay in the (long) fight for ending the slave trade because scripture gave him the idea that humans were created by God and deserving of freedom and dignity (and founding the SPCA too, btw).

    It inspired John Newton to give up his slave ship and instead serve the God of Israel with the remainder of his life.

    It inspired people like Irena Sendler and Corrie Ten Boom (and family) to hide Jews and lose everything for that endeavor because they knew Jews were Gods chosen and they honored Him.

    And what will we find as we “look under the hood” and discover who wrote the core books of the Bible, when they lived, and what they were trying to tell us about God? I read a little more of Friedman’s book over lunch (just finished the Introduction) and a life of faith first led him into a life of investigation because in trying to understand what the Bible is saying, he needed to understand who wrote it, when it was written, and how it was written. If God inspired the Bible, then that’s where and when and with whom He was working.

    Fascinating, isn’t it?

  6. “Fascinating, isn’t it?”

    Yep, and as one who came to faith later in life like you, and I assume Mr. Friedman, it would look different than for me, a young and simple believer who then matures in life and in faith.

    While all the details that are attainable are fascinating and truly amazing even (trust me, I read a lot and love learning the context, history, and any and all details possible) you could never pursue them at all and just look at the amazing changes in lives and cultures that the knowledge of the God of Israel has brought and a reasonable person would have to conclude there’s something special about them.

    Personally I don’t feel the need to wonder if Moses wrote the whole Torah or not, or if there were three Isaiah’s or one. We don’t have access to that information and it only becomes SPECULATION and different people speculate differently and with differing levels of self-importance. (Just because a scholar states their assumptions as FACT doesn’t make it so) and in the end we still do not know for sure what the answers to those questions are and some people actually allow these things to be a hinderance to faith. As if we NEED to know it when there’s ample evidence over thousands of years that show the scriptures are from God…

  7. But we can look at it from another point of view as well. We can see scholarly pursuit of scripture as another way to get to know God. If we continue to believe that the Bible is Divinely inspired (and if we don’t have this assumption, things get rather muddy, so I’ll go with it), then by whatever mechanism was used and by whoever was used to write the Bible, God were there. Looking into the origins of the Bible to the best of our ability allows us to try to see the actual connection between God and man in the transmission of God’s Word.

    In this instance, Biblical scholarship becomes like astronomy, archaeology, mathematics, or any of the other sciences we use to explore God’s Creation. The Bible is a unique document and it has origins that are equally unique. I understand this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I also believe it’s not something that we all should ignore, either.

    Ultimately, it may not change the basic truth of the Bible or the truth about God, but on the other hand, for some, it might just bring us a little bit closer to actually seeing a spark of the Holy.

  8. “But we can look at it from another point of view as well. We can see scholarly pursuit of scripture as another way to get to know God”

    Yes, that’s what I said!

    “then by whatever mechanism was used and by whoever was used to write the Bible, God were there.”

    Yes.

    “Looking into the origins of the Bible to the best of our ability allows us to try to see the actual connection between God and man in the transmission of God’s Word.”

    Again, I’ve not stated otherwise.

    “for some, it might just bring us a little bit closer to actually seeing a spark of the Holy.”

    True, but as I said, some have expectations that they MUST answer these things and some things aren’t answerable on this side of eternity, which leads to self-important statements declaring things about the scriptures that are no more than speculation dressed up as fact.

    Like everything else, balance is needed because it makes little sense to me to expect God to be our puppet (not saying you’re guilty of that). We have ample evidence that the scriptures are above other literature and has a transforming effect on people. Sometimes we need to get on with accepting some things are beyond our capacity to apprehend them.

  9. Looks like we pretty much agree. Sure anyone can misuse scholarship but we misuse just about everything. Plus a lot of “scholarship” is kind of dodgy. That’s when we have to use Khrushchev brains and our relationship with God to help us.

  10. “I’m hoping that’s the result of my current reading as well, Nate. It worked for me before.”

    I’ll be hoping right along with you then 😉

    Shalom, friend.

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