How We Know the Bible Was Written by Human Hands

Three Scholars Face Truth Of Biblical History

Writing The Bible: The Torah is actually a redaction of texts, threaded together from different traditions.
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Writing The Bible: The Torah is actually a redaction of texts, threaded together from different traditions.

By Jay Michaelson

Published June 22, 2014, issue of June 27, 2014.

● How the Bible Became Holy
By Michael Satlow
Yale University Press, 368 pages, $35
● The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis
By Joel Baden
Yale University Press, 392 pages, $65
● The Formation of the Hebrew Canon
By Timothy Lim
Yale University Press, 304 pages, $45

According to a Gallup poll taken last month, 40% of Americans believe that the Bible is the literal record of words spoken by God. A new crop of books from Yale University Press shows why this belief is illogical and incoherent.

All three cover ground that is largely familiar to scholars of religion, but still has the capacity to shock traditionalists. Far from being a unified set of texts, the Bible is the product of multiple hands, contradictory agendas, and a gradual process of codification that proceeded according to the prevailing political agendas of the times. Indeed, the boundaries of biblical literature were themselves contested over an extended period of time, settling only in the first centuries of the common era.

This is true even of the Torah itself, which scholars have long understood to be a redaction of multiple texts, threaded together from different traditions. This view, known as the “documentary hypothesis,” has been remarkably successful over its 150-year lifespan. Joel Baden’s 2012 volume, “The Composition of the Pentateuch,” surveys the history of the documentary hypothesis, observing that subsequent scholarship has provided better evidence for the hypothesis than did the original theorists.

Baden emphasizes that this hypothesis is, first and foremost, a literary solution to a literary problem. Traditionalists sometimes treat it as a religious point of view — a matter of opinion, much like some fundamentalists regard the theory of evolution. But neither evolution nor the documentary hypothesis is a “point of view.” They both try to explain otherwise perplexing evidence.

In the case of the Pentateuch, Baden thoroughly summarizes the “problem”: The text as we have it is rife with factual and doctrinal contradictions, repetitions, omissions and errors. Some are well known, such as the two versions of the Ten Commandments, and the stitched-together narrative of Joseph being sold into slavery, which makes no sense as a single narrative. Others only reveal themselves upon close inspection.

Traditional commentators were familiar with most (though not all) of these issues. But they worked from a premise that dictated their conclusions: The Bible was a work of divine authorship, and therefore it must somehow make sense. No interpretation was too contorted: God speaking the words “remember” and “preserve” at the same instant, Joseph being sold into slavery twice, whatever. If the axiom is that the text absolutely must make sense as the product of a single author, anything goes.

Yet that axiom is only a premise, not a conclusion. Viewing the text objectively, without taking the divinity of its author as a given, it becomes clear that the Torah contains multiple traditions that were later edited together. Most of “The Composition of the Pentateuch” proceeds along this path. Helpfully, Baden has organized the book thematically, according to different types of textual issues, and provided case studies for each and careful reconstructions of the textual strands in question.

The results can be amazing. Reading Baden’s sifted and reconstituted biblical passages is like a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, the stories make sense, the narrative proceeds without perplexing insertions and repetitions, and the distinct theological agendas of the different texts emerge. It’s often an astonishing journey, and in refreshing the documentary hypothesis, Baden has written an excellent introduction to it, suitable for students but accessible to laypeople.

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