[hat tip: e-kvetcher at Search for Emes]
In my last post I have written about the question of whether the Torah’s relevance or divine origin are negated if it were written by multiple authors (spoiler: I don’t think so). In this post I would like to offer my opinion on why this topic is still so hotly debated in so many places of the J-blogosphere.
I think the issue people actually mean when they discuss the authorship of the Torah is this: Does every single word in the Torah come directly from G-d? This matters, because halachot (religious rules) are attached to different spellings, certain words in context, or a specific order of verses. If the document is written by a human and not dictated by G-d, all of this may not mean anything. Note that here even divine inspiration does not quite suffice. It has to be word-by-word revelation if you want to attach meaning to every letter.
But this is really in no way connected to the authorship problem. G-d can dictate different parts to different people. Even if G-d dictated X to person A and then (maybe even at a later point) told person B to insert Y at place P, the result is that the text is directly from G-d. G-d can choose several people to write down his exact words, it really does not matter who or how many people wrote the document if it is the word of G-d.
At this point we can get sidetracked by several seemingly related questions. Why are there different writing styles? What about similar documents like the Code of Hammurabi? Why would G-d "trick us" by making the Torah appear like one book written by one author? Or conversely, by making it appear as the work of several people? But while these questions might be interesting to discuss as theological questions, they do not say anything about whether the Torah is the word of G-d. If I believe the Torah is the word of G-d, I can explain everything in a consistent way. Also, if I believe the Torah is not the word of G-d, I can explain everything in a consistent way. There cannot be a proof for G-d’s authorship anyway. Fundamentally it is a question of belief.
So, in my opinion, people feel threatened by the possibility of multiple authors to the Torah because they take it as an attack on their literal reading of the text. Somehow people automatically assume that multiple authors means human authors. The automatic response is not "G-d talks to many people and he ordered each person to insert exactly this exactly at this point", but "you are a heretic". But this does not follow. The fact in itself that there are different writing styles or multiple authors does not automatically does not automatically mean G-d cannot have dictated every word*. While I don’t really share the view that every word of the Torah has been dictated by G-d verbatim (more on that later, maybe), if you want to believe that, I don’t see a logical reason why absolutely have to reject the documentary hypothesis.
Ok, I read this again later, too many negations in this sentence. Let’s try this: G-d can have dictated every word, even if we somehow were able to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that different people were doing the writing.
Lately I have read a few things about "who wrote the bible" aka the documentary hypothesis, refutations of it and such things. I am not sure what I believe and I haven’t researched it enough to offer any opinion. What I want to talk about is the question whether it really matters.
So the basic dispute is about whether the Torah (the five books of Moses) was written by one person (Moses), or by several (at least four different people). I think there are two questions to be asked: If it were true that the Torah was written by several people, what would that say about (a) its relevance, and (b) its divine origin.
So, first let’s look at relevance. Would the Torah be automatically irrelevant if written by several people? No. Books written by several people can be relevant. There is no one claiming that the entire Tanach or the Talmud was written by one person. Both books are still pretty relevant for most Jews. Christianity bases the faith of Jesus on the gospels and there are four of them, written by different authors. I don’t think anybody claims they were written by the same person. They are still the basis of the faith in Jesus. So no, single authorship is no requirement for relevance.
What about divinity? Does "divine" mean "single author"? I don’t think so. Tanach and Talmud are not just any books, they are divine (maybe it’s not the same level of divinity as Torah, but still). For Christians all four gospels are divine books. I’m sure there are other examples of multi-author revelations in other religions. If G-d can inspire one person, he can inspire several persons. Even if instead of "inspire" we use "revelation" in the sense of G-d dictating every word, there is no inherent problem. There are Christians who believe that every word of the bible was dictated by G-d (Verbal dictation). This definitely means G-d dictated to different people, but surely G-d can do that. So no, a multi-author document can be divine.
To summarize: Having multiple authors does not in itself make the Torah irrelevant or the work of mere humans. Unfortunately most proponents of the documentary hypothesis present it in a way that at least implies one of the two points. But this doesn’t mean this is a justified conclusion.
I have just finished reading a very interesting series of essays that tries to explain the discrepancies between books Shemot (Exodus) and Bamidbar (Numbers) on the one hand and Devarim (Deuteronomy) on the other hand. The issue is, that Devarim recounts in some places the same stories that have already been told beforehand in Shemot-Bamidbar – but slightly different.
In the series Rethinking Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism, Professor Joshua Berman explains his theory that the Tora follows the form of a treaty between sovereign and vassal kings as was common in the ancient near east at around 1300 BCE. He explains that we find in the Tora many elements typical for such a treaty: a historical prologue, followed by the conditions of the treaty, witnesses, blessings and curses.
The repetitions in Devarim would be explained by it being a follow-up treaty, where the elements of the previous treaty are repeated. But they are not repeated verbatim. The conditions may change (read: variations on halachot between Shemot-Bamidbar and Devarim, although the series does not really go into this point). And also the historical prologue is not intended to be a faithful recounting of what actually happened, but a diplomatic instrument, a way of setting the tone of the relationship. It reflects what has happened in the meantime and the differences are not errors, different traditions or anything, they are meant to be analyzed in terms of good/bad diplomatic relations.
The first treaty of G-d with the exodus-generation as written down in Shemot-Bamidbar was more positive. The second treaty was with the new generation born in the desert, after lots of things have happened that have influenced the relationship negatively. So the discrepancies we see are all painting Israel in a more critical light.
I am no expert in biblical criticism and do not know the alternative theories very well. I do not even know the plain text of the Tora well enough. To me the treaty-theory makes sense. Still, I am left with lots of questions. Where do Bereshit (Genesis) and Vayikra (Levitikus) enter the picture? Is it normal that the "salvation" element, i.e., the story of the exodus, that precedes the historical prologue, is not in the renewal treaty? Why the change of narratological tone between the accounts if both are treaties in the same format? Still, I recommend reading the whole series and I am looking forward to the series on halachot differences between the two parts.
I just read Atheodox Jew’s post Why Biblical Scholarship Is Irrelevant and wanted to express my agreement. At some point faith is just that – faith, unprovable belief.
A quick overview of the main points:
– It doesn’t matter who wrote the Tora, even if we could be 100% sure that it was Moshe, we are still required to believe that G-d was somehow involved.
– That they comes from G-d is not the only reason for keeping the commandments, we also keep them because they have value in themselves.
Faith that can be destroyed by the "Documentory Hypothesis" was not worth much to begin with!