Whose Agenda?

In the brief lesson on “The Nature of Biblical Scholarship” I was talking about the working environment and  Agenda of biblical scholars, not biblical authors.  Professor Hendel, whom I mentioned on the post “The Secular Study of the Bible” seemed to imply that scholars should be neutral and not have an agenda.

Post modern thinkers would say, everyone has an agenda (although many of them seem to exempt themselves from their critiques).  I would say most people who write about the Bible have some underlying motive–some try to hide it and some are very open and clear about it.

It is true that some apply this to the writers of the Bible.  Some use an even stronger word, ideology.  But that’s not my point right now.  I’m thinking of the agendas, hidden or open of biblical scholars.

Hector Avalos is a professor of the Bible who has a very clear and open agenda: To destroy anyone’s confidence or faith in the Bible.  In fact, from the security of his tenured position as a university professor, he seems to argue that biblical studies has no place in the university.  I wrote about professor Avalos on my Alternation blog here, if you want to read more.

He was exploited as a pentecostal “child evangelist”–preaching crusades at the age of 8.  I’m sure part of his agenda is to distance himself from his childhood upbringing.

Biblical Archaeology Review posted a response to the attacks Avolos made on the validity of biblical archaeology here.

Bill’s concerns about the negative impact of historical critical studies are well taken.  One question we have to decide is whether or not to engage with those who use historical-critical research to attack or undermine faith.  I also think we need to pick our battles and ask ourselves what issues are worth fighting for.


Who Wrote the Torah?

Among Christians and Jews alike, it is widely held that the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) was written by Moses through divine inspiration.  The first time that this belief was explicitly stated in writing was in the Talmud, and this conclusion was arrived at after studying the Torah.  There are varying thoughts on the exact process of divine inspiration.  Did God show Moses what happened and tell him to write about it?  Or did God dictate word-for-word what Moses was to write down?  No one knows for sure, but the latter option is the basis of any credibility that the Bible Code might have.  (Note:  the Bible Code says that Los Angeles will be “torn in terror” by an earthquake sometime this year.)  However, the last chapter of Deuteronomy documents Moses’ death.  Possibly, God told Moses to write this before he died, or else a third party wrote this chapter down in Moses’ book.

Conversely, the Documentary Hypothesis (most notably upheld by one Julius Wellhausen), states that originally, there were four documents, the first of which was written around the time of Solomon’s reign.  Document J reflected the Southern Kingdom’s (Judah’s) interpretation of Israel’s history, so called for the use of YHWH (spelled in German:  JWH).  Document E, written later, was the Northern Kingdom’s version, which preferred to say “Elohiym”.  Document D was supposably written during Josiah’s reign, and included every book from Deuteronomy through II Kings.  Finally, Document P was written either during or just after the exile, and was so called because of its focus on the priestly duties.  After the exile, these four texts were compiled into one large text, and eventually broken down into the books we know today.  The main argument for this hypothesis, apparently, is that the Torah contains so many styles and so many ways of thinking, and obviously an author can only have one style (note sarcasm).

A more recent and much more popular theory these days is the Accretion Hypothesis.  This belief states that, rather than being compiled of four main texts, the Torah and later books are actually composed of hundreds of small fragments that were compiled and added onto over many centuries (a process known as accretion).  Larger sections in what were earlier identified as Documents J, D, and P, are still identifiable as originating from these same three documents, though these are now considered much smaller as other sections within them are now thought to have been derived from small fragments.  Document E is noticeably missing from this hypothesis, as what was originally credited to this document is now thought to be nothing more than a compilation of fragments.

Which of these theories is correct?  Honestly, nobody can know for sure.  There is very little evidence to support each one, and so far, no evidence has been found that dates back even so far as the life of David.  What if hundreds of little fragments are found?  Do we not hang such fragments, all found from one source, on the walls of our churches, homes, and classrooms to remind us of what God says?  Could the early Hebrews not have done the same?  Would this prove the Accretion Hypothesis?  Not necessarily.  What if a single volume is found?  Could this not be just another compilation?  Might someone have compiled many texts into one Torah earlier than the accepted date?  It is possible.

Does it matter which of these theories we believe?  Not so much as it matters that we believe that, through one man or hundreds, God spoke each word and it is His Word.  Neither the Documentary nor the Accretion Hypotheses threaten my belief, and the traditional theory does not amaze me any more than the others.  Simply know that the Torah is part of God’s Word, and know why you believe it.  “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” 2 Timothy 3:16.

The Potters House

Jeremiah went down to the potter’s house and learned a lesson about the way God works.  I think the lesson Jeremiah learned is the opposite lesson most theologians take from the analogy of God as the potter and humans as the clay.

But what do you think?  How do you read Jeremiah 18?

What does the passage tell us about God and his ways?

What does it tell us about the nature of prophecy?

What does it tell us about history, destiny, human free will and responsibility and the sovereignty of God?

Jeremiah 20:7

Jeremiah 20:7 is an interesting example of the divine-human interaction we have in the Bible, and the importance of understanding the historical context.

Was Jeremiah telling the truth when he said God lied to him?

If everything in the Bible is a timeless truth, you would have a hard time answering that question.

Is that verse (Jer 20:7) inspired?

I think it is inspired, because God wanted us to know about Jeremiah’s experience, and how his word came to the people out of Jeremiah’s experience?

How would you answer the question,

Was Jeremiah telling the truth in Jer 20:7?

Editions of Jeremiah

Jeremiah had told the residents of Judah to submit to the yoke of Babylon, to accept captivity as God’s will, to pack there bags and trust that the Lord will go with them to Babylon and bless them there.  After many exiles were taken, he even told some of the survivors they could stay in the land and he would protect them.  Instead they chose to flee to Egypt and forced Jeremiah and Baruch to go with them (Jeremiah 42-43).  Jeremiah did maintain some contact with the Jews in Babylon (Jeremiah 51:59-64).

Evidently the Jews in Babylon took with them an edition of the writings of Jeremiah, as did the Jews who went down to Egypt taking Jeremiah and Baruch with them.  Eventually in Egypt the Hebrew text of Jeremiah was translated into Greek (which had become the main language of the immigrants around Alexandria, which was where many Jews eventually settled.)

Meanwhile the scribes in Babylon continued to study and copy the writings of Jeremiah, along with the other books of the Bible.

Scholars who study the Septuagint (Greek) text of Jeremiah note that it is notably different from the Hebrew text.  In particular, whole chapters (especially the “foreign oracles in chapters  ) are in a different order.  In addition, the Hebrew text has additional words–and the words seem to be glosses, scholarly explanations and definitions.

We can speak of a Septuagint text-type and a Babylonian text type.  It gets more complicated here: some Hebrew fragments of Jeremiah found at Qumran (home of the Dead Sea Scrolls) agree with the Septuagint text-type and some agree with the Babylonian text type.

So we have to assume that there were eventually two distinct editions of Jeremiah: an Egyptian edition and a Babylonian edition.

We have already seen that there were at least three editions of Jeremiah; now we have to allow for four.

Again, these are not scholarly conjectures or hypotheses.  The existence of three editions is based on the words that can be plainly found in our English versions of the Bible.  It is not a dark secret, it is clearly indicated in the Bible we read.  To learn about the distinct Babylonian and Egyptian editions requires some reading beyond our English Bibles–but it is based on facts on the ground–manuscripts that can be examined–not on abstract speculation.

This is the way God chose to reveal and preserve the message he gave through Jeremiah–first to the people of his lifetime, then to us also.

More Dates

Here is an updated list of dates for biblical history:

  • 1850 or 1650 God calls Abraham out of Iraq

  • 1445 or 1290 God brings Israel out of Egypt

  • 1000 BC  David was king

    • 930 BC Divided Kingdom Israel and Judah

  • 722  BC    Destruction of Samaria, end of northern Kingdom of Israel, exile of 10 northern tribes

    • 609 BC   Death of King Josiah

    • 605 BC   Babylon Rules the World, first wave of captivity

    • 597 BC    Second wave of captivity

  • 586 BC     Destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple; Babylonian exile of Judah.

    • 538 BC    Decree of Cyrus officially ending the captivity

Date of the Exodus

It is not as easy to determine the date of the event that began Israel’s national history as the event that ended it.  There are two conflicting dates available for the Exodus from Egypt: Approximately 1445 BC and approximately 1290 BC.

The College Press textbook discusses the issues on pp. 127-131.  The author says, “Traditionally the thirteenth-century date fits better with the archaeological record than the biblical record.”

The date of Abraham would depend on the date of the Exodus.  You could use 1850 or 1650 as a round number for the migration of Abraham from Iraq to Canaan.  This could be the beginning point of the Hebrews’ national journey; the end point–at least temporarily–would be the exile back to Iraq in 587 BC.

Of course there are biblical events before the call of Abraham and after the Babylonian captivity; but the two events: the call of Abraham and the exile to Babylon are certainly critical points on a timeline of biblical history.