Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Historical Reliability of the Old Testament I

Internal Evidence Test

The bibliographical test only establishes the authenticity of the OT, i.e., what we have today is a faithful reproduction of the original manuscripts. It does not tell us if the authentic contents are themselves historically reliable. In other words, given that what we have today in the OT is essentially what the authors wrote, how do we know if what they wrote was factually true in the first place?

In the internal evidence test we determine whether the contents of the document itself point towards its reliability or otherwise. According to historian and legal scholar J. W. Montgomery, “historical and literary scholarship continues to follow Aristotle’s dictum that the benefit of doubt is to be given to the document itself, not arrogated by the critic to himself. This means that one must listen to the claims of the document under analysis, and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualifies himself by contradictions or known factual inaccuracies.”

The OT covers a very large historical span. By necessity, we will focus on the most crucial historical events, viz., the Exodus from Egypt under Moses and the Conquest of Canaan under Joshua. Thus we will focus on the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua.

We will first use the internal evidence test to evaluate the historical reliability of these books and then use the external evidence test to confirm our evaluation.

Based on the internal claims of the OT, Jews and Christians had traditionally believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. But the modern “scientific” mindset is such that it naturally rejects the possibility of anything that science cannot explain. This includes the miracles recorded in the Bible. And the Pentateuch is full of them. If Moses wrote it, it will be very difficult to deny miracles without accusing him of telling blatant lies. For most of the miracles in the Pentateuch are said to be accomplished either through Moses himself or in his presence. The early critics, apparently recognizing Aristotle’s dictum of giving the author the benefit of the doubt, must have found it very difficult to reject Moses’ firsthand eyewitness accounts.

The easier way out would be to deny that Moses ever wrote those accounts. So, beginning in the 18th century, in line with the rise of the (now outmoded) anti-supernatural modernist worldview, the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch was finally replaced by the JEDP theory in mainline academic circles.

This theory (also called the documentary hypothesis) assumes that the Pentateuch is a cut-and-paste patchwork from four different documents named J, E, D, and P, all composed long after Moses died. Suffice it here to note that this theory is not based on any objective basis and it robs the Pentateuch of the benefit of the doubt. Firstly, the existence of these four separate documents is simply assumed (no one has found them). Secondly, the “evidence” for this theory is open to opposite and better interpretations. Even the apparent contradictions can be reasonably explained but again the critics would ignore or reject them.

One of the most important “evidence” for the theory is the different divine names used in the Pentateuch. It arbitrarily rules out the possibility that Moses could have used different names to refer to God. It thus assumes that whenever the name Yahweh (or Jehovah) occurs, that portion of the text must have been a cut-and-paste from the J document. And when the name Elohim occurs, the source must be the E document. There are times when the two names occur in the very same paragraph and even same sentence, resulting in incredible dissections of the text. And the JEDP scholars disagree among themselves over where to draw the line as to which portion came from which of the four imagined documents.

It is not surprising that in more recent times, even scholars who reject Mosaic authorship have argued against the JEDP theory. But this theory is still assumed in mainline academic work. According to prominent OT scholar H. H. Rowley, “That it [the JEDP theory] is widely rejected in whole or in part is doubtless true, but there is no view to put in its place that would not be more widely and emphatically rejected.... [The theory] is only a working hypothesis, which can be abandoned with alacrity when a more satisfactory view is found, but which cannot with profit be abandoned until then.” In other words, there are critical scholars who still assume the JEDP theory in their work not because they are convinced that it is true, but only because the alternative--Mosaic authorship--is totally unacceptable (to their outmoded modernist mindset).

Furthermore, we now have an objective external framework to support Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. We will focus on the book of Deuteronomy.

It is generally agreed that Deuteronomy was structured as a treaty patterned after the treaties of the ancient biblical world. Kenneth Kitchen, a respected scholar of the ancient biblical world, has shown that the structure of the treaties changed with time. He found that Deuteronomy matches the 15th/14th century BC Hittite treaties: Title/Preamble (Deut 1:1-5); Historical Prologue (1:6-3:29); Stipulations (4-26); Deposit of Text (31:9, 24-26); Public Reading (31:10-13); Witnesses (31:16-30, 26; 32:1-47); Blessing (28:1-14); Curses (28:15-68).

Moses lived in the 15th/14th century BC. Though this does not prove that Moses wrote Deuteronomy, the incredible match gives credible support to the biblical claim that Moses wrote it. The major opposing voice is that of noted critical scholar Moshe Weinfeld. He admits that the major sections of the Hittite treaties are present in Deuteronomy but refuses to come to the most logical conclusion. Instead he insists that Deuteronomy is patterned after the 7th century BC Assyrian treaties because, unlike the short curses in the Hittite treaties, Deuteronomy and the Assyrian treaties have elaborate series of curses. But the Assyrian treaties had a different structure altogether: Title/Preamble; Witnesses; Stipulations; Curses. Entire sections were missing.

Thus the weight of evidence is stacked against Weinfeld. He tries to explain this problem away. He suggests that the Historical Prologue (which gave justifications for the demands made in the treaty) and the Blessing were missing because the Assyrian emperor was too proud and arrogant to give any justification for his demands or promise any blessing. He uses tentative language like “it seems that” and “may explain” and spells out that this is (only) an assumption. He thus argues as if the critic had the benefit of the doubt.

Another critical scholar, A. D. H. Mayes, admits that Deuteronomy most closely resembles the Hittite treaties but thinks that this was because the (15th/14th century) structure was superimposed on Deuteronomy in the 7th/6th century! This and other improbable objections betray the incredible tide of (unwarranted) prejudice against Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy.

To claim that Moses wrote Deuteronomy is not to say that there was no later updating of the text by others. A clear case is the account of Moses’ death in Deuteronomy 34. Most likely Joshua, his personal assistant and then successor, wrote it. Though not mentioned in the text Joshua was most likely with Moses just prior to his death. We have evidence that he could and would follow Moses even to places forbidden to all others (see Exod 24:13-14).

Since the book of Joshua lies within our focus, let us note that Joshua 24 contains a short supplementary covenant made through Joshua (Josh 24:25) and it is also patterned after the Hittite treaties: Title/Preamble (Josh 24:1-2); Historical Prologue (24:2-13); Stipulations (24:14-25); Deposit of Text (24:26); Public Reading (absent here); Witnesses (24:22); Blessing and Curses (24:19-20).

That means, either Joshua (traditionally believed) or someone who could have been an eyewitness must have written the book of Joshua. Under the internal evidence test, and without imposing the outmoded anti-supernatural worldview, the book must be taken seriously unless there is valid reason to doubt its reliability. Critics will point out that the accounts of the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua contradict those in the book of Judges. Joshua 9-12 gives the impression of a complete conquest while Judges 1 (as well as the later chapters of Joshua) says it was only a partial conquest.

Recently K. L. Younger’s comparison of Joshua 9-12 with other conquest accounts in the ancient biblical world has shown that the conquest accounts in Joshua followed the standard conventions in reporting conquests, including the use of hyperbole. Specifically, we can now say on objective ground that claims of absolute total conquest (as in Josh 10:40-42) are hyperbolic and not meant to be taken literally.

Thus the biblical records documenting the Exodus under Moses and the Conquest under Joshua can be trusted as eyewitness accounts. Since myths and legends take a long time to develop these records should be trusted as historically reliable.


Brian said...

I don't see the need for Joshua 10:40-42 to be hyperbolic since Joshua 13:1 speaks of Israel's failure to continue and advance the conquest even further. Judges just continues along that point of failure don't you think?

Ben Winter said...

Excellent work! My college Old Testament (philosophy and religion) professor simply takes JEDP theory for granted, without even saying that there are other plausible ways to view the text, or explaining the theory's justification/origins.