Accepting the Unacceptable

How religious fears keep us from seeking the truth

By David Galston | 10.30.2017

Who wants to argue with a Rabbi? I do not, but this week a situation fell upon me. A local Rabbis of the Orthodox tradition cornered me and insisted that Moses wrote the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Beyond this, he claimed that in Judaism such knowledge is unquestionable. He seemed eager to debate, and I felt obliged to respond.

I pointed out that in my experience many Rabbis do not accept the Mosaic authorship of the Torah and that Judaism broadly is completely comfortable with critical biblical scholarship. The debate was on.

There was no winner in this debate. Fortunately, both the Rabbi and myself were of good humor, and we were at times laughing at our differences. We entered and parted the debate as friends. I wish all the debates I have held about religion and theology could go so well despite disagreements. An incident such as this, though, does lead me to ask why certain forms of academic consensus about the Bible can become so troubling to accept. It is not that certain theories or forms of theories are beyond question. All theories are subject to revision. But why is the very existence of a theory, a convincing and commonly accepted one, so threatening?

On the Christian side of the ledger, many things are not factually true but that, in the spectrum of Christianity, seem threatening and cause anger. Jesus was not God. There is no need to prove this fact. It is simply the case that all human beings of all times are human beings. No one is God. This does not mean that claims about the divinity of Jesus are useless or cannot be understood contextually with inspiring implications. In the context of the first century and against the background of Roman imperial theology, claims made for the divinity of Jesus - or for Jesus as God’s anointed - are startling and potentially motivating. But on the level of factuality, Jesus was the same as any other human being and this does not require proof.

God did not write the Bible; human beings wrote the Bible. This is another common sense, factual claim. There is nothing to debate on this question. This does not mean the Bible cannot be understood as inspirational, and it says nothing against the authority of the Bible in Western cultural history. Original sin is a Christian doctrine, but it is not a literal, factual description of reality, humanity, or the nature of the cosmos. It’s a metaphorical way of thinking about things. The creation story in Genesis - both, because there are two - is a myth. Again, this does not put down Genesis. It rather asks us to do our homework and to understand ancient poetic forms rather than to take a prosaic, literalist approach.

There are many more beliefs in religious traditions that are metaphors, similes, acts of poetry, or even social resistance statements, but not all are or are intended to be factual descriptions of reality. Yet, this seemingly obvious truth is often unacceptable.

If Torah remains the example, let’s think about it and then return to the question about why some find it unacceptable to question its Mosaic authorship.

Torah means instruction, and the longstanding tradition in both Judaism and Christianity is that the first five books of the Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy) are the revelation of God to Moses. Moses recorded the revelation to instruct the people on what God wanted to set down as law, as history, and as custom. If we say that Moses did not write the Torah, then it seems like we are saying that God did not reveal the Torah. On a strictly factual level, this is entirely accurate: Moses did not write the Torah and God did not reveal it. But how do we know?

There are many arguments used to show that Moses did not write the Torah. I can list several reasons why we know, but I do not know all the reasons. There are hundreds of reasons. Some require more technical skill than I possess. The reasons relate to historical knowledge, archaeological knowledge, literary knowledge, textual knowledge, grammatical knowledge, and knowledge about ancient Hebrew. I do not have all this knowledge, and indeed few people do. Scholars often rely on the expertise of other scholars when it comes to specific and highly specialized areas of study. Here, I will restrict myself to some key literary evidence.

There are a few places in the Torah where God says to Moses, “put this down in writing” or where it is said Moses wrote something down. These are description of an event - a narration - from a third party offered as recollection. They do not suggest that Moses wrote the complete Torah but only the thing said at that moment, and the purpose of the narration is drama, not fact. Then, in the history of ancient Israel, there are examples of the prophets seeming to know some of what is in or became the Torah, but no prophet attributes that writing to Moses. For example, the prophets know the story of the Exodus, and Micah even mentions Moses at 6:4, but no prophet refers to the Torah as the writing of Moses, nor do they show knowledge of the five books of Moses. The first time there is reference to the Torah of Moses is II Chronicles 30:16. It does not say the Torah is five books or that Moses wrote them. But it does used the expression, the Torah of Moses. Chronicle is a post-exilic document dated to the fourth century before the common era.

In the five books themselves, there are numerous examples that make Mosaic authorship impossible. I will quickly list eight common examples used. 1) Moses could not have written about his death; 2) the writers of the Torah often use the expression “until this day,” indicating their day is after the days of Moses; 3) “At that time” is an expression used in the Torah, indicating the writer is recording the history of Moses and early Israel; 4) geographical references are used from the period of the Kings that did not exist in Moses’ lifetime (especially since Moses never entered the land of Israel); 5) the Torah mentions Kings in Israel, which is well after the time of Moses; 6) the Torah mentions sources that the writer uses for the story; 7) there are constant parallel and contradictory stories, such as two version for the naming of Beer-sheba, two creation stories, two flood stories, two mountains Sinai and Horeb, and two minimal ages for ordination; 8) there are references to the “other side of the Jordan,” that is, to the side where Moses was but where the writer is not.

None of these eight common reasons includes the more complicated details from source criticism and the other forms of expertise named above. When I mentioned these types of literary evidence to my friend, he replied that Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) believed in the Mosaic authorship of the Torah and that was good enough for him. In short, it was unacceptable to my friend to accept the consequences of modern day biblical criticism. My question is why?

I have three reasons why people distrust and often reject the conclusions of modern day biblical scholarship. One is fear. That’s obvious. We are often afraid to walk down a trail that we know will change us. If an individual changes from not questioning to questioning the Mosaic authorship of the Torah, then the Torah itself might be open to question. One might have to ask how the Torah can be re-imagined in the modern context of the world.

Two is authority. There is a type of personality that believes if authority is questioned, then the world order will collapse into chaos. This is the type of personality that always sees the clothes on the naked Kings. Even though the clothes are not there, to admit so is to place the authority and social position of the king at risk. The Bible is often thought of like a medieval king, an unquestionable authority that is essential to the proper order of society.

The third is identity. Religions often inspire individuals, but historically religions mark our cultures and our histories. In the contemporary world, to practice or not to practice a religion is a free choice. One might choose to practice a religion because of its call for justice and its insistence of compassion. But the history of a religion is social. Religions involve the historic identity of people and a collective expression of purpose. This residual element of religion often makes questions about religion and religious claims seem blasphemous. It can be dangerous to ask questions.

There will come a day when none of these reasons will matter anymore and when humanity’s relationship to religion will be set on a new path. That day remains far off. For those who have already engaged the path, the present job I believe is to be a disciple of hope.

Photo of David Galston

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical Jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical Jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

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