Moses vs. the Critics: Pentateuch Scholars Affirm the Truth of Scripture

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Moses vs. the Critics: Pentateuch Scholars Affirm the Truth of Scripture

In an earlier news update, L. S. Baker, Jr., outlined a few reasons why there is a need to study the composition of the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy; also called the Torah). While for Christians who take Scripture seriously as trustworthy, true, and accurate, it seems like a given that Moses wrote most of the content in these books, for many academicians and laypersons alike, a latent or overt skepticism abounds in many circles. Baker has sketched several ideological and methodological facets that critical (skeptical) approaches to Scripture engender.

Those who utilize a Spirit-led, text-based method of interpretation and submit to the Biblical worldview study the same text as the critics. The features of the Pentateuch that suggest the need for a literary analysis of these books of the Bible are at their foundation the same for everyone. Acknowledgment and understanding of these elements can help clarify common misunderstandings people come across when studying these books.

  1. There are diverse genres and discrete units of material such as law, history, covenant forms, cultic laws (instructions for rituals and worship), and genealogies.
  2. The Pentateuch’s author did utilize sources. He mentions the “Book of the Wars of the Lord” as the source for an account in Numbers 21:14–15.
  3. Several parallels have been found in ancient Near Eastern documents: forms, phraseology, and content.
  4. There are observable editorial devices in the Torah that show textual updates (though minimal).

These four major textual constructs — (1) genre, (2) sources, (3) parallels, and (4) editorial work — form the basis of most of the scholarly discussion and debate today.

The Pentateuch Conference

Scholars from within and outside the Adventist Church met at Andrews University earlier this month for a conference called “Exploring the Composition of the Pentateuch.” The stated agenda of the conference was to explore the four aforementioned compositional aspects of the Pentateuch.

  • Day 1 addressed literary and historical concerns.
  • Day 2 addressed sources of the Pentateuch (materials and people).
  • Day 3 addressed comparative data from the contemporaneous ancient Near Eastern nations.
  • Day 4 addressed the interrelations (intertextuality) of various portions of the Pentateuch.

During the conference, each presenter read their paper, and the attendees could submit written questions about it. Several of the questions would be chosen to be answered by the panel of all the presenters for that day.

Two Different Approaches to the Pentateuch

What approach did these scholars use in studying the first five books of the Bible? At the risk of being simplistic, the main approaches to the Pentateuch fall under two primary methodological models:

  1. analyzing the books as they appear in their final form in the Hebrew Bible,[1] and
  2. analyzing source traditions that biblical authors supposedly built upon and pulled from.

Final form approaches to the Pentateuch include several types of analysis: narrative, rhetorical, structural, and canonical.[2] Within each of these approaches, the text is studied as a literary whole, and the features of each approach more or less emerge from Scripture itself. Attention is paid to literary structures, rhetorical patterns, narrative plot lines, characterization, and setting.

The central thesis of the second approach is known as “higher criticism,” which is the endeavor to establish the authorship, date, and place of composition of the original text. The types of approaches include source criticism, form criticism, traditions history, and redaction criticism. Briefly, source criticism is the search for the original sources which lie behind a given biblical text. Form criticism breaks the Bible down into sections, which are analyzed and categorized by genres. Tradition history is a specific aspect of form criticism that aims at tracing the way in which the smaller story units entered the larger units of the biblical canon, and especially the way in which they made the transition from oral to written form. Redaction criticism studies the collection, arrangement, editing, and modification of sources.

The approaches expressed in this conference took Scripture seriously. All presenters subscribed to the authority of Scripture, and the final form approach to the text was used. The research presented affirmed the veracity of Scripture while critiquing the higher critical assessments and presuppositions. This was refreshing, because outside of Adventist scholarly meetings one rarely hears such confessions made publicly and expressed in the research shared.

Day 1: Literary and Historical Studies

Dr. Richard Davidson presented the first paper, Revisiting the Literary Structure of the Book of Exodus. His main emphasis was on the literary structures of the book of Exodus as opposed to the usual theological or geographical outlines of the book. Davidson’s point was that literary structures that emerge from Scripture should inform its theology.

Dr. Daniel Block explored The Conceptual and Stylistic Imprint of Deuteronomy on the Narratives of GenesisNumbers, where through an intertextual analysis he demonstrated several different types of links between these four books and Deuteronomy. Subsequent discussion was provided in a panel on whether Genesis–Numbers used Deuteronomic language or vice versa. Block’s main assertion was that there is a harmony of language, concepts, and theology within the Pentateuch.

Capping off the evening, Dr. Michael LeFebvre examined how the language of dates reflects liturgical interests as well as historical and theological functions.

Day 2: Cultic Laws and Alleged Priestly Sources

In You Shall Not Boil a Young Goat in Its Mother’s Milk: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Short Legal Statement within Its Context, Dr. Alexander Bolotnikov examined the command found in Exodus 23:19. Contrary to its extra-biblical parallel, Bolotnikov argued that its placement in the literary structure of Exodus should be the primary interpretive background.

Dr. Roy Gane provided a critique of recent scholarly suppositions of an Aaronide priestly monopoly over the cult (sacrificial system) in his Was Leviticus Composed by Aaronide Priests to Justify Their Cultic Monopoly?

Two other studies, Dr. Gerald Klingbeil’s ‘From the Universal to the Particular’: Seven Thesis Statements Concerning the Hermeneutics of the Pentateuch and Dr. Richard Averbeck’s Priestly Writing and the Composition of the Pentateuch addressed issues of method: that is, the background and foundational views that are brought to the study of the Hebrew Bible.

Day 3: Comparative Studies

L. S. Baker, Jr., and Dr. Rahel Schafer presented their study, Egyptian Language Practice: A Model for Hebrew Poetic Use? They looked at correlations between language stages in Egyptian literature and the Hebrew Bible. The linguistic differences between Hebrew poetry and narrative are examined as possible evidence for the development of Israel’s literary corpus.

In Second Millennium BC Cuneiform from the Southern Levant and the Literature of the Pentateuch, Dr. Richard Hess (paper read in absentia) suggested that the common theory of oral tradition as source material for the Pentateuch is an unnecessary external extrapolation placed upon Scripture.

Dr. James Hoffmeier, in Egyptian Idea of Canon in Literature and Some Possible Implications for Hebrew Scribal Traditions and the Writing of the Torah, compared the Egyptian scribal tradition and its concept of canon with the Hebrew Bible, specifically the issue of transmission. He concluded that the Hebrew writers and scribes showed great care in transmitting the Torah.

Lastly, Dr. Duane Garrett’s Reflections on Genesis 37 and Efforts to Resuscitate the Documentary Hypothesis addressed the source-critical theory known as the Documentary Hypothesis to show its flawed methodological premises. According to Garrett, computer-generated linguistic analysis shows this theory to fail at every level.

Day 4: Interrelations of Legal Material in Torah

On the last day of the conference, two studies—Kenneth Bergland’s Embodied Covenantal Instruction and Legal Reuse in Torah and Dr. John Bergsma’s The Implications of Current Ezekiel Research for Theories of the Composition of the Pentateuch—looked at how sources outside of the Pentateuch indicate how the Pentateuch was understood during Biblical times.

Dr. Joshua Berman’s study The Historical-Critical Paradigm in Biblical Studies: A Critical Intellectual History set forth the philosophical history that underlies the historical-critical approach to Scripture.

Finally, two studies—Dr. Benjamin Kilchor’s The Reception of the Priestly Laws in Deuteronomy and Deuteronomy’s Target Audience and Dr. Jiri Moskala’s Reconsidering the Literary Structure of the Book of Deuteronomy—considered Deuteronomy’s structure and its implications for understanding Deuteronomy’s theology.

The Contributions of the Conference

The conference was helpful in producing substantive affirmations of the unique perspective of Scripture as well as its coherent and cohesive canonical status. It provided rebuttals to critical approaches to and assessments of the Hebrew Bible, particularly regarding the Pentateuch. Hopefully, the articles will become accessible in some format (several presenters mentioned theirs was a work in progress).

The titles of the papers should indicate to lay readers that the concerns of academia address many aspects and areas of study that are primarily of interest to the specialist and necessitate a certain skill set. The technical nature of some of the language and concepts brings up the nature of academia. How should the church and the academy interact? Since the presenters’ arguments were from Scripture, most laypeople could follow along. It would have been more problematic, however, for laypeople to understand what the researchers are fighting against unless they had prior knowledge of the criticisms and the reasons for them.

While the nature of the arguments may be unfamiliar to the lay members of the church, there is a role for them in scholarly endeavors such as these: prayer. Adventist scholarship is one of the last bastions of biblical belief (miracles, revelation, incarnation, creation, Truth), and those who have dedicated their God-given gifts to such research need the support rather than the criticism of their fellow brethren and sisters in Christ that they may give utterance to gospel truths. Also, prayer is needed because the pull of tenure and academic freedom can cloud the judgment of any academician.

My prayer is that God will continue to give His church the needed wisdom to proclaim faithfully the message of His Word and to combat the spurious thinking that the enemy of our souls inspires and delights in.



Photo: Moses with the Ten Commandments by Philippe de Champaigne, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] The phrase “final form” reflects the method of examining the text in its form as we have it today, without recourse to sources, traditions, or supposed alterations. The phrase “Hebrew Bible” rather than “Old Testament” is used because it reflects a desire to hear this body of literature on its own terms (“Old Testament” is understood as a pejorative moniker in academic circles).

[2] For an in-depth explanation of these approaches, see Richard Davidson, “Biblical Interpretation,” in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (ed. Raoul Dederen; vol. 12; Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2001), 58–104; George W. Reid, ed., Understanding Scripture: An Adventist Approach (Silver Spring: Biblical Research Institute, 2006). For the practical application to Scripture of these features, see Gerhard Pfandl, ed., Interpreting Scripture: Bible Questions and Answers (Silver Spring: Biblical Research Institute, 2010).

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About the author


Jerome Skinner, earned his Ph.D as an Old Testament scholar at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He focuses on the Psalms and Wisdom literature and on practical Christianity. Jerome is active in following American Christianity and social issues.