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I am reading through (and already blogged once) on a fascinating book, Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition, by Benjamin D. Sommer, an observant Jew and professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Languages at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC.

One of the things I try to stress in my teaching, blogging, and writing is that modern biblical scholarship does more than just unsettle certain views of the Bible.

It most certainly does that for some, and that process of being unsettled is in and of itself a spiritual plus in that it helps wrest us from the “sin of certainty,” meaning from the false belief that true faith in God rests on our having and then holding dearly to an impenetrable theological system rooted in the “clear teaching of Scripture.” The Bible, simply by its diversity, effectively deconstructs that kind of thinking.

But modern biblical scholarship is of theological value to us in another way, and this is where Sommer comes in.

Speaking of the heart of Jewish scripture—Torah, aka Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses—Sommer sees great value for observant Jews in taking to heart the longstanding scholarly fact (yes, I’ll use that word—let the comment section blow up), that the Torah was not written at one time, in one place, by one person, but developed, grew, “evolved” so to speak over several centuries.

This modern scholarly idea is often referred to by its early name (19th century), the “Documentary Hypothesis,” which effectively argued that Torah is made up of 4 distinct voices (written sources) stemming from the days of the divided monarchy (9th c. BCE) to after the return from exile in (539 BCE).

That particular iteration of the theory of the origin of the Pentateuch has been greatly modified and debated ever since, but the general idea of multiple voices preserved and brought together centuries later in one collection called “Torah/Pentateuch” is not seriously questioned.

As such, the Pentateuch bears witness to and preserves these ancient Israelite voices about what it means to hear God’s voice.

So what? Knowing something about this development and the distinct voices contained in Torah is about more than just satisfying a historical curiosity (“Who wrote the Pentateuch and when?”).

It can and should function for us today (Jew and Christian) as a theological model.

Here is one of several ways Sommer puts it.

The varied memories found in the Pentateuchal sources serve as religiously valuable testimonies that provide guidance to people for whom the Bible functions as scripture. Attending to these testimonies allows us, first, the sense the extent to which teaching about revelation were already subject to rich debate in the biblical period itself and, second, to see how the modern debates about revelation recall and reenact this older debate. (p. 45)

In other words, knowing how the Pentateuch came to be, with all its diverse “testimonies,” is spiritually beneficial for those who read the Bible as sacred scripture. How so?

We see in the Bible a theological process modeled for us—a “rich debate” over what it means to hear the voice of God.

That debate is not a later distortion of scripture to be settled by an appeal to scripture. Rather, scripture preserves and therefore authoritatively supports the idea that such debate is ongoing.

Judaism has its own vigorous internal debates about what the Bible is and how to use it, but on the whole, Judaism has a tradition of seeing the wisdom, even commonsensical-ness, of Sommer’s point: “Yes. Duh. Of course Torah is diverse. Not apparently diverse, but actually diverse. The only question is what we do about it.”

Sommer’s bigger point in all this is that Torah itself is not God’s word given once-for-all in pristine perfection and now under a protective, vacuum-sealed glass case we call “the authoritative canon.” Rather, precisely in its diversity and contradictions, Torah bears witness to an active theological tradition that goes back to the very beginning of Israel’s experience.

And that is exactly why conservative Christians are traditionally very, very nervous about seeing the Pentateuch as a collection of diverse theologies: it is no longer the pristine original whose diversity is only alleged, the result of “sinful man” willfully or unintentionally misinterpreting it. Diversity is a theological problem to be overcome rather than a source of theological energy.

To drive home the point further, we can point to two analogous issues that may be more familiar to Christian readers of the Bible.

First is the actual text of the Bible. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls (the oldest and massive collection of copies of the Bible going back to a century or two before Christ) that the further back you go in time, the more diverse the Bible becomes. The idea of a “pristine original” Bible, an originally straightforward communicative act form God to dutiful writers that got corrupted over time, is a notion that can only take root later on, after the original diversity was streamlined in both Jewish and Christians traditions (2nd c. CE and onward).

Second is the matter of Christian origins. Many Christians assume that the further back we go in time, the closer we get to “original Christianity” when all followers of Jesus were essentially in agreement on all important matters. Diversity was only introduced later when the early church quickly forgot the simple original message.

But scholars who study Christian origins are quick to point out how diverse and even tense the early Jesus movement was right from the very beginning: the ground-level tensions between Paul and Peter, different ways of looking the crucifixion, the role of the law, the nature of faith—even who Jesus was and what he did (there are 4 Gospels, after all).

Both Christian and, as Sommer reminds us, Jewish origins are diverse, a fact born out by their founding documents. The role of modern biblical scholarship has been to help us understand how scripture itself bears witness to the early Israelite and Christian movements as living, breathing, growing, changing traditions, grappling with the nature of God and what it means to live as God’s people.

As serious readers of scripture, we participate in this biblical tradition. To tame it or explain it away is, ironically, to lose sight of our biblical roots.

This blog was first posted in January 2017.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood says:

    Per the diversity of early Christianity, it’s amazing to me how many Christians believe that Athanasian Trinitarianism and our typical affirmations of Jesus humanity and divinity are something on which there was widespread agreement except for a handful of kooks. Like maybe just Arius and his 8 friends or whatever. And what’s a “monophysite,” anyway? Surely nobody ever thought that. That’s a heresy, right?

    I understand the comfort of the myth; it’s very unsettling to think that things that are as seemingly fundamental to us, theologically, as those kinds of issues might not have had anything like unanimity or even basic consensus until someone forced it.

  • Phil Ledgerwood says:

    Per the diversity of early Christianity, it’s amazing to me how many Christians believe that Athanasian Trinitarianism and our typical affirmations of Jesus humanity and divinity are something on which there was widespread agreement except for a handful of kooks. Like maybe just Arius and his 8 friends or whatever. And what’s a “monophysite,” anyway? Surely nobody ever thought that. That’s a heresy, right?

    I understand the comfort of the myth; it’s very unsettling to think that things that are as seemingly fundamental to us, theologically, as those kinds of issues might not have had anything like unanimity or even basic consensus until someone forced it.

  • Hill Roberts says:

    “Many Christians assume that the further back we go in time, the closer we get to “original Christianity” when all followers of Jesus were essentially in agreement on all important matters.” This is in essence the heart of my religious heritage’s assumption that the church is something that needs restoring to its original NT form. I’ve come to understand not only is that not possible, but is even a rather bizarre concept given the actual history of the emerging (evolving) religion growing from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I now expect that Jesus must be rolling in over in his … oh, I guess that expression doesn’t apply. Anyway, I expect he is not pleased at our efforts today to reset the clock back 2000 years, instead of building forward based on his modeling what radical love/life in God’s kingdom should look like in the current and future years ahead. Thanks Pete. Never would have survived this journey without your help.

  • Hill Roberts says:

    “Many Christians assume that the further back we go in time, the closer we get to “original Christianity” when all followers of Jesus were essentially in agreement on all important matters.” This is in essence the heart of my religious heritage’s assumption that the church is something that needs restoring to its original NT form. I’ve come to understand not only is that not possible, but is even a rather bizarre concept given the actual history of the emerging (evolving) religion growing from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I now expect that Jesus must be rolling in over in his … oh, I guess that expression doesn’t apply. Anyway, I expect he is not pleased at our efforts today to reset the clock back 2000 years, instead of building forward based on his modeling what radical love/life in God’s kingdom should look like in the current and future years ahead. Thanks Pete. Never would have survived this journey without your help.

  • Fred Fauth says:

    Good article Pete. This is the first I’d heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls showing more diversity…. Care to elaborate? Or is there a good link I could read?

  • Fred Fauth says:

    Good article Pete. This is the first I’d heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls showing more diversity…. Care to elaborate? Or is there a good link I could read?

  • David Chumney says:

    Just discovered your blog recently and have been enjoying your posts. I first encountered the “Documentary Hypothesis” in a college class on the OT back in 1975 (yes, I’m older than God); our textbook was Bernard W. Anderson’s Understanding the OT. I’m interested in Sommer’s book and will be ordering it soon. I would appreciate your ideas about what would be a good Intro to the OT that would explain more fully where scholars are today with regard to pentateuchal sources. Thanks!

  • David Chumney says:

    Just discovered your blog recently and have been enjoying your posts. I first encountered the “Documentary Hypothesis” in a college class on the OT back in 1975 (yes, I’m older than God); our textbook was Bernard W. Anderson’s Understanding the OT. I’m interested in Sommer’s book and will be ordering it soon. I would appreciate your ideas about what would be a good Intro to the OT that would explain more fully where scholars are today with regard to pentateuchal sources. Thanks!

  • Austin Doyle says:

    Dr. Enns,

    I enjoy your explicit definition of biblical scholarship.

    “The role of modern biblical scholarship has been to help us understand how scripture itself bears witness to the early Israelite and Christian movements as living, breathing, growing, changing traditions, grappling with the nature of God and what it means to live as God’s people.”

    This is far more adaptable than irrationally working to explain the vacuum-sealed “authoritative canon” of God’s word. It’s feels better to grapple with the text in search of how it pertains to me rather than grappling to find an explanation for the next debate.

    What I’m taking from this is, if study in a way that allows biblical narrators to change and adapt through experiences, we can give do the same for ourselves and our friends. No more reasons to defend beliefs for the sake of preserving labels.

    Thanks,

    Austin Doyle

  • Austin Doyle says:

    Dr. Enns,

    I enjoy your explicit definition of biblical scholarship.

    “The role of modern biblical scholarship has been to help us understand how scripture itself bears witness to the early Israelite and Christian movements as living, breathing, growing, changing traditions, grappling with the nature of God and what it means to live as God’s people.”

    This is far more adaptable than irrationally working to explain the vacuum-sealed “authoritative canon” of God’s word. It’s feels better to grapple with the text in search of how it pertains to me rather than grappling to find an explanation for the next debate.

    What I’m taking from this is, if study in a way that allows biblical narrators to change and adapt through experiences, we can give do the same for ourselves and our friends. No more reasons to defend beliefs for the sake of preserving labels.

    Thanks,

    Austin Doyle

  • Derek says:

    Always a challenging pleasure to read your work, Dr. Enns. If I may add my two cents: I think an important component that is missing (perhaps rightfully so?) in academic study and discussions is the role of the Holy Spirit. I can understand Bart Ehrman for example, not acknowledging this but as professing Christian’s, I think it is only proper to acknowledge the importance of being born-again. You either have the Holy Spirit or you do not (Rom. 8:9). At the end of the day, despite differing camps and diverse theological perspectives, the role of the Holy Spirit seems to be the golden thread that runs through everything from the Scriptures, to the Apostle’s, to the sheep of God. See 1Cor. 1:11-18.

  • Derek says:

    Always a challenging pleasure to read your work, Dr. Enns. If I may add my two cents: I think an important component that is missing (perhaps rightfully so?) in academic study and discussions is the role of the Holy Spirit. I can understand Bart Ehrman for example, not acknowledging this but as professing Christian’s, I think it is only proper to acknowledge the importance of being born-again. You either have the Holy Spirit or you do not (Rom. 8:9). At the end of the day, despite differing camps and diverse theological perspectives, the role of the Holy Spirit seems to be the golden thread that runs through everything from the Scriptures, to the Apostle’s, to the sheep of God. See 1Cor. 1:11-18.

  • Veritas says:

    Taking this idea to its conclusion, on what grounds do we take anything as “sc picture” rather than the most popular musings, and in the case of the NT, what actually constitutes the canon?

  • Veritas says:

    Taking this idea to its conclusion, on what grounds do we take anything as “sc picture” rather than the most popular musings, and in the case of the NT, what actually constitutes the canon?

  • Occam Razor says:

    James Dunn’s book about diversity in the early church is eye-opening. He identifies dozens of strains of belief just from the New Testament itself.

    I used to think that God gave us a Bible that was so diverse (or unclear) because he wanted a diverse body of believers. But then, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

  • Occam Razor says:

    James Dunn’s book about diversity in the early church is eye-opening. He identifies dozens of strains of belief just from the New Testament itself.

    I used to think that God gave us a Bible that was so diverse (or unclear) because he wanted a diverse body of believers. But then, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

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