There used to be a measure of unity among the critics of the Bible. Now we find confusion, disagreement, chaos. What was the tie that bound them all together, and who untied it? In this second of a series we get right down to the foundations of Bible criticism.
CHRISTIANITY today is in great confusion! At no time in history has theological thought flowed in so many diverse directions — and all at the same time. Professor H. H. Rowley of the Victoria University of Manchester said of modern Biblical studies:
In contrast to the large measure of unity that prevailed a generation ago, there is today an almost bewildering diversity of view on many questions.... On a number of subjects contrary tendencies have appeared in various quarters leading to a greater fluidity in the field as a whole than has been known for a long time (H. H. Rowley, The Old Testament and Modern Study, pp. xviii-xix).
George Mendenhall of the University of Michigan put it more bluntly:
The "fluidity" in this field referred to by Rowley may with perhaps less courtesy but with more accuracy be called chaos (G. E. Mendenhall, "Biblical History in Transition," The Bible and the Ancient Near East, p. 33).
We are witnessing the most powerful movement toward Christian unity in modern times. Yet we are simultaneously faced with the greatest-ever turmoil of theological disagreement. Isn't that a contradiction? What happened to the "unity that prevailed a generation ago"? We are going to find out. But first we must come to see the foundation upon which this "large measure of unity" was built.
Challenging the Old Assumptions
How did the critics of the Bible begin their insidious work? By challenging the assumption upon which the traditional ideas about the Bible were based. There was no reason, the critics thought, why they shouldn't check up on the archaic assumptions of by-gone centuries — and see if they were true. That's fair enough. We agree. After all, the Apostle Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to "prove all things," and not merely to assume that they were true. Unfortunately however, too many of the critics sabotaged their own work right from the start by fabricating new false assumptions of their own! Assumptions come and go, of course, but a generation ago one stood head and shoulders above them all. This presupposition — almost universally accepted by the self-appointed Biblical scholars at the time — was the platform from which they chose to view the very small amount of evidence they had. It was the foundation of all Biblical criticism — and is best expressed by a critic named Kuenen in his book, Prophets and Prophecy:
So soon as we derive a separate part of Israel's religious life directly from God, and allow the supernatural or immediate revelation to intervene even in one single point, so long also our view of the whole continues to be incorrect.... It is the supposition of a natural development alone which accounts for all the phenomena.
Kuenen's "natural development" is merely the application of the philosophy of evolution to the study of the Bible. Evolution! That's the heart of Biblical criticism. Kuenen, Wellhausen, and others first ruled out any possibility of the miraculous. The supernatural was ridiculed. And a direct revelation from God? Well that was so absurd, it was treated as humorous. (Write for our article, "Did Jesus' Miracles Really Happen?") The next step was to apply the philosophy of a natural development of religion to Israel's history. Most Biblical scholars, having planted their feet firmly on the evolutionary platform, had little difficulty maintaining a semblance of unity. As Mendenhall and Rowley point out, however, something happened to shatter that unity! In the last generation the field of Biblical studies has been absolutely inundated with new evidence — evidence which has cut the ground from under the evolutionary concept!
Could Moses Write?
One of the best illustrations of this is seen in the once commonly held belief that , Moses could not have written the Pentateuch because writing was unknown in his day. When we look for evidence upon which such a belief could have been founded, we are left empty-handed. The only evidence at hand was the Bible. And the Bible clearly and flatly contradicted any such belief. Not only did Moses write down God's Law (Exodus 24:4, Deuteronomy 31:9) , along with a detailed account of the travels of the children of Israel after they left Egypt (Numbers 33:2) , but all the Israelites were commanded to write God's Commandments upon the posts of their houses (Deuteronomy 6:9). The Bible tells us that not only did Moses write, but that the entire population of Israel was literate. Looking hack from our vantage point, the very idea that Moses couldn't write seems a bit ludicrous. Since the time this theory was in vogue, whole libraries have emerged from the sands of Babylonia, Assyria, Palestine and Egypt. Many of these not only go back to Moses' time, but all the way back to Abraham's day and before. The theory that Moses couldn't write has been so thoroughly exploded that we are led to wonder how any intelligent person could have developed such an idea in the first place.
"But Not Israel"
Naturally, in spite of all the evidence, some were still unwilling to believe that a "tribe of Semitic nomads" (the Israelites who invaded Palestine) would have been literate enough to have produced the Pentateuch. They admitted that writing was known in Egypt — no one could deny that — but they refused to admit that it was known among the Israelites! They refused to admit it, that is, until about 1904 when Flinders Petrie began to decipher some ancient tablets found at Serabit el-Khadem, in the Sinai Peninsula. This was near the route the children of Israel took in coming out of Egypt. After careful examination of the tablets, he concluded that:
Workmen from Retenu, who were employed by the Egyptians and are often mentioned, had this system of linear writing. The inference that follows from that is extremely significant, mainly that about 1500 B. C. these simple workmen from Canaan were able to write and that the type of writing is independent both of hieroglyphics and cuneiform. Further, it invalidates once and for all the hypothesis that the Israelites that came through this area from Egypt were at that stage still illiterate (Werner Keller, The Bible as History, p. 134, emphasis mine).
This provides proof positive that literacy in the time of Moses was not the exclusive property of a group of privileged scribes. These were working-class individuals — men who must have taken some of their spare time to prepare tablets and carve inscriptions in their own script. Also of interest are the discoveries at Ras Shamra. Over a thousand tablets written in an old cuneiform alphabet have been discovered. The language is an old Northwest Semitic dialect "which was very closely related to the Hebrew of the time of Moses" (W. F. Albright, New, Horizons in Biblical Research, p. 6). Notice that Dr. Albright — the leading authority in archaeology today — refers to the Hebrew language at the time of Moses. Not only was writing known in the time of Moses, but the Hebrew language was already a separate, recognized tongue. Still another authority tells us that during the time Moses was in exile from Egypt, "the Canaanites were familiar with at least eight languages recorded in five completely different systems of writing" (G. E. Mendenhall, "Biblical History in Transition," The Bible and the Ancient Near East, p. 50).
Proof Moses Wrote
Not only is there no obstacle to believing that Moses could have written the bulk of the Pentateuch, there is every reason to believe that he did. First and foremost, in Exodus 24:4 we read that Moses wrote all the words of the Lord that he had received on Mount Sinai, and later (verse 7), he took the book or scroll in which he had written God's Law and rend it in the audience of the people. Why argue with Exodus? It's only making a simple statement of fact. Moses, having been reared in Pharaoh's court, was obviously a literate man living in a literate age-an age prolific with written records. It is totally illogical to assume that Moses would not have recorded the Law of God as it was given to him, or that he would not have written a history of the Exodus and the wilderness wanderings of the children of Israel! And this is precisely, what he did: "And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of the Lord: and these are their journeys according to their goings out" (Numbers 33:2).
Even in the face of mounting evidence and wholly consistent logic, some critics still maintain that the first five books of the Old Testament were composed (from oral traditions) as late as 700-800 B.C. — that's 600 to 800 years after Moses. Why? Their intellectual reason is that the literary style is too highly advanced for any earlier stage in Israel's history. Their real reason is more diabolical: they must destroy the Bible to remove its authority. Contradicting themselves, even such higher critics as Kautzch, Ewald, and Delitzsch place some of the "best of the poetry" from Genesis, Exodus and Judges back to 1250 B.C. and earlier — within 200 years of Israel's conquest of Jericho (See James Orr, The Problem of the Old Testament, p. 7 6). Dr. Kautzsch calls the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 "a poem of priceless worth," "genuine, splendid poetry." The Hebrew language, then, was a Fully developed highly expressive language when the Song of Deborah was written. Such a highly developed poetic style does not spring up overnight. What man, having never seen a poem, and writing in a primitive language, is instantaneously going to become an accomplished poet? In the opinion of some, the works of Shakespeare represent a high-water mark in the development of the English language and in the power of poetic portrayal — but they came after a long period of literary development. The point is this: Since it is an established fact that the literary style of the Old Testament represents a very highly developed language, then there must have been a foundation of earlier Hebrew literature. Consequently, why assume that the Pentateuch was composed quite late from ORAL traditions? It is an absolute certainty that written Hebraic records pre-dated the Pentateuch. Any other conclusion denies the evidence, flouts the logic and displays an ignorance of the highly developed culture which flourished in the Fertile Crescent prior to the time of Moses! Of course, the evidence is so conclusive that no competent scholar today bases his conclusions on the misconception that there was no writing in Moses' time. Yet, the fundamental premise which led to this mistaken idea is the very concept which underlies most of today's Biblical criticism — the concept of the Evolution of culture and religion.
Which Came First?
Long-cherished ideas die hard. So it has been with evolution. Having assumed that man evolved, it was not illogical to also assume that Moses could not write. However, once it was proved that Moses could have written, the theory that spawned the idea still did not die. It continued to form the basis of Biblical criticism for nearly one hundred years. Having assumed a natural development for the religion of Israel, a plausible theory was needed to account for the development of that religion. Fertile minds evolved one quickly. The philosophers looked at the religions extant in the world and drew their conclusions — conclusions, remember, based upon the assumption that all religions had evolved. This assumption stated that the development of religion gradually progressed from the primitive to the highly developed. Primitive man supposedly observed the forces of nature around him — wind, fire, rain, thunder, etc. — and attributed these powers to spirit beings. In the passage of time he thought that certain of his actions had either pleased or irritated these gods — since favorable or unfavorable events had seemed to follow as a direct result. Worship involving propitiation of the spirits was the natural reaction. From this early beginning, it is theorized that religion slowly "matured" to polytheism, and from there to monotheism — monotheism, apparently, being the highest plane of religious development. It all seemed fairly logical — and so ethnologists, anthropologists and archaeologists mutually congratulated one another. But what about the facts? If this theory were true, one would expect to find absolutely no monotheism in the earliest religions. And upon finding polytheism existing at a certain time in a tribe's history, we would not expect to find monotheism preceding it.
Belief in a Supreme Being
As a result of the exhaustive efforts of an army of scientists, the question is no longer in doubt. Even among the most primitive peoples on the fare of the earth — including the Bushmen of South Africa, most of the aboriginal tribes of Australia, all of the Arctic cultures except one, and virtually all of the primitive peoples of North America — we find a belief in a Supreme Being! (Short, Modern Discovery and the Bible, p. 23.) In fact, it is precisely among the three oldest primitive peoples in North America that "we find the religion of a high God established with the greatest clearness and in quite characteristic forms" (W. Schmidt, High Gods North America, p. 22). A comparison of the beliefs of these very old tribes with the Bible is eye-opening. Going to the oldest section of the oldest tribe, we find that they believe in a "Supreme Being" who is invisible (ibid., p. 28). Compare this with Paul's first epistle to Timothy: "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God..." (I Timothy 1:17). Schmidt goes on to say of this Supreme Being of the Yuki religion :
He existed before all other beings and possesses unlimited powers. The highest of these is the power of creation by which He creates heaven and earth and all that it contains, especially men. One of their creation myths states formally that 1Ie created everything merely by His own will... Before creation He meditates and plans His work; and after it He expresses loudly His joyful satisfaction in its greatness and beauty (W. Schmidt, High Gods in North America, p. 28).
A student of the Bible immediately hearkens back to the first chapter of Genesis: "And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good" (Genesis 1:31)
Beliefs of Early Tribes
Turning to another of the early tribes (the Kato), Schmidt gives us the contents of their creation myth.
In this myth the culture hero is present at the same time with the Supreme Being. But the Supreme Being alone commands and directs everything, including the culture hero. Together they make the wide stretched vault of the sky and support it on four great pillars at the cardinal points; they make a way for the sun, openings for rain and mist. The body of man is molded out of clay. Wind and rain, sun and moon are not created until after man. Then comes a narrative of a great flood in which all men and animals perish (W. Schmidt, High Gods in North America, p. 29).
Remember that all this forms a part of the religions of the two oldest tribes of North American — religions and people who had no contact with the Bible! It is remarkable that a purely oral tradition would stay so close to the written record of the Hebrews. However, these tribes did not retain this monotheistic form of religion. As time passed — and their religion "developed" — their concept of God degenerated into polytheism and animism. This picture is repeated in other parts of the world as well. Dr. John Ross wrote that scholars could not have hypothesized a "long process of evolution from an original image worship" if "the story of the original religion of China [had] been generally known":
We fail to find a hint anywhere as to the manner or the time when the idea of God originated in China, or by what process it came into common use. The name bursts suddenly upon us from the first page of history without a note of warning. At this point, the very threshold of what the Chinese critics accept as the beginning of their authentic history, the name of God and other religious matters present themselves with the completeness of a Minerva (John Ross, Primitive Monotheism in China, pp. 18, 23, 25).
A noted Assyriologist claims that the Sumerians were probably the first people to "emerge from barbarism" some time before 4000 B.C. What was their religion? Some of the oldest writings in the world have been found in the ruins of Sumerian cities, and "the facts point unmistakably to monotheism, and a sky god as the first deity, from whom descended the vast Sumerian pantheon" (A. Rendle Short, Modern Discovery and the Bible, p. 26). One thing becomes abundantly clear: The very oldest religious concepts known to man were monotheistic — but then, consistently greater corruption and degeneracy set in, and monotheism was perverted to polytheism.
Evolution No Longer Accepted
Until shortly after the beginning of the twentieth century, it was commonly held that the culture (which includes the religion) of man had followed certain evolutionary lines. This was held not only by theologians, but by anthropologists, ethnologists, etc. A change in thinking, however, began to be evident almost immediately after the turn of the century. By 1920 we are told: "The voice of evolutionism is muted to the work of a few die-hards" (Felix M. Keesing, Culture Change, p. 20). As more evidence was assimilated into the study of anthropology, the role of evolution cultural changes faded even further. By 1930 we are told:
Writings in the evolutionist tradition are thinned to a trickle, and are marginal to professional work in anthropology. The vocabulary and assumptions involved in the evolutionary concept continue to make anthropologists unhappy by having some vogue in works by occasional students, especially in other fields as religion, when they write on so-called primitives of cultural origins and early development.... By this time, however, use of the term "evolution," shorn of its old unilinear framework, occasionally creeps hack into the vocabulary of some anthropologists to express the larger perspectives of culture process (Felix M. Keesing, Culture Change, p. 25, emphasis mine).
By 1940 so much change had taken place that the concept of evolution was referred to as having been "long since dead so far as professional anthropologists were concerned." Yet "social evolution" is still highly respected by many Biblical critics. It is strange how such speculations survive even when they have conclusively been rejected by competent scholars on the basis of evidence. Could it possibly be because no one wants to face the alternative?
Now we can begin to see what happened to the unity theologians enjoyed a generation ago. Since that time literally floods of information have absolutely destroyed the foundation upon which the majority of critics had built their theories. The result has been a complete reshuffling of virtually every idea that they ever held. But why no unity today? The reason is simple. The most recent evidence, now becoming available, universally points to the fact that the Bible is what it says it is. But most critics have simply not been willing to accept this — and the result is that there are almost as many half-baked theories today as there are self-styled critics to put them forward. Small wonder that G. Ernest Wright was moved to say: "It must now be admitted that a science of Biblical studies does not exist" (G. E. Wright, "Biblical History in Transition," The Bible and the Ancient Near East, p. 32, emphasis mine).