The Hebrew Bible – Composed only 300 years before Christ?

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by Neil Godfrey

Below is a revised version of a post I submitted to the earlywritings forum. It is the first in a series setting out the foundational arguments for the Old Testament books being written as late as only 300 years before Christ, no earlier. The case being proposed is that our earliest books of the Bible did not have a heritage traced back to Bronze Age times, not even as far back as the kingdoms of Israel and Judah — nor even the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Judeans who were transported to Mesopotamia by Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BCE. Rather, the proposition advanced here is that they were the creations of a time after Alexander the Great swept across “Asia” and just prior to the Hasmonean and Maccabean eras. The argument to be advanced is that the earliest books of the Bible originated in the Greek era, only a couple or so centuries before the Roman conquest and time of Jesus.

When we apply the fundamentals of historical methods as practised by historians in fields other than biblical studies we quickly see logical flaws at the heart of the conventional understanding that the sources for various biblical books (in particular the stories in Genesis and Exodus) go back as far as the times of David and Solomon.

Multiple sources and circularity

Several times I have engaged in the EarlyWritings Forum on the question of the how the Hebrew Bible came about over long centuries of accumulated writings and editings [i.e. the Documentary Hypothesis] and every time, it seems to me, the argument submitted to prove that the stories came about over long spans of time is the same: the evidence clearly shows us that different stories were combined into one. The classic illustration of this is the Flood story of Genesis. There can be little doubt that two different flood narratives are combined here. Sometimes the account says Noah brought in the animals two by two but in another place it tells us that there were seven of each kind! There are many more indicators to verify the point.

My response has been each time that I have no doubt that different sources were mixed to create the Genesis Flood account, but it does not necessarily follow that those different stories arose and came together over a long time period.

Think of it for a moment: An editor sees before him a story which says that the animals went into the ark two by two. That editor has in mind another story that he has acquired, one that says there were seven of each kind of animal. Now what is that editor likely to do if he wants to create a new single narrative? Would he be likely to keep the two by two account alongside the new one with the sevens? Or should we rather expect that he would delete the two by two references and replace them with what he prefers as the more valid story about the sevens?

What we have is a case of the editor deciding to combine details, even though contradictory, into one new narrative.

To me, that sounds like the editor had two different stories before him and he saw his role as being required to blend the two together, preserving the details of each, to create a single new authoritative story.

If that was the case, there is no reason at all to suppose that the Flood story as we have it is evidence of composition involving the accumulation of different sources over a long time span. It is no less reasonable to think that two interest groups created their own account and an editor was tasked with the job of making them one so that there was one narrative that all could respect as reflecting their own views. Such a project is conceivable as taking place from start to finish within months or even weeks, not necessarily centuries or even decades!

So how did the conventional notion of a centuries long evolution of the Bible come about? Biblical scholars, it is no secret to anyone, not even to themselves on the whole, do have interests that go beyond pure historical research. Even Julius Wellhausen, to whom we tend to attribute the modern notion of the “Documentary Hypothesis”, has been criticized for allowing his Protestant (anti-legalistic) bias to subconsciously influence his model of the “Documentary Hypothesis”. (The criticism has been directed at the widespread idea that “legalistic” texts were a late addition to the original “spiritual” and “prophetic” narratives found in the biblical canon.)

When hypotheses become facts

So much in biblical studies that passes for facts are actually hypotheses, or “theories” of a certain kind. But they are repeated so often it is hard to notice that they have no basis in the hard evidence. Look at this passage from Wellhausen:

With regard to the Jehovistic document [i.e. one proposed “early source” in the Bible], all are happily agreed that, substantially at all events, in language, horizon, and other features, it dates from the golden age of Hebrew literature, to which the finest parts of Judges, Samuel, and Kings, and the oldest extant prophetical writings also belong, the period of the kings and prophets which preceded the dissolution of the two Israelite kingdoms by the Assyrians. About the origin of Deuteronomy there is still less dispute; in all circles where appreciation of scientific results can be looked for at all, it is recognised that it was composed in the same age as that in which it was discovered, and that it was made the rule of Josiah’s reformation, which took place about a generation before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldaeans.


That’s from

His assertion of relative dating is grounded entirely in scholarly consensus, not in the evidence itself. No doubt those scholars who make up the “consensus” believed they had serious evidence for dating the book of Deuteronomy to the days of King Josiah — but we will see that really they did not. They relied entirely upon “what the Bible says”.

There does happen to be archaeological evidence indicating that prior to the Hellenistic era Judeans and Samaritans had no knowledge of the biblical laws. I am referring to the finds in a Judean colony in Egypt, the Elephantine papyri. (I have not posted nearly enough about this find and what various scholars have had to say about it, but hope to make up for that lack very soon.) The Documentary Hypothesis, it has been pointed out by at least one scholar in the biblical field, might well never have got off the ground had the Elephantine remains — indicating that Persian era Jews knew nothing of the Pentateuch — been discovered earlier and had more time to gain traction and wider and more focused attention than it had before the time of Wellhausen’s work.

None of this is to say that biblical scholars are unprofessionally “biased” or “unscholarly”. Of course they are scholarly and their biases are generally known and admitted and taken into account. But their work tends to be picked up by others and over time taken for granted as fact.

Independent evidence is critical

The fact remains that there is no independent evidence that the OT was composed prior to the Hellenistic era. That datum alone does not prove it was a Hellenistic product. But it does at least allow for the theoretical possibility that it was created in the Hellenistic era, and given that our earliest independent evidence for a knowledge of the Pentateuch is situated in the Hellenistic era, it is entirely reasonable to begin with that era when searching for the Pentateuch’s origins.

It also is a fact that scholarship has only cursorily (by comparison) begun noting echoes of Hellenistic literature and thought within the Pentateuch itself. Those are facts. Another fact is that Documentary Hypothesis is not without its inconsistencies and problems – another point I can post about in more depth.

Those facts do not prove that the Pentateuch was created in the Hellenistic era. But they do at least make it possible to ask the question. It makes it all the more necessary for anyone proposing an earlier date to ground their reasons in supporting independent evidence of some kind.

The meaning of “Hellenistic”

The Hellenistic provenance of the Pentateuch does not deny any use of pre-Hellenistic literature or sayings or concepts. Hellenization even means a uniting of Greek and Asian cultures, not a replacement of one by the other. So one should expect in any Hellenistic era hypothesis for the Pentateuch clear allusions to non-Greek (i.e. local Canaanite and Syrian) sources. Yes, we can identify where passages in the Pentateuch are borrowed from ancient Ugaritic (Canaanite) or Syrian sources, but employing local literature does not contradict the Hellenistic era hypothesis for the Old Testament.

The fateful year of 1992

My own understanding of the history of the scholarship in this area informs me that the floodgates to a more widespread acceptability in questioning the “deep antiquity” (pre-Persian era) origin of any of the OT books were opened by Philip R. Davies in 1992 with his publication of In Search of Ancient Israel. The irony was that Davies was only collating various criticisms and doubts about the conventional wisdom of “biblical Israel” that had been available to scholars for some decades. But by bringing these questions and doubts all together in one short publication (only about 150 pages of discussion) Davies’ work started something of an academic “kerfuffle”. [The above sentences are a paraphrase from memory of a review of Davies’ book but, apologies, I cannot recall their source.] Davies himself argued at length for a Persian era provenance of many of the OT books, but those who followed the evidence he set out could see that the way was also open for an even later period. Some scholars identified stronger links between the Pentateuch and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) and Hellenistic literature than to anything earlier. One French scholar has even argued that the entire Primary History was composed by a priest in the Hasmonean era.

Davies certainly established the circularity of the arguments that much of the OT literature was composed in the times of King Josiah and the Babylonian captivity. He also brought together the archaeological evidence that indicates the very notion of “biblical Israel” (along with a kingdom of David and empire of Solomon) is as fanciful as King Arthur and Camelot.

The basics of historical inquiry

I opened this post with a reference to the methods of historians in nonbiblical fields. In short, those methods are nothing other than any journalistic or forensic or “common sense” method of trying to find out “what happened” — minus the theological provenance from which the quest is embarked upon. Start with what we know to be the most secure “facts” on the basis of collating independent evidence and working from there. Assuming that what we read in the Bible is a pathway to “the historical facts” is not safe: we need the support of independent evidence. Unfortunately, our cultural heritage has taught us too well that certain narratives about the past are “facts” (or at least based on facts) so that we find it very difficult to remove these from our minds when trying to see clearly the material evidence before our eyes.



Saul’s Folly: The King Can’t Be a Jack of All Trades

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by Tim Widowfield

King Saul
Brooding King Saul, detail from Ernst Josephson’s “David och Saul”

While thumbing through Cristiano Grottanelli’s Kings and Prophets: Monarchic Power, Inspired Leadership, and Sacred Text in Biblical Narrative, I remember now why I snatched it up a couple of years ago. For some time now, I’ve been working on a simple thesis that would explain the silence regarding Jesus’ actual teaching in the epistles (of Paul, pseudo-Paul, and others).

The Threefold Office

Simply put, I suggest that the root of the issue arises from the earliest Christians’ conception of the messiah and to which office or offices he belonged. We see for example, in Paul’s discussion of the lineage of David, the concept of a kingly messiah. On the other hand, we see in the book of Hebrews a detailed conception of the messiah as priest.

However, in the earliest texts we see practically no hint of Jesus as prophet. Not until the gospels, written decades later, do we find concrete evidence — the strongest, of course, coming from Jesus himself. First in Mark:

But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. (6:4, KJV)

Copied in Matthew:

And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house. (13:57, KJV)

Edited in Luke:

And he said, Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country. (4:24, KJV)

And referred to in John:

For Jesus himself testified, that a prophet hath no honour in his own country. (4:44, KJV)

These statements are obviously late and apologetic in character. They seek to explain why Jesus’ own family, village and nation rejected him. But they also point to a seismic shift in the conception of Jesus and which category (or categories) he belongs to. The identity of Jesus is bound up in Christians’ conception of him as king, priest, and (lastly) prophet.

These categories, by the way, would be further crystalized by later church writers such as Eusebius (Church History, Book I, 3:8) —  Continue reading “Saul’s Folly: The King Can’t Be a Jack of All Trades”


What Is a Prophet?

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by Tim Widowfield

Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem
Rembrandt: Jeremiah Laments the Destruction of Jerusalem

In biblical studies, we continually read articles, posts, books, etc. in which authors use apparently ordinary words that on closer inspection turn out to be highly specific terms. And unfortunately, some authors will use these specific terms rather loosely, flitting between general and specific usage while blurring important distinctions.

I’ve pointed out this phenomenon before when discussing “memory.” Are they talking about ordinary human recollection, or are they talking about memory theory? Are they referring to the psychology of memory or the physiology of memory, or are they talking about social memory? I often suspect memory dabblers of deliberate obfuscation, but I suppose we should err on the side of charity and presume they simply find it difficult to write in ordinary, declarative sentences.

Uncertain terms

On the other hand, some terms are so fundamental that it seems almost insulting to define them for readers. We presume everyone knows what the term “scripture” means. But should we? The same goes for terms that may have multiple meanings, depending on the context. I might assume that you will know what I mean by the surrounding contextual clues. But that could be a mistake on my part.

Recently, while reading Neil’s excellent series on messianism in the first century CE, I started thinking about the terms messiah and prophet. And I wondered how many people know exactly what those terms mean in their various contexts. Both of these terms carry a lot of baggage with them — not only in their popular meanings, but also in the way they’re used in modern Christian churches.

In this post, I’m only going to focus on the term prophet, but we could probably spend the rest of the year churning out posts on terminology that we often gloss over but shouldn’t. Authors have an obligation to make sure their readers understand how we’re using these terms, but often fall short. Continue reading “What Is a Prophet?”


Who wrote the Bible? (2) Challenging the Documentary Hypothesis

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by Neil Godfrey

Русский: Распределение документов Йахвист, Эло...
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This post continues from my post some weeks ago in which I covered primarily Philippe Wajdenbaum’s account of the rise of the Documentary Hypothesis. At that time in one of the comments I explained I had paused to take stock of how best to address the challenge that has arisen against the Documentary Hypothesis. This is a study I undertook some years ago and so thoroughly enjoyed that it is easy for me to cover way too much detail. Maybe I will have to return to address some of the specifics in separate posts later. Once this is out of the way I would like to post another explaining how political anthropology offers a cogent explanation for the character of the biblical books as Hellenistic productions.

First, to recap the Documentary Hypothesis. This is the idea that the Old Testament was essentially a result of four separate sources that were originally written over a span of some centuries:

  • a Jahwist/Yahwist (J) written in the southern kingdom of Judah around the time of Solomon – 10th century bce / later shifted to the Babylonian Exile period:
    • Gerhard von Rad in 1944 “considers the time of Solomonic enlightenment to contain all the prerequisites for literary production, including history writing. It was first of all a time of political stability and economic prosperity. On top of this came the need of a new state to provide a history of its past. Finally the creative impetus following in the wake of the establishment of an Israelite state created this new literature.”
    • Subsequent scholarship revised this, arguing that “External circumstances were thought to provide the most likely background for this kind of literature.” (pp. 158-9 of The Israelites in History and Tradition, Niels Peter Lemche)
  • an Elohist (E) composed in the northern kingdom of Israel – 9th or 8th century bce
  • a Deuteronomist (D) in the southern kingdom of Judah at time of Josiah – late 7th century bce
  • a Priestly source (P) during the Babylonian Exile – 6th century bce

The dating of the sources is central to the hypothesis:

Essential to the history of scholarship expressed in Wellhausen’s synthesis [the DH is the result of W’s synthesis of two generations of OT historical-critical scholarship] was that these four discrete sources of the pentateuch were to be understood as literary documents created at the time of their written composition, and hence as compositions reflecting the understanding and knowledge of their authors and their world. (p. 2 of Early History of the Israelite People from the Written & Archaeological Sources, by Thomas L. Thompson.)

This meant, for example, that the Pentateuch was not a reliable source for the events it narrates, such as the Patriarchal period and Exodus.

But in recent decades biblical scholars are not so united in their acceptance of this explanation for the Bible or “Old Testament” portion of it.

Basically, the old consensus that had developed around the Documentary Hypothesis has gone, though there is nothing to take its place (Rendtorff 1997; Whybray 1987). Some still accept the Documentary Hypothesis in much its original form, but many accept only aspects of it or at least put a question mark by it. There has also been much debate around the J source (Rendtorff 1997: 53-5) and the P source (Grabbe 1997). It seems clear that the Pentateuch was put together in the Persian period (Grabbe 2004:331-43; 2006). (p. 44 of Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? by Lester L. Grabbe)

So where have the cracks appeared? Continue reading “Who wrote the Bible? (2) Challenging the Documentary Hypothesis”


Who wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis

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by Neil Godfrey

This post looks at the rise of the dominant scholarly hypothesis that the Old Testament came together through the efforts of various editors over time collating and editing a range of earlier sources. The structure and bulk of the contents of the post is taken from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis.

The complete set of these posts either outlining or being based on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, are archived here.

Before the Documentary Hypothesis there was Spinoza.



Let us conclude, therefore, that all the books which we have just passed under review are apographs — works written ages after the things they relate had passed away. And when we regard the argument and connection of these books severally, we readily gather that they were all written by one and the same person, who had the purpose of compiling a system of Jewish antiquities, from the origin of the nation to the first destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The several books are so connected one with another, that from this alone we discover that they comprise the continuous narrative of a single historian. . . . .

The whole of these books, therefore, lead to one end, viz. to enforce the sayings and edicts of Moses, and, from the course of events, to demonstrate their sacredness. From these three points taken together, then, viz. the unity and simplicity of the argument of all the books, their connection or sequence, and their apographic character, they having been written many ages after the events they record, we conclude, as has just been said, that they were all written by one historiographer.

So Spinoza was led to conclude (from the common style, language and purpose) that there was a single author (albeit one who used earlier source documents) and he opted for that author being Ezra.

Debt to Homeric Criticism – and left in the dust of Homeric criticism

Continue reading “Who wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis”


The Bible’s roots in Greek mythology and classical authors: Isaac and Phrixus

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by Neil Godfrey

Phrixos and Helle
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When I wrote a series of posts on resonances between the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes and several features of Old Testament narratives, I confessed I did not know how to understand or interpret the data. But someone else does. Philippe Wajdenbaum in 2008 defended his anthropology doctoral thesis, “Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible.” He applies the structural analysis of myths as developed by Claude Lévi-Strauss to the Bible, something Lévi-Strauss himself never got around to doing, although he did eventually encourage biblical scholars to do so. This post looks at one detail of a detail-rich article in the 2010 Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament (Vol. 24, No. 1, 129-142), “Is the Bible a Platonic Book?” (After a few more posts on this my next project will be to see if the same type of analysis can be used to suggest origins of the Gospel myths.)

Lévi-Strauss and structural analysis of myths

In Wajdenbaum’s words,

For Lévi-Strauss, a version of a myth is always derived from an existing adaptation, originating most of the time from a different culture and language. A myth must always be analysed in comparison to its variants within the same cultural area where contacts between populations are proven. (p. 131) Continue reading “The Bible’s roots in Greek mythology and classical authors: Isaac and Phrixus”


The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book? (and other digressions)

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by Neil Godfrey

Niels Peter Lemche has a chapter in Lester Grabbe’s Did Moses Speak Attic titled, “The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book?” Here are a few highlights from it. The first point here should stand out as equally relevant for New Testament studies.

NT studies digression

Historical Jesus/Christian origin scholars should have this framed and displayed on their work desks — or used as their computer wallpaper:

It is an established fact that a literary product must be considered a reflection of its age of origin, as nobody can escape being a child of his or her own time. This is absolutely commonplace but, on the other hand not to be forgotten by, say, narrative analysts who may claim that it is possible to understand an argument by a person in the past without knowing in advance the specific values attached to his age to certain beliefs and concepts. The same applies to the study of the biblical literature, although written by anonymous authors. It is surely extremely naive to believe that the meaning of biblical books can be properly exposed without knowledge of their date of composition, about the ideas current in that age or the beliefs common to their audience; and it is of no consequence whether the subject is a narrative as a whole or parts of it or just single concepts and phrases. (p. 295)

This statement here — surely a simple truism — goes to the heart of many historicists’ errors. Acknowledgment of Lemche’s point here is what gives Earl Doherty’s interpretations of Paul’s writings the lay down misère advantage over orthodox mainstream interpretations. I would go further than Doherty, however, and suggest the significance of the common themes in both Paul’s and second-century writings. But the most significant error that comes from New Testament scholars overlooking this basic fact is their interpretation of the Gospels themselves.

What Lemche’s paragraph builds on is an equally pertinent observation on historical method that is generally overlooked by mainstream New Testament scholars. Lemche complained that among OT scholars

Although it has become a standing procedure in the study of the Old Testament to begin where we know the least and to end at the point where we have safe information in order to explain what is certain by reasons uncertain and from an unknown past, it is obvious to almost everybody else that this procedure has no claim to be called scientific. We should rather and as a matter of course start where we are best informed. Only from this vantage point should we try to penetrate into the unknown past. (p. 294)

But though it is in the second century that we are best informed about the appearance of both the Pauline epistles and Gospels, to follow Lemche’s truism here and apply what would be considered standard scientific procedure by “almost everybody else” is generally dismissed as an extremist or fringe position!

So much for the digression. Now for some highlights of Lemche’s discussion arguing for a very late date for the Old Testament.

More Greek philosophical inspiration for Genesis

I recently posted on the possibility that Genesis myths were inspired by Plato‘s philosophical myths.

Lemche discusses another Greek philosophical concept found in Genesis 1. Continue reading “The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book? (and other digressions)”