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Originally published in Between Silence And Speech. Reprinted with permission.

On Bible Criticism and Its Counterarguments




By Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo



One of traditional Judaism's most important claims is its total commitment to the divinity of the text of the Torah, the Pentateuch. It is believed that the other books of Tanach may contain a human element since "no two prophets prophesied in the same style."[2] But the Torah came to Moshe from God in a manner that is metaphorically called "speaking," after which Moshe wrote it down "like a scribe writing from dictation."[3] In the nineteenth century, this belief came under severe attack by a theory called Higher Criticism or Quellenscheidung. This theory denied the divinity of the Torah as a verbal account of God's words to Moshe. Instead, the text was seen to be made up of a conglomeration of various sources compiled over many hundreds of years. As such, it could not have been written by Moshe.[4]


The proponent of this theory was Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), a German Semitic scholar and professor of theology and oriental studies. Wellhausen, however, was not the first to doubt the "authenticity" of the Torah. In the seventeenth century, the famous Dutch philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677), who was a descendant of the Marranos, stated in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (and in some letters) that he doubted the Mosaic and the divine authorship of the Torah.[5]


Spinoza's major point was that the Bible, like many other literary works, should be seen as the product of human spiritual development, mostly of a primitive nature. While accepting the possibility that some parts of the Torah could have originated with Moshe, he contended that it was only many centuries after Moshe died that the Torah, as we know it today, appeared. Ezra the Scribe (fourth century b.c.e.) should be considered the major author and editor of the Torah as well as of the Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Because Ezra died prematurely, these works were never revised and are therefore full of contradictions and repetitions.


Because Spinoza never reached any systematic or clear conclusion, Jean Astruc (1684-1766), a French physician, is considered the real founder of classical Bible Criticism. Being a conservative, Astruc concluded in his work (published anonymously in Brussels and Paris, 1753), Conjectures sur les memoires originaux, dont il parait que Moses s'est servi pour composer le livre de la Genese, that Moshe, the redactor of Genesis and the first two chapters of Exodus, made use of two parallel sources and ten fragments written before his time. These primary sources refer to God as Y-H-V-H and Elohim, respectively.


Although Astruc's conclusion aroused intense opposition, scholars like J. G. Einhorn (1752-1827) attached much importance to his work. It was Julius Wellhausen, however, who gave full impetus to this theory, and his name is identified with the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis or Documentary Theory.[6]


Wellhausen wanted to prove that the Torah. and the Book of Joshua were, in large measure, "doctored" by priestly canonizers under Ezra in the lime of the Second Temple.  Their purpose was to perpetuate a single falsehood: Moshe's authorship of the Torah and the central worship, first in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. According to Wellhausen, there never was a Tabernacle and no revelation at Sinai ever took place. Moshe, if he ever existed, considered the Deity a local thunder god or mountain god. The Torah had, therefore, to be seen as a complete forgery and not as a verbal account of God's words to Moshe and the People Israel.


In 1875, Wellhausen published his Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, an unusual work with almost five thousand textual references covering the whole of the Old Testament. In this work, Wellhausen purports to present the true biblical story. Relying heavily on his forerunners, he maintained that four major documents could be identified in the Torah. Each had an individual character, both in content and in general outlook. Though they had been skillfully interwoven, their special characteristics made it possible to trace each source throughout the books of the Torah. The earliest was the -J- Document (J being the first letter of the Divine Name, which was used throughout this source and so became essential). It was followed soon after by the Elohist Document -E-, in which God is designated as Elohim. These documents were thought to have been composed in the early monarchical period, probably in the ninth or eighth century b.c.e.


The Book of Deuteronomy -D-, which gave a narrative framework to the "Book of the Law," promulgated by King Yoshia in the seventh century b.c.e., was primarily a code of law based on prophetic principles.


The Priestly Code (P), a universal history and extensive legal code, was chiefly concerned with matters of cult and was dominated by the priestly interest in prescribing the correct ritual for each ceremonial occasion. K. H. Graf had already assigned it to the post-exilic age and connected it with the Law of Ezra in the fifth century b.c.e.


Wellhausen's method is clear and straightforward. Every passage that fits his theory is authentic; all others are forgeries. Whenever possible, he points out poor grammar, corrupt vocabulary, and alleged internal inconsistencies. In cases where he felt some "need" to change the plain meaning of a Hebrew word to fit into this theory, he offered what he called "conjectural emendation." The fact that thousands of verses contradicted his theory never disturbed Wellhausen. He contended that there was a master forger or interpolator at work who anticipated Wellhausen's theory and consequently inserted passages and changed verses so as to refute it. Wellhausen assumed that the forger had worked, as it were, with scissors and paste, taking all kinds of liberties: carving up (the original texts; moving half a sentence here, a few sentences down, and three and a half sentences there, and a few sentences up, while altogether suppressing and omitting large portions of each source that could not be fitted into this patchwork. He claimed to be more clever than the interpolator could have ever imagined and therefore to have divulged the real truth. This obviously was a wonderful theory, for arguments against Wellhausen's theory thereby became his strongest defenders!


With the publication of this masterpiece, Wellhausen introduced a new era in the world of Bible studies, and most of his contemporaries, as well as their students, accepted his conclusions as gospel. His influence on younger scholars was profound and far-reaching. For a full generation, he dominated Old Testament scholarship, not only in his own country but also in England[7] and America.[8]


The most important histories of Israel and of Hebrew literature, as well as a host of commentaries and introductions, were based more or less directly on the Wellhausen system. The commentaries edited by Wilhelm Nowack and Karl Marti,[9] as well as those of the International Critical Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, were indebted to Wellhausen's theories.[10]


His students continued to use his method and discovered within their teacher's J, E, P, and D documents at least thirty additional documents. Each document (especially J and E) contained a number of older elements; each had undergone a certain amount of "editorial" revision in an effort to coordinate and harmonize the various elements within the style of the original. The additional materials were so extensive that they could not have been the products of only a handful of authors, but rather belonged to a complete religious school.[11]


The materials were cut even finer. Slowly, more and more forgeries were "discovered," until finally half a dozen documents were found for each single verse, and others even went as far as tracing them through some of the other books of Tanach as well. The whole theory degenerated into a reductio ad absurdum. Already in his own day, objective and honest scholars raised objections against Wellhausen's incredible guesswork and fantasies. The chancellor of England, the earl of Halsbury, referred to it in 1915 as "great rubbish."[12] The famous historian Lecky sharply criticized it on the basis that it totally lacked evidence.[13]


In 1908 Wellhausen came under heavy attack by B. D. Eerdmans,[14] while in 1925, Professor Rudolf Kittel, originally an admirer of Wellhausen's theories, stated that "the assumption of forgery may be one of those hypotheses which, once set up, is so often repeated that finally everyone believes it. Who nowadays would take upon himself the odium of being 'behind the times'?"[15]


Among the generations of critics who came to maturity after World War I, new insights provided by later approaches to Tanach made the Higher Criticism of the preceding generation seem less than adequate. Slowly it appeared to the scholars that new criteria had to be established and that historical criticism had its limitations. Hugo Gressmann declared that "in our field we need not more but less literary-critical research. The Higher Criticism has generally exhausted the problems which it could and had to solve."[16]


Scholars began ascribing the books of the Torah and the rest of Nach to earlier periods and stated that the legal principles of the Torah were already well established in the time of the prophet Samuel.[17] This tendency to regard much of the narrative and law in the Torah as more ancient brought into question what had once been accepted as the assured result of criticism.


The dating of Deuteronomy has always been the central point from which the critics had worked forward and backward to determine the age of the other law codes and documents. The description of Deuteronomy as the immediate inspiration for the reform and centralization of the "cultus" had been the starting point for Wellhausen's reconstruction of the religious history of Israel. With the dating of Deuteronomy, the whole critical edifice stood or fell.


Adam C. Welsh's earlier dating was, therefore, a major blow to the whole critical school and consequently not easily accepted by his contemporaries.[18] His view was, however, strengthened a decade later by certain conclusions of Otto Eissfeldt regarding the nature and history of the Pentateuchal law.[19]


While the origin of much of the law was being moved back in time, the alternative that the final dates of the law codes should be moved down, was also considered. While Gustav Holscher dated Deuteronomy later than had the Wellhausen school, most scholars were of the opinion that earlier dates were more plausible.[20] It became increasingly clear that Wellhausen's theory of the history of Judaism was inadequate.


This does not suggest that the scholars agreed, for different dates were suggested and new theories contradicting each other were published. What became clear was that Bible Criticism was developing into a chaos of conflicting conjectures producing contradictory results and generating the impression that this type of research was ineffective.[21]


Moreover, in Jewish circles, sharp protest was raised. Although these theories did not impress the greatest Jewish scholars, they highly influenced many assimilated Jewish communities (especially in Germany). The Reform movement, perhaps searching for a means to support its objections against observance, embraced this theory and contributed some of its strongest proponents. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), in his Torah Commentary,[22] Dr. David Hoffmann (1843-1921),[23] an Orthodox Jewish scholar of great erudition, and Professor Jacob Barth (1851-1914),[24] another outstanding philologist of his time, destroyed much of Wellhausen's theory. Also, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Halevi (1847-1914), in his historical works, showed the position of Wellhausen and his admirers to be untenable.[25] In non-Orthodox Jewish circles, Wellhausen also came under sharp attack. One of the most profound analyses in this field was written by Benno Jacob (1862-1945) in his book on Genesis, Das Erste Buch der Torah, which concludes (p. 1048) with the words, "The theory that the Book of Genesis is composed of various sources that can be singled out and separated has been rejected."


Later non-Orthodox scholars, in particular Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951)[26] and Yechezkel Kaufman (1889- 1963)[27] further demolished the theory, showing that Wellhausen's observations contradicted his conclusions. Kaufman's main contribution lies in his thesis that monotheism was not, as Wellhausen and others had stated, a gradual departure from paganism, but an entirely new development. Israel's monotheism began with Moshe and was a complete revolution in religious thought.


Why were these earlier-mentioned theories ever accepted? In Wellhausen's day the theory of evolution was dominant. Darwin had won the day, and any discipline, including literature, that accepted the theory of evolution was welcomed with open arms. Furthermore, the philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) had left a deep impression in German and European culture by contending that all of history is a development from lower to progressively higher stages. It was therefore assumed that the Jewish religion developed from idolatry, and having passed through many intermediate stages, the earlier one of which was the Torah, reached the ultimate pure monotheism of latter days.


Special mention should be made of the famous archaeologist William F. Alright[28] He convincingly demonstrated that archaeological research did not support, and in fact often contradicted, this view of history. In many of his works, Albright destroyed the very foundations upon which Wellhausen's edifice had been erected.


In retrospect, it is rather surprising that Wellhausen's theories were accepted for so long. How is it possible that so many scholars promulgated similar theories and totally ignored or attacked those who differed?[29] Albright and others have pointed out that besides Hegelian theories, other motivations kept the Wellhausen tradition alive. Christian scholars were eager to attribute greater significance to the New Testament than the Old. In order to make this plausible, it had to be proven that large portions of the Torah were falsified and were not to be taken seriously.


When anti-Semitic tendencies became stronger in the immediate pre-Hitler days, many scholars felt the need to use the Wellhausen and other theories to give a final blow to the Jewish People, religion, and Bible. When Friedrich Delitzch (1850-1922) delivered a lecture called "Babel und Bibel," in which Tanach was considered devoid of any religious or moral value, Kaiser Wilhelm congratulated him for helping "to dissipate the nimbus of the Chosen People."[30]


The Germans, convinced of their status as Herenvolk suffered from Teutomania and believed that anything must either be German or valueless, according to William F. Albright. Solomon Schechter, who headed the Jewish Theological Seminary in its earlier and more Orthodox days, exclaimed that Higher Criticism was no more than higher anti-Semitism. Albright asked the question, how was it possible that the "scientific community" accepted many of these theories without critical assessment, knowing that many of the scholars had shown that their personal anti-Semitism completely overshadowed their intellectual honesty.[31]


While Wellhausen and other schools of Higher Criticism slowly lost their credibility, a new school developed, introducing the anthropological approach. It saw religion as a general feature of the cultural history of mankind and made it possible to view Torah (and the rest of the Tanach) in the broad light of the universal experience of humanity. The anthropological approach to the study of religion was first applied to the whole of Tanach by William Robertson Smith.[32]


The general trend of Smith's interpretation was determined by the view, common to anthropologists, that religion was an integral part of life, not to be treated as an entity separate from a people's social and political culture. Smith suggested that to understand the basic foundations on which the primitive Semitic religions were based, one had to make a thorough study of the ritual (sacrificial) institutions. Since these tended to remain unchanged from the earliest times to the historical period, they reflected the fundamental beliefs that stood at the beginning of religious development. He subsequently found "a consistent unity of scheme," which ran through the whole historical development, from a crude and imperfect understanding of religious truth to a clear and full perception of its spiritual significance.


Working along the lines of Robertson Smith, Sir James G. Frazer published his famous work The Golden Bough (1890), which grew from two volumes in the first edition to twelve, twenty years later. This work studies the traditional rites and superstitious practices of primitive peoples and presents a great number of suppositions regarding the evolution of primitive religions. However, the vast accumulation of illustrative data is frequently more impressive than the conclusions drawn from them.


The faults of Frazer's methodology were those of nineteenth-century anthropologists in general, for they failed to understand that monotheistic religion could not be explained as developing out of primitive cults. While other theories were suggested by Wilhelm Wundt[33] and Johannes Pedersen,[34] these approaches failed to explain the transition from a primitive mentality to the highly developed conceptions of a later age, especially in the framework of the Tanach with its distinctive features and its religion.


In the meantime, another school had emerged: the Religio-Historical School of Interpretation. This field of research is known in German as Religionsgeschichte. The term "Comparative Religion," which is sometimes applied to it, connotes the early anthropological approach to religion and fails to indicate the importance of its historical aspect. Generally speaking, it is the application of the historical method to the study of religion, under the influence of positivist principles of investigation combined with the use of the comparative method. Auguste Comte made the point that one had to take the concrete and actual into consideration in philosophy; thus, this positive approach became influential in religious studies as well.[35]


No longer were broad generalizations about religion to be permitted. Rather, careful study of the historical manifestation of religion was researched. With the recovery of religious literature of the Far East, the publication of large numbers of inscriptions from the Graeco-Roman world, and the critical reexamination of the surviving documents of classical literature, the new approach acquired rich material with which to work.


The major point that this school propounded was that these discoveries showed that the ancient Orient represented a high cultural maturity—something denied by Wellhausen and others—and that Torah (and Nach) had been the outcome of this maturity. Some scholars rejected the evolutionary view of Israel's religious history and described the religion of Tanach as having already reached the full development of its most important features in the age of Moshe. Paul Volz argued that the high ethical principles of the Decalogue, which were usually attributed to prophetic inspiration, were known to the Israelites in Moshe's time.[36] On the basis of the evidence, Volz declared that the Mosaic authorship of the Decalogue could easily be established and that it was as advanced as the later teachings of the Prophets. The most significant attempt to restore the traditional view of the Mosaic religion was made by Bruno Baentsch, who claimed that traces of monotheism can be found in other religions of the ancient Orient.[37] Moreover, the discovery of the Hammurabi Code in 1902—a code of ethics of a remarkably high standard—completely changed the picture of the ancient Far East. Some suggested that this code was the forerunner of the Torah law, a view that was later rejected.[38] The difficulty of this approach is that Hammurabi's monotheistic ideas do not seem to agree with the monotheistic idea of the one Invisible God described in the Old Testament. Also, the laws of the Torah often contradicted the Hammurabi Code.


As was the case with other schools, speculation became more and more rife. It became clear that the Torah and the other books of Tanach could best be understood on their own merits, without extrabiblical evidence. Israel's religious history had characteristic features of its own that could not be understood without primary attention being given to evidence derived from the Bible itself.


In his classic work Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978) p. 377, Walter Kaufmann discusses Wellhausen's as well as other forms of Higher Criticism and shows one of the major failures of these schools in the following observation:


Imagine a Higher Critic analyzing Goethe's Faust, which was written by a single human being in the course of sixty years. The scenes in which the heroine of Part One is called Gretchen would be relegated to one author; the conflicting conceptions of the role of Mephistopheles would be taken to call for further divisions, and the Prologue in Heaven would be ascribed to a later editor, while the prelude on the stage would be referred to yet a different author. Our critic would have no doubt whatsoever that Part Two belongs to a different age and must be assigned to a great many writers with widely different ideas. The end of Act IV, for example, points to an anti-Catholic author who lampoons the church, while the end of Act V was written by a man, we should be told, who, though probably no orthodox Catholic, was deeply sympathetic to Catholicism. Where do we find more inconsistencies in style and thought and plan: in Goethe's Faust or in the Five Books of Moses?[39]


In short, inconsistencies of style and text cannot be taken as proof that a work was written by more than one author.


This is not the only observation Kaufmann makes concerning the nature of Tanach. After asking how Tanach should be read, he answers (p. 383):


Any suggestion of the close affinity of religion and poetry is generally met with the retort that a religious scripture is not mere poetry, which is true enough. But at the very least one might accord a religious scripture the same courtesy which one extends to poetry and recall Goethe's dictum: "What issues from a poetic mind wants to lie received by a poetic mind. Any cold analyzing destroys the poetry and does not generate any reality. All that remains are potsheds which are good for nothing and only incommode us."


His observation is true in its critical attitude not only toward Higher Criticism but toward most of the other schools of Old Testament research as well. The different schools approached the Old Testament as a collection of historical facts from which to draw only such conclusions as the facts warranted.


It was the theological approach to Old Testament, studies that, after long being neglected, made this point. The real value of Torah and the other books of Tanach is essentially religious in content and outlook and, as such, the critical schools missed the point the Torah was making. Consequently, they used the wrong tools of investigation. Only an approach to the world of Torah and Nach that did justice to what it said about God, man, and the meaning of life could offer a means of arriving at the permanent significance of the Torah.


This point, for ages emphasized by traditional Jewish scholars, had been made by Otto Eissfeldt[40] and later by Walter Eihrodt,[41] albeit these studies were also heavily influenced by New Testament sentiments. Still these studies are of major importance, for it took courage to present this view at a time when the Torah and the rest of Tanach was rejected as a "Jewish book" of no significance to Germans and Christians. It is only in the last twenty to thirty years, especially in America and England, that full emphasis was given to this approach. One of the most important books accepting the true significance of Torah and Nach was written by H. H. Rowley and is entitled, The Relevance of the Bible.[42] Norman H. Snaith's important work The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (London, 1944) also drew attention to the uniqueness of the Hebrew tradition.


In 1946, the secular German literary critic and theorist Erich Auerbach published an essay called "Odysseus Scar." In this important study he explored the nature of the biblical narrative. In comparing it with the Homeric way of narrative, Auerbach shows how much the biblical narrative is different from the Greek epic. Unlike Homer, the former is "fraught with background," unspoken words, and silence. It can only be understood on its own terms. It is in need of constant interpretation, claims absolute truth, and draws its reader into the world of religious experience. But above all, it is not art but command that strikes the student as the most important characteristic of the biblical story.


Auerbach maintained that the text of the Torah clearly shows that it wants to be "heard" as an encounter in which God speaks to man. It was not the later Rabbis or theologians who invented such a claim, but the very intent of the text itself.[43] Auerbach's essay gave impetus to much novel research in the field of Bible studies. Most important are the works of Robert Alter,[44] Roland Barflies[45] and Harold Fisch.[46] All of them show a remarkable sensitivity for the authentic meaning of the text, reflecting a more "Jewish" approach when discussing some of the most difficult biblical narratives. Meir Weiss,[47] Meir Sternberg,[48] and Shimon bar Efrat,[49] using literary analysis, have dealt with the intricate subtleties of the biblical texts, uncovering more traditional interpretations. While these developments fall short in the eyes of traditional Judaism, they indicate a more objective, honest approach toward the Torah. The authors, dissociating themselves from the old schools of Bible Criticism, tried hard to hear the genuine "voice" of the Torah, and therefore moved closer to the traditional Jewish approach than any of their predecessors.


What has become increasingly clear is that the problems raised by Spinoza, Wellhausen, and others were well known to the traditional Jewish commentaries throughout the ages. What is different is the method by which these problems were solved. The Bible critics took it for granted that the biblical texts were texts like any other and therefore to be explored by the normal criteria of literary research. Axiomatically, without sincerely considering other possibilities, they rejected the idea of a "personal" God, the possibility of verbal revelation, and the authority of tradition in interpreting these texts.[50]

Mordechai Breuer, an Orthodox Jewish scholar, goes even as far as to state that he is prepared to accept much of the critic's findings. Using an unusual hybrid of neo-Kantian thought and Jewish mysticism, he concludes (not without major problems) that the traditional and the critical views are both "true." He distinguishes between the Torah as a "document" (phenomenon) and as words "written in black and white fire" (noumenon).[51] Thereupon, he asks why the word of God came down to man in such a way that it seems to support some of the critic's findings. He answers that this was necessary to show all the different religious perspectives of the Torah. For example, when discussing the different Pentateuchal names for God (one of the most important foundations of the Wellhausen theory for the existence of "documents"), he explains that this is connected with the different attributes of God as understood by the Jewish tradition. Sometimes God appears to us as a merciful God (the Tetragrammaton), at another time as Judge (Elohim). These, however, are the ways in which God appears to us (phenomenon). But behind all this is the mystical meaning of the Torah, which unites all these names (noumenon).[52]


The famous Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook (1805- 1935) added that there could essentially be no conflict between the scientific approach and the religious one. This was due to the fact that the Torah was primarily concerned with the knowledge of God and the sanctification of life, not with astronomy or geology. Scientific statements in the Torah and later prophets have to be understood as parables and analogies and not as primitive scientific statements.[53]


The greatest problem with Bible Criticism must, however, be seen in its failure to understand the crucial role the Oral Torah plays in the proper understanding of the Pentateuchal text. As stated before, the text can be understood only when read in its own spirit. Looking a little deeper, this means that it can be understood only when one "hears" its words in "the doing," in other words, when one "lives" it and is part of its Weltanschauung. One can read the text of the "Pentateuch" and remain unaffected; in contrast, one can listen to the "Torah" as a religious act and be involved.[54]


More and more Bible scholars in the latter years admit that this is possible only when one studies the Pentateuchal text from within a certain tradition on which the text heavily relies. This is indeed one of the most important claims made by the Jewish tradition. Many Jewish commentators have convincingly argued that it is wholly impossible to understand the text without such a tradition. The point that they were making is that not only is it possible to read the text through the eyes of an Oral Tradition but that the intended meaning is the very one suggested by the Oral Tradition. While some modern commentaries may not go as far as arguing for a talmudic Oral Tradition, they do agree that the Pentateuchal text alludes to a comprehensive Oral Tradition that preceded it.[55]


In his famous commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argues that the Written Torah is the masterful "synopsis" of the Oral Tradition as laid down in the Talmud; first God instructed Moshe concerning the Oral Torah, and only afterward did He give him a dictation of the written text. In much the same way that lecture notes can help us to reproduce the original lecture only after we have heard it in full, so the Written Torah can only be understood after one has studied the Oral Torah in all its aspects: "It is not the Oral Law (Torah) which has to seek the guarantee of its authenticity in the Written Law (Torah); on the contrary, it is the Written Law (Law) which has to look for its warrant in the Oral Tradition."[56]


Yeshayahu Leibowitz, one of the most controversial Orthodox scholars of today, argues on similar lines: The sanctity and the uniqueness of the Written Torah cannot be inferred from any quality of the text itself.[57] Getting very close to the kabbalistic tradition, he states that as literature, the Written Torah is inferior to Shakespeare; as philosophy, it cannot compete with Plato or Kant, and as "moral education," Sophocles' Antigone is superior![58] Where the critics went wrong was to try to read and understand the "notes" without having heard the lecture. This would obviously perforce lead to the most absurd propositions. To read the Torah as an autonomous text is therefore an unforgivable mistake: "This kind of bibliolatry is Lutheran," says Leibowitz.


Important in a different way are the observations of Rabbi J. B. Soloveitchik, who deals with several "contradictions" in the Pentateuchal text. These, he shows, are not the result of having been written by a different hand but are rather evidence for different and paradoxical dimensions in the human condition with which the religious personality has to struggle.[59]


What can be said with certainty is that honest Bible scholars no longer maintain that the Torah is the result of different fragments edited and reedited. The Torah is now taken to be Mosaic in origin and content, and it has been acknowledged that much of this tradition was already well established in pro-Mosaic times. Although this position has moved considerably in the direction of the Jewish traditional view, it has definitely not thrown in the towel to the tradition concerning the verbal infallibility of the Torah.


A sister school of "Higher Criticism," known as "Lower Criticism," has come to the fore within the last centuries. This school has taken upon itself to question the reliability of the text based on outside sources such as the Septuagint. The proponents of this school have developed recensions based on variant readings that they regard as more reliable than the traditional text. As later scholars have pointed out, these recensions have been accomplished by offering baseless emendations and conjectures that are without rational foundation.


Nijberg has shown that these methods of critical analysis were in vogue in the latter part of the nineteenth century and were often employed in classical philology.[60] He mentions a scholar who used this approach to analyze Paradise Lost and came to the conclusion that this work was full of later interpolations. He also speaks of a scholar who made seven hundred revisions in Horace and finally published a volume that contained, in effect, a revised version of the poems which, while hardly being improved upon, turned out to be rather amusing.


Regarding "Lower Criticism," Nijberg observes:


The most insane arbitrariness in this field is slowly beginning to recede. . . . The first step to such reflection, however, must be the recognition of the errors in method that have so far been made in the treatment of the text. ... In the end we should remember a good old philological rule: When one does not understand something, one should first mistrust oneself and not the text."[61]


As has been clearly demonstrated, the Jewish Sages and later scribes were extraordinarily careful to guarantee that no changes were made in the text of the Torah and Nach.[62] Their precision was such that today, despite the fact that the Jews were dispersed to almost every corner of the globe and their communities often had little contact with each other, there are no essential differences in the text of the Torah scrolls. The Torah text that Jews brought from Cochin, India, is identical to the text used by the community in Cracow, Poland.


Still, there are differences in some ancient versions. This is not surprising: from the earliest times many individuals wrote scrolls for private study. These private scrolls often contained emendations that reflected the Oral Torah connected with a specific phrase or verse. This was done so as to remind oneself of the correct interpretation of the text. These scrolls were not intended for public use and were, in fact, ritually unfit for use because of these changes. Jewish tradition informs us that one of the great earlier Sages, Rabbi Meir, used to mark his allegorical explanations in his own private scroll as a means of remembering them.[63] There is no evidence of these private scrolls ever becoming mixed up with the traditional written Torah, for Jewish law is extremely precise and exacting in its demands of the scrolls used for the Torah reading in the synagogues. Scribes who prepared Torah scrolls were and are required to use a copy of the traditional Torah text as a source and are prohibited from writing a scroll from memory.


It is possible that non-Jewish editions of the Bible, such as the Septuagint or Vulgate, may have used private scrolls as a source, and this would account for the deviations found there.


But perhaps the most devastating blow to these critical theories was delivered by Rabbi Chaim Heller (1878-1960). Not only had he mastered the Oral Torah to the extent that he was one of the greatest talmudic scholars of his time, but he also knew every extant ancient Bible translation in its original target language, whether Aramaic, Greek, Latin, or Syriac. In his Untersuchungen ueber die Peschitta (1911), he took issue with those who concluded that apparent divergences from the Torah in their possession were due to variae lectiones in the ancient texts. Not so, he asserted. Every translation is a commentary, and the variations result from the translator preferring one explanation in the Oral Torah to another. Thus, the differences were exegetical rather than textual. He further showed that all the apparent differences stemmed from the thirty-two exegetical rules of biblical interpretation enumerated by Rabbi Elazar ben Rabbi Shimon.[64] In the above-mentioned study he gives examples showing how the translator employed each rule in his version.


Dr. David Hoffmann points out that even to accept the contention that the text in certain places of the Torah has been altered would still leave no choice but to accept the traditional version as the one closest to the original, for "every conjecture, no matter how many exegetical and historical and critical arguments it may be supported, does not offer us even the probability that the Prophet or the writer of Scripture wrote in this form and not in the text before us.”[65]


On many occasions, seemingly "unintelligible" words of Tanach have suddenly become understandable in light of research and comparison with other oriental languages. It is due to this late research that the traditional text has grown in stature and respectability in the eyes of critical scientists and is increasingly preferred in many cases over other versions that were once considered accurate.


In summation, while Bible Criticism has found its way back to a more traditional approach, as far as the Pentateuchal text, its date, and its origin are concerned, one should never forget that the question of the verbal infallibility of the Torah as the expression of an explicit divine revelation lies outside the scope of any literal or scientific investigation.


The modern crisis of religion, of which Bible Criticism is a symptom, is due to the misapplication of scientific research to aspects of reality, like faith and revelation, to which they do not belong. Laws deduced from the world of nature cannot explain supernatural phenomena, in the same way that no scientist would ever accept the position that the rules governing why organic materials react to certain stimuli could apply to inorganic substances. Both are intrinsically different in nature and can only be understood as two completely different systems.


The Torah is a covenantal document and is to be studied as such. It does not inform us of "facts," "history," or "anthropology." It reveals a continuous encounter between God and man, which was set in motion with the revelation at Sinai. It cannot be read but only studied, proclaimed, heard, and experienced. The encounter with its text is a religious act and therefore prefaced with a blessing. For this reason it is untouched and unimpaired by the results of Bible Criticism.


What is important to realize is that the struggle over the origin of the text of the Torah was, and is, not just an academic one. It is foremost a battle between "divine authority" and "human autonomy." Modernity, starting with Spinoza, was looking for ways through which it could liberate itself from the biblical worldview and its far-reaching divine demands. Since it was this biblical text that made man submissive to divine authority, it was necessary to start an assault on the biblical text itself and strip it of its divine nature. The interplay between sociology and theology is a complex one, but what is clear is that what man will find and conclude is greatly dependent on the question of why he is looking. The Torah can be made to yield whatever meaning its interpreters like to assign to it.


This fact is also of great importance in understanding what has happened within the Jewish community over the last two hundred years. In an attempt to become part of the secular world, many Jews looked to Bible Criticism as a most forceful (and welcome) source of legitimization for the break with tradition. In reference to what Heinrich Heine once called "the portable fatherland of the Jew," the Torah was historicized, secularized, and fragmentized. It is hardly possible to ignore the fact that since the day when this fragmentation theory made inroads into the Jewish community, the Jewish People has lost much of its élan vital. It resulted in “nontraditional" forms of Judaism and eventually caused Jews to turn their backs on tradition altogether. The secularization of the Torah had led to secularization of the people.

[1] This essay was written many years ago. Since then, I have updated it several times. To my pleasant surprise, I have found some similarities between this essay and some of the observations made by Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks from Great Britain. I have incorporated some of his insights from his book Crisis and Covenant (New York: Manchester University Press, 1992).

[2] T. B. Sanhedrin 89a.

[3] Maimonides, Commentary to Mishnah: Introduction to Sanhedrin, chap. 10, principle 8.

[4] See Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn's interesting discussion, Malki Ba-Kodesh, pt. 2. (St. Louis, MO: Moinester Printing Co., 1921), pp. 215-250, concerning the question of whether it is only the divinity of the Torah that is vital to Judaism or Moshe's "authorship" as well.

[5] Benedictus de Spinoza, A Theologic-Political Treatise (New York: Dover, 1951), p. 165. Spinoza's conclusion was "that the word of God is faulty, mutilated, tampered with, and inconsistent, that we possess it only in fragments and that the original of the covenant which God made with the Jews has been lost." This observation is, for two reasons, most remarkable: First of all, Spinoza leaves the door open for a possible revelational experience. God may have spoken to the Jews, but the original text of that conversation was lost. This seems to conflict with Spinoza's understanding of a God who lacks all "personality" and henceforth is incapable of ever conversing with man. Second, it lays the foundation for what later became the attitude of Reform Judaism's understanding of the Pentateuchal text, which sees the text as some kind of human record of the Jews' encounter with God, and as such, "inspired." This idea contradicts Spinoza's general attitude, which sees the text as "primitive literature."

There are even earlier observations of this kind. One famous "Bible critic" was Chivi Al Balkhi (ninth century) of Persia. See "Geniza Specimens—The Oldest Collection of Bible Difficulties by a Jew," Solomon Schcchter, Jewish Quarterly Review (old series) 13 (190): 345-374.

In Numbers, (chap. 16) we read of Korach, the first critic of Moses' authority, who claimed that "the Torah was not from heaven" (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10, halachah 1). Another earlier critic was Menashe the son of Hizkiah (698-543 b.c.e) "who examined biblical narratives to prove them worthless." Thus, he jeered: had Moses not anything else to write besides, "and Lothan's sister was Timnah"? (Genesis 36:12) (T. B. Sanhedrin 99).

[6] Karl Heinrich Graf (1815-1869), a German Protestant Bible scholar on whose work Wellhausen founded his theory.  Wellhausen's forerunners were Karl David Ilgen (1763-1834), a German Protestant philologist (Urkunden des Ersten Buchs Moses, 1798); Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette (1780-1849), (Beitraege zur Einleitung in das Alte Testament, 1806-1807); and Wilhelm Vatke (1806-1882) (Die Geschichte des Heiligen Schriften des Alten Testaments), who was highly influenced by Hegel. Vatke laid the foundation for Wellhausen's critique, and the latter admitted that he was indebted to Vatke "for the most and the best" of his own work. Ironically, Vatke, in his later days, retracted his conclusions, undermining many theories that Wellhausen later published!

[7] See H. Wheeler Robinson, "The Contribution of Great Britain to Old Testament Study," Expository Times 41 (1929-1930): 46-50.

[8] See J. M. Powis Smith, "The Contribution of the United Stales to Old Testament Scholarship," Expository Times 41 (1929-1930): 169-171.

[9] See Handkommentar zum Alten Testament, 15 vols., ed. Wilhelm Nowack (Gotlingen, 1892-1903); Kurzer Handkommentar zum Alten Testament, 20 vols., ed. Karl Marti (Freiburg, 1897- 1904).

[10] The following works summarize the literary criticism of the Wellhausen schools: John Edgar McFaydon, "The Present Position of Old Testament Criticism," in Arthur S. Peake, The People and The Book; "Modern Criticism," in H. Wheeler Robinson, ed., Record and Revelation (Oxford, 1938), pp. 74-109. For these and other important works in the field, see Herbert F. Hahn, The Old Testament in Modern Research (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966).

[11] One of the most important works following this line is Heinrich Holzinger's Einleitung in den Hexateuch (Freiburg, 1893). (According to some scholars, the J and E documents could also be traced through the Book of Joshua, so they spoke of the Hexateuch—six books). See Rudolf Smend's "JE in den geschichtlichen Buchern des Alten Testament," Zeitschrift fuer die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 49 (1921). Also see Rudolf Smend, Die Erzaehlung des Hexateuch auf ihre Quellen des Genesis von neuem untersucht (Giessen, 1916).

[12] See J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and the Haftarahs, 2nd ed., (London: Soncino Press, 1962), p. 199.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Alttestamentliche Studien (Giessen, 1908, 1910, 1912).

[15] See Hertz, The Pentateuch and the Haftarahs, p. 939. Kittel remarked on another occasion:

Speaking for all branches of science we may say that a hypothesis which has stood for half a century has done its duty. Measured by this standard, Wellhausen's theory is as good as the best. However, there is increasing evidence that it has had its day and that those scholars, who from the first expressed serious doubts about it, were right. (Ibid., p. 941)

[16] "Die Aufgabe der Alttestamentlichen Forschung," Zeitschrift Juer die Alttestamentliche Wissenschqft 42 (1924): 8. See Hahn, Old Testament in Modern Research, p. 28.

[17] See, for example, Adam C. Welch, The Code of Deuteronomy: A New Theory of Its Origin (London, 1924); see also Theodor Oestreicher, Das Deuteronomische Grundgesetz (Guthersloh, 1923) and Edward Robertson, The Old Testament Problem (Manchester, 1950).

[18] A. Welch, The Code of Deuteronomy.

[19] Einleitung in das Alte Testament (Tubingen, 1943).

[20] On Holscher, see his Komposition und Ursprung des Deuteronomi ums Zeitschrift fuer die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 40 (1922).

[21] See C. R. North, "Pentateuchal Criticism," in H. H. Rowley, ed., The Old Testament and Modern Study (Oxford, 1951).

[22] S. R. Hirsch, The Pentateuch, Translated and Explained, tr. I. Levy (New York: Judaica Press, 1971).

[23] Die wichtigsten Instanzen gegen die Graf-Wellhausensche Hypothese (vol. 1, 1903; vol. 2, 1916); Das Buch Leviticus, uebersetzt und erklaert (1905-1906); Das Buch Deuteronomium, uebersetzt und erklaert (1913-1922).

Most important was Hoffmann's refutations of the theory that the Priestly Code was a separate document composed after the Book of Deuteronomy and even after Ezekiel. Hoffmann showed that Leviticus was an earlier work than Deuteronomy and that Ezekiel was a derivative of it, rather than the other way around. Interesting is Hoffmann's belief referring to a statement in the Talmud (T. B. Gittin 60a) that Moshe composed the Torah in a series of scrolls that were written down after every revelation and later redacted into a single document.


[24] In many unpublished papers.  See A. Barth, Dorenu Mul She'elat Ha-Netzach (Jerusalem, 1952). In this book some important examples of Hoffmann's and Barth's arguments are presented.

[25] Dorot Harishonim, 7 vols. (1897-1939, repr. 1967).

[26] The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch, trans. Israel Abrahams (English ed. [Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1961-1972]) or "The Theory of Documents." Cassuto concludes (pp. 100-101):


I have not shown that it was possible to solve the problems in a different way from that of the documentary theory. I have shown that one must necessarily solve them otherwise and that it is impossible to solve them according to this system. I did not prove that the pillars are weak or that none of them is decisive. I have proved that they are not pillars at all, that they arc non-existent and imaginary. Hence, I have arrived at the conclusion that the complete negation of the theory of documents is justified.


Other books by Cassuto in this field are La questione della genesi (1934), his commentaries on the books of Genesis and Exodus, and many other important papers.

[27] Toledot Ha-Emunah Ha-Yisraelit (1937); abridged version in English, The Religion of Israel, translated and condensed by M. Greenberg (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1960).

[28] William F. Albright, From Stone Age to Christianity (Baltimore: Anchor, 1957), pp. 84, 118-119.

[29] W. L. Baxter (1841-1937), a Scottish Bible scholar, wrote, "Witnesses are reliable when they testify in favor of the critics, but their veracity is promptly impeached if their testimony is on the other side" (Sanctuary and Sacrifice [1892]); quoted in J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and the Haftarahs (London: Soncino Press, 1962), p. 556.

[30] On Delitzch, see Babel und Bibel (Leipzig, 1902). See also Hugo Winckler, Geschichte Israels, vol. 2 (Berlin, 1900).

[31] See History, Archeology and Christian Humanism (Baltimore: Anchor, 1942).

[32] See W. R. Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (Edinburgh, 1889).

[33] Voelkerpsychologie, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1909).

[34] Israel: Its Life and Culture (London, 1926; repr., 1940).

[35] See E. Hardy, Zur Geschichte der vergleichenden Religion forschung, Archiv fur Religionswissenschaft 4 (1901).

[36] Moses, Ein Beitrag zur Untersuchung ueber die Urspruenge der Israelitischen Religion (Tubingen, 1907).

[37] Altorientalischer und Israelitischer Monotheismus (Tubingen, 1906), p. 1. For an interesting comparison, see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Avodah Zarah, introduction.

[38] For an overview of this debate, see Henry Biberfeld, Universal Jewish History (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1948), appendix, pp. 129-156.

[39] Herman Wouk remarks in his book This is My God (Glasgow: Williams Collins Sons and Co., 1973) p. 291:

"Literary analysis has been used for generations by obsessive men to prove that everybody but Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. I believe literary analysis could be used to prove that I wrote both David Copperfield and Farewell to Arms. I wish it were sound!"

[40] Israelitisch-Juedische Religionsgeschichte und alttestamentliche Theologie, Zeitschrift fuer die Alttestantentliche Wissenschaft 44 (1962): 1-12.

[41] Theologie des Alten Testaments, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 1933-1939). See "Guide to Understanding the Bible," Journal of Biblical Literature 65 (1946): 205-207.

[42] The Relevance of the Bible (London, 1942). See also his Rediscovery of the Old Testament (London, 1946); Frank Glen Lankard, The Bible Speaks to Our Generation (New York, 1941); and Wyatt A. Smart, Still the Bible Speaks (New York, 1948).

[43] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971).

[44] The Art of Biblical Literature (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981).

[45] Image, Music, Text (London: Fontana, 1977).

[46] A Remembered Future (Bloominglon, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984).

[47] The Craft of Biblical Narrative (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Molad, 1962).

[48] The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985).

[49] Narrative Art in the Bible (Sheffield, U.K.: Almond Press, 1989).

[50] Most enlightening is Spinoza's observation that some texts of the Torah, such as the ones in Genesis 12:6; 22:14, and Deuteronomy 1:2, must have been written many years after Moshe's death, since they reveal information that refers to latter days. Spinoza relies here on the famous Jewish commentator Ibn Ezra (1088-1167), who wrote that these verses were "mysteries" about "which the wise should be silent" (on Deuteronomy 1:2). The traditional understanding of Ibn Ezra, as also confirmed by the modern Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto (ShaDaL) (1800-1865), is that these passages must be understood as prophetic and anticipating the future. Here, the differences between the traditional approach and the ones of criticism become apparent. The critics were obviously not prepared to accept the "prophetic" dimension as suggested by tradition and consequently concluded that these passages could not have been written by Moshe. In other words, it was not the problems themselves that caused these differences of opinion but the very approach to the text that created these controversies.

[51] See chapter 7 [of Rabbi Cardozo’s Between Silence And Speech].

[52] "Emunah U-Madda Be-Parashanut Ha-Mikra," Deot, Cheker Ha-Mikra Be-Machshavah Ha-Yehudit Ha-Datit He-Chadashah, 11 (1959):18-25, 12 (I960): 13-27. See also Zvi Kurzweil, The Modem Impulse of Traditional Judaism (New York, 1985), pp. 79-91. See also the critical comments by Jacob Katz, Uriel Simon, Joseph Heinemann, Meir Weiss, Dr. Halperin, and Jacov Zeidman in Deot 13 (1961): 14-23.

[53] See Ish Shalom, Avraham Isaac Kook: Between Rationalism and Mysticism (Hebrew) Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1990), pp. 98-115. Also see Zvi Yaron, The Philosophy of Rabbi Kook (Jerusalem: Elmer Library, 1991), pp. 188-189.

[54] See also Franz Rosenzweig, On Jewish Learning, ed. Nahum Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1955).

[55] See H. S. Nijberg, Studien zum Hoseabuch: Zugleich ein Beitrag zur Kehrung des Problems der Alttestestamentlichen Textkritik. (Uppsala: Uppsala Universitets, Arskrift, 1935). For an overview, see E. Nielsen, Oral Tradition: A Modern Problem in the Old Testament Introduction, Studies in Biblical Theology 11 (Chicago, 1954); C. Stuhlmueller, "The Influence of Oral Tradition upon Exegeses and the Senses of Scripture," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 20 (1958): 299-326, B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript; Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity, Acta seminarii neo-testamentici upsaliensis 22 (Uppsala, 1961); by the same author, Muendliche und Schriftliche Tradition der Prophetenbuecher,Theologische Literaturzeitung 17 (1961), pp. 216-220; and Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985). Herbert Schneidau's Sacred Discontent (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1977) argues that textual tensions and apparent inconsistencies function as ways through which the reader becomes involved in the text. See also the important observations by J. F. Molitor, Philosophie der Geschichte oder ueber die Tradition, vol. 3 (Frankfurt, 1857), in which the author stresses the fact that in ancient times, the relationship of the written word and the spoken word was very different and much more involved than in modern times.

[56] See the introduction on Hirsch's commentary on the Torah by Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld in Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Pentateuch, Translation and Commentary, Genesis (New York: Judaica Press, 1971), pp. viii-xxx.

[57] Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 11-12.

[58] Rabbi Simeon said:


Alas for the man who regards the Torah as a book of mere tales and everyday matters! If that were so, even we could compose a Torah dealing with everyday affairs and of even greater excellence. Nay, even the princes of the world possess books of greater worth which we could use as a model for composing some such Torah. The Torah, however, contains it all, its words are supernal truth. (Zohar IIl:152a) (italics added)

[59] "The Lonely Man of Faith," Tradition 7:2 (Summer 1965).

[60] IT. S. Nijberg, quoted in Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosopliy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), p. 384.

[61] Ibid., p. 385.

[62] See the author's The Infinite Chain (Jerusalem: Targum-Feldheim Press, 1989), pp. 35-42.

[63] See Nachmanides on Ecclesiastes (Kitvei Ha-Ramban).

[64] For a short overview of these thirty-two exegetical rules, see Hermann L. Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (New York: Atheneum, 1978), pp. 95-98.

[65] Quoted by M. Kapustin in "Biblical Criticism, a Traditionalist View," in Challenge, Torah Views on Science and Its Problems, ed. C. Domb and A. Carmel (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1976), pp. 426-427. See also Chaim Hirschensohn, Malki Ba-Kodesh, vol. 2 (St. Louis, MO: Moinsier Printing Co., 1921), pp. 215-250, who points to a talmudic passage (tractate Sofrim 6:3) that states that there were three Torah scrolls in the Temple court that contained slight textual misreadings and that the correct reading was determined on the principle of following the majority.

© Nathan Lopes Cardozo 1995, www.cardozoschool.org


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