Simcha Jacobovici and the Quest to Find Who Wrote the Bible
The media is often critical of the Bible. This is nothing new to Christians, who can see mischaracterizations of the Bible virtually everyday. Documentaries and television programs describe the Bible in terms that most Christians find strange. Interviews often feature leftist scholars who seem to specialize in casting doubt on God’s Word. There are a few refreshing voices in the media that take a rather high view of the Bible, however.
Simcha Jacobovici is a Jewish Canadian filmmaker who hosts the television program the “Naked Archaeologist.” His goal is to “demystify” archaeology, thus making it “naked” for all to see. Naked archaeology is like the naked truth—stripped of preconceptions and exposed for all to see. To most of us living in the United States, he is familiar for his documentaries The Exodus Decoded and The Lost Tomb of Jesus. Both programs offered a new take on the biblical texts that differed from traditional, straightforward interpretations. Yet Jacobovici is also an Orthodox Jew and holds the Bible in the highest esteem. This makes him something of an enigma for many viewers.
The subject of one of Jacobovici’s television programs is to find proof underlying the events recorded in the biblical text. The Biblical Archaeology Review Web site has a free episode of “The Naked Archaeologist” entitled, “Who Wrote the Bible?” (http://www.bib-arch.org/multimedia/who-wrote-bible-free-video.asp). During the program, Jacobovici interviews Baruch Halpern, a professor of Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Halpern is a historian and archaeologist, and has led the archaeological dig at Tel Megiddo (biblical Megiddo). He is highly regarded by most biblical scholars, but he seems to meet his match in Jacobovici. Near the beginning of the episode, the two discuss the authorship of the Pentateuch:
Jacobovici: “I wonder, who wrote the Bible?”
Halpern: “A bunch of different people.”
Jacobovici: “I read the five books of Moses, the Torah, and I never get the feeling that Joe wrote book number one, and Sam wrote book number two. I don’t get that impression.”
Halpern: “That’s because you’re coming at it from the perspective of the tradition rather than from a fresh, unbiased view.”
For thousands of years, Christians and Jews have read the first five books of the Bible as the singular work of Moses. Modern readers are no different. Scripture claims in numerous places that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (Exodus 34:27; Matthew 19:8; Romans 10:5; et al.). Given features such as opposition to Egyptian mythology and the presence of Egyptian loanwords and names, there is nothing to indicate that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch. Halpern claims that it is only because of tradition that Jews and Christians view the Pentateuch as the work of Moses. The problem with Halpern’s statement is that his view is anything but unbiased. He also approaches the Bible from the perspective of tradition! In his case, it is from a particular academic viewpoint: the documentary hypothesis.
The documentary hypothesis states that the Pentateuch is composed of four major documents: J (the Yahwist), E (the Elohist), D (the Deuteronomist), and P (the Priestly writer). Allegedly, these were edited together over hundreds of years by redactors, eventually producing what we call the Pentateuch. Proponents of this view claim Moses never wrote a single word, with most of the work being pious fiction authored by anonymous scribes.
One of the characteristics of modern scholarship is the absolute refusal to reappraise the documentary hypothesis. It is passed dogmatically from professor to student in university Bible and religious studies departments. The theory is as inviolable and as sacrosanct in biblical studies as Darwinian evolution is in scientific studies. That demonstrates the key difficulty with the theory: proponents of the view are not open to considering new evidence that may overturn part, or all, of the theory. They, too, are firmly rooted in their own tradition.
It may be difficult for some viewers to conceal a smile when Jacobovici says, “Nowhere do I get the feeling that there are different authors.” That is precisely what Christians also believe. Halpern’s response is interesting. He fires back with a single shot aimed to prove the multiple authorship of the books of Moses: the presence of “doublets” in the Bible. He defines these as “pairs of identical or nearly identical stories with slight variation.” Examples would be the “two” creation stories of Genesis 1-2 or the stories in which Abraham and Isaac lie to the Egyptian pharaoh about their wives.
Doublets occur frequently in the biblical text, not only in the Pentateuch, but elsewhere. The assumption is that these stories bear strong resemblance to one another because they are duplications. In truth, the biblical writers, like other authors in the ancient Near East, used repetition for effect. Readers should also recognize that scholars have no tangible evidence that these stories are duplications. The only place they occur is in Scripture, and the assumption is that ancient scribes duplicated the stories. There is no evidence that they ever did, and it is grossly unfair to judge ancient writers by modern standards. Many modern scholars no longer consider this as evidence for the documentary hypothesis.
Jacobovici later forces Halpern to admit that there is no tangible evidence for the documentary hypothesis:
Jacobovici: “The point is that unless you have a reason to go to the fantastical, why shouldn’t you just accept the simple, which is, you know, it’s not two traditions, or three or four, it’s one tradition?”
Halpern: “There’s nothing fantastic about the idea that tradition grows over time and that various parties contribute to a tradition. In fact, that’s what we see in every other religious tradition that we have.”
Jacobovici: “You have to agree that not a single archaeological shred has ever been found of the existence of the documentary hypothesis.”
Halpern: “That’s absolutely correct.”
Jacobovici could have gone farther. Not only have critical scholars failed to produce so much as a single shred of physical evidence for the putative documents of J, E, D, and P, they have yet to produce any document from the ancient world that was edited in like manner. Not one example exists of the kind of editorial activity critics propose went into the production of the books of Moses. Religious texts in the ancient Near East were not whimsically altered by scribes. The scribe’s duty was to copy canonical compositions, such as religious texts, with complete fidelity. Concerning the absence of evidence, Kenneth Kitchen states:
[T]he basic fact is that there is no objective, independent evidence for any of these four compositions (or for any variant of them) anywhere outside the pages of our existing Hebrew Bible…. The standards of proof among biblical scholars fall massively and woefully short of the high standards that professional Orientalists and archaeologists are long accustomed to, and have a right to demand (Kitchen, 2003, p. 492, emp. added).
When questioned about whether Moses wrote any of the Bible, Halpern responds, “Not a thing.” He follows with the shocking statement: “I forgot to tell you these people were illiterate until basically the 8th century B.C.” Jacobovici’s response? “I think I’ve got him on that one.” He travels to the Sinai desert to see an alphabetic inscription dating at least as early as the time of Moses. While the inscription is not conclusive, there is other evidence Jacobovici could have considered. Three important Hebrew inscriptions dating to the tenth century B.C. contradict Halpern’s outlandish statement. The Tel Zayit Inscription is an abecedary—a list of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. The Gezer Calendar is a small tablet outlining the agricultural seasons. The oldest inscription found to date is a potsherd from Khirbet Qeiyafa, whose text has distinct parallels to several biblical passages (see Bryant, 2010). If the Hebrews were illiterate until the 8th century, who created these Hebrew inscriptions in the 10th century?
It is entertaining to see a filmmaker and amateur archaeologist outduel an ancient historian widely recognized as an authority in his field. The episode demonstrates a vital point that every Christian should note: just because a person is a recognized scholar does not mean he or she is inevitably correct in their criticisms of the Bible. The history of biblical scholarship is full of antiquated theories that were once held as absolute fact, but are now totally abandoned. Given the evidence that archaeologists and biblical scholars now have, the documentary hypothesis is surely destined to join them. Moses may not have signed his work, but theories offered by critics thus far have failed to pass the test of plausibility when all of the evidence is considered. [NOTE: Over a century ago, J.W. McGarvey wrote a masterful and decisive refutation of the documentary hypothesis, titled The Authorship of the Book of Deuteronomy With its Bearings on the Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch.]
Bryant, Dewayne (2010), “The Khirbet Qeiyafa Inscription,” http://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=124&article=3492.
Kitchen, Kenneth (2003), On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).