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Religious texts » Old Testament

Adam and Eve, Sodom and Gomorrah, God showing Moses the Promised Land - the first five books of the Bible contain some of its most striking stories. But how should they be read and who wrote them? The answers to both of these questions are not as simple as once thought, and they inevitably determine how Christians apply them to their lives.

Biblical criticism in relation to the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures) predates that which has been applied to the New Testament. Christian scholars accepted the authority of Old Testament teaching but soon realised that it is very diverse, that it even sometimes seems to contradict the spirit of New Testament teaching, and that it offers a valuable context for New Testament teaching which may clarify or even change its meaning.

Particularly for Protestants, who place great emphasis on the authority of Scripture, it became a priority to study the texts and work out which were more reliable than others, and during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries "scientific" techniques were applied to the whole Bible in an attempt to understand it and the will of God better.

Although it was more acceptable to publicise radical conclusions about dating, authorship, redaction and so on in relation to the Old Testament than the New Testament, the stakes were still high. Being seen to question the authority of the Bible could still earn a biblical critic a prison sentence or worse – an attempt was made on Benedict Spinoza's life. See JE Friedman's Who wrote the Bible? (HarperCollins, 1989) for more detail.

Hobbes and Spinoza: early questioners

Thomas Hobbes and Spinoza were among the first to ask questions about the origins of the Old Testament, and particularly the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). They prized reason and were not satisfied with the traditional justification for the authority of the Genesis creation stories, the 10 Commandments or other aspects of the law - that they were revealed to and written by Moses.

Examining the texts in detail, they noticed the evidence suggested more than one author or source. Hobbes, in Chapter 33 of Leviathan (1651), brought together a range of references to argue that the Pentateuch must have been written after Moses' death, so obviously could not have been written by Moses. These included Deuteronomy 34:6 ("no man knoweth of his [Moses'] sepulchre unto this day" and Genesis 12:6 "and the Canaanite was then in the land").

Astruc's conjectures

The French academic Jean Astruc, who was also a professor of medicine, applied techniques developed for studying classical texts to the Old Testament in an attempt to prove Hobbes and Spinoza were wrong. In his book Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux, dont il paraît que Moïse s'est servi pour composer le livre de la Genèse ("Conjectures on the original documents that Moses appears to have used in composing the Book of Genesis) published in 1753, he asserted that the first five books of the Old Testament could actually have been written (at least in part) by Moses.

Astruc's work exposed a complex process of redaction (editing and re-shaping), which shaped the Bible as we know it. His basic explanation for the complexity of the text is still broadly accepted today, but his conclusion, that the original Mosaic manuscripts still existed within the mass of later "contextualisations", did not stand for long: by 1805 De Wette concluded that none of the source text could have been written before the reign of King David (c1050BC) and by 1823 Eichhorn explicitly abandoned hope that Moses wrote any of the source texts of the Pentateuch.

Different source documents

By the mid-nineteenth century, source criticism suggested that the Old Testament began with two ancient texts, one from the Southern Kingdom of Judah (the J or Yahwist source) and one from the Northern Kingdom of Israel (the E or Elohist source), which were used as the basis for early texts shaped by the Deuteronomist author, which were themselves used as the basis for a later edition shaped by a Priestly author in, or shortly after, the sixth century BC Babylonian exile.

Wellhausen's hypothesis

In 1877 Julius Wellhausen published Die Composition des Hexateuchs und der historischen Bücher des Alten Testaments, a seminal work which set out the documentary hypothesis, sometimes called the Wellhausen hypothesis, which is still widely accepted today. Wellhausen attempted to reconstruct the sources for the Pentateuch and show how they were put together by the Priestly and the Deuteronomic redactors, drawing on the insights of scholars who had gone before.

It was quite clear, after Wellhausen, that the authorship of the Pentateuch did not lie with Moses or any single figure, but rather the text was the product of many hands, each with their own theological and political agenda. Understanding the text required scholars to understand the historical context, but seeing the text always in relation to its Sitz im Leben (setting in life) quickly led to the belief that biblical teaching may only be relevant in relation to its context and may not apply today. At the very least, interpretation would be required to understand what precisely the Bible is telling us to do or not do.

This site shows how modern scholars have reconstructed the complex process of the Bible's development.

Context: an example

Take, for example, teaching about homosexuality in the Old Testament and particularly in Genesis 19:1-13 (here from the NIV):

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. 2"My lords," he said, "please turn aside to your servant's house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning." "No," they answered, "we will spend the night in the square." 3But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate. 4Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom-both young and old-surrounded the house. 5They called to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them." 6Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him 7and said, "No, my friends. Don't do this wicked thing. 8Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don't do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof." 9"Get out of our way," they replied. "This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge! We'll treat you worse than them." They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door. 10But the men inside reached out and pulled Lot back into the house and shut the door. 11Then they struck the men who were at the door of the house, young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the door. 12The two men said to Lot, "Do you have anyone else here-sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, 13because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the LORD against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it."

Liberal Anglicans, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams in a 2002 essay, have interpreted this as a story about hospitality, which was important in the ancient world. The visitors (angels) were abused in every possible way, showing that the city had abandoned common decency and so deserved to be destroyed. The homosexual act involves is clearly one of male rape, and not to be equated with consensual, let alone long-term, homosexual relationships.


Conservatives focus instead on the action of the crowd, wanting to have sex with men, and see this as a clear teaching that all forms of homosexuality will be punished by God.

The context is clearly important, which is why Christians have abandoned the attempt to keep most of the 613 commandments in the Pentateuch. How many Christians refrain from wearing clothes of mixed fibres, dismantle their houses when affected by mildew or offer their eczema for inspection by a priest before sacrificing animals to thank God for purifying them from the complaint? However, conservative and Evangelical Christians still take the Bible more literally than others, who prefer to see it as inspired wisdom which needs to be interpreted for each new situation.

Textual criticism embraced

In 1943 Pope Pius XII gave licence to the new scholarship in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (literally "Inspired by the Divine Spirit"), his document promoting biblical studies. He wrote: "Textual criticism ... [is] quite rightly employed in the case of the sacred books ... Let the interpreter then, with all care and without neglecting any light derived from recent research, endeavour to determine the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writer, the age in which he lived, the sources written or oral to which he had recourse and the forms of expression he employed."

In addition, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression" (article 3, section 110).

Alternative models for Old Testament development

After Wellhausen, a number of alternative models for the development of the Old Testament were proposed.

Herman Gunkel (1862-1932) applied form criticism to the Pentateuch, seeing this as an advance on the source criticism used by Wellhausen because it enabled him to discover smaller, apparently older sources as well as J, E, D and P.

Martin Noth and tradition history

Influenced by Gunkel and Albrecht Alt, Martin Noth (1902-68) was an advocate of "tradition history" and saw the Pentateuch as composed of blocks of traditional material added through oral tradition around some key historical experiences. He identified these experiences as guidance out of Egypt; guidance into the arable land; promise to the Patriarchs; guidance in the wilderness; and revelation at Sinai. Noth proposed that Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Joshua had originally formed a "Hexateuch" and argued that the Deuteronomic redaction was largely the work of a single individual in the seventh century BC.

Gerhard von Rad – keeping Old Testament studies alive

Gerhard von Rad (1901-71) was responsible for keeping Old Testament studies alive between the wars in Germany, when anti-Semitism made the study of Hebrew Scriptures unfashionable. Henning Graf Reventlow wrote that "a number of von Rad's innovative papers prepared the way for the blossoming of Old Testament studies in Germany during the first decennia after the Second World War" (quoted in Symposia: Dialogues concerning the History of Biblical Interpretation, Equinox, 2007).

John H Hayes in Old Testament theology: its history and development (SCM, 1985, p233) wrote of von Rad: "In his theology, with its challenge of previous methodologies and with its new proposals, von Rad inaugurated a new epoch in the study of Old Testament theology. He argued against any organisation of Old Testament theology along the lines of central concepts, pervasive topics, assumed structures of Israelite thought or world of faith, or systematic theological categories which had been characteristic, in one way or another, of all the theologies of the twentieth century, since this was to impose an alien structure on the material." Victor Premasagar wrote that "the Bible for von Rad, in the final analysis, is neither history nor literature, but rather the confessions of a community".

An added dimension – the land

In the mid-twentieth century, Old Testament studies were influenced by the growth of biblical archaeology under the aegis of William Albright and William Dever. Albright argued that the archaeological record confirmed the essential truth of the history contained in Genesis; Dever suggested that the archaeological record necessitated a new understanding of the history of the land and its people and cast new light on the process of and motivations behind the development of scripture. Perhaps the Israelites should be seen as invaders, displacing the indigenous Canaanites and then justifying their own actions by inventing the story of divine covenant? Perhaps the texts were in effect early propaganda, designed to explain alliances and antagonisms and influence people's attitudes and behaviour.

John van Seters (b1935) wrote a landmark text in Old Testament studies, Abraham in history and tradition (1975) which argued that no convincing evidence existed to support the historical existence of Abraham and other patriarchs or the historical reliability of the Israelites' origins Mesopotamia, the sojourn in Egypt, the exodus and so on. He criticised both the biblical archaeology school of Albright (which had already come under fire from Thomas L Thompson and others) and the tradition history school of Alt and Noth, suggesting that the Pentateuch was less history than political treatise.

In the second part of the book, van Seters went on to put forward his own theory on the origins of the Pentateuch, arguing, with Martin Noth, that Deuteronomy was the original beginning of a history that extended from Deuteronomy to the end of 2 Kings. However, against Noth and others, he held that the so-called Yahwist source (usually seen as the oldest literary source in Genesis, Exodus and Numbers) was written in the sixth century BC as a prologue to the Deuteronomistic history, and that the so-called Priestly writer of the Pentateuch wrote a later supplement to this history.

RN Whybray (1923-97) examined the evidence for Wellhausen's model in his book The making of the Pentateuch (1987). He observed that the evidence in support of the documentary hypothesis was insubstantial. His alternative proposal was that the Pentateuch was essentially the work of a single author who drew upon multiple sources and disregarded, or was ignorant of, modern notions of literary consistency and smoothness of style and language. The book remains the most complete critique to date of the documentary hypothesis by a mainstream biblical scholar.

More recently Margaret Barker (b1944) has developed a more holistic approach to the Bible, seeing the New Testament as the product of the same theology and concerns as the Old Testament. Barker argues that the focus on the text has led Christian biblical scholars to misunderstand the Theology of the Old Testament and so to see the New Testament as a major departure from it. In The great high priest (2003) and Temple theology (2004) she identified some elements of the theology and worship of the first Jewish First Temple, which she believes endured beyond reforms and Exile and survived in early Christian theology.