Monthly Archives: December 2006

A Simplified Ontological Argument

Ok, plunging merrily back into the mess, ignoring all criticism and petitions for mercy…

I thought it might be nice to wrap up with a version of the ontological argument that most of us might have a chance of actually following. I readily admit the last several took a lot of concentration, interest, and probably off-line study, and that no doubt detracts from any persuasive power they might have. Let’s try a simpler one:

Simple ontological argument for the existence of God:

Let’s try it backwards. Rather than thinking about why things exist, let’s consider, for a moment, why things DON’T exist. I submit the following list is exhaustive.

1. Things don’t exist for one of two reasons.

A. Circumstances weren’t right. B. They are logically impossible.

Some quick examples. In the first category we can put the (nonexistent) 50’ statue of King George in New York harbor. In order for such a statue to have existed, there would have to have been various historical, political, artistic and other causes. If these causes don’t exist – then neither does this hypothetical statue. But IF all the causes where there – if, for example, there had never been a revolution, and someone found it politically expedient to honor King George, AND had the funding, AND had the approval, AND the materials were available, AND the artist did the work, AND the construction crew put the thing together… Then there WOULD be a 50’ statue of King George in New York harbor. If all the circumstances are there, then nothing can prevent the existence of such a statue.

I’ll revert back to square circles as an example of the second category.

Now then, let’s return to our definition of God and finish up the formal argument. God is that being than whom no greater can be conceived – or, in Godel’s terms, God is the sum of all positive properties. A positive property is any aspect of existence which ADDS to existence (rather than subtracting from it) AND is actually possible. One of the most important of these positive properties is that God has “necessary existence.” He exists not because of any cause or circumstance, but in and of himself.

Ok, the formal argument.

1. Anything which does not have a reason for NOT existing, exists.

2. There are only two reasons for not existing: Lack of sufficient causes, or logical impossibility.

3. God, being defined as having “necessary existence”, could not fail to exist due to lack of sufficient cause – he HAS no cause and needs no cause.

4. God is not logically impossible.

5. Therefore God must, in fact, exist.

Next, some possible objections.

I. Does not having a reason for NOT existing really mean something exists? Can’t something lack any reason for non-existence, but simply… not HAPPEN to exist?

No, because this is really just a restatement of reason A. Not “happening” to exist really means the circumstances weren’t right, so something which doesn’t “happen” to exist really is lacking some cause. About the only exception we could present would be random quantum events, which are sometimes said to be “causeless”. As I have argued before, however, quantum events DO have probabilistic causes (which are sufficient to explain their probabilistic existence.) Just in case it is still difficult to grasp the necessity of something existing if the causes aren’t lacking, let’s go back to our statue of King George. Let’s suppose no cause was lacking. Can you imagine a situation in which there was political support for a giant statue of King George, and the mayor of New York proposed a 50’ statue, and land was purchased for a 50’ statue, and an artist designed a 50’ statue, and materials were gathered for a 50’ statue, and construction workers built a 50’ statue according to the design, and the design was such that the laws of physics permitted the statue to remain standing, and no force had destroyed or worn down the statue, and no one had destroyed or defaced the statue… and yet – the statue did not exist??

P.S. – And whatever you can think of as a possible reason for it’s non-existence, simply add that to the list of “causes”. Now try again. Repeat ad infinitum. Get the idea?

II. Can’t this argument prove ANY “necessary being?” (aka the moldy cheese in Brian’s fridge rebuttal)

No. If you will follow closely, I’ll try to show that God, and ONLY God, can assuredly thought of as being logically possible, while the other candidates for godlike beings, such as the moldy cheese in Brian’s fridge, can NOT be assuredly thought of as logically possible.

Remember we said that a “positive property” was any property that added to “being” or “existence” and is actually possible. Let’s suppose we were to make a hypothetical list of “positive properties”. We have already argued previously that one of them is “necessary existence”. Another positive property would presumably be “exists in Brian’s fridge at 12:00 a.m. GMT Feb 18, 2003” There would be many many others. If we made these into a huge “checkoff list”, God’s list would look like this:

1. Necessary being? Yes.

2. Exists in Brian’s fridge? Yes. (God is, after all, everywhere, even in Brian’s fridge)

3. Exists at the North Pole? Yes.

4. Has positive property #4? Yes.

5. Has positive property #5? Yes.

….. (long list)

N. Has positive property N? Yes.

God has all positive properties. Now then, Brian proposed a different definition. He proposed (to reduce the ontological argument to absurdity) a god-like being with necessary existence, which consisted entirely of the moldy cheese in his refrigerator. After all, you can DEFINE a term however you’d like, as long as you use it consistently. The suspicion Brian had is that we are sneaking the proof of God into our definition – hence his contrary example. Let’s build the checkoff list for Brian’s cheese.

1. Necessary being? Yes. (We were allowing Brian to make this assertion)

2. Exists in Brian’s fridge? Yes.

3. Exists at the North Pole? No.

4. Has positive property #4? No.

5. Has positive property #5? No. ….. (long list)

N. Has positive property N? No.

There are, of course, other positive properties Brian’s cheese has, but the important thing is that it LACKS some positive properties, such as existing at the North Pole.

Now then, let’s ask our question again – WHY doesn’t it exist at the North Pole?

Well, there can only be two reasons, as we said – Lack of sufficient causes, or logical impossibility. There’s nothing logically impossible about existing at the North Pole, in and of itself. So, does it lack the property of existing at the North Pole because of lack of sufficient causes? Sounds good – but WAIT – we already said in point #1 that Brian’s cheese was a NECESSARY BEING – which means it HAS no causes. If it has no causes, it can’t LACK any causes – including the causes that should have caused it to be at the North Pole. The whole thing dissolves into a logical contradiction.

Hence, the only logically necessary being is one with ALL positive properties – because there are no causes lacking which would explain it’s LACKING any positive properties.

The Documentary Hypothesis

In an earlier post ( I began the topic of who wrote the books of Moses (or the Pentateuch) by pointing out incongruities in the five books attributed to Moses that suggested that someone besides Moses had a hand in writing them.

Students of the Pentateuch had also noticed, from a very early time, a number of “doublets” in the books, where the same story was told twice, with different details. There are two creation stories, two interwoven flood stories, two stories of the naming of Bethel, two stories of the covenant between Abraham and God, and a number of others. Also, the details tend to be somewhat contradictory in some of the different parts of the Pentateuch. Moses wife is a Midianite in some stories and a Cushite in others. The ten commandments change from one book to the next. Moses receives the law on Horeb in one account and Sinai in another. Dozens of apologetic arguments and techniques were developed to try to reconcile apparent contradictions and defend the books as the work of Moses.

Beginning in the 18th century, more critical scholars (beginning with French scholar Jean Astruc) noticed something very peculiar about some of these doublets. Almost without fail, any time there were two versions of a story, ONE of the versions would consistently identify God as “YHWH” (Yahweh) whereas the other version would simply call him God (El or Elohim). As scholars started sorting the material based on the criteria of the name used for God, a fascinating picture emerged. Each group of material told many of the same stories, but the “J” group (the ones using the name Yahweh) and the “E” group (the ones using the name Elohim) were very different in many ways, such as style and vocabulary.

To make things even more interesting, scholars noticed that SOME of the stories in the Pentateuch occur in TRIPLETS. Using vocabulary, grammar and style, a third source was identified. This one (which also used Elohim or El-Shaddai for the name of God) was very concerned with priestly rituals and procedures (it constitutes most of the book of Leviticus, for example) and was thus called “P”. I want to emphasize that it was not simply a matter of looking at the choice of the name for God that was used to identify sources. The sources turned out to be very different in many different respects.

“J” was eloquently written, but in a very early form of Hebrew. It had traces of the dialect of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Many of the places in Judah appear in the “J” stories. J is full of angels, talking animals and supernatural occurrences. Aaron figures prominently. God is referred to as “Yahweh” from the beginning. Women appear prominently in “J”. God is very human-like.

“E” was also well written, in form of Hebrew slightly less old than “J”, and with traces of the dialect of Northern Israel. Many of the place names of the Northern Kingdom appear. Moses and Joshua are the primary heroes. The tribe of Levi is emphasized instead of Aaron alone. “E” is the least complete, and often seems included only to fill in details that are missing in “J”. God is human-like. “El” (especially at first) or sometimes “Elohim” is the preferred name of God until the incident at the burning bush. Then “Yahweh” is also used.

“P” is written in later Hebrew, but is a lower-quality of literary style. God is somewhat remote, distant and abstract, stern and just. He is called “Elohim” or “El-Shaddai”. “P” is full of lists, dates, priestly regulations and laws. Aaron is featured prominently and Moses is slightly minimized. No sacrifice is ever mentioned in “P” until Aaron comes on the scene. Judah and the Aaronid priesthood are critical in “P”. There are no angels, talking animals, magic trees or similar colorful characters. “P” seems to be something of a propaganda piece for king Hezekiah.

Once these three sources were identified, it was discovered that Deuteronomy didn’t fit into any of these categories or styles. A new source, “D” was proposed. “D” uses a later Hebrew but of a more elevated style than “P”. It is concerned with the Levites and the Shiloh priesthood. “D” seems to be something of a propaganda piece for King Josiah.

Perhaps an example of these sources in action would be helpful. Let’s look at the flood story in Genesis. This is a particularly interesting case, because verses from “J” and “P” are interwoven in our current Bible, with a section from one, then a section from another, etc. The really remarkable thing is that when taking apart, both are essentially complete stories – but with interesting differences. I’ve used the WEB (Web Bible) version because it helpfully uses “Yahweh” when that word appears in the Hebrew. I’ve kept the reference verse numbers from our current Bible so you can see how they were spliced together.

Here is:

The Flood According to “J”

Genesis 6

(5) Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

(6) Yahweh was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him in his heart.

(7) Yahweh said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the surface of the ground; man, along with animals, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.

(8) But Noah found favor in Yahweh’s eyes.

[Gen 7]

(1) Yahweh said to Noah, Come with all of your household into [a] ship, for I have seen your righteousness before me in this generation.

(2) You shall take seven pairs of every clean animal with you, the male and his female. Of the animals that are not clean, take two, the male and his female.

(3) Also of the birds of the sky, seven and seven, male and female, to keep seed alive on the surface of all the earth.

(4) In seven days, I will cause it to rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights. Every living thing that I have made, I will destroy from the surface of the ground.

(5) Noah did everything that Yahweh commanded him.

(7) Noah went into the ship with his sons, his wife, and his sons wives, because of the waters of the flood.

(10) It happened after the seven days, that the waters of the flood came on the earth.

(12) The rain was on the earth forty days and forty nights.

Gen 7

(16b) And Yahweh shut him [Noah] in [the ship].

(17) The flood was forty days on the earth. The waters increased, and lifted up the ship, and it was lifted up above the earth.

(18) The waters prevailed, and increased greatly on the earth; and the ship floated on the surface of the waters.

(20) The waters prevailed fifteen cubits upward, and the mountains were covered.

(22) All in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, of all that was on the dry land, died.

(23) Every living thing was destroyed that was on the surface of the ground, including man, livestock, creeping things, and birds of the sky. They were destroyed from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ship.

[Gen 8]

(2b) And the rain from the sky was restrained.

(3a) The waters receded from the earth continually.

(6) It happened at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ship which he had made,

Gen 8:8-22

(8) He sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from the surface of the ground,

(9) but the dove found no place to rest her foot, and she returned to him into the ship; for the waters were on the surface of the whole earth. He put forth his hand, and took her, and brought her to him into the ship.

(10) He stayed yet another seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ship.

(11) The dove came back to him at evening, and, behold, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off. So Noah knew that the waters were abated from the earth.

(12) He stayed yet another seven days, and sent forth the dove; and she didn’t return to him any more.

(13b) Noah removed the covering of the ship, and looked. He saw that the surface of the ground was dried.

(20) Noah built an altar to Yahweh, and took of every clean animal, and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar.

(21) Yahweh smelled the pleasant aroma. Yahweh said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for mans sake, because the imagination of mans heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again strike everything living, as I have done.

(22) While the earth remains, seed time and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.

Now let’s see:

The Flood Story According to “P”

(the priestly source.)

Genesis 6

(9) This is the history of the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time. Noah walked with God.

(10) Noah became the father of three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

(11) The earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.

(12) God saw the earth, and saw that it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth.

(13) God said to Noah, The end of all flesh has come before me, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

(14) Make a ship of gopher wood. You shall make rooms in the ship, and shall seal it inside and outside with pitch.

(15) This is how you shall make it. The length of the ship will be three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.

(16) You shall make a roof in the ship, and you shall finish it to a cubit upward. You shall set the door of the ship in its side. You shall make it with lower, second, and third levels.

(17) I, even I, do bring the flood of waters on this earth, to destroy all flesh having the breath of life from under the sky. Everything that is in the earth will die.

(18) But I will establish my covenant with you. You shall come into the ship, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons wives with you.

(19) Of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ship, to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female.

(20) Of the birds after their kind, of the livestock after their kind, of every creeping thing of the ground after its kind, two of every sort shall come to you, to keep them alive.

(21) Take with you of all food that is eaten, and gather it to yourself; and it will be for food for you, and for them.

(22) Thus Noah did. According to all that God commanded him, so he did.

[Gen 7]

(8) Clean animals, animals that are not clean, birds, and everything that creeps on the ground

(9) went by pairs to Noah into the ship, male and female, as God commanded Noah.

(11) In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on the same day all the fountains of the great deep were burst open, and the sky’s windows were opened.

(13) In the same day Noah, and Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, entered into the ship;

(14) they, and every animal after its kind, all the livestock after their kind, every creeping thing that creeps on the earth after its kind, and every bird after its kind, every bird of every sort.

(15) They went to Noah into the ship, by pairs of all flesh with the breath of life in them.

(16a) Those who went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God commanded him;

(19) The waters prevailed exceedingly on the earth. All the high mountains that were under the whole sky were covered.

(21) All flesh died that moved on the earth, including birds, livestock, animals, every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every man.

(24) The waters prevailed on the earth one hundred fifty days.

[Gen 8]

(1) God remembered Noah, all the animals, and all the livestock that were with him in the ship; and God made a wind to pass over the earth. The waters subsided.

(2a) The deeps fountains and the sky’s windows were also stopped

(3b) After the end of one hundred fifty days the waters decreased.

(4) The ship rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on Ararat’s mountains.

(5) The waters receded continually until the tenth month. In the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen.

(7) and he sent forth a raven. It went back and forth, until the waters were dried up from the earth.

(13a) It happened in the six hundred first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth

(14) In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry.

(15) God spoke to Noah, saying,

(16) Go out of the ship, you, and your wife, and your sons, and your sons wives with you.

(17) Bring forth with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh, including birds, livestock, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, that they may breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply on the earth.

(18) Noah went forth, with his sons, his wife, and his sons wives with him.

(19) Every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, whatever moves on the earth, after their families, went out of the ship.

[Gen 9]

(1) God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.

(2) The fear of you and the dread of you will be on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the sky. Everything that the ground teems with, and all the fish of the sea are delivered into your hand.

(3) Every moving thing that lives will be food for you. As the green herb, I have given everything to you.

(4) But flesh with its life, its blood, you shall not eat.

(5) I will surely require your blood of your lives. At the hand of every animal I will require it. At the hand of man, even at the hand of every mans brother, I will require the life of man.

(6) Whoever sheds mans blood, his blood will be shed by man, for God made man in his own image.

(7) Be fruitful and multiply. Bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply in it.

(8) God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying,

(9) As for me, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your offspring after you,

(10) and with every living creature that is with you: the birds, the livestock, and every animal of the earth with you, of all that go out of the ship, even every animal of the earth.

(11) I will establish my covenant with you: all flesh will not be cut off any more by the waters of the flood, neither will there ever again be a flood to destroy the earth.

(12) God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:

(13) I set my rainbow in the cloud, and it will be for a sign of a covenant between me and the earth.

(14) It will happen, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow will be seen in the cloud,

(15) and I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and the waters will no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.

(16) The rainbow will be in the cloud. I will look at it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.

(17) God said to Noah, This is the token of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.


Some points to notice.

  • In “J”, Yahweh is quite human-like. He grieves, he is sorry, he favors Noah, he enjoys the smell of sacrifice, he has a heart.. In “P”, he is more distant. No human emotions or characteristics are mentioned. This corresponds to the theology of the priestly source, who see God as a distant power who can only be approached by priestly sacrifice.
  • In “J”, Noah brings seven pairs (14) of all clean animals and a pair (2) of all unclean animals. In “P” he only brings a pair of all animals. Why? As we see, in “J”, a sacrifice will be offered, and those extra animals will come in handy. In “P”, no sacrifice occurs, so no extra animals are needed. Why no sacrifice in “P”? Because one of the main points of “P” is that ONLY Aaronid priest can offer sacrifice! There is no sacrifice in “P” until Aaron. “P” would not want to admit that Noah or anyone else before Aaron could offer a valid sacrifice.
  • In “J”, There are no elaborate instructions. Noah just grabs a ship. In “P” there are elaborate instructions. This fits the priestly mentality that pleasing God requires obedience to explicit ritual instructions.
  • In “J”, no exact dates are given. There is more of a story-like quality. “P” likes exact dates and lists.
  • In “J”, The flood is caused by 40 days and nights of rain. In “P”, it’s a cosmic catastrophe, with the fountains of the deep opening and the windows of heaven opening, and the flood prevails for 150 days before beginning to subside. The flood has definitely become more grandiose in the interval between “J” and “P”.
  • In “J”, The waters of the flood are 15 cubits deep (about 45 feet) Enough to wipe out cities and cover small local hills. In “P”, the floodwaters are so huge that the take the ark to Mt. Ararat – clearly a global catastrophe.
  • In “J”, The flood stops in 40 days, and Noah is able to leave after waiting 14 days for the waters to dry. In “P”, the flood stops in 150 days (P records the date precisely) and Noah doesn’t leave the ship till more than a year from the day he entered it.
  • In “J”, Noah sends out doves. In “P” he sends out a raven.
  • In “J”, Noah offers a sacrifice and it convinces God never to send a flood again. In “P”, it’s a sovereign decision on Gods part, ratified with a religious covenant contract and a cosmic sign (the rainbow), again corresponding to the priestly view of God as a remote and abstract force interested in precise laws.


Not only does each of the sources have its own very identifiable character, but each story makes much more cohesive sense when extracted from the other and read in isolation. I believe this is a very good illustration of why the explanatory power of the documentary hypothesis makes it a good working model of the sources of the Pentateuch.

Some Objections to the Doumentary Hypothesis

Someone responded to my introduction to the “documentary hypothesis” by pointing to a web site that disagrees with the hypothesis, here: In the interest of responding to objections in general, let me start by commenting on the points made on this site. I should mention that the site is well designed and maintained, and Rev Collins has a lot of excellent material, some of which I agree with. This response is not directed at Rev Collens personally. He seems like a very nice fellow.  I'm simply using his organization of material to formulate a response.

First of all, Rev. Collins implies that the difficulties in authorship were recognized, and accounted for, anciently. “As today, the concept of authorship included the possibilities of ghost writers and editors working under the author’s supervision. Therefore, neither Christians nor Jews had a problem with those passages of the Torah that describe Moses’ death and the ultimate disposition of his body.”

There are several points to be made about this. For one thing, while some of the more obvious problems (such as the account of Moses death) were noticed in ancient times as “issues” – the more analytical evidence assembled for the documentary hypothesis is a very recent development. For another thing, any challenge to Mosaic authorship in earlier historical periods was officially condemned. Both Jews and Christians who suggested any hand other than Moses’ in the Pentateuch suffered ridicule, excommunication, condemnation of their work, censorship and even arrest. Richard Friedman catalogues a few of these in his “Who Wrote the Bible?” The type of analysis that characterizes the documentary hypothesis was only possible when the power of official religion to condemn it had diminished.

But most important, in my earlier discussion ( I pointed out that the incongruities in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch extended far beyond the death of Moses. Various statements are made from the point of view of authors who are looking back on legendary events from at least the middle monarchial period of Israel. Secretaries and scribal assistants of Moses don’t account for this at all.

Rev. Collins next states, “The documentary hypothesis was formulated in the nineteenth century before the bulk of the archaeological discoveries in the Holy Land.” This would be a valid point if Rev. Collins went on to mention any recent discoveries that tended to disprove the documentary hypothesis. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any. He does mention the discovery of the “Hittites”, but there is much debate about equating the biblical “Hittites” with the Anatolia Empire discovered by archeologists (see Even if they were indeed the same group, it would not alter the documentary hypothesis at all. Not only that, but there have been several discoveries that tend to support the documentary hypothesis. For example, many of the excavated sites in Israel show continuous occupation by the same groups of people since before the traditional time of the conquest of Canaan (see “The Religion of Israel” by William Doorly) This tends to suggest that the conquest as described in the Pentateuch was at least partially a later recounting of an earlier legend, as the documentary hypothesis would suggest. Also, archeological evidence suggests that Israel’s early culture and religion was more fragmented and polytheistic than the Pentateuch portrays it.

Names of God

Next we this: “Since the advocates of this theory use the name of God as the main criterion for detecting the constituent documents of the Torah, we must begin by asking if this criterion is truly valid.” This is a significant misunderstanding. Different names for God are not in fact “the main criterion” for detecting constituent documents – they were rather the first vital clue in suggesting the possibility of multiple authors. The idea of constituent documents was only pursued because differences in the name of God were found to correspond to differences in style, theology, geographic and historical emphasis, politics and point of view.

Rev. Collins compares the different names of God in the Pentateuch with Christian authors in the New Testament who sometimes use Jesus, sometimes Christ, sometimes Jesus Christ etc. in referring to the Lord. But supposing that – when we sorted all the New Testament writings according to their names for Jesus – we found that passages that called him “Jesus” always had a very different point of view and theology than passages that called him “Christ”. Suppose further than the “Jesus” passages always referred to places in Galilee and the Christ passages always referred to places near Jerusalem. With enough of these factors diverging, you would be entirely reasonable to wonder if two different authors were responsible. This is exactly the situation in the documentary hypothesis. Shortly I hope to prepare an illustration of this using the “J” and “P” stories of the flood, which are interwoven into one account in our current version of Genesis.

Hard Evidence

Rev. Collins makes a good point that we no hard evidence of the existence of any of the theoretical source documents of the Pentateuch. While this is an argument from silence, it would seem reasonable to give the benefit of the doubt to the text, if it claims to be a unified whole. Unfortunately, the Pentateuch does not make this claim. It seems to be an anonymous work, and there is no clear indication that the books belong together. It is only in tradition that the books of Moses take on a uniform identity with Moses as the author. And while it’s true that we don’t have any early manuscripts of “J”, “E”, “P” or “D”, neither do we have any early manuscripts of the complete Pentateuch. We have some fragments back to the 2nd century or so BCE, with some degree of variation. So there is no “hard” evidence of either the documentary or the traditional hypothesis.

Rev. Collins also complains that there are several versions of the documentary hypothesis, and that the divisions in the text vary somewhat depending on the researcher. But this is what we would expect of an attempt to separate an intricate redaction of at least four sources. Many of the sections being analyzed are short, and the shorter the text, the less likely that it will display ALL the characteristics of a particular author. Researchers have to decide how many characteristics they are willing to rely on to make their decisions on authorship – and it’s only natural that different researchers will make slightly different decisions. There was, at one point, a tendency to extract more and more sources from the Pentateuch, but these attempts have been largely unsuccessful, and opinion has consolidated around four or even three major sources.

“…methods of the documentary hypothesis have not been tested on modern documents to see if they do in fact accurately resolve the literary history of a document,” says In fact, there have been some spectacular successes of similar stylistic analysis on modern documents. For example (as seen here ) Professor Don Foster used similar methods to identify columnist Joe Klein as the author of the anonymous “Primary Colors”. Although initially denying his authorship, Klein finally confessed. Professor Foster went on to prove his methods on several texts presented to him by John Hockenberry of Dateline. Foster correctly identified all the sources in a combined text created by Hockenberry.

Ancient Literacy

Yes, it is entirely possible that if Moses really existed, and was really brought up as a member of the royal house of Egypt, he might have been literate. The only evidence we have of Moses and his status is, of course the Pentateuch itself. This isn’t evidence against the documentary hypothesis. It would simply make the traditional hypothesis a possibility.

The Supernatural

The documentary hypothesis does not require any denial of the supernatural. It is interesting, regarding this, that one of the sources (“P”) DOES seem to have less of a taste for the supernatural than “J” does. In “P”, there are no talking animals, angels, or anthropomorphic pictures of God. God is more transcendent and spirituality more formal. But “J” has supernatural beings and events a-plenty.

The Geographical Origins of the Torah

I’d not heard this point before, but Rev. Collins claims, echoing a claim I’ve now seen at various places around the internet, that the Pentateuch is more familiar with the geography, flora and fauna of Egypt than Palestine. Unfortunately, most of the sites that make this claim don’t provide examples. I found two in the footnotes at ( They are:

1. And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar. (Gen 13:10)

The problem with this is that Zoar in one of the five cities of the plain and is nowhere near Egypt. There are several theories to explain this passage, and I haven’t studied the theories well enough to pass judgment on them. But I certainly wouldn’t count this as good evidence of knowledge of Egyptian geography when, on the surface, it appears the author is totally clueless about where Egypt even is.

2. Acacia trees. Answers in Genesis claims that Acacia are native to Egypt and very rare in Canaan. In fact, there are several places in Canaan named for the acacia (or shittim) tree. It was a highly prized wood found in several places in Canaan. If it were scarcer in Canaan than Egypt, it is all the more natural that it would be used for holy objects, such as the ark.

There is also a claim that the “crop sequence” in Exodus 9:31-32 is Egyptian, not Palestinian. Since I’m not aware of any reliable source of information on crop sequences in ancient Egypt and Palestine, I’ll leave this one alone, but I’d not give it much weight until I saw it documented.

Literary Form

There’s something a little odd about using form criticism to attack source criticism, but in any case, I believe Rev. Collin’s attack is too general. He states that the Pentateuch has the literary form of an ancient suzerainty treaty between a vassal and conqueror. Looking at the example, it seems to me that applying this form to the Pentateuch as a whole is quite arbitrary. It DOES seem to apply quite well to Deuteronomy. This is not a problem for the documentary hypothesis. Friedman and others place the final composition of Deuteronomy at the time of Jeremiah, using older sources that could easily be pre-monarchial. As Jeremiah wrote in the 7th century BCE – a time when suzerainty treaties of this form were still in use, the documentary hypothesis is not disturbed by this form observation.

Synthesis of Northern and Southern Traditions

Rev. Collins finds it improbable that Northern religious documents would be synthesized with Southern, as the Northern kingdom had been destroyed for idolatry and this made all its religious writings tainted and apostate. This is too simplistic. The refugees who fled from the destruction of the Northern kingdom – particularly the priests of Shiloh (who were the probable compilers of “JE”) were unlikely to see this as a judgment of them personally. In fact, the priests of Shiloh likely saw it as a vindication of themselves and their tradition against the Kings who had slighted them. By merging the two traditions, the priests of Shiloh would have been able to attract public support, interests and power. Rather than being opposed by prophets, they were primarily opposed by the Aaronid priest, who (in Friedman’s version) compiled “P” as a polemic response. Ironically, both rival sets of scriptures were finally harmonized by Ezra.

The Origin of the Documentary Hypothesis

Rev. Collins begins: “It is also interesting that the documentary hypothesis did not arise among the rabbis, even though the rabbis have studied the Torah longer, harder, and more critically than anyone else.” We can agree with most of this except perhaps the word “critically”. Well, actually we have to disagree with the whole premise. Jewish scholars did occasionally suggest additional authors for the Pentateuch. In the eleventh century, a Jewish court physician, Isaac Iban Yashush suggested that someone other than Moses wrote parts of the Pentateuch. He was subsequently labeled “Isaac the Blunderer” by other Rabbis. Another Jewish scholar Bonfils of Damascus, wrote similar opinions. They were removed from subsequent editions of his work after his death. Spinoza, suggesting the same thing, was excommunicated from Judaism AND placed on the Catholic index of proscribed books.

Holocaust Connection?

The argument made next is that, by discrediting the Jewish tradition of Mosaic authorship, the documentary hypothesis became ammunition in the cause of anti-Semitism. It should go without saying that one should accept or reject an idea on the basis of the evidence for or against it. It would be not be correct to accept a bad theory simply to avoid discrediting the traditions of a persecuted group. Rev. Collins tacitly admits this, and says he is only bringing up the anti-Semitic angle to warn documentary hypothesis supporters to take precautions to mitigate the unintended consequences of their theory. It’s hard, however, not to see this as a veiled attempt at “poisoning the well”. The only real, lasting approach to teaching tolerance is a respect for the dignity of all human beings, rather than to pretend acceptance of religious traditions that don’t do a good job of explaining the facts.

Does Jesus endorse the Mosaic tradition?

Assuming we are willing to question religious tradition, what of Jesus’ apparent identification of Moses as the author of the Pentateuch? I have pointed out elsewhere ( that Jesus several times seems to question the traditional authorship of various passages of the Old Testament. “An eye for an eye” from Exodus is ascribed by Jesus simply to “them of old” – i.e. a human tradition. So we cannot rely on Jesus mentioning Moses as an endorsement of Mosaic authorship for the entire Pentateuch.

Also, in taking on our humanity, Jesus relinquishes his absolute prerogative to divine omniscience. While at times he displays supernatural knowledge, at other times he seems to share human limitation. Provided that salvation is not compromised, Jesus would not necessarily have omniscient information about the exact sources of the Pentateuch. Even if he did, he might well refer to “Moses” as the traditional author. Just as I might quote “Hamlet” as making a particular remark, when I know the author was actually Shakespeare.

Having responded to some initial objections, I’ll proceed later to the evidence for the documentary hypothesis.

Why Explore Bible Sources?

Someone asked me elsewhere WHY I would explore Biblical sources, when it might risk hurting someone’s faith. It’s a question worthing answering.

Why explore the historical sources of Genesis?

First of all, it’s just plain interesting. It’s a historical jigsaw puzzle and detective story that is absolutely fascinating – at least to me. And I suspect at least somewhat interesting to a few others.

Secondly, the truth never hurts true faith. Any faith that requires the truth to be actively concealed isn’t worth having. One of the best things that can happen to religion, as my bishop says, is to “get real”. Understanding who wrote the various books of the Old Testament, WHY they wrote them, what situations or events they were responding to, what the historical context was… all these things improve our understanding of the Bible. Ignoring these facts can lead to serious misunderstandings. For example? The two creation stories in Genesis. If you think that this is one continuous story by one author, you scratch your head about WHY the creation of man is described twice. To reconcile this, you may decide, as several churches teach, that the first chapter of Genesis is a story of “spiritual” creation and the second describes the actual physical creation. On the other hand, if you learn that these are two different creations by two different authors describing the same creation from two different perspectives – you don’t fall into the trap of inventing such un-biblical rationalizations.

For every person you think is turned away from God by this kind of study, I can point you to quite a few who are turned away from God because of the rationalizations and special pleadings required to shoehorn the Bible into some apologists own invented traditions of what the Bible really means – traditions not informed by the complexity of its sources.

Some people think the appropriate response to unbelief is to offer a superficial but supposedly faith-promoting answer and then become irate and abusive when it isn’t accepted. I tend to prefer a different approach.

Who Wrote the Books of Moses – Introduction

Who wrote the five books of Moses?

From the latter days of the Kings of Israel, the tradition had been established that certain writings had come from the hand of Moses himself:

When they brought out the money that was brought into the house of Yahweh, Hilkiah the priest found the book of the law of Yahweh given by Moses. (2Ch 34:14 WEB) [Referring to the famous “D” source we mentioned earlier]

By the time of Jesus, the tradition was firmly established, and continued for centuries after, that the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) had been written by Moses directly, as these scriptures imply:

But about the dead, that they are raised; havent you read in the book of Moses, about the Bush, how God spoke to him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? (Mar 12:26 WEB) [Referring to Exodus 3:6]

For Moses writes about the righteousness of the law, The one who does them will live by them. (Rom 10:5 WEB) [Referring to Leviticus 18:5]

But over the centuries, scholars who read the “books of Moses” carefully found a few puzzling verses that didn’t make sense coming from the pen of Moses. Here are some of the more famous examples:

So Moses the servant of Yahweh died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of Yahweh. He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab over against Beth Peor: but no man knows of his tomb to this day. (Deu 34:5-6 WEB)

[There are several problems here. Moses is referred to in the third person, which is rather a strange way to write about yourself. Secondly, how can Moses write in the past tense about his own death? Finally, when saying that no one knows the location of Moses’ tomb “to this day” – it implies that Moses death and burial is an event in the distant, even legendary past.]

Now the man Moses was very humble, above all the men who were on the surface of the earth. (Num 12:3 WEB)

[The problem here is obvious. Does a humble man praise his own humility? In the third person??]

When Abram heard that his relative was taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued as far as Dan. (Gen 14:14 WEB)

[This one is a bit harder to notice. Abraham pursued an army till he reached the city of Dan. The problem is, in Abraham’s day, AND IN MOSES’ DAY, the city was not called “Dan”. It was called “Laish”. In the scripture below, in Judges, the Bible explains that the tribe of Dan, AFTER the death of Moses, captured the city of Laish and renamed it to “Dan”]

They called the name of the city Dan, after the name of Dan their father, who was born to Israel: however the name of the city was Laish at the first. (Jdg 18:29 WEB)

Moving along…

Jair the son of Manasseh took all the region of Argob, to the border of the Geshurites and the Maacathites, and called them, even Bashan, after his own name, Havvoth Jair, to this day.) (Deu 3:14 WEB)

[This one also requires a little cross-checking. In the middle of a speech out of Moses’ own mouth in Deuteronomy 3, Moses mentions Jair capturing a region across the Jordan and calling it Havvoth Jair. The problem is, as we read about in the scripture below, Jair was a judge, who lived long after Moses, and his conquest took place after Moses was dead. Furthermore, Deuteronomy tells us that the city is called Havvoth Jair “to this day”. This means that the writer of this verse is looking back, not only on Moses, but on the time of the JUDGES as being in the distant, legendary past. Here’s the verse in Judges:]

After him arose Jair, the Gileadite; and he judged Israel twenty-two years. He had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkey colts, and they had thirty cities, which are called Havvoth Jair to this day, which are in the land of Gilead. (Jdg 10:3-4 WEB)


They took his land in possession, and the land of Og king of Bashan, the two kings of the Amorites, who were beyond the Jordan toward the sunrise; (Deu 4:47 WEB)

[What’s the problem here? It’s describing the Amorites as being “beyond the Jordan” – to the East. This only makes sense for a writer living IN ISRAEL, on the WEST side of the Jordan – a place Moses never reached.]

Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. The Canaanite was then in the land. (Gen 12:6 WEB)

[This explanatory comment makes no sense unless when the writer was writing, the Canaanites were no longer in the land… in other words, AFTER the time of the Judges.]

These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the children of Israel. (Gen 36:31 WEB)

[But this implies that the writer is familiar with the time when kings DID reign over Israel! So we are looking at a comment written after Moses, after the conquest, after the Judges, and after the beginning of the Monarchy]

The obvious conclusion is that at least one of the writers who contributed to the five books of Moses lived in the middle to late monarchal period of Israel or Judah, many centuries after the time of Moses. Let me be careful, however, add some qualifications:

1. These later writers or editors might be using or editing much older sources.
2. Nothing in this argument prevents us from believing that these later writers or editors were spiritually inspired.

All it argues against is the tradition that Moses, and ONLY Moses, wrote the first five books of the Old Testament.

The next clue about the authorship of these books comes from examining the mysterious parallel accounts of the same events that they contain. More on that later.

Bibliolatry’s Beginnings

In previous postings, I argued against the notion that “The Word of God” means the written Bible. In the first, here:
I argued that the Bible itself says that it is more the spoken word that is portrayed in the Bible as carrying divine power. In a second installment, here:
I said that the written Bible represents a “static” form of the dynamic “Word”, which can sometimes choke the life out of any new, living, developing, growing expressions of divine power.

Taking a scholarly/critical approach to the Bible, I think we can see a few examples of this occurring. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll simplify the scholarship somewhat, and assume that the scholars know what they are talking about. If time permits, I’d like to examine more of the evidence for the multiple sources in the Old Testament.

In 410 BC, on the Egyptian island of Elephantine, a group of Jews sent a rather peculiar letter to the Persian governor of Judah asking for authorization to rebuild the temple of Yahu (Yahweh) on Elephantine, which had been destroyed by jealous priests of a rival temple. This temple was apparently built shortly after the immigration of a garrison of Jewish soldiers to the island during the reign of Manasseh of Judah (son of Hezekiah). The Jews there not only worshiped Yahu, but also several other deities, including Yahu’s female consort. They express puzzlement in their letter that the Jewish leadership of Jerusalem, to whom they have written, haven’t answered them.

To modern readers who take the Bible as history, this is confusing. Didn’t these Jews know that the laws of Moses commanded the offering of sacrifice in only a single location, and that the prophets had said the temple at Jerusalem was this location? Didn’t they know that the laws of Moses dictated that only descendents of Aaron could be priests, and only Levites could assist them? Didn’t they know that ONLY Yahweh should be worshipped, and that he did not have a consort? No, apparently they didn’t know these things.

The reason they didn’t know these things is that the Law of Moses and most of the rest of the Old Testament is apparently a bit of revisionist history. It projects backwards into the ancient past – laws and regulations that were developed very late in the history of Israel and Judah, by two groups of what could be described as religious fundamentalists. Ironically, while these two groups (one from the Northern Kingdom and one from the Southern) not only disagreed with the popular religious practice of nearly everyone – they also disagreed quite strongly with each OTHER. These two groups were the Levite (Mushite) priests of Shiloh in the North, and the Aaronid priests of Jerusalem in the South.

At two periods in time, during the reigns of Hezekiah and later Josiah – each of these groups was able to alternately put “their man” onto the throne, to institute a religious reform according to their group’s ideas, and attempting to destroy all competing religious ideas and practices. We might think of this as the Jewish version of England’s enforced Puritanism under Cromwell – except that it happened twice, with a different group in charge each time.

In each case, the reforms probably centered around a written guideline – which was passed off as being “The Law given to Moses”. In Hezekiah’s case, this was probably a document that scholars call “P”, the “Priestly source” of the Old Testament. It’s showpiece is the book of Leviticus, but it includes other parts of the Old Testament, including the Genesis 1 and part of the flood story. P focused on priestly laws, systems of sacrifice, specific instructions for religious observance. It implied that the Jerusalem temple was the only proper place to sacrifice, and that only descendents of Aaron could be priests. Aaron was the hero of “P” and Moses role was downplayed slightly. “P” was written partly in response to several earlier collections of sacred writings which had begun to circulate. Apparently the “P” source felt these earlier sources had problems. This is not to say that the “P” writer necessarily acted dishonestly. He may have been assembling older traditions of his priestly family – traditions which had been legendarily created by Moses as part of the Law.

The other religiously zealous group – the priests of Shiloh, were not entirely pleased. They were Levites, and believed that ALL Levites were proper priests, not just the sons of Aaron. They believed themselves to be descendents of Moses, and superior to Aaron. Hezekiah had destroyed one of their most precious religious artifacts when he destroyed the brass serpent of Moses that was kept in the temple. The Shiloh priests were also the ones who had produced some of the writings that “P” was written as a “rebuttal” to.

One of these Shiloh was Jeremiah. Read carefully what he says in his book of prophecies.

Jer 7:21-22 WEB
(21) Thus says Yahweh of Armies, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat meat.
(22) For I didnt speak to your fathers, nor command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices:

In other words, Jeremiah is saying that this new “P” document, which is circulating, claiming to be the Law of Moses, and commanding all sorts of sacrifice, is a fraud. He’s even clearer in this scripture

Jer 8:8 WEB
(8) How do you say, We are wise, and the law of Yahweh is with us? But, behold, the false pen of the scribes has worked falsely.

The false scribes Jeremiah rants about were the authors of Leviticus.

The Shiloh priest waited their turn. Hezekiah died and his reforms were quickly overturned by a population that had no taste for the priestly religion. Several generations later, king Josiah comes onto the scene. He is raised from boyhood by the priests of Shiloh. When he is a man, he begins a reconstruction project on the temple, under the direction of the priests of Shiloh, who are now the favored group. Lo and behold, one of them “finds” in some dark corner of the temple, a book – “The book of the Law”, which they bring and show to Josiah. He is horrified at all the laws his people are breaking, and begins another purge, this time focusing on the particular enemies of the Shiloh priesthood.

Scholars are reasonably sure that the “book” Josiah was given was Deuteronomy – the law book of the Shiloh priests. Some scholars, such as Richard Friedman, believe the author of this book – or at least its editor, was Jeremiah himself. Again, Jeremiah wasn’t necessarily acting deceitfully. The Law code he wrote down may well have been passed down to him as having come from Moses. The act of “finding” the book in the temple, however, was probably a ruse. This source, called “D”, eventually included a longer history of Israel from the view of the Shiloh priests.

Josiah died young in a battle and his reform quickly died with him. It was not until the return from captivity that a scribe, most likely the Aaronid priest Ezra, assembled the various sacred sources, including “P” and “D” into one book of the “Law of Moses”. Ezra was sent back to Jerusalem with this book under his arm, and with authority from the Persians to enforce the rules of the book on the returning Jewish population.

It was in THIS third age of “bibliolatry” that the priests of Elephantine wrote to Jerusalem asking for help rebuilding their temple. This group, which left Jerusalem in the reign of Manasseh, apparently had no idea that Judaism had been totally transformed by Ezra into a religion of the book. To them, the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah had been brief, odd blips in history. But as a result of the new books of Moses, the Elephantines with their multiple temples, multiple gods and “illegitimate” priests were now arch-heretics.

In summary then, while at various times in Bible history, the idea of a written Book as the authoritative “Word of God” was promoted, there was much controversy about such claims by rival groups, by the prophets, and as I said earlier, by Jesus himself. The Bible actually represents a compilation of several, somewhat contradictory written sources from various periods, each having a point of view and each claiming to come more or less directly from God.

Bibliolatry Continued

In a previous article I argued that Christians who think “The Word of God” means exactly and exclusively a leather-bound Bible with gold edging are laboring under a false assumption. The Bible itself uses the phrase to mean “the spoken word”, and the prophets Jesus, and the apostles had issues with the veneration of the literal words of scripture. I also pointed out that the history of the Bible shows no signs of God intending it to be his one and only communication to humanity.

I postponed the question “How did the Bible come to be so venerated” for another article – this one.

I’d like to begin at a very high level with a concept that Robert Pirsig uses in his works, particularly “Lila – an Inquiry into Morals”, and which I’ve discussed briefly before here:

Pirsig talks about “Static Quality” as opposed to “Dynamic Quality”. You may remember, from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that Pirsig refuses to actually define “Quality”. But in spite of that difficulty, we would look for “Quality” at the cutting edge of experience. The ground floor of reality – before there is any time for analysis, or for subjects and objects to be distinguished, or for categories to be applied. You could easily associate “Quality” with God, or with the “God behind God” to use Tillich’s phrase, or the Tao, or many other things.

This primal Quality enters our existence as something called “Dynamic Quality”. As such, it is unstructured, but full of creative power. It is the force behind change, growth and new development. You may recall that I said the phrase “the Word of God” in the Bible conveyed a sense of dynamic creative power, that entered into a person or group and grew in an organic manner. This is Dynamic Quality. This is what the Bible seems to be referring to when it talks of God’s “Word”.

As the force of Dynamic Quality enters the world, it becomes habituated. It develops form, structure and order. It becomes “Static Quality”. This corresponds to things like the Bible. A static expression that solidified out of dynamic spiritual experience. Static Quality gives us laws, moral codes, dogmas, cultural patterns.

It’s easy to think of Dynamic Quality as “good” and Static Quality as “bad”, but both are necessary. By itself, Dynamic Quality is like fire. Its energy can not only create, but destroy. Jesus’ saying in the Gospel of Thomas is interesting in this context: “I have cast fire upon the world, and see, I am guarding it until it blazes… He who is near me is near the fire, and he who is far from me is far from the kingdom.” (Thomas 10,82)

But if it is totally uncontrolled, fire can destroy too much. Without something to contain and preserve the creative achievements of Dynamic Quality, there can be no progress. This is where Static Quality comes in. Static Quality is a stake in the ground – a foundation on which the next wave of Dynamic Quality can build. If it were not for Static Quality, every new human being who comes along would have to build from scratch starting with stone-age technology, stone-age thinking, and stone-age art. Isaac Newton said "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”. The giants represent Static Quality, whose job is to solidly maintain the progress of the past.

On the other hand, Static Quality can easily become TOO static. Laws, systems, morals, dogmas and cultures can become so entrenched in the static that Dynamic Quality has little room to operate. In trying to keep the village safe from fire, Static Quality can end up outlawing fire entirely, and so dooming the village to cold, stagnant death. Whenever a system becomes so rigid that no new creative development can occur, Static Quality has been allowed too much authority.

So any culture, institution or system must find the appropriate balance to allow growth without dissolving into beautiful chaos. One of the reasons science has been so successful is because it seems to have found such a balance. New theories are encouraged, but established theories have some inertia, and are somewhat difficult to discard.

In religion, on the other hand, Static Quality has become a serious problem. Using the weapons of Divine sanction, with eternal rewards and punishments – Static Quality has been elevated to an ultimate religious virtue – Faith. Faith in the sense of absolute acceptance of an absolutely unchanging creed, and an absolutely infallible canon of scripture – the written Bible.

Dynamic and Static Quality often alternate in waves of fresh inspiration followed by a crystallization. Evidence of such waves can be found in the history of the Bible.

More on that next installment

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