AUTHORING THE OLD TESTAMENT: GENISIS-DEUTERONOMY – A BOOK REVIEW

by Michael Barker

I’m not sure when I first learned of the documentary hypothesis, but I do remember when I first heard that Dr. David Bokovoy was working on a book that would introduce the documentary hypothesis to an LDS audience. It was during a Mormon Matters podcast episode in October of 2013.   I was immediately fascinated and anxious to get my hands on a copy. For those that have never heard of the documentary hypothesis, the hypothesis holds that the Bible comes from the writings of different scribal schools.  Eventually all these documents were weaved together, by an unknown redactor, into a what we now have.

I had many questions regarding the hypotheses as it presents some unique problems for a traditional-believing Mormon.  A few of my questions  were:

  1. What does this say regarding the Book of Abraham?
  2. What does this say regarding the Book of Moses?
  3. What does this say regarding Joseph Smith’s claim to be a translator and restorer of ancient scripture?

I was very excited when Kofford Books sent me an advance reading copy of Bokovoy’s book.  I had listened to him on enough podcasts to safely assume that his approach to teaching this information would most likely be easily understood.  So, enough of my dribble.  To quote Nacho Libre, “Let’s get down to the nitty gritty!”

As you already ascertained, I am not a scholar.  I am a run of the mill Mormon and that’s okay.  This book was written for people like me.  Up to now, the book reviews I have read of Bokovoy’s, Authoring the Old Testament, have been by those who are already well versed regarding the ins and outs of the documentary hypothesis.  So, I hope this review will be more for the average Mormon reader.

In his introduction, Bokovoy sets out what he hopes readers will come away with:

“It is my sincere hope that this study will help confirm that within Mormonism, spirituality and critical thinking are not only not mutually exclusive paradigm, they are a united undertaking” (Bokovoy, pg X).

 CHAPTER ONE – WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO READ THE BIBLE CRITICALLY?

Chapter one introduces the audience to the idea of reading the Bible critically.  Bokovoy does this by inviting the reader to take a closer look at Genesis, chapters one and two.  As he points out, there are two different creation narratives here.  By using these two narratives, he shows how the two chapters provide a different view of God and of creation.  He points out that Joseph Smith was a critical reader of the Bible. That is, he noticed the inconsistencies within the text.  Joseph’s approach to these inconsistencies, however, was radically different than what prior interpreters had done:

“…when biblical texts like Genesis 1 and 2 appeared to contradict each other, qualified professional interpreters (such as scribes, rabbis, or priests) would reinterpret the plain meaning of words for their respective communities in a way that made the Bible conform with both itself and the interpreter’s particular religious preference.  The Prophet Joseph Smith did not accept this type of interpretive approach.  Instead, Joseph turned to what he identified as revelation and scribal errors to explain what he perceived as problems in the text”(Bokovoy, pg. 5)

Bokovoy then moves on to talk about the view that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible; this is a view that almost no scholar of the Hebrew Bible accepts.   Bokovoy dismantles the idea of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch with precision.  He does so by going through a long list of inconsistencies of which I was completely ignorant, such as differences in law collections.  The interesting thing that was as he did this, he pointed out how the Book of Mormon’s view of Israelite worship was actually consistent with modern scholarship.  That is, the Book of Mormon presents Lehi as offering sacrifice at places outside of Jerusalem, as opposed to central place of worship.  Using a scholarly approach to the Bible also gives us a window into Joseph Smith’s mind as an interpreter and redactor of the Bible:

“Theological  changes [in the Old Testament] underscore the fact that those persons most responsible for maintaining the orthography of the texts tampered with their wording so as to preserve the religious dignity of these documents according to contemporary theological tastes”(Bokovoy, pg 16, quoting Michael Fishbane).

At the end of chapter one, and the end of all the chapters, Bokovoy has a short conclusion.  This is very helpful as it is sometimes hard to see the forest through the trees of scholarship.  In just a few paragraphs, Bokovoy is able to concisely and easily condense a chapter’s worth of scholarship. In the last paragraph of chapter one’s conclusion, he states:

“When combined with the historical anachronisms (including Moses’ death) that appear throughout the Pentateuch, it seems likely that these books were written by various individual long after the Prophet Moses.  If we are going to make sense of these issues, we must follow the lead of Joseph Smith and the earlier European rationalists who influenced his world-view and begin and intellectual journey that takes the contradictions between these texts seriously”(Bokovoy, pg. 16).

CHAPTER TWO – WHAT? DIFFERENT SOURCES FOR THE PENTATEUCH?

Chapter two starts off by giving a great definition of the term, Higher Criticism and the historical critical method.   Bokovoy defines thee as such:

“[Higher Criticism] refers to an attempt to explain the types of inconsistencies in the Bible we have witnessed so far by identifying original independent textual sources. Higher Criticism is an important part of what scholars today refer to as the historical-critical method, which refers to an approach to biblical interpretation that seeks to read the texts ‘historically,’ meaning in accordance with its original historic setting, and ‘critically,’ meaning independent from any contemporary theological perspective or agenda.  As an expression, ‘Historical Criticism’ is the label that we often use today for mainline biblical scholarship that has been done for roughly the past two centuries”(Bokovoy, pg. 17).

With this clear definition, Bokovoy then goes on to explain what it is, and  gives two wonderful examples of how the Documentary Hypothesis works.  The easiest example for an LDS audience to grasp uses the Book of Mormon as an analogy.   The Book of Mormon claims to be an ancient text that was produced by different scribes – Lehi, Nephi, Mormon, etc.  Mormon, the redactor of all these scribal records, edits or compiled all the different documentary accounts into a single narrative.  “This is precisely what the evidence suggests happened in terms of the development of the Pentateuch.  At some point in time, Israelite scribes produced separate versions of their history (many of which covered the same events), and these documentary sources were eventually brought together by an editor that scholars refer to as a redactor,” explains Bokovoy.

To further add clarification that there were different scribal schools that provided the narratives of the Pentateuch, Bokovoy does something quite interesting.   He takes the three chapters of Genesis that deal with the Noahtic story and separates the different sources by using bold font.  In so doing, he is able to clearly show where the different scribal schools influenced the text and it really engages the reader.

Bokovoy is clearly able to make strong arguments for the documentary hypothesis, not only based on the creation narratives and the Noahtic story.  He actually provides four strong arguments for  this hypothesis. They are the inconsistencies in:

  1. The creation narrative
  2. the Noahtic narrative
  3. the Mosaic Laws
  4. the story of Joseph being sold into Egypt.

CHAPTER THREE – HOW DO WE IDENTIFY THE SOURCES?

From here, Bokovoy moves on to how scholars identify the different source.  In his opening paragraph of chapter 3, Bokovoy points out some of the challenges that the Documentary Hypothesis presents when he states, “It is much easier to identify the separate sources than it is to actually use the documents to recreate a textual history.”  I appreciated his candor and transparency in pointing out this short coming.

Bokovoy first tackles the Priestly Source (P) which he believes was written in response to the Babylonian destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 586 BC and the Judean exile.   While taking us through some unique aspects of the P Source, he clarifies something for me which I have been confused about.  What the heck do scholars mean when the speak of the “prehistory’?   You’ll have to pick up the book to see what he says about that.

Next, he tackles the Holiness School (H).  This one I was excited to read about, as I had not read about this before.  As I was reading the difference between the P and the H Sources, I was very intrigued because four years ago, while studying the Hebrew Bible, I started to make note of how often the word holy was used.  I must admit I became a little confused between the differences of the P and H Sources as they sounded very similar, but Bokovoy offers this clarification:

“The difference between the P and the H is subtle but can nevertheless by identified.  The Priestly Torah focuses upon priestly ordinances designed to maintain holiness through ritual activity.  In contrast, the Holiness School shows a greater concern with how holiness, as a state of being, relates to humans, places, objects, times, and ultimately God himself…holiness is achieved primarily through moral behavior rather than ritual” (Bokovoy, pg. 49).

Next, we move on to the Yawistic Source (J).  Bokovoy situates the J Source sometime seventh century BC.  This would place the final J Source right around the time of Nephi and Lehi.    Some of the unique characteristics of the J Source are:

  1. Southern Kingdom (Judah) is prominent
  2. More interested in how things began
  3. Yahweh has court or assembly
  4. The God of the J Source is anthropomorphic

Regarding the latter, Bokovoy does a great job of distinguishing the J Source’s view of an anthropomorphic God and that of Mormonism’s anthropomorphic God.

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One of the helpful tables in Bokovoy’s book. This is a quick references to the different sources.

The Elohist Source (E) was interesting to read about as I wanted to learn the distinguishing factors between it and the P source;  they both sounded very similar to me. Bokovoy points out that, “E is the most challenging source to identify in the Pentateuch” (pg. 55). While reading, I came across a very confusing sentence that I could not understand no matter how much I read it:

“Some scholars have argued that the editor primarily chose to include portions of E in the creation of the Pentateuch when E featured stories  that a parallel version did not exist J, such as the story of Abraham” (page 55).

E is very ethnocentric; much like the Book of Mormon.  That is, “if a story is not specifically an ‘Israelite’ account, then it was simply not worth telling”(pg. 55).  It is in this portion of the book that Bokovoy shows his talent of using comfortable parallels in the Mormon narrative to explain a complicated concept such as we find in footnote 25 of page 55.   In so doing, he is able to bring down possible reactionary defenses that some LDS readers may have to the Documentary Hypothesis.  Now some distinguishing factors of E:

  1. Focuses on the Northern Kingdom (J &P) focus on the Southern Kingdom
  2. Focuses on the prophetic leadership of four of Israel’s ancestors; Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses.
  3. God reveals His will by means of dreams or vision rather than direct appearances
  4. Frequent references to Angels.  This puts Elohim at even a greater distance than what we find in P
  5. Probably written in the Northern Kingdom around the ninth century BC; making it older than J or P.
  6. In the E Source, God reveals His name (Jehovah) to Moses three chapters earlier than the P source.  The fact that God reveals His name as Jehovah in two different places points to the idea that there are two sources in play.

Bokovoy then goes on to give a short and concise historical survey of  Mormonism’s  tradition of referring to God the Father as Elohim and Jehovah as His premortal son.    At this point of the book, I would have enjoyed a deep dive into the names, Elohim and Jehovah.  How are these two names different from eachother?  When is Elohim plural vs. singular?  When is El used as opposed to Elohim?  What theological benefit do Mormons get from making such a hard-line distinction between Elohim and Jehovah?

Bokovoy then takes us on to the Deuteronomic Source (D).   This souce also interested me a great deal as I had very little concept of how it came into play with the Pentateuch.   Some distinguishing factors of the D Source that Bokoovy points out:

  1. Israel is holy because they are chosen by God.  This as opposed to P (holy though ritual) and H (holy through obedience).
  2. Comes from an Israelite scribal school from the Northern Kingdom
  3. Lacks any formal references to the Southern Davidic dynasty
  4. Heavy emphasis on prophecy (see Deuteronomy 18:15-22)
  5. The Holy Mountain of God is Mt. Horeb (the north authors) as opposed to Mt. Sinai (southern authors).
  6. Deuteronomists started their Israelite history prior to the Northern Kindom’s fall to Assyria in 772 BC.
  7. Importance of central worship, ie the Jerusalem temple.  Which is weird if you think about it because the Deuteronomists emphasize the Northern kingdom.
  8. Emphasis on the ONE.  One God.  One acceptable temple. One chosen people of God to serve as His one covenant people.
  9. The Shema is found in the D Source
  10. God is less corporal than even the P Source and provides the D Source’s justification for the prohibition against idolotry (see Deuteronomy 4:15-16)
  11. It is God’s name (not body) that dwells in the temple.  This is in contrast to the P source where God’s glory (God’s kavod, which scholars typically see as physical/corporal (but less corporal still than J)) dwells in the temple (See Numbers 14:10)

I found the connections that Bokovoy made between Deuteronomist exiles to the Southern kingdom, Hezikiah’s and Josiah’s reforms super fascinating.  Loved it.

Now, one thing that can easily be missed by the non-scholar, like myself, is the forest through the trees.  I can get easily overwhelmed by the neat details, that I forget how different ideas compare to eachother.  It appears that Bokovoy know this, as he provides a wonderful table on page seventy-one which provides a clear summary of distinguishing characteristics between the different sources.

CHAPTER FOUR – DATING THE SOURCES

Chapter four starts off  by addressing the argument that the logic behind the Documentay Hypothesis is ciruclar.  That is, it assumes what it is trying to prove. An expample woud be, “since J perfers to use the divine name, Jehova, source critics simply identify a literary section where Yaweh appears as J.” Bokovy counters this criticism by saying:

“The truth is however, that the identification of these unique sources constitutes a secondary, rather than a primary feature of the analysis”(pg. 73)

At this point, Bokovoy introduces the reader to the term, diachronic analysis, which is “the study of the manner in which language evolves over time”(pg. 77).  This is an important concept, as much of the dating for the different sources has to do with how the Hebrew language changed over time.  Bokovoy compares the differences in the Hebrew language by comparing how different modern English is to the English found in Beowulf.  By separating the different Pentateuchal texts according to their narratives, a diachronic analysis can help determine the historical relationship of the sources to one another.   Here, Bokovoy cites the work of scholar Richard Elliott Friedman to show us what a diachronic analysis can reveal:

  1. The Hebrew of J and E comes from the earliest stage of biblical Hebrew
  2. The Hebrew of P comes from a later stage of language
  3. The Hebrew of the Deuteronomistic texts comes rom a still later stage of the language
  4. P comes from an earlier stage of Hebrew than the Hebrew of the Book of Ezekiel (which derives from the time of the Babylonian exile).
  5. All of these many sources come from a sstage of  Hebrew knows as Classical or “Standard” Biblical Hebrew, which is earlier than the Hebrew of post-exilic, Persian period  (known as Late Biblical Hebrew).

With all of this, there are still some things that still confuse me.

  1. What the heck is “Biblical Hebrew” exactly?
  2. Page seventy seven states, “…late historical books in the Old Testament, like Esther and portions of Daniel, were written in Aramaic instead of Hebrew.” Three pages later, Bokovoy states, “..the linguistic evidence behind the biblical sources show no signs whatsoever that the biblical sources could have been original written in a language other than Hebrew.”  Huh?

CHAPTER 5 – MESOPOTAMIAN INFLUENCE

My immediate question is, “Why couldn’t the Hebrews have influenced the Mesopotamians instead of the other way around?”    Well, it turns out that Bokovoy answers that question directly:

  1. No historical reason to believe that the Mesopotamian scribes would have adopted Israelite sources.
  2. Israel and Judea were controlled by Mesopotamian empires throughout history
  3. Israelite scribes were trained in Akkadian (the language in which the Mesopotamian sources were written).
  4. The Bible adapts the Laws of Hammurabi and Vassal Treaties
  5. The Mesopotamian texts predate the period in which the biblical sources were written.
  6. Based upon the Bible’s own internal chronology, it is impossible for any  of the Hebrew sources to have existed prior to the mid-second millennium BC, when the Hebrew nation originated through Abraham
  7. If Abraham somehow brought with him written sources from Ur that later scribes drew upon, those hypothetical sources would have been Mesopotamian.

Well, he answered that question soundly.  Regarding number 6, I would have liked to seen an example of “internal chronology.”

From here, Bokovoy brings some fantastic insights to the Hebrew word tehom (deep) and the Akkadian word, Tiamat (the sea monster that the Babylonian God, Marduk, fights in the myth Enuma Elish).  Also, Bokovoy’s insights regarding the divine council, the idea that Yahweh is working with pre-existent material with creation (not ex nihilo), and the way he ties it all into the Enuma Elish myth was super fantastic.  Loved it, and I think that even the more traditional-believing Mormons would find these insights helpful.

One of the questions I use to have with the Adam and Eve story was, what is the purpose of the story?  I mean, Adam and Eve could obviously make choices before eating the fruit; they are able to name animals before eating the fruit.  They were obviously sentient beings.  So what kind of knowledge does the fruit bring?  Bokovoy makes a strong argument that it is sexual awareness.   The J source uses eating as a euphemism.  Bokovoy points out this isn’t the only part in the Bible where such a euphemism is used:

For the way of an adulteress:

she eats, and wipes her mouth

and says, “I have done nothing wrong” (Proverbs 30:20)

Is there something different about human’s sexual awareness?  I mean cats and dogs copulate too.  J does see human sexual behaviour as different.   “For J, humans possessed an advanced knowledge of sex unlike the animals, but very much like the gods” (pg. 107).

Bokovoy then makes his way through the parallels seen in Genesis and the Sumerian King Lists, Mesopotamian flood myths, and the Tower of Babel, Covenant Codes of Hammurabi (the discussion of Apodictic and Casuistic Laws was fascinating), Deuteronomy as Assyrian Vassal Treaty, Sargon of Akkad and Moses.

There was one confusing part for me in the above listing.  Regarding the Noahtic story, Bokovoy states:

“Humanity is evil, constantly seeking to usurp the boundary  Yahweh sought to maintain between gods and humans.  However, following the flood and sacrifice that ‘feeds’ Yahweh through smell, he changes in the course of the story. Yahweh comes to terms with humanity’s nature (see Genesis 8:21). 

P shares the same Mesopotamian themes, however, it invokes them differently.  In P, God created humans and commanded them to only eat plants (see Genesis 1:9).  However, humanity proves unable to rule and have dominion as the ‘image’ of God;  and the overpopulation and not enough food, the earth became filled with violence (Genesis 6:11).  In P, God sends the flood to eradicate this problem. Without the sacrifice that we find in both J and Mesopotamian tradition, P’s resolution to the flood story simply involves God changing his stipulation that humans could not eat meat (Genesis 9:3)” (pg. 112).

How does allowing humans to eat meat take care of the problem?  Is it that humans can now eat meat and so they don’t get so hungry and violent anymore?

Regarding the Assyrian Vassal treaty, Bokovoy makes a wonderful connection between it, covenantal devotion, and the Book of Mormon; you’ll have to read about it, sorry.

CHAPTER SIX – READING THE PENTATEUCH CRITICALLY AS A LATTER-DAY SAINT

In the opening paragraph to this chapter, Bokovoy gets right to the heart of the problem of Historical Criticism as it pertains to Mormonism.  He provides a quick view into how he is going to resolve the problem:

“A critical analysis, however need not be interpreted as antithetical to religiosity.  It only presents problems for certain religious paradigms that run against such an approach” (pg. 123)

As he negotiates through the problems that critical analysis can provide, Bokovoy uses the Prophet, Joseph Smith as our guide:

“The fact that Joseph Smith went to scholars to gain knowledge concerning the scriptures shows that he believed that revelation was no the only way to read scripture” (pg. 126)

Later Bokovoy provides another gym of a quote that could really put at ease those that are uncomfortable with some of the conclusions that the Documentary Hypothesis can make:

“The Christian world accepts the Bible as the word of God.  Most have no idea of how it came to us.  I have just completed reading a newly published book by a renowned scholar.  It is apparent from information which he gives that the various books of the Bible were brought together in what appears to have been an unsystematic fashion.  In some cases, the writings were not produced until long after the events they describe.  One is led to ask, ‘Is the Bible true? Is it really the word of God?’  We reply it is , insofar as it is translated correctly.  The hand of the Lord was in its making” (pg. 131, quoting Gordon B. Hinkley, “The Great Things Which God Has Revealed,” Ensign, May 2005, 81).

Isn’t’ that an amazing and confirming quote?   I have to share one more wonderful quote before moving on to chapter 7:

“In a nutshell, here is my view of the Bible as a Jew:  The bible is a sourcebook that I – within my community – make into a textbook.  I do so by selecting, re-evaluating, and interpreting the texts that I call sacred” (pg. 132, quoting Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible, 280).

CHAPTERS SEVEN THROUGH NINE – HIGHER CRITICISM AND THE BOOK OF MOSES, THE BOOK OF ABRAHAM AND THE BOOK OF MORMON

Beginning with chapter seven, Bokovoy begins to tackle some of the unique problems that the Documentary Hypothesis poses for scripture that is unique to the LDS tradition.   These next chapters is where the gold is.  I will honor Bokovoy’s request by not spilling the beans as far as his conclusions go:

“I recognize that some readers will no doubt feel tempted to start with the concluding chapters that focus on the implications of Higher Criticism for the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and the Book of Mormon.  I hope that my reader will avoid this temptation and instead choose to approach this book like he or she would a detective  novel.  I believe that it is essential that the reader first understand the ‘case’ before skipping ahead to learn the ending” (pg. xii, footnote 2).

 I will say this, I appreciated Bokovoy’s candor in exploring the problems that our unique LDS scripture has with regards to the Documentary hypothesis.  He brings up issues that I was aware of, some that I wasn’t aware of, and one in particular that I’ve seen as a problem, but have never seen addressed until reading this book.   Bokovoy, to his credit, never ends these chapters on a sour note.  He ends each chapter with some unique connections between these books and the ancient Near Eastern World, ways to nuance one’s approach to scripture, and then short summary conclusions.   Each of these three chapters essentially follow as follows:

  1. Problem
  2. Possible Solution
  3. Ancient Near Eastern connection
  4. Conclusion

Okay, I’ll give you a little  pearl he provides just to tease you:

“Historicity is never the construct that defines scripture as scripture” (pg. 171).

MY CONCLUSIONS

I loved this book and you should buy it.  Not super articulate, but it’s true.  David Bokovoy has converted me to the ways of Higher Criticism.

Let me end with his closing thought in his concluding chapter:

“Historical Criticism allows Latter-day Saints to make informed judgments about the Bible’s current meaning and significance (or insignificance) in their lives.  From this angle, Historical Criticism is a spiritual quest. It is a quest for truth”

Amen.

Michael is a Guatemalan-American Mormon living in the Northwest with his family. He is one of the proprietors of the Rational Faiths blog.

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