Q&A: Critical Approaches to the Pentateuch

Critical Approaches to the Pentateuch

Why is it important for evangelicals to become familiar with critical approaches to the Pentateuch?

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Answer

There are several critical approaches to the Pentateuch which really undermine, I think, the Christian faith. I think the one key issue is the authorship of the Pentateuch. Traditionally, over the centuries, we've understood that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch, and there are certain sections, especially his death notice that he didn't write, but overall that Moses was responsible for the Pentateuch around about fifteenth century B.C. Well, critical scholars have raised questions about that and, in fact, undermined Mosaic authorship, really, dating a number of the sections of the Pentateuch anywhere from tenth century all the way through to the fifth, sixth century, you know. And what that means is that those changing the dates and undermining Mosaic authorship locates it at the least kind of 400 years later but up to eight, nine hundred years after the events themselves. So you have an enormous period of time that there is a gap between the events themselves and when they were written. And, we also have authors, these hypothetical authors, who actually don't have real names. They have names based on the names of God that is used. So, I think it undermines the authority of the biblical text. I think it raises questions about the whole process of transmission of the biblical text as well.

The other area where critical scholarship has raised questions about the biblical text is also in Near Eastern material, and especially in the early chapters of Genesis. We have other material outside the biblical account, other flood stories and these are wonderful texts that have been found like Gilgamesh Epic and so forth. But what some scholars have said, well, this means therefore that the Old Testament's not so reliable because they're just borrowing from the ancient world. And I think, as evangelicals, we don't need to be afraid of these Near Eastern materials. They're wonderfully rich and they do have parallels with the biblical material. An example would be the flood, because it seems to underscore that there was a flood and that the other cultures are actually giving witness to that. Even when we see parallels in the ancient Near Eastern material with the Pentateuch, it also reminds us that God is communicating in the culture of his day, and he's not using our culture, or whatever that may be. Well, he's not using that. He's using the culture of the day.

So, I think using the Near Eastern material in a way that looks at how biblical themes and what God is communicating, how they're being used, sometimes it's in contrast. And an example would be in the flood story where God says the reason why he's bringing a flood is because of human sin and wickedness, whereas, in the Near Eastern Mesopotamian texts it's the overpopulation of people. So, I think we can learn from it. I don't think we need to be afraid of it. But we also need to come back to the reliability of God's Word and its authority and stay within that tradition of the Mosaic authorship and the long history of the church on this. And also affirming, that Jesus' words when he says "the law of Moses" or "Moses said," really keeping within that history of the Christian tradition.

Answer by Dr. Carol Kaminski

Dr. Kaminski teaches Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston MA.