Who wrote the Bible?

Rabbi Prof. Joshua Berman tackles conflict between biblical criticism and traditional beliefs about the Bible’s authorship

Then-Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper (right) looks at a Bible with Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, 2014 (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Then-Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper (right) looks at a Bible with Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, 2014
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Outside of faith-based universities, academic Bible courses generally teach that the “Five Books of Moses” (the Torah), were not written by Moses. They teach the documentary hypothesis, according to which, many centuries after Moses, an editor, referred to as R (for “Redactor”), cobbled the text of the Torah together from four (or perhaps more) documents. Yet to this day, no one has found literary evidence for the existence of the “sources” that the redactor supposedly drew on. The documentary hypothesis remains a hypothesis.
Traditional Jewish texts teach otherwise. In the 12th century, Moses Maimonides wrote, “We are to believe that the whole Torah was given to us through Moses our teacher entirely from God... One who accepts as revelation the whole Torah with the exception of even one verse... is heretical” (number 8 of his 13 principles of faith).
The great German rabbi, David Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921), wrote detailed Bible commentaries that included efforts to buttress traditional belief by disproving biblical criticism. But since Hoffman, few traditionalist rabbis or learned religious academics have directly confronted biblical criticism.
Now, a century later, Rabbi Prof. Joshua Berman of Bar-Ilan University’s Bible department has risen to the challenge in his book, Ani Maamim: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith.
Berman’s refreshing ideas about the conflict between biblical criticism and traditional beliefs about the Bible’s authorship are not addressed to academics and should be of interest to many Jews and Christians. Unfortunately, he wrote this book in a way that significantly narrows the potential audience. The book lacks a glossary, yet fairly obscure Hebrew terms, such as Hasidei Ashkenaz or baalei hamidrash abound. (Hasidei Ashkenaz were members of a Jewish ascetic movement in Central Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries; baalei hamidrash refers to authors of early works of Jewish legends and teachings, based on the Bible.) The fact that he uses Hebrew written in informal “yeshivish” spelling, for example bedi’eved, instead of the standard Hebrew bedi’avad (=after the fact), gives the impression that he is addressing people like himself, an “in crowd.”
The book is divided into two sections. In one, Berman traces the history of dogma in Judaism, showing that many great rabbis, before and after Maimonides, did not accept principle number 8, at least not in Maimonides’s uncompromising formulation.
This argument has been made already, and fairly recently. Must a Jew Believe Anything, by Menachem Kellner, and The Limits of Orthodox Theology by Marc Shapiro, cover the territory well. Berman’s conclusion, though, is surprising. He writes that the great modern sages of Judaism have departed from their predecessors, ruling that “boundary marking” is crucial in our times, and giving Maimonides’s principles, for the first time in history, near-canonical status. Surprisingly, Berman Is not disturbed by the prospect that 21st century traditionalist rabbis would expect their flock to have less freedom of belief and expression than either classical, medieval, or early modern Jews.
In the other more interesting part of the book, Berman gives a spirited and thoughtful defense of the traditional belief in Moses’ authorship of the Torah. Some of his arguments are well-known, while others are new.
For critical scholars, the alleged contradictions in the Torah provide proof of the documentary hypothesis. They argue that a single author would never contradict himself this much. But Berman points out that this forces them to the conclusion that R, the alleged editor, was a dolt who didn’t realize he was combining together contradictory texts.
Berman argues that the Torah followed the writing conventions of the second millennium BCE, which were quite different from today’s conventions. Many thoughtful “kosher” pre-modern Jews, he points out, already understood that the Torah must be read in its original historical context.
In the ancient world, no one wrote books that met modern standards of “historical truth.” They wrote exhortations containing stories that were loosely based on historical events. Berman argues that biblical stories, including the exodus from Egypt, have a historical basis even if not every detail is factual.
Similarly, according to Berman, the contradictions between various law codes in the Torah are problematic only if we assume that these are statutory laws in the modern sense. He surveys ancient writing of laws and concludes that internal contradictions are standard in that genre.
Finally, Berman finds evidence of God’s authorship of the Torah in its promotion of a societal structure that differs from the rest of the ancient world. The Torah’s revolutionary concept of a just society would not have served the purposes of the powerful people in ancient Israel, that is, those who would have been likely to write a book. Only God, Berman concludes, could or would have initiated the social revolution that lies at the heart of the Hebrew Bible.

The writer was a professor of Jewish studies for over three decades at York University and is an ordained rabbi.
Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith
By Joshua Berman
Maggid Press
334 pages; $29.9