Monday, March 21, 2011

The Pentateuch, Day 1: The Books of Moses

Torah Scroll

I.  Welcome back!
     I hope you had a nice break...I know I did!  We begin today our study of the first five books of the Bible.  These first five books are known as "The Pentateuch" or "The Books of Moses" and include:


These books are also known collectively as "The Torah", and are considered to be the foundational books of Judaism.  They are also foundational to many Catholic doctrines, and so our study of them is important to a fuller understanding of Catholic teaching.

Pentateuch literally means "five scrolls".  It is derived from the Greek penta, meaning five, and teukhos, meaning scroll cases.

II.  Author and Time of Composition

Prophet Moses, Gentile de Fabriano
The first five books of the Bible were inspired by God and have traditionally been attributed to Moses. Moses was thought to have used even older sources to compile the book of Genesis, as well as recounting his own life experiences in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  If this is true, then these books would date from around either the 1400's B.C. or 1200's B.C.  (The two most accepted dates for the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.)  Modern scholars, however, propose a different scenario for both the authorship and dating of these early books.  

III.  The Documentary Hypothesis 

Many scholars today believe that the Pentateuch was written by a variety of authors, whose writings were later compiled and edited into a single work much after the time of Moses.  This hypothesis proposes two primary authors for Genesis: "J", which stands for the "Yahwist" source, and "E", which is known as the "Elohist" source.  The writings of these two authors are distinguished by their use of the names Yahweh (or Jehovah) and Elohim, respectively, for God.  These authors are  thought to have written around the tenth or ninth century B.C.  To another writer, known as "D" or the Deuteronomistic source,  is attributed the book of Deuteronomy around 700 B.C.  All of these authors may have made use of earlier material. Additionally, scholars suggest another writer/editor who may have been a member of the priestly class of Israelites, and whom they label "P"  (for "priestly" source). The final form of the Pentateuch was the result of P's work, perhaps undertaken as late as 400 B.C.  

The Documentary Hypothesis does not completely rule out the possibility that some of the sources of the material were written by Moses himself. 

IV.  The Church's View on the "JEDP" Theory

This Documentary Hyposthesis is also known as the "JEDP" Theory, from the initials of the proposed authors.  The Pontifical Bible Commission addressed the acceptability of this theory early in the 20th century.  The Commission made the following points:

1.  There is not sufficient evidence to support the idea that these books do not have Moses as their primary author, but were composed by authors and from sources that dated later than Moses.

2.  It is not necessary to believe that "Moses wrote with his own hand or dictated to amanuenses all and everything contained in [the Pentateuch]."  In other words, some of the material in these books might have come from other authors or editors.

An amanuensis is someone employed to take dictation; basically, a scribe.  The origin of the word is Latin, from the words ab manus, or "by hand".

3.  It is possible that "he [Moses] entrusted the composition of the work itself, conceived by himself under the influence of divine inspiration, to some other person or persons, but in such a manner that they rendered faithfully his own thoughts, wrote nothing contrary to his will, and omitted nothing."  Thus, under this arrangement, the books were approved by Moses and published as the work of Moses himself.

4.  Moses may have used both written and oral sources to compile his account.

5.  Later editing and updating may have been undertaken, "such as additions after the death of Moses, either appended by an inspired author or inserted into the text as glosses and explanations; certain words and forms translated from the ancient language to a more recent language..."

6.  This editing may have resulted in some "faulty readings... concerning which it is lawful to investigate and judge according to the laws of criticism."  The Commission was addressing here faulty readings caused by copying errors.

In summary, the Commission found that while there may have been other contributors and editors who added to Moses' writings or updated them, the Pentateuch is substantially the work of Moses himself.  The Pontifical Bible Commission's findings are not binding, and Catholic scholars are encouraged to continue studying the sources of the books of Moses.  The Church hopes these studies will provide new evidence to support substantial Mosaic authorship.

V.  The Location

These early books all take place in the area of the world known as the Fertile Crescent, as well as in Egypt.  If you are not familiar with this area of the world, you may want to take a few minutes this week to look at a map.  There will be some homework assignments for you below!

VI.  The Foundational Importance of the Pentateuch

Why should we take the time and trouble to study these ancient writings?  What bearing can they possibly have on our lives today?  Consider the many very crucial themes introduced and developed in these first five books:

Who is man?
Who is God?
How did this world come into being, and what is its relationship to God?
Is man good?
What is sin?
What is temptation?
Has God promised a Savior?  Do we know anything about Him?
How powerful is God?
What does God expect of us?

In addition to addressing these questions, and many more, these books provide the groundwork for understanding many important Catholic doctrines:
The Fall
The Immaculate Conception
Mary as the "New Eve"
Christ as the "New Adam"
Christ as the "New Moses" 
The Sacrament of Marriage
The Sacrament of Baptism
Christ as the "Bridegroom"
The Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist
The Tyranny of Sin
The Salvific Work of Christ
Christ as the Lamb of God

...and lots more!

VII.  Our Plan

As we embark on our new series, I want to outline our plan of study so that you, dear reader, will understand the general approach we are taking in this overview.  First of all, it is an overview...which I will try hard to remember so that we don't get bogged down in tons of little details.  There is so much that is interesting and we could literally spend months on the first few chapters of Genesis alone, but I promise not to actually spend months on just a few chapters! (no need to panic...yet!)

We will:

1. Discuss the most important stories in each book.

2. Consider the teachings of the Catholic Church on each of these stories, as well as try to include some of the Father's and Saint's writings that discuss these Old Testament events.

3.  We will strive to always consider the full meaning of these events, remembering that the "New Testament lies hidden in the Old Testament, and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New Testament." (St. Augustine) What do the events of the Old Testament tell us about Christ?  How are they fulfilled in Christ?

me, posting twice a week!
 Finally, I will definitely post a new lesson every Tuesday.  I was finding that twice a week was too much to keep up with gracefully on a regular basis.  However, I will try to post a lesson on Friday, as well, whenever I can.  So we don't take months...

Your Assignments

1.  Read Genesis 1 to prepare for the next lesson.
2.  Find the following on a map of the Near East:  Tigris River, Euphrates River, Israel, Egypt, Red Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Jordan River, Jerusalem.  Knowing the locations of these few physical landmarks will help "orient" you and help you follow the events of the Pentateuch as they unfold.
3.  If you are keeping a journal for this study, you might want to write down your ideas about God the Creator.  What do you think the first chapter of Genesis is trying to tell us about God and His creation?  I'd love to hear your comments!

Main Idea:  The first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch, were (most likely!) substantially authored by Moses.  Many essential Catholic doctrines are founded upon and illuminated by the events recounted in these books.

Next lesson:  In the Beginning

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