I’m excited to introduce Colby Townsend. We’re going to jump into Old Testament scholarship and discuss how the Old Testament was put together. Most scholars believe the Documentary Hypothesis is the best explanation. Colby recently graduated from Utah State University, and is headed to a Ph.D. program at Indiana University. Over the next few weeks we’ll talk about how Joseph Smith may have been influenced by the Documentary Hypothesis as he translated the Book of Mormon. Colby’s thesis won the Best Thesis Award this year at the Mormon History Association. But first, we’ll introduce some terms used by biblical scholars.
GT: I love to talk to regular people and say, “Have you ever heard of the Documentary Hypothesis?” They always say, “No, what’s that?”
GT: I know, in the scholarly world, everybody knows what that is. But for a lot of my listeners, we’re not scholars and so we talk to people like you, because you’re the experts. Can you give us a little bit of background? What is the Documentary Hypothesis? And then we’ll talk about your paper that talks about how it relates to the Book of Mormon. So that’s going to be really interesting. So, tell us about the Documentary Hypothesis.
Colby: There are a handful of different terms that different people will be slightly familiar with, if they’re not too familiar with the Documentary Hypothesis right at the beginning.
Colby: So, a lot of the time, people are going to be talking about historical criticism. So, when were texts written? Who were they written by? Those kinds methods and the tools that scholars use to be able to identify that kind of information. That’s historical criticism. I’m trying to remember exactly what it was in your post…. Sometimes people will use documentary hypothesis as an interchangeable phrase with historical criticism if we’re trying to understand different parts of it. [For example,] when was, text ‘X’ written in the Hebrew Bible? So, it’s important, because a lot of people will be familiar, probably even more so, with the phrase higher criticism. The purpose for that phrase, and the reason that it came about was that there was lower criticism and higher criticism. Lower criticism was the study of languages, philology, the way that Northwest Semitic languages all relate to each other. Part of the lower criticism is also textual criticism.
Colby: Textual Criticism itself is finding all of the different manuscripts of a single given text. So if we wanted to engage with textual criticism of the Torah, the five books of Moses, we would gather together all of the manuscripts from Qumran, from the medieval [ages,] as far back as we could go, which before Qumran, the oldest manuscripts for the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible that we had only went back to about 1000 CE.
GT: So Qumran is probably a better word, most people would probably [be more familiar with is] the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Colby: Yes, thank you. So with the Dead Sea Scrolls, it shifted us back more than 1000 years in history as far as the textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible goes, because we didn’t have any complete Hebrew manuscripts of the individual books of the Hebrew Bible that dated really very much further back from that.
We’ll learn other terms and get introduced to the documentary hypothesis. We will also discuss biblical dating and authorship of Genesis, Exodus, and Deuteronomy.
Colby: So someone like Jean Astruc, actually wasn’t trying to create a new academic method for explaining why Moses didn’t write the Bible or something like that. He was actually somewhat of an apologist as well. He was trying to defend the Bible against the more critical work. So, for him, as he explained himself, the solution for him was to actually take the first part of Genesis, and to separate it into two columns. This is where you get the different sources. So, he started to notice the different use of the Divine Name.
So you have YAHWEH, as I pronounce it, most likely in Hebrew, and you have Elohim. He noticed that in Genesis 1, it is just Elohim. In Genesis 2, at least after verse four and on, it’s just Yahweh. I should note too, that often, in Christian circles, that name is just thrown around as either that pronunciation, similar to that or Jehovah, but it’s a very delicate name within Judaism, Hashem, or Adonai. Hashem is the name, usually what’s most commonly used. Bu Jean Astruc notices that the names are used completely differently. So he separates it into two columns. That’s where you first get the approach, to have what I think what he called was P–well, he didn’t call it that yet. He basically just called it the two…
GT: It was J for Yahweh or Jehovah.
Colby: Yes, but, early on, the other one was called E. You’re right. It wasn’t until much later, maybe even Wellhausen in the late 19th century, that it then becomes J and E, but E is no longer Genesis 1, P is. Then you have J, E, P, D. But it’s a long development to get to the actual documentary hypothesis.
Ancient Israelites believed in a pantheon of gods. They weren’t monotheistic. In our next conversation with biblical scholar Colby Townsend, we’ll learn more about the Canaanites and Israelites.
GT: From what I understand, one of the big issues in the Bible was idolatry. And so, the Canaanite religion had a bunch of deities. You had Jehovah. You had Elohim. You had Ba’al. Who was the female?
GT: Asherah. It was kind of like the Greek gods Zeus and Jupiter and Mars and Venus and everybody. The Canaanites have the same thing. And so, you had some tribes that [said] Jehovah is our God. No Elohim is our God. No Ba’al is our God. And we’ve even got the story of Balaam who worships Ba’al. And so, from what I understand is they had to decide, okay, well we’re not going to be polytheistic anymore. Who is our God? And so, J and E kind of merged together it. Is that a fair understanding of how that works?
Colby: Yeah, you’re describing some scholarship. Yes. So, one of the big issues with that, is exactly what you just described, the turning point with Josiah’s reform. As far as the archaeological record is concerned, there’s no difference between Canaanites and Israelites. For example, the worship of Asherah continued very popularly throughout Josiah’s reign and well after so that description in Samuel and Kings both about this push against idolatry is a much later, post-Josiah depiction of early Israelite history. You not only get God’s name as YAHWEH and Elohim. You also have Ba’al. I think it’s in Hosea. And you have a handful of other names as well.
GT: Moloch I think is another one.
Colby: Right. Yeah. So, that depiction and that attempt to make it seem like Israelite belief wasn’t “tainted” by all of these others polytheistic [gods], this isn’t an accurate portrayal, historically, of what was going on. As scholars have continued to develop our understanding of that, in particular, I’d recommend Mark Smith’s writings on the development of monotheism within Israelite literature and practice. He has a lot of books, and some of them are more affordable than others and really approachable. He’s a great scholar.
We’ll talk about some biblical stories and ask questions about whether the Exodus and stories of Jericho have archaeological support, or if they bear resemblance to other stories in the Middle East.
Colby: But in Joshua, you get a really famous story about the destruction of Jericho. And for Jericho, it’s when the Israelites are finally coming in and fighting off the Canaanites and, and purging the land. They come up to this great walled city of Jericho. The walls are massive. They’re all around the city. And they’re told to basically lay siege, and then walk around it for three days. And on the third day, the trumpet sounds and then the walls come crashing down, and then they go in and take over the city. It’s a fascinating story, and I love it. Joshua and Judges are both some of my favorite texts to read in the Hebrew Bible.
But the archaeological record doesn’t not only not support it, it argues against it, unfortunately. It’s just a story. So sometime, centuries after that…
GT: The walls didn’t fall down? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?
Colby: The walls were never up.
GT: There were no walls?
Colby: There were, but it only covered half the city. So in the 1960s, when archaeologists finally made it to Jericho and had the funding and the people to be able to go through and actually do a full look at the full city, they realized that the wall only covered the one side of the city. They were surprised by that, particularly with the significance of the walls in the biblical record.
Colby: But that still represents where scholarship is at on the question of whether or not the Exodus happened. A lot of scholars don’t think that it did happen, because it’s not that there isn’t evidence. The majority of the evidence just doesn’t really support that. And then particularly when, archaeologically speaking again, in Canaan there isn’t a massive influx of population at the time. There are a handful of just different issues that really don’t support that.
And if you don’t have a historical Exodus, do you have a historical Moses and Joshua? Because that’s a key narrative turning point to each one.
Do you think the Exodus happened? Did Moses and Joshua exist? Are you familiar with the documentary hypotheses? What are your thoughts on biblical scholarship?
“Do you think the Exodus happened? Did Moses and Joshua exist?”
Hey, it’s Colby Townsend! I look forward to hearing the rest of what you have to say, it’s gonna be very interesting.
The Old Testament presents a variety of tough-to-swallow episodes that forces modern readers to ask themselves, “Did this really happen?” Or, more broadly, “How much latitude do I, as a modern reader of the Bible, have to adopt non-literal readings of troubling passages?” Obviously, good scholarship can help us answer these questions. It’s not just obscure incidents (floating axe heads and talking donkeys) that raise the issue. If Jericho didn’t have walls, then we have to rethink our reading of the story of Jericho. If it turns out early Israelites were just reformed Canaanites who move to the hills, not immigrant exiles from Egypt, then we have to rethink the Exodus narrative.
I acknowledge that reading such scholarly and popular accounts and rethinking Bible narratives is not for everyone. It’s probably tougher for Mormons, given canonized LDS support for fundamentalist readings of some Bible accounts. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Other times it can hurt you.
I have seen good discussions of the exodus and why scientists don’t think it happened was because of the accepted timelines are wrong. When they are corrected, evidence is then found that supports the exodus and the archeological record in Israel then also is supportive.
To be clear, the walls of Jericho weren’t defensive in nature, but were on one side of the city to collect water, kind of like a reservoir. The other side of the city had no walls, so Israelites could have walked in unimpeded.
There are several problems with the Exodus: (1) Egypt doesn’t mention it, (2) if it was 2 million people, they would have left behind garbage or something, (3) perhaps it was a much smaller group of people–I’ve seen some mention perhaps as small as 600, (4) there was no large influx of people in the land of Canaan, so this lends credence to perhaps a small group of people.
I know that Rabbi David Wolpe has said that if the Exodus happened, it didn’t happen the way the Bible says. I may have to dive deeper into the pros and cons of the Exodus story. In this interview, I didn’t expect the issue to come up, but Colby does a good job presenting the majority of scholars on the topic. There is dispute to be sure.
I neither believe that the Exodus happened, nor that Moses and Joshua existed. It is ridiculous to assume that in a country where logs and account keeping were highly valued, to the point that even cats were counted, that the loss of an army, a pharaoh, and countless slaves would not be remarked. Additionally, the journey from Egypt to Canaan would have taken about a month, even for a large group. That it ostensibly took 40 years is ridiculous. However, for those who believe that Moses wrote the Torah after he died…
As a huge fan of Richard Elliot Freedman, I’d recommend his book “The Exodus”. It does a great job of providing the Exodus a more realistic look that allows you to reconcile the lack of evidance while still maintaining a belief in one of the most fundamental events in the Abrahamic religions.
I’d also recommend Colby’s works as I’ve read a number of them on the Academia.edu website.He does a great job of showing the intertexual nature of the Book of Mormon with the Documentary Hypothesis.
Whose to say that, after the walls fell, that those who stayed did not start cleaning up the place or scavenging the mess but only got halfway or more of the job done -thus, the remaining portion to be found.
Great interview. I’ll be interested to see more of what Colby has to say.
I think a migration happened among a group of proto-Hebrews (it may not have been from Egypt, although the Elaphantine texts reveal that Hebrews lived in Egypt around 500 BCE) and that memories of interactions with Egyptians were lodged in the collective memory of post-exilic Hebrews. Heroic Hebrew or proto-Hebrew leaders and chiefs existed whose actions and adventures informed a lore about them and these leaders may have had the names of Moses and Josiah or something similar to them. The stories are exaggerations and fabrications, much like the mythologies of other cultures, but might have some small kernels of actual history in them.
Apparently the wall of Jericho dates to 8000 BC, which means it is twice as old as Adam. If you want to learn more, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wall_of_Jericho
I know that Elvis song is true.
I cringe when modern readers impose their own values and expectations of genre onto ancient documents. Are the accounts we read in the Pentateuch and other parts of the Torah “histories?” (Given they were produced before what we can really call “history” developed in Classical Greece, I have my doubts.) Or are they something else? What was intended by the original authors? Do these documents possess an evolutionary history? Have then been repurposed, perhaps repeatedly? If there are events in the documents which are truly historical events, have they been placed within the story-line for reasons other than chronological?
It seems that there are plenty of questions which need to be answered before we get into the historicity of the Exodus or Moses himself. I doubt that there are many major figures with the rich literary tapestry of Moses (or the Buddha, Zoroaster, Confucius, Abraham, etc.) which are completely fictional. And anyone who makes the claim that any of these figures are fictional bears the burden for proving their assertions.
1- am I familiar with the documentary hypothesis? Yes.
2- historic Moses and exodus?
Not sure about Joshua, I think there is a fairly good case to be made for a historic Moses. For one, Moses is an Egyptian name. For another, the authors of the Bible seemed to think that Moses was somehow tied to Hebrew, an odd mistake to make if you are just making up a character from scratch. I agree with Colby that the basket story is likely borrowing from other stories. Regarding the Exodus, the Hebrew Bible has a lot of protections for “the stranger.” To me the most logical explanation is that it represents an ethic of a people who were “strangers” themselves.
I concur that the group would have been substantially smaller than what is reported in the Bible.
Love the interview! Can’t wait to hear more.