Not everyone believes the Documentary Hypothesis explains the first five books of Moses. There appears to be a divide between American & European scholarship. Colby Townsend will tell us more about the differences in scholarship. And we will also see what implications this has for the Book of Mormon.
GT: Alright, so where are we at today? Because it seems like some scholars don’t like the documentary hypothesis, and then we’ve also got the biblical literalists, who I assume would hate it.
Colby: Right. No, a lot of people really don’t like it still. And there have been a handful of different attempts by more traditionally-minded scholars to come up with new methods and new approaches to explain all of the problems that we’ve been talking about, about the formation of the Pentateuch particularly. So, a lot of people really don’t like it. But really, a lot of the time, there are a handful of scholars that try to say, “Oh, well, this fragmentation of the scholarship obviously makes it so that the documentary hypothesis goes away. And then we don’t have the problem of, the five books being written later.” But none of that goes away.
If you don’t accept the documentary hypothesis, that’s fine. There’s a whole lot of evidence to support a version of the documentary hypothesis. So really the main competing arguments right now within scholarship are what I described. So you can either go with the documentary hypothesis, which tends to argue that the different sources were written a little bit earlier. So maybe the earliest of those would be eighth, ninth century BCE, which I haven’t mentioned yet, is really early for lengthy writing in Hebrew, at least. Because one of the main arguments that really shuts down the possibility of Moses being the author of the Torah, is the fact that written Hebrew didn’t develop until after Moses’ life.
GT: Moses didn’t speak Hebrew?
Colby: He would have spoken it, probably a version of it, a much earlier version of it.
GT: He wouldn’t have written it.
Colby: But yeah, he wouldn’t have written it, not in the form…. (Linguistic form, I guess is really the best phrase I should have used) that the Torah is written in. It doesn’t develop until after his life. So there are continuing debates about that as well. What does that mean for the writing of it? But really most scholars, pretty much all scholars that are really engaged in Pentateuchal criticism, agree that Moses couldn’t have written it, and that the five books of Moses couldn’t have come together until at the very earliest, the return from the Babylonian exile, which also has other implications for…
GT: What year is that, approximately?
Colby: That would have been 530 BCE or so. So toward the end of the sixth century BCE, and so that’s the earliest that they would have been compiled together. That’s more conservative.
GT: So the Torah would have been compiled, and I’m going to try to put this in Book of Mormon terms. The Torah, the five books of Moses would have been written long after Lehi left Jerusalem.
Colby: Compiled into five books. Yes.
GT: And that’s an interesting [point.] That leads into your paper, doesn’t it?
Colby: A little bit. Yeah, there’s definitely some connections there. Yeah, if we’re shifting gears here.
GT: Before we go there, I still want to hit this idea of what do faithful Latter-day Saints, and even faithful Christian scholars do? Because it seems like at least in my Sunday School classes, when we do talk about the Old Testament, there ain’t nobody talking about the documentary hypothesis.
Colby: Yeah, no.
GT: We’re just going to take it on faith. Moses wrote the first five books, take it or leave it and we’re going to take it.
Colby: Right, and even if it comes up.
GT: Yeah, and so, people might get into did the flood really happen? Were Adam and Eve real people? But nobody’s going to spend any time on a documentary hypothesis. And I think most people are going to just say, “Moses wrote all five books.”
Was Joseph Smith aware of the Documentary Hypothesis? It appears he was aware! How did that affect his translation of the Book of Mormon and revision of the Bible? Biblical scholar Colby Townsend will fill us in.
Colby: [Joseph’s] grandfather Asael Smith came over to the house one evening and was angry that Joseph Smith Sr. had been going to the Presbyterian Church with Lucy. And so, he came over to almost literally knock some sense into his son. And by almost literally I mean that he got into a very heated argument. Asael wasn’t really into established institutional religion and thought it was all priest craft and that “they’re trying to use you,” basically and “dupe you out of your money” and everything else. And so, as Asael was leaving, he turned. The door must have been open, because he turned and he hurled Tom Paine’s “Age of Reason” into the house and screamed to Joseph Smith Sr., essentially saying, “Read that until you get some sense into you.” Yeah. [It was] like “Stop going to the Presbyterian Church.” It is interesting because he was actually successful. Lucy wrote later that Joseph Smith Sr. said, “We should probably stop. I don’t want this kind of stuff to come up.” So it worked. Asael was able to get it.
But for Lucy, at least in her retelling of that story a couple of decades later, in her biography of her son, Joseph Smith, Jr., that was a key part. It wasn’t just he turned and threw some book or some anti-Bible book or something because it really wasn’t anti-Bible. But he specifically threw Paine’s “Age of Reason.” That was a symbol of the problems of organized institutional religion, but also the problems with the Bible and religion that their society, they believed, hadn’t really fully grappled with yet.
Colby also discusses secret combinations.
Colby: So one of those is that after the French Revolution, in America and in Britain, there was a very large push against a Jacobin party of the French Revolution. [Maximilien] Robespierre was seen as the personification of all things horrible about the Jacobins. And so, there were in the 1790s, anti-Jacobin societies that popped up all over the states.
GT: They were all a bunch of noisy atheists, it sounds like.
Colby: Pretty much yeah. Noisy in the dark. Because it really became one and the same with like the Illuminati, and all of these other dark secret organizations and when you look at newspapers of that period, in the late 18th century, the phrase secret combination starts to pop up a lot, and in particular, against Jacobins. So, one of the documents that I looked at, in that chapter was a review of a recent history. This is in the late 1790s. There was an American review of a French history of the Jacobins. And this anonymous author said, “This is a really great history. You guys should read it.” It was I think it was like three or four volumes in length. But the author of that history doesn’t go back far enough. The real origins of the Jacobin party go much further, so not only to the Garden of Eden with Satan convincing Adam and Eve both to eat the fruit, but also in the council in heaven, where Lucifer was able to convince one third of the host of heaven, that they should democratize and that they could throw off the system of government in heaven.
And then all throughout the Book of Mormon, you have these little nods toward the secret combinations and the oath that Satan had made with Cain. So in my thesis, I essentially look at that and say, as far as anti-Jacobinism is concerned that anti-masonry is extremely important for understanding the development of the Book of Mormon. But anti-masonry didn’t just pop up. There was a much broader context, and that there was a much broader literature as well. Thirty years before the Book of Mormon was being dictated by Joseph Smith, so in the late 1790s, you already had a lot of this literature that has a lot of these similar ideas, and similar themes, similar language that you would you would find in the Book of Mormon only a couple of decades later. So that’s key. I think that’s really important that as scholars continue to go forward, and as I continue to do research, I’ll keep looking at that and looking for other really interesting connections. But even more importantly, the main argument that I make in my thesis is that The Book of Mormon, sort of just alludes to the story. It’s an extra biblical account of Cain.
Do lean for or against the Documentary Hypothesis? Why? Even if you are against, how do you explain the Moses problem in Deuteronomy “Moses died”? Were you aware that Joseph’s grandfather Asael was against religion?