Friday, November 26, 2010


The Pentateuch (also known to Jews as the Torah, or the Books of Moses, and to Christians as the Old Testament) consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

Jewish tradition has it that the Torah was revealed to Moses on his expedition on Mount Sinai, which occurred in either 1312 or 1280 BCE. Modern scholarship has come to doubt this tradition. There is no claim within these five books that Moses is their author, and, following the impeccable logic of the philosopher Benedict Baruch Spinoza’s Theologico-Political Treatise (1670), Moses could not have written them, given the indisputable fact that the book of Deuteronomy contains an account of his death.

No contemporary mention of the Pentateuch/Torah is complete without reference to the Wellhausen hypothesis. In 1883, the German Christian biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen published a tome entitled Prolegomena to the History of Israel, which theorized that the “five books of Moses” consisted of four original strands that had, over a period of half a millennium, been stitched together and interwoven by a succession of editors. These strands, JED and P (the Yahwist—or, in German, the Jahwist; the Elohist, the Deuteronomist, and the Priestly writer) not only had different authors, as shown by their literary styles; J and E had different names for the Holy One, (J[Y]ahweh and Elohim); there are two creation stories (P’s account of God’s six-day work week, J’s story of Adam and Eve); and there are often two versions of the same event, such as the Flood). Etcetera.

While this hypothesis held sway throughout much of the twentieth century, two alternatives have more recently been proposed. One is the supplementary theory, which says that there was an original book that was supplemented by later additions; another is the fragmentary theory, which suggests that there were simply many fragments, which were continuously edited.

There’s no need here to decide on the accuracy of these hypotheses. It is enough to say that the finished whole does show multiple authors and editors, and that the process took hundreds of years.

The Pentateuch consists of a medley of genres. There are laws: page upon page of commandments, dietary and other prescriptions covering every conceivable aspect of the life of the Israelites. There are stories of the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There is, in Exodus, the story of how those Israelites escaped their Egyptian captors, and of how Moses, their general, climbed a mountain (Sinai, sometimes called Horeb) to receive the laws from the Almighty. And there are those cosmogonic myths.

Comparing the Pentateuch to the Laws of Manu, we find that both contain legal codes that are intended to guide the lives of the respective communities. But in the case of the Hindu text, that is all--except for the creation myth that legitimizes the laws. The ancient Israelite text has much extra material, including the founder myth regarding Moses.

We might summarize this comparison in these formulas:

Content of The Laws of Manu:
Creation myth legitimizes laws

Content of Pentateuch
Creation myth legitimizes Sabbath observance; founder myth legitimizes laws

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