The Bible's Buried Secrets: Documentary Hypothesis

PBS Airdate: November 18, 2008
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NARRATOR: The Abraham narrative is part of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, along with Noah and the Flood, and Adam and Eve.

Though they convey a powerful message, to date, there is no archaeology or text outside of the Bible to corroborate them.

DAVID ILAN: The farther back you go in the biblical text, the more difficult it is to find historical material in it. The patriarchs go back to Genesis. Genesis is for the most part a compilation of myths, creation stories, things like that. And to find a historical core there is very difficult.

NARRATOR: This absence of historical evidence leads scholars to take a different approach to reading the biblical narrative.

They look beyond our modern notion of fact or fiction, to ask why the Bible was written in the first place.

WILIAM DEVER: There is no word for "history" in the Hebrew Bible. The biblical writers were telling stories. They were good historians and they could tell it the way it was when they wanted to, but their objective was always something far beyond that.

NARRATOR: So what was their objective?

To find out, scholars must uncover who wrote the Bible and when.

VOICE OF THE BIBLE: And the Lord said to Moses: Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I make a covenant with you and with Israel. (Exodus 34:27)

NARRATOR: The traditional belief is that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible.

Genesis—the story of creation,

Exodus—deliverance from slavery to the Promised Land—

Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—laws of morality and observance.

Still read to this day, together they form the Torah, often called the five books of Moses.

MICHAEL COOGAN: The view that Moses had personally written down the first five books of the Bible, was virtually unchallenged until the 17th century.

There were a few questions raised about this, for example the very end of the last book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy, describes the death and burial of Moses.

And so, some rabbi said "well, Moses couldn't have written those words himself, because he was dead and was being buried."

NARRATOR: And digging deeper into the text, there are even more discrepancies.

MICHAEL COOGAN: For example, how many of each species of animals is Noah supposed to bring into the ark? One text says two, a pair of every kind of animal. Another text says seven pair of the clean animals, and only two of the unclean animals.

NARRATOR: In one chapter, the Bible says the flood lasts for 40 days and 40 nights, but in the next, it says 150 days.

To see if the flood waters have subsided Noah sends out a dove. But in the previous sentence, he sends a raven.

There are two complete versions of the flood story interwoven on the same page.

Many similar discrepancies throughout its pages, suggest that the Bible has more than one writer.

In fact, within the first five books of the Bible, scholars have identified the hand of at least four different groups of scribes writing over several hundred years.

This theory is called the Documentary Hypothesis.

MICHAEL COOGAN: One way of thinking about it is as a kind of anthology that was made over the course of many centuries by different people adding to it, subtracting from it, and so forth.

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