Jewish Responses to Challenges to the Historicity of Biblical History

The traditional Jewish view, still treated as a fundamental belief in Orthodox Judaism, was clearly stated by the great medieval rabbi-philosopher Moses Maimonides –

The Eighth Fundamental Principle is that the Torah carne from God. We are to believe that the whole Torah was given us through Moses our Teacher entirely from God. When we call the Torah "God's Word" we speak metaphorically. We do not know exactly how it reached us, but only that it came to us through Moses who acted like a secretary taking dictation. He wrote down the events of the time and the commandments, for which reason he is called "Lawgiver." There is no distinction between a verse of Scripture like "The sons of Ham were Cush and Mizraim" (Gen. 10:6), or "His wife's name was Mehetabel and his concubine was Timna" (Gen. 36:39, 12), and one like "I am the Lord your God" (Ex. 20:2), or "Hear, 0 Israel" (Deut. 6:4). All came from God, and all are the Torah of God, perfect, pure, holy and true. Anyone who says Moses wrote some passages on his own is regarded by our sages as an atheist or the worst kind of heretic, because he tries to distinguish essence from accident in Torah. Such a heretic claims that some historical passages or stories are trivial inventions of Moses and not Divine Revelation. But the sages said that if one accepts as Revelation the whole Torah with the exception of even one verse, which Moses himself and not God composed, he is referred to in the verse, "he has shamed the Word of the Lord" (N urn. 15:31), and is heretical.”

A Maimonides Reader; Edited,with introductions and notes, by Isadore Twersky, Behrmanhouse,  NEW YORK 1972


A Reform Jewish response –

It is generally held in Reform circles that the Higher Criticism has irrevocably destroyed the authority of the Pentateuch. The Jew in the past held that the Five Books of Moses were dictated by God to Moses. Modem scholarship is said to prove that this could not have been so, that, on the contrary, the Torah is a compilation of documents composed during several centuries.

“If these premises are accepted, we can draw from them the logical conclusion that the Jew in the past was mistaken in his view about the authorship of the Pentateuch. What does not follow logically from the findings of the Higher Criticism is the widespread notion that, because Moses did not write the Torah, it can no longer be the authoritative rule of-Jewish life.

“Let us be clear about this: the Jew in the past lived by the dictates of the Torah, not because Moses had written it down (although he was firmly convinced of this), but because the Torah was divine revelation, because God had made known His wilI in its pages. The information that it was not Moses… who wrote the Torah merely shows-if the claim can be fuIly substantiated-that the Jew in the past was not too familiar with the literary history of his own people. It does not necessitate the conclusion that God could not have made use of J. E. P. and D in the same way in which, at one time, it was thought (mistakenly, it is now said) He had made use of Moses.

“Again, the question of whether or not a certain ritual is a divine commandment cannot be settled with a reference to archeological findings pointing to a non-Israelite or pre-Israelite provenance of the particular rite under discussion. No Reform Jew would insist that the prohibition of murder is not a commandment of the God of Israel-merely because murder is also discountenanced in the Egyptian Book of the Dead…. This is an interesting piece of information, but it can hardly rule out the possibility, on logical grounds, that God used this pre-Israelite raw material and incorporated it in His Torah. Does every worthwhile religious ordinance have to be a creatio ex nihilo?

“After all, according to the view of the Higher Critics, and of Reform's own Julian Morgenstern in particular, each "code" now contained in the Pentateuch was accepted at a specific historical occasion by the people as a whole, in a solemn covenant. Accepted as what? As the definite demands which the covenant deity made upon his partners of the covenant. If we follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, we must arrive at a point in Jewish history when the Pentateuch as a whole (in the form in which it left the hands of its last redactor) was accepted as divine revelation by the people. This would be the canonization" of the Torah. Tradition ascribes this "canonization" of the complete Pentateuch to the time of Moses. Modern scholarship would set the date at about 400 B.C.E.-that is, a good 700 or 800 years after the time of Moses. Inasmuch as the findings of modem scholarship clash with the traditional notion, it is very much a question of temperament and training as to which of the two dates a modern Jew will ultimately accept.  But,… the question of dating the Pentateuch has very little to do with the authoritative or non- authoritative character of that book.”

PROBLEMS OF REFORM HALACHA by Jakob J. Petuchowski in CONTEMPORARY REFORM JEWISH THOUGHT Edited by Bernard Martin, Quadrangle Books 1968


A Conservative Jewish response –


For Conservative Jews, the Torah is no less sacred, if less central, than it was for their pre-modern ancestors. I use the word "sacred" advisedly. The Torah is the foundation text of Judaism, the apex of an inverted pyramid of infinite commentary, not because it is divine, but because it is sacred, that is, adopted by the Jewish people as its spiritual font…. The sense of individual obligation, of being commanded, does not derive from divine authorship, but communal consent. The Written Torah, no less than the Oral Torah, reverberates with the divine-human encounter, with "a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation."  It is no longer possible to separate the tinder from the spark. What history can attest is that the community of Israel has always huddled in the warmth of the flame.”

The Sacred Cluster: The Core Values of Conservative Judaism by Ismar Schorsch

See further the discussion by Louis Jacobs in We Have Reason to Believe