Friday, December 20, 2013

Moses' Death, Josephus, St. Jerome, and Redaction Criticism

Next quarter I'll be teaching a graduate level course on the Pentateuch.

Of course, we will be talking, among other things, about the question of the "authorship" and "sources" of the Pentateuch.

While ancient Jewish (e.g., Josephus, A.J. 4.326; Ag. Apion, 1.37-43; m. Abot. 1:1; b. Baba Bathra 14b)) and Christian tradition (Mark 7:10; John 5:46; Mark 12:19; Rom. 10:5) attributes the five books of the Torah to Moses, a view supported in part by the Torah itself (cf., e.g., Exod. 17:14; Num 33:2; Exod. 24:4; Exod. 35:25-27; Deut. 31:9-13; cf. Josh. 8:30-32; etc.), a number of passages in it are hard to attribute to Moses himself. Chief among them, the account of Moses' death:
"So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, 6 and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows the place of his burial to this day" (Deut 34:5).
How could Moses have written this?

Interestingly, Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, argued Moses wrote this but only out of humility:
"[Moses] wrote in the holy books that he died, which was done out of fear, lest they should venture to say that, because of his extraordinary virtue, he went to God" (A.J. 4.326).
While taking a different approach than that of modern source criticism, Jerome was certainly was not unwilling to recognize that the final form of the text could have resulted from the contributions of later editors (working under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of course). He writes:

“The word of God says in Genesis, ‘And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and the rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem, and lost them until this day’ [LXX Gen 35:4]. Likewise at the end of Deuteronomy, ‘So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in the valley, in the land of Moab over against Beth-peor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.’ We must certainly understand by this day the time of the composition of the history, whether you prefer the view that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch or that Ezra re-edited it. In either case I make no objection.” (Adv. Helv. 7; cited from NPNF2 6:6337). 
A number of introductions to the Pentateuch promote the myth that such later "redaction" or "editing" of the text was only recognized by modern Biblical scholarship. Not so!

In short, ancient interpreters, while obviously operating with a different hermeneutic and methodology than contemporary scholars have, read the text much more closely than is realized.

But to discover that you'd actually have to read such sources, not just secondary (or tertiary) characterizations of them.


John Hearn said...

And if Moses had written it, he would have certainly know where he was buried.

Anonymous said...

John Hearn: Jude 9. Moses was assumed. He was on the holy mountain with Elijah. Matt 17: 1-8 Obviously Moses had his body as he was recognized and of course Elijah was assumed. 2Kings 2: 11-12. John 1:45, 5: 46. John said Moses wrote the law and so did Jesus. To all the "modern scholars" who say otherwise: read your Bibles. JESUS SAID THAT MOSES WROTE ABOUT HIM. Jn 5:46

Henry said...

This is often overlooked. Moses died in the wilderness before the Israelite people entered into the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 34:5-6 the exact text reads:

"And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. 6 He buried him[a] in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is.

This alone does not suggest a bodily resurrection, and the Jews would probably have had little reason other than not finding his grave to suspect so. But then in Jude 9:

"But even the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, “The Lord rebuke you!”

This revelation probably shed great light for the Jewish faithful on why no one found his body. A reference to Moses name alone would more plausibly be a reference to a contention with his soul....yet here there is specific reference to his body pointing back to the burial of Deuteronomy as a bodily resurrection....No where else in scripture do you hear of the God of the living Himself burying the dead. It's a strong foreshadowing of what will happen to souls who die in the state of God's friendship and the resurrection that will occur for the "majority" of the world at the end of salvation history.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to note that the Samaritans have had a strong tradition of Moses' assumption and being snatched away from death.

I cannot recommend highly enough Jarl Fossum's "The Name of God and the Angel of the Lord: Samaritan and Jewish Concepts of Intermediation and the Origins of Gnosticism" which addresses this topic and much of the Jewish roots behind Early Christianity.

It can be read for free by the way at (with whom I have no affiliation).

Merry Christmas!