April 12, 2016

Adventist Scholars Organize Key Conference on Origins of Bible’s First 5 Books

Why doesn’t the world see what we see?”

The question, raised at the start of one presenter’s presentation during a Horn Lectureship Series conference at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, encapsulates succinctly the struggle nearly all scholars and laypeople have when dealing with the composition of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.

“This issue is crucial because it concerns the way in which God transmitted authoritative and wise instruction through writings that have come to form the foundation of the Bible,” said Roy Gane, seminary professor and participant in the conference.

“Among those who study the Scriptures there is a major divergence of opinions regarding the manner in which the Pentateuch was composed,” Gane said. “These differences have affected seminaries, churches, and synagogues around the world. Many now question the role of Moses — and therefore divine authority through him — in the composition of the Bible’s first five books.”

However, thought on this topic is far from reaching a consensus among scholars. It is clear to some that new models are needed.

Scholars belonging to a number of faith traditions from around the world came for the conference that lasted a total of 49 hours to do just that: explore the composition of the Pentateuch. The papers presented close readings and investigations of relevant Hebrew texts to the assembled body. These were critiqued in panel discussions and dialogue.

“The conference … sought to work toward a model that approaches the topic in a positive way rather than engaging in negative attacks on those who disagree,” said Kenneth Bergland, one of the organizers.

Scholars discussing the Pentateuch during a conference at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. (AU)

While there are still differences in understandings among the attendees, all agreed on a few key points:

  • The Pentateuch is based on a real prophetic encounter between God and a historic Moses during a historic Exodus event
  • The prophetic event was communicated and put into writing
  • The historical-critical Documentary Hypothesis — which attributes composition of the Pentateuch to anonymous authors writing centuries after Moses — cannot be sustained by paying close attention to the actual evidence so other models need to be developed instead.

“It appears that the biblical text has been approached from modern perspectives that impose their critical presuppositions on it, and it needs to be allowed to present itself in regard to its own composition,” said Jiří Moskala, seminary dean and conference presenter.

Presentations showed that ancient Near Eastern sources have a lot to say regarding scribal practice, which correlates with evidence in the Bible concerning its composition.

The presentations were organized around literary structure, ritual laws, legal materials, and comparative studies, including some understanding regarding scribal practice from Egyptian archaeologists.

Presenters expressed their joy in attending a conference where everyone seemed to be a kindred spirit. Many said they are alone in their places of the world and felt that during their attendance they were part of a scholarly family with real potential to accomplish something; one in which others listened to understand. Attendees asked the theological seminary to host and organize a similar conference in the future.

“Much work remains undone,” Moskala said. “This was only the beginning.”

The conference, held April 3 to 5, was sponsored by the North American Division Office of Strategic Planning and Assessment, the Andrews University School of Graduate Studies and Research, and private donors.

The scholars who attended the conference have agreed to work together and meet yearly. They also committed to publish the results of this year’s conference.

Organizers asked for prayers that God’s hand would guide the work.