The Rocky Shore

Friday, June 09, 2006

Reconciliations with Genesis

So I’m watching Penn and Teller’s show on Showtime last night. I don’t subscribe to Showtime because my wife and I are too cheap, and because if we did I’d be tempted to watch shows like Penn and Teller’s ‘BullS%#T’. But alas, there is currently a free preview, so I succumbed to the temptation.

The show, hereafter referred to as BS, is basically the explanative filled rants of Las Vegas magicians Penn and his silent partner Teller (ironic huh?). They explore the BS that is commonly taken for granted in our society, often challenging conspiracy theories and the like.

On this particular episode they were examining The Bible (I wonder how long it will take before they begin exploring the Book of Mormon.) The vitriol they unleash, somewhat overshadows the good points they make, i.e. the inconsistencies found in the Bible and the obvious presence of multiple authorship throughout several books which traditionally has been ascribed to a single author.

The above got me thinking about something I’ve been wrestling with for sometime, i.e. the documentary hypothesis and how the hypothesis helped me to reconcile another controversy. For the uninitiated, I will sum up the hypothesis. Essentially the hypothesis posits that several authors, at different times actually authored the five books of Moses, or the Pentateuch. These authors are spread out over a number of years and periods, and their view of Judaism is reflected in the text. It is for this reason that stories are found multiple times in the text, and that at times the details conflict. When the Pentateuch is studies from this point of view, it can be seen how Judaism evolved from a decentralized charismatic religion, into a centralized, Priestly, bureaucratically structured religion. A great Dialogue article by Thomas Dozeman on the hypothesis can be found here and a great response by Kevin Barney here.

In my mind the evidence is very convincing. If the theory is taken to be correct, then several questions must be answered (or at least asked). Much of Mormon theology is based upon what is found in Genesis, e.g. the Mormon conception of eternal increase is based squarely upon the interactions and promises made between Abraham and God. So what does it mean if Genesis was not written by Moses, or any other prophet we know of, but instead by a number of Hebrew scholars? According to Penn and Teller, and an ‘expert’ they employ named Dr. Michael Shermer, this invalidates any confidence that people may have placed in the Bible. I will state the problem succinctly: If Genesis is based upon the historical recollections of men, instead of being revealed or inspired by God, how can we have confidence in it? If we can not have confidence in Genesis, how can we have confidence in our doctrine? This is especially difficult for the Latter-Day Saint, since so much of our most important doctrines are derived from the story of Abraham.

Enter The Pearl of Great Price. The Pearl of Great Price is a book which has seen its fair share of controversy. Relevant articles on its controversy can be found here, here, here, here, here, and lastly here. All of these articles are worth reading. These articles delve into the question of the origin of The Book of Abraham. The last article, also by Kevin Barney of BBC fame, represents a good summation of current positions on it’s origin while also providing a decent reconciliation.

Whatever the answer happens to be upon the question of what the Book of Abraham’s origin is, its presence is what I would like to comment on. The Documentary Hypothesis leaves the Latter-Day Saint in a peculiar position. The Book of Abraham’s presence and its content relive this difficult position. Whatever the Pentateuch’s authorship may be, the narratives found therein can be relied upon, because those that matter to Latter-Day Saints are attested to in the Book of Abraham.

(Now there are those who will insist that Joseph Smith simply stole the narrative from Genesis, and therefore it isn’t any more reliable than what is to be found in the Bible. Well this is a problem I will not address, because the conclusion to the question will most likely be based more upon a persons base assumptions about Joseph Smith than on the evidence.)

So in my mind, questions of the Documentary Hypothesis need not worry me. Obviously that group of Hebrew men scattered over the years who authored the Pentateuch got their histories somewhat right. Does it matter that Moses didn’t write it? No, because it is content that matters, not origin. So thanks Penn and Teller, your F words and rantings got me thinking.


  • Just to provide some more info, Dr. Shermer is the founder of Skeptic Magazine. His main interest seems to be in debunking "supernatural" claims (UFO's, ESP, ghosts, etc.). He is also an outspoken atheist who, along with Penn & Teller, likes to portray all religions (and religious people) as inherently intellectually inferior. His academic background is in psychology and the history of science, which would not particularly qualify him as an expert on the Hebrew origins of the Bible. (Read the Skeptic Magazine Bio for more info.) It would seem to me that using him as an "expert" on the Bible is rather disingenuous of Penn & Teller.

    Now, having said that, some of his work is absolutely brilliant. For example, his book "Why People Believe Weird Things" is spot on in most cases and is also a great read.

    Personally, I have no problem with the Documentary Hypothesis, either.

    By Blogger Capt. Obsidian, at Friday, June 09, 2006 3:39:00 PM  

  • Shermer also does a monthly column in Scientific American.

    He apparently used to be an evangelical Christian (according to him).

    By Blogger Jared*, at Wednesday, August 09, 2006 4:33:00 PM  

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