Again from the Tablet comes this article about how some Orthodox Jews are trying to deal with historical and compositional questions about the Torah (the five books of Moses):
“Virtually all of the stories in the Torah are ahistorical,” declares a manifesto posted in July on TheTorah.com. “Given the data to which modern historians have access,” the essay explains, “it is impossible to regard the accounts of mass Exodus from Egypt, the wilderness experience or the coordinated, swift, and complete conquest of the entire land of Canaan under Joshua as historical.” Not only did the events in the Garden of Eden and the Flood of Noah never transpire, readers are informed, but “Abraham and Sarah are folkloristic characters; factually speaking, they are not my ancestors or anyone else’s.”
Such sweeping sentiments might be expected from an academic scholar, or perhaps a critic of fundamentalist religion. But the author of this manifesto is an Orthodox rabbi named Zev Farber. The essay, and much of the work of TheTorah.com, is an attempt by dissident Orthodox rabbis and professors to reconcile the findings of modern biblical scholarship with traditional Jewish belief.
This project is not new, but it has bedeviled American Jewry in different ways. Within liberal denominations, while some intellectuals and theologians have grappled with the questions posed by the field of biblical criticism—which sees the Torah as a man-made, composite work produced over time, rather than simply revealed to Moses by God at Sinai—the results have rarely filtered down to synagogue congregants and day-school pupils. Within Orthodoxy, meanwhile, the findings of academia have often met with outright rejection.
One of the greatest gifts that Joseph Smith gave the nascent Church was to reject the inerrancy of the Bible, not just in the Articles of Faith but in other comments he made through his lifetime. In some ways, the Church slipped back from that during the 20th century, due largely to the prolific, unofficial, and often unauthorized writings of Elders Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie (not to mention W. Cleon Skousen), which promoted a very strict, literal (young earth/creationist) reading of the Old Testament (vs. Elders B. H. Roberts [see prior link] and James E. Talmage) and had a tremendous impact on the general Church membership, particularly through official teaching materials for Sunday School, Seminary, and Institute.
Now, unlike the Orthodox Jewish rabbi cited above, I actually believe a lot of the Old Testament, including the books of Moses, is historical, or at least is rooted in historical events that have gone through millennia of transmission. But I think that in our efforts to hold onto that which is valid and important, we end up accepting a lot that is not valid or that misrepresents the time frame and circumstances of the events.
The quality and openness of the work coming out of the Joseph Smith Papers project, as well as the New Testament Commentary project at BYU (and the many excellent New Testament publications of scholarship that preceded it), show the Church’s commitment to faithful and defensible scholarship. One hopes that at a future date, a similar effort will be made in Old Testament scholarship as well, with the results reflected in Church manuals.