Genesis Tablet Theory|
News in Stone?
In our six-part article discussing the Genesis tablet-theory we will present the following terms and concepts:
- Genesis writings parallel the writing-format of ancient Near Eastern tablets.
- JEDP Documentary Hypothesis is obsolete.
- "Wiseman Hypothesis," Percy & Donald Wiseman, Assyriologist.
- R.K. Harrison, Cuneiform & Mesopotamian Historiography.
- Colophons & Toledoths (genealogies follow completed texts).
- Ancient literary devices in Genesis.
- Genesis consists of eye-witness accounts.
- 2nd. Millennium B.C. writing-practices found in Genesis.
- Moses, author & editor of tablets.
Ask an Elder:
Q. Do you know who wrote Genesis? In college we were taught the Documentary Hypothesis which suggests that several authors wrote the Torah long after the time of Moses. In fact, the religion department says that Genesis was taken from multiple oral traditions and ancient Near Eastern libraries which included popular myths and ancient legends. Moses probably learned about these during his education in ancient Egypt. Do you have any insights into the authorship and transmission of Genesis?
Genesis - Ancient Tablets
In the proposed Genesis tablet-theory we have some eye-opening answers for you from R.K. Harrison, former Chair of Old Testament at Wycliffe College and from D.J. Wiseman, the famous Assyriologist and Director of the British Museum. Both assert that the Genesis tablet theory fits the typical writing format and styles found in ancient Mesopotamia.
But, first, traditional conservative scholarship says that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible). In Exodus 24:4 we read, "And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord." Deuteronomy 31:9 states, "Then Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests..." Perhaps the words of Jesus lend the greatest credibility to Moses' authorship of the Law. Jesus said, "If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?" (John 5:46-47).
New Scholarship on Ancient Genesis Accounts
We can't add much to that and are perfectly satisfied with the traditional view of Mosaic authorship of the Torah. However, it has come to our attention recently that a new and conservative scholarship has emerged in the past seventy years regarding the dating and authorship of the first chapters in Genesis. We first learned of the Genesis tablet theory from Helen and Barry Setterfield, the noted astrophysicist who has determined that the speed of light is slowing down. As a student of the Bible this may warrant your attention.
Oldest Copies of Ancient Writings on Clay Tablets
Many scholars have held that there was no such thing as writing before 1000 BC. But this recent discovery proves that writing was in use as early as 2500 B.C. According to the recent data, archaeological discoveries of ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets suggest that the Torah may be one of the oldest copies of writing possessed by man - authored by the first man, Adam, and by God Himself.
Furthermore, Genesis may give us a running, historical narrative from the actual eyewitnesses of incredible, creative events - the Creation Week, the story of Adam and Eve, the flood of Noah, the Tower of Babel and so on.
Ancient Near-Eastern Clay Tablets Mirror Genesis Style
This is due to the fact that hundreds of ancient Near Eastern clay tablets often have a particular writing style identifying the author of a text through family trees or genealogical identification placed at the end of a text. These are just like the "toledoths," Hebrew for "generations," that we see throughout Genesis in at least 11 places (e.g. "these are the generations of Noah," as in Genesis 6:9).
In other words, these identification-toledoths which are found in Genesis follow a text rather than precede the next section just as found in many Mesopotamian Tablets. If proven true this data would require scholars to somewhat alter our current chapter-divisions of Genesis.
But, remember, chapters in the Old Testament are just manmade divisions. The original texts had no punctuation marks or spaces anyway. So the changes would be minuscule and would in no way alter the text itself.
Genesis Tablet-Theory a Conservative View
By translators slightly modifying Genesis chapter divisions we may observe that Genesis is actually a series of approximately 11 sections (or 11 ancient tablets) authored by original eyewitnesses of historical events (with the exception of the Creation Account in Genesis 1 which only God could reveal).
We call the tablet theory a "conservative view" because it would mean that the first eleven chapters of the Bible were written by people like Adam and Noah. This means that the texts of Genesis would be very, very old and pre-date any other writings we have. Of course, this ancient dating of Genesis is disputed by liberal theologians and their school of textual critics, hence the "conservative" label as opposed to the liberal interpretive consensus. But, skeptical critics have little to document their theories as we will see.
Eye-Witness Accounts Documented in Genesis Tablets
The Genesis tablet-theory also implies that Moses compiled, edited and updated the actual writings of Adam, Noah, Shem, Terah, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob and his 12 sons. These "eye-witnesses" to the pre and post-flood era may have actually written the original 11 sections of Genesis on stone or clay tablets just like the authors of clay tablets we find in ancient Mesopotamia.
Moses - Author & Editor of Genesis Tablets
But, of course we still maintain that Moses owned and updated or edited much of Genesis, and certainly wrote all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy as many of its internal texts specify - with the exception of information about his own death and burial listed at the end of Deuteronomy. In essence, this allows us to believe what the Bible itself affirms from its own internal witness about Genesis authorship.
New Meaning to "Literal"
This is very exciting and should bring new impetus to reading the Genesis text literally rather than figuratively. In this case these accounts would not consist of Near Eastern myths and legends as commonly thought. Instead, the first book of the Bible may be a collection of several actual accounts of real, historical events written by those very persons who witnessed them. That is the Genesis tablet theory in a nutshell. Astonishing!
The Tablet Theory
What follows in this article is a simplified view of presentations of the Genesis Tablet Theory by Percy Wiseman and his son, Dr. Donald J. Wiseman, the famed Assyriologist and former Director of the British Museum, and Dr. R.K. Harrison, former Chair of Old Testament at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.
Documentary Hypothesis from Near Eastern Folklore
The term "Documentary Hypothesis" from the School of "Higher Criticism" comes from a theory that gained respectability in the mid to late 1800s just as did Darwin's Origin of the Species. Professors and students adhering to the Higher Critical method base their belief on the premise that mankind did not use writing until around 1000 B.C. Furthermore, since they believe there is no such thing as miracles they propose the Bible must consist of merely legends and myths taken from ancient Near Eastern folklore.
No Writing - Oral Traditions?
Higher Criticism scholars propose that oral traditions were the only method for transferring knowledge from one generation to the next in early Jewish history. Therefore, their Documentary Hypothesis must be valid since it proposes that various unknown teachers recited and wrote the Torah beginning around 800 B.C. long after the time of Moses. They theorize that there were no writings much before this and the oral traditions were subject to error.
Cuneiform - Mesopotamian Historiography
But, from recent scholarship we know this is erroneous - and we can prove it from archaeological records. We now know that writing did exist thousands of years before this time. R.K. Harrison explains, "Numerous cuneiform texts that have been unearthed show how the Mesopotamian writers of early historiographic material expressed themselves in terms of a world view, as is the case in the first few chapters of Genesis, thereby indicating that the latter should not be taken as myth, but as Mesopotamian historiography" (Harrison 1978,7).
JEDP Documentary Hypothesis
Yet, regardless of the newest findings from current highly-acclaimed archaeologists, Higher Criticism scholars still believe that the "JEDP" Documentary Hypothesis asserts correctly that multiple Old Testament authors and outsiders used different names for God such as Jehovah (J) and Elohim (E) which differentiated their writings from one another. Additionally, these authors used Deuteronomic (D) and Priestly (P) sources for their materials. Many of the textual critics believe that virtually none of the texts are historical accounts worthy of serious study. Furthermore, they assert that almost none are written by the authors attributed to them in the Bible.
Higher Criticism Theories Obsolete
But, upon careful examination we find that the JEDP hypothesis is disjointed and "illogical" (as Dr. Spock says in Star Trek). There is no valid historical, internal or textual evidence supporting such authorship-traditions from a later period well after the time of Moses.
Dr. Wiseman's father notes that Higher Criticism theories are now obsolete. He writes,
1.Some theories were born in an age of ignorance regarding early civilizations.
2.The critics attempted a literary analysis when they knew nothing of the early methods of writing.
3.The majority assumed that writing was not in use in the days of the patriarchs.
4.Their speculations became dominated by the 'myth and legend theory' now generally abandoned.
(Wiseman 1985, 110)
Varied Writing Styles in Genesis
To their credit, critical scholars do accurately note their findings of somewhat varied writing styles throughout Genesis. The Tablet Theory, however, ascribes authorship to those who wrote the "toledoths" (genealogical-identifications) comparable to other Mesopotamian writings. This would nicely fit into the conservative Tablet Theory. It would put to rest the conjecture that outsiders and pseudo authors wrote much of the Old Testament dated long after the events occurred. It would resolve conflicts or criticisms of "duplicate" materials in early Genesis as well. In this case Genesis authors simply expanded upon a previous text concerning similar subjects.
The Genesis Tablet Theory could also come to the rescue of Higher Criticism professors who cause others to lose confidence in the Bible. In fact, there may be awful theological consequences for teaching things that could destroy the faith of others. Jesus said,
..."but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea" (Matthew 18:6).
Near Eastern Recorders of Fact
In contrast, the Near Eastern Tablet Theory may provide an intellectually satisfying alternative to the Documentary Hypothesis - which to this day lacks serious documentation and credibility.
Indeed, according to R.K. Harrison, "Comparative historiographic studies have shown that, along with the Hittites, the ancient Hebrews were the most accurate, objective, and responsible recorders of Near Eastern history" (Harrison 1978, 5).
3,000 B.C. Ancient Writings
Excavations and discoveries of ancient tablets show clearly that written records go back as far as 3000 B.C. Secondly, they reveal that the style found on ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets parallel a style we see in the Genesis accounts. This should prove exciting to those who are willing to listen and to study the evidence.
Donald J. Wiseman, Assyriologist
In an exciting adventure-story the newest up-to-date scholarship about ancient clay tablets and the toledoth-style of identification in Genesis was mostly publicized by an Air Commodore for the Royal Air Force in 1936. While on a tour of duty in Iraq, Percy Wiseman frequented archaeological "digs" and made copious notes of his findings - a real life "Indiana Jones." He was excited about current archaeological discoveries in Babylonia and began to examine ancient literary forms of Mesopotamian tablets as they relate to Genesis. However, although an astute scholar he was not professionally trained in ancient history or archaeology although, to his credit, many of his findings were later substantiated (Wiseman 1985, 18-19).
Genesis Parallels Ancient Tablets
But, in 1985 Commodore Percy Wiseman's son, the famous Assyriologist and director of the British Museum, Donald J. Wiseman, updated and edited his father's work and published Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis. This is a landmark work of astounding revelations about the Genesis text-structures paralleling ancient Mesopotamian tablets. At the time of its printing I was beginning graduate studies at UCLA and just missed exposure to this momentous work.
Tablet Structure of Ancient Clay Tablets
Percy and Donald Wiseman painstakingly documented that ancient authors from a certain period within Mesopotamia consistently identified themselves by including personal information at the end of a subject instead of at the beginning. For example, instead of an essay titled "Ancient Records" by V. Emilio, one would see a title, text and find the author and brief ancestral reference listed at the end.
Ancient Title Headings & Sub Titles in Tablet-Theory
So unlike the unsubstantiated speculations of Higher-Criticism professors from the 1800s, we now have ancient tablet-writings from Syria and Mesopotamia, many dated to as far back as 2300 B.C. Sometimes we find connectors between these tablets such as numbering devices or other means to keep all of the information coherent from one tablet to another. This is like headings we place on term papers to make sure every page is accounted for and ascribed to the correct author.
Wiseman Hypothesis is the Genesis Tablet Theory
As you research this subject be aware that the Tablet-Theory of Genesis is also called the "Wiseman Hypothesis" (named after the famed British Museum Director, Donald Wiseman and his father, Percy). We hear various terms for the practice of author-identification, too. Sometimes we read about "colophons" or the endings of written passages. Or sometimes we hear about "toledoths," the Hebrew term for "generations." It is helpful to become familiar with these terms.
Colophons - Fingerprints & DNA Records of Clay Tablets
These colophons are like literary "fingerprints" or DNA records of ancient authors, because it personalized and identified each author's work. By using these personal markers ancient writers secured their authentic place in history. The "Colophons" or "Toledoths" are found elsewhere in the Pentateuch but most frequently in Genesis. According to the theory it shows that the writing styles found in Genesis are in harmony with the archaeological finds from ancient Babylonia. This is not "physical" evidence. Rather, it is "textual" evidence.
R.K. Harrison, Wycliffe College, Summarizes Tablet Theory
As R.K. Harrison, Chair of Old Testament at Wycliffe College, summarizes:
"Archaeological discoveries have produced thousands of clay tablets from Mesopotamia, written in a strange wedge-shaped script. In many instances the tablets that have been recovered exhibit a specific literary form comprising a title, followed by the body of the text and concluding with a colophon. This latter feature generally contained the name of the owner or scribe and some attempt at dating. Since the colophon comes at the end of a tablet or a series of tablets, it naturally refers to material that precedes it on the tablet."
Genesis Toledoth or "Generations"
Continuing Dr. Harrison states,
"Using these archaeological records as a pattern of specific literary activity, it is possible for anyone to isolate eleven sections of material from Genesis once the colophon has been identified. The presence of a colophon is indicated by the recurring phrase, 'These are the generations (toledot) of...' the Hebrew phrase meaning 'histories, family histories, genealogies.' The juxtaposition of the various sections with the minimum of editorial intervention presents a history of mankind from creation to the period of Joseph. A separate concurrent section with an Egyptian rather than a Mesopotamian or Canaanite cultural background completed the extant book of Genesis, and may well have been compiled by the scribe who assembled the tablet material" (Wiseman 1985, 17. Harrison 1969, 545-553).
Could that be Moses?
Genesis 37:2 begins, "These are the generations of Jacob..." But from that point on the biblical text describes Joseph and his brothers. It doesn't describe Jacob. The earlier story about Jacob is followed by the statement, "These are the generations of Jacob." Then the new text about Joseph begins. That is where the new chapter should begin in our Bibles.
With this in mind we see that Genesis 2:4a ends with God Himself as the probable author: "This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven" (NASB).
Adam's Genesis 1 Intimacy with God
About the above example Wiseman says, here we have "God teaching Adam, in a simple yet faultless way, how the earth and the things which he could see on and around it had been created. The Lord God talked with Adam in the Garden. This tablet purports to be a simple record of what God said and did. Adam is told just as much as his mind could understand...It is a record of what God told Adam. It is not an 'impersonal' general account. It is God teaching the first man the elemental things about the universe, at the very dawn of human language" (Wiseman 1985, 88).
Continuing, Wiseman points out we should observe the method employed in writing this narrative. 'And God said...And God called.' What God called the components of the universe is placed on record...It is written in the style of someone recording precisely what Adam heard when the narrative was told to him. ...It is far removed from the style of a vision. There is no 'I saw,' 'I beheld,' 'I heard.' It is direct speech" (89).
Another example of a "toledoth" is Genesis 5:1 which ends its preceding section with, "This is the book of the generations of Adam..." Adam is the preceding text's author.
One more example shows the section before Genesis 6:9a ending with, "These are the records of the generations of Noah..." Noah wrote these.
In this manner all of the 11 Genesis sections would be personal, eyewitness accounts.
Oldest Writings Known found in Genesis Tablets?
Just as Wycliffe College Professor R.K. Harrison suggests one can easily find all 11 sections written just like this throughout the Genesis account. Upon examination the observant reader sees how well a pattern of text ended by a "toledoth" ("generations") completes each section. This fits the writing style of ancient clay tablets throughout this region back to around 3,000 B.C. Thus, when we open the book of Genesis we find some of the oldest copies of writing known to man.
Threshold of Written History
In fact, Wiseman points out that language originated in Eden. "Adam, who gave names to the living creatures, could conceivably write this short account in the first form of writing...This first chapter is so ancient that it does not contain mythical or legendary matter - these elements are entirely absent. It bears the markings of having been written before myth and legend had time to grow, and not as is often stated, at a later date when it had to be stripped of the mythical and legendary elements inherent in every other account of Creation extant. This account is so original that it does not bear a trace of any system of philosophy...for it was written before clans, nations, or philosophies originated...Genesis 1 is as primitive as the first human. It is the threshold of written history" (Wiseman 1985, 90).
Textual Criticism supports Historical Methodology
Using comparisons and examples of writing-format are common to historical methodology. In a similar way scholars point-out that the New Testament Pauline letters are written in a style somewhat common to secular first-century letters. While this is not "physical" proof of New Testament authenticity, it is "textual" proof that these kinds of personal letters existed in first-century Rome. It tends to support the historical legitimacy of Pauline letters. (Gundry 1994, 341-343).
Ancient Literary Devices in Genesis
Similarly, Colophons (identifying endings) or Toledoths (ancestral reference) on clay tablets are clearly an ancient literary device typical of the period in which they appear. In addition, they are not found later in the Scriptures but are unique to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The texts themselves claim that Moses clearly authored Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The 11 sections in Genesis clearly identify their own authors at the end of each part.
Historical Eye-Witness Accounts
Although we don't see Colophon endings or genealogical "toledoths" that distinctly note Moses as the author of Genesis, if the Tablet Theory is correct then the book of Genesis offers us literal, authentic, historical eye-witness accounts of what happened in that earliest period of human history.
Moses - Transmission & Updating of Texts
Moses would have been certainly responsible for care of the tablets, their transmission and upkeep, the editing of information and updates about new names that now applied to old places. Just think: Moses may have been preparing for us actual texts and accounts from Adam, Noah, Shem, Terah, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob and from Jacob's 12 sons.
Moses would have been trained in the finest schools of Egypt but nursed and raised in the traditions of his Hebrew family (Acts 7:22, Exodus 2:9). We know that "papyrus documents relating to the royal "harim" in the Fayyum described the varied activities of the women and children who lived there, and this may be taken as typical of other similar royal residences in the Delta area. Young princes in the "harems" were given tutors for their basic education (cf. Acts 7:22), and subsequently were trained in sports, athletic pursuits, and military activities" (Harrison 1978, 9).
Joseph's Stewardship of Genesis Tablets
The Hebrew families probably harbored the earlier writings brought to Egypt by Jacob and his families when they moved to Egypt at the bequest of Joseph during a terrible famine centuries before (Genesis 47:1).
Ancient Libraries of Elba, Nuzi, & Mari
Archaeologists have found libraries from "excavations at Ebla, Mari, and Nuzi dating long before Abraham. In fact, the Mari archives use names found in the Bible such as Peleg, Terah, Abram, Jacob, Laban and others" (Sewell 1994). These names do not necessarily correspond to the Biblical ones but rather, confirm names in use during that period. The authors of these tablets list their genealogies that end each section just as we find in the book of Genesis.
2nd. Millennium B.C. Practices found in Genesis Tablets?
Harrison notes that names such as "Jacob" were found in the second millennium B.C. excavations. "Adoption-texts recovered from Nuzu show that Abraham was guided by contemporary customs in his choice of Eleazar as an heir (Gen 15:2, 3) and Hagar as his concubine (Gen 16:2). Two generations later Rachel was to give Bilhah to Jacob in conformity with the same social traditions (Gen 30:3). The transfer of the birthright from Esau to Jacob (Gen 25:31ff.) has been explained satisfactorily by reference to the Nuzu tablets, as have the relations between Jacob and Laban (Gen 31)and the character of the patriarchal benedictions in Genesis (Gen 27:27ff. 49:3ff.). ...the current flow of archaeological discoveries tends to confirm, rather than repudiate, the claim of the OT to historicity" (Harrison 1978, 7, 9).
Ten Commandments Written in Stone
We know that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments written on stone. There is no reason to suspect that the idea of writing on stone tablets was isolated from other cultures. So this may support the existence of clay or stone tablets used in other locales during this period. However, the supreme importance of the Ten Commandments is that they were a physical manifestation of God's covenant with the people of Israel when they left Egypt. These particular stone tablets were so valuable that they were placed in the Ark of the Covenant (1 Kings 8:9, Exodus 24).
Moses Transferring & Updating to Scrolls
Also, it is entirely possible that one of Moses' tasks was to transfer many of his writings on clay tablets to leather scrolls or vellum (thin sheepskin) during his long, 40 year journey in the Wilderness. He surely had enough sheep to accomplish the task!
According to the Genesis tablet-theory, at this time Moses might have edited the original tablets heretofore sheltered by Hebrew families and made references to forgotten places in more familiar terms to his readers. An example might be Abraham's reference to burying his wife Sarah "in the cave of the field at Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan" (Genesis 23:19). Moses might have edited and identified the current location of the cave for his readers. (Wiseman 1985, 108).
Admittedly this is just conjecture, but it seems to fit much of the evidence proposed by Assyriologist Donald J. Wiseman and Old Testament scholar R.K. Harrison and many of their colleagues concerning the Genesis tablet-theory.
Writings of Moses
Finally, all of these writings would have become known as the "writings of Moses." This is not so strange when we consider that in a similar manner you might refer to our library and essays as the "writings of Valorie and Ken." For example, we have written over 600 articles and referenced numerous sources from our library. While these articles include excerpts of writings from famous scholars or other authors, it does not mean that our articles do not rightfully belong to us. They are our "writings."
R.C. Sproul says,
"Unless we maintain that the Bible fell down from heaven on a parachute, inscribed by a celestial pen in a peculiar heavenly language uniquely suited as a vehicle for a divine revelation, or that the Bible was dictated directly and immediately by God without reference to any local custom, style or perspective, we are going to have to face the cultural gap. That is, the Bible reflects the culture of its day" (Sproul 1979, 102).
Word of God in Words of Men
I suppose God could have written the entire Bible in stone just as He did the Ten Commandments and presented them to Moses on the mountain top. But, the Apostle Paul tells us,
..."the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God" (Romans 3:2 ESV).
I think this means we have the Word of God in the words of men carefully preserved and transmitted by faithful scribes over many centuries. That would include a valid cultural and historical context for everything we read throughout these 66 books written by over 40 authors over a period of at least 1600 years.
Because of this, perhaps...just perhaps...the Bible - including Genesis - really is a compendium of true, historical, eyewitness accounts of God's interaction with men. We are not just crazy "fundamentalists" to think of it in these terms (even though we do believe in the Fundamentals of the Faith). Rather, we are legitimately taking the texts at face value as they are anchored into the cultures in which they were written - giving us the documented Genesis tablet-theory.
Archer, Gleason L. 1982. The Pentateuch in Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Gundry, Robert H. 1994. A survey of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Harrison, R.K. 2004. Introduction to the Old Testament:545-553. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns.
Harrison, Waltke, Guthrie, & Fee. 1978. Biblical criticism: Historical, literary and textual. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Setterfield, Barry & Helen. Tablet theory.www.setterfield.org.
Sewell, Curt. The tablet theory of Genesis authorship. http://ldolphin.org/tablethy.html. Original version first published by Bible and Spade. 1994. Winter. Vol. 7, No.1.
Sproul, R.C. 1979. Knowing scripture. Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press.
Thomas, D. Winton. 1967. Archaeology and old testament study. New York: Oxford.
Wiseman hypothesis. wikipedia.org.
Wiseman, P.J. and Wiseman, D.J. ed. 1985. Ancient records and the structure of Genesis: A case for literary unity. Nashville, TN: Nelson.
Authors Valorie Emilio holds an MA in History from UCLA specializing in Christian Origins. Ken received his BS from CSULB and completed an MA in Biblical Studies from Louisiana Baptist University.