I was recently made aware of a wonderful YouTube video, complete with a set of interesting links, describing the emergence of Abrahamic monotheism. Much of this material is drawn, I gather, from Karen Armstrong’s synopsis of early Middle Eastern religion in her book A History of God. (I am not a fan of Armstrong’s theology – I suppose I’m not a fan of anyone’s theology, by definition – but I understand she has a reasonable grip on biblical scholarship.)
When watching the video, I was reminded of the Documentary Hypothesis, which describes the apparent authorship of the first several books of the Old Testament. Apparently there were (at least) four authors (denoted the Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly source) , and one or more redactors. As the image above suggests, the authorship of the Pentateuch and other early books of the Old Testament was not, as traditionalists suggest, a simple matter of Moses shutting himself in a quiet room with a quill and scroll, and jotting the whole thing down. Rather, it was a process involving changing theologies (often precipitated by unexpected events, such as the Babylonian exile), and a mixed up timeline in which later authors wrote material that now appears earlier in the narrative (for example, Genesis 1, which was written much later than Genesis 2).
If only they had taught this to me in Sunday School, I might not have had such a dreadfully boring time. Of course, this sort of material is heresy to Sunday School teachers, who want to paint the simplest, sunniest fairytale picture of their religion as they possibly can (and many probably believe it, too). They also don’t want to risk raising difficult questions by describing the very real, gritty, process that underlies the development of religious traditions.
Anyhow, it is a fascinating area of study, one that believers and non-believers alike could benefit from.