How Science Helped Us Read the Bible

09/19/2011 04:55 pm ET | Updated Nov 19, 2011

The year 2011 marks the 300th year after the publication of Henning Bernard Witter's path-breaking discovery of criteria for uncovering a specific source behind the biblical book of Genesis. In 1711, this well-educated pastor in Germany published "Jura Israelitarum in Palaestinam Commentatione in Genesin perpetua" (Israelite laws in Palestine, comments on the eternal Genesis...), where he noted several important differences between the seven-day creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:3 and the story of the garden of Eden in Genesis 2:4-3:24.

The two stories use different designations for God ("God" and the name Yhwh, often translated Lord), are stylistically distinct in other ways, and duplicate each other in describing the creation of plants, animals and humans (in different orders). These observations led Witter to propose that Gen 1:1-2:3 was not written by Moses himself, but instead was an oral song adopted by Moses in the process of writing the Pentateuch.

To be sure, the overall idea of Pentateuchal sources was not new by this point. Other scholars such as Ibn Ezra in the 12th century or Spinoza in the 17th century had posited that much or all of the Pentateuch had been written by authors other than Moses. Witter, however, was the first to develop the sorts of criteria that could be used to actually identify the different sources of the Pentateuch. Moreover, the distinction that he proposed between Gen 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-3:24 anticipated a broader scholarly distinction between priestly and non-priestly sources behind the Pentateuch, an identification of sources that has been dominant in biblical studies for about one hundred and fifty years.

Scientific theories developed around the same time at Witter, such as Newton's laws of motion and Benjamin Franklin's discovery of electricity in lightening are common knowledge. In contrast, scholarly discoveries of sources behind the Bible have ended up more obscure, even in religious communities that focus on the Bible.

This is already seen in Witter's case. His book on Genesis was vigorously opposed by academics of his time, and Witter himself died of an epidemic four years after its publication at the young age of 34. His work was largely forgotten by the time a physician in Louis the 14th's court, Jean Astruc, independently discovered sources beginning with Gen 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-3:24 and extending this insight across all of Genesis (1753). This time the method found traction among some academic circles. By the late 1800s German scholars such as Schrader (1863) and Nöldeke (1869) had refined the division between priestly and non-priestly sources of the Pentateuch into a form quite close to that advocated by contemporary scholars.

Around the time that this biblical source-criticism was being refined, Darwin published "On the Origin of the Species" (1859) and Pasteur developed the theory of germs (1862). Their work established scientific theories that enjoy a similar dominance in biology to that of basic source-criticism in academic study of the Bible. Yet where most school children are exposed early on to the ideas of evolution and germs, it is difficult to find children or adults, even in Christian and Jewish communities, who have been taught something specific about how the Bible came to be through the combination of pre-existing sources.

In this light it makes sense to consciously remember Witter's discovery of Biblical sources and source-critical method three centuries ago, while also keeping in mind how easy it was, both then and now, to forget those achievements.