The question I’d like to discuss in this thread is: how much of the Old Testament (or Tanach) is essential to Christianity? The question is a vital one, as a major reason why many young people reject belief in Christianity is that they no longer believe the stories in the Bible about Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses and other figures. On the other hand, Christianity is a religion firmly grounded in the Hebrew Bible: attempts by the heretic Marcion to jettison the Old Testament were condemned by the early Church, in the mid-second century. But we have to face facts: many of the stories in the Old Testament have no historical basis. That raises the question: are there any figures and/or events in the Old Testament whose historicity is absolutely vital to the Christian faith? For example, what about Moses and Elijah?
In the New Testament, Jesus, his disciples and Jesus’ contemporaries frequently refer to the figures of Moses and Elijah. When Jesus talks about marriage and divorce, he cites Moses, and when discussing who people say he is, his disciples mention Elijah. Perhaps the most famous event in the New Testament relating to Moses and Elijah is the Transfiguration, which is described in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36), as well as the Second Epistle of Peter (2 Peter 1:16–18). In the story, Jesus and three of his apostles, Peter, James, John, go up a mountain to pray. On the mountain, Jesus’ appearance is suddenly transfigured, and he becomes radiant. The prophets Moses and Elijah suddenly appear next to Jesus, and he converses with them. A voice from a cloud (presumably God the Father) then calls Jesus “my beloved Son,” and tells the apostles to listen to him.
The Transfiguration is a central event in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and we are told that three apostles saw and heard Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah. But what if Moses and/or Elijah never existed in the first place? How would that affect the Christian faith?
The question is no idle one. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the historicity of the Exodus, for instance:
The traditions behind the Exodus story can be traced in the writings of the 8th-century BCE prophets, beyond which their history is obscured by centuries of transmission. No historical basis for the biblical Exodus story exists; instead, archaeology suggests a native Canaanite origin for ancient Israel.…
After a century of research by archaeologists and Egyptologists the consensus of modern scholars is that the Bible does not give an accurate account of the origins of Israel.There is no indication that the Israelites ever lived in Ancient Egypt, and the Sinai Peninsula shows almost no sign of any occupation for the entire 2nd millennium BCE (even Kadesh-Barnea, where the Israelites are said to have spent 38 years, was uninhabited prior to the establishment of the Israelite monarchy). In contrast to the absence of evidence for the Egyptian captivity and wilderness wanderings, there are ample signs of Israel’s evolution within Canaan from native Canaanite roots. While a few scholars discuss the historicity, or at least plausibility, of the Exodus story, the majority of archaeologists have abandoned it, in the phrase used by archaeologist William Dever, as “a fruitless pursuit”.
No Exodus, no Moses. What about Elijah? He is a prophet who is supposed to have lived in the ninth century B.C., but the stories about his life may date from 300 years later, throwing doubt on their historical reliability:
According to Susanne Otto, the Elijah stories were added to the Deuteronomistic History in four stages. The first stage dates from the final edition of the History, about 560 BC, when the three stories of Naboth’s vineyard, the death of Ahaziah, and the story of Jehu’s coup were included to embody the themes of the reliability of God’s word and the cycle of Baal worship and religious reform in the history of the Northern Kingdom. The narratives about the Omride wars were added shortly afterwards to illustrate a newly introduced theme, that the attitude of the king towards God determines the fate of Israel. According to Otto, 1 Kings 17–18 was added in early post-Exilic times (after 538 BC) to demonstrate the possibility of a new life in community with God after the time of judgment. Additionally, Otto suggests that in the fifth century BC, 1 Kings 19:1–18 and the remaining Elisha stories were inserted to give prophecy a legitimate foundation in the history of Israel. The foregoing Otto analysis is heavily disputed amongst biblical scholars.
Otto’s theories remain speculative, but the general view of scholars is that 1 and 2 Kings were written a good two centuries after the time when Elijah is supposed to have lived, throwing doubt on their historical reliability:
Earlier layers of editing have been proposed, but no general agreement exists on the subject.
The question of Elijah’s historicity is an important one, for it touches on the issue of when the Israelites first started worshiping Yahweh alone. And in that respect, the story of Elijah may well be anachronistic: worship of Yahweh alone may have only begun 100 years after the time when he lived:
The worship of Yahweh alone began at the earliest with Elijah in the 9th century BCE, but more likely with the prophet Hosea in the 8th; even then it remained the concern of a small party before gaining ascendancy in the exilic and early post-exilic period. The early supporters of this faction are widely regarded as being monolatrists rather than true monotheists; they did not believe that Yahweh was the only god in existence, but instead believed that he was the only god the people of Israel should worship. Finally, in the national crisis of the exile, the followers of Yahweh went a step further and outright denied that the other deities aside from Yahweh even existed, thus marking the transition from monolatrism to true monotheism.
So here’s the problem. We have a well-attested miracle in the New Testament (the Transfiguration) in which Moses and Elijah are said to have appeared and conversed with Jesus, but the general verdict of Biblical scholars today seems to be that Moses didn’t exist at all (and if he did exist, he almost certainly pre-dated the Israelite worship of Yahweh), while the stories in the Bible about prophet Elijah were written centuries after he lived, and in any event, he may not have worshiped Yahweh alone. In short: Moses appears to have been mythical, while Elijah is at least semi-mythical. And if we look at the list of miracles worked in the Old Testament, we find that nearly all of them are associated with either Moses (and his successor, Joshua) or Elijah (and his successor, Elisha). Take those away, as well as the miracle stories associated with the prophet Daniel (whose existence is denied by most scholars), and there’s very little left in the way of Old Testament miracles.
What I want to know is: can Christianity live with this kind of hard-nosed scholarly skepticism about Moses and Elijah? If we accept the view of many scholars, then we have to throw out the Old Testament miracles, as well as virtually everything in Israel’s and Judah’s history, prior to about 750 B.C. (except for the existence of King David - even Solomon’s existence is disputed). That still leaves us with prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and the minor prophets (such as Hosea and Amos), and of course, the figures of Ezra and Nehemiah. But in essence, it leaves us with a reliable (or semi-reliable) Old Testament history that’s only about 300 years in length (omitting the deuterocanonical books), from around 750 B.C. to 400 B.C. Before that time, nearly everything is murky.
There’s another problem which arises for Christians. Did the Transfiguration happen at all, or was it made up? After all, if Moses didn’t exist, then Jesus could hardly have spoken to him, could he? But surely, it makes no sense for a Christian to affirm the reality of Jesus’ Resurrection, while at the same time believing that the story of the Transfiguration was made up. Thus we see that scholarly skepticism about the existence of Moses and Elijah strikes at the very heart of Christianity. Or does it?
Recently, I came across a very helpful series of articles on the Transfiguration by the late Biblical scholar, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, O.P., which I would strongly urge readers to peruse. The series is titled, What really happened at the Transfiguration? In his series of articles, Fr. Murphy-O’Connor argues that there are two versions of the story: a Markan version referring to Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, and an alternative Lukan version, which originally had Jesus conversing with two men (who were really angels):
“It happened after these words, about eight days, taking with him Peter and John and James, he went up the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered. And behold, two men talked with him, 'who appearing in glory spoke of his ‘exodus’ which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. But Peter and those with him saw his glory and the two men standing with him. And when they parted from him, Jesus was found alone."
Luke, argues Fr. Murphy-O’Connor, had access to this more primitive version of the story, but he also had Mark’s Gospel in front of him, so he tried to conflate the two accounts, in a rather awkward fashion. But if we reconstruct the original version of the Transfiguration, the figures of Moses and Elijah are absent. (Fr. Murphy-O’Connor also thinks the angels in Luke’s primitive account were a literary device, but that need not concern us here.)
In short: Christians can still believe in the reality of the Transfiguration, without having to affirm the historicity of Moses and Elijah. And while it is true that Jesus spoke of Moses and Elijah, he could well have simply been talking to the Jews of his day, at their level. He knew that they believed the Law was written by Moses, and he did not want to ruffle any feathers by suggesting that it wasn’t. That would have been rude and utterly pointless.
So it seems that the Christian faith is tied to a 300-year-thick sequence of events in the Old Testament (from about 750 B.C. to 400 B.C.), but not to any Old Testament miracles. Nor do Christians need to accept the reality of Moses or Elijah. At least, that’s the conclusion I’ve reached. What do readers think?
A final reflection: if someone were to ask me what the greatest miracle of the Old Testament is, I’d say: the emergence of belief in a transcendent Deity Who alone created the universe, and Who is a God of justice and love. In particular, the fact that it was the Jews (and the Jews alone) among all the peoples of antiquity, who managed to eradicate female infanticide, because they believed that God abominated the practice, strikes me as a miracle in itself. Thoughts?