Late in following their Protestant counterparts, Catholic biblical scholars have now generally accepted the theory that the Pentateuch originates from four main sources, compiled centuries after Moses. Even those who are skeptical of the theory do not often argue for the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, probably because it would be very difficult to do; it’s a bit like defending a young earth. Sure, you can punch holes in your opponents’ theories and answer their objections, but in the end, you accept a young earth or Mosaic authorship mostly because of an old tradition which you consider weightier than the complicated new theories. However, the reigning idea is that convictions should grow out of reason’s investigation, not float on the pool of Why Not.
I have to admit, Mosaic authorship appeals a lot more to my sensibility than the JEDP theory. The Christian story revolves around persons, individuals with a particular brilliance (in the sense of splendour and significance). Adam, for instance, as the first man. People have tried to make Adam disappear into a cloud of human ancestors, but as Pope Pius XII pointed out in Humani Generis, it is ‘in no way apparent’ how that could ever be reconciled with original sin. David, as the great king who unified Israel and was also a great poet – but of course his authorship of the Psalms is questioned. Solomon, traditionally considered the wisest person between Adam and Christ and also a great author of Wisdom literature – now frequently ascribed to anonymous court poets. Jesus himself, whose face people have sought to obscure by reducing him to a narrative created by the early Christian Church, of multiplex authorship and dubious credibility. At least Christian scholars have put up a successful defence against the last claim.
The tendency of recent centuries is clear: greatness is examined with a liberal dose of skepticism; an ancient genius is an aggregate of some noteworthy qualities and lots of borrowed clothes. As he has come down to us, he is more of a narrative than a person; he has absorbed others’ lesser glory into himself.
In a way this conflicts with the expectations of a Christian imagination. After all, our whole faith rests on a man in whom the fullness of divinity dwelt bodily. The cloud of witnesses does not obscure his historical reality, but rather illumines the greatness that shone in his life on earth, far beyond anything our minds can conceive. From there, it is natural to imagine that the first man was not simply something new, an animal creature endowed with reason and innocence, but that his newness was excessive. The first rational being among brutes, he did not have to use reason for laborious decisions and knowledge-gathering; no, he was free from irregular desire, from death, from suffering, from ignorance. In the creation of man, as in the conception of the Saviour, God brilliantly manifested himself by doing what is impossible for nature to unfold. Such things cannot be found by a reconstruction of the plausible. That makes it plausible that more implausible things have occurred. Formerly we looked to Scripture and Tradition to discover which these were. Now we usually can’t tell.
To the imagination that has been shaped by an evolutionary view (in a broad sense), Adam’s depiction above is an aesthetic affront. It is not illogical; it just clashes, in an unpleasant fashion, with our expectation of reality. It is like a painting of a modern-day park in which one random ambler exudes rainbow-coloured light: beauty in the wrong place, ugliness. Similarly, to suppose that a brute anthropoid creature (a now-common reading of ‘dust’) brought forth a man gifted with complete integrity, immortality and treasures of knowledge – that sounds too mythical to be true. Christ can still be made acceptable by being presented as the inevitable culmination of the history of Israel. And man as the simple searching rational animal, at the end of a chain of beings of growing complexity – having that picture hanging on one’s creedal wall exhibits a certain sophistication too. But the ‘old Adam’ of the Schoolmen? Quaint, but ultimately preposterous.
Well, we live in an age of committees, in which great things are done by systematic processes involving many small men. We find our brilliance there, in small men doing great things by using each other as leverage and inspiration. The development of Christian doctrine has doubtlessly owed much to the Spirit’s hidden work in forgotten people and communities, all very gradual and acceptable.
(Yet Augustine and Aquinas, the two pillars and powerhouses of Western theology, have both done and written more than any human being could plausibly do and write in his lifetime. So why not Moses and Solomon?)