Most everyone knows the Biblical tradition portraying Moses as the great “lawgiver” of the Israelite people. In Exodus and Deuteronomy he is described as receiving the Torah directly from God. He tells the Israelite people: “When I went up to the mountain to receive the tables of stone . . . And the Lord gave me two tables of stone written with the finger of God” (Deuteronomy 9:9-10; and for the second giving of the tablets to Moses see Deuteronomy 10:1-5; remember, Moses broke the first set). Imagine my surprise a few weeks ago to learn that the apostle Paul did not agree that God had given the law directly to Moses. According to Paul (Galatians 3:19) and other New Testament writers (Acts 7:38, 53; Hebrews 2:2) the law was “ordered through angels”! This tradition was also shared by Josephus, a first century Jewish writer in a statement attributed to Herod (Antiquities of the Jews 15.5.3): “We have learned the noblest of our doctrines and the holiest of our laws from the messengers [angels] sent by God.”
This tradition of an indirect passing of the Law to Moses is unknown in the Hebrew Bible, although angels are part of the coterie of God in the Septuagint version of Deuteronomy 33:2, where God comes with his “holy ones” and “on his right hand were his angels with him.” In one of the Apostolic Fathers, Shepherd of Hermas (Similitude 8.3.3), the Archangel Michael was said to have “put the law into the hearts of those who believe.” Angels were long thought to act as mediators between God and human beings (see, for example, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: TLevi 5:5-6; TDan 6:1-2; Philo, On Dreams, 1. 141-142; Jubilees, 1.27-2.1; 32:21-22). Cerinthus, an early Christian heretic according to Epiphanius (Panarion 28.1,2),claimed “that the Law and prophets have been given by angels though the law-giver is one of the angels who made the world,”and these angels did an evil act by creating the world. Barnabas (9:4), another of the Apostolic Fathers, reports that an evil angel misled the Israelite people into thinking that circumcision was an actual fleshly act.
Obviously we have here an interesting contradiction between the Old Testament and the New Testament: did Moses actually receive the Law directly from God or was it “ordered through angels”? Both assertions cannot be correct at the same time! The situation is much more complicated, however. These claims about the Law are traditions validating the authority of the Torah. A tradition is a “handing down” orally of a belief from generation to generation. Traditions are living “things,”and as such they change, evolve, and mutate. Because they exist in memory and surface in oral communication, no sequential history of the evolution of an ancient tradition survives. Each generation inevitably modifies what they receive, because it is not written in stone (if you will permit me to put it that way). If there ever had been a point of origin and an original form of the tradition, it would have long since vanished into the fog of the past. With time, written stories do emerge explaining the origin of this or that particular belief. These various written forms of the tradition often represent diverse contradictory versions of the tradition. These versions represent what individuals or groups believed about them at a given moment in time. The oral tradition, however, goes on evolving into still later multiple forms, as interpreted by those who receive it and pass it on to other auditors.
Neither of these two attempts to explain how the Torah came to Moses (i.e., directly from God or ordered through angels) is a historically verifiable datum about the origin of theTorah; they are rather ancient traditional beliefs, and as such do not provide a historical description of origins. Rather each is a then current religious belief representing what people thought at the time.
Many, if not most, statements about origins in the Bible work the same way—for example, early Christians validated the divinity of Jesus by narratives of a physical birth (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-55; 2:1-20), the infusion or mutation of the preexistent heavenly Christ into flesh (John 1:1-14), and a baptismal Theophany (Mark 1:9-11) – an interesting contradiction between New Testament writers.
Which of these two contradictory traditions about the Torah, if either, makes more sense to you? Or to put it another way: with whom do you agree: “Moses” (directly from God), Paul (ordered through angels), or Hedrick (traditions, not history)?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University