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Tablet theory

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The Tablet Theory or the Wiseman Hypothesis, is the concept that the book of Genesis was written by the individuals with whom the text mostly concerned, such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, etc.


The theory was presented by Percy J. Wiseman, who during a tour in Mesopotamia as an air commodore in the Royal Air Force, found an interest in studying ancient civilizations of the region. He visited a number of excavation sites and archeologists and collected cuneiform tablets and inscriptions while familiarizing himself with the writing conventions of the ancient Mesopotamians. He noted the correlation between the method of recording authorship in pre-Abraham clay tablets and the style of Genesis. Wiseman pointed out in his 1936 book that ancient tablets carried at the end the name of the scribe (or owner) as well as information on the author (or owner) and the date of the recording, much like the way in which newspaper reporters today provide that same information at the end of news articles. This pattern seemed to make sense of the outline of Genesis, which divides narratives with a statement on the central figure of the preceding text and then proceeds to list a series of generations to set up the following narrative. Despite his publication and his son's updated edition printed in 1936, the Tablet Theory has not received much attention over the JEDP Documentary Hypothesis.

Authorship and compilation

The following lists the authors and account transitions as proposed by Curt Sewell:

The "tablets," if written in this proposed time frame, would have been written in the language of the time and passed down from generation to generation. These were later all translated into Hebrew, granted that Hebrew was not the language of the antediluvian world. The tablets would likely have been separate pieces, and when put together in one account, possibly on papyrus or parchment, portions of certain colophons may have been dropped for lack of necessity, while the text itself was kept unchanged. There is clear textual evidence that Moses, when he compiled the accounts, put notes on updated place names after the original, out of date names. An example is in Genesis 23:19 :

And after this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre: the same is Hebron in the land of Canaan. Genesis 23:19 (KJV)

The theory also fits with the oft cited "double creation account." The opening recap of Genesis 2 can be seen as a shift of perspectives as a second author picks up the history, namely Adam.

Opposing views

Tablet theory and the Documentary Hypothesis

The Tablet Theory is in direct opposition to the Documentary Hypothesis (also called the JEDP theory) and its presupposition that the events were written down long after they had transpired, or that the earlier parts of Genesis are a complete myth. Proponents of higher criticism state that writing had not yet arisen in the time of the earlier parts of the book of Genesis, and it has been claimed that Genesis had not been compiled until the time of Israel’s captivity in Babylon. However, such claims have no supporting archaeological evidence and rely almost entirely upon speculation, while the Tablet Theory is founded upon the known and verified style of ancient scribes.

Tablet theory and Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch

It has been stated that the theory is contrary to the traditional view by both Christians and Jews that Moses wrote the book of Genesis, either from revelation from God or from oral tradition. It should be realized, however, that Moses would have translated the tablets from their original non-alphabetic script and non-Hebrew language into Hebrew, thus beginning the formation of the Biblical canon. The tablets would not have been written in Hebrew because the original language of Abraham and his ancestors was not Hebrew. See Gen. 31:46,47, where the language of Abraham's kinfolk in Haran was not the same as the language that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had learned in Canaan. The script of the tablets would not have been alphabetic because the earliest examples of alphabetic writing only go back to about the time of Moses. Over the years, several authors have conjectured that someone who knew both Egyptian and Hebrew was the inventor of the alphabet, because Egyptian hieroglyphs contain symbols for the consonants, but the Egyptians never realized they could write everything using just these symbols. Hebrew, like Egyptian, originally used only consonants, showing the likely Egyptian predecessors of the alphabet. Moses, who was "learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (Acts 7:22) is therefore a logical choice for the original inventor of the alphabet. If this was the case, then his translation of the tablets into the Hebrew alphabetic script, sometimes adding explanatory notes, was the means that the Holy Spirit used to start the formation of the Biblical canon. (Joseph is another candidate for the inventor of the alphabet.)

Moses was familiar with the use of colophons, and he used them in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy as summary lines. In Leviticus, for example, a colophonic summary appears at 14:32 and at the end of chapters 7, 11, 13, 14, 15, 26, and 27. The last sentences in Leviticus and Numbers are colophons for the respective books. Although Moses would probably have written on parchment, not on tablets, he showed his familiarity with the earlier tablets by occasionally using their colophonic structure in the records he made of his own time.

Interesting consequences of the Tablet Theory

Several insights are gained into the structure of Genesis if the Tablet theory is true. Some of these are listed here.

  • It means that from the beginning, the accounts of Scripture were usually written by eyewitnesses. An exception is the toledoth of Terah (Genesis 11:10b to 11:27a), which consists entirely of a genealogical list that Terah passed on from his ancestors. Toledoth is the Hebrew word that is translated "generations" in the KJV. A better translation that shows its meaning in these first chapters of Genesis is "histories" or "sacred history" (the word is plural in Hebrew).
  • It explains why there are two accounts of creation, the first going from Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:4a, and the second from there to the end of chapter 2. The first account deals with the creation of the universe from God's perspective. Although man is the crown of that creation, the first chapter discusses first the heavenly bodies and the plant and animal kingdoms that were created before the creation of man. The second account is written more from man's perspective, starting with man in the garden, and then the description of the garden and the surrounding geography.
  • Consistent with this idea, the second chapter of Genesis deals with things that Adam would have known about from his own experience. In order to make clear to the modern reader the ancient literary convention being followed in the first 36 chapters of Genesis, Genesis 5:1 should be translated "This concludes the book of the histories (sepher toledoth) of Adam . . ."
  • Genesis chapter 1, however, deals with the creation of the entire universe, to which man was not an eyewitness. The colophon for this section does not name any human author. In place of such a name there is provided the name of God: " . . . when the Lord God created the heavens and the earth." The Lord God here provides a record of things to which man could not have been an eyewitness, and, in a sense, signs his own name to this first toledoth (sacred history).
  • The first toledoth (Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a), in the original Hebrew, is written in extremely simple language. There are only about 90 basic word-forms in the chapter when we take into account verbal and noun forms of the same root. Examples of this are or for 'a light' in Gen. 1:14, 15, 16 and the verbal form or (give light) and participle maor, 'light-giver' in these same verses. There is not a name yet for the sun and the moon; they are simply "the big light" and "the small light" (Genesis 1:16). The repetitive structure of the accounts for the various days also produces an easily understood pattern. It has been proposed that the simple style of this chapter in dealing with profound concepts about the creation reflects a very early time in man's history, when God was teaching man how to read.
  • A theological point in this regard is that man, ever since Adam and Eve, always had a written revelation to which he was held accountable. The translation of these tablets into Hebrew by Moses began the formation of the Biblical canon.
  • The colophonic structure (each of the toledoth ends with a catch-line naming the history and its author or owner) explains why Genesis 11:26 states that Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Terah, only to have this information repeated in the next verse. The toledoth of Terah finishes in Genesis 11:27a with the phrase "this concludes the toledoth (sacred history) of Terah," after which this catch-line is repeated at the beginning of the next toledoth. Wiseman points out that the repetition of a catch-line is another distinguishing feature of this early style of writing.
  • It explains why Genesis 37:1a ("this concludes the histories of Jacob") is not followed by a list of the genealogy or generations of Jacob, as would be expected from the traditional translation "These are the generations of Jacob." The same is true of Genesis 2:4a, where the translation "the generations of the heavens and the earth" would lead us to expect that what follows should be a list of the descendants of the heavens and the earth.
  • It explains why Moses, who translated these tablets into Hebrew, was familiar enough with the colophonic structure that he used colophons extensively in his own writing (see prior section).
  • The idea that Scripture, from the very first chapter of Genesis, was usually written by eye-witnesses (or taken from official and reliable records, as was the case for the chronological data of the kingdom period) sheds an interesting light on Genesis 7:20. The authors of this toledoth were, according to the Tablet Theory, the three sons of Noah (Genesis 10:1a). Their remark that the mountains were covered to a depth of fifteen cubits (about 26 feet, using the old cubit of 21 inches) reflects what they experienced during the months in which the Ark was afloat. They knew that no land was seen. They also knew that at no time before the final appearance of the mountains did the bottom of their vessel touch anything. They therefore concluded that all land must have been submerged to at least the depth of the draft of the Ark. Fifteen cubits or 26 feet is a reasonable measure for the draft of a ship the size of the Ark (525 feet long and 52 feet high according to the old cubit). Consequently, if this idea is true, Genesis 7:20 provides a measure of the amount of the ship's hull that was under the waterline; it was half the ship's total height.
  • According to the Tablet Theory, the account of the Flood was written by eyewitnesses, not by some late-date editor or story-teller who was putting together disparate accounts from the 'J' and 'P' sources, as maintained by scholars with an anti-supernaturalistic bias. Recent scholarship has shown that the Flood account has an artistic unity that is reflected in its remarkable chiastic structure, as explained in the article on chiasmus. No adequate explanation of the literary unity of the Flood account has ever been given by advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis, but it is explained completely by the Tablet Theory, as well as by a proper doctrine of the inspiration of all Scripture. See the chiasmus article for more details.

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