The Josiah Conspiracy? (Clarity of the Bible V)

WYSIWYG is a technical term (in computer programming) with a simple meaning: what you see is what you get. Many liberal theologians believe that the Old Testament is not exactly WYSIWYG. They believe that it is in fact (to coin a new term) WYSITJC – what you see is the Josiah conspiracy.

The Josiah conspiracy theory looms so large for so many people that it deserves some attention before we move on to the clarity of the New Testament.

First, should we think that the Josiah conspiracy theory is a big deal? On one hand, much of the message of the Old Testament remains intact even if the conspiracy was real. Either way, most of the points made in my posts so far still stand. Either way, the voices of the authors and audiences still reach us today. These voices are varied enough to make a real conversation, connected enough for them to understand each other, and thorough enough to leave us clues to understand them. On the other hand, the King Josiah conspiracy is, well, a conspiracy. It makes the Old Testament a murky, underhanded business.

Conspiracy is my term. Christians who believe in it tend to refer to it with prettier terms, like documentary hypothesis, but I think Josiah conspiracy theory is simpler and more honest.

The theory is that, in the 7th century B.C., the court of King Josiah of Judah, needing to strengthen its authority, gave the clerics a mission: to dig up religious writings and legends from several Jewish and Israelite traditions and stitch them together. The court wanted everyone to believe that worship should be centred in their capital city. The clerics obeyed, producing the core of the Old Testament as we know it.

One of the biggest holes in the Josiah conspiracy theory is something I talked about in Part II: genre. Today, this hole in the theory is bigger than ever. Historians have found ancient covenant documents and compared them to the Books of Moses. Passages like Exodus 20 and most of the Book of Deuteronomy are clear examples of such treaties, in a style that belongs to centuries before Josiah. This discovery about Deuteronomy is an especial embarrassment to the conspiracy theorists, who had claimed it was an original forgery in Josiah’s time! Besides treaty format, there is a technique called chiastic structure. One of the biggest examples is the Flood narrative in Genesis (6:1-9:19). It is now clear that it is an elegant whole with several sections that make a pattern. Yet the conspiracy theorists had ventured to write elaborate descriptions of how Josiah’s clerics had messily stitched it together from competing sources!1 In the light of genre studies, their methods have suffered a huge loss of credibility.

So how did the flawed Josiah conspiracy theory come about? What biases were involved?

Just to be clear: simply being biased is not a sin, and everyone, including me, is biased. Pointing out the biases behind an idea does not prove that it is wrong, or that the people who hold that idea are bad. However, since there are serious flaws in the Josiah conspiracy theory, it is interesting to think of what biases were behind it.

The Josiah conspiracy theory has been (and still is) promoted by theologians and scholars of the liberal kind. They are biased towards believing that the books of the Bible were written later rather than earlier.

However, they have to accept that the Books of Moses, in pretty much their current form, are at least as old as King Josiah. This is because the Exile (shortly after King Josiah) has left us a lot of literature about the Books of Moses, both inside the Bible and outside it (see the previous post).

The Exile period was rich in Jewish literature (a) for religious reasons and (b) because it made the Jews a more international people, creating a need for the Greek translation, Aramaic commentary, etc.

So we have a period rich in literature which makes the existence of the Books of Moses undeniable, and then we have liberal scholars who would like the Books of Moses to be as late as possible. And we have a liberal-scholarship theory saying that the Books of Moses were concocted by conspiracy straight before that literature-rich period.

If the literature-rich period had come 500 years earlier or later, maybe modern scholars would have put forward different conspiracy theories! We can only speculate.

But, rather than holding to a conspiracy theory of exhumed texts stitched together in the dark for a king, it is reasonable to follow clues inside the Old Testament that point to very early audiences of complete books.

1Holding, J. P. (2005). Debunking the documentary hypothesis [Review]. Journal of Creation 19(3), 37-40.

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