Explore the Bible: Joshua 1:1-9
One of the areas of study that fascinates me is the origin and transmission of the Bible. From its writing to its preservation, from its beginnings to today, the way that we have received the Word of God in writing is a truly remarkable process. The long span of time covered by the writing of Scripture- about 1500 years- is amazing in historical context. To put it in perspective, 1500 years ago there was still a Roman empire, the prophet Mohammed had not yet been born, the AD/BC system for dating had not yet been invented, and Christianity had not yet split into its Eastern and Western branches (and the Protestant Reformation was still a millennium away!).
One of the questions that arises when examining the history of the Bible is how the books that eventually were recognized as the official canon of Scripture were treated when they were first written. We have hints that at least some were accepted as coming from God at an early date, while others took a while for the church to fully recognize. Occasionally we find passages of Scripture that provide us with clues to this process.
In Joshua 1, we have some indications of the beginning of the recognition of the writings of Moses as an authoritative book of law (instruction, in the ESV). Moses had just died, and Joshua, as his assistant, would have had access to all that he had written during Israel’s wilderness wanderings. It’s even possible Joshua might have helped in the writing, as a secretary or amanuensis, but we are not told this in the Bible. Still, given that Deuteronomy is largely a long sermon by Moses, it isn’t hard to imagine that Joshua at least “took notes” as he spoke.
What we do clearly see in Joshua 1 is that the Lord instructs Joshua to take the book that Moses has written and to read and meditate on it daily. We break Moses’ writings down into five books, but as a collection they are called the Torah (Law) by Jews, and the Pentateuch (five books) by many Bible students. This book was now the guide Joshua was to follow as he took over the leadership of Israel from Moses. Within a few years of its composition, or even just a few weeks or months of the writings at the end of Deuteronomy, Joshua received the command to treat this collection as an authoritative source of God’s commands and instructions.
If this is true, then at least parts of the Bible were treated as Scripture almost immediately. This doesn’t fit with what some scholars suggest about the history of Judaism. They believe it evolved gradually over many, many years, and that when we see something that looks like an early acknowledgement of an authoritative Scripture that means the book in which we find that reference must have been written centuries later. Some go so far as to question whether Moses and Joshua really lived, or were just later legends conceived by the priests to establish what they wanted Israel and its kings to believe about the origin of the nation.
Now it is true that we do not have the original books of Moses as written by his own hand. However, some scholars believe that Moses’ original manuscript may have survived until at least 620 BC, when, during repairs under King Josiah of Judah, Hilkiah found the “book of the law” in the Temple. Moses had originally deposited a copy of the book next to the ark (Deuteronomy 31:26), and many believe this was the copy Joshua would have read, passed down for generations. While we don’t know how the book was lost, under these circumstances it would have been found over 800 years after it had been written! While this seems almost impossible, we have manuscripts today that have survived far longer and are still readable. I have seen fairly up close some of the Dead Sea scrolls fragments, which date back 2000 years, and although my language skills are rusty, I could definitely make out the letters and words on those manuscripts.
We do know that copies were made, and that the scribes who wrote these copies came to have very strict rules so that they could guarantee that they transmitted the words accurately. (In fact, some of these strictures are still applied by those who write out the Torah scrolls for Jewish synagogues today.) The Torah still guides the worship and practice of Jews today, and has a great influence of Christians as well. Given what we read in Joshua, the Torah has been seen as God’s Word and God’s Law for over 3400 years, ever since it was written by Moses and handed over to Joshua. The Bible began with the books of Moses, and has continued to hold its place of authority ever since, even as the Holy Spirit inspired more books to be written and added to Scripture.