Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Sources of the Pentateuch

Posted by foryourfaith on May 18, 2012


Although much was written down during the time of King David and his son, Solomon, accounts of the origins the Israelites and their beliefs were probably still being circulated by word of mouth during the heyday of the kingdom of Israel. These accounts would eventually be preserved in written form in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch (from the Greek for “five-book work”). For many centuries it was believed that Moses had written the Pentateuch, and it was often referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Today scholars believe the Pentateuch was not written down until well after the time of Moses and that it was the work of numerous authors. But this idea is not entirely new. From early times it was suspected that, even though Moses is certainly the spirit behind the texts, he did not personally write the books credited to him.

Problems with Moses’ authorship started early. Although the New Testament speaks of the law of Moses it does not specifically say that Moses wrote the five books of the Pentateuch. Soon, however, this idea seemed to catch hold, even though it seemed that parts of the text had been written later than the time of Moses. In about AD 400 Jerome, whose Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, was to remain in use for 1,500 years, held that Moses was the original author of the Pentateuch but that the books had not been given their final shape until about 400 BC, the time of Ezra, the priest who instituted religious reform among the Jews who were returning to Jerusalem after exile in Babylon.

By the seventh century more serious doubts arose about Moses’ authorship. One early objection was that the book of Deuteronomy contains in account of Moses’ death, and Moses could not have written such an account himself. Later commentators, including the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, suggested that the first five books of the Bible had indeed been written by Moses but that later scribes had added material to the text, including the description of Moses’ death. Hobbes’s contemporary, Baruch Spinoza, held that the Pentateuch had been compiled by Ezra, using older materials, some of which might have been written by Moses.

In his studies of the Pentateuch, Spinoza noticed doublets (the presence of two versions of a single story). Some of the most obvious are found in Genesis. There are two accounts of the creation, for example. In Genesis 1:11-27, God creates plants, then animals, and then he creates man and woman together. In Genesis 2:7-22, God creates man, then plants, then animals, and then he creates a woman out of the man’s rib. The story of the flood offers another clear example. In Genesis 7:2-3, Noah takes aboard the ark seven pairs of each kind of clean animal and bird but only one pair of each kind of unclean animal. In Genesis 6:19-20 and 7:8-9, he takes aboard only one pair of each kind of animal and bird, whether clear or unclean.

These doublets and other elements – such as minor contradictions in dates, place names and other details – suggested that the Pentateuch was not written by a single author, whether Moses or someone else. Over the next two centuries, scholars examined the biblical texts, paying close attention to the doublets, and came up with numerous theories about the origin of the ancient texts.

As scholars separated the strands of narrative indicated by the doublets, they began to realize that some accounts used the name Yahweh for God while others used the word Elohim. This led them to believe that at least two traditions were interwoven in the Pentateuch. Other scholars found more. In 1878 the German scholar Julius Wellhausen, studied all the viable theories and proposed schema called the Documentary Hypothesis, which is still widely used today.

Wellhausen saw four basic sources, which he named J, E, P and D. The letter J stands for Jahveh, the German spelling Yahweh, the name generally used for God in this source. E stands for Elohim, the Hebrew word meaning “God.” P stands for priestly, because these writings focus on priests and worship. Finally, D denotes the book of Deuteronomy, which makes up the fourth source.

The J, E, P and D sources had been written as separate accounts at different times, in different places, and by different people, as will be discussed later. They themselves incorporated even earlier sources, both written and oral. Some of these primary sources probably go back to Moses, while others are even older. J, E, P and D were not to be combined to make up the books we have today until at least the time of the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BC.


That’s Another Story

Refutation of Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch came as early as the first century AD. In chapter 14 of 2 Esdras, one of the books of the Aprocrypha (books that did not quite make it into the Old Testament), God speaks to Ezra from a bush, telling him to assemble five scribes and to dictate to them what God will inspire him to say. Ezra dictates for 40 days, and his scribes copy down the 24 books of the Old Testament plus 70 other sacred books. Early Christian writers – the Fathers of the Church – interpreted this passage as showing that Ezra, not Moses, had written the Pentateuch, and that he had done so under direct inspiration from God. However, 2 Esdras was written hundreds of years after the time of Ezra, and the Fathers are known for not paying much attention to historical and scientific details. Today the passage from Esdras is generally regarded as a myth.


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