History in the Bible Podcast

Who Wrote the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses?

Podcast Episodes: 1.7

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Until the late 1700s, all accepted that Moses had written the first five books in the Old Testament/Tanakh, the Pentateuch or Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. At the tail end of the Enlightenment, some adventurous scholars proposed that there was a much more complicated story behind these books. These scholars felt that there were so many inconsistencies and duplications in the biblical texts, that it was inconceivable that a single author was behind them. There are three versions of the Ten Commandments, two creation stories, two stories of the Flood; to name but many.

By the late 1800s, biblical critics had formulated a theory now known as the Documentary Hypothesis (DH). This argued that four great traditions or schools had contributed to the Pentateuch. Not one single author, Moses, but four independent narratives that were later combined into the books we have today. Each author retold many of the same stories from their own point of view.

A tweaked version DH was the academic standard by the mid-twentieth century. Many Jewish intellectuals were mortified and appalled. Any critique of the core text of Judaism, was an insult to God, a blasphemy. Traditionalist Protestant intellectuals ignored it. Of course Moses wrote the Torah! Some Catholic theologians sputtered with indignation, but most were quite receptive. Contrary to expectation, the intellectual wing of the Catholic church has usually been in the forefront of academic Bible research.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, a new group of scholars came up with the Supplementary Hypothesis (SH). This still denied that Moses had anything to do with the Torah, but proposed a very different story.

The Documentary Hypothesis (DH)

The DH posits four sources or traditions: J, E, P and D. They can be found mixed together throughout the Torah.

The J Source

The J source was so-named because it uses Yahweh (Jehovah in English) as the name of God. In the J source, God is a character who walks with Adam and Eve, eats with Abraham, and even bargains. He is a very human figure. J’s God is someone you can negotiate with.

In J, God is your lovable but cranky grandpa with a shotgun. He can be dangerous and arbitrary, but if you can calm him down, you enjoy a perfectly pleasant dinner with him. J provides most of the stories of the patriarchs and the first half of Exodus. The core of J’s theology is the divine promise to Abraham. One notable story not known to J is that of the sacrifice of Isaac.

J favours the kingdom of Judah, supporting it against the northern tribes that formed the kingdom of Israel. J focuses on humanity's relationship to the land, its increasing corruption, as in the flood story, and the boundaries between human and divine. In J, the holy mountain is called Sinai, the natives of Palestine are called Canaanites, Moses father-in-law is known as Ruel or Hobab, and the third patriarch is invariably called Israel.

The E Source

The E source always calls God El or Elohim, hence it's name. El is the head of many ancient Middle Eastern and Mesopotamian pantheons.

In this major source, the holy mountain is called Horeb, the natives of Palestine are called Amorites, Moses’ father-in-law is known as Jethro, and third patriarch is invariably called Jacob.

E has no stories of the creation, nothing before Abraham. Where J has some interest in all of humanity, E’s god El only sees the people of Israel. El never talks to people directly, let alone have lunch with them. El communicates through visions, or through divine messengers, or natural phenomena: in clouds and flames and thunder. E’s god is dangerous and terrifying. The E source originated in the northern kingdom of Israel, and so E favours Joshua and Joseph, heroes from the northern tribes. Where J looks on Abraham’s covenant with God as the foundation of Israel, E is convinced that the covenant made with Moses is the central event in Jewish history. On the other hand, E never has a good word to say about Moses’ brother Aaron, the ancestor of the southern kingdom’s priesthood.

The D Source

The third source is the author of the book of Deuteronomy, and the voice behind the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: the Deuteronomistic Historian. D insists that the Jews must worship only Yahweh, but it is not clear if the existence of other gods is denied. D also insists that this worship can only rightfully occur at Jerusalem; and that only the line of David can rule over the Israelites. D describes a cyclic view of history in which the Jews alternate between fidelity and apostasy to Yahweh.

When they are faithful to the covenant all is well, when not, only death and destruction can follow. These days D is divided into two: an early Dtr1, and a later Dtr2 that built on Dtr1. Dtr1 was composed during the reign of King Josiah of Judah, and supported his religious reforms. Dtr1 is triumphal: at last we have a godly king. Dtr2 was written during the exile, and had to explain how Josiah's godliness went to hell in a hand-basket.

The P Source

The fourth source is P, the Priestly source. This is dated to the Exile in Babylon. The P source added a mass of material, possibly as a rejoinder to the stories in J and E, which P considered irreverent.

All the many genealogies and tribal lists in the Torah, chapters and chapters of them, are the work of P. If you've never noticed just how much of the first five books of the Bible are devoted to genealogies, through away those sleeping pills and start reading some of those long passages at bedtime. If the P source was only written down during the Exile, its oral roots go back a further 500 years to the foundation Solomon’s temple. P is insistent that it’s all about priests, it’s all about the temple, and it’s all about sacrifices. In P there are no angels, no dreams, no prophets. The only way to be blessed by God is through a priest of the Temple, and hey, the only way we will even talk to you is if you bring a gift.

The P source has a thing about the defiling nature of corpses, bones, and the grave. This preoccupation stands out in contrast to the surrounding Canaanite cultures. It may be reflection of an attempt to combat a cult of the dead. It would have been in the priesthood’s interest to suppress cults of the dead, which did not require a priest and brought no income to the temple. P promotes precisely the opposite idea: the only legitimate avenue to the deity is through the priests.

P is the author behind all the rules of Leviticus, and most of the rules in Numbers. He also wrote the elaborate descriptions of the tabernacle that occupy almost a third of Exodus.

To P, the elaborate rituals of sacrifice define everything. God demands blood sacrifice, and blood sacrifice shall you give. To P, Judaism is a religion of seeing, not hearing; and of smelling the sweet savour of incense and spices that ascend to heaven to please God. P’s religion is physical, in which language, even prayer, plays little role. P never explains the theology behind his thinking: do as the priests command you to do. You need know nothing more.

Final Redaction

The books we know as the Pentateuch and the histories were only finally assembled after the Jews returned to the province of Judah during the Persian period. The leader after the Return, Ezra, was often mentioned as the final editor, the man who pulled together all the stories from all the sources into the collection we have today. Whoever the compiler was, he was not afraid of redundancies and repetitions. He kept contradictions because he did not like destroying evidence, and multiple reports provide an aura of authenticity.

 The Documentary Hypothesis

The Documentary Hypothesis (DH), and its development through time. Dates are BC/BCE.

The Supplementary Hypothesis (SH)

Scholars' confidence in the DH declined in the second half of the 20th century, as graduate students proposed more and more sub-sources: E1, E2, J1, J2 ad so on. Moreover, many argued that it was impossible to disentangle J from E. It was all becoming rather messy.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, some scholars picked up on an alternative idea, one that had been floating around for a century. This became known as the Supplementary Hypothesis (SH). It is now the main rival to the DH, and the more popular theory amongst the professors.

The DH holds that there were four distinct and autonomous sources, that were eventually merged by some redactor to become the Pentateuch. The SH rejects that. It argues there was only one core source, D. This was produced in two editions. An initial one, Dtr1, and a revised edition, Dtr2. The sages and scribes working on this combined D source added material from a collection of old traditions, JE. It was futile to disentangle J from E, because they were all of a piece. Nor was JE some preserved complete narrative, a book you could consult: it was just the name given to the collective historical memory of the Jewish people.

Some time after the scribes had constructed this combined work, JED, they also drew in the various traditions produced by priestly class. And voila! The result was the Pentateuch.

The Supplementary Hypothesis

The Supplementary Hypothesis (SH), and its development through time. Dates are BC/BCE.

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