Picking at Threads, Part 3 – Who Wrote the Torah?
For the previous parts of this series, see:
- Picking at Threads – Prologue
- Picking at Threads, Part 1 – Science
- Picking at Threads, Part 2 – Religions of the Ancient Near East
In that last post I talked about various religions, stories, legends and myths of the Ancient Near East. From the very earliest historical records in Sumer to Akkadia, arguably the first recorded empire, and from Babylon to the religion of Canaan. In this article, we’ll shift slightly and begin our first examination of the collection of writings we call the bible. In the next article we’ll see how these two come together.
The Torah, or Pentateuch, is the first five books of the Tanakh/the Hebrew Bible, or what is most often called the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They are also called the “Books of Moses”, as it is traditionally believed that these first five books of the bible were penned by none other than Moses himself. But as early as the late Middle Ages, Jewish scholars noticed anomalies in the words of the Torah that they realized could not have been written by Moses and that must have been later additions or modifications by other prophets, such as the account of Moses’ death, the phrases “until this day” and others.
It wasn’t until the 1800’s that biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen began to look at the Torah through a more scientific and historic lens, approaching it as one would approach other classic writings of the ancient world with textual and source criticism. In other words, Wellhausen examined the actual writing of the Torah in Hebrew to see what could be found about its authorship, including who wrote it, when and why.
Based on his findings (including the work of previous scholars), Wellhausen developed what became known as the “Documentary Hypothesis”: that the Torah was composed by combining the religious documents of at least 4 primary authors writing centuries apart and even in different locations and with different views and agendas. Multiple redactors then combined these various documents, made some tweaks and changes in attempts to reconcile problems and this process resulted in the Torah we have today.
The Documentary Hypothesis (which I will refer to as DH) was the dominant theory of the composition of the Torah for many years. Only in the later 20th century did competing hypotheses arise, yet for many, the DH remains unassailable. There are also more modern models of the DH, such as that of Richard Elliott Friedman, whose work I am most familiar with.
According to the DH, there are four primary sources and multiple redactors that were used to construct the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These sources are as follows:
- The Yahwist (J) – This is abbreviated “J” because Wellhausen was German, so the ‘J’ was the letter used to produce the ‘Y’ sound from the tetragrammaton. The Yahwist is usually considered the oldest of the 4 sources and wrote in the southern kingdom of Judah
- The Elohist (E) – The Elohist is thought to have written in the same period as J, but in the northern kingdom of Israel
- The Priestly Source (P) – The Priestly source is so called because most of his writings deal with the priesthood and laws. Opinion on P’s date of authorship varies, but many attribute his writings to the First Jerusalem temple
- The Deuteronomist (D) – Not surprisingly, this source is so called because he (or they) is the author of most of Deuteronomy as well as significant parts of Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings as a full “Deuteronomic” history of Israel.
- The J and E Redactor (RJE) – This individual was responsible for combining the J and E sources, very much in a copy and paste sort of work as well as adding notes and small changes to reconcile differences between the two. RJE is primarily a hypothesis of Richard Elliott Friedman, whose modern take on DH is the source of most of my information.
- The Redactor (R) – The final redactor or redactors who were responsible for combining all of the four primary sources into the full Torah. Friedman’s hypothesis is that the Redactor combined D, P and the previously combined JE text, so that work was already done by RJE.
The DH is not the only modern hypothesis on the composition of the Torah. DH was the scholarly consensus until the 20th century when it was challenged by competitors such as the Fragmentary Hypothesis and the Supplementary Hypothesis. Many scholars still hold that DH is still the best explanation even if we don’t know all the details and that even elements of Fragmentary and Supplementary may be involved as well.
One thing is certain, however. Few biblical scholars believe that the best explanation for the composition of the Torah is Mosaic Authorship, but why is this? That is the point of this article.
Have you ever noticed the similarity in particular Biblical stories? For that matter have you ever noticed that some stories seem to be told twice but with slight differences? Why are there differences in the order of Creation in Genesis 1 and 2? Why did Noah have to be told twice to get two of every animal? Why did Abraham pretend his wife was his sister on two different occasions? Why are there three versions of the Ten Commandments? Why did God tell Moses that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob didn’t know the divine name Yahweh when they clearly used the name in earlier passages?
Have you ever had to explain those differences or have those differences explained to you? If so, you certainly aren’t the first person to notice these peculiarities. Furthermore, these peculiarities are even more numerous and obvious in the Hebrew text, which is something most English speaking believers rarely see, if ever.
There are seven primary pieces of evidence that support the idea that the Torah has 4 primary composers and a few redactors and other snippets from old sources. Some of these I’ll explain in more detail as they the elements I am most familiar with and most appropriate for this post (to keep it as short as I can).
Element 1 – Linguistic
Do you think you could tell the difference between modern American English and 1940’s or 50’s English? Probably if the right slang, catch-phrases and euphemisms popped up. How about 1700’s English? Now it would be more obvious. In fact, it would be even more obvious if we were comparing American English and British English. Go back to the 1600’s and English is spoken like the King James translation of the bible with “thee”, “thou”, “thy”, “thine” and verbs that end in -eth. Shakespeare’s English will be even more different than King James English. Why I’m sure you could tell the difference between the English of the American Deep South and of Boston.
It even goes farther than this. If you are familiar enough with particular writers you can even tell the difference between the English of two different people. For example, when Brandon Sanderson took over authorship of the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan passed away before completing it, you can tell the difference between the two. In fact, there are passages in the final book that are known to be Jordan’s work that are pretty evident not to be those of Sanderson.
Languages are not static. They change over time and location and even between people. Certain principles in grammar, sentence structure, commonly used words, spellings, euphemisms and points of view. This isn’t true just of English, but we have seen it with many other languages such as different dialects of Spanish, Italian, French, Chinese, Russian and in old languages such as Latin, Greek and yes, Hebrew.
However, if one were to take two different works written by different authors of different time periods and then translate them to the same language, many of these subtle differences will be lost in the translation, particularly difference in spelling and grammar. They would be normalized by the translator’s use of a single language and style. This is why it is important to examine texts in their original languages. Some things may be evident in translations, but certainly not everything.
There are parts of the Torah that are written in styles that reflect different times and locations, as evidenced by other Hebrew writings of those same periods. For example, there are parts of the Torah that are linguistically older than the book of Ezekiel, which was written during the Babylonian Exile. The same is true for parts of the Torah, even within the same book. For example, the P source is written in a style that is more modern than J or E, even though all three of these sources can be found in Exodus alone. And the entire Torah is in a style different and earlier than that of post-Exile Hebrew.
If Moses wrote the Torah, why can these differences in language and style be found? The claim that Moses wrote all of it is very much like claiming that William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Oliver Twist and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. We know that’s not true based solely on the variety of English that is used and that’s before we look at any other evidence.
Element 2 – Terminology
Different authors have different “keywords”, so to speak. There are many ways to say the same thing in English including synonyms, slang, euphemisms and phrases. Authors have a tendency to stick to the same words and phrases especially when these authors are separated by time. For example, it’s not very likely that you would find a 19th century English text that uses the word “groovy” or the phrase “far out” to describe something positive.
There are sections of the Torah where certain phrases, words and euphemisms are used disproportionately more than in other sections. For example, the phrase “be fruitful and multiply” occurs twelve times, all in the Priestly source passages, or the word “expire” instead of “die”. Same with Mount Sinai (20 times in J and P) and Mount Horeb (14 times in E and D), both used to refer to the same mountain and disproportionately in different sections.
This piece of evidence isn’t particularly convincing in and of itself, but it becomes quite compelling in light of other evidence as we will see in Element 7.
Element 3 – Consistent Content
It is sometimes thought that the Documentary Hypothesis is based mostly on the use of different names for God by different sources, that some use YHWH and others use “Elohim”. In fact, some will attempt to discredit the DH by pointing out that it’s not true. This statement isn’t quite correct. All four primary sources use the divine name YHWH (or Yahweh as most modern scholars refer to the divine name). The difference is when in the narratives this name comes to be known. The Elohist and Yahwist are so named because the Yahwist always uses the divine name Yahweh when referring to God. The Elohist uses “Elohim” exclusively until the divine name is revealed to Moses in Exodus. The Priestly source has the same pattern as the Elohist: he uses “Elohim” until the revelation to Moses in another revelation that is a doublet of the Elohist’s.
So the difference isn’t which name is used by the different sources. The difference is that in the Yahwist narrative, the divine name has been known and used by the patriarchs since Genesis 4, while the Elohist and Priestly source write that this name wasn’t known until God told Moses in Exodus. This actually has some interesting reasons that we’ll get into at another time.
Some of these sources are focused much more on certain sacred objects than other sources. For example, the Priestly source mentions the Tabernacle hundreds of times. It is a major focus of his writings and there are very large passages dedicated to the smallest details. Have you ever wondered why that was so important and why Yahweh spends so much time describing it? Well, the author was a priest, most likely an Aaronid priest. He was describing his job, duties, rituals and workplace because it was very important to him and his audience. The Tabernacle, however, is never once mentioned in the J or D sources.
The Yahwist is all about the ark of the covenant. It’s a central aspect of Israel’s military success. What does the Elohist have to say about the ark? Nothing.
In the Elohist narratives, it is the staff of Moses that is used to perform miracles. In P, however, it is Aaron’s. In fact, in all of P’s narratives, Aaron is a central figure, doer of great deeds, better than Moses and the origin of the One True Priesthood. Not only that, Moses is flawed and makes mistake such as striking the rock to get water and being denied the Promised Land. The Elohist, however, paints a different picture of Aaron. In his narratives, Aaron made the golden calf and criticizes Moses’ Cushite wife, causing him to be reprimanded by Yahweh. To the Elohist, it was Moses who was the superhero and without flaws. This makes perfect sense if we consider that the Elohist was a Levitical priest from northern Israel who was in conflict with the Aaronid priests in Jerusalem. Each author was poking jabs at the other’s heroes.
In fact, the priesthood is a significant influence in these ancient writings. The Elohist and Deuteronomist seemed to favor all Levitical priests, while the Priestly source seemed to think that only Aaronid priests had direct access to the divine.
Element 4 – Flow of the Narratives
Let’s say you were to take out all of the passages attributed to the Priestly source and then read them by themselves. You can do this, actually, if you have Richard Elliott Friedman’s “Bible with Sources Revealed”. When you do this, the Priestly narrative reads like a single, flowing, internally consistent text with no contradictions. The same is true if you read only the Yahwist portions of stories or the Elohist. The Deuteronomist doesn’t really apply here as his work is all in one place.
This is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence and it’s fascinating to see in action. I’m going to provide two samples here from the Flood narrative.
And YHWH saw that human evil was multiplied in the earth, and every inclination of their heart’s thoughts was only evil all the day. And YHWH regretted that He had made humankind in the earth. And He was grieved to His heart.
And YHWH said, “I’ll wipe out the human whom I’ve created from the face of the earth, from human to animal to creeping thing, and to the bird of the skies, because I regret that I made them.” But Noah found favor in YHWH’s eyes.
And YHWH said to Noah, “Come, you and all your household, into an ark, for I’ve seen you as virtuous in front of me in this generation. Of all the pure animals, take seven pairs, man and his woman; and of the animals that are not pure, two, man and woman. Also of the birds of the skies seven pairs, male and female, to keep seed alive on the face of the earth. Because in seven more days, I’ll rain on the earth, forty days and forty nights, and I’ll wipe out all the substance that I’ve made from the face of the earth.”
And Noah did according to all that YHWH had commanded him. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him came to the ark from before the waters of the flood. And seven days later the waters of the flood were on the earth. And there was rain on the earth, forty days and forty nights.
And YHWH closed the door for him. And the flood was on the earth for forty days, and the waters multiplied and raised the ark, and it was lifted from the earth. And the waters grew strong and multiplied very much on the earth, and the ark went on the face of the waters. And the waters had grown very, very strong on the earth, so they covered all the high mountains that are under all the skies. Fifteen cubits above, the waters grew stronger, and they covered the mountains.
Everything that had the breathing spirit of life in its nostrils, everything that was on the ground died. And He wiped out all the substance that was on the face of the earth, from human to animal to creeping thing and to bird of the skies, and they were wiped out from the earth, and just Noah and those who were with him in the ark were left.
And the rain was restrained from the skies. And the waters went back from the earth, going back continually. And it was at the end of forty days, and Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made. And he let a dove go from him to see whether the waters had eased from the face of the earth. And the dove did not find a resting place for its foot, and it came back to him to the ark, for waters were on the face of the earth, and he put out his hand and took it and brought it to him to the ark. And he waited still another seven days, and he again let a dove go from the ark. And the dove came to him at evening time, and here was an olive leaf torn off in its mouth, and Noah knew that the waters had eased from the earth. And he waited still another seven days, and he let a dove go, and it did not come back to him ever again. And Noah turned back the covering of the ark and looked, and here the face of the earth had dried.
And Noah built an altar to YHWH, and he took some of each of the pure animals and each of the pure birds, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. And YHWH smelled the pleasant smell, and YHWH said to his heart, “I won’t curse the ground on account of humankind again, because the inclination of the human heart is bad from their youth, and I won’t strike all the living again as I have done. All the rest of the earth’s days, seed and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night will not cease.”
And Noah’s sons who went out from the ark were Shem and Ham and Yaphet…”
That was the Flood according to the Yahwist. All of the elements are there and written in the Yahwist style. Human evil, YHWH declaring he will wipe out everything with a Flood, Noah finding favor with YHWH and YHWH telling Noah to board the ark. The waters come from rain, everything dies, Noah sends out a bird, he gets out and makes a sacrifice.
Notice in this story YHWH closes the door. YHWH regrets and changes his mind. This is typical of the Yahwist. Yahweh is a much more anthropomorphic deity who walks, talks, plants, crafts, builds, blows wind, closes doors, regrets, changes his mind and is just a bit more human. Another example is the narrative of Abraham talking YHWH out of wiping out Sodom and Gomorrah if he can find only 10 virtuous people.
Now, let’s have a look at the Priestly narrative. I will also replace the word “God” with “Elohim” just for illustration even though Friedman does not.
Noah was a virtuous man. He was unblemished in his generations. Noah walked with Elohim (God). And Noah fathered three sons: Shem, Ham and Yaphet. And the earth was corrupted before Elohim, and the earth was filled with violence. And Elohim saw the earth; and here, it was corrupted, because all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. And Elohim said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before me, because the earth is filled with violence because of them. And here: I’m destroying them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood, make rooms with the ark, and pitch it outside and inside with pitch. And this is how you shall make it: three hundred cubits the length of the ark, fifty cubits its width, and thirty cubits its height. You shall make a window for the ark, and you shall finish it to a cubit from the top, and you shall make the ark’s entrance in its side. You shall make lower, second and third stories for it. And I, here: I’m bringing the flood, water on the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life from under the skies. Everything that is in the earth will expire. And I shall establish my covenant with you. And you’ll come to the ark, you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you. And of all the living, of all flesh, you shall bring two of each to the ark to keep alive with you. They shall be male and female. Of the birds by their kind and of the domestic animals by their kind, of all the creeping things of the ground by their kind, two of each will come to you to keep alive. And you, take some of every food that will be eaten and gather it to you, and it will be for you and for them for food. And Noah did it. According to everything that Elohim commanded him, he did so.
Of the animals that were pure and of the animals that were not pure, and of the birds and everyone that creeps on the ground, they came by twos to Noah, to the ark, male and female, as Elohim had commanded Noah.
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, in the seventeenth day of the month, on this day all the foundations of the great deep were split open, and the apertures of the skies were opened. In this very day Noah came, and Shem and Ham and Yaphet, Noah’s sons, and Noah’s wife and his sons’ three wives with hem to the ark, they and all the wild animals by their kind and all the domestic animals by their kind and all the creeping animals that creep on the earth by their kind and all the birds by their kind, all fowl, all winged things. And they came to Noah, to the ark, by twos of all flesh in which was the breath of life, and those that came were male and female; some from all flesh came, as Elohim had commanded him.
And all flesh that creep on the earth – of the birds and of the domestic animals and of the wild animals and of all the swarming creatures that swarm the earth, and all the humans — expired. And the water grew strong on the earth a hundred fifty days.
And Elohim remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark, and Elohim passed a wind over the earth, and the water decreased. And the fountains of the deep and the apertures of the skies were shut, and the water receded at the end of a hundred fifty days. And the ark rested in the seventh month, in the seventeenth day of the month, on the mountains of Ararat. And the water went on receding until the tenth month. In the tenth month, in the first of the month, the tops of the mountains appeared.
And he let a raven go, and it went back and forth until the water dried up from the earth. And it was in the six hundred and first year, in the first month, in the first of the month: the water dried from on the earth. And in the second month, in the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth dried up.
And Elohim spoke to Noah saying, “Go out from the ark, you and your wife and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you all the living things that are with you, of all flesh, of the birds and of the domestic animals and of all the creeping animals that creep on the earth, and they will swarm in the earth and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.
And Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him. All the living things, all the creeping animals and all the birds, all that creep on the earth went out from the ark by their families.
After this, Elohim makes his covenant with the rainbow.
Again, this is a complete story. Everything that is necessary for the story is there and it flows like a complete narrative. There are some interesting differences, however.
In the Priestly narrative, the name YHWH is never used. It is always Elohim. Only two pairs of animals are needed because no sacrifice is required at the end. In this story, Noah builds the ark according to precise specifications. This is very typical of the Priestly source, who is very concerned with names, dates, numbers, dimensions, descriptions and details. He repeats phrases very often almost like legal-speak. It’s rather tedious and you see this kind of writing quite a bit in other Biblical passages attributed to P, such as the majority of Leviticus.
In this narrative it isn’t rain, but the fountains of the great deep and apertures of heaven, releasing the primordial waters that are above the sky and below the earth, that are used to create the flood. This is consistent with the Priestly creation narrative in Genesis 1.
Also, can you see the two different writing styles? This one is a little harder to detect but to me there is a difference in style here. The Yahwist is more colorful, dramatic and poetic, while the Priestly source is more official and historical. Thorough and to the point. Even the way God is portrayed is different. Elohim is more transcendental and lofty. You see this in many other of the J and P passages too.
Element 5 – Connections to other parts of the Bible
This is one I will touch on only briefly for brevity. These four sources share strong similarities, themes, ideals and language as other Biblical books. Those mentioned by Friedman are the Deuteronomist and the book of Jeremiah, the Priestly source and Ezekiel and the Yahwist and Elohist with Hosea.
Element 6 – Historical Context and Relation of Sources
This is another I’m keeping very short, but to put it simply, the four sources have connections to places in history, such as the court of Hezekiah, the reign of Josiah, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the conquering of Israel by the Assyrians, the Babylonian Exile, as well as several others. This also has allowed us to relate the sources to each other. For example, the P source came after the combined JE text.
When you read these sources with those contexts in mind, many things make a lot of sense, such as why Josiah is portrayed as the perfect king.
Element 7 – Convergence
This is the most powerful evidence of all.
If you take the previous six elements of evidence, each of them is interesting and compelling all by itself. But together they are consistent and work together. If you take all four sources and find that in each of the four you find consistent linguistic differences, the same terminology and names for God, important sacred objects, relation to history and geography, other parts of the Bible and that each one reads as a separate, consistent, flowing narrative, then we are looking at something that is far more than just coincidence.
Even the doublets, those stories that seem to be told twice, turn out to neatly settle in different sources and makes sense of those doublets (or even triplets) and the differences between them. Among these doublets are:
- Creation. Gen 1-2:4a (P), Gen 2:4b-25 (J)
- Abraham’s Wife/sister ploy – Gen 12:10-20 (J), 20:1-18 (E)
- Jacob’s name change – Gen 32:25-33 (E), Gen 35:9-10 (P)
- Manna in the wilderness – Exod 16:2-3, 6-35 (P) and Num 2:4-34 (E)
- Water from a rock at Meribah – Exod 17:2-7 (E) and Num 20:2-13 (P)
- The Ten Commandments – Exod 20:1-17 (Redactor), 34:10-28 (J) and Deut 5:6-18 (D)
- Revealing of the divine name – Exod 3:14-18 (E) and Exod 6:2-8 (P) (this does not occur in J)
- and many others
But what about the challenging hypotheses?
The DH is very well accepted but it isn’t universally accepted among biblical scholars, so often when you bring it up, some people will throw out that scholars don’t even agree on it. That’s true, though none of the competing hypotheses are dominant either.
So perhaps the DH isn’t 100% true. We may never know for sure. We’re talking about documents that were written up to 3000 years ago, for which we do not have the original manuscripts. We have copies of copies of copies of copies.
However, even if the DH isn’t perfect what is certain is that we have more than enough evidence to rule out one hypothesis: that the Torah was written by Moses. There are simply too many pieces of evidence against it. Any theory on the composition of the Torah must explain this evidence, and Mosaic authorship most definitely does not.
Human Hands at Work
This article was just the tip of the iceberg for the Documentary Hypothesis. If you find it interesting, I strongly encourage you to read the two books by Friedman I have listed in Sources, as well as other competing articles and books. The rabbit hole goes pretty deep and the explanations can get rather elaborate, including even hypotheses naming the Deuteronomist (Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch son of Neriyah) and the Redactor who combined them all into the Torah (it’s Ezra in case you’re curious).
But even with this cursory look at the composition of the Torah and the DH, one thing is becoming abundantly clear: there were human hands at work in its composition. There are parts that were written in different places at different times and by different people. In some cases centuries apart. They had different agendas, viewpoints, worldviews and even views about God. The same is true of other books in the Bible as well, from the Deuteronoimic History in Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, the collection of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, to the Psalms, Isaiah, Daniel and the Gospels.
There are definite contradictions and they require an explanation. While one may be tempted to appeal to the supernatural (Satan did it, demons did it, God allowed it or wanted it for some mysterious reason unknown to us), we must not forget that all religions can do this to support any reading of any Scripture and resolve any perceived conflict or contradiction. Therefore it cannot be used to explain these contradictions. The Documentary Hypothesis is a far more probable and powerful explanation given what we know about other claims of divine authorship of Scripture.
For some of the more liberal believers this isn’t a problem. They may say that even though there are contradictions and inconsistencies and even though it was human authored, it was still part of God’s plan and our very discovery of these things is part of that plan too. It’s up to us to find the real messages and truths in the myth.
But for me, when I pulled on this thread, things started falling apart. The Bible started to look a lot more like an entirely human creation and this was a big problem for me.
Now that we know a little something about how the Bible was composed, we’re going to go back and look at some of the evidence from Part 2, Religions of the Ancient Near East and see how these earlier religions influenced the Bible itself. We’ll continue to return to biblical authorship as we explore more.
And as always, comments and q
The bulk of my source of information here is the excellent work of Richard Elliott Friedman, who offers a more modern Documentary Hypothesis than Wellhausen or early 20th century scholarship. Here are links to two of his books, as well as a book that is a useful guide on how to think about proving history. The Bible with Sources Revealed is not only a primer on Friedman’s hypothesis, it is also a full translation of the Torah by Friedman himself with commentary. Each source (J, E, P, D and Redactors) are printed in different fonts, enabling you to separate and read the different sources independently.