Saturday, 1 February 2014

Who wrote the Hebrew Bible?

Moses Coming Down From Mount Sinai, by Gustave Doré
Readers of the Bible took it for granted for centuries that the Hebrew Bible was an accurate history inspired or even dictated by God himself. According to tradition, though not the books themselves, the first five books of the Bible were written by Moses. This tradition is at least as old as the Talmud, the immense book of Jewish doctrines produced around 200-500 CE, which discusses how the Torah was communicated to Moses; the eminent twelfth-century Jewish scholar Maimonides asserted in his 13 Principles of Faith that the Torah that we have is the one given to Moses by God.

The books of Joshua, Judges and Samuel were supposedly written by the prophet Samuel, and the two books of Kings by the prophet Jeremiah. Books were further ascribed to other Biblical prophets and to the kings David and Solomon.

However, as the Bible came under scrutiny, it became clear that neither tradition nor the text itself could be relied upon.

Anyone who reads the Bible attentively notices inconsistencies, inaccuracies and repetitions. Sometimes the same events are related twice, in different styles, and with different or even contradictory content. Take the first book, Genesis, in which there are many pairings and retellings. The first two chapters tell the creation story twice, each version with its own style and perspective. Stylistically, Genesis chapter 1 is structured and abstract, whereas chapter 2 is more earthy and anthropomorphic. Chapter 1 uses the Hebrew for ‘male’ and ‘female’, whereas chapter 2 talks of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Chapter 1 calls the creator ‘Elohim’, meaning ‘God’; chapter 2 uses his personal name, ‘Yahweh’ (rendered in English Bibles as ‘the Lord’). In chapter 1 God creates plants and animals before men and women, but in chapter 2 humans are created before the plants and animals, and this time Adam is explicitly created before Eve. Later on, the Flood and other events are treated in similar fashion.

This doesn’t read like a single account by a single writer. Textual evidence of this kind strongly implies the text has been reworked by multiple sources. There are other problems, too. It was noticed already in the Middle Ages that part at least of the Torah cannot plausibly have been written by Moses, because in Deuteronomy 34, he records his own death and burial. This was a miracle too far for the Jewish scholars who decided those verses must have been added by Moses’ successor Joshua. Archaeological indications suggest Moses must have lived in the 13th century BCE, but historical anachronisms in the texts show they were written considerably later. The kings listed in Genesis 36, for example, weren’t around until David and Solomon’s time in the 10th century. There are also comments on how the impact of certain events could be seen “to this day”, as if Moses’ time was being viewed from a later perspective. As Spinoza observed: “It is… clearer than the sun at noon that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but by someone who lived long after Moses.”[1]

If Moses didn’t write the Torah, who did, and when? This is a fascinating question irrespective of whether one’s interest is religious or literary. In the discussion below we shall focus on the five books of the Torah/Pentateuch and the history books that follow Deuteronomy.

The documentary hypothesis

The hunt for the source texts of the Bible is known as source criticism. In Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, an increasing number of voices were searching for a more convincing theory of Biblical authorship. The idea of an original Mosaic text that was amended by later writers paved the way for a more radical theory. The key lay in the ‘doublets’: instances where the same event was told twice in different ways, such as the two creation stories. In the 18th century Jean Astruc and Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, working independently, noticed that the doublets tended to use different words for ‘God’, and proposed that the Torah was based on two separate works which were known as ‘J’ (for ‘Yahweh’, which is spelled with a J in German) and ‘E’ (for ‘Elohim’). It was starting to look as if an editor – or Moses, who had not disappeared from the debate – had taken two original documents and woven them together. Then scholars in the early 19th century claimed evidence for two additional source texts. One was a source concerned with priestly interests of law and ritual, known as ‘P’; the other was based on the arguments of W.M.L. de Wette that Deuteronomy had its own style and authorship, giving us source ‘D’. The Torah had gone from the single authorship of Moses to being a work edited from at least four source materials written by persons unknown.

Of course, trying to reconstruct these sources and how they and their writers related to each other was a formidable task. A seminal figure in the process was Julius Wellhausen, a German Biblical scholar whose book The History of Israel (1878) is the classic statement of what has become known as the documentary hypothesis. Drawing together the work done so far as well as his own research, Wellhausen built a case for the four alleged sources and their place in history. Each of the sources dated to a different period and had its own style and concerns, and they were interwoven to form the narrative core of Bible. But they tell us about the Israelites of a period several centuries later than Moses’ supposed time.

The kingdoms of Israel and Judah in
the 9th century BCE.
Map by Eugene Hirschfeld.
According to the Bible, the Israelites had a kingdom in Canaan ruled by the kings Saul, David and Solomon in a period known to modern scholarship as the United Monarchy. After Solomon’s death the kingdom divided, in around 922 BCE, into two smaller kingdoms. We shall have more to say on this Biblical version of history another time. Archaeology tells us that the two kingdoms, leaving aside their origins, were a historical reality. The northern kingdom, Israel, was wealthy and fertile, and an advanced state compared to the poor kingdom of Judah in the sparsely inhabited hill country to the south. Both were Israelite, but represented very different sides of that nation’s identity.

The kingdoms were located between two mighty rivals: Egypt to the south and Assyria to the east. The northern kingdom was eventually destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, leaving Judah the only Israelite state and the cradle of the Davidic dynasty. It held on a little longer as an Assyrian client state until a new empire, the Babylonians, conquered it in 586 BCE, capturing the capital Jerusalem and destroying the Temple. The Judahites were sent into exile. They lived as captives until Babylonia’s defeat by the Persians fifty years later, whereupon they began to return to Judah and the Temple of Jerusalem was rebuilt, though from this time onward there was also always a diaspora living outside the original homeland.

In this light, let’s take a closer look at the four sources.

J is the ‘Yahwist’ source, and begins with the second creation story. The writer is a good storyteller and writes in an earthy style. God is anthropomorphic – he walks in his garden, makes clothes, etc – and deals with people directly. The writer is more interested in the southern kingdom of Judah than in Israel to the north, suggesting a source of Judahite origin. The evidence from social, geographical and historical references leads scholars to believe the source was written from the perspective of the united monarchy or Judah no earlier than the 10th century BCE.

E is the ‘Elohist’ source. Its version of God is remote and abstract – instead of talking to his subjects face to face, God mediates through intermediaries such as visions, angels or dreams, such as the burning bush. It is mostly interested in the tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel, suggesting it was written there at some time prior to the kingdom’s destruction in 722 BCE. 

P is the ‘Priestly’ source, found mostly in Leviticus and Numbers, which has a special interest in ritual, law, sacrifices, institutions, genealogies, and so on. The style is abstract and orderly, and God is more remote.

Source D is basically the book of Deuteronomy, supposedly a collection of speeches made by Moses as the Israelites prepare to enter Canaan, and has a distinctive style. It opposes the use of local shrines for ritual sacrifices – all sacrifices must instead be made in the central sanctuary, often assumed to be the Temple at Jerusalem, although Jerusalem is never mentioned. This book therefore takes a very different position to the earlier books in which we see many local shrines and sacrifices. Its emphasis is on settled agricultural interests and centralisation, possibly implying a northern origin.

The redactors who put the Torah together added connecting texts and comments, but they seem to have had too much respect for the source texts to remove contradictions or repetitions – tradition was more important to them than an exact correspondence of details. Wellhausen believed P was the source responsible for the final editing of Bible, bringing together J, E and D and adding Leviticus and Numbers; and he dated the process during the exile after 586 BCE.

Wellhausen’s work has been criticised from various perspectives. The documentary hypothesis is unacceptable to many conservatives for the simple reason that it refutes tradition by exposing the Bible as the work of multiple human contributors rather than a coherent divine voice.Others accept the general proposition but differ on the details.

The documentary hypothesis remains a theory, despite the excellent evidence, since none of the proposed source texts has been found in its original form. Of course, no ritual or literary tradition is created out of nothing. It is reasonable to assume that the four sources, assuming they existed, must themselves have had sources, in the form of even older customs, practices and stories. One of the pioneers of this field was the German scholar Hermann Gunkel, who noted that the Bible itself sometimes mentions early texts, now lost, such as the ‘Book of Yashar’ mentioned in Joshua 10:13, or the ‘Book of the Wars of Yahweh’ mentioned in Numbers 21. He was interested in oral history as expressed in fragments of poetry, proverbs and myth – picking out for example the strange instance of the giants (Nephilim) mentioned in Genesis 6, and suggesting it was a fragment of an ancient legend. Bits of text like these may have helped, in the Biblical authors’ view, to explain or clarify some aspect of the narrative, or were preserved by force of tradition, to survive into the sealed canon.

The Torah, then, is the product of an extremely long history of transmission and adaptation, probably reaching back into an oral legacy from the Bronze Age.

The great project

The challenging of scripture prompted scholars in the nineteenth century to start visiting Palestine and use archaeology to prove the accuracy of the Bible. With a Bible in one hand and a spade in the other, as the phrase had it, the founders of the ‘Biblical archaeology’ movement drew maps and set up excavations, uncovering dozens of long-forgotten sites. Though it persists today, this current was out of favour by the middle of the twentieth century, to be replaced by a more scientific approach that attempted to understand what actually happened in the Iron Age Levant, rather than trying to force the evidence into a pre-established narrative.

The languages, histories, agriculture etc of the ancient Near East become better understood every year. Since Wellhausen’s time this archaeological research has allowed us to make much better informed comparisons between the Bible and the material evidence. Some of the most persuasive contemporary ideas about the Bible’s composition have been put together by Biblical scholars like Richard Elliott Friedman, whose book Who Wrote The Bible? is an excellent modern statement of the documentary hypothesis, and Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, authors of The Bible Unearthed, who have used archaeology to throw fresh light on the accuracy or otherwise of what the Bible tells us.

The Bible texts contain all sorts of clues to their date of composition. The mentions of the Philistines in Genesis indicates a time period after 1200 BCE, which is when they enter the historical record. There are many references to camels, which were not widely domesticated until the first millennium BCE, and the mention in Genesis 37 of “camels bearing gum, balm, and myrrh” betrays a familiarity with the goods of the Arabian trade routes which took off in the 8th–7th centuries BCE.

From internal evidence, the two source texts J and E were written before the Assyrians destroyed Israel. J was probably written in the kingdom of Judah between 848-722 BCE, E in the kingdom of Israel between 922-722 BCE. There is no strong reason to think each was not written by a single person. By the time they were combined, it is likely that both texts were already well known, and their combination may have been politically useful in uniting the people of the two kingdoms.

In the late 8th century BCE, during the reign of King Hezekiah, Judah’s population swelled dramatically as it received refugees from the destroyed northern kingdom. In a few decades its main city, Jerusalem, was transformed, growing to ten times its former size. Judah was experiencing full state formation for the first time, and its leaders hoped to play a more significant role in the region. It is around this time, under Hezekiah, that a campaign may have begun against idolatry and in favour of Yahweh as the one and only true God who should be worshipped only in the Temple in Jerusalem. Although attested in the Bible, there is very little archaeological evidence for this ‘Yahweh-only’ programme. Either way, Judah had a new weight in the region and as the centre of the Israelite people. Friedman argues that P was written around this time, possibly as an alternative to J and E, posing the policy of centralisation against the use of many local places of worship. The later combination of these incompatible texts is one of the causes of contradictions in the Bible.

Presented in c.700 BCE with the choice of submitting to the Assyrian king Sennacherib or retaining independence, Judah made the mistake of defying one of the world’s most frightening military machines, and was punished for it by the destruction of Judah’s second city, Lachish. Hezekiah’s successors chose vassalage over the obliteration experienced by the northern kingdom. But by around 640 BCE the Assyrian empire was weakening under pressure from the rise of Babylon. This opened a space for Judahite dreams of liberation and expansion. Under King Josiah a great project was born: to conquer the northern territory and build a united, pan-Israelite kingdom.

Josiah ordered the renovation of the Temple, and during this work in 622 BCE the high priest Hilkiah announced the discovery of a ‘book of the law’, or more correctly ‘scroll of the Torah’ (reported in 2 Kings 22). God had made a covenant with the Israelites, promising them glory if they lived according to his religious laws. The story goes that as the book was read to Josiah, he became distraught, because his people had been breaking divine commandments. His response was to launch a radical religious reform. There should be no worship of any other gods and goddesses, and no rural shrines and local sacrifice – the Temple at the centre of Jerusalem was the only legitimate place of worship. “In that innovation,” write Finkelstein and Silberman, “modern monotheism was born.”

Most scholars believe that the ‘book of the law’ was actually the original text, since edited, of the book we call Deuteronomy. The books of history that follow the Torah – Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings – are sometimes called the Deuteronomistic History because of their affinity of language and attitude with Deuteronomy.

It’s impossible to say whether the discovery of the book was genuine or a convenient way to introduce a text specially written to justify the reform project. Deuteronomy may have been based upon a legal core written in the kingdom of Israel in the 8th century BCE and brought south after 722. The books of history, incorporated into Deuteronomy as a unit, were probably also composed during Josiah’s time and and reflect those politics, casting the northern kingdom in a very bad light for its plurality of cults. This gives us an origin for the Deuteronomic books of around 622 BCE in Judah. Friedman argues that the writer may have been the prophet Jeremiah, or his scribe Baruch ben Neriah.

The centralisation of the cult – all Israelites worshipping one God, in one place – brought the huge, scattered religious establishment of the Israelites under the control of the king, and was therefore a key step in the centralisation of state power. The rejection of foreign idols may represent in part a reaction against the influence of Assyrian religion, and by association, politics. Obey the covenant with Yahweh, and he would bring victory and prosperity. In the same period, the Pharaoh Psammetichus had a similar project to restore the power of Egypt. This, in the relative absence of Assyria, posed the main obstacle to Josiah. In a context of possible conflict between Judah and Egypt, a story that showed the Israelites defeating the great empire – Moses’ triumph over Pharaoh in Exodus – acquired new potency.

Jerusalem, a small market town with only a modest palace and temple complex, was intended to become the centre of a pan-Israelite empire ruled by the Davidic dynasty. Finkelstein and Silberman argue:

Such an ambitious plan would require active and powerful propaganda. The book of Deuteronomy established the unity of the people of Israel and the centrality of their national cult place, but it was the Deuteronomistic History and parts of the Pentateuch that would create an epic saga to express the power and passion of a resurgent Judah’s dreams. This is presumably the reason why the authors and editors of the Deuteronomistic History and parts of the Pentateuch gathered and reworked the most precious traditions of the people of Israel: to gird the nation for the great national struggle that lay ahead.

The new movement of Josiah produced, at least, seven books of the Bible, a remarkable piece of propaganda that justified Josiah’s project. The authors continue:

Embellishing and elaborating the stories contained in the first four books of the Torah, they wove together regional variations of the stories of the patriarchs, placing the adventures of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in a world strangely reminiscent of the seventh century BCE and emphasing the dominance of Judah over all Israel. They fashioned a great national epic of liberation for all the tribes of Israel, against a great and dominating Pharaoh, whose realm was uncannily similar in its geographical details to that of Psammetichus.

The historical core of the Bible – J, E, P, D and the Deuteronomistic History – came together between the 10th-7th centuries BCE.

According to the Bible, it was Egypt that brought Josiah’s supposed mighty and divine destiny to a premature end when he was killed by the Pharaoh Necho II, dying either at Megiddo or Jerusalem depending on which book of the Bible you read. After this event the starry-eyed hopes of the Deuteronomistic texts must have looked suddenly foolish. Friedman believes that a second edition was created twenty years after the original, by the same writer, who inserted a number of warnings about exile to make it look as if the danger of Josiah’s death had been foreseen.

The exile

The next great phase of the codifying of the Hebrew Bible probably came in the 6th century BCE. The Babylonians (also called the Chaldeans) of Nebuchadnezzar first invaded in 597, and a second invasion in 586 led to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. The episode is vividly described in 2 Kings 25:

And in the ninth year of [King Zedekiah’s] reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem and laid siege to it. And they built siegeworks all around it. So the city was besieged till the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. Then a breach was made in the city, and all the men of war fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king’s garden, and the Chaldeans were around the city. And they went in the direction of the Arabah. But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king and overtook him in the plains of Jericho, and all his army was scattered from him. Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, and they passed sentence on him. They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him in chains and took him to Babylon. In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month – that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon – Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the LORD and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile.[2]

Archaeological evidence of intense fire damage supports the historicity of the event. It was a catastrophic blow for the Israelites. Judah was smashed, the Davidic dynasty ended, a large proportion of the population transported to Babylonia, and the only legitimate place for the worship of Yahweh, the Temple, was looted and destroyed.

The Babylonian exiles included priests who brought their sacred documents and traditions with them, and at some point there was a redaction that brought together the various source texts to form the Torah proper. In the Deuteronomistic History, the last dated event is the release of King Yahwehachim from Babylon in 562, telling us that those books were edited and updated to reflect the experience of exile. The Biblical account is then taken up in further books ascribed to prophets writing from an exilic perspective such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Ezra and Nehemiah.

Most cultures in the ancient world, once they were conquered, would become assimilated into the religion and identity of their conquerors, and disappear from history. The Israelites of the northern kingdom seem to have been assimilated in this way, but the Israelites of the southern kingdom were not. Among the many peoples of the ancient Near East – Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Phoenicians, and many others – the Israelites alone built a culture that achieved continuity up until the present day. The exiled priests struggled to reconcile God’s grandiose promises to the Israelites with the disaster of 586. The explanation they settled upon was that the Israelites had failed to keep to the covenant and worship Yahweh correctly, and this perspective colours the final edit. (They did not accept the obvious explanation that their god was a fantasy to begin with.) The Torah may therefore be seen as an attempt to warn the Israelites and prevent disaster happening again, while clinging to the eventual fulfilment of God’s promises for an unknown time in the future. The Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann argued that this was when the Israelite kingdom ended and Judaism began – that is, when the Israelites’ focus shifted away from a particular temple, dynasty or territory and towards the correct observation of religious customs regardless of where one was living.

When under the auspices of the Persians the exiled Judahites returned home in the 530s to rejoin those that had remained, their land had become the Persian province of Yehud, a name that gives us the term Yehudites, or Jews. In 516 they rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, establishing what we call Second Temple Judaism [3]. Without a king, the focus of Jewish identity passed to the priesthood. In short, the period after 586 lays the foundations of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Finkelstein and Silberman propose that the priesthood, representing the ‘P’ source, redacted the Torah during the exile, then the post-exilic period saw a final edit. For Friedman, P was written much earlier, and he ascribes the redaction to the priest Ezra in the 5th century BCE, during the post-exile Second Temple period. Ezra is described in the book of Ezra as arriving in Jerusalem bearing the ‘Law of your God, which is in your hand’.

They agree however that by some point in the Second Temple period, the texts from Genesis through to 2 Kings reached the form we know today.

The theme of exile and return is one of the most recurring themes of the Bible: Abraham journeys to Egypt and returns, the Israelites migrate to Egypt and are led back to Canaan by Moses, Jacob journeys to Haran and returns, and so on. The redactors’ experience of exile is stamped powerfully upon their work.


Moses’ authorship of the Torah is no longer accepted outside of some religious circles. It is perhaps embarrassing for the Church to get wrong the authorship of its own scripture. But there is no good reason why we should know precisely who wrote such ancient texts. The only named Biblical author who was certainly a real person was the New Testament writer Paul of Tarsus.

The documentary hypothesis is a very strong theory, so compelling that it is now taught in seminaries, and no rival theory seriously challenges it. But it remains a theory, because the original texts that would provide its hard evidence are long lost. If modern scholarship is mostly confident about the general pattern of composition, namely the assembly of several source texts into a ‘single’ text, there is no unity about the details: about the number of proposed sources, what passages belong to each, the dating of the redaction process, etc.

The Torah and Deuteronomistic History are the product of several centuries of religious and literary activity, offering perspectives from different sections and periods of Israelite society. But we must remember that these books were intended to be read as a unified final form. The final redaction united the diverse discourses of the Israelites into a single story. It is not only a religious text: it is a holistic work of art. As we study the contradictions and problems, we must also consider what the writers and redactors achieved artistically [4].

Thanks to archaeology and other disciplines, it seems we can conclude that the early books of the Hebrew Bible, drawing upon earlier materials that are now lost, achieved their present form in two main phases: during the 7th century BCE in Jerusalem and during the 6th century BCE in Babylonia, with some final editing in the post-exile period. Like any book, they emerged from sets of social and historical conditions, not in response to a supernatural being, but according to the very earthly reality of a minor Levantine culture. The Hebrew Bible is essentially an unusual weaving of divine action into history – a history of God’s relationship with the Israelites from the Creation to the Exile. The Jews have never sought to try and convert the world; it was only centuries later that this text, written to present an ideology to a narrow audience of Iron Age Israelites, acquired a universal meaning when adopted by the missionary Christians as part of their own scriptural corpus.

Further reading

Richard Elliott Friedman: Who Wrote The Bible? (2nd ed. 1997)
Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman: The Bible Unearthed (2001)

[1] Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico Politicus (1670) 
[2] All quotations from the Bible are from the English Standard Version.
[3] The Second Temple stood on Temple Mount until 70 CE, when it was destroyed by the Romans. 
[4] An excellent introduction to the Hebrew Bible’s literary merits is Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981).

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