By indexer
78 days ago

Who wrote the Pentateuch?

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The Pentateuch is the name given to the first five books of the Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They are also referred to as the “Books of Moses”. But who actually wrote them? One thing we can be absolutely sure about is that it wasn’t Moses!

Leaving aside the distinct possibility that Moses is a figure from myth rather than history, there are many reasons why the books could not have been the work of a single person. Knowledge gained over the centuries that has been gleaned from intense textual analysis and investigation of source material makes it abundantly clear that the books were written over a period of time that was vastly greater than the lifetime of a single writer, even if we accept the absurdly long lifespans accorded to many figures in the Old Testament.

The actual dates of composition of the various parts of each book are matters of controversy, but it certainly appears that the earliest elements, in their written form, are no older than 930 BC and the youngest are as late as the 6th century BC. The final assembly of the five books almost certainly took place in the 5th century BC.

The obvious conclusion is that the books had multiple authors, and that applies within each book as opposed to stating that each book was separately authored.

It does take much reading of Genesis – to take one example – to make one appreciate that different stories are being told that are in some respects in contradiction to each other. They are also stylistically different, which is an even stronger clue to the fact that more than one author was involved. The two accounts of Creation are a case in point – it is impossible for the hand that wrote Genesis Chapter 1 to have also written Chapter 2.

Scholars have identified five different sources for the Pentateuch, four of them being authors and the fifth an editor. The names of three of the authors are unknown, but the identities of one of them, and of the editor, are far less uncertain.

The authors are generally referred to J, E, P and D. J is so-called because God is consistently referred to as Jahweh, whereas the E author uses the name Elohim. P is the “Priestly author” and D “the Deuteronomist”, who is quite likely to have been the prophet Jeremiah.

It does not take long to appreciate the different emphases of the various authors when it is known who wrote what. For example, the Priestly author was a stern authoritarian who was interested in laying down the law and stressing the need for implacable justice. Unlike the other authors he never uses the words “grace”, “mercy” or “repentance”.

By contrast, the J author is much more “human” and loves to tell stories. J was responsible for telling us about the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel and Moses in the bulrushes. There is a fascinating possibility that J might have been a woman, whereas the other authors definitely were not. If that is so, then it is to her that we owe the story in Genesis 38 of Judah and Tamar in which a woman takes the initiative and forces a man to admit that he is in the wrong.

And what about the mysterious fifth character, the editor? This was quite possibly Ezra, also responsible for the Book of that name, who in about 460 BC decided to take all the material to hand and compile a continuous narrative.

He would have been a Hebrew who was living in Babylon as one of the thousands of descendants of the exiles from Judah who had been captured after the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in 587 BC. He wanted to revive the religion of his forbears, and the best way of so doing was to give all the people a document to which they could refer and which told their common story and gave them a blueprint for how they would live once they returned to their ancestral home.

Many Hebrews had returned to Jerusalem prior to 458 BC, when Ezra made the journey, but the early returnees had found life difficult and were often unable to agree among themselves on matters of doctrine and belief. When Ezra arrived, bearing his five books, he undertook a complete public reading of them, and it can be said that that was the moment when the Jewish religion was really born.

However, there was something very strange about the work that Ezra did. This is that his editing did not consist of making judicious cuts of passages that did not fit the general narrative. As far as we can tell, Ezra included absolutely everything of the four documents he had to hand.

In order to unite the Jewish diaspora – some of whom had fled to Egypt – he could not afford to antagonise any particular element among them. Each faction had its own favoured version of its texts - J, E, P or D - and they would expect to find that version in the completed work.

So Ezra simply wove all the pieces together as best he could, while including very little writing of his own save for a few linking passages. That is not to say that he did not have a message of own. He came from the Priestly tradition, and every one of the five books opens with a “P” passage.

So that is why the “books of Moses” had nothing at all to do with Moses, apart from telling the stories in which he was involved. That also accounts for why there are so many repetitions, some of them contradicting each other. This also means that it is unwise to try to make all the pieces agree with each other and pretend that they are a unified whole in which there are no contradictions. The fact is that Ezra’s intention was to unite the people by allowing them to disagree with the details but agree on the basics. It is only when texts such as these are seen in their true context that they can be properly understood.

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Justin Very interesting
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soncee So great artikle
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annie07 Interesting article..
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milenazoran Are you a writer?
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indexer @milenazoran That depends on how you define writer! I maintain a set of blogs that consists of articles (more than 1700) on a wide range of subjects, and one of these blogs contains more than 100 pieces of creative writing (stories and poems) by me. My only published work is an index to more than 30 years' worth of a journal devoted to the life and works of Charles Dickens. If that makes me a writer, then I am! On the other hand, I could just be a semi-retired professional librarian who writes for fun!
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Issaka I did not read your article all just a few of it. Because playing card wasn't yet allowed for me. But thanks for sharing this one.
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indexer @Issaka Interesting. I wasn't aware that there were still parts of the world where playing cards were frowned upon. When my father was a child - and we are talking literally about 100 years ago! - his father, who was a Methodist minister, banned the use of playing cards in the house on Sundays, because of their connection with gambling and other sins. However, at other times there was no restriction. So is it the gambling connection that is still a problem with certain religions?
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