It is agreed upon by all historians, non-Orthodox rabbis, and an increasing number of Modern Orthodox rabbis, that the text of the Torah was not written all at once, right after the Israelites left Egypt. The text of the Torah itself makes no such claim. Based on 200 years of careful historical study, it is now known that the Torah was redacted together from multiple tradition-sources. Using historical, grammatical and linguistic tools, we can distinguish these sources. Although an exact consensus does not exist, there are at least four major sources: J, E, P, and D. These were weaved together by a redactor. The contributions from the Redactor are also a source, labelled ‘R’.
Here we will briefly examine these four texts.
Acknowledging this brings up theological issues: If the Torah was not written all at once, does that mean that Judaism is wrong? No, not at all. Judaism is not on the Torah alone, but on the different books of the Tanakh (Bible), different books of the oral law (Mishnah, Midrash, Talmuds, etc.) Even among the Orthodox, the Torah was never considered to be complete – the context in which it was given, the ways the rules were supposed to be followed, could only be found within the oral law. In other articles here, we examine the various theological responses that Jews had to the knowledge that the Torah’s text has a history.
Redaction versus editing
Why say redaction/redactor, instead of editing/editor? Editors advertise their role to the reader: They select which texts to include (and to exclude.) When they bring texts together, editors clearly note contributions: which section was written by which person.
Redactors have a different job: they merge sources into a seamless whole. Modern redactors often use footnotes to make clear where the original text sources came from, see for example Rabbi Louis Ginzberg’s famous “The Legends of The Jews”. However, ancient redactors felt no such need. Virtually no ancient redacted work has such notes.
Orthodox Jews reject all historical study of the Torah: They ask, why would a redactor leave any trace of the sources? They assume a redactor must have wished to erase all traces of the sources. Since this clearly is not so, they conclude that either the redactor must have been incompetent, or that there was no redactor (i.e. so it must be that God dictated every word of the Torah to Moses, all at once). However, these are incorrect assumptions. At the time that the Torah was redacted, people knew that there were multiple sources/traditions. There was no reason to hide this – at that time people did not believe that Moses wrote every word of the Torah. That belief only came about centuries later.
Fundamentalist Jews and Christians make the mistake of projecting later views backwards on the Israelites of 2,400 years ago. This is a historical anachronism. From the standpoint of the ancient Israelites, it was important to retain their sacred literature. The Torah’s final redaction was never a project to erase any trace of its original literary sources. The redactor was a way to religiously unify the religious and cultural heritage of the Jewish people.
* J – Jahweh, Jehovah
One of the two epic sources, the name is taken from the name of God, YHVH, used exclusively by this source. The letter ‘J’ comes from the erroneous German Christian rendering of Yod-He-Vav-He, the name of God, as Jehovah. This source emerged from Judah, the southern Kingdom. It emerged after the civil war in which Israel split into two kingdoms; Israel in the north, and Judea in the south.
* E – Elohim, Elohist
The second epic source, its stories always refer to God by the name ‘Elohim’. This collection emerged from the northern kingdom of Israel, and is generally more concerned with general stories than individuals.
At some time in pre-exilic history around 650 B.C.E., J and E were combined by a Judean editors. This combined version is known as “JE”.
* P – Priestly writings, Priesterschrift
Excerpted from from Rabbi Prof. Baruch Levine’s JPS Torah commentary:
P focuses on the formal relations between God and society, including the genealogies which document the chain of transmission of God’s message and authority from Creation to Moses. “P” uses both Elohim and El Shaddai as names of God.
The book of Leviticus is solely composed of P. Leviticus emerged from centers of priestly administration in biblical Israel such as Jerusalem. It is linked by language and subject matter to other priestly materials preserved in other books of the Torah. When was the P literature developed ? The most prudent view would approximate that of the late E. A. Speiser: that priestly law and literature took form over a protracted period of time and that it would be inaccurate to assign all of their contents to a single period of ancient history. This approach helps to explain the presence of some relatively early material in Leviticus, while at the same time allowing for the inclusion of exilic and post-exilic creativity.
* D – Dtr, Deuteronomist
This is the source of the book of Deuteronomy, and likely in addition, the books of Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel and I and II Kings. Generally speaking, the Deuteronomist emphasizes centralization of worship and governance in Jerusalem. Consider the book of the teaching – this was the book that was found in the Temple in 622 B.C.E. by the High Priest Hilkiah while the Temple was undergoing a renovation. This book prompted King Josiah to undertake a major religious reformation in which he purged the nation of paganism, and centralized all sacrificial functions to the Temple in Jerusalem. He also ordered the Pesach sacrifice to be offered, the first time this had been done since the days of the Chieftains (Judges). [2 Kings 22,23]. Modern scholarship has argued convincingly that this book of the teaching was in fact Deuteronomy.
Excerpted from from Rabbi Prof. Jeffrey Tigay’s JPS Torah commentary:
Some scholars initially thought that perhaps Deuteronomy was composed during Josiah’s reign as a blueprint for his reforms. However, R. Tigay notes that “this is unlikely since there are discrepancies between the book and the reforms….These differences suggest that while Josiah’s reform was inspired by Deuteronomy, the book itself was not composed by those who carried it out. Finally, key aspects of Josiah’s reform and of Deuteronomy – centralization of sacrifice, destruction of shrines other than the Temple, and destruction of cultic pillars and sacred posts – had already been undertaken a century earlier by Hezekiah. Since Hezekiah’s short-lived reformation is not said to have been based on a book, we cannot be certain than Deuteronomy existed then, but the ideas that produced the book were clearly developing. It seems likely, then, that Deuteronomy was composed in the 8th-7th centuries B.C.E.” [p.xxi]
Many features of Deuteronomy, particularly its vigorous monotheism and fervent opposition to pagan practices in Israel, are very understandable as a reaction to conditions in the 8th-7th centuries….[many examples discussed] ….However there is much in the book that seems considerable older than this. The society reflected in Deuteronomy’s laws is a good deal less advanced than that of 7th century Judah. It consists primarily of farmers and herders. There are no laws about merchants, artisans, professional soldiers or other processionals. There are none dealing with commerce, real estate, or written contracts, and none dealing with commercial loans…There is no mention of royal officials or the royal power to tax and confiscate property and draft citizens….But [it does] contain some later elements. Deuteronomy in particular reflects some conditions that developed in monarchic times. It recognizes the monarchy, however grudgingly. Although local judges are not appointed by the king, the establishment of a central court to hear difficult cases implies a central government […many more examples discussed] (p.xxi,xxii)
“Combining all of these chronological clues, it appears that the civil laws of Deut. go back to a time in the United Monarchy or the early divided monarchy – the tenth and nine centuries B.C.E. – during the transition from the old tribal-agrarian society to a more urbanized, monarchic one. It is difficult to tell whether Deut, selected these laws individually or in groups, or whether they were already a collection… In any case, these laws were supplemented and partly revised during the Assyrian age, primarily for the purpose of centralizing sacrificial worship and countering the threat of pagan religious belief and practice to which Israel was exposed during that time period.” (p.xxii)
“There is a geographical aspect to the question of Deuteronomy’s authorship. The law corpus of Deut. 12-26 is framed by instructions telling Israel to proceed directly upon entering the land to Mounts Gerizim and Ebal, near the city of Shechem, and perform a number of
ceremonies…Had Deuteronomy been written in Jerusalem, it would hardly have confirmed on a holy site in northen Israel a prestigious role that could potentially undermine Jerusalem’s claim to be God’s chosen place of worship. These instructions suggest that the core of the book was actually composed in the north. This view is strengthened by Deut.’s affinities with the language and teachings of the northern prophet Hosea (early 8th century), who criticized the proliferation of altars…[many more examples of parallels between Deuteronomy and Hosea are then listed and discussed.]
“These connections with the northern kingdom make it seem likely that the Deuteronomic ideology crystallized there as a reform program, partly inspired by Hosea, during the final years of the kingdom as a response to the assimilatory pressures of the Assyrian age and to the excesses of the northern monarchy. Its exponents must have come south to Judah as refugees after the [northern] kingdom fell, bringing their ideas either in written or oral form. The fall must have prompted serious soul-searching in the south, encouraging a favorable hearing for their program and leading to Hezekiah’s reforms. At some point, before or after the reform, the program was put in writing as the book of Deuteronomy or an early version thereof. Suppressed, or at least hidden, during the reign of the paganizing king Manasseh, the book reemerged and became the program of Josiah’s sweeping reform. (P.XXII, xxiv)
Deuteronomy was added to the combined JE source sometime around 550 B.C.E., forming a J,E,D-proto-Torah.
What was the role of R (the redactor)?
“R” is a term used for the redactor who brought together the J, E, P and Dtr material into the final form of the Torah that we know today. This was done during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, fourth century B.C.E. Some hold that this was likely under Ezra’s own direction. At this time Deuteronomy had already been added to JE, so the main work here likely involved joining P and Numbers to the existing J,E,D-proto-Torah
For examples of Modern Orthodox Jews who accept the results of modern critical scholarship on the Torah, while still maintaining Orthodox Judaism, see TheTorah.Com “An observant and knowledgeable Jewish community empowered by an understanding of Torah integrated with scientific approaches and scholarly knowledge”
Can one still believe that the Torah is holy, and accept that the text has a history? Professor Rabbi David Weiss Halivni says yes, and argues so in his article “Revelation, textual criticism, and divine writ” His point of view has become influential among traditional Conservative Jews and some within Modern Orthodox Judaism.