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The Four Sources of the Pentateuch


DW | Old Testament

2.1 - The Four Sources of the Pentateuch


Here's a quick overview of the first books of the Bible:

Genesis opens with the history of creation and the earliest human societies told in mythological forms. It then moves on to the stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph who receive Yahweh's promise and carry out his plans.

Exodus tells the story of Moses and the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The book closes with detailed descriptions for the building of the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Covenant.

Leviticus contains the laws and commandments that God gave to his newly sanctified people. The regulations deal mostly with sacrifices, feasts, priesthood, and the ritual obligations.

Numbers adds many more laws and regulations. Chapters 10-20 continue the story of Israel's wanderings in the desert, complete with a 40-year punishment for constantly rebelling against God and Moses.

Deuteronomy – meaning the 'Second Law' in Greek – is a later book composed entirely as a reflective speech of Moses that sums up the meaning of the Exodus and the desert journey, and reaffirms the importance of the covenant law as a guide for Israel's life in the promised land. It also contains Moses' “Farewell Speech” that takes place just as the people are ready to invade the promised land.


At least from the post-exilic period (after 539 B.C.) Moses has been explicitly identified as the author of the first five books. These books frequently mention that Moses gave laws and instructions to the people, and the Book of Deuteronomy begins with the statement that it was the “words of Moses spoken beyond the Jordan” (Dt 1:1). By the time of Christ, not only Jesus, but other well-known Jewish authors such as Josephus the Historian and Philo the Jewish philosopher of Alexandria take for granted that Moses authored the first five books.

But even in ancient times there were those who doubted that Moses could have written the whole thing. Such passages as Deuteronomy 34:5-12, which records Moses' death, were often cited to show that Moses did not write all of the content. It was commonly believed that his faithful follower Joshua had added that section. But what does a scientific observation reveal about the authorship?

A detailed examination reveals that these books are full of repetitions and contradictions that strongly indicate a lack of style by a single author. At first, scholars thought that there were only two earlier documents, one called the Yahwist source, and the other the Elohist source, based on the way each referred to God's name. But it soon became clear that Genesis and the Exodus also contained a priestly cast to it, against the other that contained many of the old stories involving historical traditions. Now there were three sources, and it didn't take long to identify a fourth. The unique style of the Book of Deuteronomy set it apart from the other three. These four sources are called by their first letters J, E, P, D. The 'J' instead of the 'Y' comes from the German word Jahve, for it was German scholars who first proposed the abbreviations.

It was Julius Wellhausen in 1878 who broke down the narrative sources for the first five books. A brief sketch of his work will show the proposed development in which the early and mostly oral traditions of Israel were gradually written down, preserved in four written documents, and then combined to make one Pentateuch.

According to this theory, the first source, the J source, was composed from oral tradition during the times of King Solomon.

When Solomon died and the nation split into a northern kingdom, which called itself Israel, the northerners needed a revised version of the traditions which would not glorify Jerusalem and the kings of the southern kingdom, Judah. They produced a second and revised account of the old traditions which used Elohim for God instead of Yahweh and place names that were more familiar to their part of the country. They also stressed the role of the covenant of Moses over the role of the king, and avoided much of the Yahwist's intimate language about God walking and talking with man. They favored instead a more 'spiritualized' sense of God's dealings with Israel. These two accounts, known as the (J & E) source, existed side by side as long as the two kingdoms lasted. When the north fell to the Assyrians in 722 B.C., the northerners who fled south carried their written Elohist source with them. The J and E documents were then combined as one during the following century for the people who lived now only in Judah.

At the same time, there arose a group of priests, Levites, and prophets who attempted to reform many bad practices of the faith in Judah. Out of their efforts came the Book of Deuteronomy, (known as the D source). The Deuteronomist reformers collected covenant legal traditions and added them to sermons stressing obedience and faithfulness to the covenant if the people were to receive blessings in the promised land. Although created out of the best of both northern and southern traditions during the long period from Hezekiah (715-688 B.C.) through Josiah (640 B.C.), it was only discovered hidden away in the Temple when Josiah began his reforms in 622 B.C. The king and people alike recognized its authority and genuine mosaic style, and D was joined with J and E as part of the nation's sacred traditions.

Finally, when the entire country went into exile under the Babylonians in 597 to 586 B.C., a school of priests seem to have gathered many of the cultic and legal traditions together. This included the lists of ancestors preserved in the Temple, the isolated stories and traditions not found in earlier works, and most of the great law collections in Leviticus and Numbers. The Priestly work (called P) thus formed a fourth source which made the earlier historical accounts more complete and, at the same time, set forth new conditions under the law that would allow Israel's covenant with God to last even when there was no land, or temple, or king. According to Wellhausen, these four sources were finally edited by the priestly school into the Pentateuch after the exile ended in 539 B.C. to create the Torah, or the Pentateuch.

With this said, the oldest sources we have are the Yahwist and Elohist versions... J and E.

The Yahwist represents a primitive anthropomorphic view of God, filled with magical appearances and mythical details. The writer of J brought together old poems, stories, and songs of the Exodus that were alive in the oral traditions, particularly those favoring stories from Judah. The Yahwist created more than a story of Israel's past, he created a theology and a purpose that explained the religious faith and special spirit of the nation.

The Elohist, while favoring northern ideas, shows a deeper awareness of God's distance.

The Deuteronomist reflects the later and more sensitive concern of the prophets to the ethical demands and oneness of God over the whole world.

Finally, the Priestly source brings together the complex institutional and legal aspects of Israelite faith that would support a life of fidelity to the covenant through exile and time of loss.


In contrast to the JEDP Theory, there is an alternate approach to the Biblical sources. Dr. Gary Rendsburg, professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, accepts the obvious differences between P and D and recognizes that the laws and cultic material in the Torah emanate from these two distinct sources. However, he does not follow that the one source J is earlier than the other source E. Based on his research, he believes the two may be one, especially in Genesis, where the two divisions often compliment each other to create the full story.

Dr. Rendsburg proves through linguistic analysis that the entirety of the Torah, especially Genesis, is composed in classical Hebrew, not late Biblical Hebrew, The linguistic developments that one finds in the texts dated to the exile and beyond are not to be found in Genesis. During the Persian Period, loanwords from Persian enter the Hebrew language by the dozens, as can be seen by looking at the books of Esther, Ezra, and others from that period. However, not a single Persian loanword occurs in the five books of the Torah.

With his approach, the P source (essentially the book of Leviticus, along with portions of Exodus and Numbers) and the D source (essentially the book of Deuteronomy) are contemporary and competing systems of law and worship in ancient Israel.

So, back to our question: 'Did Moses write the Pentateuch?' The short answer is actually, 'Yes, mostly'. Although Moses did not write the Pentateuch as a complete source, as it contains several sources, many of its traditions, legal practices, and covenant forms date back to his time, and their central importance for Israel may even have originated with him personally, but definitely with the community of the Exodus and the Conquest.


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