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Biblical Israel - The Four Sources of the Pentateuch

Updated: Mar 9


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 '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 the 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 a '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.