Who Wrote the Torah?

For thousands of years people believed that the five books of the Pentateuch were written by Moses. But it couldn't have been, academics say.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Writes the last words in a Torah scroll for the Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem.
Writes the last words in a Torah scroll for the Hurva synagogue in Jerusalem.Credit: AP
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

For thousands of years people believed that the five books of the Pentateuch were written by Moses. The Talmud even explicitly says so. But it couldn't have been, academics say.

Even a cursory read of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, shows that the Torah could not have been written by a single person – because of differences in style, language and contradiction in the texts, among other things. Scholars studying the bible in Germany during the 18th and 19th centuries concluded that it was a composite work by editors tying together earlier texts written by very different authors.

This conclusion is based on four characteristics recurring in the Torah. (1) The language used in different sections differs widely. (2) Varying ideology. (3) Contradictions in the narrative. (4) The text is strangely repetitive in part, for no obvious reason, indicating that two versions of a single story were included.

Let's start with the indications that the authors of the Torah were a multitude of people from different eras, not one person; then we can consider who these writers were. Aptly, we can begin with examples from Genesis.

In the name of God

The best example of changing language is in the name of God.

The Bible begins with the line “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

Throughout the first account of creation, God is called Elohim. But starting in Genesis 2:4, a second and different account of creation begins - in which God is called Yahweh.

The two accounts also vary in ideology. Elohim in the first account of creation was transcendent - creating the world by his will alone, without interacting with mankind. Yahweh in the second account of creation is immanent, almost human: He talks with Adam and performs surgery on him too. Evidently these two sharply different visions of God were conceived by different men.

In further proof of differential authorship, the accounts of creation contradict one another. In the first, Elohim creates the animals on Thursday and then creates man and woman on Friday - together. In the second account, Yahweh creates man, then the animals, and only after failing to find a partner for man among them does he create woman out of man’s rib. These strikingly different stories had to be written by different people.

Say what? And say it again

The repetition and contradictions thus start with Genesis. Another case is Noah’s Ark.

Unlike the case of creation, the redactor didn’t put the two accounts of Noah and the flood side by side. The two accounts are interwoven, as we see from the morphing name of God, which switches back and forth between Elohim and Yahweh from passage to passage. But the merger of the two stories is not seamless otherwise too.

For one, Noah loads the animals onto the Ark twice: "There went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and the female, as Elohim had commanded Noah"״ (Genesis 7:9); and then again just a few passages later "And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life" (Genesis 7:15).

Even more strikingly, perhaps, we are told twice that the flood covered the earth: "And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters" (7:18) followed by "And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered." (7:19)

If it isn't concrete evidence that there was more than one writer, it's still an impressively smoking gun.

Meet the writers: The Yahwist, the Elohist, priests, and the Deuteronomist

Ultimately the German scholars, led by Julius Wellhausen, came up with "the Documentary Hypothesis," postulating that the Pentateuch was compiled from of four earlier books long lost in time, which were merged by an editor dubbed the Redactor. The scholars gave each of these four books (or writers) a name: the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Priestly writers, and the Deuteronomist.

The Yahwist was characterized by using the Tetragrammaton ("Yahweh") as the name of God. The Elohist writers, who called God "Elohim", were Israelite priests. The Priestly writers were evidently temple priests (Judeans) serving in Solomon's Temple and their decedents, who dwelled on rite and sacrifice, and evidently engaged in battles over their status as well. And last but not least, "the Deuteronomist" is called so because he wrote Deuteronomy.

Incidentally, the first account of creation was evidently written by a Priestly source, the second by a Yahwist.

Scholars bitterly disagree over who wrote what and which texts are truly ancient and which were added later, as certainly much of the biblical sources surely consist of layers of additions and were not completely written by one single person. Yet there is much we can say about the writers of the Torah, even if we can’t name them.

The Elohist texts, the oldest in the bible

The background for the writing of the Bible is the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in the late 8th century BCE.

Israel and Judah were related Iron Age kingdoms whose residents practiced a sort of early Judaism, which was still a far cry from the rigid monotheistic religion we know today.

Archaeology tells us that the Kingdom of Israel was the greater regional power, while Judah was a backwater vassal kingdom. This changed when the Assyrians destroyed Israel in 722 BCE. Following Israel's subjection, many of the Israelite elite moved to the Judean capital - Jerusalem. These Israelite refugees brought their sacred texts with them: the Elohist texts, which are probably the oldest in the Torah.

These texts were probably written by court scribes in Semairah, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel, or by priests in one of the kingdom's important cultic sites such as Shilo. The Elohist source focuses on locations in the Kingdom of Israel and on the Israelite heroes Moses and Jacob, whom the Israelites saw as their ancestors. (It is not known whether the ancient Judeans also thought Moses and Jacob were their forefathers, but after the "Israelization" of Judah, they probably "adopted" their patriarchy too.)

With this influx of culture coming in from the Kingdom of Israel, the Judean priestly cast had to come up with their own narrative about Judah with its own mythical leaders and traditions. This is where the Yahwist source comes from, though at least some may have been written by Judean scribes before the destruction of the kingdom of Israel.

Whatever the case, it was shortly after this destruction that the two texts, the Yahwist and the Elohist, were merged by scribes into a single book.

The man who wrote Deuteronomy

The next portion of the Torah to be written is Deuteronomy, and this time we have a lot more information on its author. We even know his name: Shaphan (though some think the author was the prophet Jeremiah).

This scribe may have single-handedly changed the entire course of history by leading the king to profoundly change Jewish worship.

While the Yahwist-Elohic scripts take no issue with polytheism and people worshiping God or even several gods in temples and other cultic sites throughout the land, the ideology of Deuteronomy is clearly one God, one temple. Its composition evidently coincides with the unification of the Judaic cult and exclusion of other gods, which happened during the reign of King Josiah starting in 622 BCE.

The account, possibly written by Shaphan himself, goes as follows: "And Shaphan the scribe shewed the king, saying, Hilkiah the priest hath delivered me a book. And Shaphan read it before the king. And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes.” (2 Kings 22:10-11)

Scholars generally agree that this "book of the law" was an early version of Deuteronomy. Shaphan claimed that the book had been found in the Temple while the priests were cleaning up the storeroom.

Josiah thereupon ordered sweeping religious reforms: “Go ye, enquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that is found: for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according unto all that which is written concerning us.” (22:13)

Josiah's reforms centralized the Jewish cult in Jerusalem and banned its practice anywhere else. It created a powerful oligarchy of temple priests, which took over and became the cultural elite of Judah from then on.

The Priestly source

It is these Judean temple priests (and their descendents) who are the Priestly Source.

Theirs is not only by far the largest portion of the bible but was the last added – which doesn't mean the texts were added to the "end". For example, the first account of creation that opens the bible was written by these priests.

Possibly the priests felt uncomfortable erasing ancient texts that came before theirs. They may have feared a force would punish them for editing of early text. On the other hand, they didn’t seem to have a problem adding to the text.

While the Israelite priests saw themselves as descendants of the great Moses, the temple priests believed they descended from Zadok, the first High Priest to serve in King Solomon's Temple. The temple priests honored Elohist text as well as references to Moses, and would not have changed them – but they could justify their primacy over the Israelite priests by writing that Zadok’s lineage was descended from Aaron, Moses’ big brother and that God commanded that only they may give sacrifices to God.

Put otherwise, the temple priests – the "priestly writer" – are suspected of adding Aaron to the story of Moses in order to legitimize their standing in society.

Anyway, it was they who wrote all those laws in Leviticus. It was they who wrote most of the Bible.

The earliest parts of this priestly writing were carried out in the final decades of the Kingdom of Judah, but most would be written during the exile in Babylonia, after Judah's destruction in 586 BCE. These temple priests led the Jews in their exile and continued to write in Babylon. Some even believe that Judaism as we know it today was forged in the crucible of the Babylonian exile.

In any case, when Cyrus the Great decreed that the Jews could return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple in 538 BCE, he authorized a decedent of these temple priests, Ezra, to function as the returnees’ leader.

Ezra is called a scribe, a writer of books, and likely wrote at least some parts of the Priestly Source. He is also a good candidate for the Redactor, who edited the whole library preserved during the exile into a single book, though some further edits and changes evidently took place later as well.

Nehemiah, also a Jewish leader and contemporary of Ezra, seems to imply that at least some of the "book of the law of Moses" read to the people by Ezra on Rosh Hashanah upon the return from Babylonia was new: "And they found written in the law which the Lord had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month."

There are some parallels between this story of the people learning about sukkot ("booths") and the discovery of Deuteronomy, discussed above. In the first case they learned that they should celebrate Passover for the first time; now in the case of Nehemiah and Ezra, they are told to celebrate Sukkot. Whether or not these holidays existed before the writings of Ezra and Deuteronomy is unknown.

Over the years the Bible continued to change, albeit slightly. Several versions were in circulation before the text was canonized in what we call the Masoretic Text. However, it seems likely that by the time of the Second Temple, 6TH century BCE – 1ST century CE, much of the Torah existed in very much the form we know today.

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