Pentateuch

The Pentateuch is the name given to the first five books of the Old Testament / Tanakh, being Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

According to Julius Wellhausen’s well-founded hypothesis, the Pentateuch is an edited combination of four main Hebrew sources, which he labelled the J Source, the E Source, the P Source and the D Source. According to Richard Friedman, the form of the Pentateuch, as seen today, was the creation of Ezra, the Scribe.

The additional element, not considered by Wellhausen (or anyone else of whom I am aware), is the underlying Akkadian Source of E and P. This source is relatively easily identifiable in E (and in parts of P) by the lack of anachronistic features, when this is not what one would expect in the actual situation where these Hebrew sources were not written down until 200 years and more after the events described. In scholarly discussion, something needs to be added to explain the good knowledge of the past found in E and in elements of P. For those who accept the historicity of these events (as I do), we need to go beyond “a hope against hope” that oral traditions can carry historical facts down many generations without introducing anachronisms. For those scholars who deny the historicity of these events, an explanation of the lack of anachronisms in these sources is urgently required. The proposition put here is that there was an original Akkadian source, parts of which were available to a number of writers of works of the Old Testament, but particularly by the writers of the E and P sources.

J represents the encapsulation of the oral traditions of the Israelite tribe of Judah at the time this source was created, which was around 1000 BC. (There is no evidence that the Akkadian source was available to the writer of the J source. This is not difficult to explain as the Akkadian tablets would have been kept in the centre of worship, located in northern Israel, not in southern Israel, where Judah was located.)

E represents a melding together the Akkadian source, oral traditions of the northern Israelite tribes, and “story-telling” elements created at the time this source was first composed. It can be argued that it was written around 900 BC.

P represents the so-called Priestly source, and represents an encapsulation of Israelite traditions from a priestly (temple) perspective together with elements taken from the original Akkadian source. In this regard it contains our best record of the history of Jacob’s family as written down by Joseph’s descendants, as well as a faithful accounting of temple practices at the time of the exile to Babylon. It can be argued that it was written around 600 BC.

Each of these sources were composed as a complete account of the early history of Israel, and each of them gives us a different perspective on the same story, although shaped according to the needs of the people at the time each was written.

D mainly represents the book of Deuteronomy. In contradistinction to the theory that Josiah’s reforms were based on Deuteronomy, it is proposed that it is much more likely that this work was composed after the exile of the Jews to Babylon. Since one can also posit a relationship of this work to the prophecies of Jeremiah, it can be argued that it was written by someone among those Jews who went down to Egypt with Jeremiah. This happened after the main body of leadership was exiled to Babylon. Jeremiah went down to Egypt with the remaining (rebellious) leaders of Israel and thus was in a good position to shape the thinking of the Jews who sought refuge in that land. With words put into the mouth of Moses, this work reflects something of Jeremiah’s vision of the future of the Israelite nation, where blessings were conditional upon obedience. Indeed, one can better understand Deuteronomy when it is recognized that it was intended to provide a model for the Jewish “reconquest” or resettlement of the land of Israel. It ideally should be dated after the first return of the Israelites from Babylon, which vindicated Jeremiah’s prophecy of 70 years of exile in Babylon. This would place its composition after 530 BC.

Friedman’s case that the Pentateuch was actually created from these disparate sources by Ezra the Scribe, in around 450 BC, is quite compelling.

Bibliography

Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (Englewoord Cliffs, NY: Prentice Hall, 1987).

Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, tr. Black and Menzies, (New York: Meridian Books, 1957), originally published 1883.

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