Since ancient times, many people believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. After all, the Bible claims it (e.g., Ex.24:2); Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, affirmed it (Ant. IV, 8:48) and the ancient Rabbis supported it (BB 14b).
Yet, critics noticed a number of difficulties: The text includes a number of doublets (e.g., two covenants with Abraham, Gen. 15 and 17) and contradictions (e.g., Gen I vs. Gen.2). It also contains some events that could not have been known by Moses (e.g. references to kings in Israel, in Gen. 36:31).
Throughout the centuries, various solutions have been offered: Some argued that there is no chronological order to the Bible (e.g., Pes. 6b). Others maintained that the whole text was written by divine inspiration. And there were others, like the medieval rabbinic scholar Ibn Ezra, who suggested that there is a secret here and we need to keep quiet about it.
Modern textual criticism began in the 18th century with critics such as Richard Simon and Jean Astruct. However, the one scholar who offered the first complete reconstruction was Julius Wellhausen in 1884. According to his theory, the Pentateuch is made up of four documents: J (that uses the term YHVH for God) was composed in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 9th cent. BCE; E (that uses Elohim for God) was composed in the northern part of Israel in the 8th cent. BCE. These two were combined by a redactor in the middle of the 7th cent. BCE. To this combined text, was added a text called D (for Deuteronomy) in 621 BCE. Finally, the priests (P) composed their own texts during and after the Babylonian exile and completed the Pentateuch.
Many modern scholars have slightly amended this reconstruction. Today, critics do not talk about “compositions” produced by individuals but “schools of thought” that generated the texts throughout many years. In fact, scholars like Herman Gunkel (1862-1932) argued that many texts in the Pentateuch were orally transmitted for a long period before they were written down. Around the mid-3rd cent. BCE, the Pentateuch was translated into Greek (i.e., the Septuagint) by Jewish scholars of Alexandria, Egypt.
To the Pentateuch, later on, were added two major components, namely the prophetic books and Writings. According to the Jewish tradition, the Rabbis finalized the entire canon in the city of Yavneh, in the central district of modern Israel, after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70CE.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D