Who Wrote the Bible? Breaking Down the History of the Torah

The Torah or the Pentateuch, commonly known as the five books of Moses, are common to the Jewish, Christian, and Samaritan canons. Throughout this episode, this collection of books will be referred to by the Hebrew name: Torah. 

Genres such as narrative, covenants, laws of conduct, ceremonial laws among others are found throughout the Torah. Together, these genres serve to tell the reader the story of the beginnings, the stories of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the enslavement and exodus from Egypt, and the life of the Israelites in the desert of Sinai prior to inhabiting the promised land. Certain elements of the Torah such as unexplained repetitions and variations in names of God, historical figures, or geographical locations have engaged the minds of early Jewish rabbis and Christian theologians as well as modern and contemporary biblical scholars. 

Early rabbis attempted to clarify these differences by giving a back story that could serve to contextualize discrepancies in the narrative. These creative narratives came to be known as midrash.[1] Christian theologians of the Antiochian school took a similar route as did the rabbis trying to rationalize the narrative as much as possible. For example, how did Cain get married when only Adam and Eve were the first humans? Well, John Chrysostom would suggest he married one of his sisters whom Adam and Eve had after him.[2] Christian theologians of the Alexandrian school like Origen would see in these discrepancies an intentional stumbling block aiming to guide the reader beyond the letter into a deeper sense of es .[3] Other theologians assumed this might be due to multiple sources, authors, or an editor. While some might attribute this to modern scholarship, this claim is far more ancient than what might be anticipated. 

Already in 2 Esdras, we hear Ezra saying, 

“For your law has been burned, and so no one knows the things which have been done or will be done by you. If then I have found favor with you, send the holy spirit into me, and I will write everything that has happened in the world from the beginning, the things that were written in your law, so that people may be able to find the path, and that those who want to live in the last days may do so.

He answered me and said, “Go and gather the people, and tell them not to seek you for forty days. But prepare for yourself many writing tablets… and you shall come here, and I will light in your heart the lamp of understanding, which shall not be put out until what you are about to write is finished. And when you have finished, some things you shall make public, and some you shall deliver in secret to the wise; tomorrow at this hour you shall begin to write” (2 Esdras 14:21-26). 

Briefly commenting on this, Jerome, a fourth century Christian theologian, would say, 

“I don’t object either way if you want to call Moses the author of the Pentateuch or Ezra the restorer of the works. What remains to ask is whether this phrase [“to this day,” Deut 34:6], refers back to the ancient period or to the books that were published [when Ezra] put them together in writing.”[4]

Like Jerome, modern scholarship has proposed alternative authorships to Moses. Unlike Jerome, many scholars attributed the authorship to multiple authors or sources. A classic example of their theories is the documentary hypothesis which assumes four major sources for the text of the Torah: First, the Yahwist source or “J” refers to sections of the Torah that refer to God with the name YHWH often translated as LORD.[5] Second, the Elohist source or “E” is the source that utilizes the title Elohim to refer to God.[6] Third, the Priestly source or “P” refers to the parts that are concerned with details such as genealogies, dates, measurements, and cultic ordinances in the temple, etc.[7] Fourth, the Deuteronomistic source or “D” loosely refers to the contents of the book of Deuteronomy.[8] The person or group that would eventually weave all four sources into one coherent composition would be known as the redactor.[9] Though this is no longer the prevagglent view most scholars adhere to, it remained the classical view academics believed to be true for approximately a century.[10]

Whether Jewish, Christian, or academic and whether subscribing to multiple authors, Moasic authorship, or authorship by Ezra, the fact remains that the Torah   is complex enough for one to always struggle in understanding its narrative, repetitions, and elaborate details. And regardless of difficulties in the text, it provides a mode of meditating on eternal wisdom that Sirach would identify the Torah with divine wisdom itself saying, “All this [wisdom] is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us” (Sirach 24:23). 





[1] For more on Midrash and the multiple meanings of this term, refer to Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible: Second Edition, 2 edition (Oxford University Press, 2014), 1879.

[2] Stephen Westerholm and Martin Westerholm, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation(Eerdmans, 2016), 116.

[3] Westerholm and Westerholm, 86.

[4] Jerome as quoted in Rebecca Scharbach Wollenberg, “The Book That Changed: Narratives of Ezran Authorship as Late Antique Biblical Criticism,” Journal of Biblical Literature 138, no. 1 (2019): 149, https://doi.org/10.15699/jbl.1381.2019.452918.

[5] Richard Soulen, Handbook Of Biblical Criticism, Fourth Edition, 1st edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 101.

[6] Soulen, 58.

[7] Soulen, 143.

[8] Soulen, 49.

[9] Soulen, 180.

[10] John Collins, INTRODUCTION TO THE HEBREW BIBLE, 1st edition (FORTRESS PRESS, 2018), 56.