Different Perspectives on the Authorship of the Torah

Literary, historical, and theological perspectives on whether the Torah is divine, human, or something in between

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Critical scholars look at the same phenomena and see evidence of different sources. Recognizing that some of these differences are accompanied by different uses of the name for God, scholars began to identify different sources in the Torah: materials which shared a variety of characteristics including the use of the four letter, unpronounced name of God (comprised of the Hebrew letters yod-heh-vav-heh) were seen as deriving from a single source. Scholars named that source J after the German transliteration of the letter yod. Other sources were identified based on other shared characteristics and vocabulary, including the "E" source, named after its use of the name Elohim,. Materials from the book of Deuteronomy, and associated with the language and ideas of that book are called D, and materials from Leviticus and throughout the Torah that reflect the language and concerns of the Aaronid priesthood are called P. The consistency within the various hypothetical documents and an editing process that preserved the basic characteristics of the original sources explained the repetitions and contradictions.

Other literary scholars have looked at the Bible and have seen remarkable consistency and large literary structures and themes, like D.N. Freedman's work on the centrality of the Ten Commandments in the overall narrative structure of the Bible. This kind of literary analysis at least points to a unified editorial process (if not a divine author). Many scholars, including Freedman, who acknowledge underlying sources, nevertheless focus their study on the narrative integrity of the received text of the Torah.

Although roundly rejected in academic circles, members of certain Orthodox Jewish communities have made claims about the Torah's literary character that, they assert, prove not just the unity of the Torah but the divinity of its authorship. Specifically, some have claimed to identify underlying codes revealed by equidistant letter skipping in the text of the Torah. These codes, assert advocates of this approach, were built into the text of the Torah by God precisely for our computer-enabled generation in order to counter the Bible critics. Interestingly, Islamic researchers of the Koran are "proving" the divinity of their holy text in the same way.

Assumptions About History & Prophecy

The first and most obvious concern that historians raised about the unity of the text of the Torah deals with the fifth book, Deuteronomy. The focus of the book on the unity of the people of Israel and its unified worship in a single place, and the illegitimacy of any worship outside of Jerusalem are concerns that do not seem to fit with most of Israelite history until the late seventh century BCE. Strikingly, at that point, during the reign of King Josiah, a book is "discovered" during repairs to the Temple, which become the basis for "reforms" that align almost perfectly with the language and concerns of the book of Deuteronomy.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.