The traditional view of the Hebrew Bible (that is, Judaism and Christianity before the 19th century and the beginning of the academic use of historical, literary and textual analysis) held that its earliest piece was the Torah – that is, the five-book work that includes Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It was believed (and many Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians still believe) that Moses received the text verbatim from God on Mount Sinai, after he and a million Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt, forty years before they entered into the land of Canaan (later called “Israel” by the Jews and “Palestine” by the Romans and many Muslims). That makes the text literally “God’s words, and sets its writing around 1250 BCE. (Following standard academic practice, “BCE” — before the common era — is used instead of “B.C.” — before Christ throughout the course. The numbers are the same, but the reference is not religion-specific. “CE” — common era is used instead of “A.D.”)
In the 1600s, the Dutch (and Jewish) philsopher Baruch Spinoza took note of some of the Torah’s details, and (in a posthumously published work) began the challenge to the traditional view. began to raise Today, the prevailing academic view of Conservative and Reform Judaism, Catholicism, and most “mainstream” Protestants (Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and several others) believes instead that the text — whether the oral tradition actually began with Moses or not — was actually written centuries later, and most of those scholars would hold to the position that the Torah was composed by various authors in various places and eras, and that their works were blended into a single work only in the time of Ezra — around 400 BCE.
It is not possible to unfold that whole position here. The full argument is presented by Richard Elliott Friedman in the book Who Wrote the Bible?. I do, however, believe that this argument is essential to the academic study of the Hebrew Bible. In short, the argument is that the initial layer of the Torah was a narrative that modern scholars call “J” – starting with the creation of the first man and woman in the garden called “Eden”. That work would include stories of the eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Cain and Abel, the flood that wiped out all humanity but Noah and his family, the tower of Babel, and the patriarchs of Israel (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). Typically, scholars assume that this was written in the days of Solomon, around 960 BCE.
But the biblical narrative tells us that Solomon’s kingdom split into two upon his death. The northern kingdom (called Israel) had its own temple(s), its own priesthood, and its own story. Such stories were critical in the world of the Ancient Near East, as the story itself was considered to be the presence of the divine in hisor her temple. Without an actual text, the temple would be simply another building. Since the priesthood in the north could not accept the authority of the temple in the south (in Jerusalem, in the other Hebrew country called “Judah”) without challenging the legitimacy of the northern kings, it needed its own narrative. That narrative is called “E” today, and it included other stories about the patriarchs and the flight from Egypt — led by Moses (whose ancestral origins were in the north). Thi8s text was written in the mid-800s, probably under the dynasty of Ahab’s family.
A third layer is the “P” text (called that because it clearly is concerned with priestly matters, not everyday people). This includes a “new” telling of the creation (Genesis 1), an alternative telling of the flood, and snippets about the patriarchs and Moses. Its largest contribution is the Levitical code — the law of the book of Leviticus that defines purity and impurity so that the priestly cult could be carried out absolutely correctly.
It is likely that the person who wrote P already had the books of J and E in front of him, and was simply “tweaking” the narrative to address his own moment. By that time, J and E had long been combined into one narrative (a move made necessary when the northern kingdom was destroyed in 722 BCE and the northern priests fled to the only familiar place available, Judah). Scholars disagree over the exact date of P, with some placing it in the days just before the southern kingdom’s defeat at the hands of Babylon (597 BCE), and others placing it after, some as late as 400 and Ezra’s own time.
Meanwhile, another author had written a massive work that modern scholars call the “Deuteronomic History.” This was a history of Israel and Judah that began with the giving of the law to Moses, and continued through the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, the time of the loose confedaration of twelve tribes, and the centuries of the various kings. The work consisted of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, the books of Samuel and the books of the Kings. That narrative was likely composed by the same person who wrote Jeremiah’s prophecies, around 622 BCE.
Today, the texts are arranged as one work. Knowing its history gives one explanation to the contradictions, duplications, and various perspectives of the text. But we will actually rely very little on the critical approaches (although I accept the scholarly position). My interest with you i8s what we ended up with — what Brevard Childs called a “canonical reading”. While recognizing that a variety of perspectives are behind the text, we are looking for a way to read what none of the individual writers could actually have imagined: a reading that relies on all the writers, but was available to none.