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The Pentateuch: A Long History of Study and Research (First Part)

Until the sixteenth century, no scholar doubted that Moses was the material author of the Pentateuch. Moses wrote all the books of the Pentateuch. The first to doubt this paternity was the German scholar Andreas Rudolph Bodenstein Karlstadt (1480-1541) who observed that Moses could never write about his death, as it is told in Deuteronomy 34. Karlstadt was an isolated voice, in the sea of ​​consensus around the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.

Only in the seventeenth century, dissenting voices multiply, inside of which the most important and influential is undoubtedly that of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). According to Spinoza, the author of the Pentateuch was Ezra, but not because he wrote the Pentateuch in full, but only because he wrote down earlier memories that were then further elaborated.

A milestone in the studies on the formation of the Pentateuch was thrown by Richard Simon (1638-1712). Simon defended the Mosaic authorship, but restricting it to the legislative sections of the Pentateuch. Moreover he said that Moses entrusted the preparation of the remaining parts to professional scribes.

These early research are the fertile ground on which then develops real research on the Pentateuch. The first and decisive step was taken by the French physician Jean Astruc (1684-1756). He recognized in Genesis two “memories” or “documents” characterized by the use of the divine name: Elohim and Yahweh. The first was called “Jahvist” while the second was called “Elohist”. He also recognized ten other sources, including the one that used “Yahweh Elohim” as the name of God. Moses ordered these sources in four columns. Later the copyists confused and mingled these sources.

According to Henning Bernhard Witter (1683-1715) Moses would have framed the text of the Law of God with stories taken from oral sources. For the first time were established the criteria for the recognition of the use of sources: duplication, parallel texts, stylistic diversity and, of course, the different names given to God. For the first time, also, in Genesis 1-2 were recognized two sources. Unfortunately the scholar had to suffer the attack of the colleagues and of the Lutheran orthodox environment that  had a very rigid view of inspiration of the holy books. For this reason, Witter’s research had a very little influence on the German universities. The french physician had instead an enthusiastic welcome.

The first to recognize the research of the French doctor was Johann Gottfried Eichborn (1752-1827). He extends the research of Astruc to the first two chapters of Exodus where he recognizes two main sources. Eichhorn introduces the new concept of “redactors” who were actually responsible – not Moses – of the final edition of the Pentateuch.

A disciple of Eichhorn, Georg Heinrich August Ewald (1803-1875) spoke for the first time of “documents” that were used to prepare the Pentateuch. He identified five documents: 1. The “Book of alliances” written at the time of Samson (from Genesis to Judges 12); 2. the oldest part (Elohist) of the “Book of the origins” (from the creation to the consecration of the First Temple); 3. an account of the life of Moses composed in the tenth or ninth century BC; 4. another document of the ninth or eighth century; 5. a document called “Yahwist” written in the seventh century BC. Deuteronomy instead was a book written by a jew who lived in Egypt and it was revised at the time of Josiah.

Given the complexity of the material contained in the source “Elohist” Hermann Hupfeld (1796-1866) divided it into two, calling one Elohist 1 and the other Elohist 2. Karl Heinrich Graf (1815-1869) ordered chronologically the two sources, arguing that there was a source Elohist pre-exilic (before the exile, ie before the sixth century BC.) and a source “legislative” post-exilic, discernable in the books of Exodus to Numbers. Abraham Kuenen (1828-1891), called the source of legislative sections no longer Elohist, but “priestly codex”. He also attributed the Deuteronomy to the times of Josiah.

So we have all four “sources” or “documents” that will characterize the so-called “documentary hypothesis,” the theory that dominated the Pentateuch’s research until the first half of the twentieth century: J (Yahwist), E (Elohist ), D (Deuteronomy), P (Priestly). (To be continued)

Simone Venturini


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