It was long believed by Jews and Christians alike that the first 5 books (or scrolls) of the Hebrew Bible, (the Pentateuch), had been written by Moses, around the 15th century BCE. In the Middle Ages, however, attention was drawn to Gen.12:6 which says, “the Canaanites were then in the land”, meaning this was no longer the case, showing that was written much later than the 15th century. Similarly, Gen.36:31 mentions, “kings who reigned in Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites”, which must’ve been written after Israel became a monarchy, long after Moses. The final nail in the coffin was Deut.34, in which, if the author were Moses, he wrote a description of his own death and burial !
This opened the way for an exploration of various anomalies, repetitions, inconsistencies and contradictions, which suggested a multiplicity of authors, compilers and editors, in which case the production and completion of these five scrolls most likely took a considerable time. Further scholarly scrutiny led to the “Documentary Hypothesis”, which suggested 4 main sources, put together over around 500 years. Let’s try to put all this into some kind of historical context.
The earliest non-biblical reference to ‘Israel’ is in an inscription on a stone called the ‘Victory Stele’ of Pharaoh Merneptah, who reigned over Egypt from 1213 to 1203 BCE. It lists Israel as one of the Canaanite peoples subdued by the Egyptian army. Merneptah’s predecessor was Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE), thought possibly to be the pharaoh under whom a group of Canaanite forced labourers made their escape, or exodus. Such a group, bringing with them belief in the god Yahweh, might well have joined other tribes in Canaan, around 1250 BCE. This new god would soon become the Israelites’ chief god and, in the fulness of time, their only god.
It’s important to keep in mind the tribal nature of Israel. These tribes came together briefly under the kingship of David and Solomon, but thereafter split into a southern kingdom called Judah (its capital Jerusalem) and a rival northern kingdom called Israel (its capital Samaria). Different tribes told different stories about people, places and events important to them, and each tribe and kingdom had its own political and religious slant on how things were and had been. There were therefore lots of different stories, and different versions of similar stories, with these inevitable anomalies, ambiguities, biases and downright contradictions.
The people who began to collect such initially word-of-mouth stories, and write them down, would have come from the educated class which could read and write, as opposed to the 90% of people who would have been illiterate. What we now have, therefore, represents the viewpoints and priorities of the priestly, aristocratic and literate élite, and these were no doubt at some remove from those of ‘the common herd’. Reading between the lines, and the occasional off-the-cuff hint, however, can yield some insight into the likely nature of ‘popular’ religious belief and practice.
These compilers and editors made use of the myths of surrounding Mesopotamian and Canaanite peoples, as well as legendary and folktale material generated by the Israelites themselves. Tribal material would’ve been passed down the generations by word of mouth before eventually being recorded by these ‘professional’ scribes. Some tales might well go back to early days, but will have been continually re-interpreted to appeal to different audiences in different locations, times and historical circumstances. As long we don’t mistake this as history, there’s no great problem. It all adds to the richly colourful, and endless fascination of these books.
As noted above, modern scholarship reckons there were probably 4 main sources, progressively put together over around 500 years, so let’s take a look at how this process may have evolved. If the Bible is important to us, as it ought to be in view of the way in which it’s helped to shape and inform our present western culture, then it’s important that we should have an up-to-date, informed understanding of what kind of ‘books’ are in it, and of how they came to be ..…