Episode 63: Ezra and the Compilation of the Pentateuch

Host: Christopher Rose, Outreach Director, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Guest: Richard Bautch, Associate Professor of Humanities, St Edward’s University, Austin

The authorship of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament–known as the Torah or the Pentateuch–has been traditionally attributed to Moses. This raised some questions, however: would the most humble of men really describe himself as such? During the Enlightenment, scholars identified four distinct authors of the Pentatuch, creating the long-standing “Documentary Hypothesis.”  In the past twenty five years, a new trend in Biblical Studies has begun to challenge this long held view.

Guest Richard Bautch from St Edward’s University in Austin is one of the scholars taking a new look at the Biblical figure Ezra and his relationship to this critical text. In this episode, we discuss current thinking about the formation of the Pentateuch during the time of Ezra.

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Your current work revises what is known as the “Documentary Hypothesis,” which concerns how the Pentateuch was written. Can you explain what the Documentary Hypothesis is, and some of the issues that scholars have identified with it?

Certainly, and let me provide some background first. Going back into Antiquity, actually, we as scholars can see the importance given to the figure of Moses as those first five books of the Bible were finally edited, consolidated as a collection of five books, the identity of Moses was part and parcel of that collection when it was created. Subsequently, in different religious traditions, the idea of Mosaic authorship of the entire Pentateuch was extended, really across generations. And, for scholars and laypeople alike, the idea of Moses having written all of the Pentateuch was fairly widespread, although initially readers were able to see flaws in this idea. There were points at which, for example, Moses said, “Moses is the most humble of men,” yet how could he have written that if he really were the most humble of men?


As a result, scholars were, for a period of time, sort of wondering about Mosaic authorship. Finally, with the enlightenment, scholarship in Europe especially developed an alternative way of understanding the authorship of the Pentateuch in terms of these distinct sources. Scholars, especially in Germany, designated four distinct sources in ISraelite history who contributed major parts of the first five books of the Bible. These are designated by letters: You have the J source, the E source, the D source, and the P source.

Now, what’s the issue with the four source theory? It had incredible longevity, it really came to fore in the 19th century, it really held sway for most of the 20th century as well – what is the issue with it?

Well, I see this way: essentially it became a situation where the model–i.e., the four sources–was driving the research, and so what we could have is scholars–eminent scholars–who were working with this model, but always in terms of sources. Sometimes they would posit the existence of additional sources to deal with new data–the great Otto Eisfeldt, a German scholar of the early 20th century, created an L source, for example. So, we had almost a proliferation of sources. So the model was driving the research rather than the data driving the research. And that, ultimately proved to be a real difficulty.

I have an analogy. Imagine, if you will, in molecular biology, if Watson and Crick when they came out with their great discovery–the double helix, DNA–


–What if what they had published was the quadruple helix? What if they had identified four strands that contained every bit of important information having to do with DNA and molecular biology? And subsequently, for a couple of decades at least, scholars all worked with this idea of four strands? But, eventualy, what would happen through scientific method if nothing else, is people would look and say, “the model just doesn’t support that. When we look carefully at the data again and again and again, there’s actually only two strands. We’ve only got a double helix here, and that other material, the other data, we’ll continue to study it, work on it, and try and discover its relationship to those two strands.”

Essentially, the same thing is happening in Biblical Studies, especially in the past twenty five years, scholars–with the exception of a few–have gone from a four source theory to something rather scaled down. And at this point two of the original sources, the P source–meaning the Priestly source, and the D source, meaning the Deuteronomist, primarily found in Deuteronomy, although elsewhere–those two sources remain. Those two sources now really command our attention. So, what we are really looking at is a lot of work done on P and D and, subsequently, the other parts of the Pentateuch that are not P or D, we are looking at ways of understanding their relationship to P and D. I would just add that, for my own research and that of several others, a critical point is that, in the fourth century, BCE, that appears to be the point where these two separate sources, the priestly source on the one hand and the D source on the other, were by redactors or editors conjoined and brought together. So, at that point we have a critical stage for what is the formation of what we now know as the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible.

Since you mentioned that historic period, is there are reason why then these sources would have been combined? What was going that these redactors or editors saw a need to combine these into one sources?

Well, it was a very stimulating time. It was a time when if we think in terms of Ancient Israel, the sovereign nation ended in 587 BCE with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. Many of the people were taken into exile, although they did return by the end of the 6th century, it was under Persian hegemony, and so we have a kind of nascent Jewish society in Jerusalem as well as a very lively diaspora at this point, representing Judaism, that’s sort of our window on Judaism. Think about the diaspora in Babylon, for example, also in Egypt, at Elephantine we have copies of significant Jewish texts as well relating to festivals and feasts and other issues that are really Pentatuechal issues.

What many believe is happening is that there is a need to create a single document or a single story which embraced both the group that was–you can say–at the center, in Jerusalem and maybe has a certain claim at least to the legacies of Ancient Israel, but also the groups in the diaspora–the diaspora in Babylon, the diaspora in Egypt as well. And if we read through those first five books, it is really curious to see how much of the action, although it is about Moses bringing the people into the promised land, how much of the action takes place outside, in other lands–adjacent lands. Abraham comes from Harran, up in modern day Syria; Moses is actually from Egypt, is he not? So, there’s a way in which the diaspora is being integrated into the story in a way that tells The Story. It’s a story of origins, really, but in a way that’s inclusive so that these different communities of Judaism, even beyond the land of Israel, have a voice and have a place in there.

Your current work involves the person of Ezra, who is the Biblical Prophet. What is his relationship to this process–this, I presume, is your hypothesis on the formation of the Pentateuch?

Great question. For a long time in earlier scholarship, the thinking was that the Pentatuech, or the Torah, was actually all put together–consolidated, edited, really for a final time–in the period of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century, so it’s a much earlier date than we’re now proposing. The thinking was that Ezra, as a historical figure, he is born in Babylon, but he returns–I shouldn’t say returns, but he brings a group of returnees to Jerualem and, among other things, he commands an entire assembly where he reads from the Torah of Moses. That sort of indication has led many scholars to see Ezra as a seminal figure in the first proclamation of the Pentateuch, that Ezra was the first and best window on more or less the complete Torah. And all this happening in the 6th and 5th century — again, much earlier than I propose.

The way that I kind of address is in a talk I’m giving is that, they have in Biblical scholarship the concept of the primo genitor, he’s the first son, and as the first son, he is the heir, and what he will inherit is a double portion, it’s the very best of what the family has. Unfortunately, for the other sons their inheritance is virtually nothing. So, the thinking was that it’s almost as if the Torah in exile was this great Biblical figure itself, and Ezra was the primo genitor. He was the first one to inherit the best, the most pristine of the revalations of God, and he proclaimed them in Jerusalem.

So, here’s how I now understand Ezra. First of all, Ezra likely made his mission in the 4th century. The dating of Ezra has always been a little up for grabs, I think more and more scholars are now seeing him as a fourth century figure. The other thing is that the materials that we have about Ezra, if we look at them carefully–that’s kind of a separate question unto itself–but if we look at them carefully, we’ll see that they really do kind of reflect the Torah itself. Some of the things that Ezra says line up quite well with passages in the Torah, in the book of Leviticus, for example. My theory is that these two works were actually synchronous, that we should think of the formation of the Torah, and specifically the conjoining of the P and D sources, in the fourth century as happening more or less right along side the Ezra narrative as it’s being written and completed in the fourth century, in Jerusalem. So, again, my analogy is that Ezra was thought of as the Primo Genitor, but, actually, Ezra and the Pentateuch are more like close siblings. They’re more like twins if you will, who are both created from much of the same material–the D and the P material that forms and informs the Pentateuch is also very prominent in the Ezra materials. My approach now is to understand Ezra in that manner, and to use Ezra as a window on the formation of the Pentateuch.

Could we then propose that Ezra was the one who consolidated the texts, or is that either not important or not part of the story?

I think there are actually some differences when we start looking at some passages. There are enough differences, and critical differences, too, in ways of thinking and ideas that I would certainly have to bring other parties into the picture and paint a more complex picture of Priestly and Deuteronistic editors working on the Pentateuch. Ezra, increasingly, has his own contribution to make which matches up with the Pentateuch but is probably distinct from the mission, if you will, of the redaction of the Pentateuch. I would keep those separate, to be honest.

Toward wrapping up, what does this sort of revised timeline and revised understanding about the way that the Pentatuech was assembled, how does this impact our understanding of what has come to be known as the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament for Christians? What new interpretations can we have out of how this text was assembled?

If we think of the Second Temple period as an arc–the full arc of the Second Temple period–obviously for Christians and many Jews, the end of this time is very, very important–this is a time which receives much study, there are many texts from this period, which are intensely studied by both Christian scholars, Jewish scholars as well. What I have found is that to really understand Second Temple Judaism, and let’s say for Christians to understand the background of the Jesus story–it’s not simply the century before Jesus, as was long the approach in scholarship, with the understanding that before that we just don’t know that much–we don’t know much about the Persian period. We don’t know much about the first couple of centuries of the second temple.

That is changing radically, because we now have copious data on that, and we’re coming up with some good understandings and interpretations of that data. For me, the impact is that we now have a much broader base of background for studying the origins of Christianity, as well as Judaism late in the Second Temple period. In my own work, I continually find myself working at the beginning of the Persian period, identifying an interesting theme or topic such as penitential prayer or covenant, and then tracing the trajectory or development of one of those topics or themes all the way through the later Jewish materials and the Christian texts as well. And what I find is that there is potentially a much richer understanding for those studying the later texts if their background is not simply the decades or century before the time of Jesus in the 1st century, but if we can go all the way to the return from exile and have a really good grasp of that data. It’s there, it’s always been there, it’s canonical, but the study of it has really taken off in the last twenty five years or so, and I think that’s made all the difference.

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