Who wrote the Old Testament?

The first five books of the Old Testament – the ‘Torah’ or the books of the Law of Moses – are traditionally attributed to Moses himself. Many Biblical scholars, however, believe the first five books (often simply called the 'Law') were written down over a much longer period of time and were only finalised well after the death of Moses.


Torsh scroll

A Torah scroll containing the Law of Moses (Willy Horst)


These five books appear to have been compiled in their present form from at least four different sources:

The first of these – often referred to as ‘J’ because the author uses God’s personal name ‘Yahweh’ (usually translated as ‘Jehovah’) – was probably written down from earlier oral traditions in the south of Israel shortly after the establishment of the United Monarchy in 1004 BC. 

The second – known as ‘E’ because the author refers to God by the Hebrew word ‘Elohim’ – was compiled from oral traditions in the north of Israel. It was probably written down and combined with the ‘J’ source to form a single text during the following century.

A third source – ‘D’ – forms the core of the Book of Deuteronomy, probably first compiled around the time of King Josiah’s religious reforms in c.624 BC.

The fourth source – the ‘P’ or ‘Priestly Code’ – was written after the exile following the downfall of Jerusalem in 587BC, probably during the time of Ezra in c.458 BC.

The combination of material from several different authors into one continuous text helps to explain why, for instance, there are two accounts of the Creation at the beginning of the Book of Genesis in which some of the details differ. The Creation as told in Genesis Chapter 1 comes from the later ‘P’ source, while the parallel account in Chapter 2 was written earlier by the ‘Yahwist’ – the ‘J’ source.


Open Bible

There are two accounts of Creation in Genesis 1 & 2


Some of the other books of the Old Testament may also have been written by more than one author. The historical events recorded in the Book of Isaiah, for instance, span a period of over two hundred years. It appears, therefore, that there were at least two authors, one writing before the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC, and one writing to encourage the Jewish exiles who had returned to Jerusalem from Babylon after 537 BC. Biblical scholars refer to these different authors as 'Proto-Isaiah' (chapters 1-39) and 'Deutero-Isaiah' (chapters 40-66).

Traditionally, Old Testament works of poetry have been attributed to famous Biblical characters, but may not actually have been written by them. The Song of Songs, for example, is often referred to as ‘The Song of Solomon’, but may not have been written by King Solomon himself. Similarly, many of the Psalms have been attributed to King David, but not all of these were probably written during his lifetime.

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