by Deacon Bill Nourse, Ed.D.

The Old Testament was composed over a long period of time. Much of it began as an oral tradition which was finally written down after centuries of being passed down orally. What we know today as the Pentateuch (penta=5, the first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah, or "Law") was edited into its final form as a coherent account of the career of Moses.


The four-source theory of the Torah is proposed by Wellhausen and others, and seems to have some general acceptance among scholars. The four-source theory proposes that the Torah originated from four separate and distinct sources, arising and developing over four successive eras in history. The four sources were conflated (blended together, combined and edited) over the centuries into the single document (the Torah) which we have today.

Although the sources are mixed, it is sometimes possible to theorize the source of particular passages by classifying the way in which God is presented, and in the way certain issues are presented.


This is the earliest discernible tradition in the Pentateuch, dating in written form from c. 1000-950 BC (the time of the unified kingdom under David and Solomon). It originated as an oral tradition in Judah, the southern kingdom. It deals primarily with the time of the Patriarchs, c. 1900-1650 BC.

This source presents a broad sweep of history in the context of its relevance to God's specific plan for the chosen people.

In material from the Yahwist (J) source, God is more intimate in his relationship with humans, a "divine communion." God is more anthropomorphic, less abstract, "walks" and "talks" with men, etc. The "younger son" theme is emphasized (Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Judah over older brothers, etc.); unconditioned covenant with Abraham.

This source uses the tetragrammatron YHWH to designate the divine personal name when written down. Written Hebrew has no vowels, and "points" are used to designate vowel sounds for pronunciation. "Points" are small marks under the letters (consonants) with different shapes representing different vowel sounds.


This is the "sister tradition" of (J) from the northern kingdom, but not quite as old. The written form dates from c. 922 BC. It originated as an oral tradition in Israel, the northern kingdom.

Elohim is another personal name for the divine being. Elohim is a plural form, but is something like the royal "we" or the papal "we," e.g., "We are not amused." The style is much less anthropomorphic than (J).

The (E) source is more limited in scope than (J). The (E) source has no primordial history; it begins with Abraham. God is much less anthropomorphic than in (J). God is more remote and distant than in (J), and speaks to man in dreams, in clouds, or in the midst of fire; and later, through angels.

The style is more sober and flat; moral standards are stricter and more exact, reflecting contact with pagan practices in the north which had to be resisted. In (E), the covenant is presented more like an overlord-vassal treaty; there is a preference for an idealized desert existence.

The (J) and (E) traditions were conflated into a sort of "JE" source in Judah, sometime after c. 721 BC (the fall of Samaria, the capital if Israel in the northern kingdom), with the (J) tradition emerging as dominant. This may have occurred during the reign of Hezekiah (c. 716-687 BC). The other traditions were added later.


Material from the (D) source is generally restricted to the Book of Deuteronomy itself. It is more hortatory (exhorting) in character, apparently related to the fact that it was composed during a time of religious crisis. The (D) source called for a return to the (J) covenant and pure worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, with a sense of immediacy and urgency.

In (D), the covenant is seen as God's loving election of Israel, and the law is Israel's loyal response.

The (D) source dates from after the Babylonian exile, the time of Zerubbabel, and the rebuilding of the second Temple c. 510 BC. There is a tradition that Josiah found a copy of it in the Temple in 621 BC. However, its long prehistory and the nucleus of its laws suggest an origin in the northern kingdom.

It probably coalesced in written form c. 700-650 BC and was conflated with the JE source sometime after the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC) into a sort of "JED" source.


The Priestly (P) source concentrates more on liturgy and laws, together with some narrative material. Its style is more abstract, redundant. There is more emphasis on genealogies, chronological precision, minute descriptions of ritual elements. Anthropomorphic representations of God are avoided.

The Priestly (P) source also has a long prehistory, but in written form dates from sometime after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the First Temple (c. 587-586 BC). This was the beginning of the Exile (c. 586 BC). The glorious eras of David (c. 1010-970 BC), Solomon (c. 970-931 BC) were long past, the Ark of the Covenant had been captured by the enemy (some say hidden) and lost, the Holy of Holies was an empty room inhabited only by the presence or spirit of God.

The (P) emphasis was on Israel remaining pure and holy and uncontaminated by man-made morality, hence the emphasis ritual and legal cleanliness.

The (P) source is the youngest. It was probably added to the "JED" source after the Exile, c. 586 BC, with "JEDP" emerging as the result, edited into its final form as the Torah a little later.

The Torah brought back from Babylon by Ezra (c. 400-420 BC) was likely the Torah in its present form, isolated from the historical books (Jos-Kgs). Thus the final compilation of the Torah could have been this late, and its composition could have taken as long as six hundred years.


These four sources are mixed in the Pentateuch (Torah) as edited and redacted over the centuries, although in some instances a single source may be clearly dominant in certain sections. In many cases, sections or phrases or episodes are repeated in somewhat different language. This was done deliberately when material was added. The editors/redactors were reluctant to remove or alter earlier material, even if it was similar to what they were adding, for fear that something important might inadvertently be lost.

Sometimes we can deduce "which God" (J, E, D, P source) is being presented in the text of the Torah from the way God is portrayed or presented. E.g., if it's a personal God who walks and talks with man and exhibits human characteristics (as in the Garden of Eden), then it's probably (J) source material. If it's more of an abstract God (as in the Burning Bush), it's probably (E) source material.

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