In truth, a layperson would be hard pressed to find a single real priest unable to name the four great streams of authorship behind the Torah’s sources: JEDP. And yet this knowledge simply does not find itself transmitted to the two groups that really matter: the great masses of religious people who have no detailed knowledge of religion and whose lives would be infinitely richer if they were freed from religion’s stupefying influence, and atheists who quite erroneously believe that a) owing to its mostly fictional nature, there is nothing inherently interesting in the Bible; b) feel that the way to counter a religious argument is to point out broad contradictions in the Bible without providing a concrete demonstration of how those contradictions arose and why they are useful in challenging faith
What he’s referring to here is what’s called the “Documentary Hypothesis”. That there were four main streams of thought/authors who wrote what ended up as the Pentateuch/Law/Torah. In other words, the first five books of the Hebrew bible supposedly authored by Moses.
“J” stands for “Jahwist” or “Yahwist”. These sections of the Torah are the sections that spell out the Tetragrammaton (Greek: four letters) or YHWH whenever referring to the god of Israel.
In this source God is called YHWH. Known as the tetragrammaton, scholars transliterate it as Yahweh (or as Jahweh, after the German spelling: Jahweh), and in earlier times as Jehovah. In most English translations of the Bible the tetragrammaton is replaced with the LORD. Note that the “w” sound in Yahweh is not present in modern Hebrew, as it was in earlier forms.
In J, YHWH is an anthropomorphic figure, fond of Edenic walks in the “cool of the evening,” killing animals so as to clothe Eve and Adam with their pelts, able to eat the food Abram offers Him, visible face-to-face (as in the theophany on Mt. Sinai, Ex. 24:10-11), and burying Moses with his own hands. YHWH can be reasoned with, as in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where Abram haggles with YHWH over the fate of the cities. Similarly, during the exodus, YHWH. incensed by the Israelites, offers to destroy them all, and raise Moses’ descendants instead, but is dissuaded by Moses. YHWH then relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened(Exodus 32: 14).
YHWH does not correspond to the normative picture of a benign God in heaven; he can be dangerous, as when he attempts to kill his newly-chosen prophet Moses at the inn (see Zipporah at the inn), potentially malign, as in the story of the Binding of Isaac, or arbitrarily withholding, preventing Moses from entering Canaan without giving reasons.
J has a particular fascination for traditions concerning Judah, including those concerning its relationship with its neighbour Edom. J also supports Judah against Israel, for example suggesting that Israel acquired Shechem (its capital city) by massacring the inhabitants. J supports the priests descended from Aaron who were established in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah.
In attempting to identify the author of the Jahwist text, some orthodox Christians and Jews suggest that this original “core” of the Torah was written by Moses himself, and that the obviously post-schism pro-Judah material was added by the JE redactor to balance the pro-Israel material of the Elohist. This would put the origin of the original Jahwist text somewhere around 1300-1500 BC. This is not accepted by non-fundamentalist scholars, who on the basis of internal evidence date the Yahwist sources to the period in which the Aaronic priesthood was established and entrenched in their control over the Jerusalem temple, in the Monarchical period.
“E” stands for “Elohist”. These sections of the Torah are the sections that write “El” whenever referring to the god of Israel. Which might be more appropriate considering the name Israel.
In this source God’s name is always presented as Elohim until the revelation of God’s name to Moses, after which God is referred to as Yahweh. E treats God as a human-like figure, capable of regret, and appearing in person at events.
E has a particular fascination for traditions concerning biblical Israel and its heroes such as Joshua and Ephraim (a son of Joseph, and the tribe to which Israel’s king belonged). E supports Israel against Judah, in the case of Shechem claiming that it was purchased rather than won via a massacre.
E supports the Levitical priests of Shiloh (who were not descended from Aaron), who were not given authority in Israel, both against the new priesthood set up in Israel, and against the priesthood of Judah (which priests were descended from Aaron). E tries to show Aaron and his supporters in a bad light, for example via the story of the golden calf (which also happened to be the symbol of the new version of the religion set up in Israel).
“D” stands for “Deuteronomist”. This is obviously the author of Deuteronomy and all of the author’s type of thoughts sprinkled throughout the Torah. This author is rabidly monotheistic (or, the more accurate terminology would be either henotheistic or monolatrous). This author gives away his non-authentic agenda by the very name: deuteronomy, which is Greek for second laws.
In Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomist’s literary style is that of elegant flashback told by Moses, and so much of the narrative is scattered and disordered. Nevertheless, when put together in sequence, the narrative mostly parallels those of JE and the priestly source, though it begins only at the Ten Commandments. Since the narrative is presented as the recollections of Moses, it obviously cannot contain memories of events prior to him; but the narrative’s starting with the Ten Commandments (rather than with an earlier event in Moses’ life) may simply be a convenient literary device, serving to imply that that is the moment that things which are worth remembering began. The Deuteronomist generally exhibits a stance similar to those of the Jahwist and Elohist, so it may be that the Deuteronomist’s work was intended to be read in parallel with JE, rather than instead of it.
In contrast to the priestly source, the Deuteronomist cuts out the obviously pro-Aaronid tales, such as that of Aaron’s flowering staff and that of the appointment of the Levites, but includes the story of the Golden Calf, which is the main story from JE that casts Aaron in a negative light. Indeed, Aaron is cast even more negatively in the Deuteronomist version of the Golden Calf story. The Deuteronomist also emphasizes the negativity of the Golden Calf story by cutting out the tale of the Nehushtan (which would cast the idea of a cult object in a positive light) and that of the heresy of Peor (which would dilute the Golden Calf story by presenting another wickedness, one in which Aaron is not the villain).
However, like the priestly source, the Deuteronomist avoids stories that contrast even mildly with its laws; for example, the tale of food being found in the desert doesn’t involve sacrifice, and is cut. The tale of the non-Israelite prophet Balaam and the talking donkey is also cut, though this is most likely because it would appear out of place and disconnected from the main story.
“P” stands for “Priestly”. This represents the sections of the Torah that have the influence of the priestly-Levite class. Sprinkling their influence on texts found in pre-exilic Hebrew/Israelite/Judaite society.
This source is thought to have written the majority of the book of Leviticus, as well as stories that parallel those in J (the Jahwist text) and in E (the Elohist text), suggesting it was composed after J and E had been integrated into a JED proto-Torah.
P emphasizes the position of the priesthood and particularly of Aaron, and always presents Aaron as being present when Moses does something on God’s behalf. God works miracles through Aaron’s staff, rather than Moses’. P also denigrates Moses’ ability to continue to perform as leader by stating that, on descent from having become close to God at the mountain where he received the commandments, he was changed in such a way that no-one could bear to look at him. From the 1st century until the Renaissance, a misreading of a Hebrew word was responsible for the idea that the change included a pair of horns (see Moses for details). Michelangelo’s Moses is one example of this image.
Further denigration of the heroes of the non-Aaronid priesthood occurs in P’s treatment of Nadab and Abihu, who in J are described as being taken, with Moses, to meet God in person. In P, contrastingly, Nadab and Abihu are condemned for offering strange fire, and destroyed by God.
P is notable for its repetition of lists, long, unexciting, interruptions to the narrative, cold unemotional descriptions, and the lack of a high literary standard. While P uses Elohim and El Shaddai as names of God, unlike the Elohist, P treats God as transcendental, and distant, acting only through priests, and communicating only via the priesthood. In P, while God is just, God is also unmerciful, and applies brutal, and abrupt, punishment when laws are broken, such as killing 12,000 people with an instant plague, merely because they complained. P is regarded by the majority of scholars as particularly inelegant, and most think themselves able to recognize a text from P on sight due to this.
These are the four strands of thought running throughout the Torah. All of this was haphazardly edited and compiled upon the return from the exile by Judean/Persian “elites”, in which Ezra was more than likely a member (and possibly Jeremiah).
The expectation that the Judahite theology was fully formed prior to Babylon, and did not alter significantly through the experience of alienation and exile, is the one that stretches credulity.
In any other social science, such a transformative experience would be immediately tapped for clues as to how it changed the philosophy and outlook of the peoples who underwent such a struggle, whether it’s South Africans under Apartheid, or Jews after the Holocaust, or Cambodians coming to terms with a genocide, or Japanese coming to terms with their loss in the Second World War. But the exceptionalism required of a theory of a fully-constructed pre-Exilic J,D,P is really the one that beggars belief. Aside from the logistical hurdle of carting hundreds of sacred xenophobic nationalist texts into exile and then a second exile and back again…
“alright you, you’re off to exile.”
“Hang on a second — let me grab a few dozen scrolls.”
“And you, do you want to bring any scrolls, hmm?… Good. Off to exile.”