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From An Introduction to the History of History, by James T. Shotwell; Columbia University Press; New York; 1922; pp. 86-95.




THE Pentateuch — or, to include Joshua, which really belongs with it, the Hexateuch, is composed of four main sources, dating from about the ninth century to about the fourth. Only two of these, the two oldest, are properly historical, but the other two, while chiefly taken up with laws and ritual, have so recast the text of the earlier ones that all four must be considered in a survey of Hebrew historiography.

The earliest text, which runs through Genesis to Kings, is a repository of prehistoric legend. There had been legends of the patriarchs of the Israelites, passed down by tradition from the dimmest antiquity. They were just like those of any other primitive people, tribal legends of reputed ancestors and heroes, intermingled with myths of tribal religion. Anthropology can match them with similar stories from all over the world. They were kept alive, apparently, or at least some of them were, by recital at local shrines and holy places, of which the land was full. Every village had its altar for sacrifices to its divinities, and often a feast-hall for the festivities which followed. There were sacred groves and hill-top sanctuaries, haunted rocks and piles of stones; and around each clung some legend of the olden time, some story of a hero who had once been there. If one reads the narratives of the patriarchs, even in the form in which we have them in Genesis now, one is struck with the continual punctuation of the stories by the erection of altars and the dedication of holy places. Wherever an oath is sworn, a sacrifice offered, or a vision is seen, the stones are piled up for an altar, which in most cases “remains even unto this day.”1 Often across successive editings one catches the touch of genuine local color in these incidents, and it does not take much analysis 87 to discover in them the remnants of myths or legends of origin, like those which in the Middle Ages attributed so many foundations of churches and monasteries to the apostles.2

Such stories — at least among primitive peoples — are not to be attributed to conscious invention. They grow up of themselves. One might almost say that they are believed before they are told. The process of fabrication is a purely social matter and is as much alive today as it was before Moses. How many colonial houses have had a visit from George Washington, or have become in some way associated with him? One person supposes heroic incidents may have happened here, another thinks they must and a third thinks they did. If there are skeptics, they are soon frowned down, because the world wishes the story. So Abraham built an altar in Shechem,3 Isaac dug the well of Shebah,4 Jacob piled boundary stones at Gal’ed — or Gilead,5 while, above all, two sacred mountains, Horeb and Sinai,6 were rivals for the vaster prestige of being the scene of the lawgiving of Moses.

These legends not only dignified the locality by a connection with the patriarchs and their divinities, but they also enriched the patriarchal tradition itself with a wealth of local detail. The material was therefore at hand for a great national saga, which should weave the incidents together in harmony with the major theme of the origins of the nation itself, looking back from settled agricultural life to that of nomadic herdsmen from the fringe of the desert and beyond. Such national legends must be large enough in scope to include all the tribes who hold themselves akin, and bold 88 enough to face the further question with which every mythology deals in some form or other, the origin not only of the tribesmen but of the world itself. Beyond the Nibelungen of this Semitic migration, therefore, there reached out memories of pre-migration legends — the story of a flood in the old home-land east of the desert, the land of Shinar, or Sumeria, and of a garden of Eden where the first man learned the secrets of the gods. The patriarchal legends were thus prefaced with Babylonian creation and flood myths.

These primitive materials were worked over into more or less consistent stories by various hands, and finally, about the year 900 B.C., they were pulled together by a genuine master of narrative whose text still furnishes most of the naïve and picturesque parts of the Old Testament from Genesis to Kings.7 Since the distinctive note and unifying thread of the story, following undoubtedly the trend of the earlier models, is not so much the fortunes of the tribesmen as the way in which those fortunes depended upon the favor of the tribal god whose name is Jahveh,8 the unknown author, or rather reviser, is known to scholars by the simple epithet, “the Jahvist,” or, since there were several Jahvists, as “the great Jahvist.”9 The latter epithet would be justified, even had there been no need of contrast, for the Hebrew Herodotus tells his ancient folk-tale with epic force and presents the materials, however crude, as they came to him. Although his own conception of God rises to heights of genuine sublimity, such as those passages where the splendor of Jahveh passes before the bowed figure of Moses, in the cleft of the mountains, — a spectacle which calls forth a lyric outburst worthy of the Psalms,10 — yet he begins by repeating the naïve account of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, and God walking there in the cool of the day, of the curse on snakes and men, of giants and demi-gods, and of the flood. He does not balk at any semi-savage tale such as that of Hagar turned off into the wilderness to die, the lying cunning of Jacob toward his father and brother, 89 etc. Obviously these tales came down to him sanctioned by too universal acceptance to be discarded, although belonging to a lower grade of culture and morals than those of his own day. Like Herodotus, five centuries later, he left the ancient stories embedded in his own narrative; but unlike Herodotus, he offered no suggestion that the fables he retold were unworthy of credence.

Within about a century after the work of the great Jahvist, a new compilation of the stories of the patriarchs appeared, The source of the Jahvist had been Judæa in southern Palestine; this was from the northern kingdom of Israel. It was to a large degree parallel with the Jahvist, but with variations and different local touches. Its main distinction, however, is that throughout the narrative of the patriarchs it does not use the name Jahveh at all, but refers all the supernatural element in it to Elohim, a word difficult to translate, since, like so much of the language of religion, under the guise of primitive vocabulary it carries the conception of Divinity on to higher planes. Elohim, the plural of Eloah, means supernatural powers or Power.11 Mythologically it is connected with such spirits as one may find at hill-top altars and see if one sleeps in lonely places, local or household gods of a people just emerging from fetishism. This second of the prime narratives of the Old Testament is therefore known to biblical criticism as the Elohist account.12 According to it, “the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” was really unknown to them, since they did not know his name, and not to know the name of a god in primitive mythology is not to know the god himself.13 In other words, the nomadic period, with its barbarous morals and low-grade theology, is represented as a pre-Jahvistic age. The god that eats his supper by the tent door and cannot even throw Jacob in a wrestling match except by a foul, is not Jahveh as J lightly assumes, for Jahveh 90 is a more exalted deity. The ancestors of Israel, according to this narrative, were worshipping local deities of their own protecting genii in about the same way as the rest of the primitive world. It is therefore in the interest of a higher conception of Jahveh that the story omits his name from the crude beginnings of the age of migration. According to the Elohist, Jahveh first definitely appears in the national history after the period of nomadic life, at the second great era in Hebrew history, that of the conquest and settlement. It is at that dramatic point where Moses hears the oracle from the burning bush, commissioning him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.14 In response to the insistence of Moses, the god Elohim at last reveals his name, in cryptic, oracular fashion: “I am going to be what I am going to be.” Thus Jahveh enters definitely into the story of the Elohist, which from this on runs along much like that of the Jahvist. It differs, however, in two or three important particulars. In the first place it presents a higher conception of the deity, who does not show himself bodily to men, but reveals himself only in visions or by a voice from the unseen. He dwells in the heavens, which only a ladder of dreams can reach, and — a fact of prime importance — uses as the medium of communication a special class of men, devoted to his service, gifted with second sight and the power of miracle. This latter element, that of the miraculous, thus enters into the story to a marked degree, more so than in the naïve account of J. For instance, the waters of the Red Sea are driven back by a high wind according to J; they are made to divide miraculously at the touch of Moses’ wand, according to E. This enhancement of miracle, introduced to exalt the dignity and the claims of Jahveh, served its purpose throughout all succeeding centuries. So long as miracle was regarded as the especial mark of divinity the more miracle the Bible could boast the more authentic it seemed. Now, however, in an age of science, when miracles are disowned on general principles, the romantic additions to the primitive tale contributed by the narrative of E merely lower its value as history. One is confronted with a situation similar to that of mediæval saint-legends, where the miracles multiply the farther one goes from the original source, and multiply almost according to formula.


If the account of J is more reliable than E in its treatment of incident, — that is, more nearly a reflection of primitive myth, — the same is true of the treatment of morals. E toned down the cruel and crude stories of the olden time, which J had allowed to stand as tradition had preserved them. A higher moral standard in the present was demanding a more edifying past. Under such circumstances E, which apparently began as an independent and parallel compilation, drawn from similar — or the same — sources as J, became the basis for a revision of the whole mass of legend. For just as there were several Jahvists there were several Elohists, and the text came to reflect definitely the great reform of the prophets Amos and Hosea, in which the national religion was almost as completely recast as when Christianity broke away from it some seven or eight centuries later. The tribal deity — chiefly a war god — who had replaced the local divinities through the ardent propaganda of the Jahvist prophets, now was conceived of in terms of pure moral conduct. His true worship was not sacrifice but upright living. Nothing could be more foreign than this to the ideas of the olden time; then Jahveh had been the fierce unforgiving god of taboo and ceremonial; now he was transformed into a god of love and righteousness. This reconstruction of religion involved a reconstruction of history, a reconstruction so sweeping as to be termed by some modern scholars the first attempt at higher criticism. The old tribal story was recast to make that rôle of Jahveh more consistent with the newer ethics,15 and, incidentally, more credible. The men who wrote the decalogue — for the Elohists were responsible for the ten commandments — did not hesitate at what would now be accounted changing the records in order to permit them to insert it as divine command.

Sometime in the seventh century a Judæan author joined J and E into a single narrative, known as JE, — a rather careless weaving of the two strands, not eliminating contradictions and repetitions. Evidently this bungling performance was forced upon the editor by the vitality of the various versions, but he rather increased than lessened his difficulties by adding further variants from still other sources. Unsatisfactory as his compilation is from the standpoint of a finished artistic production, the biblical critic 92 is often grateful that it is as poor as it is; for the trace of the different strands, which we have just been examining, might otherwise have been obliterated. Had Judæa produced a Thucydides for the perpetuation of its national history, capable of rising to the full height of his theme and recasting the fragmentary and uncouth materials into the mould of art, the history of the world would now be poorer instead of richer, for the sources would have been lost.

But the process of Pentateuch authorship was not complete with the final edition of JE. In the second half of the seventh century a new element was introduced, preserved mainly in the book of Deuteronomy, and so known to biblical scholars simply as the Deuteronomist, — or D for short. Although not narrative in the sense of J or E, this body of religious precept was responsible for a yet bolder attempt than E to upset much of the accepted text, in order to swing the whole in line with its exalted outlook. That the outlook was really exalted — the finest in the old Testament — any one will admit who reads the fifth to the eleventh chapters of Deuteronomy and then compares them with the rest of the world’s literature before the climax of antique civilization.16 In order, however, to realize this high ethical religion it was necessary to discredit the crude heathenism which still persisted at those local shrines, at which J had gathered so much of its narrative, — the very shrines, which were set up by the patriarchs themselves. D insisted that Jahveh could be sacrificed to in one place only — the temple at Jerusalem.17 Local altars tend to a localization of the deity, — as they do still, — so they must go, and the priests who attended them must become priests of Jahveh in his one and only temple.18


The reformers had to find the justification for such a sweeping innovation, which tore up the customs of village life by the roots, in oracles of Jahveh from the olden time, and since these were lacking, they were obliged to invent them to meet the emergency. Most of the invention naturally was attributed to the greatest figure of the Hebrew legends — Moses. The ancient texts (especially E) had already made him the mouthpiece of Jahveh at a sacred mountain; D elaborated his deliverances with new divine instructions. This is the main change made by D. It is more law than history, but the history had to accommodate itself to the law; and D is responsible for the transformation of the figure of Moses from that of a prophet and seer to that of the greatest law-giver of antiquity, a transformation which was completed by the next and last of the four main contributions to the Pentateuch.19

The last contribution to the Pentateuch was written either during the exile at Babylon or during the Persian period which followed.20 It is known as the Priestly History, or P for short,21 for it reviews the whole history of J and E from the standpoint of the priesthood of the temple. This is, perhaps, the most important of all the contributions so far as the present text of the Bible is concerned, for it furnishes the general framework of history, as we have it now.

That framework is very remarkable. We are far removed 94 in it from the naïve, gossipy narratives of the olden time. Five hundred years, or so, had elapsed since the Jahvist wove together his material — already hoary with age when he found it. In those five centuries we may almost be said to pass from a Froissart or a Gregory of Tours, credulous, simple-minded but a born raconteur, to a Hegel, with a philosophy of history. P arranges the phenomena of the past according to a theory, a theory very similar, indeed, in general outlines to that of Hegel. He finds the meaning of history in successive self-revelations by Jahveh. With this principle as a guide the author groups the main incidents of history around four great figures and into four great epochs, — those of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses. Around these figures all the different lines are made to converge, the first three as ancestral heroes, the last as the especial mouthpiece of Jahveh. Lines of genealogy — P is responsible for this dismal element in the text — serve both to link the chief personages and to indicate the passage of time.22 One must not credit P with the imagination necessary for the invention of so impressive a scheme, for the data already suggested it. Legends tend to concentrate upon a few heroic figures and to culminate in dramatic epochs. But what had been a natural development of the story became, under the hand of P, artificial, doctrinal and unreal.23 All history led up to the establishment of the temple, all the fortunes of Israel depended upon the observance of the taboos, codified under Moses. The prescriptions for the temple-worship are asserted to have been given already at Sinai, anticipating the temple itself by many centuries.24 The prerogatives 95 of the priests, — with their levite temple servants and national tithes for their support, — are safeguarded by miracle and exalted to dominate the nation to an impossible extent. In short, P is less a historian than an apologist and theologian. Yet it was his account which gave the tone to the completed scriptures, for, sometime in the fifth or fourth centuries B.C., a final edition fitted the composite JED into the narratives of P and so gave us the text of the first five books of the Bible.25

We must close this section of our survey by a glance back at its opening, — the story of Creation. The first chapter of Genesis comes from P, — an account written almost in the days of Herodotus. In any case it was not until his time that the second chapter (from J) was added to the first. Herodotus, too, was interested in the origin of things, so much so that he made a special journey to the Phœnicians to verify an Egyptian account of the beginnings of human society, where “Hercules” played somewhat the rôle of Jahveh. If ever the historian is justified in speculating on what might have been, he may surely be allowed the privilege of conducting the Father of History the few miles inland to Jerusalem, to discuss the matter with the author of Genesis! It is doubtful if the intellectual heritage of succeeding ages would have been much changed by such a meeting; for Herodotus could not have guessed that the mixture of myth and tribal legend which the Jewish historian was editing would have been taken at rather more than its face value by the whole of western civilization for almost two millenniums, as the explanation — the genesis — of the entire world; and the Jew could have understood just as little the rational temper of his Greek confrère, or the importance of his inquiry. But in the days when religion and history began once more to be studied by the comparative method, such as Herodotus tried to use, and the priests of Egypt and Babylon to be interrogated, this time in their own tongue, nothing could match in interest, for the critic of the Bile, such an imaginary conversation recorded by the hand of Herodotus.


1  For such instances, cf. Genesis 12 7, 8, 134, 18, 167-14, 2112-21, 31, 2214, 231, 19, 20, 2462, 259, 10, 2625, 32, 2817-19, 3113, 46-49, 3230, 3320, 3514, 15, 20, 489, 4930, 503.

2  C. F. Kent, Student’s Old Testament, Vol. I. pp. 8-12, classifies the legends under the headings: I. Biographical; clan and family legends, with the family as the central theme, held in the memory of wandering tribes for four or five centuries. 2. Institutional, e.g. explanatory of the origin of Sabbath or Passover. 3. Of Sacred Places, giving the origin of their names. 4. Of Origin of Proper Names, e.g. Abraham from ab-hamon, the father of a multitude. 5. Entertaining Stories, e.g. the journey of Abraham’s servant for Rebekah. These latter were great favorites. The most stimulating work of recent times on these subjects, bringing great wealth of anthropological lore to illustrate the setting of Jewish legend and cult, is Sir. J. G. Fraser’s Folk Lore in the Old Testament (3 vols., 1918) .

3  Genesis 126, 7.

4  Genesis 1233, “Wherefore the name of the city is Beer-Sheba unto this day.”

5  Popularly believed to be the etymology.

6  The mountain is Sinai in the accounts of P and probably J; Horeb in E and D. Vide infra.

7  Except Ruth, which is a product of the Persian or Greek period.

8  The emphasis, as will appear later, is upon the name.

9  Or just “J” for short. The narrative by him is generally so indicated, merely by the letter.

10  Cf. Exodus 3312-23, and 348-9.

11  Cf. the Latin numina, some of which develop later into dei.

12  More often simply as “E.” It is also well to recall that “J,” Jahvist, is now used often by scholars to signify Judaistic, and “E,” Ephraimistic, from their source.

13  The sacred character of the name is insisted upon wherever religion is invested with the power of the curse or blessing. Anthropology supplies evidence of the universality of this belief. The formulas of blessing or benediction by the sacred name have lost most of their primitive meaning, but the oath still retains the power of the curse.

14  Exodus 3.

15  For instance, the condemnation of the worship of Jahveh in the form of a bull.

16  E had denied that the cult at high places of the early period had been a real cult of Jahveh. The Deuteronomic reformers now went much farther. They denied that this hill-top and villager worship could ever be legitimate in the religion of Jahveh.

17  “The core of D is CC. 5-11; 12-26; 28,” G. F. Moore, The Literature of the Old Testament, pp.  58-59.

18  Deuteronomy 186, 7. It proved impossible on account of the vested rights of the Jerusalem priesthood. A degradation of these priests to levites resulted and was justified by Ezekiel.

This helps to date D with certainty. Hosea does not show any belief in the special sacredness of the temple. This doctrine does not come before the latter part of the seventh century. But Hosea’s influence upon D’s conception of God is obvious. Language and style also point to the seventh century.

19  The book of Deuteronomy came to light in the eighteenth year of the reign of Josiah. The story is told in II Kings 22. While repairing the temple, under orders of Josiah, Hilkiah, the high priest, found it. “And Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord. And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan and he read it. . . . And Shaphan the scribe read it before the king, and it came to pass that when the king had heard the words of the law, that he rent his clothes. And the king commanded . . . saying: Go ye, inquire of the Lord for one and for the people . . . concerning the words of this book that is found.” So they consulted a “prophetess” who instructed them to follow it. Then (Chap. 23) the reform was inaugurated, the local altars broken, the groves cut down, and all the sacred places polluted with dead men’s bones or otherwise profaned. Not the least significant incident from the standpoint of historiography is the consultation of the “prophetess” to learn of the validity of the law.

20  It is generally thought to be the book of The Law (Torah) which Ezra brought back with him to Judæa when sent to Jerusalem by the Persian Artazerxes in 458 B.C. But the text does not bear the mark of the theological interests of the period of Nehemiah, — the especial prohibitions of mixed marriages.

21  A better title is “The Book of Origins” (H. Ewald, The History of Israel, 8 vols., trans. 1869-1886, Vol. I, pp. 74 sqq.).

22  The difficulties in this problem were easily met by giving fabulous ages to the generations of which few names were known. On the genealogies see note on Nehemiah below, p. 103. P carries the genealogies from the Creation to Abraham as follows: the generations of Adam, Genesis 5; of Noah, 69, of the sons of Noah, 10; of Shem, 1110; of Terah, 1127.

23  A comparison of the first chapter of Genesis (by P) with the second (by J) will show how far removed is the last contribution from the first, not only in matter but also in style. In the one, creation comes from the fiat of a god who remains aloof from his universe; in the other he breathes into the dust to make man live and then associates with him as a companion. The style of P is here suitable to his theme, for the lack of detail which makes the rest of his story bald and dry was here most appropriate. Later on his inferiority is more apparent.

24  All sacrifice except by the priesthood is illegitimate, hence P does not admit that the patriarchs ever sacrificed.

25  This is a simplification of the actual process, for the separate J and E continued to circulate after JE was made, and there are other elements in the composition not covered here.