Trying to determine the authorship of sacred texts is a fraught activity, as it impinges not just upon scholarly consensus but upon deeply held religious beliefs.
The first five books of the Bible, or the "Pentateuch," were traditionally attributed to Moses, but close reading shows several elements (such as the death of Moses) that could not possibly have been written by Moses himself.
There are several other indicators that these books actually consisted of several early documents shaped by later redactors. There are inconsistencies in chronology and narratives suggesting imperfect redaction of independent documents. Both the vocabulary and the theological viewpoints of different sections of the Pentateuch show inconsistencies.
The first scholar to argue for the documentary source theory was Julius Wellhausen, who was an exemplar of the German movement known as Higher Criticism, a movement that applied scientific philology to Biblical texts.
He distinguished four major sources for the Pentateuch from evidence of linguistic and theological congruities:
- J or the Yahwist source: c. 950 BCE, written in the southern Kingdom of Judah.
- E or the Elohist source: c. 850 BCE, composed in the northern Kingdom of Israel
- D or the Deuteronomist: c. 600 BCE, composed in Jerusalem
- P or the Priestly source: c. 500 BCE written by priests during the Babylonian exile