The Torah lays the foundation for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, whose followers amount to half of the world's population, making this one of the most influential documents ever written. It's also one of the most enigmatic. There are passages that contradict each other, and chronologies that are impossible to fully reconcile with secular records. As a consequence, some scholars have concluded that it's pure fiction.1 But novelists are pretty good about writing stories that don't contradict themselves, because they're easier to believe. And there is no literary reason for the dry and long-winded historical passages. So it's somewhat more likely that the stories were inspired by real people and events. But why the discrepancies?
By scrutinizing the content and style of each passage in the Torah, Julius Wellhausen identified four different literary sources that got woven together into the version that we have inherited.2,3 They all sprang from a common heritage, but in different regions, and at different periods of time, different versions of the stories got canonized. (See Table 1.)
The oldest identifiable body of literature preserved in the Torah is the Jahwist source, in which YHWH is the name of God, while in the Elohist source, it's Elohim. These two versions began to blend when the northern province of Israel was lost to the Assyrians in , and the priests migrated south into Judah. Israel was re-united with Judah during the reign of King Josiah (), who wanted one book for both provinces, prompting the Deuteronomic Reform. The Priestly source materialized when the Jewish elite were in captivity in , courtesy of King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon. After liberating them, Cyrus II of Persia called on the Jewish priests to set up a theocracy in Judea. This is when the Torah solidified into its present form (along with the subsequent books of the Tanakh, through 2 Kings). There are ongoing debates concerning which specific passages can be attributed to which sources, and in which periods, so we can look to future scholarship for further clarifications of the circumstances in which the Torah took shape. But there is little doubt that Wellhausen was fundamentally correct in his assessment that the Torah contains linguistic and ideological differences, which stem from different regions and periods in which the canonizations occurred.
Why didn't the people doing each subsequent revision smooth out the inconsistencies, such that the whole thing would read like it was written by one hand? The most plausible answer is that they didn't want to disenfranchise any of the stakeholders. If the redactors had totally reworked the Torah, they would have lost the support of everybody. But preserving as much of the original material as possible, even if it left contradictions, meant that all of the stakeholders could still point to pieces that were distinctly theirs, and thus have a reason to buy into the redaction. Put another way, ancient consensus building probably worked pretty much the same as it does today, and people actually don't have such a huge problem coming to an agreement on a framework that contains dichotomies, as long as they got a few of their pieces into it — then they will say that at least the consensus has some good in it, and it's unfortunate that stupid people had their say, but time will bear out the good parts, and that will validate the smart people — and this is what everybody is thinking. So the people who compiled the Torah consolidated whatever they could, but where there were clear differences in competing versions, they told it both ways, and everybody was happy. Ironically, this made it easier for the redactors to inject their own agenda into the compilation, since a few more dichotomies wouldn't seem out of place in large batch of them.
Recent scholarship has tended to assign later dates to the original sources and/or the redactors who produced the final version, if any aspect of it could not have come earlier. This is a bit specious — a thing cannot be properly dated just by the newest aspect of it, nor the oldest for that matter. Unless there is strong reason to believe that modifications absolutely were not allowed, the old aspects are old, and the newer aspects are evidence of revisions.
Some have even gone so far as to say that if any aspect of the Torah was written at a later date, the whole thing was spun, whole-cloth, at that later date. This is quite absurd — nobody would bother writing such a thing, because nobody else would bother reading it. Inconsistencies in the fusion of ancient and venerable traditions do not preclude a consensus, but without any existing authenticity, a new work full of contradictions is simply flawed. So the inconsistencies are actually rather stronger evidence that the underlying traditions had to have been much older, and much more deeply rooted than the more recent redaction.
So the Torah cannot be fully understood as just a literary work mainly from the First Temple Period, with the last redaction coming early in the Second Temple Period, as revealed by the source analysis. That only tells us about the final rounds of editing. And we're still left with a patchwork of literature. Resolving the discrepancies will require that we look back to the original events that inspired the story in the first place.
Interestingly, modern archaeology continues to accumulate new evidence, and the analysis of secular and biblical literature continues to yield new insights, making it possible to draw new conclusions. The pivotal event was, of course, the Exodus. But it's becoming clear that there wasn't "one" Exodus — there were several. The Levant was the crossroads of the ancient world, and in the period of interest, there were no less than six different migrations that brought new cultural, economic, and political influences into Canaan,4:62,5 including:
, when Ahmose I exiled the Hyksos to Jerusalem,
, when "Habirus led by Yashua" sacked Jericho,
, when Tutankhamun abandoned Amarna and exiled its priests,
, when Horemheb banished all remaining Atenists from Egypt,
, when the "Habirus of the Sun" migrated westward into Canaan, and
, when Merneptah abandoned Pi-Ramses and exiled its people.
For each of these periods, there is a group of scholars contending that it is the likeliest historical context for the Torah. Of course, they have to cherry-pick specific passages that point to that period, and neglect the passages that point to others. The broader truth is that they are probably all correct, except for the exclusivity — all of these migrations necessarily influenced the emerging culture. It's then possible that the chronologies in the Torah cannot be fully reconciled with secular records because several different stories have been compressed into one. To sort it all out, we have to identify which piece came from which period.
The product of this analysis is actually better than trying to get the Torah to line up with just one of those migrations. Rather, we get 350 years of history, which just happens to straddle the extremely important 18th and 19th Dynasties of Egypt. And it's a story of a variety of people, including the indigenous population of Canaan, plus the Mitannis, the Egyptians, and a few influxes of Transjordan Bedouins. The migrations produced 3 semi-distinct ethnic groups in the Levant: the Habirus (Hebrews), the descendants of Jacob (Israelites), and the Judaeans (Jews), in the East, North, and South respectively.6 The Elohist texts tell the story of the Hebrews & Israelites, while the Jahwist texts relay the same story from the Judaean perspective. Hundreds of years later, redactors tried to make it sound like there was just one continuous thread running through the whole thing, but at the time, these were competing factions, and hearing the same story told from multiple points of view makes it possible to come to a much richer understanding of what actually happened.
As an aside, this document adheres to the emerging standard of using a tilde for all date ranges. Thus "" means "roughly 1285 ", while "" means "from 1282 to 1208 ". This clearly identifies it as a range and not a subtraction, or some sort of year-month-day combination, making it machine-readable, and laying the foundation for the correlation of literature focused on similar periods in time. It also facilitates the pop-up text that appears when hovering the mouse over a date, showing the Anno Mundi equivalent(s).