Source Criticism of the Torah

How the revelation of the names of God provides a glimpse into the literary sources of the Torah.


Early in the 20th century, Solomon Schechter, the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, labeled higher criticism of the Torah (what is known as “source-critical study”) “higher anti-Semitism.” Lower criticism, the establishment of a good and accurate text based on the analysis of versions and manuscripts was acceptable, but dividing the text up into sources was not. A century later, when the rabbis and scholars of that same institution worked to produce a new edition of the Torah with a commentary, it is striking that a clear and sympathetic description of higher criticism is included. Benjamin Edidin Scolnic, who holds his doctorate in Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote this introduction to the field of source criticism as an appendix to the new Etz Hayim, Torah and Commentary. Reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The Torah may seem to present a unified account of Israelite history and law during the patriarchal and Mosaic periods. Detailed study of the text, however, has led modern critical scholarship to theorize that the Torah is a compilation from several sources, different streams of literary traditions that were composed and collected over the course of the biblical period (ca. 1200 to ca. 400 B.C.E.). Because the Torah, in this perspective, is an amalgam of the works of different authors or schools, it contains an abundance of factual inconsistencies; contradictory regulations; and differences in style, vocabulary, and even theology. 

The first period of Israelite history is that of the patriarchs, described in the Book of Gene­sis. Beginning with Exodus, the Torah de­scribes events of the Mosaic period.

How did the religion of the patriarchs differ from that of Moses? The Torah makes it abun­dantly clear that most of the commandments and laws revealed to Moses are new. What about the faith of Moses as opposed to that of the patriarchs? The Torah presents the idea that Moses had a more intimate relationship with God than the patriarchs did: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, I am the lord [YHVH]. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name YHVH”(Exodus 6:2-3). The patriarchs knew God as El Shaddai, but Moses will know God by His more sacred, more intimate name, YHVH.

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Benjamin Edidin Scolnic is the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom in Hamden, Conn. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is the editor-in-chief of Conservative Judaism magazine. 

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