The term “Torah,” primarily used in Jewish rather than Christian settings, has at least four connotations. First, it refers to the “written Torah” (Heb. tôrâ šĕbiktav), the first section of the Jewish Bible: Bereshit (Genesis), Shemot (Exodus), Vayikra (Leviticus), Bemidbar (Numbers), and Devarim (Deuteronomy). The Hebrew titles derive from the first major word in each book. In reference to this entire collection, “Torah” appears not in these volumes themselves but in later Hebrew (biblical) literature such as Isaiah 5:24 and 30:9, Malachi 3:22 (Christian Bibles 4:4), Psalms 19:8 (19:7), Ezra 7:6, Nehemiah 8:1, and elsewhere, where it is frequently glossed with phrases such as “of Moses” or “of Yahweh.” Traditional Judaism regards the Torah as the preeminent revelation of the divine to Moses and, therefore, as more important than the other parts of the Jewish Bible, or Tanak (an acronym for Torah, Neviʾim [Prophets], and Ketuvim [Writings]).

For Judaism Torah connotes, second, this material’s interpretation: the “oral Torah” (Heb. tôrâ šĕbi ʽal peh; sometimes called, under Christian influence, “oral law”). According to the Mishnaic tractate Pirqe Avot (1.1), “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly,” in a chain of tradition that culminates with Rabbinic Judaism and its heirs. Discussion of two Torahs, one “written” and one “oral,” appears classically in b. Šabbat 31a. Thus, Jewish references to “Torah” may refer not just to the first five books but also to the entire compendium of Jewish teaching, from Bereshit through rabbinic commentaries and even more broadly to teachings that continue to this day.

The oral Torah provides instruction on how to understand the written. For example, Exodus 20:10 forbids “work” on the sabbath; the Mishnah (m. Šabb. 7.2–4) defines what constitutes work. Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21 mandate in certain cases of physical injury a penalty of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”; the Mishnah (m. B. Qam. 8.1) insists that these injunctions signal legal principle, not physical mutilation: “He who injures his fellow is liable to [compensate] him on five counts: injury, pain, medical costs, loss of time [i.e., income], and indignity.” The “tradition of the elders” mentioned in the gospels (Mark 7:3, 5; cf. Matt 15:2) suggests a similar, postbiblical interpretive collection.

A third connotation of Torah is the scroll upon which these first five books are inscribed and from which certain verses, standardized across Jewish communities, are chanted in Hebrew on Mondays, Thursdays, and more extensively on the sabbath (Saturday). Using quills, specially trained scribes inscribe the Hebrew letters onto a scroll of sewn-together sheets of parchment made from the skin of a kosher animal (e.g., sheep, cattle).

The term “Torah” itself derives from a Hebrew root meaning “to shoot” (as with an arrow) or “to throw” (as in casting lots in seeking divine instruction). From this idea of “hitting the mark” or, colloquially, “straight shooting,” a fourth meaning of Torah is “teaching,” “guide,” or “instruction”: those teachings that, to continue the metaphor, keep one on target in relation to correct living. The term is used in this sense in Isaiah 51:4 (general instructions for a global audience), Hosea 4:6 (sacerdotal instruction) and 8:1 (covenantal terms), Amos 2:6–12 (moral injunctions), Habakkuk 1:4 (ethics), and Proverbs 1:8 (parental advice): “Hear [šĕmaʽ], my child, your father’s instruction (Heb. mûsar), and do not reject your mother’s teaching [tôrâ].”

When the written Torah was translated into Greek, likely beginning in the third century B.C.E., Jewish translators rendered the word “Torah” not as “instruction” or “teaching” but as “law” (Gk nomos). At that time nomos connoted philosophical and theological as well as legislative elements, not “law” in the strict sense of a list of rules. However, for parts of the postbiblical Christian tradition, Torah—understood as law—came to be associated with legalism and negatively juxtaposed to grace, despite the fact that “grace” (Heb. ēn, typically translated in the LXX as charis) is a component of written Torah (see Gen 6:8; Exod 33:17). There are numerous positive references to the “law” (i.e., Torah) in the New Testament (e.g., Matt 5:17–18; Rom 7:12). Torah grounds the ethical exhortation in the Epistle of James:

"You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Lev 19:18]. But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery” [Exod 20:14; Deut 15:18], also said, “You shall not murder” [Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17]. Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.(Jas 2:8–11)"

However, other New Testament verses (e.g., John 1:17; Rom 8:2; 10:4; Eph 2:15), taken out of context, have led to unfortunate stereotyping.

At least by the time of the Tertullian (ca. 160–ca. 225), Christians referred to the written Torah not only as the “Law” but also as the “Pentateuch,” from the Greek terms for “five” (penta) and “scroll,” “jar,” or “vessel (teuchos). Other designations for the written Torah, found in the New Testament, include “the book of Moses” (Mark 12:26) and just the eponymous “Moses” (Acts 15:21; 2 Cor 3:15).

Consistent with distinctions in terminology, Judaism and Christianity traditionally display different understandings of Torah’s import. Rabbinic tradition insists that the Torah is one of the three pillars, along with Temple service and deeds of loving kindness, by which the world is sustained (Pirqe Avot 1.2). Although Jesus’s followers eventually rejected Marcion’s dismissal of Israel’s scriptures, they nevertheless relegated Torah to a secondary (compared to the NT) or tertiary (compared to the NT, the Prophets, and Psalms) place. These followers, especially those from Gentile origins, ignored much of the Torah’s legal material because they did not regard its practices (e.g., circumcision, dietary regulations, ritual purity), designed to keep Israel distinct among the nations, as applicable to them. Whereas, against Marcion, most early Christians insisted on the Torah as sacred, they rejected Jewish readings that disagreed with their own messianic presuppositions. For example, according to Paul (2 Cor 3:15–16), when (nonmessianic) Jews read “Moses” (i.e., Torah), “a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”

Historical Development.

Although the written Torah itself does not claim Mosaic authorship, the tradition developed that Moses received the text, in toto, on Sinai. Well-known passages such as Exodus 20:2–17, the Decalogue or “Ten Commandments,” are introduced with the affirmation, “Then God spoke all these words” (Exod 20:1). Moses’s mediation is suggested by passages such as Exodus 24:4 (“Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD”), Joshua 8:31 (the “book of the Torah of Moses”) (lit. trans.), and Ezra 6:18, which refers to the “Book of Moses” (lit. trans.). Mosaic authorship is also suggested in Mark 12:26 and Acts 15:21, as well as by Josephus (Ant. 4) and Philo (Moses).

Parts of rabbinic tradition teach that the Torah both existed prior to its revelation to Moses and was the blueprint by which God created the world (Lev. Rab. 19.1; cf. Pirqe Avot 3.14). This attribution of preexistence may have developed under the influence of Proverbs 8:22, a hymn to Wisdom: “Yahweh created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.” Torah became, and in Jewish circles remains, connected to the concept of Wisdom. Similarly, parts of early Christian tradition taught that Jesus, who functions as Wisdom incarnate or the divine Word, was an agent of creation (John 1:1; cf. Phil 2:6). Pirqe Rabbi Eliezar 11 proposes that when God stated, “Let us make humankind” (Gen 1:26), he was in dialogue with the Torah.

The Septuagint (Deut 33:2 [at Sinai, “the angels were with God”]) and following it the New Testament (Acts 7:53; Gal 3:19; Heb 2:2) likely gave rise to the idea that Moses received the Torah via an angelic intermediary. Josephus (Ant. 15.136) quotes Herod the Great as affirming, “We have learned from God the most excellent of our doctrines [Gk dogmaton], and the most holy part of our law, by angels from God.”

Today, outside of most representatives of Orthodox Judaism and very conservative Christian circles, the written Torah is recognized not as a singular work divinely dictated to Moses but rather as a compendium of sources from different periods. This recognition is not only a product of the Enlightenment: Fourth Ezra (= 2 Esdras), a late first-century C.E. text, posits that the original Torah was destroyed when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem (586 B.C.E.) and that Ezra the scribe rewrote the text upon the return of the exiled community to Jerusalem. The church father Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150–ca. 215) claimed that Moses would not have written Genesis 9, for surely the claim that Noah had become drunk was a lie that Moses never would have perpetrated.

Anachronisms also produced early doubts about Mosaic authorship. Genesis 12:6 states that the Canaanites were “then”—that is, not at the time of the author—in the land, and several premodern rabbis (e.g., Ibn Ezra [1089–1164]) recognized that the verse must postdate Moses. Nor did they find it likely that Moses wrote of his own death and burial (Deut 34:5–8), although one tradition suggests that he wrote these divinely dictated lines with tears in his eyes; another, more practically, suggests Joshua penned the last few verses (b. Menaḥ. 30a).

More secularly oriented scholarship argues that the Torah was written over several centuries. Scholars have long noticed varying names for the Deity (e.g., Yahweh, Elohim, El Shaddai), accompanied by variations in theology, repetitions (Isaac’s receipt of his name in Gen 17, 18, 21; the Decalogue’s reappearance in Exod 20:2–17 and Deut 5:6–21 [cf. Exod 34:14–26]), inconsistencies (whether the animals were created before [Gen 1] or after [Gen 2] humanity; Moses’s encounter with the Deity on Mt. Sinai [Exod 19] or Mt. Horeb [Deut 1]), additional anachronisms (domesticated camels in texts set in the Late Bronze Age; references to the Philistines, who arrived long after the putative time of Moses), and connections between material in the Torah and in later biblical books. It was also considered unlikely that Moses, had he authored the written Torah, would have referred to himself in the third person.

In 1651 Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) claimed much of the Pentateuch was post-Mosaic; shortly thereafter, likely independently, Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) reached the same conclusion. Nineteenth-century source critics posited multiple sources extending from Genesis into the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings). In 1878 Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918), following a number of other source critics, posited what has come to be called the “documentary hypothesis,” which argues that at least four sources comprise the Torah.

The first source, labeled “J” or the “Jahwist” for its use of Yahweh (Jahveh in German) as the Deity’s name in Genesis 2 and elsewhere, is typically dated to the early monarchy (ca. 850 B.C.E.) and located within Judean court circles; its probable basis in the land of Judah serves as an additional mnemonic for J. The E source, named for its use of Elohim (God) for the Deity in Genesis 1 and elsewhere until Exodus 3 (the theophany at the burning bush), is usually understood as being derived from the northern kingdom of Israel, also known as Ephraim (another mnemonic), with a date in the early eighth century. Wellhausen hypothesized that, when Israel fell to Assyria in 722, northern refugees brought E to Judah, where J and E were combined.

The Deuteronomist, or D source, represents the bulk of the book of Deuteronomy and is connected to the Deuteronomic History. The notice in 2 Kings 22:8–13 that Hilkiah, a priest during the reign of Josiah (r. ca. 632–609 B.C.E.), found “the book of the Torah” (Heb. sēfer hatôrâ) while engaged in Temple restoration suggests a possible origin at least for Deuteronomy.

Finally, the P or Priestly source, which focuses on teachings in Leviticus and portions of Numbers concerning holiness, sacrifice, purity, and the priesthood, is dated to the Babylonian Exile (587–538 B.C.E.) or the early Second Temple period. A compilation of J, E, D, and P—that is, a rudimentary version of what we call the written Torah—may underlie the comment in Nehemiah 8:1–3 that Ezra assembled the people in Jerusalem and read to them “the book of the Torah of Moses.”

Today, scholars proffer numerous modifications to the documentary hypothesis: some posit a source underlying both J and E, others doubt the existence of E, others divide the sources differently across chapters, and still others date J to the sixth century rather than the tenth. Those wishing to retain Mosaic authorship speak of Moses’s own use of sources or take a literary approach and suggest that changes in style, repetition, and rephrasings are all part of Moses’s literary style.

Biblical Content.

The Torah begins with the creation of the world and details elements of the primeval history (e.g., the garden of Eden, the Flood, the Tower of Babel; a mix of J and P). For each major encounter between God and humanity, relationships are strained but never fully broken. Adam and Eve disobey the commandment concerning the forbidden fruit; they are expelled from Eden, but God goes with them (Gen 2–3). Cain kills his brother Abel, but he receives a mark of protection from God (Gen 4). The generation of Noah proves so wicked that God undoes creation by flooding the earth with the waters of chaos initially separated on the first day of creation (Gen 1:6–7), but Noah and his family remain safe on the ark. Upon their disembarkation, God makes a covenant with Noah—and hence with all humanity—never again to destroy the earth by flood (Gen 6–9). At this time as well, God curses Canaan, Noah’s grandson (Gen 9:20–27): an etiology for the Israelites’ settlement in the land once called Canaan. Following the incident of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1–9), an anticipation of the abuses of the Babylonian Empire and its eventual destruction, Genesis (12–50) focuses on the family of Abraham, his son Isaac, his grandson Jacob, and Jacob’s sons and grandsons, who become the eponymous ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

In Genesis (15:1–21; 17:1–27) God establishes with Abraham and his progeny an irrevocable covenant that guarantees descendants and land as well as proclaims that Abraham and his children are to be a blessing to other nations. The events in the lives of Abraham, his wife Sarah, his cowife (and Sarah’s slave) Hagar, and their children find recapitulations in the later sections of Torah as well as in the Deuteronomistic History; thus, the Torah presents itself as having both internal consistency and connections with the later parts of the Bible. For example, Sarah abuses her Egyptian slave Hagar (Gen 16), just as the Egyptians, in Exodus (1:13–14; 2:23–25), will abuse Sarah’s descendants. Abraham and Sarah expel Hagar and her son Ishmael from their camp (21:8–14); in a few generations the Ishmaelites will sell Joseph, Abraham and Sarah’s great-grandson, into slavery in Egypt (37:25–28).

Genesis also anticipates much later material. The binding of Isaac (Gen 22) prefigures the actual sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter (Judg 11). The rape (or seduction) of Dinah, in which Jacob, her father, refuses to take action and Dinah’s brothers slaughter Shechem and all the men of his city (Gen 34), prefigures the rape of David’s daughter, Tamar, by her half-brother, the crown prince Amnon; David’s refusal to intervene; Amnon’s murder; and the ensuing civil war started by Tamar’s brother, Absalom (2 Sam 13–18). Genesis ends with the descent of Abraham’s grandson Jacob and his extended family to Egypt to escape famine in Canaan and their settlement in the land of Goshen by Joseph, Jacob’s son, who had risen to second-in-command of Egypt.

Exodus 1–2 recounts how, generations later, a new pharaoh enslaved the Israelite population, then ordered that all their male children be killed. Saved by the collaborative effort of his mother, his sister, and Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses is raised in the royal household. After killing a slave master he found abusing an Israelite slave, then fleeing to Midian to avoid punishment, Moses experiences a theophany on Mt. Horeb (i.e., Sinai): from a burning bush, Yahweh commissions him to liberate the Israelite slaves (Exod 3). A battle of wills ensues between Pharaoh, whom the Egyptians regarded as divine, and the God of Israel. Israel’s God strikes the Egyptians with nine plagues; warned of the tenth plague, the slaughter of the firstborn of Egypt (an echo of the murder of the Israelite infants), Moses instructs his fellow Israelites to slaughter a lamb and place its blood on their doors so that the angel of death will pass over their homes. The Israelites flee to the Red Sea; pursued by Pharaoh’s chariots, they experience a miracle when God parts its waters. Israel escapes Egypt under the leadership of Moses, his brother Aaron, and his sister Miriam (Exod 5–15).

In the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land, Moses ascends Sinai/Horeb to receive another covenant, this one between God and the people of Israel (Exod 19–20). The bulk of the content from the middle of Exodus through the end of Deuteronomy consists of legal and sacerdotal material. Among the central laws are the Decalogue (Exod 20:1–17; Deut 5:6–21), the commands to love both one’s neighbor and the stranger (Heb. gēr) in the community “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:33–34), civil laws (Exod 21–23), instructions on the construction of the wilderness sanctuary that houses the copies of these laws (ch. 25), and detailed discussions of the holy, the priesthood, and the sacrificial system (chs. 26–40). Exodus promises a good life in the land for those who follow its instructions but expulsion if the people transgress. While the covenant of the land is permanent, residential rights can be suspended.

The word Deuteronomy derives from a Greek term meaning “second law.” To some extent this book is a recapitulation of earlier narrative and legal material, here presented as Moses’s farewell speech. The reference to “Torah” in Deuteronomy 4:44 (“This is the Torah that Moses set before the Israelites”) has initially this narrow sense of Deuteronomy alone, not the full written Torah.

Much of the material in the Torah has counterparts in other ancient Near Eastern literature. Genesis 1 holds similarities to Babylonian cosmogony in the Enuma Elish; Noah (Gen 6–9) resembles other flood survivors such as the Sumerian Ziusudra, the Akkadian Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Old Babylonian and Neo-Assyrian Atrahasis. The third-century B.C.E. Babylonian historian Berossus records a flood story, as do many cultures throughout the world.

Legal collections were a standard part of ancient Near Eastern literature, ranging from Sumerian texts as early as ca. 2100 B.C.E. (Ur-Namma) to the famous Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1750 B.C.E.) to later materials from neo-Assyrian and neo-Babylonian courts to the Persian period. The Code of Hammurabi, engraved on an eight-foot stele, depicts the enthroned sun god Shamash, before whom stands Hammurabi; drawing a connection with the giving of the Torah to Moses would not be inappropriate. The Demotic Chronicle (ca. 519 B.C.E.) records a directive from Darius I of Persia to his colonial governor in Egypt that “the former laws of Egypt until the 44th year [526 B.C.E.] of Pharaoh Amasis” be compiled. Such instruction may have been a partial impetus for the redaction of the various laws now present in Torah. According to the Talmud (Mak. 23b), God gave Moses 613 commandments (Heb. mivōt, sing. mi), which can be divided into 248 positive commandments (e.g., “Honor your father and your mother”) and 365 negative ones (e.g., “You shall not steal”). The number 248 is said to correspond to the number of bones in the human body; 365, to the days in a solar year.

The Torah ends with Moses in Moab, on Mt. Nebo, overlooking “the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan” (Deut 34:1). Yahweh reiterates the promise of the land to the patriarchs and their descendants, telling Moses, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there” (v. 4). Moses dies and is buried in an unknown place. This ending, with Moses overlooking the land, is recapitulated by the ending of the Tanak. Although medieval manuscripts vary in the order of the books of the Ketuvim, eventually Jewish communities settled the ending in 2 Chronicles 36:23: the edict of Cyrus of Persia that the Jews exiled to Babylon return to their homeland. “Whoever is among you of all his people, may Yahweh his God be with him. Let him go up [to Jerusalem].” The Christian Old Testament, ending with Malachi (cf. 4:5/Matt 3:1–5) rather than 2 Chronicles, loses this echo of the Torah as well as the Torah’s emphasis on the homeland.

Also signaling the Torah’s central place in the Jewish canon is the opening of the other two sections of the Tanak. Neviʾim (Prophets) commences with the book of Joshua, which begins by encouraging behavior “in accordance with all the Torah [NRSV: “law”] that my servant Moses commanded you,” for “this book of Torah [NRSV: “book of the law”] shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it” (1:7A–8A). Ketuvim begins with Psalms; Psalm 1:2 reads, “For in the Torah of Yahweh is his delight and on his Torah he meditates day and night.”

Postbiblical Context.

From the time of Ezra (ca. fifth century B.C.E.), Jews have proclaimed Torah in communal settings. Specially trained readers learn correct pronunciation as well as the cantillation (which varies among the Jewish communities, such as the Sephardic and the Ashkenazic) with which the text is chanted in the synagogue.

The Mishnah does not detail how the readings were to be divided for liturgical proclamation. Postbiblical Jewish sources suggest two cycles: a triennial cycle, used in the land of Israel, with the Torah readings divided into 154 sections, and an annual cycle, used in Babylon, in which the readings were divided into 54 portions to be read each consecutive sabbath (a double portion being read in some weeks). Possibly Acts 15:21 reflects some such liturgical system. The Babylonian divisions eventually became standardized across the Jewish world.

In Orthodox congregations the entire Torah is read on a yearly cycle; Conservative and Reform congregations use a triennial cycle (comparable to years A, B, and C in Christian churches’ common lectionary) so that one-third of the designated section is read each sabbath. There are also special readings for holidays; on Saturday afternoons as well as Monday and Thursday mornings in Orthodox and most Conservative synagogues, the first section from the next sabbath is read. Each Torah portion for the sabbath or a holiday has an accompanying haftarah (“ending,” “finish”), a reading from the Prophets (Nevi ʾim), much as Christian lectionaries pair readings from across the Christian canon. The annual cycle is completed on Simchat Torah (“rejoicing of the Torah”), 23 days after Rosh Hashanah, the new year. Following the reading of the last verses of Deuteronomy, the opening verses of Genesis are read.

In synagogues the Torah scroll is adorned with a special cover, sash, and ornaments. It is housed in an ark (aron ha-kodesh); when it is time during the service for it to be read, it is removed from the ark. When the scroll is lifted up, the congregation stands (see Neh 8:5). Thus, the Torah reading becomes the focal point of the service, just as the Eucharist is in Catholic settings and the sermon is among Protestants. In each case, the divine word is made present to the congregation.

The Torah retains permanent value in both Jewish and most Christian traditions. Isaiah 2:3 (cf. Mic 4:2) insists that, in the eschatological age, God will teach Torah to the Gentile nations. While the New Revised Standard Version renders the last section of this verse as “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,” the Hebrew literally states, “For out of Zion shall go forth Torah.” (This line is recited in synagogue worship when the scroll is removed from the ark.) According to Jeremiah 31:33, Torah remains constant but will be inscribed on the heart, not inculcated by teaching. The New Revised Standard Version reads, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts”; the Hebrew reads, “I will put my Torah within them.” In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:17–18), Jesus insists, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” “Law” and “prophets” can refer to the first two sections of the Tanak (Torah and Nevi ʾim), but at the time of Matthew’s composition, it may have referred to all the books, including those now found in the third division (the Ketuvim), regarded as sacred (cf. Luke 24:44).




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Amy-Jill Levine