It is impossible to assign more than an approximate date to the origin of these documents, but they can hardly be earlier than the monarchy, which is clearly alluded to in Genesis xxxvi.31. Such incidental statements as that the Canaanite was then in the land, xii.6, xiii, 7, imply that by the author's time the situation had changed; and, as their subjection was not attained till the time of Solomon (1 Kings ix.21) the documents can hardly be earlier than that. The sanctuaries glorified in the Pentateuch are the very sanctuaries at which a sumptuous but misguided worship was practised as late as the eighth century, in the days of Amos and Hosea (cf. Amos iv.4; Hosea xii. II); but, generally speaking, the conception of God found in the prophetic history, though as robust and intense as that of the early prophets, is more primitive. It is not afraid of anthropomorphisms (Gen. iii.8; Exod. iv.24), and theophanies, and it has not very clearly grasped the idea that God is spirit. On these grounds alone it would not be unfair to place the prophetic documents somewhere between Solomon and Amos. J probably belongs to the ninth century, and E, which, as we saw reason to believe, was later, to the eighth.
P takes us into a totally different world. The witchery of the prophetic documents has disappeared; poetry has given place to legislation, theophany to ritual, religion to theology. From the late historical books, such as Ezra-Nehemiah, we learn that legalism dominated post-exilic religion to an extent out of all proportion to what can be proved, or what is probable, for pre-exilic times; and it would be natural to suppose that another writing, such as P, dominated by precisely the same spirit, is a product of the same time. This supposition becomes a practical certainty in the light of two or three facts. Firstly, in not a few respects P is at variance with the legislative programme drawn up by the exilic prophet Ezekiel (xl.-xlviii.). Now if P had been in existence, such a programme would have been unnecessary, and, in any case, Ezekiel would hardly have ventured to contradict a code which enjoyed so venerable a sanction and bore the honoured name of Moses. It is easier to suppose that Ezekiel's programme is a tentative sketch, which was modified and improved upon by the authors of P. Again there was every inducement during and immediately after the exile to formulate definitely the ritual practice of pre-exilic times, and to modify it in the direction of existing or future needs. So long as the temple stood, custom could be trusted to take care of the ritual tradition, but the violent breach with their country and their past would impose upon the exiles the necessity of securing those traditions in permanent and accessible form. P is therefore referred almost unanimously by scholars to the exilic and early post-exilic age, and may be roughly put about 500 B.C.
The documents J, E and P, which, for convenience, we have treated as if each were the product of a single pen, represent in reality movements which extended over decades and even centuries. The Jehovist, e.g., who traces the descent of shepherds, musicians, and workers in metal to antediluvian times (Gen. iv.19-22), cannot be the Jehovist who told the story of the Flood, which interrupted the continuity of human life. These distinctions are known to criticism as Jl, J2, etc.; but, though they stand for undoubted literary facts, it is altogether futile to attempt, on this basis, an analysis of the entire document into its component parts. The presence of several hands may also be detected, though not so readily, in E. Most scholars suppose J to precede E, but one or two reverse the order. The truth is that there are passages in J inspired by splendid prophetic conceptions, which must be later than the earliest edition of E; and the moment it is recognized that a long period elapsed before either document reached its present form, the question of priority becomes relatively unimportant.
P is even more obviously the result of a long process marked by repeated additions and refinements. Numbers xviii.7, e.g., implies that ordinary priests might pass within the vail, whereas in Leviticus xvi. this is possible only to the high priest, and even to him only once a year. Exodus xxix.7 represents only the high priest as anointed, Exodus xxviii.41 the other priests as well. The section in Exodus xxx.1-10 on the altar of incense must be later than the list in xxvi.31-37, where it is not mentioned. The age, too, at which the Levites might enter upon their service appears to have been repeatedly changed; in Numbers iv.3 it is put at thirty years, in viii.24 at twenty-five (and i Chron. xxiii.24 at twenty). All this only shows the unceasing attention that was paid by the priests to the problem of worship; and the length of the period over which this attention was spread may be inferred from the fact that, even in the third century B.C., as we know from the Septuagint, the Hebrew text of Exodus xxxv.-xl. was not absolutely fixed.
We may conceive the composition of the Pentateuch to have passed through approximately the following stages. Earliest of all and fundamental to all come the ancient traditions and the ancient poetry, such as the book of the wars of Jehovah, and the book of Jashar. Upon this basis, during the monarchy men of prophetic spirit in both kingdoms -- not improbably at the sanctuaries -- wrote the history of the Hebrew people. These documents, J and E, were subsequently combined into a single history (JE), possibly in the seventh century, though how long, if at all, J and E continued to enjoy an independent existence we have no means of knowing. During the exile, the book of Deuteronomy was added (JED). Its influence, as we have seen, is very prominent in Joshua, and occasionally traceable even in the earlier books (cf. Gen. xviii.19, xxvi.5). After the exile P was incorporated, and the Hexateuch had assumed practically its present form about the middle of the fifth century B.C.