J: “J” is short for "the Yahwist." The sections of the Old Testament written by "J" are probably the first parts of the Old Testament to be written down. The written form of "J" appears to date from about the time of King David.
This would make sense. The early Hebrews, pre-David, lived a bedouin lifestyle. They were on the move a lot, and they likely wanted to travel as light as possible, which would mean that they would see little utility in lugging around a bunch of written scrolls.
In about 950 BC, David took Jerusalem from the Jebusites. The name “Jerusalem” means “city of great peace.” “Jeru” means “city of,” and “salem” is a form of the word “shalom,” a word with broad meanings of peace and well-being—hence, “city of great peace.”
But alas, as we all know, Jerusalem has known a lot of war and conquest in its history. When David took Jerusalem from the Jebusites, it meant, according to Samuel, that the last local Canaanite resistance had been overcome. What Samuel couldn’t have known is that it also meant that when Jerusalem first stepped onto the stage of known world history, it did so as a victim of conquest.
Jerusalem was also strategically located between tribes of Israel and Judah. It was “neutral territory,” which is why David, his eye on domestic politics, made it his capitol city. (This is also to say that Jerusalem first made it onto the international scene through political calculation as well as war.)
A capitol city meant a government. The court of David, and its attendant bureaucracy, settled into Jerusalem, as did various other retinues and hangers-on. Things settled down, or at least they settled down enough so that some started to think about writing history.
We don’t know who wrote this early history, but the name “J” has been given to this person (or persons). It is so named because this history is notable for its use of the word “YHWH” for God. (It was a German scholar who first postulated the existence of the author “J”. The letter “J”, he believed, was the closest approximation to the Hebrew letter “Y,” which is why the text was named “J” instead of “Y”.)
We don’t know exactly how YHWH was originally pronounced, incidentally. “Yah!”-“whuh!” is a good guess. The resonant and rolling word “Jehovah” is actually a corruption of the breathy “Yahweh.”
E: Biblical histories of David are (mostly) glowing, but there are hints that he might not have always been overwhelmingly popular with at least some factions. He was opposed first by remnants of Saul’s administration, and later by factions allied with his own sons.
After the death of his hand-picked successor, his son Solomon, ten of the twelve tribes seceded from the union to form the Northern Kingdom in 922 BC. This amounted to a radical rejection of the Davidic monarchy. (The Northern Kingdom lasted almost exactly 200 years. It was defeated by the Assyrians in 722 BC.)
After the split, the northerners decided that they needed a revised edition of Hebrew history, and so somebody up there wrote “E”. (In “E”, God is referred to as “Elohim.” Hence, “E” as a short-hand term for this revision.)
“E” tends to legitimate the northerners. It talks more about Jacob, for example, who had lived in the north, than it does about Abraham. “E” tends to be suspicious of the powerful, as rebels would be.
In “E,” “second sons” look good, which was a way of saying that perhaps the second son—the rebel northerners—were the truer representatives of what it meant to be Hebrew. When the Northern Kingdom was defeated in 722 B.C., it is believed that some of the northerners fled south to Judah and brought “E” with them, which was then integrated into “J”.
D: We don’t know exactly where “D” came from, although the story goes that the basis of “D”, the book of Deuteronomy, was found in the temple during the reform of King Josiah in about 620 BC.
King Josiah wanted a religious resurgence. Part of his reform included cleaning up the temple, whereupon a book was discovered which—surprise!—supported King Josiah’s reforms. Was the book there all along? Or was it planted by agents of Josiah? This is one of the great unanswered questions of Hebrew history.
The “Deuteronomic historian”—perhaps we should say the “school of Deuteronomy”—also produced Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, which is a good-sized body of material. The book of Deuteronomy is often thought of as the core statement, as seen by the Deuteronomistic historian (Dtr), and the later books are applications of that core statement.
The theology of the Deuteronomistic historian is notable for its message that good things happen to good people, and bad people get their just desserts. The book of Job runs directly counter to this. Job suffers for no good reason at all. He expressly rejects the idea that he is somehow suffering for something he must have done. Yet, the book of Job made it into the Bible despite its disagreement with the (self-proclaimed) “official” theology of Dtr.
Or, maybe Job made it into the Bible precisely because of this disagreement. Who knows? Maybe the Holy Spirit and the editors of the Bible thought that Job’s questions needed expression. They were a needed counterpoint to the official, but obviously flawed, Dtr theology.
P: “P” came into being not long after this. About 135 years after the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrians, the Southern Kingdom fell to the Babylonians. In 587 BC, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and took the Hebrew leadership and others into exile in Babylon.
This was a political and religious crisis of the first order. Babylon was a great city, with great monuments, a strong army, and a sophisticated religion. The Hebrews encountered all this directly, and it shook them. They began to question whether or not Yahweh was God. The gods of the Babylonians looked like maybe they were the true gods.
Plus, Yahweh was intimately connected with the land of Judea. If the people no longer lived in Judea, was Yahweh still God? Or, even if he was, what did it matter if they were no longer living in the land where Yahweh was God? Psalm 137, written during the exile, expresses this well: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
The Hebrew priests (hence “P”) set to work. They wrote a theological history which affirmed Yahweh as the one true God. They did it by taking parts of Babylonian religion and re-interpreting it. For example, Genesis 1 is quite similar to the older creation story of the Babylonians, called the Enuma Elish. Creation follows a similar order in both documents.
There are significant differences, however, most notably that the Hebrew account in Genesis 1 is monotheistic, whereas the Enuma Elish is polytheistic. There is also a great deal of violence in the Babylonian account. The Hebrews took this out.
The Hebrews took the form, and some of the thought, of another religion, and re-worked it to express their own unique story of the origins of the world, one that affirmed the one-ness of God, the goodness of creation, and God’s superiority over any other gods, while at the same time getting in a dig or two at Babylonian religion. (The Babylonians placed a lot of stock in “the stars.” Genesis 1 states that “God made the stars also,” as if these exalted stars were a mere afterthought.)
Hebrew editors, over about four or five centuries, brought “J”, “E”, “D”, and “P” together into one document. By about 500 BC, a significant portion of the Old Testament had been put together. The Psalms—the Hebrew prayer and liturgy book—had a similar long history and they were incorporated over the period roughly from 1300 BC to 200 BC. Later on, wisdom literature and the prophets, whose history stretches from as early as 1100 BC to perhaps 100 BC, were added.
Take a good look at Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Genesis 1, written by “P”, is actually one of the “newer” writings in the Old Testament. It dates from about 550 BC. Genesis 2, written by “J”, is older, probably 900 BC or so, with perhaps much older roots.
Genesis 1 reads as if it were written by priests. It is theological, well-ordered, linear, and slightly dry. Given the context of Genesis 1, its link with Babylon, you can see that it is a powerful rejoinder to Babylonian religion. Genesis 2 is a story—quite an earthy story. It has a told-around-the-campfire quality to it, and an ancient feel, particularly when compared with Genesis 1.