Who wrote/compiled/edited (and when) the first five books of the Bible, called the Torah or Pentateuch?
The five books of the Pentateuch tell the history of the Israelites from the creation of the universe, through the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai to their entry into the Promised Land.
  • Genesis contains the accounts of creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah; and the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, etc., ending with the Joseph and the arrival of the Israelites in Egypt.
  • Exodus tells of the enslavement in Egypt, the exodus, the revelation of the Ten Commandments and the Law at Mount Sinai, the Golden Calf, and the construction of the Tabernacle (a portable house of worship, carried through the desert).
  • Numbers tells of the Israelites' wanderings in the desert and the legal and religious structure of their society.
  • Leviticus deals largely with the rules of the priesthood, sacrifice, and worship.
  • Deuteronomy is essentially Moses' farewell address to the Israelites as they are about to enter the Promised Land, recapping much of what was covered in the prior three books.

These books were written by Moses and divinely inspired. (Moses spoke directly to God, the source of the inspirations). Mosaic authorship would mean the books were written around 1280 to 1250 BC, the most commonly accepted range of dates for the exodus from Egypt, give or take 30 years.
The text is one of the great works of literature. It has endured for at least 2,500 years, parts of it for at least 3,200 years, and is still read today. There is hardly a work of art or writing in the western world that does not build from the five books or use images or phrases from them. Our notions of good and evil, of history as a linear process, of the relationship between the individual and morality, of the dignity of man ("created in the image of God"), all stem from this seminal work. The pagan nations surrounding Israel did not see anything wrong with mistreatment of animals, with leaving unwanted babies out in the woods, with working slaves without relief. The famous legal code of Hammurabi, often cited as a source for the laws of the Torah, declared that chopping off a man's hand was suitable punishment for stealing a loaf of bread. The Torah says the punishment must be proportionate to the crime.

It's hard to consider the profound impact of this text on human history without thinking that there was a divine hand in its authorship.

Written by The Straight Dope Staff Members Dex and Eutychus.