Where did we get the idea that Ezra wrote the Torah, and thus in some way "invented" Israel during the exile? Michael Green, a Chicago philosopher who I have praised for the ways he uses the web to teach, steered me here, where Noel Malcolm describes this idea passing through the head of an 18th-century freethinker:
Also composing a radical critique of Christianity in the 1720s...was the prominent scholar Nicolas Fréret, Secretary of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris. His 'Lettre de Thrasybule à Leucippe' (a survey of paganism, Judaism and Christianity, written as if by a learned Greek in the first century ad) raises some standard objections to the theory of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch: those books of the Bible contain things that 'can only have been written a long time after the Law-giver', a fact which 'greatly diminishes their authority'. The prophetic books, too, may have been put together only after the events referred to in their so-called prophecies. But Fréret goes further. Cleverly, he turns the tables on the traditional claim that divine revelation was authenticated by prophecies and miracles: he remarks that the Jews were more obedient to God after the return from the Babylonian captivity, despite the lack of miracles, whereas their worst disobedience to God had come in earlier times, when miracles were (allegedly) in plentiful supply. His conclusion is that the miracles had never happened, and that the significant new factor here was that after the captivity the Jewish people had, for the first time, come under the spell of a Scripture which claimed that they had. 'Those miracles . . . were inserted after the event into a history which, as they admit, was compiled by the person—Ezra—who led them back from Babylon, who established their new government, rebuilt their city with the temple of their God, and determined the form of their religion, which had been entirely abolished.'
But who first proposed the idea that "ancient Israel" was the exilic invention of a scribal elite? In a wonderful article, Malcolm explains how the usual idea among radicals, through the 18th century, was that the great manipulator was Moses, who had invented the Israelite religion for political purposes (for the concept of the manipulative elite invention of religion, the great source is of course Machiavelli). But "it took some time, apparently, for writers in the radical tradition to recognize that with the Ezran theory they could have the best of both worlds: they could discredit the authority of Revelation all the more thoroughly, while still retaining the basic idea of politically motivated imposture, merely reassigning it from Moses to Ezra himself"!
Malcolm, a really interesting Hobbes scholar, writes that "while the title of 'founder of modern biblical criticism' is nowadays given sometimes to La Peyrère, sometimes to Spinoza, and sometimes to Simon, it is hardly ever awarded to Hobbes," despite the fact that he seems to have been the first to mention the idea of exilic authorship in print. He argues that the idea was in the air at the middle of the 17th century--
--but the first person to write it down was a Muslim anti-Jewish polemicist named Ibn Hazm in the 11th century! It is in response to this polemica tradition that much early Jewish Bible criticism, such as that of Ibn Ezra, may initially have arisen. The whole article is a revelation, as it were, and anyone interested in what Bible criticism is, and how it got the way it is, will want to read it.