• Joshua

Did Moses Really Write the Pentateuch? (part 1 of 3)

“The attack on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is nothing less than an attack on the veracity, reliability, and authority of the Word of Almighty God.”

Answers in Genesis, “Did Moses Write Genesis?” Bodie Hodge and Dr. Terry Mortenson, June 28, 2011.

In many circles, Moses is considered to be the author of the first five books of the Old Testament. When this view is challenged by scholars in the field, it can be seen as a direct attack on a core Christian doctrine - as you can see from the opening quote.

Although this can be a touchy subject for the parties involved in the discussion, it is my opinion that the evidence against a single Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is not only overwhelming, but represents the mainstream consensus view among scholars in the field. This 2-part blog post will provide a general overview of the problems related to the formation of the Pentateuch, the evidence for Mosaic authorship, and the more common ways in which the problems in the text are resolved.

Perhaps the most effective way to approach this highly complex topic is to give a brief chronological overview of the various ways in which the authorship of the Pentateuch has been understood, including Mosaic authorship. In the next blog entry, we will look in some detail at the textual problems associated with viewing the Pentateuch as a product of a single author, including stylistic variation, doublets, contradictions, and other literary difficulties, ending with an overview of the various ways in which scholars have sought to reconcile these narrative difficulties with theories of multiple authorship.

There are several excellent introductions to the issues surrounding the formation of the Pentateuch. A very recent and thorough presentation can be found in John Collins’ book “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible: third edition”, published in 2018, in which he presents the general progression of thought concerning the authorship of the Pentateuch since the end of the first millennium BCE.

Collins begins with references in the Hebrew Bible. Outside of the numerous references in the Pentateuch to Moses and the giving of the law, including several in the book of Deuteronomy (1:1, 4:44, 31:24, 32:45), he notes that Leviticus and/or Deuteronomy are called the law of Moses in a variety of OT passages (Josh 8:31-32; 23:6; 1 Kings 2:3; 14:6; 23:5; Neh. 8:1, 13-18). During the Hellenistic period, around 180 BCE, he cites the writings of Ben Sira: “All this is in the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us” (Sir. 24:23). Collins notes that similar associations are made in second-temple Judiasm literature, as well as the New Testament.

New Testament texts are frequently cited in support of Mosaic authorship, including passages like Mark 12:19, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us, ‘If a man’s brother dies and leaves behind a wife, and leaves no child, his brother should take the wife and raise up offspring to his brother” and 12:26, “But regarding the fact that the dead rise again, have you not read in the book of Moses, in (the passage about) the thornbush, how God spoke to him saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’” These, and other similar passages, seem to indicate that, during this period, it was understood that at least large sections of the Pentateuch were associated with and likely written down by Moses, particularly the legal portions.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 14b, the Pentateuch is said to have been written by Moses, save for the final verses of the Pentateuch, which were penned by Joshua, Moses’ successor. Here, the problem of “How could Moses write about his own death?” is already being considered. However, other problems develop as time goes by. In the 12th century, Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on the Torah, cited verses like Genesis 12:6 – “And Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. Now the Canaanites were then in the land,” as well as Genesis 36:31 – “Now these are the kings who ruled in the land of Edom, before a king ruled over the children of Israel.” These verses were ostensibly added later. In the 17th century, Richard Simon and Benedict Spinoza posited that earlier source materials were used by later writers to compose the Pentateuch.

A significant development came in the 18th century with Jean Astruc, who saw different source documents behind the Pentatuech based on the divine name that appeared in the text. Several scholars during the 18thand 19thcenturies discussed these sources, focusing on passages that utilized the divine name Elohim and those that use Jehovah (Yahweh). The scholar who is most often attributed with the systematic development of this theory was Julius Wellhausen in the late 19th century. He argued that there were four sources that can be seen in the Pentateuch: JEDP – Yahwistic (J), Elohisitc (E), Deuteronomistic (D), and Priestly (P). This was known as the Documentary Hypothesis. We will return to the specifics of this theory, along with other models that have been and are currently used to make sense of the form and content of the Pentateuch.

First, let's talk about the “problem” with the Pentateuch. Why is it that people have a problem with a single author composing the first five books of the Old Testament? Is it because of religious or atheistic presuppositions? Do scholars simply not believe that Moses could not have written it, and so they must develop models to explain how it could have been composed?

I have yet to meet a Hebrew Bible scholar who appears to be motivated in any way by some religious conviction against Mosaic authorship. Of course, I cannot read people’s minds; however, there is an overwhelming abundance of evidence to support multiple authorship of the Pentateuch… evidence that cannot simply be ignored. Thus, even if certain scholars are in fact motivated by a personal religious or atheistic bias (again, I have yet to see this), ridding oneself of this theoretical bias would in no way do away with the data in support of multiple authorship. Let’s take a look at some of the features of the Pentateuch that indicate multiple authorship.

There are things that immediately stand out to someone who reads through the Book of Genesis (especially for the first time). First, one cannot help but notice that many stories seem to appear twice in the text. However one reconciles this in their ultimate interpretation of the text, there appears to be two creation stories in the first two chapters. A few chapters later, there appears to be two flood narratives “woven” together in chapters six through nine. These “doublets” make it seem like two different traditions were brought together and edited into the form of the story that we now see. Not only are there doublets, but there are actual contradictions between details in these different stories throughout the Pentateuch. Was Moses’ father-in-law named Reuel (Exod 2:18) or Jethro (Exod 3:1)? Was the mountain in the wilderness called Sinai (Exod 19:11) or Horeb (Exod 3:1)? Did Aaron die at Mount Hor (Num 20:23-29) or Moserah (Deut 10:6)?

We will go through these doublets, contradictions, and other inconsistencies in the text in the next blog post, but I wanted to take a moment to connect these problems with the Pentateuch to the models that scholars have developed to address these inconsistencies. First, those who maintain a singular Mosaic authorship seek to individually address each contradiction or doublet in an attempt to find a possible means of reconciling these differing passages. This is necessary if one holds to a particular belief in the inerrancy of the biblical texts, and that God has preserved his word in such a way that we possess it today. If the Pentateuch (and the Bible as a whole) is the divinely inspired, inerrant word of god, and Moses authored these first five books, then these types of contradictions and doublets pose great difficulty for the interpreter. Thus, a great deal of effort has been expounded to attempt to reconcile these passages to one another.

While some of these possible explanations could adequately address some of the problematic passages, the sheer number of contradictions, doublets, and general inconsistencies strongly suggests that we should seek a model that more adequately accounts for the data. If we have two apparent flood stories in the same chapter that contradict one another in the details, we may be looking at two different flood traditions that were brought together into one narrative. Part of the study of the sources that stand behind the Pentateuch is seeing if there is continuity between the various strands that run through the text. In short, there are many doublets, contradictions, and inconsistencies in the Pentateuch that make it very difficult to adequately defend a single Mosaic authorship. We must look to other models to make sense of the data.

*The accompanying video to this blog post can be found here.

Don't take our word for it - read for yourself!

  • Baden, J. 2012. The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis.

  • Blum, E. 1990. Studien zur Komposition des Pentateuch, BZAW 189.

  • Carr, D. 2011. The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction

  • Collins, J. 2018. Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 3rd Edition.

  • Dozeman, T. & K. Schmid (eds.), Farewell to the Yahwist? The Composition of the Pentateuch in Recent European Interpretation.

  • Dozeman, T. et al. (eds.), 2011. Pentateuch, Hexateuch, or Enneateuch? Identifying Literary Works in Genesis through Kings.

  • Gertz, J. et al. (eds.), 2016. The Formation of the Pentateuch: Bridging the Academic Cultures of Europe, Israel, and North America.

  • Kratz, R. 2016. “The Analysis of the Pentateuch: An Attempt to Overcome Barriers of Thinking” ZAW 128.

  • ________, 2005. The Composition of the Narrative Books of the Old Testament.

  • Römer, T. 2007. The So-Called Deuteronomistic History: A Sociological, Historical and Literary Introduction.

  • Schmid, K. 2010. Genesis and the Moses Story: Israel’s Dual Origins in the Hebrew Bible.

  • Schmid, K. & R. Person, Jr. (eds.), 2012. Deuteronomy in the Pentateuch, Hexateuch, and the Deuteronomistic History.Ska, J.-L. 2006. Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch.

  • Tigay, J. 2012. “The Documentary Hypothesis, Empirical Models and Holistic Interpretation,” pp. 116-143 in J. Ikeda (ed.), Modernity and Interpretations of Ancient Texts: The Collapse and Remaking of Traditions.

  • ________, 2002. The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic

  • van Seters, J. 1992. Prologue to History: The Yahwist as Historian in Exodus-Numbers.

  • ________, 2015. The Pentateuch: A Social-Science Commentary, 2nd Edition.

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