Did Moses really write the Pentateuch?

The five books of Moses are a.k.a. The Pentateuch,
the Books of the Law, the Law, and the Torah

Conflicting quotations:

  • …despite all the arguments made against Mosaic authorship/editorship, the traditional view [that Moses wrote the Pentateuch] is still as critically tenable as any of the others.” J.D. Douglas et al. 1
  • ..there is hardly a biblical scholar in the world actively working on the [authorship] problem who would claim that the Five Books of Moses were written by Moses.” R.E. Friedman. 2
  • …it has long been recognized that…[Moses] cannot have been the author, and that the Pentateuch is in fact anonymous.” D.J.A. Clines. 3

Biblical Terms:

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are sometimes referred to as:

  • the “Five Books of Moses,” because the writings themselves identify the author as Moses, or
  • the “Pentateuch,” a Greek term meaning “pente (5) teuchos (volumes),” or
  • the “Books of the Law“, or
  • the “Torah” (a Hebrew word meaning “instruction“)

These books were originally written as a single unbroken scroll. Sometime before the 2nd Century BCE, it was divided into the 5 books that we see today.

What does the Bible itself say about authorship of the Pentateuch?

There are about two dozen verses in the Hebrew Scriptures and one dozen in the Christian Scriptures which state or strongly imply that Moses was the author. Consider the following passages from the New Living Translation (NLT):

  • Passages in the Pentateuch itself:
    • Exodus 17:14Then the Lord instructed Moses, ‘Write this down as a permanent record…‘”
    • Exodus 24:4Then Moses carefully wrote down all the Lord’s instructions.”
    • Exodus 34:27And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write down all these instructions, for they represents the terms of my covenant with you and with Israel.‘”
    • Leviticus 1:1The Lord called to Moses from the Tabernacle and said to him, ‘Give the following instructions to the Israelites…‘”
    • Leviticus 6:8Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Give Aaron and his sons the following instructions…‘”
    • Deuteronomy 31:9So Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests.”
    • Deuteronomy 31:24-26When Moses had finished writing down this entire body of law in a book…
  • Passages elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures:
    • Joshua 1:7-8…Obey all the laws Moses gave you.
    • Joshua 8:31-34He followed the instructions that Moses the Lord’s servant had written in the Book of the Law…
    • Joshua 22:5…obey all the commands and the laws that Moses gave to you.
    • 2 Chronicles 34:14…Hilkiah the high priest…found the book of the Law of the Lord as it had been given through Moses.
  • Passages in the Gospels which show that Jesus and John the Baptizer believed Moses to be the author:
    • Matthew 19:7-8…why did Moses say a man could merely write an official letter of divorce and send her away?”, they asked. Jesus replied, Moses permitted divorce…‘”
    • Matthew 22:24Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children…‘”
    • Mark 7:10For instance, Moses gave you this law from God…
    • Mark 12:24…haven’t you ever read about this in the writings of Moses, in the story of the burning bush…
    • Luke 24:44…I told you that everything written about me by Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must all come true.
    • John 1:17For the law was given through Moses…
    • John 5:46But if you had believed Moses, you would have believed me because he wrote about me. And since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?
    • John 7:23…do it, so as not to break the law of Moses…
  • Passages elsewhere in the Christian Scriptures:
    • Acts 26:22…I teach nothing except what the prophets and Moses said would happen…
    • Romans 10:5For Moses wrote…

But nowhere in the Bible is it specifically stated that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch. Even if one believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, a case can be made that he authored only parts of the Torah, and that other writers added sections of their own and/or edited the resultant text.

Beliefs of conservative theologians:

Ancient Jewish and Christian writers, such as Ecclesiasticus, Josephus, Philo, and Origen were essentially in full agreement that the Pentateuch was written solely by Moses. The Mishnah and the Talmud also confirm this. Tradition during the first millennium of Christian history agrees with this belief. 4
Many present-day Fundamentalists and other Evangelical Christians continue to believe that Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch:

  • P.N. Benware states that “Moses was the human author of Genesis and the other books of the Pentateuch …These five ‘books of the law’ were written by Moses alone, with the exception of Deuteronomy 34, which records the death of Moses… The Pentateuch, therefore, is an inspired, inerrant, authoritative document written by the man Moses.5
  • The authors of the New Commentary on the Whole Bible state that “The education Moses would have received as the adopted grandson of Pharoh specially qualified him for the task of compiling and writing the Pentateuch. 1
  • Larry Richards states: “Moses wrote or supervised the writing of the bulk of the Pentateuch and …these books are rightly viewed as both a divine revelation and an accurate, eyewitness account of events described as happening in Moses’ lifetime.6
  • J.W. Hayford writes: “Jewish tradition lists Moses as the author of Genesis and of the next four books….we notice a number of loanwords from Egyptian that are found in Genesis, a fact which suggests that the original author had his roots in Egypt, as did Moses.7

Since conservative Christians believe in the inerrancy (freedom from error) of the Bible, the matter of authorship is settled and is not open to debate. Moses wrote at least the vast majority of the Pentateuch. Some suggest that he authored all five books, and that the account of his death and burial was a prophecy by Moses. However, some Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christians have deviated from traditional Christian teachings. They believe that selected passages were written by persons other than Moses. Some of these writings are referred to as “post-Mosaica” (material that was added after Moses’ death). Others are called “a-Mosaica” (material that could have been written at the time of Moses but which could not reasonably be attributed to him).

Fundamentalists and other Evangelical Christians generally believe that Moses wrote all or most of the five books after the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt, but before they entered Canaan. This would date the writing to the 40 year period when the Israelites were wandering through the desert, circa 1450 BCE.

Beliefs of mainline and liberal theologians:

They generally accept the “Documentary Hypothesis” which asserts that the Pentateuch was written by a group of four authors, from various locations in Palestine, over a period of centuries. 8 Each wrote with the goal of promoting his/her own religious views:

  • J: a writer who used JHWH as the “unpronounceable name of God.” It is often translated as Jehovah.
  • E: a writer who used Elohim as the divine name.
  • D: the author of the book of Deuteronomy.
  • P: a writer who added material of major interest to the priesthood.

Finally, a fifth individual was involved :

  • R: a redactor who shaped the contributions of J, E, P and D together into the present Pentateuch.

However, individual clergy in mainline denominations are frequently more traditionally minded than are their theologians. Also, individual members are often much more conservative in their beliefs about the Bible than are their clergy.

Some clues that Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch, according to liberal theologians:

As mentioned elsewhere in this website, many Christian and Jewish conservatives believe that Moses is the sole author of the Pentateuch and that he was inspired directly by God to write text that is free of error. Other theologians have claimed that there is some internal evidences in the Bible that these conclusions are invalid:

  • Theologians were prompted to develop the Documentary Hypothesis as a result of observing the presence of doublets in the Pentateuch. These are pairs of stories which occur in two separate locations in the text. The doublets generally do not agree fully; there are usually minor differences between the stories. R.E.  Friedman, in his 1997 book “Who Wrote the Bible?lists a number of them:
    • Two creation stories in Genesis.
    • Two descriptions of the Abrahamic covenant.
    • Two stories of the naming of Isaac.
    • Two instances where Abraham deceived a king by introducing his wife Sarah as his sister.
    • Two stories of Jacob traveling to Mesopotamia
    • Two stories of a revelation at Beth-el to Jacob.
    • Two accounts of God changing Jacob’s name to Israel
    • Two instances where Moses extracted water from two different rocks at two different locations called Meribah.

    It is difficult to account for so many doublets — most containing slight discrepancies — if all five books were written over a short interval of time by Moses or by any other single individual. Liberal theologians reasoned that a much more logical explanation is that the books were written by multiple authors who lived long after the events described. That would have allowed the oral tradition to be passed from generation to generation in different areas of the land so that they had a chance to deviate from each other before being written down. In a few cases, triplets have been found in the Pentateuch where the same accounts appears three times. 10

  • Genesis 7:15: In the story of the Flood, these verses have Noah collecting two of each species of animals — one male and one female . Genesis 7:2-3 specifies 7 pairs of clean animals and birds and 1 pair of unclean animals.
  • Genesis 7:11 describes water coming from the heavens and from below the ground to generate the worldwide flood. However, Genesis 7:4 describes all of the water falling as rain.
  • Genesis 7:11, 7:17, 7:24 and 8:3 specify different intervals for the flood duration which have no apparent resolution. 11
  • Genesis 11:31 This describes Abraham as living in the city Ur, and associates that location with the Chaldeans. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Chaldeans did not exist as a tribe at the time of Abraham; they rose to power much later, during the 1st millennium BCE.
  • Genesis 14:14: This verse refers to Abram pursuing some surviving kings of Sodom and Gomorrah to the city of Dan. However, that place name did not exist until a long time after Moses’ death. Other locations are also identified in the Pentateuch by names that were invented long after the death of Moses.
  • Genesis 22:14: The verse states: “And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovahjireh: as it is said to this day…” There are many verses in the Torah that state that something has lasted “to this day“. That appears to have been written by a writer who composed the passages long after the events described, and long after Moses’ death.
  • Genesis 36 contained a list of Edomite kings which included some monarchs who were in power after Moses’ death. R.E. Friedman wrote: “In the eleventh century, Isaac ibn Yashush, a Jewish court physician of a ruler in Muslim Spain, pointed out that a list of Edomite kings that appears in Genesis 36 named kings who lived long after Moses was dead. Ibn Yashush suggested that the list was written by someone who lived after Moses. The response to his conclusion was that he was called “Isaac the blunderer.” History has proven him to be correct, at least as viewed by most mainline and liberal theologians. 9
  • Exodus 33:7 describes Moses entering the Tabernacle. Yet, the Tabernacle had not yet been built; its subsequent construction is described in Exodus 35.
  • Numbers 12:3: This verse states “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.” (NKJ) If Moses were that humble, it is unlikely that he would have described himself in these glowing terms.
  • Numbers 25:1 which describes the rebellion at Peor referred to Moabite women; Numbers 25:6 14 refers to Midianites.
  • Deuteronomy 34:5-9: These verses describe the death, burial, age at death, physical condition at death, and mourning period for Moses. It is difficult for an individual to describe events at and after his or her death. Some have suggested that this portion of the Pentateuch (and only this portion) was written later by Joshua. However, R.E. Friedman wrote:

in the sixteenth century, Carlstadt, a contemporary of Luther, commented that the account of Moses’ death is written in the same style as texts that precede it. This makes it difficult to claim that Joshua or anyone else merely added a few lines to an otherwise Mosaic manuscript.9

  • Deuteronomy 34:10 This states “There has never been another prophet like Moses…” (NLT) This sounds like a passage written long after Moses’ death. Enough time would have had to pass for many other prophets to have arisen, to passed from the scene, and to have been evaluated.

Related essays on this web site:

References used:

  1. J.D. Douglas et al, “Old Testament Volume: New Commentary on the Whole Bible,” Tyndale, Wheaton, IL, (1990), Page 2
  2. R.E. Friedman, “Who Wrote the Bible?” Harper Collins, San Francisco, CA, (1997), Page 28.
  3. D.J.A. Clines, “Pentateuch,” [an essay in B.M. Metzger et al, “The Oxford Companion to the Bible,” Oxford University Press, New York, NY (1993), Page 579 to 582].
  4. R.K. Harrison, “Introduction to the Old Testament,” Page 497 [cited in R.B. Dillard & T. Longman III, “An Introduction to the Old Testament,” Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, (1994) Page 39]
  5. P.N. Benware, “Survey of the Old Testament”, Moody Press, Chicago IL, (1993)
  6. Larry Richards, “Bible Difficulties Solved,” Revell, Grand Rapids, MI, (1993), Pages 13 to 15.
  7. J.W. Hayford, “Hayford’s Bible Handbook,” Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, (1995).
  8. C.M. Laymon, Editor, The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Abingdon Press, Nashville TN (1971), P. 122.
  9. Op Cit, Friedman, Page 19.
  10. Op Cit, Friedman, Page 22.
  11. Ethical Atheist, “How Long was Noah’s Flood? (Examination of Biblical Accounts of the Great Deluge),” at: http://www.ethicalatheist.com/

Copyright � 1997 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2014-FEB-08
Written by: B.A. Robinson

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