Who Wrote the Torah According to the Torah?
The first five books of the Bible, known as the Pentateuch or the “Torah,” are cherished and revered by Jews and Christians, as these books are part of the foundation of all of Scripture. People have pored over the content of these books for millennia, debating many aspects of them including their authorship.
Traditionally, the Pentateuch is read as one work, by one author—hence the popular name “The Five Books of Moses.” And yet, already in the 17th century, certain Bible scholars began to question whether the text was really a unified composition or whether it showed signs of multiple authorship.
This approach to the study of Pentateuch (and other biblical texts) has grown over the past two centuries into an important subfield of biblical scholarship called “source criticism.” By paying close attention to elements such as cohesiveness or non-cohesiveness within a story, changes in terminology or outlook, doublets and contradictions between texts, source criticism attempts to delineate the contours of sources as well as indications of their authorship and approximate dates of composition.
Pushback against Source Criticism
The overwhelming consensus among Bible scholars for the past two centuries has been that the Pentateuch is a composite text, made up of multiple sources which were written by different people or groups of people in different periods of time. Nevertheless, some scholars have challenged this consensus.
For example, Joshua Berman, a Bible scholar from Bar Ilan University, recently wrote an article “The Corruption of Biblical Studies,” in which he questions “whether some of its central conclusions really deserve the high pedestal on which they have been placed.” He contends that,
[T]he guild of source critics has been unable to develop a canon of best practices and accepted norms in pursuit of the putative earlier stages of a biblical text’s development… [T]he debilitating consequence is that very little is a matter of professional consensus.
According to Berman, this is the case because source critics “rely on frankly intuitionist justification for its methods—a reliance that has led it into confusion and professional crisis.” He concludes that source critics are basically engaged in an “elusive search for the sources of the Pentateuch.” He believes that source criticism is in this crisis because of “the fatal inability of the discipline to self-correct,” and this is “perpetuated by a species of denial.”
Thus, Berman considers source criticism of the Pentateuch to be bereft of consensus, and thus defunct, without good methods. Gleason Archer Jr. (1916-2004) of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, is one of several Christian scholars who uses similarly strong language in his assessment of source criticism in general, especially the “weaknesses and fallacies of the Wellhausian Theory,” i.e., the Documentary Hypothesis—the theory that the Pentateuch is a combination of four documents.
[I]t is very doubtful whether the Wellhausen hypothesis is entitled to the status of scientific respectability. There is so much special pleading, circular reasoning, and questionable deductions from unsubstantiated premises that it is absolutely certain that its methodology would never stand up in a court of law.
Berman and Archer both believe that “liberal bias” is a key factor in the dominance of the otherwise failing discipline of source criticism. Archer explicitly advocates for single authorship of the Torah in the wilderness period by Moses, arguing:
[W]hen all the data of the Pentateuchal text have been carefully considered, and all the evidence both internal and external, has been fairly weighed, the impression is all but irresistible that Mosaic authorship is the one theory that best accords with the surviving historical data.
Berman contends that “perhaps the truest answer… is that we may not be able to know when it was written.” Nevertheless, he has also written “the first person in the Hebrew Bible to probe the Torah of Moses was Joshua,” a statement of Berman’s that some might understand as a rhetorical flourish and some might understand as a putative attribution of authorship. In any case, he certainly believes that scholars who contend for a biblical text’s “unity and coherence,” or “historical accuracy” or “antiquity”are viewed as conservative and are marginalized within the guild of biblical scholars.
But let’s clear the air for a moment.
Scriptural Source Criticism: Explicit Sources
The idea at the base of source criticism, namely, that the Pentateuch was written on the basis of earlier sources and that it incorporates these sources or parts of them, fits with what we know about biblical books according to their own testimony. The Pentateuch itself makes reference to “the Book of the Wars of YHWH” (Num 21:14), suggesting the writer was using this as a source.
In fact, the Hebrew Bible is filled with references to sources upon which various biblical texts are ostensibly based or which the biblical authors knew of and read:
- “The Book of Yashar” (e.g., Josh 10:13; 2 Sam 1:18);
- “The Book of the Acts of Solomon” (e.g., 1 Kings 11:41);
- “The Books of the Annals of the Kings of Israel” (1 Kings 14:19; cf. also 2 Chron 33:18; 2 Chron 20:34);
- “The Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah” (1 Kings 15:7);
- “The Records of Samuel the Seer” (1 Chron 29:29);
- “The History of Nathan the Prophet” (2 Chron 9:29);
- “The Records of Shemaiah the Prophet and Iddo the Seer” (2 Chron 12:15);
- “The Annals of Jehu the son of Hanani” (2 Chron 20:34);
- “The Records of Hozai” [or “the Seers”] (2 Chron 33:19).
Some contend that these putative sources are fictional, and that these statements are merely placed within these biblical texts to create an aura of historical accuracy. That is an important debate, of course. But even if these statements are not factual, it is evident is that the authors of these texts presupposed that it was acceptable for them to use sources.
In addition to explicitly referenced works, the presence of sources may be deduced from an inductive reading of certain biblical pericopae that repeat in other biblical books. This demonstrates dependence on a shared source or dependence of one biblical book on another biblical book as a source:
- The narratives about the siege of Sennacherib (Isaiah 36-37 and 2 Kings 18-19);
- The conquest of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25 and Jer 52);
- Large swaths of Samuel-Kings and Chronicles (passim);
- David’s prayer “after being saved from Saul” (2 Sam 22 and Ps 18);
- The list of returnees from exile (Ezra 2:2-64 and Neh 7:7-66).
These texts to do not cross-reference each other or claim that they are utilizing sources, but since we have both versions we know that at least one is (perhaps both are).
Code of Hammurabi: A Pentateuchal Source
We can make a similar observation about the biblical lex talionis (law of equals), “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” found in Exod 21:24 (also Lev 24:20 and Deut 19:21). This same rule, with the same phrasing, is found in Akkadian law collections such as the Code of Hammurabi (196-200), which was chiseled into stone centuries before Moses was even born (cf. Code of Hammurabi, paragraphs 196-200). Thus, this ancient Mesopotamian legal principle—if not Hammurabi’s code itself—functions as a source for the author of the Pentateuch.
An Author Using Sources?
These observations demonstrate that source criticism has its roots in the statements of the Bible itself and, at least in theory, does not contradict single authorship, since authors, including ancient authors, often make use of sources. In fact, one of the key fathers of source criticism referenced by Berman, the French physician Jean Astruc (1684-1786), believed it was Moses who combined the two documents he identified as the sources of Genesis.
Nevertheless, even if we were to accept that the Pentateuch had a single author, would the default really be Mosaic authorship and a 13th century date? I think the evidence from the Pentateuch itself, taking the book at its word, is a resounding “no.” To understand this point, we must look at how the Pentateuch presents itself.
Mosaic Authorship: Traditional View
Ancient traditions often assume or imply the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.
- The books of Joshua (8:31-32, 23:6) and Kings (1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 14:6, 23:25) refer to the torah of Moses, or the scroll of the torah of Moses—though these are likely references to (some form of) Deuteronomy, not the entire Torah in its current form.
- The much later books of Ezra (3:2, 6:18, 7:6) Nehemiah (1:7-9, 8:1, 14, 9:14, 10:30, 13:1), Daniel (9:1, 13), and Chronicles (2 Chron 23:18, 30:16, 34:14) also refer to “the torah of Moses” or paraphrase laws from the Pentateuch as laws of Moses.
- In the New Testament, Luke (2:22) refers to “the law of Moses” and Mark (12:19) states “Moses wrote” followed by a citation of Deut 25:5-6.
- In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Bathra (14b-15a), Moses is listed as the Pentateuch’s author.
Similar assumptions can be found in other ancient authors such as Philo of Alexandria (d. ca. 50 CE), Josephus (d. ca. 100 CE), and the Early Christian writer Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215 CE). Nevertheless, as already noted by Spinoza, these are far from eye-witness accounts. More importantly, these are not statements from the Pentateuch but about it.
Presentation of Moses in the Torah
The Pentateuch does not present itself as being written by Moses, but as an anonymous account about the history of the world and the Israelites up to and including the life of Moses.
No Moses in Genesis
In fact, the name “Moses” never occurs in Genesis, and nothing in the Torah itself implies that he authored this book. He is first mentioned in Exodus, which records his birth and begins the story of his life. Compare this with how the book of Jubilees presents itself, for instance, in its opening lines:
This is The Account of the Division of Days of the Law… just as the Lord told it to Moses on Mount Sinai when he went up to receive the tablets of the Law and the commandment by the word of the LORD…
This passage explicitly presents Moses as, if not the author, then the transcriber of Jubilees. In contrast, Genesis opens with an anonymous authorial voice describing the creation of the world. Nothing in the biblical book of Genesis is presented as having been “revealed” to Moses; it is simply a series of stories told by an anonymous author. Unlike a reader of Jubilees, the reader of Genesis would have no reason to imagine Moses, or any other named person, as the author (or transcriber) of the book.
Furthermore, Moses is referred to about six hundred times in the third person in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (“Moses said this,” or “Moses did that”). It is readily apparent from such statements that someone else is writing about Moses, rather than Moses doing (all) the writing himself.
Moreover, the book of Numbers writes:
במדבר יב:ג וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה (ענו) [עָנָיו] מְאֹד מִכֹּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.
Num 12:3 Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. (NRSV)
Not only is this third person narration, but it is certainly not the sort of thing that a humble person would say about him- or herself!
First Person Accounts
Some ancient authors wrote or at least presented their works as first person accounts. The Moabite Mesha inscription is a first person account ostensibly from King Mesha, and the Tel Dan Inscription is a first person account, ostensibly from the Aramean king Hazael.
The Bible also has first person accounts, most notably the book of Nehemiah, which is framed (accurately or not) as Nehemiah’s memoir:
נחמיה א:א דִּבְרֵי נְחֶמְיָה בֶּן חֲכַלְיָה וַיְהִי בְחֹדֶשׁ (כסלו) [כִּסְלֵיו] שְׁנַת עֶשְׂרִים וַאֲנִי הָיִיתִי בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה.
Neh 1:1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah. In the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capital,
Thus, the simplest understanding of the Pentateuch’s own presentation is that someone with (real or perceived) knowledge of the history of the world, and the Israelites in particular, wrote the Pentateuch, and that this person was particularly interested in teaching his readers about Moses and the many messages he believed Moses received from God.
What the Torah Actually Describes Moses Writing Down
The Pentateuch does not refer to Moses as its author, although it refers to Moses writing down select passages.
God’s Promise to the Amalekites – After a battle with the Amalakites,
שמות יז:יד וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה כְּתֹב זֹאת זִכָּרוֹן בַּסֵּפֶר וְשִׂים בְּאָזְנֵי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כִּי מָחֹה אֶמְחֶה אֶת זֵכֶר עֲמָלֵק מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמָיִם.
Exod 17:14 Then the LORD said to Moses: “Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: ‘I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’”
Here it seems that Moses was either supposed to write down the sentence, “‘I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven,” or a summary of what happened with Amalek, including God’s promised vengeance.
The Covenant Collection – After the core legal section known as the Covenant Collection (Exod 20-23), the narrative says,
שמות כד:ג וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וַיְסַפֵּר לָעָם אֵת כָּל דִּבְרֵי יְהוָה וְאֵת כָּל הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים… כד:דוַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֵת כָּל דִּבְרֵי יְהוָה
Exod 24:3 Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the ordinances… 23:4 And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD…
According to this, Moses wrote down the Covenant Collection on a scroll.
The Decalogue and the Ritual Decalogue – After the destruction of the original stone tablets (Exod 32), God tells Moses to cut two new tablets upon which God will write what was on the former tablets (Exod 34:1-4). Then, after a prayer from Moses (Exod 34:6-9), God makes a covenant again with Israel, including a list of laws (Exod 34:10-26) which scholars refer to as the Ritual Decalogue. The text follows these laws with the following notice:
שמות לד:כז וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה כְּתָב לְךָ אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה כִּי עַל פִּי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה כָּרַתִּי אִתְּךָ בְּרִית וְאֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל.לד:כח וַיְהִי שָׁם עִם יְהוָה אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְאַרְבָּעִים לַיְלָה לֶחֶם לֹא אָכַל וּמַיִם לֹא שָׁתָה וַיִּכְתֹּב עַל הַלֻּחֹת אֵת דִּבְרֵי הַבְּרִית עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים.
Exod 34:27 The LORD said to Moses: “Write these words; in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 34:28 He was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
Although the text is a little hard to follow, it suggests that God writes the same Decalogue again on tablets, whereas Moses writes the new covenant rules, the Ritual Decalogue, perhaps on a scroll.
The List of Stops in the Wilderness – Numbers 33 lists all the places where the Israelites stopped on their way through the wilderness. The chapter begins:
במדבר לג:ב וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת מוֹצָאֵיהֶם לְמַסְעֵיהֶם עַל פִּי יְהוָה…
Num 33:2 Moses wrote down their starting points, stage by stage, by command of the LORD…
According to this, Moses wrote down that list of stops.
Haazinu – Before he dies, Moses teaches the Israelites a song and even wrote it down:
דברים לא:כב וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וַיְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 31:22 That very day Moses wrote this song and taught it to the Israelites.
The Core of Deuteronomy – The closest any verse in the Pentateuch comes to stating that Moses wrote the Torah comes towards the end of Deuteronomy, which states:
דברים לא:ט וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וַיִּתְּנָהּ אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי לֵוִי הַנֹּשְׂאִים אֶת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְהוָה וְאֶל כָּל זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 31:9 Then Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel.
But to what does “this law” (torah) refer? The context suggests that it refers to the core of Deuteronomy, which is introduced at the beginning of the book as “the torah.”
בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה בֵּאֵר אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת לֵאמֹר.
Beyond the Jordan in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this law as follows:
וְזֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר שָׂם מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
This is the law that Moses set before the Israelites.
Since chapter 31 is a 3rd person account of what Moses did after he delivered the law (torah) to Israel, including the third person reference to Moses writing the law down, clearly the author of this chapter does not think that what he was writing was part of this torah or on that scroll.
In other words, the author of Deuteronomy (not Moses) is claiming that included in his book (Deuteronomy or the Pentateuch) is the law that Moses taught to Israel and then wrote down. This is not a claim for Moses writing Deuteronomy, only for much of Deuteronomy coming from a scroll that Moses wrote.
The Torah Uses Moses’ Writings
In short, not only do these texts not claim that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, they actually claim that Moses wrote only certain passages, and even in these narratives, Moses is referred to in the third person. The clear implication is that the author of the Pentateuch, who is emphatically not Moses, is saying that he made use of texts written by Moses, such as the Covenant Collection, the Haazinu Song, etc., and has included them in his book. But he also included texts and traditions that he does not describe as deriving from Moses, such as the quote from the book of the Wars of the Lord (Num 21:13-15), the poem of the balladeers about Heshbon (Num 21:27-30), Lamech’s song to his wives (Gen 4:23-24), and likely many other sources that the author makes use of but does not quote.
Dating the Torah: Long After Moses
Not only does the Pentateuch present itself as having been written by a third party about Moses, it presents itself as written at a later time. In other words, the Pentateuch is retrospective, speaking about Moses the way it speaks about Abraham or Noah. This fact was already appreciated by some of the classical rabbis and medieval commentators.
One glaring example of the post-Mosaic authorship of the Torah is its description of Moses’ death.
דברים לד:ה וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד יְהוָה בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב… לד:ז וּמֹשֶׁה בֶּן מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה בְּמֹתוֹ לֹא כָהֲתָה עֵינוֹ וְלֹא נָס לֵחֹה.
Deut 34:5 5 Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab… 34:7 Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.
As already noted by the Talmudic rabbis (b. Baba Batra 14b-15a; Menachot 30a) and the medieval commentator Abraham ibn Ezra, Moses could not have written about his own death.
Why Joshua Cannot Be the Torah’s Author
The Babylonian Talmud (op cit.) records the suggestion that this passage was written by Joshua, but nothing in this passage or in the Pentateuch implies that Joshua wrote it. The rabbis are choosing Joshua because he is Moses’ successor and thus, closest in time. In fact, verse 9 describes Joshua’s actions after Moses’ death in the third person, again implying that someone else is writing.
דברים לד:ט וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן מָלֵא רוּחַ חָכְמָה כִּי סָמַךְ מֹשֶׁה אֶת יָדָיו עָלָיו וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ אֵלָיו בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת מֹשֶׁה.
Deut 34:9 Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the LORD had commanded Moses.
Moreover, the continuation of this passage makes clear that the author cannot be Joshua or anyone who lived at that time:
דברים לד:י וְלֹא קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמֹשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה פָּנִים אֶל פָּנִים.
Deut 34:10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.
The sentence is in past tense. This evaluation only makes sense if offered by someone living much later than Moses, who can look back and say that since Moses, never has his equal arisen. It would be just as absurd for Joshua to make such a claim as it would be for Moses.
Editorial Comments About Post Wilderness Period Events
In a handful of places, the Pentateuch makes references to matters that show that the author is living in the Cisjordan, long after the wilderness period and the conquest. Many of these were noted by the medieval Jewish commentators R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167) and R. Judah the Pious (1150-1217).
Canaanites in the Land – Abram’s arrival in the land is said to be when “the Canaanites were in the land” (Gen 12:6; 13:7). Clearly, the author is living during a time when Canaanites were no longer in the land, yet according to the Bible, the conquest of Canaan occurs after Moses’ death.
On the Lord’s Mountain – After the binding of Isaac, Abraham names the spot “Adonai-Yireh” (“The Lord will Provide”, Gen 22:14), which is why, the author tells us, “it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.’” This refers to a popular ancient Israelite saying about Mount Moriah, which would only make sense after the construction of the Solomonic Temple. This implies that the author of the Pentateuch lived no earlier than the time of Solomon.
First King of Israel – At the end of the description of Esau’s descendants comes the “Edomite King List” which opens with:
בראשית לו:לא וְאֵלֶּה הַמְּלָכִים אֲשֶׁר מָלְכוּ בְּאֶרֶץ אֱדוֹם לִפְנֵי מְלָךְ מֶלֶךְ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Gen 36:31 These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.
The first king in Israelite history according to the Bible is Saul (1 Sam 9), and he reigned long after the wilderness period. This again implies that the author must have lived no earlier than the reign of Saul.
Manna – In Exodus, the account of the manna falling ends with the following statement:
שמות טז:לה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אָכְלוּ אֶת הַמָּן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה עַד בֹּאָם אֶל אֶרֶץ נוֹשָׁבֶת אֶת הַמָּן אָכְלוּ עַד בֹּאָם אֶל קְצֵה אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן.
Exod 16:35 The Israelites ate manna forty years, until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna, until they came to the border of the land of Canaan.
This verse is written from the vantage point of a writer living after the manna had ceased since it is referring back in time to when it stopped falling. According to Joshua 5:12, this occurred after the Israelites crossed the Jordan River:
יהושע ה:יב וַיִּשְׁבֹּת הַמָּן מִמָּחֳרָת בְּאָכְלָם מֵעֲבוּר הָאָרֶץ וְלֹא הָיָה עוֹד לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מָן וַיֹּאכְלוּ מִתְּבוּאַת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן בַּשָּׁנָה הַהִיא.
Josh 5:12 The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year.
The Other Side of the Jordan – Deuteronomy begins by describing where Moses and the Israelites were when Moses began to deliver (or write) the speech recorded in Deuteronomy:
דברים א:א אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן…
Deut 1:1 These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan…
If Moses is beyond the Jordan, then the author must not be on that same side (otherwise it wouldn’t be “beyond”). This implies that the author is writing from the Cisjordan, after the Israelite settlement.
The Conquest that Happened – When describing the history of Mount Seir, Deuteronomy writes:
דברים ב:יב וּבְשֵׂעִיר יָשְׁבוּ הַחֹרִים לְפָנִים וּבְנֵי עֵשָׂו יִירָשׁוּם וַיַּשְׁמִידוּם מִפְּנֵיהֶם וַיֵּשְׁבוּ תַּחְתָּם כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יִשְׂרָאֵל לְאֶרֶץ יְרֻשָּׁתוֹ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן יְהוָה לָהֶם.
Deut 2:12 Moreover, the Horim had formerly inhabited Seir, but the descendants of Esau dispossessed them, destroying them and settling in their place, as Israel has done in the land that the LORD gave them as a possession.
The author describes the conquest of the Cisjordan as something that happened in the past; by definition, this must have been written after the settlement period.
Og’s Bed – After describing the conquest of the Bashan, Deuteronomy writes:
דברים ג:יא כִּי רַק עוֹג מֶלֶךְ הַבָּשָׁן נִשְׁאַר מִיֶּתֶר הָרְפָאִים הִנֵּה עַרְשׂוֹ עֶרֶשׂ בַּרְזֶל הֲלֹה הִוא בְּרַבַּת בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן…
Deut 3:11 Now only King Og of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaim. In fact his bed, an iron bed, can still be seen in Rabbah of the Ammonites…
The text refers to Og’s enormous bed as being in the capital city of Ammon, Rabbah. How did it get there? Would it not have been in Og’s palace in the Bashan, now Israelite territory? This implies that the author is living at a much later time, and that the bed has somehow made its way from the Bashan to Rabbah and is on display there for any who care to see.
Evaluating Authorship without Special-Pleading
The above evidence shows that the Torah’s author is not Moses. This author or these authors must have lived in the Cisjordan no earlier than the time of King Saul (the Edomite Kings List) or even Solomon (the saying about Mount Moriah). Granted, some traditional commentators have attempted to reinterpret some of these texts, saying, for instance, that Moses was the first king of Israel, or that Moses was consciously writing “as if” he lived in the Cisjordan, where the Israelites were soon to go. Nevertheless, to quote Archer, this is “special-pleading.”
The Author of the Torah Continues Beyond the Pentateuch
Reading the Pentateuch as stopping after Deuteronomy is arguably artificial. If it weren’t for the traditional claim that Moses wrote the Torah only, and that the Torah was canonized by Jews (and Samaritans) as separate from the prophetic books, it would certainly be possible to argue that the same anonymous authorial voice continues into Joshua, and perhaps even Judges, Samuel and Kings. This is actually the view of some contemporary scholars, who refer to this whole complex as the Primary History or the Enneateuch (meaning “nine scrolls”).
And so, if we take the Pentateuch seriously, it is clear that all it claims is to be privy to some sources written by Moses, and to knowledge of discourse between Moses and God, or Moses and Israel, just as it does with Abraham, Jacob, Noah, etc. Certain traditions may claim Moses as its author, and thus suggest a 13th century date, but this does not come from the Pentateuch itself; if anything, it flies in the face of the Pentateuch’s self-presentation.
Anonymity Is a Common Feature of Ancient Near Eastern Literature
It is worth emphasizing that we often do not know the names of the authors of literary masterpieces from the world of the Bible. For example, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, replete with its flood account, is anonymous. We do not know who composed it originally, nor do we know how long it was transmitted orally before it was written. And the Mesopotamian creation account known as Enuma Elish is also anonymous.
The great Ugaritic epics known as Ba‘al, Kirta, and Aqhat are all anonymous. Ilimilku was a scribe who copied this text, but he did not author it. Similarly, the Middle Kingdom Egyptian Prophecy of Neferti contains a number of first-person quotations, but Neferti is referred to in the third person, thus, not the author of this tremendous piece of literature.
Along those same lines, you can read the canonical New Testament gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) from beginning to end and nowhere in any of them will you find a statement declaring authorship. That is, these too are anonymous (the names that we use for the gospels are second century in origin, and not from the gospels themselves).
In short, the Pentateuch is in pretty good company, as many of the great masterpieces of the ancient Near Eastern world are anonymous. Beautiful, deeply meaningful, and moving, but anonymous.
Personal Reflection: Liberal and Conservative
During my youth, I was taught that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. As I’ve shown, the Pentateuch never makes this claim, but I would hasten to note that I believe Moses to have been a historical figure and that he was literate. I also believe that there was an exodus of Israelite slaves from Egypt. But I cannot embrace the notion that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. It is just not a Pentateuchal claim—and is in fact contravened by evidence in the Pentateuch itself.
Some would suggest that the “liberal position” is that Moses did not write the Pentateuch and that the “conservative position” is to contend that he did. I think the case could be made that this language is reversed. As the Pentateuch never claims Mosaic authorship and strongly implies that it was written hundreds of years after him, the “conservative” position—i.e. the position that is bound to the testimony of the Pentateuch itself—should really be that Moses did not write it, and that the Pentateuch does not date to the 13th century.
Alternatively, ignoring the Pentateuch’s self-presentation, and claiming that Moses wrote it in the 13th century is really a liberal position (though not the only one of course), since it is “free”—the Latin word “liber” means “free”—from the constraints put upon it by the Pentateuch’s self-presentation.
Of course, many scholars who identify as conservative may not appreciate my usage of the term “liberal” when describing traditional views supported by religious dogma, and admittedly, I am being playful with the terms. But I suspect that the reader sees the point that I am making.
At the end of the day, I think that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have little utility, and that when people use these terms, it reveals more about themselves than it does about the person they are describing. Thus, I have friends in the field who consider me liberal and I have friends in the field who consider me conservative; this is not because my own positions have changed, but it reflects where these colleagues feel they are standing relative to me.
The Pentateuch With and Without Source Criticism
As for the Pentateuch, my own view is that source criticism is alive and well. Admittedly, debates and differences of opinion among source critics—about the precise delineation of sources, how they were combined, whether they were originally independent (documentary) or built on each other (supplementary), and when to date each—are rife. And yet, the overwhelming consensus remains that the Pentateuch shows clear signs of multiple authorship, and that, as David Carr put it, “the Pentateuch was formed through a combination of a Priestly layer, a non-Priestly layer… and a core portion of Deuteronomy.” Nevertheless, in this piece, I have tried to show where the chips fall, even without invoking source criticism.
If certain scholars believe that source criticism is not succeeding—and this is not my view—then maybe a good place from which to “begin again” is with how the Pentateuch presents itself: an anonymous text, incorporating early sources, some of which it identifies as having been written by Moses, and composed in the Cisjordan hundreds of years after the wilderness and settlement periods.
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August 23, 2017
September 24, 2020
Prof. Christopher A. Rollston is Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures in the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at George Washington University. He holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University's Department of Near Eastern Studies and is the editor of Maarav and co-editor of BASOR (Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research). Rollston is the editor of Enemies and Friends of the State: Ancient Prophecy in Context and the author of Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age as well as many academic articles such as “Scribal Curriculum during the First Temple Period: Epigraphic Hebrew and Biblical Evidence.” He is an expert in ancient epigraphy and blogs about new finds and current debates on www.rollstonepigraphy.com.
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