Did Moses write the Pentateuch? [1]

Burning Bush


By Spencer D Gear

The following is an encounter I had on Christian Fellowship Forum concerning the authorship of the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch).

OZ: The biblical evidence is right before us of Mosaic authorship.

JP: Does that evidence include Moses referring to himself in the third person and writing about his death, burial and 30 days of mourning AFTER he died?

I believe it is from Moses’ time but not necessarily from his hand. (He was rather busy, you know.)

OZ: The Pentateuch claims in many places that Moses was the writer, e.g. Exodus 17:14; 24:4–7; 34:27; Numbers 33:2; Deuteronomy 31:9, 22, 24.
JP: It also has many places where Moses is referred to in the third person. So what? That means that Moses is reported to have written portions of “the Book of Moses.” It does not require that he wrote the whole thing. (Unless you are willing to hold to his continued, post-mortem, writing.)

OZ: Many times in the rest of the Old Testament, Moses is said to have been the writer, e.g. Joshua 1:7–8

JP: “Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you”
That does not say Moses wrote the entire Pentateuch. It says he commanded Israel to keep the Law.
Joshua 8:32–34 Ditto.  Judges 3:4 Ditto.
Here’s what the Bible DOES say Moses wrote:
Ex 24:4 And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD. (The Laws)  And he rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars according to the twelve tribes of Israel.
Num 33:2  Now Moses wrote down the starting points of their journeys at the command of the LORD. And these [are] their journeys according to their starting points:
Deu 31:9 So Moses wrote this law and delivered it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel.
Deu 31:22 Therefore Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it to the children of Israel.

OZ: In the New Testament, Jesus frequently spoke of Moses’ writings or the Law of Moses,

JP: This is a very common and simplistic “proof.” The Torah was referred to as “The Book of Moses.” That name does not carry with it a statement of authorship. I have a “Webster’s Dictionary.” I have no misconception that it is a copy of what Noah Webster personally wrote.

OZ:   it seems likely that a sole author was responsible. Their exhaustive computer analysis conducted in Israel suggested an 82 percent probability that the book has just one author.

JP: I think Genesis is the work of a sole author. And a sole author can include more than one tradition and relating of the same story. It takes a great deal of skill and sophistication to do it well. I believe it was written by a sole author, most probably a contemporary of Moses and probably at the direction of Moses.

You seem to be rejecting out of hand, without consideration, the possibility that there could be more than one version of the creation and flood stories among these ancient people. That flies in the face of the existence of a variety of creation and flood stories among the ancient Mesopotamian people.

You also seem to be hung up on the idea that one author would, of necessity, have only one view to relate. That is not only unnecessary but, considering the text, it is unreasonable.

Further, you seem to assume that if I can see more than one tradition reflected in the text that I must agree with the whole of the documentary hypothesis, lock, stock and barrel. I do not. I think it is the result of over-analyzation combined with fertile imaginations and the need to publish.

I do see the two traditions, both representing valid recitals of the story of beginning from God’s creation of the heavens and earth through the dispersion. (Gen 1:1 – 11:9)

The dispersion is followed by a genealogy which connects the creation story to the story of the Hebrews who are the sons of Abraham, the descendant of Shem (SHem means “Name” and apparently refers to those who called upon Ha-Shem) the descendant of seth the son of Adam.

There is a felt need among many people that only Moses be allowed to be the author of the Pentateuch. It is an irrational need that flies in the face of the words of which Moses is demanded to be sole author. It is an imposition of man’s desire upon the word of God which detracts from it by restricting our understanding of His message to the views of one sect among God’s people.

Let my people go.

SG (added after this online discussion): I was rather naive in this interchange with JP as my understanding of authorship of a book of the Bible did not take into consideration that some revision can be made or editing done, but the work is still accounted to the original author (see below).

What about Moses’ death reported in the Pentateuch?



JP has a reasonable objection (see above):

It also has many places where Moses is referred to in the third person. So what? That means that Moses is reported to have written portions of “the Book of Moses.” It does not require that he wrote the whole thing. (Unless you are willing to hold to his continued, post-mortem, writing.)

I find this to be a satisfactory explanation:

It is probable that some works in the Bible are edited works…. We do not know what shape Moses left his works in. Did someone simply have to add an ending to Deuteronomy, or was there a need to put a number of pieces together? Probably we will never know the complete story.

The point is that a work is still an author’s work even if it has been edited, revised, updated or otherwise added to. I own a commentary on James by Martin Dibelius. I still refer to it as by Martin Dibelius although I know that Heinrich Greeven revised and edited it (and then Michael A. Williams translated it into English…. It is still accurate to refer to it as by Dibelius (and to put his name on the cover) because the basic work is by him.

We have received letters from various executives with a note “signed in his (or her) absence” at the bottom after the signature. The executive in question probably told his or her secretary to reply to our letter along thus and so lines and then left the rest to be completed and mailed while they were away. It still carries the executive’s authority, even if the exact wording is that of the secretary.

Therefore, when the Bible says that a certain work is by a given individual, it need not mean that the author is always responsible for every word or even for the general style. The author is considered responsible for the basic content.[2]

The Pentateuch and the JEDP theory

See my brief article, ‘JEDP Documentary Hypothesis refuted’. What is the JEDP, also known as the Documentary Hypothesis? Brian Davis explained:

The JEDP theory, also known as the Documentary Hypothesis or the Graf­-Wellhausen theory, essentially states that the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Old Testament) is not the work of Moses as both the Old and New Testaments claim. Rather, those books are the work of editors called redactors who compiled and wove together various myths, legends and historical events long after the time of Moses. Since Graf and Wellhausen presented it in its classic form in 1895, the theory has gained wide acceptance. The JEDP theory served as a foundation for much of the modern hyper critical views of scripture. Moreover it is taught in both liberal and secular schools with little question as to its validity….

There are many complex versions of the theory, but the basic document definitions can be outlined here. “J” represents the unknown author of a document composed from 1000 to 900 BC in South Judea. “E” represents a document composed in North Israel in 721 BC. “J” and “E” are said to have been put together and edited during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC. “P” stands for the “priestly document” which the theocracy in Judea created for a record of worship, genealogies, dates, and measurements. “D” stands for the Deutoronomic code supposedly written for religious reform at the time of Josiah in 621 BC. These four documents were compiled and edited as the Pentateuch.[3]

This is not the place for a detailed critique of JEDP, but a few criticisms given by R. N. Whybray, who is certainly not a conservative, are in order:

1. While those espousing the documentary hypothesis assume that the biblical writers avoided repetitions, ancient literature from the same period reveled in repetitions and doublets as a mark of literary artistry.

2. The documentary hypothesis breaks up narratives into different sources thereby destroying their inherent literary and artistic qualities.

3. The source critics assume that variety in language and style is a sign of different sources, but it could just as well be a sign of differences in subject matter that carry with them their own distinctive vocabulary and style.

4. Inadequate evidence exists to argue for a sustained unique style, narrative story line, purpose and theological point of view in each of the four main documents that are thought to be the sources for the contents and message of the Pentateuch.[4]

This we know: The Pentateuch often refers to Moses as the author (eg Ex. 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; Num. 33:1-2; Deut. 31:9). Christ and the apostles gave unequivocal support for Moses as the author of the Torah (Law), eg John 5:46-57; 7:19; Acts 3:22 [cf. Deut. 18:15]; Rom. 10:5).

Therefore, for me, the issue is signed, sealed and delivered. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, can confidently be affirmed as having been written by Moses as both Old and New Testaments confirm Mosaic authorship. This is with the proviso that even if it is edited or revised by somebody else, it is still regarded as Mosaic authorship of the five books of the Pentateuch.


[1] This is based on an interaction I (ozspen) had with Jim Parker on Christian Fellowship Forum, Contentious Brethren, ‘Dawkins won’t debate creationists’, FatherJimParker #41, 5 June 2012, available at: http://community.compuserve.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?msg=121081.41&nav=messages&webtag=ws-fellowship (Accessed 6 June 2012).

[2] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce & Manfred T. Brauch 1996. ‘How do we know who wrote the Bible’, in Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, p. 37.

[3] Brian Davis 2012. The J.E.D.P. theory: An explanation and refutation (online). Xenos Christian Fellowship. Available at: http://www.xenos.org/ministries/crossroads/papers/vol1no2/v1n2p13.html#sdendnote1sym (Accessed 16 March 2013).

[4] Cited in Walter C. Kaiser Jr. 2001, The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant? InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, p.137.
Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 29 October 2015.