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Who Wrote the Pentateuch?. Was Moses the Author?. By the time the First Testament was canonized (AFTER the beginning of the Christian movement), it was generally held that Moses was the author of all five books of the Torah.

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was moses the author
Was Moses the Author?
  • By the time the First Testament was canonized (AFTER the beginning of the Christian movement), it was generally held that Moses was the author of all five books of the Torah.
  • Suggestions to the contrary were dismissed or met with hostility until the 1800s.
  • Currently, most scholars do not think Moses wrote all five books and would question whether he even wrote very much of any book.
  • What is the evidence from the texts themselves?
textual evidence for mosaic authorship
Textual evidence for Mosaic authorship:
  • Some texts in the Torah and the rest of the Jewish Bible say that Moses wrote some narratives and a legal code. (Exodus 17:14, 24:4, 34:27-28; Numbers 33:2, Deuteronomy 31:9, 24-26; Joshua 8:31-34, 1 Kings 2:3, 2 Kings 14:6, 2 Chronicles 23:18, 2 Chronicles 25:4, 2 Chronicles 35:12, Ezra 6:18, Nehemiah 8:1, Nehemiah 8:14, Nehemiah 13:1).
  • None of these texts say that Moses wrote all or even most of Genesis-Deuteronomy.
later jewish tradition and the new testament
Later Jewish Tradition and the New Testament
  • The practice of attributing everything in these books to Moses in Jesus’ day does not necessarily mean that anyone knew this for a fact or stopped to think about whether the attribution was fully accurate.
  • This was a way of telling people where they could find the text being quoted.
  • Jews, Jesus (who was a Jew, of course) and early Christians did assume that Moses’ (and God’s!) authority lay behind all of these texts.
  • That is not an historical claim but a theological one.

Problems with assuming that Moses is the author:

anachronisms and contrasting doublets

There are a number of anachronisms:

  • Moses is always referred to in the third person.
  • Would “the most humble of men, the humblest man on earth” (Numbers 12:3) write that about himself?
  • Deuteronomy repeatedly uses the phrase “to this day” (e.g., 3:14; 34:6).
  • How did Moses recount his own death and burial, in the past tense?
  • Whoever wrote about Moses’ death seems to write in the same style as the rest of Deuteronomy and later books (Joshua through 2 Kings).
  • “Never since has there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses” (Deuteronomy 34:10): sounds like an assessment made after other prophets arose.
  • Genesis repeatedly mentions: “at that time the Canaanites were in the land” (e.g., 12:6; 13:7), which implies that they are no longer there at the time of writing (but they were there before the Israelites occupied Canaan).
  • Passages refer to lands east of the Jordan as “beyond the Jordan” (Genesis 50:10; Numbers 21:1)
  • Genesis refers to kings who ruled “before any king reigned over the Israelites” (Genesis 36:31).
Besides anachronisms, there seem to be a considerable number of “doublets”—“stories or laws that are repeated in the Torah, sometimes identically, more often with [notable] differences in detail” [Richard Elliot Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco 2003), p. 27].
  • Friedman lists 31 doublets (sometimes triplets).
  • We’ll look at three.
Genesis 1


Six days

Heavens and earth (heaven focused)

Creates by speaking

Follows a blueprint



Humans: male/female

Genesis 2

YHWH Elohim

One day

Earth and heavens (earth focused)

Works with hands, breath


Human (adham=“earthling”?)


Animals (possible spouses!)

Splits human into male/female

Genesis 1-2 seems to have two versions of creation, with different names for God and a different order of events.
Version 1



One pair of every animal

Noah/family enter ark on the same day the flood begins

Flood lasts 150 days

Version 2


Sorry about creating humans

Seven pairs of all clean animals/birds; one pair of all unclean animals

Noah/family enter ark seven days before the flood begins

Flood lasts 40 days

Genesis 6-8 seems to interweave two flood stories which make perfect sense, but don’t match, when separated by the name used for God.
Version 1


Israelites flee

Pharaoh responds

Egyptians pursue

A pillar of cloud stands between Israel & the Egyptians

Sea pushed back from shore by a wind

Egyptians thrown into panic

Egyptians flee onto dry seabed & are drowned when the sea returns

Version 2


Israelites permitted to leave

Pharaoh’s & Egyptians’ minds are changed

Egyptians pursue

Angel of Elohim stands between Israel and the Egyptians

Nothing happens to the sea.

Angel clogs Egyptians’ chariot wheels; they can’t pursue (but are not killed)

There seem to be actually three versions of the crossing of “The Red Sea” (Yam Suf), which hang more or less together when separated (Exodus 13:17-14:31)

  • Version 3
  • YHWH
  • Israelites leave
  • YHWH hardens Pharaoh’s heart
  • Egyptians pursue
  • Moses splits sea, creating a path with walls of water on both sides
  • Egyptians pursue Israelites into the path
  • Moses closes sea, drowning the Egyptians
the documentary hypothesis stage 1
The Documentary Hypothesis: Stage 1
  • To account for the anachronisms and these contrasting doublets (and triplets), scholars eventually came up with “The Documentary Hypothesis.”
  • In the 1700s three scholars, working independently, noticed a pattern: Many of the doublets used a different name for God in each version (YHWH, Elohim).
  • This led to the distinction between the J and E sources. [J stands for JHWH—the German spelling.]
the documentary hypothesis stage 2
The Documentary Hypothesis: Stage 2
  • Scholars still found doublets in E (e.g., the crossing of Yam Suf), so, following the same logic, they hypothesized a third source.
  • They noticed that some of the doublets in E were preoccupied with priests, so they used that to distinguish a Priestly source, P, from the rest of E. It includes almost all of Leviticus.
  • Then scholars noticed that this scheme seemed to be making more sense of Genesis-Numbers, but not of Deuteronomy, which seemed to have its own independent style, so they hypothesized a fourth source, D.
the documentary hypothesis stage 3
The Documentary Hypothesis: Stage 3
  • This still did not account for everything (e.g., God is called YHWHElohim in Genesis 2 &3, but nowhere else in the entire Pentateuch), but scholars could always attribute anomalies like that to one or more Redactors (i.e., editors).
  • After all, somebody had to weave these sources together.
J — the Jahwist. J describes a human-like God called Yahweh who speaks directly to people. J has a special interest in Judah and in the Aaronid priesthood. J has an extremely eloquent style. J uses an earlier form of the Hebrew language than P.
  • E — the Elohist. E describes a human-like God initially called Elohim, and called Yahweh subsequent to the incident of the burning bush. In E God tends to communicate through dreams. E focuses on the northern kingdom of Israel and on the Shiloh priesthood. E has a moderately eloquent style. E uses an earlier form of the Hebrew language than P.
  • P — the Priestly source. P describes a distant and unmerciful God, sometimes referred to as Elohim or as El Shaddai. P partly duplicates J and E, but alters some details, and also consists of most of Leviticus. P has its main interest in an Aaronid priesthood and in King Hezekiah. P has a low level of literary style, and has an interest in lists, precise measurements, and dates.
  • D — the Deuteronomist. D consists of most of Deuteronomy. D probably also wrote the Deuteronomistic history (Josh, Judg, 1 & 2 Sam, 1 & 2 Kgs). D has a particular interest in the Shiloh priesthood and in King Josiah. D uses a form of Hebrew similar to that of P, but in a different literary style.
friedman s assessment p 28
Friedman’s Assessment (p. 28)

The different names of God in contrasting doublets were the starting point for the hypothesis. But the most compelling case comes from the convergence of other patterns which were later noticed.

When we try separating contrasting doublets:

  • “This also results in the resolution of nearly all the contradictions.”
  • “The name of God divides consistently in all but three out of more than two thousand occurances.”
  • “The terminology of each [hypothesized] source remains consistent within that source.” Friedman lists 24 examples of terms “which are consistent through nearly four hundred occurances.”
  • “This produces continuous narratives that flow with only a rare break.”
  • “The Hebrew of each source fits consistently with what we know of the Hebrew of each period [from archeology].”
friedman s assessment continued
Friedman’s assessment (continued):


  • “The most compelling argument for the hypothesis is that this hypothesis best accounts for the fact that all this evidence of so many kinds comes together so consistently.”
  • “To this day, no one known to me who challenged the hypothesis has ever addressed this fact.”
  • In fact, Friedman argues, no scholar is clever enough to make all the evidence line up in this way.
  • So it cannot be dismissed as, say, a secular humanist conspiracy of scholars setting out to find the results they wanted to find.