Essential Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch
This article summarizes the attacks on Mosaic authorship and defends the position that Moses was the principal author of the Torah (Pentateuch).
The first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) are often referred to as the Torah (Law) or the Pentateuch. This first section of the Old Testament is foundational to God’s story of redemptive history. Although the Pentateuch is strictly anonymous and does not have an explicitly named author, there is ample evidence that supports the argument that the author of these five books was Moses.
The traditional view that Moses composed the Pentateuch was well established by both Jewish and early Christian tradition. Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, scholars widely agreed that the Pentateuch was essentially written by Moses. It is only in the last 300 years that scholars have challenged the internal evidence of Scripture and questioned the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. This article summarizes these attacks on Mosaic authorship and defends the position that Moses was the principal author of the Pentateuch.
Attacks on Mosaic Authorship
During the time of Ezra, the Jewish people had recognized that the Pentateuch was God’s special revelation to Moses. Ecclesiasticus, written around 200 B.C., affirms the author of the first five books as Moses (Sirach 24:23). Ancient historians Philo and Josephus also confirm the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch in their historical writings, and the later Mishnaic and Talmudic authorities do the same.
No serious questions against Mosaic authorship were suggested until 1753 when French physician Astruc published a dissertation suggesting that Moses used two documents and several additional fragments in his composition of the Pentateuch. His conclusions were based on two observations: (1) duplicate narratives of the creation and flood account and (2) the use of two names for God. The name Elohim was used for God in Genesis 1, while the name Jehovah was primarily used in Genesis 2. In 1780, German scholar Eichhorn systematized what was originally postulated by Astruc, and he added literary style as another evidence that Moses had used multiple sources. He proceeded to divide the entire Pentateuch into the Jahwist and the Elohist (J and E), and he argued that the Pentateuch was certainly written after the time of Moses.
In the nineteenth century, Karl Heinrich Graf expanded this documentary hypothesis and identified four distinct writers. Following Graf in 1878, German critic Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) popularized the ideas of these previous scholars and concluded that the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses but by other writers from the 9th century into the 5th century B.C. Modern discussions of the documentary hypothesis refer to this literary-critical theory proposed by Wellhausen.
The Wellhausen documentary hypothesis regards the Pentateuch as a composite of four separate works composed by the “Yahwist,” the “Elohist,” the “Deuteronomist,” and the “Priestly” writer.  These works are abbreviated “J,” “E,” “D,” and “P.” Document J was written around 850 B.C. in the southern kingdom Judah. Document E was written around 750 B.C. in the northern kingdom Israel. Document J and E were combined by a redactor in 650 B.C. Document D was written under the supervision of a high priest around the reign of Josiah in 620 B.C. Document P was composed over a wider period of time, perhaps from the time of Ezekiel to that of Ezra around 500–450 B.C.
There are five arguments used to support the documentary hypothesis. The first argument is the use of different Hebrew names for God. In Genesis 1:1–2:3, the Hebrew word אֱלֹהִים was used to reference God, but in Genesis 2:4 through the end of Genesis 3, יהוה was added and used. The documentary hypothesis explains this phenomenon by suggesting the existence and use of different sources. Source document J uses the name יהוה while documents E and P use the name אֱלֹהִים. A later redactor took different passages from different sources and pieced them together without changing the original form of these Divine Names.
The second argument is the varying language styles found in the five books. The documentary hypothesis identifies the different linguistic aspects uniquely characteristic in the various sources. For example, in the genealogy record in Genesis 4:18–22, the Hebrew verb ילד meaning “to give birth” is in the qal form found in the hypothetical document J. The subsequent Genesis 5 genealogy record uses the same Hebrew verb about 40 times but in the hiphal form, and it originated from the hypothetical document P.
The third argument is the apparent contradictory viewpoints found in the Pentateuch. A common example cited is the different ways God is described through the Pentateuch. Document J would describe God as the personal, immanent God of the nation of Israel. Document E describes God as more distant who reveals himself to men only in visions and dreams. Document P further distances the transcendent God and man and creates a picture of “a deep gulf that cannot be crossed by any material bridge.”
The fourth argument is the use of repetition and duplication in the five books. The documentary hypothesis spotlights the two different creation accounts found in the first two chapters of Genesis. Another set of similar accounts are Sarah’s encounter with the Pharoah in Egypt (Gn 12:10–20), her encounter with Abimelech in Gerar (Gn 20), and Rebekah’s encounter with Abimelech in Gerar (Gn 26:7–11).
The fifth argument is the apparent usage of a composite structure in the various sections of the five books. Proponents of the documentary hypothesis speculate that an editor used two or three sources to create a composite manuscript. He would copy a few words from one source before citing a second source.
Response to the Documentary Hypothesis
The documentary hypothesis presupposes that the Pentateuch is not God’s supernatural revelation. Many advocates of this hypothesis deny the inerrancy and the infallibility of Scripture. They attempt to exclusively use evidence found in the text itself, but they ignore textual evidence that counters its beliefs. This hypothesis also presupposes that dating of the Pentateuch could be made over 3000 years later without any serious comparative analysis with other ancient Hebrew literature.
The variation of the Divine Names used in the Pentateuch were purposeful with intended meaning. אֱלֹהִים is a common noun that was applied to both “the One God of Israel and to the heathen gods.” In contrast, the proper noun יהוה is the reserved name for the one and only God of Israel. To illustrate, a person can use the common noun “city” or its proper name “San Francisco” interchangeably. The same person can say, “I live in San Francisco” and “I live in The City.” When observing the entire corpus of the Old Testament, יהוה and אֱלֹהִים are used interchangeably in the Former Prophets (Joshua, Samuel, and Kings), the book of Jonah, portions of Isaiah, and the narrative portions of Job. Therefore, it could also have been used interchangeably in the Pentateuch by one single author.
In reference to the different linguistic aspects of the Pentateuch, one should assume that a skilled, ancient Hebrew writer was capable of using more than one style of writing. “According to these theorists (to use an illustration from English literature), a single author like Milton could not possibly have written merry poems such as L’Allegro, lofty epic poetry such as Paradise Lost, and scintillating prose essays such as Areopagitica.” To state that a single author is incapable of describing different attributes of God is also false. One single author could know and describe God as both transcendent and immanent, just yet merciful.
In reference to the two creation accounts, each serves a different purpose. The first account depicts an almighty אֱלֹהִים creating the entire universe ex nihilo with its individual parts in six days. This opposes the pagan creation accounts with their false gods and the modern theories of evolution denying any god. The second account in Genesis 2 introduces the story of Eden and the personal יהוה connecting with man and his other created beings. This provides the necessary background for man’s fall into sin in Genesis 3. Moses may have used certain sources in the composition of Genesis, but to suggest that Moses could not have authored both accounts and to suggest another editor copied two outside sources is both unnecessary and unmerited.
Roger Norman Whybray, a twentieth century Hebrew scholar, rejected the documentary hypothesis and postulated that the Pentateuch was written by a single author but no earlier than the sixth century BC. He drew these conclusions by appreciating similarities between the written history by Herodotus and the Pentateuch. Rolf Rendtorff believed that one Deuteronomist editor was responsible for the final form of the Pentateuch. Thomas L. Thompson rejected the documentary hypothesis, and he also distrusted Genesis as credible history. Instead, Thompson believed the Pentateuch was written literature that memorialized the oral, origin tradition of Israel. Today, there is no consensus in modern academic circles as to how the Pentateuch was written and compiled.
Evidence of Mosaic Authorship
Despite the recent proposals aforementioned, there is ample evidence to support the traditional view that Moses was the principal author of the Pentateuch. There is substantial internal testimony in the Old and New Testament and recent archeological discoveries that point to Mosaic authorship. Although Moses may not have written every single Hebrew word of the Pentateuch, the probability that other inspired writers made minor updates does not nullify Moses as the essential author.
Internal Testimony from Holy Scripture
The Pentateuch testifies that Moses was its author. God had commanded Moses to record historical contents in the Pentateuch (Ex 17:14; Nm 33:1–2). The words given by God in Exodus 20–24 are attributed to Moses (Ex 24:4), and Moses was instructed to write the commandments (Ex 34:27) found in Exodus 34. Throughout the Pentateuch, it is recorded that God gave his commandments and laws to Moses (Lv 26:46; 27:34; Nm 36:13) and that Moses wrote down God’s laws (Dt 31:9, 19, 24). Moses was commanded by God to write a song and teach its content to the Israelites (Dt 31:22).
Testimony of the Old Testament Prophets
Joshua attributed God’s laws as written by Moses (Jo 1:7), and Joshua called God’s commandments “the book of the law of Moses.” (Jo 8:31) The book of Kings affirms that God’s priestly laws and ordinances were written in the book of “the law of Moses.” (1 Kgs 2:3; 2 Kgs 14:6; 21:8). Ezra referred to the laws regarding the priests as “written in the book of Moses” (Ezr 6:18), and Nehemiah also referenced God’s laws as the “book of Moses.” (Neh 13:1) The prophets Daniel and Malachi both named Moses as the author of God’s law (Dn 9:13; Mal 4:4).
Testimony of Jesus
Jesus declared that the sacrificial laws (Mt 8:4; Mk 1:44; Lk 5:14), the ten commandments (Mk 7:10), and the divorce laws (Mt 19:8; Mk 10:5) were all written in the Pentateuch by Moses. Christ made numerous references to events and characters in the Pentateuch as historical and instructive (Mt 11:23–24; 19:4–5; 24:37; Lk 11:51; 17:32; Jn 8:58). He referred to the beginning of the Hebrew Bible as written by Moses (Lk 24:27), and he called the Old Testament “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.” (Lk 24:44) Jesus declared, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (Jn 5:46–47)
Testimony of the Apostles
Stephen stated that God’s laws were written by Moses (Acts 6:14) as did the believers in the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:5). The Apostle Paul affirmed Moses’ authorship during his trial with King Agrippa (Acts 26:22) as did Luke in his conclusion in the book of Acts (Acts 28:23). Paul named Moses as the author of the Pentateuch in his epistles (Rom 10:5; 1 Cor 9:9), and the author of Hebrews does the same (Heb 9:19; 10:28).
Other Internal Evidences
Gleason Archer gives several other pieces of internal evidences on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch that can be discovered with a careful examination of the inspired text. First, he argues that the details in the Exodus account (Ex 15:27) and the taste of manna (Nm 11:7–8) suggest the author was an actual eyewitness. Second, the details about Egypt in the Pentateuch demand the author had lived in Egypt before the Exodus. The climate and weather patterns recorded in the Exodus account were typical of Egypt and not Palestine, and the trees and animals referenced in the Pentateuch were all indigenous to Egypt or the Sinai Peninsula. The Pentateuch also uses a number of Egyptian words and Egyptian expressions like “bow the knee” (Gen 41:43) suggesting its author was influenced by an Egyptian upbringing. Archer also recognized that customs referenced in Genesis were only practiced in second millennium B.C. but ceased to continue in first millennium B.C.
Archeology has made new discoveries in the last two hundred years that support the probability that the Pentateuch is both historically reliable and written by Moses. In the nineteenth century, there was no archeological evidence of writing in Palestine during the second millennium B.C. But more recently, discoveries have been made that “confirmed the use of alphabetic writing in the Canaanite-speaking cultures before 1500 B.C.” Recent discoveries have also confirmed the unique custom that Pharoah’s daughter would bath in the Nile in contrast to more modern times when this was only practiced by women of a lower order.
More writings of the ancient Near East have been discovered that give further insight to the likelihood of an early dating of the Pentateuch. In the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation account recovered and translated in the late nineteenth century, Marduk is the preeminent god, but he is given fifty different names. Advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis would not suggest that each name was taken from a different source.
Unique Qualifications of Moses
Based from Scripture, Moses had several qualities that make him uniquely qualified to be the principal author of the Pentateuch. Adopted into Pharoah’s family as a prince, Moses was given all the privileges of royalty upbringing in the Egyptian court including the finest education (Acts 7:22). Based on Egyptian artifacts dated during the time of Moses, many historians agree that Egypt was the most literate country in the Fertile Crescent. At the same time, because of his Jewish heritage and ancestry, Moses would have received knowledge from oral tradition originating from the patriarchs in Canaan. With the wealth of knowledge acquired from his mother and fellow Israelites, Moses would have been fully equipped under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to pen the contents found in the book of Genesis.
Having lived in Egypt for 40 years and having spent another 40 years in Midian near Sinai, Moses had eyewitness knowledge and expertise of the climate, the fifteenth-century cultural practices, and the geography of Egypt and the Sinai peninsula. As God’s chosen leader of Israel, Moses would have reason and motivation to compose the Pentateuch to record God’s historical dealings, his laws and rules for worship, and his future promises. In fact, because writing was ubiquitous in Egypt, it would be unfathomable for Moses to neglect taking effort to create a written record of the most significant matters of the newly formed nation of Israel. Therefore, Moses’s education and upbringing, his Jewish ancestry, and his first-hand participation in the Exodus and desert wandering make him uniquely qualified to write the Pentateuch.
Inspired Textual Updating After the Death of Moses
Although Moses is believed to be the principal author, that does not preclude the reality that some minor additions and edits were made under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by various individuals after the death of Moses. The most obvious post-Mosaic addition is found in Deuteronomy 34:5–12 which records Moses’s death, burial, and tribute. Often, an author’s work is published posthumorously, so Joshua or another custodian of the Pentateuch would have added a notice of Moses’s death.
Another likely inspired update is the reference to “Ur of the Chaldeans” found in Genesis 11:28. The appearance of the Chaldeans in southern Babylon did not occur until the eighth century B.C., so likely this edit was made to distinguish Ur from other cities that carried the same name. There is a reference to a place named “Dan” in Genesis 14:14. The city of Leshem was renamed Dan when the tribe of Dan conquered the Canaanite city after the death of Moses (Jo 19:47–48). Although the place named “Dan” has appeared as early as 2700 B.C., “Dan” may also have been a minor post-Mosaic update after the conquest of Canaan.
There is a Hebrew phrase frequently used in the Pentateuch translated “until this day” or “to this day.” This phrase conveys the meaning that the recorded event still has present impact. There are at least nine occurrences of this phrase: Genesis 26:33; 32:32; 47:26; Deuteronomy 2:22; 3:14; 10:8; 11:4; 29:28; 34:6. Many of these phrases do not make sense if understood to be referencing the time of Moses. Therefore, it is also likely that some of these phrases were added for clarification after Moses. The Pentateuch also cists an outside course, the "Book of the Wars of Yahweh." (Nm 21:14) This written source may be a post-Conquest document that also suggests a later addition.
The acceptance that Moses was the substantial author of the Pentateuch is important for evangelical Christians. There is overwhelming internal evidence in the Christian Bible that its first five books were penned by Moses. Debate continues today as to exactly what it means that Moses was the Pentateuch’s substantial author. Was there an early form of the Pentateuch written by Moses that was not totally finished until later, and if so, how different was this early form in comparison to the final Hebrew text preserved today? But to deny the essential Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is to cast doubt on the inspiration, infallibility, and reliability of the Christian Bible.
R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament with a Comprehensive Review of Old Testament Studies and a Special Supplement on the Apocrypha, 3. Aufl. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1969), 497. ↩︎
U. Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch: Eight Lectures, trans. Israel Abrahams (Skokie, Illinois: Varda Books, 2005), 10. ↩︎
R. K. Harrison, “Genesis,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1982), 432. ↩︎
Gleason L. Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 3rd. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 91. ↩︎
Edward D. Andrews, Mosaic Authorship Controversy: Who Really Wrote the First Five Books of the Bible? (Cambridge, Ohio: Christian Publishing House, 2019), 14–15. ↩︎
Archer, A Survey of OT Introduction, 97–98. ↩︎
Cassuto, 13–14. ↩︎
Cassuto, 53. ↩︎
Cassuto, 17. ↩︎
Cassuto, 21. ↩︎
Archer, A Survey of OT Introduction, 114. ↩︎
Duane A. Garrett, Rethinking Genesis: The Sources and Authorship of the First Book of the Bible (Fearn: Christian Focus Publications, 2000). 47–50. ↩︎
Eugene H. Merrill, Mark Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti, The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011). 165. ↩︎
Garrett, 244–245. ↩︎
Archer, A Survey of OT Introduction, 118–126. ↩︎
Gleason L. Archer Jr., New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties: Based on the NIV and the NASB (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1982), 46. ↩︎
Archer, A Survey of OT Introduction, 173. ↩︎
Andrews, 65. ↩︎
Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 51. ↩︎
Archer, A Survey of OT Introduction, 125. ↩︎
Archer, A Survey of OT Introduction, 276. ↩︎
Merrill, Rooker, and Grisanti, 86. ↩︎
Archer, A Survey of OT Introduction, 228. ↩︎
Raymond B. Dillard and Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 40. ↩︎