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Moses' Authorship & Editors
Traditionally, Jews and Christians have always believed that Moses wrote the first five Old Testament texts: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Jews call it the Torah (H8451, "Law" or "Instruction"). Christians refer to it as the Pentateuch, or "five texts."
However, many liberal Bible scholars believe that four authors wrote the Pentateuch: Yahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D), and Priestly (P). This is the Documentary Hypothesis, or the JEDP Theory. This idea conflicts with the more traditional belief of Mosaic authorship. Liberal scholars use the historical-critical method to see how the Bible compares to external evidence. Herein, the article considers both viewpoints and presents a balanced solution. That said, it defends the Jewish and Christian belief that Moses did, in fact, write the Pentateuch.
Biblical Evidence of Mosaic Authorship
Conservative scholars use the historical-grammatical method to see what the Bible says with its own internal evidence. Accordingly, the Pentateuch itself includes several verses that claim Moses wrote it with God's authority (cf. Exod. 17:14; 24:3-4, 7; 32:7-10, 30-34; 34:27; Lev. 26:46; 27:34; Deut. 31:9, 24-25). After this part of the Bible, Jews throughout Israel's history have always believed Moses authored the Torah (cf. Josh. 8:31-32; 1 Kgs. 2:3; Jer. 7:22; Ezra 6:18; Neh. 8:1; Mal. 4:4).
The "historical books" from Joshua to Ezra consistently describe the Torah as the "Book of the Law of Moses." Many skeptics deny that this in order to undermine its historicity. However, the texts after the Pentateuch often refer to Passover observance, showing the Israelites knew about the "Law of Moses." They celebrated this festival in the eras of Joshua (cf. Josh. 5:10; 4:19), Hezekiah (cf. 2 Chron. 30), Josiah (cf. 2 Kgs. 23; 2 Chron. 35), and Zerubbabel (cf. Ezra 6:19-22). The Old Testament writers also mentioned the Passover at 1 Kgs. 9:25 ("three times in a year"); 2 Kgs. 23:22; and 2 Chron. 8:13; 35:18. They also described the Feast of Tabernacles and other Jewish institutions. The "Law of Moses" phrase also occurs at 1 Kgs. 2:3; 2 Kgs. 14:6; 2 Chron. 23:18; 25:4; 34:14; Ezra 3:2; 7:6; and Dan. 9:11, 13. Moses probably wrote the bulk of the Pentateuch during Israel's forty years of wandering in the desert between c. 1446 and c. 1406 BC.
The New Testament writers also believed in Mosaic authorship (cf. Matt. 22:24; Acts 15:21). In many of his lessons, Jesus clearly taught that Moses wrote the Torah (cf. Matt. 5:17-18; 19:8; 22:31-32; 23:2; Mark 10:9; 12:26; Luke 16:31; 20:37; 24:26-27, 44; John 3:14; 5:45-47; 6:32, 49; 7:19, 22). His very identity as the Messiah of God and Israel depended on Moses' authorship of the Torah: "The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet" (Deut. 18:15; cf. Acts 3:22). Keep in mind, the New Testament authors were nearly all Jews (i.e., except Luke) and saw themselves as part of Israel's history.
Biblical Evidence of Later Editors
There is no contradiction between recognizing Moses as the author of the Pentateuch and admitting that later editors assembled it with their own notes. For example, Gen. 36:31 reads: "These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites." Israel did not have a king until its elders came to the prophet Samuel demanding, "Appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations" (1 Sam. 8:5b). This happened c. 1050 BC with God's appointment of Saul (cf. 1 Sam. 10:1). Moses died before the Israelites entered the Promised Land c. 1406 BC, meaning there were about 326 years between his death and Saul's birth in 1080 BC. However, Moses did foresee that Israel would eventually appoint a king (cf. Deut. 17:14-20), even with the future elders' words: "I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me" (v. 14c). We may see the similar wording as God inspiring a congruence in the Bible or historical coincidence, but an editor may have also been involved. However, it is apparent that an editor did write, ". . . before any king reigned over the Israelites." These calculations are based on 1 Kgs. 6:1 ("In the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel . . . he began to build the house of the LORD").
The most obvious passage in the Old Testament that demonstrates the work of a later editor is the one about Moses' death: "Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the LORD's command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated" (Deut. 34:5-7; emp. added). The grammar shows that Moses did not write these verses in anticipation of his death. However, the editor was a devout man who respected Moses' authorship of the Pentateuch, as well as his leadership of Israel.
Defenders of the Documentary Hypothesis believe the Pentateuch once included four separate and fully edited documents:
J—Yahwist favored the name Yahweh (Jahwe in German, as spoken by Julius Wellhausen [1844–1918], the original theorist of JEDP) for God before Israel existed (e.g. Gen. 4:26). Scholars place J in the Kingdom of Judah during Solomon's reign c. 950 BC.
E—Elohist preferred Elohim (Hebrew for "God") over Yahweh. However, he did call God "Yahweh" after Moses asked for the divine name (cf. Exod. 3:13-15); dated c. 850 BC.
D—Deuteronomist wrote Deuteronomy concerning laws and commandments.
P—Priestly source focused on accounts and laws regarding priests. Similar to E, P used the name Yahweh for post-Mosaic narratives (cf. Exod. 6:3). Most scholars date P either during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC or shortly afterward in the early fifth century BC.
* This is a simple explanation of the Documentary Hypothesis. CO/CF Ministry does not endorse it in full, but does weigh some of the data explored by textual critics.
For about 250 years since the Documentary Hypothesis began, liberals and conservatives in both academia and in the church have debated whether JEDP or Moses wrote the Pentateuch. However, both disregard the Bible's actual history, reading in anachronistic ideas into the text. For liberals, they assume the Pentateuch was edited or redacted by JEDP simply because Renaissance (1401–1527) scholars once did this to The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the "Received Text" (Latin: Textus receptus)—to scripture itself. In this case, the liberal minds of nineteenth-century Europe were trying to correct the faulty assumptions of fifteenth-century conservatives with faults of their own. In scholarship, like in other areas of life, two wrongs do not make a right.
In faith, a Christian may believe that God inspired Moses to write the Pentateuch while still realizing that he also oversaw the editorial process. We acknowledge this about the New Testament; that the early church leaders canonized it following the apostolic age. However, this does not mean JEDP or some other editors and/or redactors changed the Pentateuch. The editors were Israelite and Jewish scholars who worked for kings like David, Solomon, or Josiah much like the Christian scholars who work for academic publishers today. For liberals, there is too much analysis of handwriting, for example, knowing full well that everyone's writing changes over time and between audiences. Even today, we all write emails differently than a business memo or personal correspondence. For conservatives, there is not enough consideration of historical, cultural, and socioeconomic contexts behind scripture. To read the Bible historically is to take it literally!
The Documentary Hypothesis is now becoming a minority view in biblical scholarship, even for liberals, because archaeology does not support it. The whole idea was based on an exaggerated and politicized attempt at literary criticism. However, it failed to consider the evidence left by ancient Near Eastern civilizations. For example, there are two references to Yahweh in two Egyptian texts, one dating c. 1400 BC during the reign of Amenhotep III (1390–1353 BC) and the other to c. 1300 BC during the reign of Seti I (1290–1279 BC). There was also a hieroglyphic mention of an Edomite region called "Land of the Shasu of Yahweh." Yes, many scholars do, in fact, deliberately ignore evidence which contradicts their ideas. That said, the archaeological evidence against the Documentary Hypothesis is building up too much for the grant-money chasers to ignore. The mention of Yahweh one century removed from Moses beyond Israel's borders in Egypt—the polytheistic nation that had once enslaved it—disproves that some editor called J one-thousand or so years later first called God "Yahweh."
In conclusion, the actual reason that Moses used both Elohim (H430) and Yahweh (H3068 & H3069) to describe God was to convey his transcendence and his immanence. When God created the universe, Moses rightly called him Elohim in the uni-plural (see "Trinity: Jewish & Gentile Views") and monotheistic senses. When Moses asked for God's name, he learned that God relates to us always in the present. God personally meets us to say, "I AM WHO I AM" (Exod. 3:14).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, we give thanks to you, for all your servants and witnesses of time past: for Abraham, the father of believers, and Sarah his wife; for Moses, the lawgiver, and Aaron, the priest; for Miriam and Joshua, Deborah and Gideon, and Samuel with Hannah his mother; for David, King over Israel; for Isaiah and all the prophets; for Mary, the mother of our Lord; for Peter and Paul and all the apostles; for Mary and Martha, and Mary Magdalene; for Stephen, the first martyr, and all the martyrs and saints in every age and in every land. In your mercy, Lord our God, give us, as you gave to them, the hope of salvation and the promise of eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, the first-born of many from the dead. Amen.
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