Question: Did Moses Write the Pentateuch?

The Pentateuch ("five-books" in Greek) includes the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures also called the Torah. The traditional view is that Moses is the author of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers. This appears incorrect however, and scholarship has definitively rejected mosaic authorship due to the underwhelming evidence for it and the overwhelming evidence against it.

Is there any positive-historical evidence Moses wrote the Pentateuch?

There is no plausible historical evidence Moses authored the first five books of the Old Testament. Moses probably lived around the 13th century BC but there is no contemporary-primary data or external corroboration or attestation in favor of Mosaic authorship. What we have is a very late Jewish belief that may only have appeared almost a millennium after the work was allegedly written. It seems to be a product of second-temple Judaism which makes the attestation extremely late and there are no known lines of transmission that can be established. So even if this doesn't tell us Moses did not author the Pentateuch, it tells us we do not possess any good historical evidence to the contrary.

Does the Pentateuch Identify Moses as Its Author

Eisegetical interpretations of Scripture provide the only "evidence" that can be mustered in favor of Mosaic authorship. Apologist Gleason Archer wrote:
First of all, the Pentateuch itself testifies to Moses as having composed it. The first clear indication of this is in Exodus 17 at verse 14: "And Yahweh said to Moses, 'Write this for a memorial in a book that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek.'" Now Amalek, the Amalekites, had attacked, without any provocation or any good reason, they had attacked the congregation of Israel as they were moving past their territory and tried to slaughter and to plunder. And Joshua was given the responsibility of leading the defense forces of Amalek which eventually prevailed. So the Lord said, "Now, write this down as my decree concerning the Amalekites that they shall be blotted out at some future generation because of this unprovoked and brutal aggression." [Link]
This is patently false. Exodus 17:14 does not state Moses wrote the Pentateuch and I question the reading comprehension skills of anyone suggesting otherwise. Any author could have written this about Moses, including Moses writing in the third person. That does not narrow our search down. If you encounter a story about Abraham Lincoln that states he wrote a book, that does not mean he wrote the book you are reading. This is a grotesque and egregious abuse of logic. All this passage of Scripture does is relay the notion that Moses was told to write a memorial book about a specific incident. Granting the legitimacy of the tradition, there is no indication the first five books of the Pentateuch are that book or that it survived. Exodus 24:3-4 says:
3 Moses went and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances, and all the people answered with one voice and said, "All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do." 4 And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning, built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel.
Archer writes of this: "And then in Exodus 24:4 we read that Moses wrote all the words of Yahweh. . . . Moses wrote all the words of Yahweh and in verse 7 of Exodus 24 he took the book of the covenant and read it in the audience of the people." Note again the poor exegesis of a conservative apologist arguing for Mosaic authorship. This does not state Moses wrote the Pentateuch. It says Moses wrote down the ordinances of the Lord. That is not the same thing as writing the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. That Moses authored something, that may be embedded within the traditions in the Torah, is not the same thing as Moses being the chief author of the entirety of it. Also notice that later on the words of the covenant consist of only two tablets in Exodus 34:27 which also only tells us that Moses wrote something:
27 The Lord said to Moses, "Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel." 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.
Moses is up there 40 days and 40 nights but only comes down with "the two tablets of the covenant in his hand." It sounds like the content of Exodus 34:27 is being attributed to the literary activity of Moses, not the entire Pentateuch. Writing the entire Pentateuch in stone would be a miracle in itself. Archer also appeals to Numbers 33:1-2 which says:
These are the stages by which the Israelites went out of the land of Egypt in military formation under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. 2 Moses wrote down their starting points, stage by stage, by command of the Lord, and these are their stages according to their starting places.
This ascribes literary activity to Moses but does not say he wrote the Pentateuch. Numbers 33:1-2 saying Moses wrote stuff down is not the same as it saying Moses wrote what you are reading right now or the entirety of the Torah. Deuteronomy 31:9 and 34 are considered important:
9 Then Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests,

24 When Moses had finished writing down in a book the words of this law to the very end, 25 Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, saying, 26 “Take this book of the law and put it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God; let it remain there as a witness against you.
All this necessarily does is attribute the law or legal ordinances to Moses. That Moses received the Law from God, and that Moses actually wrote the first five books of the Bible are not the same issue. Both could be true; both could be false or the former could be true while the latter is false and vice versa. The Pentateuch does not identify its author or authors but only describes the Law as coming from God through Moses. It also clearly ascribes literary activity to Moses but there is absolutely no early attestation or historical evidence for Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. What about the other references in the Old Testament to the law of the book of Moses? The Jewish Study Bible states:
When other biblical books refer to a Torah of Moses, they cite legal texts, and there is no reason to think that Genesis formed part of the corpus so designated. Indeed, there are several indications that the Genesis narrative assumes a post-Mosaic narrator without embarrassment (see the comments on 12.6, 14.14, and 36.31). In Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism, however, Genesis is treated as part of the Torah of Moses.
At best, we could claim Moses wrote part of the Torah. Jews base this claim on later tradition and Christians claim Jesus in support of Mosaic authorship. The latter of these two options will be discussed in a separate article.

The Problems with Mosaic Authorship

How Could Moses Narrate His own Death?

The Pentateuch, which describes Moses in the third person throughout, narrates his death at the end in Deuteronomy 34. Thinking Moses wrote this account is akin to a police detective visiting a crime scene and concluding a man tied himself up and then stabbed himself in the back! It is usually asserted as a defense that Joshua probably finished the story and that Moses wrote everything up to this point.

Moses's Death is Described in the Distant Past.

Deuteronomy 34:6 tells us that Moses was buried "in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day." To this day does not sound like Joshua finished the Pentateuch after Moses died, but someone long after referring to an event in the distant past. Likewise, at the end of the book we learn that "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses." (34:10)

Canaanites Described in the Past Tense .

Genesis 12:6 tell us "Abram passed through the land" when "the Canaanites were in the land." It uses the past tense indicating the Canaanites are no longer in the land when it was written. Moses clearly dies (Deut 32 and 34) while the Canaanites are still in possession of the land. He is explicitly (Deut 32) told to ascend a mountain and view the land of Canaan which will be given to the Israelites. He is forbidden to enter it and dies before the Israelites do (Deut 34).

Genesis Describes a Town Anachronistically.

Genesis 14:14 references Abraham pursuing the captors of his nephew as far as the town of Dan. The Jewish Study Bible writes, "Since the town of Dan did not acquire that name until long after Abram's time (Josh. 19.47; Judg. 18.27-29), Dan here is also anachronistic, reflecting the situation of a much later author."

Genesis Was Written After the Monarchy.

Genesis 36:31 says, "These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites." It expresses knowledge of the monarchy. I take it in the plural as indicating "kings". Thus, it must have been written long after Moses. Saul is recorded as the first king ca 1020 BC and Moses probably died two and a half centuries earlier. In order to preserve Mosaic authorship, it has to be argued that Moses is referencing himself as the first king (see Deut 33:5). Humorously, if Moses did write Numbers 12:3 he refers to himself, in the third person, as the humblest man to ever live on the face of the earth: "Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth." I don't think the humblest man to ever live would refer to himself as such and as an uncrowned king no less!

The Reference to the Philistines is Anachronistic.

Genesis 26:1 and 14-6 refer to the Philistines but historians do not believe they arrived in Canaan until around 1200 BC, many centuries before Isaac is believed to have lived. Bill Arnold writes:
The reference to "Philistines" in Gerar is problematic because the Philistines of later biblical times certainly did not occupy any portion of this region during any purported ancestral period. Their appearance here has at times been taken as a simple historical anachronism, assuming they are indeed the same people-group and that the narrator simply has them in the wrong time period, suggesting perhaps this is evidence of a late date of composition. But the narrator understands the many dramatic differences between the early Philistines of Gerar and the later Philistines, and it seems more likely that such references are proleptical, referring to the general region that would one day become the land of the Philistines (see commentary at 21:32).

The Other Side of the Jordan.

Genesis 50:10 refers to a place east of the Jordan as "the other side." The New Jerome Biblical Commentary says that "the designation of the land E of the Jordan as "the other side" indicates "the point of view of a resident of Palestine, which Moses never entered." Note that Deuteronomy 1:1 also has this perspective: "These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan." This scene also has a bit of a geographical curiosity to it. Bill Arnold [New Cambridge] writes: "For reasons not explained, the entourage travels around the southern tip of the Dead Sea and northward through the Transjordan, taking the long way around to Hebron for the burial itself."

Contradictions and Doublets in the Pentateuch

While the above reasons speak against Mosaic authorship of parts of the Pentateuch, the strongest evidence against it is the presence of doublets in the text and conflicting details. A "doublet" in simple terms is the same story told more than once where many times all the details do not agree. We turn now to a number of examples of this phenomenon.

Did God Reveal his Name to the Patriarchs?

God tells Moses in Exodus 6:3: "I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name 'The LORD' I did not make myself known to them. But Genesis 15:7 reads: Then he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess." We see here what are most likely different sources with different opinions on the issue.

The different divine names have been an often misunderstood part of the sources behind the Pentateuch. Friedmann writes:
This line of evidence is frequently described as a matter of terminology: namely, that different sources use different names for God. But that is not correct. The point is not that sources have different names of God. The point is that the different sources have a different idea of when the name Y H W H was first revealed to humans. According to J, the name was known since the earliest generations of humans. Referring to a generation before the flood, J says explicitly, "Then it was begun to invoke the name YHWH" (Gen 4:26). The use of the name by humans may go back even earlier in J, because Eve uses it when she names Cain (Gen 4:1). But in E and P it is stated just as explicitly that Y H W H does not reveal this name until the generation of Moses. In Genesis Y H W H instead tells Abraham that His name is El Shadday, thus:

Y H W H appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am El Shadday." (Gen 17:1)

And then when Y H W H speaks to Moses in Exodus, the text says: And God spoke to Moses and said to him, "I am YHWH. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shadday, and I was not known to them by my name, YHWH. (Exod 6:2-3)

The sources in the text are then nearly 100 percent consistent on this matter. The E and P sources identify God as El or simply as "God" (Hebrew: Elohim) until the name is revealed to Moses. After that, they use the name YHWH as well. The J source meanwhile uses the name YHWH from the beginning.

I added one more element to this picture. The J source never uses the word God (Elohim) in narration. When individual persons in the story are quoted, they may use this word; but the J narrator never uses the word, without a single exception in the Masoretic Text.

For the entire Torah, the picture is as follows: the names Y H W H and El and the word God (Elohim) occur more than two thousand times, and the number of exceptions to this picture is three. Despite this phenomenal fact, we still find writers on this subject asserting that "the names of God" do not prove anything.

What is the name of Moses's father-in-law?

In Exodus 2:18, Moses's father-in-law is called Reuel, but in Moses 3:1 and 4:18 he is called Jethro. Did Moses not know the name of his own father-in-law?

The Tent of Meeting

The Jewish Study Bile relays that "the description of the Tent of Meeting in [Exodus] 33.7-11 is inconsistent with, and oblivious to, both the immediately surrounding narrative and the description of the differently described Tent in chs 25-31 and 35-40. Inconsistencies such as these have alerted scholars to the presence of different written sources that were woven together to form the version we now have, and characteristic variations in vocabulary and ideas have guided them in identifying the sources from which various components stem." This indicates multiple sources by different authors.

Two Flood Accounts

It turns out that a careful reading of the flood account demonstrates that the final editor took two separate narratives and has ingeniously woven them together. There remains, however, some friction between the two accounts leading to contradictory details (see here). Joseph Blekinsopp writes:
"The arguments which have led scholars to postulate a combination of sources are fairly straightforward and have never been refuted. There are inconsistencies with respect to what was brought into the ark, the chronology, and perhaps the manner in which the deluge was brought about. We hear of one pair, male and female, of each species (6:19-20; 7:14-16), but also of seven pairs of clean and one pair of unclean animals (7:2-3, 8-9). We are told that the flood lasted 40 days (7:4, 12, 17; 8:6), or sixty-one, counting every day until the ground dried out (8:6-12), but we also hear of a duration of one hundred and fifty days (7:24; 8:3), a figure compatible with the five months from the beginning to the grounding of the ark on Ararat (8:4). While the description of the disaster as a downpour of rain (7:4, 12; 8:2) is not necessarily incompatible with the more mythological language of the bursting forth of the fountains of the great deep (7:11; 8:2) it is more natural to think of the latter as providing a quite distinctive perspective, especially if read in the larger context of Genesis 1-11."

. . . Noah is told to board the ark with family members and specifically designated livestock. He does so, and then the command is repeated with the same people and differently designated livestock, and he does so again (6:18b-21, 22; 7:1-5). In such cases it is unreasonable to exclude editorial activity carried out according to canons somewhat different from those we would follow today." [The Pentateuch, pp 77-78]

Multiple Creation Accounts in Genesis

A careful reading of Genesis 1-2 strongly suggests that we have two completely distinct creation accounts kicking off the Pentateuch that don't agree on all details when taken literally. Comparing the two accounts (1st = Genesis 1:2-2:3; 2nd = 2:4-2:25) reveals many differences: God's name is different (Elohim vs YAHWEH-Elohim), the order of creation is different (e.g. animals before or after humans?), the duration of creation is described differently (six days and one of rest vs "the day"), how God creates is different (by divine word: bar'a, or by fashioning: yatsar), the purpose of humans is different (rulers/stewards of the earth or caretakers of a garden), the primordial earth is different (watery-formless chaos that is ordered vs a desert turned into an oasis), and the image of God is different (transcendent in the first account but anthropomorphic and primitive in the second where we must ask, does he not know none of the animals will be a suitable helper for Adam?). I have treated this issue in more detail here.

What is the minimum age of service for Levites?

The minimum age of service for Levites is 25 in Numbers 8:24 but 30 per Numbers 4:3, 23 and 30. These types of errors can be multiplied many times over.

"Doublets" without Contradictions

There are a lot of repeats in the text that say the same exact thing without any contradiction. The following list is appropriated from William Propp [The Priestly Source Recovered Intact? Vetus Testamentum, Vol. 46, Fasc. 4 (Oct., 1996), pp. 458-478]:
It is extremely difficult to attribute these all to a single author.

31 Doublets in the Pentateuch

Friedmann [The Bible with Sources Revealed] listed the following 31 examples of doublets in the Pentateuch:

[1] Creation. Gen 1:1-2:3 (P) and Gen 2:4b-25 (J).
[2] Genealogy from Adam. Gen 4:17-26 (J) and 5:1-28,30-32 (Book of Records).
[3] The Flood. Gen 6:5-8; 7:1-5, 7,10,12,16b-20,22-23; 8:2b-3a,6,8-12,13b,20-22 (J) and 6:9-22; 7:8-9,11,13-16a,21,24; 8:1-2a, 3b-5,7,13a, 14-19; 9:1-17 (P).
[4] Genealogy from Shem. Gen 10:21-31 (J and P) and 11:10-2 (Book of Records).
[5] Abraham's migration. Gen 12:1-43 (J) and 12:4b-5 (P).
[6] Wife/sister. Gen 12:10-20 (J) and 20:1-18 (E) and 26:6-14 (J). (Triplet)
[7] Abraham and Lot separate. Gen 13:5, 7-11a, 12b-14 (J) and 13:6, 11b-12a (P).
[8] The Abrahamic covenant. Gen 15 (J, E, and R) and 17 (P).
[9] Hagar and Ishmael. Gen 16:1-2,4-14 (J) and 16:3,15-16 (P) and 21:8-19 (E). (Triplet)
[10] Prophecy of Isaac's birth. Gen 17:16-19 (P) and 18:10-14 (J).
[11] Naming of Beer-sheba. Gen 21:22-31 (E) and 26:15-33 (J).
[12] Jacob, Esau, and the departure to the east. Gen 26:34-35; 27:46; 28:1-9 (P) and 27:1-45; 28:10 (J).
[13] Jacob at Beth-El. Gen 28:10,11a,13-16,19 (J) and 28:11b-12, 1 7-18, 20-22 (E) and 35:9-15 (P). (Triplet)
[14] Jacob's twelve sons. Gen 29:32-35; 30:1-24; 35:16-20 (JE) and Gen 35:23-26 (P).
[15] Jacob's name changed to Israel. Gen 32:25-33 (E) and 35:9-10 (P).
[16] Joseph sold into Egypt. Gen 37:2b,3b,5-11,19-20,23,25b-27, 28b, 31-35; 39:1 (J) and 37:3a, 4, 12-18, 21-22, 24, 25a, 28a,29-30 (E).
[17] YHWH commissions Moses. Exod 3:2-4a,5,7-8,19-22; 4:19-20a (J) and 3:1,4b,6,9-18; 4:1-18, 20b-21a, 22-23 (E) and 6:2-12 (P). (Triplet)
[18] Moses, Pharaoh, and the plagues. Exod 5:3-6:1; 7:14-18, 20b-21, 23-29; 8:3b-11a, 16-28; 9:1-7,13-34; 10:1-19 , 21-26, 28-29; 11:18 (E) and 7:6-13,19-20a,22; 8:1-33,12-15; 9:8-12 (P).
[19] The Passover. Exod 12:1-20,28,40-50 (P) and 12:21-27,29-36, 37b-39 (E).
[20] The Red Sea. Exod 13:21-22; 14:53,6,9a,10b,13-14,19b,20b, 21b,24,27b,30-31 (J) and 14:1-4,8,9b, 10a, 10c, 15-18,21a,21c, 22-23,26-27a, 28-29 (P).
[21] Manna and quail in the wilderness. Exod 16:2-3,6-35a (P) and Num 11:4-34 (E).
[22] Water from a rock at Meribah. Exod 17:2-7 (E) and Num 20:2-13 (P).
[23] Theophany at Sinai/Horeb. Exod 19:1; 24:15b-18a (P) and 19:2b-9,16b-17,19; 20:18-21 (E) and 19:10-16a, 18,20-25 (J) (Triplet)
[24] The Ten Commandments. Exod 20:1-17 (R) and 34:10-28 (J) and Deut 5:6-18 (D). (Triplet)
[25] Kid in mother's milk. Exod 23:19 (Covenant Code) and 34:26 (J) and Deut 14:21 (D). (Triplet)
[26] Forbidden animals. Leviticus 11 (P) and Deuteronomy 14 (D).
[27] Centralization of sacrifice. Leviticus 17 and Deuteronomy 12.
[28] Holidays. Leviticus 23 (P) and Numbers 28-29 (R) and Deut 16:1-17 (P). (Triplet)
[29] The spies. Num 13:1-16,21,25-26,32; 14:13,2-3,5-10,26-29 (P) and 13:17-20,22-24,27-31,33; 14:1b, 4,11-25,39-45 (J).
[30] Heresy at Peor. Num 25:1-5 (J) and 25:6-19 (P).
[31] Appointment of Joshua. Num 27:12-23 (P) and Deut 31:14-15,23 (E).

Different source documents have clearly been woven together in the Pentateuch which leaves us with a number of incongruities. Friedman subscribes to the documentary hypothesis, the belief that several authors composed the Pentateuch and that we can determine these sources with a high degree of confidence. Proponents of the documentary hypothesis usually identify four main sources in the Pentateuch: J is the Yawhist source, E is the Elohist source, D is the Deuteronomist source and P is the Priestly source. These are the letters you see above in the listing of the 31 doublets. One does not have to agree with all details of the documentary hypothesis to understand the force of the argument presented here but the evidence is very strong. Friedmann [The Bible with Sources Revealed] lists 7 arguments in favor of the documentary hypothesis. One of them was partly stated above in dealing with the different expressions for the divine names of God. This occurred in a section of his work with the title "Consistent Content" which also included details about how the sources described sacred objects, priestly leadership and made use of numbers. Clear patterns emerged. Five other lines of evidence are listed below with the seventh and final one soon to follow:
Linguistic Evidence
When we separate the texts that have been identified with the various sources, we find that they reflect the Hebrew language of several distinct periods.

Certain words and phrases occur disproportionately-or even entirely-in one source but not in others. The quantity of such terms that consistently belong to a particular source is considerable.

Continuity of Texts (Narrative Flow)
One of the most compelling arguments for the existence of the source documents is the fact that, when the sources are separated from one another, we can read each source as a flowing, sensible text. That is, the story continues without a break. One of the primary purposes of this book is to demonstrate this fact. One can read the texts and see that, when we separate the two flood stories and read each of them (J and P, Genesis 6-9), for example, each reads as a complete, continuous story. And we can observe this kind of continuity through at least 90 percent of the text from Genesis to Deuteronomy.

Connections with Other Parts of the Bible
When distinguished from one another, the individual sources each have specific affinities with particular portions of the Bible. D has well-known parallels of wording with the book of Jeremiah. P has such parallels with the book of Ezekiel. J and E are particularly connected with the book of Hosea. This is not simply a matter of a coincidence of subject matter in these parallel texts. It is a proper connection of language and views between particular sources and particular prophetic works.

Relationships . . . to Each Other and to History
The sources each have connections to specific circumstances in history. And they have identifiable relationships with each other.
Friedmann's arguments are often caricatured by conservative scholars so I am going to end this argument with a lengthy quote from him which outlines the strongest and most compelling argument against Mosaic authorship that there is:
Above all, the strongest evidence establishing the Documentary Hypothesis is that several different lines of evidence converge. There are more than thirty cases of doublets: stories or laws that are repeated in the Torah, sometimes identically, more often with some differences of detail. The existence of so many overlapping texts is noteworthy itself. But their mere existence is not the strongest argument. One could respond, after all, that this is just a matter of style or narrative strategy. Similarly, there are hundreds of apparent contradictions in the text, but one could respond that we can take them one by one and find some explanation for each contradiction. And, similarly, there is the matter of the texts that consistently call the deity God while other texts consistently call God by the name YHWH, to which one could respond that this is simply like calling someone sometimes by his name and sometimes by his title. The powerful argument is not any one of these matters. It is that all these matters converge. When we separate the doublets, this also results in the resolution of nearly all the contradictions. And when we separate the doublets, the name of God divides consistently in all but three out of more than two thousand occurrences. And when we separate the doublets, the terminology of each source remains consistent within that source. (I listed twenty-four examples of such terms, which are consistent through nearly four hundred occurrences, above, in the Terminology section.) And when we separate the sources, this produces continuous narratives that flow with only a rare break. And when we separate the sources, this fits with the linguistic evidence, where the Hebrew of each source fits consistently with what we know of the Hebrew in each period. And so on for each of the six categories that precede this section. The name of God and the doublets were the starting-points of the investigation into the formation of the Bible. But they were not, and are not, major arguments or evidence in themselves. 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.

Conclusion: Mosaic authorship is dead in the water today. The evidence against it is insurmountable. The presence of conflicting details in the text is only a problem for inerrancy advocates. Bill Arnold writes:
While it may seem odd to us at first that an editor retained such discrepancies, we may assume that the sources or traditions underlying the whole had already attained authoritative status, and the editor valued the traditions enough to retain the inconsistencies, which were not problematic in ancient literature." [Genesis Baker Exegetical Commentary, 96-97]
The Jewish Study Bible notes that the intertwining of these distinct sources "could not have happened, however, if the existence of variation was seen as a serious defect or if rigid consistency was deemed essential to effective storytelling."

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