Authorship of the Torah

Was it really Moses?

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons)

For centuries it was taken for granted within both conservative and orthodox Christian and Jewish circles that the first five books of the Old Testament were authored by Moses. Today, that attitude and belief has not changed in evangelist and conservative circles. The late evangelist Gleason Archer for example says:

“When all the data of the Pentateuchal text have been carefully considered, and all the evidence, both internal and external, has been fairly weighed, the impression is all but irresistible that Mosaic authorship is the one theory which best accords with the surviving historical data.” [1]

Disagreeing with the above designation Edward P. Blair states, “The Pentateuch nowhere clearly claims that Moses was the author of whole of it.”[2]

It was not until quite recently in history that the predominantly held view among Christian and Jewish scholars for Mosaic authorship of the Torah and the accuracy of details therein was seriously challenged. The German scholar Julius Wellhausen came to the scene in the 19th century(1876) and stirred the hornet’s nest  with his refined and elaborate ‘documentary hypothesis’ in Prolegomena to the history of Israel . Prior to him John Calvin questioned the literal interpretation of the creation story in Genesis:

“John Calvin, the greatest systematic thinker in the Protestant tradition, argued during the sixteenth century that Genesis I did not reflect the facts of physics and astronomy, but described the creation of the earth for the benefit of ancient Hebrew observers who had no understanding of science.” [3]

However, Wellhausen was not the first scholar to question the traditional Mosaic authorship position. Five centuries before Calvin, a rabbi in Spain was critical of the traditional designation for Torah authorship. Meyers and Rogerson mentions the following:

“The first real criticism of the notion of Mosaic authorship came in a veiled remark by the eleventh-century Spanish rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, in his commentary on Deuteronomy. Ibn Ezra pointed to five cases in the Torah (the Pentateuch) that clearly seem to be additions or expansions that originated after Moses’ time – the account of Moses’ own death and burial in Deuteronomy 34 being the most obvious instance. Ibn Ezra also correctly noted that the mention of the “mount of Yahweh” (i.e., the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) in the story of Isaac’s binding (Genesis 22:14 is anachronistic, because the Temple did not exist before King Solomon’s time.” [4]

Similarly, A.D.H. Mayes says:

“In so far as the rise of Pentateuchal criticisim is to be linked with the questioning of the tradition of its Mosaic authorship, the origins of the critical approach go back to Ibn Ezra in the Middle Ages, but it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that the classical critical theories began to be worked out.”[5]

There were several others not too far apart from Wellhausen’s time that contributed to the documentary hypothesis. A French physician named Jean Astruc made a novel attempt to identify alternative sources of Genesis in his Conjectures About the Original Memoirs Which It Appears Moses used to Compose the Book of Genesis. Astruc suggested that some of the sources can be determined by looking at the names used for God, Elohim and Yahweh. He pointed out that Genesis 1 indicates that the author knows only a God named Elohim whilst Genesis 2 indicates that the author only knows the name Yahweh for God. An instrumental contribution to the development of the documentary hypothesis is found in the work of Wilhelm M.L. DeWette in Beitrage zur Einleitung in das Alte Testament in 1807.  In the said work he postulated that none of the Pentateuch can be dated before David (1010-970 B.C.E.). He also posited that Deuteronomy was the book discovered by the priest, Hilkiah during Josiah’s reform mentioned in 621 as mentioned in 2 Kings 22:8. DeWette proposed that the last book was composed at the behest of Josiah in support on the emphasis given to a central place of worship which was to him necessary to stop the Jews from sacrificing at high locations in different places so as to inculcate better religious and political unity in his kingdom. [6]

In his exposition on the non-Mosaic origin of the Torah Stephen L. Harris writes:

“Although there is no verification that Moses wrote the Torah as we have it now, there are many elements that, taken together, may cause even the cursory reader to question Mosaic authorship. Moses is always referred to in the third person, as an author about him would do. Deuteronomy contains many repetitions of the phrase “until this day,” a clear indication that the writer looks back from his time to that of Moses (Deut. 3:14; 34:6; etc.). Deuteronomy’s last chapter even recounts the death of Moses, which could be interpreted as a postscript by a later hand were it not exactly in the same style as that of the rest of the book. Statements in Genesis, such as “At that time the Canaanites were in the land” (Gen. 12:6; 13:7), refer to an epoch centuries after Moses when Palestine’s original inhabitants had been expelled or assimilated by the Israelite population. References to the territories east of the Jordan River as lying beyond “the other bank” presuppose vantage point on the west side of the river, but the tribes did not occupy this western until long after Moses (Gen. 50:10; Num. 21:1; 32:32; 1:1, 5;3:8;4:46). Other anachronisms, such as the Genesis list of Edom’s rulers “before an Israelite king ruled” (Gen. 36:1), clearly indicate that the author(s) lived no earlier than the late eleventh century B.C.E. when the Israelite monarchy was first established.”[7]

The following is a summary of the developed documentary hypothesis according to R. N. Whybray[8] which is also commonly known as JEDP which stands for the four segments of development in the hypothesis.:

1. The earliest of this work is that of the ‘Yahwist’ (J). It began with what is now Gen. 2.4b, and its various parts are now found in Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, together with a few short passages in Deuteronomy. Whether it ended at this point or continued into the book of Joshua or beyond was disputed. It is not represented in Leviticus.

2. The ‘Elohist’ work (E) began with the story of Abraham in Gen. 15 and then followed the same general course as J.

3. J and E were subsequently combined to form ‘JE’ by a redactor (Rje). the process of redaction involved the omossion of parts of J and E, especially of the latter.

4. The third ‘document’, Deuteronomy (D), consists mainly of the book of that name.

5. D was subsequently appended to JE by a second redactor (Rd), who also inserted a few passages into JE and incorporated a few passages from JE into D.

6. The final work, the Priestly ‘document’ (P), began with what is now Gen. 1.1 and followed the same chronological scheme as J. Material from P predominates in Exodus and Numbers, and is the sole source of Exod. 25-31; 35-40 and of Leviticus.

7. P was subsequently combined with JED by a third redactor (Rp) to form the present Pentateuch.

8. A few passages (e.g. Gen. 14) are not derived from any of the main four documents but must be regarded as independent fragments. It is not possible to determine at what point in the above scheme they were inserted, but a late date for this is probable. A few other passages were added after the bulk of the Pentateucj was completed. Both Fragment and Supplement Hypotheses, therefore, retained a minor place in the scheme of the Documentary Hypothesis.

The following table containing brief explanatory notes on the JEDP by Harris [9] may provide further clarity:

Source Characteristics Approximate Date B.C.E.
J (Yahwist) Uses the personal name Yahweh for God; vivid, concrete style; anthropomorphic view of deity; begins with Creation (Gen. 2:4b); uses term Mount Sinai for place where Mosaic covenant was concluded; composed in the southern kingdom (Judah). About 950
E (Elohist) Uses Elohim (plural form of “divine powers”) for God; style more abstract, less picturesque than J’s; view of God less anthropomorphic than earlier source; uses term Horeb for covenant mountain; begins with story of Abraham; composed in northern Israel (Ephraim). About 850
D (Deuteronomist) Reflects literary style and religious attitudes of Josiah’s reform to Yahweh; best represented in Deuteronomy; composed in the north (?); (later D school also edits histories of Joshua through 2 Kings). About 650-621
P (Priestly) Emphasizes priestly concerns, legalistic and cultic aspects of religion; dry, precise style; lists censuses and geneologies; derived from priestly preservation of Mosaic tradition during and after Babylonian exile (following 587 B.C.E.). About 550-400 

Today, it is widely agreed upon by Biblical scholars that Moses did not pen the five books attributed to him, but are rather a collection of sources from different periods of time by different people as seen above. As Meyers and Rogerson says,”According to a broad consensus of scholarship since the end of the eighteenth century, the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) were based upon varied sources.” [10]

Blair essentially echoes Meyers and Rogerson as he writes, “The majority of scholars today believe that the Pentateuch is the product of many minds from many centuries and a veritable treasure chest of Israel’s historical memories.”[11]

Historian Kenneth C. Davies says:

“As generations of scholars pursued this mystery, it became clearer that Moses was not the book’s author. They might be the Books of Moses, but they were not the Books by Moses. Equally important was the mounting evidence that the books attributed to Moses were composed at very different historical times.

…Today, the idea is widely accepted and taught by leading religious schools, including the divinity schools at Harvard and Yale, the Union Theological Seminary, and both the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Hebrew Union College.” [12]

Jaroslav Pelikan agrees partially by affirming the non-Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy:

“…most modern scholars are agreed that Deuteronomy was not written by the hand of Moses but was composed rather late in Israel’s history…”[13]

Though there are Christians and Jews who continue to believe that the Torah is Moses’ literary product, most in modern scholarship disagree and provide an alternative view that has a powerful explanatory scope. In short, Meyers and Rogerson says:

“From the late nineteenth century until the present day, most scholars of the Hebrew Bible have agreed that the five books of Moses represent an editorial compilation of four distinct sources, usually labeled in their chronological order as J, E, D, and P.” [14]


[1] Archer, G.L.(1998). A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Moody Press. pp. 116-124

[2] Blair, E.P. (1983). Abingdon Bible Handbook. Nashville: Abingdon Press. pp. 82

[3] Meyers, E.M. & Rogerson, J. (1997). The World of the Hebrew Bible. In (N.A.) The Cambridge Companion to the Bible (pp. 39). New York: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Ibid. pp. 46

[5] Mayes, A.D.H. (2002). Historiography In the Old Testament. In Barton, J. (Ed.) The Biblical World. London: Routledge. pp. 73

[6] For further detailed discussion see Wolf, H. (1991). An introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch. Chicago: Moody Publishers. pp. 72-74

[7] Harris, S.L. (1992). Understanding the Bible. California: Mayfield Publishing Company. pp. 52

[8] Whybray, R.N. (1987). The Making of the Pentateuch: a methodological study. England: JSOT Press. pp. 21

[9] Harris, S.L. Op. Cit. pp. 53

[10] Meyers, E.M. & Rogerson, J. Op. Cit. pp. 43

[11] Blair, E.P. Op. Cit. pp. 89

[12] Davies, K.C. (1998). Don’t know much about the Bible: everything you need to know about the Good Book but never learned. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. pp. 19-20

[13] Pelikan, J (2004). Whose Bible is it? : a history of the Scriptures through the ages. New York: Penguin Books. pp. 35

[14] Meyers, E.M. & Rogerson, J. Op. Cit. pp. 44

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