Study notes: Who wrote the books of Moses?

My study notes on Chapter 6 of ‘The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible’ by Stephen Harris and Robert Platzner.

Introduction

Traditionally, the Pentateuch, or the five books of Moses, have been understood by Orthodox Jews to be the authored by Moses (this understanding of the bible is called Mosaic authorship). This view was accepted by scholars up until around 250 years ago, when new theories on the authorship of these five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers) were proposed. To this day, the Documentary Hypothesis remains the most prominent. Its broad outline is accepted by most biblical scholars to this date.

The traditional view of Mosaic authorship is based on several verses of the Pentateuch. Exodus 17:14, 24:4 and 34:27-28 depict Moses writing down commands of God at various instances. In Deuteronomy 31:24, Moses is said to have written the “words of this Law to the very end”, which he then hands over to the priests (Deut. 31:9,24-26). Many scholars believe that this passage refers to the same Pentateuch we have today, which was actually not authored by Moses but rather by a priestly class that worked with King Josiah to institute religious reforms by weaving together a book that would, in part, support his policies. This is a deliberate simplification by me for now, the many authors of the Pentateuch were motivated by far many more reasons than this.

The traditional view of Mosaic authorship cannot be upheld for many reasons, several of these I will mention now.

Why is Moses not the author of the Pentateuch?

There seem to be many contradictions, discrepancies and unwarranted repetition that can be detected in a reading of the Pentateuch even by the untrained layman. Key reasons that negate the Mosaic authorship of Pentateuch are as follow

1. If Moses wrote it, why is it narrating his life story? This does not really seem to make sense. Why would God reveal to Moses his own life story? Or tell the Israelites that were contemporaneous with Moses, what Moses was doing? This is in contrast to the Qur’an, where a consistent divine narrator is speaking to the audience (usually the Prophet himself) and gives little information on the Prophet himself, only speaking of historical events when there is another comment to be made on them. This, to me, is the strongest indicator of the non-Mosaic authorship. If it was written by him, or he was receiving it from God, or (from the secular perspective) pretending to receive it from God, it would have been written out very differently.

2. Some passages seem to be very out of place if the Pentateuch was indeed written by Moses. For example, there is this bit:

(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.) Num. 12:3

More telling is the usage of “until this day” that is frequent in some parts of the Pentateuch. For example:

And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said.He buried him[a] in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is.

It is rather odd that Moses is writing about where he was buried (though traditionalists contend it was someone that knew Moses and wrote it in when he died). However, the “to this day” mention implies that the writer is looking back at history. What is more is that this passage has the same writing style as large portions of the Pentateuch, so anyone who wrote this comment, who was obviously far removed from Moses’ time, also wrote many other passages of the Torah. This negates the idea that this could have been some sort of postscript that was added into a largely Mosaic text.

3. Frequent anachronisms are present in the text. One such example:

Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Morehat Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Gen.12:6

However, during Moses’ day, the Canaanites were still in the land. After all, he was leading the Israelites to it; they had not expelled the Canaanites yet. Again, this implies a much later author.

A book of parallel traditions.

The Pentateuch narrative sections often feature several versions of the same story, written in different literary styles. For example, the creation story in Genesis 1 features a lofty and majestic tale, while in Genesis 2, the narrative is more earthy. Genesis 6-8 presents two flood stories, cleverly woven together, but they can be separated through the detection of their markedly different writing styles. When done so, each of the two strands can be seen to be internally consistent and separate from the other. Here is a reproduction of the flood story with the two stories pulled apart. 

Many other stories in the text feature this type of repetition. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles all night with God at Peniel, who changes his name to Israel. In Genesis 35, the name change occurs at Bethel.

Later on in Genesis, Joseph is allegedly sold to the Ishmaelites by his brothers, but in another tradition, he is thrown into a well by his brothers, and is then found by the Midianites, who then sell him to the Ishmaelites.

There are many more examples, right now I think these will suffice.

The Documentary Hypothesis

The documentary hypothesis proposes that the Pentateuch is in fact the production of four strands of tradition, originally separate from each other, which were later stitched together by redactors. This theory is very influential, and many alternative theories infact rely on its broad framework and accept the idea that the current Torah is composed from multiple sources.

Let’s get into the nitty-and-gritty. Here is an overview of the four sources of the documentary hypothesis.

The J source:

The J source, named so because of the author of this source refers to God as “Yahweh” (Jahweh in german), declares God as Yahweh from the onset (as opposed to the other traditions). It begins to be used in Genesis 2:4-25, but it is difficult for scholars to know where it ends. It seems to emphasize the role of women in the formation narrative, and it follows the wanderings of the Patriarchs.

The J source is pro-monarchy, and some scholars say that it was produced as a validation of the Davidic rulers. There seems to be a focus on Judah, the tribe of David- infact, it associates many of the patriarchs with the geographical locations that are also important to Judah’s ruling monarchy. Examples:

– Abraham dwells in Hebron or Mamre, which is the location of Judah’s first capital city

– In Gen. 15:18, YHWH promises Abraham’s descendants a land whose boundaries not-coincidentally correlate with the frontiers of the Davidic kingdom.

– There is a negative portrayal of Shechem, which was the capital city of the anti-Judean northern tribes.

The Israelites were divided into two rival kingdoms after the death of Solomon
The Israelites were divided into two rival kingdoms after the death of Solomon.

The dating of the J source is thought to be during the monarchy, but some scholars assert that it is post Babylonian exile. Note: Babylonian exile refers to when Nebuchadnezzar, in retaliation of a Judean rebellion, sacked Jerusalem and exiled many of the Jewish elite to Babylon. The Judeans revolted against the vassalage of the Babylonians, but failed. This happened around 587BCE. 

The E source

According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Elohist source, AKA the E source, is the 2nd oldest strand of the four traditions. Scholars believe that it is the least well preserved of the four sources. It belongs to the northern kingdom of Israel, rather than the southerners of Judah. There is a focus on the northern traditions. It begins with the recollection of Abraham and his descendants.

This source exists fragmented throughout the bible. There are key differences between the J and E narratives. I’ve created a table of some of these differences according to the textbook:

JE difference

The JE epic

E material may have been combined together into one JE document when the northern kingdom (Israel) fell to the Assyrians. Israelite refugees would have fled to the southern kingdom of Judah, bringing with them their E traditions. Judean scribes would have fragmented the northern strand and subordinated it to the the J source, producing a text with many conflicts and repetitions, but nevertheless as a whole taken in awe by the Israelite audience.

The D source

This source is mainly confined to the book of Deuteronomy, but seems to have influenced passages that were interpolated into Genesis, Exodus and Numbers.

The D source was the book found in 621 BC during temple repairs, allegedly written by Moses. It helped fuel and validate King Josiah’s religious reforms. These reforms centralized Israelite worship to Jerusalem, and all other sanctuaries in the country were destroyed.

The D source interprets Israel’s history with the view that God’s favor to the Israelites hinges on their obedience to Him. Biblical writers that support such a notion are said to follow “Deuteronomistic History”.

The P source

The Priestly source is the fourth and final source of the Documentary Hypothesis. It is the work of priestly writers and was probably written post-exile. These writers redacted and composed Israelite traditions into the JE epic, and their work mostly includes ritual, law and genealogy. There is also a priestly version of the flood story.

Scholarly objections to the Documentary Hypothesis

I found this part of the chapter more difficult to get much out of, the authors only survey some alternative theories very briefly. Nevertheless I’ll write down what I noted, perhaps when I know more these notes will come in more useful. Here are some alternative theories to the Documentary Hypothesis as I have presented above. Note that these can be better seen as ‘refinements’ to the broad framework of the hypothesis, none of them deny the compositional nature of the Pentateuch:

  1. P is not a separate document that was woven into the JE text. Instead, it is a bunch of unconnected material from many sources that were put together over time by the Priestly source
  2. The respective strands of traditions were not put together from texts but were actually oral tradition. Before Josiah’s reforms, recitation/verbal reiterations of Israel’s law, ritual and lore were performed at many shrines around the land.
  3. The Pentateuch was put together under Persian rule (when Cyrus vanquished Babylonia and allowed the Jews to return back to their home land). The document could have been a response to the request by the Persian administrators to provide a document of their indigenous law which the Jews were allowed to rule by (I think).

The relationship between oral and written text

Modern literary critics have seen unity where past scholars saw as disparate sources. Repetition can be seen as the feature of oral tradition rather than evidence of redaction. One intriguing theory is that the Pentateuch was actually a memory aid to story tellers who would choose between whatever they liked of the available traditions.

It has been realized more and more that Israelite society was primarily oral so the Documentary Hypothesis is being revised under this new research.

That was painful to type.

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7 thoughts on “Study notes: Who wrote the books of Moses?

  1. Salam.

    Does this theory say that all of it is not written by Moses (as), can the Torah derive from oral tradition of the Jews slightly?

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    • That’s the theory. There are arguments that the writers drew on oral tradition some of which indeed is quite ancient due to the content. I have not read up on this yet. I wonder what a reconstructed Torah in light of the Quran and historical critical methods would look like.

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  2. Very interesting and well written article.

    I could sympathize your last sentence “That was painful to type.”

    After thinking we understand the explanation of a certain phenomena as an outcome of time spent struggling and studying, to find out suddenly that our understanding might need to be significantly revised is indeed painful.

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    • I was actually commenting on the process of writing up the article, because it took me about an hour to decipher my handwritten notes and put it altogether into something coherent! I should learn to write neater when I am taking quick notes.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have a problem with some of these things the scholars do, and that’s the use of basically what I’d call circular reasoning. They presume that christianity is false, for example by saying that the gospels can’t be inspired, and then using that to claim that they weren’t written by the disciples. I ask if you do this to back up your reasoning, in this case for saying they aren’t inspired, for instance by showing that they contain contradictions etc.

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    • Right, and that doesn’t convince anyone, not even muslims that are in doubt over whether the Qur’an has it right about Jesus. So professional and academic approaches that work with common assumptions are needed.

      Liked by 1 person

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