Sunday, October 31, 2010

Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch

This post is a spin-off of a two part sermon on the reliability and Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch preached by Pastor Bill Connell at Grace Bible Church the past couple of weeks. The sermons are not necessary to an understanding of what is posted here but they provide support for the Mosaic authorship I am defending and can be heard here… part1, part2.

By far the most popular view of the authorship of the Pentateuch held outside of conservative circles over the past couple hundred years is known as the documentary or Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. This is the view that what we now know as the Pentateuch, or first five books of the bible, are not the result of a single author such as Moses but rather they are an editorial compilation of works by a series of authors writing over a period of time. According to this theory these books; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy in their current form date from many centuries after Moses lived and could not have been written by him as the text of the bible claims and are instead the work of a redactor, that is an editor that pieced together parts of other separate writings into a new form. There are many competing theories on the details of how and when this redaction was done and what the origin of his or her source material might have been but essentially the bottom line is that the claims for the date and authorship given in the text itself is unreliable.

This hypothesis developed as a result of applying source-criticism to those documents and identifying the fact that there are a number of different names used for God and that each of the names tended to be associated with a different view of God. Rather than seeing this as the work of a single author providing different emphasis to various aspects of God in a single literary work they saw this as evidence of separate authors. The most common delineation (though not always) was the identification of four separate sources known as J, E, D, and P respectively. The theory is that a series of later redactors (editors) known as R wove together documents written by JEDP to produce the Pentateuch we now have. The result is a quite cumbersome and sophisticated splicing of texts as the following illustration shows.

Once these scholars decided that Moses was not the author of the texts in questions and that a series of source documents were involved the next question became the question as to the date of the composition of those various documents and the final editing. As a result of various verses that they considered anachronistic, the scholars concluded that the source documents were written between 1,000 and 500 B.C. (depending upon the source) and that the final editing took place somewhere between 500 and 350 B.C.

To be sure there are a number of difficulties that those holding to a traditional view of Mosaic authorship have to contend with such as examples where cities are listed with names that, as far as we know, they did not have until later periods etc. Whatever those difficulties, however, there are plausible explanations for them that do not require jettisoning both the plain testimony of the books themselves as well as that of Christ and other biblical writers as to who wrote them. The various textual indicators supporting early authorship by Moses are strong and I would suggest that the development of these complex literary theories have more to do with a rejection of supernaturalism than with the historical or grammatical concerns of the text. Nevertheless, I would like to consider two of the passages that these scholars often point to as evidence that these books could not have been written by Moses.

Genesis 36:31

These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites.
(Genesis 36:31 ESV)

Critics point to this verse as evidence that Moses could not be the author of this text. The statement “before any king reigned over the Israelites” is seen to be conclusive evidence of late authorship because the monarchy was not established in Israel until the time of Saul (around 1,000 B.C.), between 300 and 500 years after the time of Moses. This verse does raise some interesting questions. How do those of us who believe that the predominance of the internal evidence of the text is in harmony with its own claims to have been written by Moses approach a text like this? Is this an unexplainable or irreconcilable problem for the traditional view?

Like any other verse of scripture we need to try and understand it through an analysis of its function in the broader context of the passage and book in which it appears being careful to ask appropriate observational questions pertaining to the historical, grammatical, and contextual elements that are included in it and surrounding it. In this case doing that leads to a conclusion that explains this seeming difficulty in a rather simple way.

God’s promise of redemption is the central theme developed in the Pentateuch and among the many developments of this promise in the text is that there would be a great king who would come and reign justly over his people. Moses, as a prophet looked forward to this coming king and as he recorded the development of an elective monarchy in the southern territory of Edom he no doubt had in mind the coming king who was promised for his own people. In the chapter just prior to the verse in question Moses recorded the promise given to his ancestor Jacob regarding this coming king.

And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body.
(Genesis 35:11 ESV)

This was a reiteration of the earlier promise God had made to Abraham which Moses had recorded in chapter 17:

“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
(Genesis 17:4-8 ESV)

The promise of a king coming out of Abraham, through Jacob, in the line of Judah (Gen. 49:10) was a promise that Moses was familiar with, recorded, and believed in. Although he did not witness the establishment of the monarchy in Israel it was an anticipated reality for him no less real than the promises of deliverance from Egyptian bondage for which he risked his life. Genesis 36:31 is simply a recognition that monarchy came to Edom before it was established (as it inevitably would be) in Israel.

Deuteronomy Chapter 34

Perhaps the most famous and obvious passage that critics use to support their view that Moses could not be the author of the Pentateuch is the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy which records the death of Moses. Even the most conservative scholars admit that that this chapter could not come from the hand of Moses but they do not believe that this implies that the claim of Mosaic authorship for the rest of the law is also questionable.

If it is true that here we have an undoubted example of a redaction then how can we, who believe the traditional view, make a case that this example is an exception and not a clear example of the rule? The chapter begins with the following words:

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the Valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. [8] And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended.

(Deuteronomy 34:1-8 ESV)

Critics point out that not only did this have to be written at least 30 days after Moses died, thus clearly excluding him as the author since someone cannot record their own death, but also that the statement “no one knows the place of his burial to this day is another clue that this was written much later. What is often neglected is that the very next verse says And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him. So the people of Israel obeyed him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses.. As you read on into the book of Joshua it is clear that Joshua is to continue as the successor of Moses and was gifted by God with the wisdom to fulfill that commission. We know from Joshua 8:32 and 24:26 that Joshua was literate and was familiar with the writings of Moses so it is entirely plausible that under inspiration it was he who recorded the events in the 34th chapter of Deuteronomy.


A person’s position on these issues will be essentially determined by the presuppositions that are brought to the text. If one believes that there can be no supernatural or prophetic utterances regarding future events then they will have difficulty with much of what appears in these first five books of the bible. There will be a natural desire to account for such statements by placing the author within later contexts where the events discussed are contemporary or at least more fully developed theologically in the contemporary writing or worship. If, however, we accept that certain allusions, such as Genesis 36:31, are consistent with prophetic wisdom bestowed by God then the number of difficulties diminishes quickly. If we maintain a supernatural outlook and accept the revelation of God as the foundation for our understanding of Truth then reconciling various textual emphases is much more straightforward and does not require complex literary theories.

We certainly agree that careful analysis of the text is an important discipline and some of what the critics have identified in the shifting vocabulary and focus of the various texts is valuable in that it helps us to identify shifts in the teaching segments within those works. We do not, however, have to assume that this is evidence of multiple authors that have been spliced together. Even many modern critics recognize that these texts function as coherent and complete literary units and the scattered sequencing of the documentary hypothesis is being challenged even by literary scholars who are unbelievers. Regarding stylistic shifts It is possible that Moses, like Luke, had access to other records and documents as he produced his inspired accounts but ultimately we accept the testimony of the books themselves and of Jesus that the first five books of the bible were the work of Moses.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Just ran across this post and wanted to commend you on your treatment of this topic. Mosaic authorship is difficult to hammer down, because all the information surrounding it.

  3. Dear Kevin,

    I'm not real familiar with blogs, but I like what I have seen here on every page I have had a chance to look over. Where did you get the diagram above of the interplay of JEDP? I have never seen it before. I thought it was a defrag screen at first.

    Bill Johnson

  4. Thank you Bill,

    I appreciate the feedback. I found the diagram on a google image search. It originally comes from R.E. Friedman's "Who wrote the Bible".