Did Moses Write the Torah? Part 1

Modern skeptics have doubts that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These books are core teachings for three of the worlds major religions: Judaism (Hebrew Torah), Christianity (Greek Pentateuch) and Islam (Arabic Tawrat). These three religions all have traditions of the same author, despite their significant theological differences. Could Moses have written the first five books of the Bible?

These books are referred to as “The Book of the Law” (Joshua 1:8 ESV1) or “The Book of the Law of Moses” (Nehemiah 8:1 ESV2).  The books are technically anonymous, as the books do not say who they were written by, but later references in the Bible frequently refer to the writings of Moses. The Bible does not say the books we have in our Bible are exactly what Moses wrote, but it is clear Moses was instructed to write the law.

We don’t know how old Moses was when he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter3, but the Bible does show he was educated in Pharaoh’s court4, so he would have had the training and skills to write the books. Most important, God told Moses directly to take the Israelites out of Egypt5, so Moses was in the right place at the right time to write the books.

…there falls to be considered that impulse of the Holy Spirit by which prophets were moved to commit to writing the revelations they had received. Moses was the most eminent of them all, and the doctrine he delivered, forms the rule of all that is to be declared and received in the Church of God—and that for all time. It is of importance then to begin with him, and to treat his writings with special attention…. Up to this day [mid-to-late 1800’s], the received opinion at once of Jews and Christians has been that Moses, enjoined and moved by God, was the author of those books, which, honoured under the title of the Pentateuch, circulate in his name—with the exception, mayhap, of a few passages which have been inserted by a later, yet still divinely-directed, and therefore, better-instructed writer.6

There are a few opinions how the current form of the Torah was created:

  1. Moses wrote the books during the Exodus, either throughout the 40 years of the Exodus, or wrote all five books shortly before he died.
  2. Moses kept diaries or journals during the 40 years of the Exodus, and biographers and scribes (some contemporary with Moses and some later) compiled his writings into the forms we have now.
  3. Moses wrote very little, but passed on the information orally. Over several centuries, different people wrote down the oral law, which culminated into a few sources. Scribes compiled the oral law and written sources into the Torah 800-1,000 years after Moses died. 
  4. The Torah was written possibly during the Assyrian (722 B.C.) or Babylonian (586 B.C.) exiles, or even later, and attributed it to a person named Moses to generate a sense of national pride and unity.7

The first two of these possibilities legitimately attribute the writing of the Torah to Moses, even though the second one means other people may have made substantial edits to what Moses wrote. The third possibility rejects Moses as the author of the Torah, but allows for Mosaic input into it. Number four rejects the possibility Moses even existed, so he couldn’t have written it. There are several theories which try to explain the Torah without direct Mosaic authorship:

  • Supplementary hypothesis – Moses may have written some parts of the Torah, but  there were successive additions to the text over the centuries, which makes it impossible to determine what Moses may have written, if anything. Proponents of possibilities two and three like this hypothesis.
  • Fragmentary Hypothesis – Over hundreds of years many independent sources, some of which may be from Moses, were combined to create the Torah. The Fragmentary Hypothesis is applied to possibilities two, three and four.
  • Documentary Hypothesis – Four independent sources were combined to create the Torah. Proponents of possibilities three and four advocate for this hypothesis.

What does the Bible itself say about Mosaic authorship?

Old Testament

The Old Testament evidence for Moses being the author of the Torah is strong. Numerous times in the first five books of the Bible say God told Moses to write.

Torah

There are many verses which show Moses wrote down the words of the Lord; the verses in this section are all in the books attributed to Moses. Some people argue if Moses wrote the books he would have used the personal pronouns “I” and “me” when referring to himself (“Then the LORD said to me…. “) rather than using third-person references (“Then the LORD said to Moses….”)8

On the other hand, these verses clearly show Moses wrote a book, and it was called the Book of the Law (not diary of the Law). 

  • Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” (Exodus 17:14 ESV)
  • And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel. (Exodus 24:4 ESV)
  • Then he [Moses] took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” (Exodus 24:7 ESV)
  • And the LORD said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” (Exodus 34:27 ESV)
  • Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the LORD, and these are their stages according to their starting places. (Numbers 33:2 ESV)
  • When Moses had finished writing the words of this law in a book to the very end, Moses commanded the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, “Take this Book of the Law and put it by the side of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against you.” (Deuteronomy 31:24-26 ESV)

Histories

Since Deuteronomy 31:24-26 indicates the “Book of The Law” was written by Moses, the “Book of the Law of Moses” reinforces the Mosaic authorship.

  • Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left…. (Joshua 23:6 ESV)
  • And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. (Nehemiah 8:1 ESV)

Prophets

The prophets imply the Law of Moses was written by Moses, but this could be understood as just the Law, and not all five books with their narratives.

  • All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him…. As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us; yet we have not entreated the favor of the LORD our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth. (Daniel 9:11, 13 ESV)

New Testament

The New Testament, completed nearly 1,500 years after Moses lived, also makes references to the writings of Moses.

Jesus

Jesus referred to the book of Moses, which could be interpreted as a title rather than an attribution to an author, but also says Moses wrote of him. The first century Jews would have understood Jesus was referring to the entire Torah as written by Moses.

  • And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong. (Mark 12:26-27 ESV)
  • For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. (John 5:46 ESV)

Gospels and Letters

Here scripture is attributed to Moses, and scripture requires writing9. Diaries aren’t likely to be considered scripture.

  • And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:27 ESV)

These verses say Moses wrote and is read “to this day”.

  • Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45 ESV)
  • For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. (Romans 10:5 ESV)
  • Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. (2 Corinthians 3:15 ESV)

Summary

I believe Moses wrote most of the Torah,  either in a form similar to what we have now or in diaries assembled by biographers and scribes into its current form. I think it’s also likely Moses taught orally, and some of that information was written down by scribes and included in the Torah. It’s clear people in both the Old Testament and New Testament eras believed Moses wrote the Torah. The Bible consistently says God gave Moses the law, and Moses wrote it down. The Bible we have today may have gone through some revisions, but it is substantially what Moses wrote and taught, and we can be confident it communicates the truths God entrusted to Moses.

It was not some exilic or postexilic hero they [the Old Testament authors] wrote about. It was Moses. They did not attribute the Law to Josiah or David or Solomon, nor to the Persians or Babylonians. Not even the Patriarchs were worthy of attribution. They attributed it specifically and distinctly to Moses.10

Resources

Footnotes

  1. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. (Joshua 1:8 ESV)
  2. And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. (Nehemiah 8:1 ESV)
  3. Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him. Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her young women walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Go.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed him. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, “Because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.” (Exodus 2:1-10 ESV)
  4. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action. (Acts 7:22 NIV)
  5. …behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me [God], and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you [Moses] to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt. (Exodus 3:9-10 ESV)
  6. Witsius, Herman. The Question: Was Moses the Author of the Pentateuch? Answered in the affirmative. Translated by John Donaldson. (Edinburgh, Scotland: MacLaren & MacNiven, 1877) From: A Treatise on Prophets and Prophecy, Book I Chapter XIV. (Logos)
  7. Livingston, David. From What Did Moses Compose Genesis? (Associates for Biblical Research, Dec 26, 2005; Blog) Accessed 19-Oct-2018.
  8. This same argument is also used against Matthew, Mark, Luke and John being the authors of the Gospels. (Manning, Erik. Bart Ehrman says the Gospel of Matthew was forged. Here are 7 reasons why we know Matthew was the author of the Gospel of Matthew (Is Jesus Alive, March 25, 2019; Blog) Accessed 01-May-2019.)
  9. Scripture: origin: from Latin scriptura ‘writings’, from script- ‘written’ (Oxford Living Dictionary) Accessed 28-Apr-2019.
  10. McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 535. (Amazon)
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  1. […] Deuteronomy, and are traditionally attributed to Moses (see the articles Did Moses Write the Torah? Part 1, Part 2). Most of the events in the last four books happened during Moses’ life, and he was, […]

  2. […] week I posted the article Did Moses Write the Torah? Part 1, and I showed other Biblical authors clearly attributed the first five books of the Bible to Moses, […]

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