Did Moses Write the Torah? Part 2

Last 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, in both the Old and New Testaments. In this article I want to make the case that the books we have in our Bibles may not be exactly what Moses wrote, but they are accurate representations of what Moses, and God, were communicating to the Israelites, and to us.

Editors may have made changes to the text to make it easier for modern readers (Israelites who lived in the centuries after Moses) to understand. Sometimes the name of a place will change, or the meaning of a word will change, so an editor may update the text to reflect the these changes. This in no way contradicts the claim Moses wrote the Torah. What is important is that the editors didn’t change the original meaning of the text.

One way to demonstrate change without corruption is to compare several English versions of a verse. Bible Study Tools has over 30 English translations of Exodus 15:2, which can be compared easily; here’s the verse in the three versions I’ve used the most over the years:

The ESV and KJV use the word “song” while the NIV uses the word “defense”. This comes from the Hebrew word zimrath (Strong’s 2176: זִמְרָת), which means “instrumental music; by implication praise”. I am a bit puzzled why the NIV chose to translate it as “defense”, although that does seem to fit with the word “strength” that comes before it.

Also, the ESV and NIV use the phrase “I will praise him”, while the KJV uses “I will prepare him an habitation”. This comes from the Hebrew word navah (Strong’s H5115: נָוָה), which means “to rest (as at home)”. Here, the KJV seems to be closer to the Hebrew text, but the ESV and NIV seem more natural to me.

In both of these cases, I think all three translations probably reflect what Moses wrote, even though there are slight changes.

Let’s go back to some even earlier English translations, since OldeBible.com has 16 versions of Exodus 15:2 (I haven’t changed the spellings):

  • The Lord is my strength and praise, and he is become my saluation. He is my God, and I will prepare him a tabernacle. he is my fathers God, and I will exalt him. (Exodus 15:2, Geneva Bible, 1560)
  • The Lorde is my strength ad my songe, ad is become my saluation. He is my God and I will glorifie him, he is my fathers God and I will lifte him vp an hie (Exodus 15:2, Tyndale Bible, 1531)
  • My strengthe and my preisyng is the Lord; and he is maad to me in to heelthe. This is my God, and Y schal glorifie hym; the God of my fadir, and Y schal enhaunse hym. (Exodus 15:2, Wycliffe Bible, 1394)

These are understandable, but they’re certainly not 21st century US English. As a language changes, it makes sense to have versions using language which readers are accustomed to. If English translations can have changes in wording without changing meaning, is there any reason to think the Hebrew text never changed?

Using Deuteronomy as a test case, [Daniel] Block1 contends that the biblical understanding of inspiration covers a broad range of communicative activities, from guiding Moses’ original thoughts, to Moses’ oral communication of those thoughts, to the initial written recording of the oral communication, to all the collation and editing necessary up to final recognition of canonization. That Deuteronomy is technically anonymous should not cause undue concern. First, ascription of authorship in the ANE [Ancient Near East] is uncommon. ANE authors were ostensibly more concerned with the message they delivered than marketing themselves. Perhaps most importantly, the Deuteronomic claim that it is the “Book of Moses” does not demand that he personally wrote the text….Block claims there is no reason to doubt Mosaic authority behind the entire Pentateuch, not simply Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is unequivocal about Moses’ role both in speaking God’s Word and in personally recording some of it. Those who recorded that which Moses did not specifically author were nonetheless recording an inspired word from YHWH [God] and were not undermining its Mosaic roots. Block claims the narrator of Deuteronomy was an inspired “prophet like Moses,” who wrote an inspired narrative of Moses’ life including the inspired speeches, songs, and prayers.2

Is there evidence the Torah did or did not change? The oldest collection of scrolls is the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the best preserved scroll is the Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa). Although the Great Isaiah Scroll isn’t part of the Torah, it is the only complete book of the Old Testament found at the Dead Sea on a single scroll, and it has been dated between 300 B.C. and 100 B.C. It’s also probably the most studied of the scrolls because it is complete. The Great Isaiah Scroll is very similar to modern copies of the book of Isaiah, except for the addition of vowels by the Masoretes about a thousand years later.

Of the 166 words in Isaiah 53, there are only 17 letters in question. Ten of these letters are simply a matter of spelling, which does not affect the sense. Four more letters are minor stylistic changes, such as conjunctions. The three remaining letters comprise the word LIGHT, which is added in verse 11 and which does not affect the meaning greatly. Furthermore, this word is supported by the Septuagint (LXX)3. Thus, in one chapter of 166 words, there is only one word (three letters) in question after a thousand years of transmission – and this word does not significantly change the meaning of the passage.4

Some people dispute the specifics of these finding, but agree the changes have been minor.5 If scribes have been careful enough over the past 2,000 years to make only minor changes to the text, and most of those for clarification, should we believe earlier scribes were careless when copying the Torah?

Moses wrote large parts of the Torah, while biographers may have added oral teachings from Moses, and later scribes may have made revisions to help the Jews understand it more easily. Books published in the 21st century typically have editors, but the books are attributed to an author (or authors), not the editors. It is entirely reasonable to believe the Torah we have now is essentially the same one the Jews have used for over three thousand years, one written by Moses.

Resources

Footnotes

  1. Block, Daniel. “Recovering the Voice of Moses: The Genesis of Deuteronomy.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44, no. 3 (September 2001): 386–408.
  2. McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017)  555-556. (Amazon)
  3. Greek translation of the Old Testament, about 300 B.C. to 200 B.C.
  4. Geisler, Norman and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Moddy Press). Quoted in Benner, Jeff A. The Great Isaiah Scroll and the Masoretic Text (Ancient Hebrew Research Center) Accessed 30-Apr-2019.
  5. Benner, Jeff A. The Great Isaiah Scroll and the Masoretic Text (Ancient Hebrew Research Center) Accessed 30-Apr-2019.

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