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Mosaic authorship

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Mosaic authorship

Moses by José de Ribera (1638).

Mosaic authorship is the Jewish tradition (later adopted by Christian scholars) that the Torah was dictated to Moses by God, with the exception of the last eight verses of Deuteronomy, which describe the death and burial of Moses.[1][2] The 8th principle of the 13 Principles of Faith that were established by Maimonides states "The Torah that we have today is the one dictated to Moses by God".[3]

Today the majority of biblical scholars accept the theory that the Torah does not have a single author, and that its composition took place over centuries.[4] From the late 19th century there was a general consensus around the documentary hypothesis, which suggests that the five books were created c. 450 BC by combining four originally independent sources, known as the Jahwist, or J (c. 900 BC), the Elohist, or E (c. 800 BC), the Deuteronomist, or D, (c. 600 BC), and the Priestly source, or P (c. 500 BC).[5]

Traditional view

The Talmud discusses the authorship of all the books of the Hebrew Bible and assigns all but the last eight verses of Deuteronomy, which describe the death of Moses, to Moses himself. The Talmud credits those eight verses to Joshua, who is also noted as the author of the Book of Joshua, and says those eight verses are not technically part of the Torah.

The Torah has six mentions of Moses writing passages:

  • Exodus 17:14: God commands Moses: "Write this, a remembrance..." The context indicates that God is commanding Moses to record Joshua's battle with Amalek described in Exodus 7:8-13.
  • Exodus 24:4: "Moses wrote all the words of the Lord." This apparently refers to the laws which God has just given in Exodus 20:21-23:33.
  • Exodus 34:28: Moses "wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, ten words." The identity of these "ten words" is not made clear, but probably is a reference to the Ten Commandments given several chapters previously, in Exodus 20.
  • Numbers 33:2: And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of the Lord: and these are their journeys according to their goings out. This refers to Moses recording the journeys that the Israelites took within the desert.
  • Deuteronomy 31:9: "Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, the ones carrying the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord" and Deuteronomy 31:24: "Moses ... finished writing the words of this law on a scroll." It is not clear just what Moses wrote, but it is usually taken to be the collection of laws that make up Deuteronomy 5-30.[6]
  • Deuteronomy 31:22: "Moses wrote down this song on that day." The "song" is presumably Deuteronomy 32, the Song of Moses.

A number of canonical books, including Joshua, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah refer to the "laws of Moses", but it is not clear what body of writing this refers to.

However this term "laws of Moses" is based on the translation found in many Christian Bibles, which is derived from the Septuagint translation which used "nomos" (Greek for law). The original Hebrew uses the word the Torah of Moses. Torah does not mean law, but the complete body of teaching, which is what Torah means. So it does not refer to the "laws of Moses", which doesn't specify which laws it is referring to, but to the "Torah of Moses" which is a clear reference to the Torah. Ezra 3:2 for example refers to the Jews bringing offerings in the new Second Temple "as it is written in the Torah of Moses, man of God". That most Bibles translate Torah as "the law" is the basis for much confusion among biblical scholars that do not read and understand Hebrew.[6]

There are two times that the Bible mentions the Torah of Moses and does reference specific laws that are in the Torah;

  • Joshua 8:30-31: Then Joshua built an altar unto the Lord God of Israel in Mount Ebal. As Moses the servant of the Lord commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the Torah of Moses: “an altar of whole stones over which no man hath lifted up any iron.” This rule, that an altar must be built of whole stones over which no man hath lifted up any iron, is a reference to this rule in Exodus 20:25; If you do make me an altar of stone, you are not to build it of cut stones; for if you use a tool on it, you profane it (the Hebrew in that verse says "sword" in place of "tool"). That an altar must not be built of cut stone, but of whole stone that no tool (a sword is iron) has been used on it.
  • 2 Kings 14:6: But the children of the murderers he slew not, according unto that which is written in the Torah of Moses, wherein the Lord commanded, saying, “The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor the children be put to death for the fathers; but every man shall be put to death for his own sin. ”This citation of "that which is written in the Torah of Moses, wherein the Lord commanded, saying" is a citation verbatim of Deuteronomy 24:16; The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.

McEntire points to Nehemiah 8:3, that tells of Ezra reading the law of Moses; Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday,[7] that reading it "from early morning till the middle of the day" - about six hours, rules out that the full text of the Torah is meant here.[8]

According to McEntire, the tradition that Moses wrote the entire Torah, and not just these five passages cited above, grew within Second Temple Judaism, beginning some time after the mid-5th century BC.[9]

Talmud and rabbinic tradition

The first unequivocal statement of Mosaic authorship is contained in the Talmud, c. 200–500, where the rabbis discuss exactly how the Torah was transmitted to Moses.[10]

The Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 60a), brings two opinions as to how the torah was transmitted to Moses. R' Yochanan asserted that "the Torah was given in a series of small scrolls." This means that the Torah was written gradually throughout the 40 years that the Israelites were in the desert as it was dictated to Moses, and at the end of the 40 years when the dictation was complete Moses wrote the entire torah in a single scroll.[11] Rabbi Simon ben Lakish holds that that the entire Torah was written at one time, which was at the end of the 40 years that the Israelites were in the desert and immediately preceding the death of Moses, based on what was dictated to Moses over the 40 years.[12]

The Mishnah (Talmud Sanhedrin 90a) includes the belief in the divinity of the Torah, meaning that it was dictated by God as an essential element of Judaism. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) says that this means that even if a person were to say that a single verse in all of the Torah was written by Moses on his own, and not dictated by God, lacks this essential belief. According to this passage Mosaic authorship applies to each verse in the Torah.

The Babylonian Talmud (tractate Shabbat 115b) states that a peculiar section in the Book of Numbers (10:35 — 36, surrounded by inverted Hebrew letter nuns) in fact forms a separate book. On this verse a midrash on the book of Mishle states that "These two verses stem from an independent book which existed, but was suppressed!" Another (possibly earlier) midrash, Ta'ame Haserot Viyterot, states that this section actually comes from the book of prophecy of Eldad and Medad.[10]

Also in the Talmud, Rabbi Judah ben Ilai held that Joshua wrote the final 8 verses of the Torah because Moses could not have possibly written "and Moses died", because even though the words of the Torah were dictated and were not Moses' own words, it would have been a lie to for Moses to write it. The Talmud says that according to this opinion the final 8 verses are not considered part of the Torah. (Talmud, B. Bat. 15a and Menah. 30a, and in Midrash Sipre. 357).[10]

In the 12th century the commentator Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac, known as the Bekhor Shor, noted close similarities between a number of wilderness narratives in Exodus and Numbers, in particular, the incidents of water from the rock and the stories about manna and the quail. He hypothesised that both of these incidents actually happened once, but that parallel traditions about these events eventually developed, both of which made their way into the Torah.[10]

Abraham ibn Ezra writes[13] that certain descriptions may have been added later to already existing verses. He gives three instance of this, Genesis 12:6 And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the oak of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land. That the addition of "then" in the land would indicate that it was added at a time that the Canaanite were no longer in the land. Genesis 22:14 Avraham called the place Adonai Yir'eh, as it is said to this day, “On the mountain Adonai is Yir'eh.” That the addition of "as it is said to this day" was added later. And, Deuteronomy 3:11 For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants; behold his bedstead was a bedstead of iron; is it not in Rabbath of the children of Ammon? nine cubits was the length thereof, and four cubits the breadth of it, after the cubit of a man. That even though the first part of Og remaining is referring to the time of Moses, the location where his bedstead stood was added later. However Ibn Ezra completely rejects any suggestion that a whole account in the Torah could have been written at a later time. In Genesis 36:31 where the Bible tells of the kings of Edom, Ibn Ezra cites a commentator that suggested that the whole account was written later in the days of Jehoshaphat who was a king of the house of David. Ibn Ezra writes "God forbid to say that this was written later and his book is suitable for burning".

In the 13th century Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah (known as the Hizkuni) noticed the same textual anomalies that Ibn Ezra had noted; thus R. Hezekiah's commentary on Gen 12:6 notes that these words "are written from the perspective of the future".[10]

In the 15th century, Rabbi Yosef Bonfils, while discussing the comments of Ibn Ezra, noted: "Thus it would seem that Moses did not write this word here, but Joshua or some other prophet wrote it. Since we believe in the prophetic tradition, what possible difference can it make whether Moses wrote this or some other prophet did, since the words of all of them are true and prophetic?"[10]

Biblical scholarship

Biblical scholars prior to the Renaissance and Reformation were generally not much concerned with the question of who wrote the Bible. This began to change as the new field of Classical studies (meaning the study of the literature of ancient Greece and Rome) put the examination of ancient texts on a scientific footing. When these same critical tools were applied to the Torah the numerous duplications in the five books led Richard Simon (1638–1712) to argue that they had not come from one author. Simon proposed that it was Ezra, in the post-Exilic period (5th century BC), who had produced the Torah in its final form, albeit using documents produced by Moses. Jean Astruc (1684–1766), accepting Simon's evidence but rejecting his conclusion, argued that Moses was indeed the author of the Torah, and that he had used two major sources and ten additional fragments as the basis for his work.[14]

Documentary hypothesis

The documentary hypothesis proposes that the Torah was derived from originally independent, parallel and complete narratives, which were subsequently combined into the current form by a series of redactors (editors). The number of these is usually set at four, but this is not an essential part of the hypothesis.

The hypothesis was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries from the attempt to reconcile inconsistencies in the biblical text. Biblical scholars, using source criticism, eventually arrived at the theory that the Torah was composed of selections woven together from separate, at times inconsistent, sources, each originally a complete and independent document. By the end of the 19th century it was generally agreed that there were four main sources, combined into their final form by a series of redactors. These four sources came to be known as the Jahwist (or Yahwist), the Elohist, the Deuteronomist and the Priestly source.[15]

Julius Wellhausen's contribution was to order these sources chronologically as JEDP, giving them a coherent setting in the evolving religious history of Israel, which he saw as one of ever-increasing priestly power. Wellhausen's formulation was:

  • the Yahwist source: written c. 950 BC in the southern Kingdom of Judah.
  • the Elohist source: written c. 850 BC in the northern Kingdom of Israel.
  • the Deuteronomist: written c. 600 BC in Jerusalem during a period of religious reform.
  • the Priestly source: written c. 500 BC by Kohanim (Jewish priests) in exile in Babylon.

While the hypothesis has been increasingly challenged by other models in the last part of the 20th century, its terminology and insights continue to provide the framework for modern theories on the origins of the Torah.[16]

Contemporary defenses of Mosaic authorship

David Zvi Hoffmann, in his commentary to Leviticus, made use of rabbinic homiletic and exegetical interpretations as well as some of his own insights to defend Mosaic authorship against the work of Wellhausen and others. His Die wichtigsten Instanzen gegen die Graf-Wellhausensche Hypothese (2 vols., 1903/1916)[17] pointed out several difficulties in the Wellhasuen hypothesis, most notably in his theory that the Priestly code, and hence the Jewish conception of monotheism, was of late post-exilic redaction. His approach to biblical investigation is still studied.[18]

Menachem Mendel Kasher points to certain traditions of the Oral Torah which show Moses quoting Genesis prior to the epiphany at Sinai; based on a number of Bible verses and rabbinic statements, he suggests that Moses made use of documents authored by the Patriarchs when redacting that book.[19]

In Revelation Restored, Rabbi David Weiss Halivni develops a theory of Chate'u Yisroel (literally, "Israel has sinned"): "According to the biblical account itself, the people of Israel forsook the Torah, in the dramatic episode of the golden calf, only forty days after the revelation at Sinai. From that point on, until the time of Ezra, the scriptures reveal that the people of Israel were steeped in idolatry and negligent of the Mosaic law. Chate'u Yisrael, states that in the period of neglect and syncretism after the conquest of Canaan when the originally monotheistic Israelites adopted pagan practices from their neighbours, the Torah of Moses became "blemished and maculated."

According to Halivni, this process continued until the time of Ezra (c. 450 BC), when finally, upon their return from Babylon, the people accepted the Torah. It was at that time that the previously rejected, and therefore maculated, text of the Torah was recompiled and edited by Ezra and his “entourage.” He claims that this is attested in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and Halivni supports his theory with Talmudic and Midrashic sources which indicate that Ezra played a role in editing the Torah. He further states that while the text of the Pentateuch was corrupted, oral tradition preserved intact many of the laws, which is why the Oral Law appears to contradict the Biblical text in certain details.

This view was condemned in a declaration signed by many prominent orthodox rabbis and published in the ultra-Orthodox Yated Ne'eman, as it was seen as being in direct contradiction to Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith, which are universally accepted by all orthodox Jews. The 8th principle states "the Torah that we have today is the one that was dictated to Moses by God". They declared that Halivini has firmly placed himself in the conservative-reform camp.[20]

Oswald Thompson Allis, in his book The Five Books Of Moses notes that Jesus says of Moses, that "he wrote of me" (John 5:46).[21]

A-Mosaica and post-Mosaica

Some who maintain that the Pentateuch is mainly the writing of Moses distinguish some passages as "a-Mosaica" or "post-Mosaica".

As an example of a-Mosaica, there is Numbers 12:3, "(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)" (NIV), for a humble man would not be expected to claim that superlative of himself. However the Medrash says on this verse that it was God's testimony as to the character of Moses and that Moses wrote this according to God's instructions.[22]

As an example of post-Mosaica, the standard example is the description of the death of Moses in Deuteronomy 34.[23]

See also


  1. ^ Louis Jacobs (1995). The Jewish religion: a companion. Oxford University Press. p. 375.  
  2. ^ Talmud, Bava Basra 14b
  3. ^ Maimonides, Commentary on Mishnah, Sanhedrin 11:1, Article 8
  4. ^ McDermott, John J., (2002). Reading the Pentateuch: a historical introduction. Pauline Press. p. 21.  
  5. ^ Gordon Wenham, "Pentateuchal Studies Today", in Themelios 22.1 (October 1996): 3–13.
  6. ^ a b Miller, A Nation is Born, p. 87
  7. ^ Nehemiah 8:3
  8. ^ It would require a reading speed faster than one verse every four seconds, without allowing for the interpreters who Nehemiah says were translating his words as he read, and it is therefore unlikely that Ezra read the entire five books as we know them. see McEntire, p.10
  9. ^ McEntire, pp.10-11
  10. ^ a b c d e f
  11. ^ Rashi Gitten 60a
  12. ^ Talmud Bavli, Gitten 60a
  13. ^ Ibn Ezra, Commentary on the Torah, Deuteronomy 1:1
  14. ^ Campbell, O'Brien (2003), pp.1-2
  15. ^ , Fred L. Horton, Kenneth G. Hoglund, and Mary F. Foskett, Wake Forest University, 2007A Basic Vocabulary of Biblical Studies For Beginning Students: A Work in Progress
  16. ^ Wenham, Gordon. "Pentateuchal Studies Today," Themelios 22.1 (October 1996)
  17. ^ translated into Hebrew and available here
  18. ^ See Carla Sulzbach, David Zvi Hoffmann's Die Wichtigsten Instanzen gegen die Graf- Wellhausensche Hypothese, MA theses McGill Univ, 1996
  19. ^ See Torah Shelemah, Mishpatim Part 3 summarised by Gil Student here
  20. ^ Yated Ne'eman, January 14th, 1999
  21. ^  
  22. ^ Medrash Tani'im, Deuteronomy 3:26
  23. ^ pages 41-42, 93-94 Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dilland, An Introduction to the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2nd edition: 2006 ISBN 978-0-310-26341-8.


  • Bandstra, Barry L (2004). Reading the Old Testament: an introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Wadsworth. 
  • Campbell, Antony F; O'Brien, Mark A (1993). Sources of the Pentateuch: texts, introductions, annotations. Fortress Press. 
  • Davies, G.I (1998). "Introduction to the Pentateuch". In John Barton. Oxford Bible Commentary. Oxford University Press. 
  • Gooder, Paula (2000). The Pentateuch: a story of beginnings. T&T Clark. 
  • Kugler, Robert; Hartin, Patrick (2009). The Old Testament between theology and history: a critical survey. Eerdmans. 
  • Levin, Christoph L (2005). The Old testament: a brief introduction. Princeton University Press. 
  • McEntire, Mark (2008). Struggling with God: An Introduction to the Pentateuch. Mercer University Press. 
  • Ska, Jean-Louis (2006). Introduction to reading the Pentateuch. Eisenbrauns. 
  • Van Seters, John (1998). "The Pentateuch". In Steven L. McKenzie, Matt Patrick Graham. The Hebrew Bible today: an introduction to critical issues. Westminster John Knox Press. 
  • Van Seters, John (2004). The Pentateuch: a social-science commentary. Continuum International Publishing Group. 
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