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The Authorship of the Pentateuch

The first five books of the Bible, - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - collectively called the Pentateuch by Christians and the Torah by Jews, hold an important place in the Old Testament. In the Pentateuch or Torah we find the first incidence of God's covenant with Israel, the laying down of the Ten Commandments and introduction of Jewish religious laws. It was therefore fitting that tradition attributes the authorship of these books to Moses, certainly one of the most important of the Hebrew prophets. All Christian fundamentalists accept Moses as the author of the Pentateuch. The Roman Catholic Church, in agreement with them, issued a decree early in the twentieth century, to be accepted without question by all Catholics, that Moses was the literal of these books.[1] Whether by blind faith or by decree it can be shown that this attribution, like the myth of the inerrant Bible, is simply false.

Given below are some of the considerations that goes towards proving this.

No Internal Claim of Mosaic Authorship

There is no direct claim of Mosaic authorship in any of the five books. Although there are passages attributed to Moses (Deuteronomy 1:5, 4:45, 31:10) and passages that said that Moses made specific written records (Exodus 17:14, 24:4, 34:27, Numbers 33:2, Deuteronomy 31:9,24). But nowhere in any of these books is there any allusion to itself being written by the Jewish prophet. In fact, whenever we find that references to Moses are always in the third person (see for example Numbers 2:1, 5:1, 31:1, Deuteronomy 33:1). While it may be possible that Moses chose to write in that sort of a fashion, this supposition adds no weight whatsoever to the assertion of Mosaic authorship.[2]

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Some Passages Simply Could Not Have Been Written by Moses

There are passages about Moses within the five books that simply could not have been written by Moses himself. One example:

Numbers 12:3
Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.

As Richard Friedman, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University California, San Diego mentioned in his book Who Wrote the Bible?:

[N]ormally one would not expect the humblest man on earth to point out that he is the humblest man on earth. [3]

We find references to Moses that spoke of him as though he was a long gone prophet. Some examples:

Exodus 11:3
Moreover, the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 34:10
And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses…

When we take into consideration Moses’ reputed humility, such passages could only have been written by another who held Moses in high regard.

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The Presence of Anachronisms

Secondly, the presence of anachronisms, i.e. allusions to names or things in the wrong historical setting, adds further weight against the authorship of Moses. This idea needs a little explaining. The example I will use is that used by Thomas Paine in his book The Age of Reason (1796). The city of New York, before 1664 was called New Amsterdam. Should we discover an undated document that discussed events of, let us say, mid-seventeenth century New England, which called the city New York, we can immediately conclude that it was written after 1664. For no one could have known before 1664 that New Amsterdam would be called New York after that year.

Now, the city in the Bible that went through a similar kind of name change was the city of Dan. The old name for this city was Laish, and the account of its conquest and change of names is given in the book of Judges.

Judges 18:27-29
And taking what Micah had made, and the priest who belonged to him, the Danites came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting and smote them with the edge of the sword, and burned the city with fire. And there was no deliverer because it was far from Sidon. It was in the valley which belongs to Bethrehob. And they rebuilt the city and dwelt in it. And they named the city Dan, after the name of Dan their ancestor who was born in Israel; but the name of the city was Laish at the first.

This account of the conquest of Laish and the changing of its name to Dan is placed in the Bible, immediately after the death of Samson. Now Samson was the twelfth, and last, Judge. The Judges were the rulers of Israel after the death of Joshua. Moses died more than two hundred years before Samson. Thus, the name of the city of Laish was changed to Dan only some two to three centuries after the death of Moses. Keep this in mind as you read this passage from Genesis below:

Genesis 14:14
When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.

As we have reasoned earlier, this allusion to Dan, is an anachronism, and could not have been written by Moses. The passage could only have been written by someone who lived after the period of the Judges, when Laish had become Dan, more than two hundred years after the death of Moses. [4]

We find this same anachronism in Genesis 23:2 which provided an explanatory note that Kirjath-arba, the town where Rachel died is Hebron. The city of Kirjath-arba was not called Hebron until the time of the conquest when Joshua gave it to Caleb (Joshua 14:13-15).

Another passage which shows that the books -or at least some portions of it- were written after the time of Solomon:

Genesis 36:31
And these are the kings that reigned in the land of Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel.

Now how could Moses have known that there would be kings that reigned over the Israelites? This passage must therefore have been written, at the very earliest, after the first Jewish King, Saul, began to rule over the Israelites which was around three centuries after the death of Moses.

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The Account of Moses' Death and Burial

The final, conclusive, evidence against Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is the account of Moses' death and burial in Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 34:5-8
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-pe'or; but no man knows the place of his burial to this day. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. 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.

It should be obvious, even to the most hard headed fundamentalist, that no one could write an account of his own death, burial and mourning. Furthermore the presence of the phrase to this day implies that a long time has elapsed between the death of Moses and the writing of the passage. [5]

Incidentally, the above passage has a built in absurdity that a skeptical reader can easily pick up. The "he" that buried Moses can refer, in the context of the passage, to no one else except God himself. Now if God buried Moses, how did the writer came to know of it? Since the writer himself claimed that no one knows where Moses was buried, so he obviously did not see it himself. Phrases like these are okay in fictional works but as a pretence of factual reporting, it is pathetic.

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The Pentateuch Had More Than One Author

So we have shown that the Pentateuch could not have been written by Moses and was in fact written a long time after his death. Biblical scholars had even taken the evidence one step further. They found that the five books could not have been written by any one person. This is shown by the presence of “doublets”: the same story told twice which sometimes contradict each other in details. For example:

  • there was two accounts of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Genesis 2:4b-25)
  • two accounts of the flood (in one only one pair of each kind of animal is to be taken into the ark, while in the other seven pairs of clean animals are required; Genesis 6:19f, 7:2f)
  • two accounts of how Hagar was driven out from Abraham’s household (Genesis 16:4-14; 21:8,21).

These examples could be multiplied but our purpose is simply to show that the best explanation for the doublets is that the books of Moses is really of composite work revealing the handiwork of more than one author. [6] [a]

As Richard Friedman concludes:

At present…there is hardly a biblical scholar in the world actively working on the problem who claim that the five book of Moses were written by Moses-or by any one person. [7] [b]

So the Pentateuch that contains the account of the creation of the universe, of God meeting Moses face to face and of the parting of the Red Sea was written by unknown author(s). If they can make anachronistic mistakes (e.g. the city of Dan, about the use of camels in Abraham's times see below) and write obvious fiction (e.g. the burial place of Moses), why should we believe him or them when they said that God created the world in seven days? How can we trust the, obviously inaccurate, testimony of anonymous persons?

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a.Critical scholars today are generally in agreement that the sources of the Pentateuch were 4 separate documents written in different times by different authors. These source documents were called the J (Jehowah/Yahweh), E (Elohim) D (Deuteronomic), and the P (priestly), documents. Internal evidence shows that “J” originated from the southern kingdom of Judah and was the earliest to be documented around 900BC; “E” was written in the northern kingdom of Israel probably about a century or so later. The “D” document is dated to about 700BC. The documents were then combined into one by the priesthood, who added their own “Priestly” tradition to it, during the Babylonian exile (after 560 BC). We are not concerned here with the basis of this theory as our purpose is simply to show that it could not have been written by Moses-a fundamentalist bedrock belief.
b.Obviously wary of fundamentalist theologians claiming to be Biblical scholars that still insist of Mosaic authorship, Professor Friedman add the following interesting footnote to the above quote:
“There are many persons who claim to be biblical scholars. I refer to scholars who have the necessary training in languages, biblical archaeology, and literary and historical skills to work on the problem and who meet, discuss and debate their ideas and research with other scholars through scholarly journals, conferences, etc.”


1.Baigent & Leigh, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception: p120
2.Anderson, Reason: A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament: p22
Paine, The Age of Reason: p106
3.Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?: p18
4.Anderson, A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament: p22
Paine, The Age of Reason: p112-113
Asimov, Guide to the Bible: p253
5.Paine, The Age of Reason: p110
Parmalee, Guidebook to the Bible: p5
6.Anderson, A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament: p23-26
7.Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible: p28, 261

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