Mosaic authorship is the Jewish and Christian tradition that
the author of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old
Testament. The books do not name any author, as authorship was not
considered important by the society that produced them, and it
was only after Jews came into intense contact with author-centric
Hellenistic culture in the late Second Temple period that the rabbis
began to find authors for their scriptures. The tradition probably
began with the law-code of Deuteronomy, and was then gradually
extended until Moses, as the central character, came to be regarded
not just as the mediator of law but as author of both laws and
By the 1st century CE it was already common practice to refer to the
five books as the "Law of Moses", but the first unequivocal expression
of the idea that this meant authorship appears in the Babylonian
Talmud, an encyclopedia of Jewish tradition and scholarship composed
between 200-500 CE. There the rabbis noticed and addressed such
issues as how
Moses had received the divine revelation, how it was
curated and transmitted to later generations, and how difficult
passages such as the last verses of Deuteronomy, which describe his
death, were to be explained. This culminated in the 8th of
Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith, establishing belief in Mosaic
authorship as an article of Jewish belief.
Mosaic authorship of the
Torah was unquestioned by both Jews and
Christians until the European Enlightenment, when the systematic study
of the five books led the majority of scholars to conclude that they
are the product of many hands and many centuries. Despite this,
the role of
Moses is an article of faith in traditional Jewish circles
and for some Christian Evangelical scholars, for whom it remains
crucial to their understanding of the unity and authority of
1 Torah, authorship, and the development of the tradition
Mosaic authorship in rabbinic tradition to the modern period
Mosaic authorship in the Christian tradition
4 See also
Torah, authorship, and the development of the tradition
Torah (or Pentateuch, as biblical scholars sometimes call it) is
the collective name for the first five books of the Bible - Genesis,
Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.[Notes 1] It forms the
charter myth of Israel, the story of the origins of the Hebrew people
and the foundations of their culture and institutions,. It is a
fundamental principle of Judaism that the relationship between God and
his chosen people was set out on
Mount Sinai through the Torah.
The development of the
Torah began by around 600 BCE when previously
unconnected material began to be drawn together; by around 400 BCE
these books, the fore-runners of the Torah, had reached their modern
form and began to be recognised[by whom?] as complete, unchangeable,
and sacred; and by around 200 BCE the five books were accepted as the
first section of the Jewish canon.[Notes 2] It seems that the
Mosaic authorship began with ascribing
Moses. Scholars generally agree that
Deuteronomy was composed in
Jerusalem during the reform program of King
Josiah in the late 7th
century; it is this law-code that books such as
Joshua and Kings
(completed in the mid 500s) mean when they speak of the "torah of
Moses". In later books such as Chronicles and
meaning had expanded to include the other laws such as Leviticus, and
by Hellenistic times Jewish writers referred to the entirety of the
five books, narrative and laws, as the Book (or books) of Moses.
The society that produced the Hebrew Bible (the Protestant Old
Testament) did not consider authorship important, and the
names an author. According to many[quantify] scholars it was
only after c. 300 BCE, when Jews came into close contact with
author-centric Greek culture, that the rabbis began to feel compelled
to find authors for their books,[Notes 3] and the process which led
Moses becoming identified as the author of the
Torah may have been
influenced by three factors: first, by a number of passages in which
he is said to write something, frequently at the command of God,
although these passages never appear to apply to the entire five
books; second, by his key role in four of the five books (Genesis is
the exception); and finally, by the way in which his authority as
lawgiver and liberator of Israel united the story and laws of the
Mosaic authorship in rabbinic tradition to the modern period
Moses in rabbinic literature
The Babylonian Talmud, an encyclopedia of Jewish scholarship composed
between 200-500 CE, states that "
Moses wrote his own book and the
section concerning Balaam."[Notes 5] The medieval sage Maimonides
(c.1135-1204) enshrined this in his
Thirteen Principles of Faith
Thirteen Principles of Faith (a
summary of the required beliefs of Judaism), the 8th of which states:
"I believe with perfect faith that the entire
Torah presently in our
possession is the one given to Moses." The rabbis explained that
God wrote the
Torah in heaven before the world was created, in letters
of black fire on parchment of white fire, and that
Moses received it
by divine dictation, writing the exact words spoken to him by God.
The rabbis also explained how the
Torah was handed down to later
Moses received the
Torah from Sinai and transmitted it
Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the
Prophets transmitted it to the men of the Great Assembly," who in turn
transmitted it to the rabbis. (The Great Assembly, according to
Jewish tradition, was called by
Ezra to ensure the accurate
transmission of the
Moses when the Jews returned from
exile). Orthodox rabbis therefore say that thanks to this chain of
Torah of today is identical with that received by
Moses, not varying by a single letter.
The rabbis were aware that some phrases in the
Torah do not seem to
fit with divine dictation of a pre-existent text, and this awareness
accounts for a second tradition of how the divine word was
transmitted: God spoke and
Moses remembered the divine words and wrote
them down afterwards, together with some explanatory phrases of his
own. This explanation is a minority one, but it explains, for
example, why every step in the description of the construction of the
Tabernacle is followed by the phrase, "As the Lord commanded
There were also passages which seemed impossible for
Moses to have
written, notably the account of his own death and burial in last
verses of Deuteronomy: the Talmud's answer is that "
Joshua wrote ...
[the last] eight verses of the Torah," yet this implied that the
Torah was incomplete when
Moses handed it to Israel; the explanation
of the rabbis was that the verses were indeed by Moses, but written
"with tears in his eyes" as God dictated to him this description of
More serious were a few passages which implied an author long after
the time of Moses, such as Genesis 12:6, "The Canaanite was then in
the land," implying a time when the Canaanites were no longer in the
land. Abraham ibn
Ezra (c.1092-1167) made a celebrated comment on
this phrase, writing that it contains "a great secret, and the person
who understands it will keep quiet;" the 14th century rabbi Joseph
ben Samuel Bonfils responded that
Moses had written this and similar
passages, as he was a prophet, but that it made no difference whether
they were by him or some later prophet, "since the words of all of
them are true and inspired."
Finally, there were a few passages which implied that
Moses had used
pre-existing sources: a section of the
Book of Numbers
Book of Numbers (Numbers 10:35
— 36) is surrounded in the Hebrew by inverted nuns (the equivalent
of brackets) which the rabbis said indicated that these verses were
from a separate book, the Book of Eldad and Medad.[Notes 6]
Biblical scholars today agree almost unanimously that the
Torah is the
work of many authors over many centuries. A major factor in this
rejection of the tradition of
Mosaic authorship was the development of
the documentary hypothesis, which understood the Pentateuch as a
composite work made up of four "sources," or documents, compiled over
centuries in a process that was not concluded until long after Moses'
death. The documentary hypothesis aroused understandable
opposition from traditional scholars. One of the most significant was
David Zvi Hoffmann
David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921), who attempted to defend Mosaic
authorship by demonstrating that the sources identified by the
documentary hypothesis were, in fact, pre-exilic; if this were proven,
he believed, then the hypothesis itself was dis-proven. The most
he would concede to the proponents of the hypothesis was that Moses
may have written various scrolls over his career and that these may
have been collated and united before his death. Another important
Jewish scholar, and one still active, is
David Weiss Halivni
David Weiss Halivni (b.1927):
he has developed a theory of Chate'u Yisrael, literally, "Israel has
sinned", which states that the originally monotheistic Israelites
adopted pagan practices from their neighbours and neglected the Torah
of Moses, with the result that it became "blemished and maculated;"
only on the return from Babylon did the people once again accept the
Torah, which was then recompiled and edited by
Ezra as evidenced in
Ezra–Nehemiah and Talmudic and Midrashic sources which indicate that
Ezra played a role in editing the Torah. He further states that
while the text of the
Torah was corrupted, oral tradition was
preserved intact, which is why the Oral Law appears to contradict the
Biblical text in certain details. Menachem Mendel Kasher
(1895-1983), taking a different approach, accepted the documentary
hypothesis but adapted it to the Mosaic tradition, pointing 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 therefore suggested that
Moses made use of documents
authored by the
Patriarchs when redacting that book. This view is
supported by some rabbinical sources and medieval commentaries which
recognize that the
Torah incorporates written texts and divine
messages from before and after the time of Moses;
Mosaic authorship in the Christian tradition
The Christian scriptures showed Jesus himself recognised
Moses as the
author of at least some portions of the Pentateuch (e.g., the Gospel
of John, verses 5:46-47), and the early Christians therefore followed
the rabbis. Like them, they addressed those passages which
seemed to cast doubt on the Mosaic tradition: Saint Jerome, for
example, felt that "unto this day" implied an author long after the
time of Moses, presumably the 5th century BCE sage Ezra, and
Martin Luther similarly concluded that the description of Moses' death
Joshua – but believed that the question itself was of no
Jerome and Luther and others still believed that the bulk of the
Pentateuch was by Moses, even if a few phrases were not, but in the
17th century scholars began to seriously question its origins, leading
Benedict Spinoza to declare that "the Pentateuch was not written by
Moses but by someone else." This conclusion had major
implications, for as the 18th century Jewish scholar David Levi
pointed out to his Christian colleagues, "if any part [of the Torah]
is once proved spurious, a door will be opened for another and another
By the 19th century scholars almost universally accepted that the Book
Deuteronomy dated not from the time of
Moses but from the 7th
century BCE, and that the Pentateuch as a whole had been compiled by
unknown editors from various originally distinct source-documents.
As David Levi had feared, the questioning of
Mosaic authorship had led
to a profound skepticism towards the very idea of revealed
religion. Gradually the various Christian churches came to accept
the conclusions of scholarship, and when in the 1940s the Vatican
lifted a ban on Catholic scholars investigating the origins of the
Pentateuch, it left support for
Mosaic authorship limited largely to
conservative Evangelical circles. This is tied to the way
Evangelicals view the unity and authority of scripture: in the words
of the Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, "Faith in Christ and faith
in the books of the OT canon stand or fall together [because] Christ
and the apostles ... took the Pentateuch as Mosaic [and] put their
seal on it as Holy Scripture." Nevertheless, the majority of
contemporary Evangelicals, while accepting that some or much of the
Pentateuch can be traced to
Moses or traditions about him, pay little
attention to the question of authorship.
Authorship of the Bible
Dating the Bible
^ Jews believe that God also revealed an oral
Torah to Moses, but this
article deals only with the written Torah, the first five books of the
^ The Jewish canon is made up of three parts, the Torah, the Prophets,
and the Writings.
^ The earliest Jewish text to identify its author is a work called Ben
Sirach, dating from the early 2nd century BCE - pronouncements such as
"These are the prophecies of Isaiah" identify bodies of tradition
rather than authors. See Schniedewind, p.7-10.
^ See McEntire, 2008, pp.8-9, for some of the passages in which Moses
is said to write (this list is not exhaustive):
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.
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 33:1-2: "Here are the stages in the journey of the Israelites
when they came out of Egypt ... at the Lord’s command
the stages in their journey; this is their journey by stages:" There
follows a list of the places where the Israelites camped in the
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
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
Deuteronomy 31:22: "
Moses wrote down this song on that day." The
"song" is presumably
Deuteronomy 32, the Song of Moses.
^ The episode of Balaam, found in the Book of Numbers, tells how the
Balaam was asked by Israel's enemies to curse
Israel, but blessed them instead.
Eldad and Medad prophesied among the Israelites despite not having
received the gift of prophesy from God.
^ a b c Robinson 2008, p. 97.
^ a b c d Schniedewind 2005, p. 6-7.
^ a b Carr 2000, p. 492.
^ McEntire 2008, p. 11.
^ a b c d Collins 2014, p. 50.
^ a b c Robinson 2008, p. 98.
^ McEntire 2008, p. 10.
^ a b Heschel 2005, p. 539-540.
^ a b Robinson 2008, p. 97-98.
^ a b Levenson 1993, p. 63.
^ a b McDermott 2002, p. 21.
^ a b Tenney 2010, p. unpaginated.
^ McDermott 2002, p. 1.
^ Dozeman 2010, p. 73.
^ Tigay 2004, p. 106.
^ McEntire 2008, p. 7-8.
^ Rofé 2002, p. 4-5.
^ Bandstra 2008, p. 191.
^ McEntire 2008, p. 8-11.
^ Heschel 2005, p. 539-540,546.
^ Edelman & Ben Zvi 2013, p. 160.
^ Heschel 2005, p. 540.
^ a b Levenson 1993, p. 66.
^ Levenson 1993, p. 67.
^ Edelman & Ben Zvi 2013, p. 208, fn.37.
^ Ross 2004, p. 185-186.
^ Shavit & Eran 2007, p. 143-144.
^ Shavit & Eran 2007, p. 143.
^ a b Ross 2004, p. 192.
^ Ross 2004, p. 297, fn.19.
^ Ross 2004, p. 97.
^ Enns 2012, p. 153.
^ a b Wolf 2007, p. 60.
^ Young 1984, p. 115.
^ Garrett 1996, p. 387.
^ Enns 2012, p. 17.
^ Whybray 1995, p. 15.
^ Popkin 2003, p. 195-196.
^ Davies 2007, p. 19-20.
^ Sailhamer 2010, p. 181.
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