Did Moses Write the Torah? (1)

The traditional view held in both Jewish and Christian circles was that the Pentateuch, the Torah, was penned by Moses under divine inspiration. This traditional claim, however, should be tempered by a couple of initial observations. First, the Torah as a whole makes no such claim. Nowhere does the Pentateuch claim to have been written by Moses, or anyone else for that matter. In fact, the sparse references to Moses writing in the Pentateuch are rather specific in nature. For example certain passages, that is certain authors, claim: that Moses writes a memorial reminding later generations that the Amalekites must be exterminated (Ex 17:14); that Moses writes “the words of Yahweh” (Ex 24:4), which contextually could refer to the Covenant Code of Exodus 21-23 or merely the Ten Commandments (there are various traditions combined in this section of Exodus); that Moses is instructed to write “these words” (Ex 34:27) which again are contextually the Ten Commandments (but as we shall see a different, another, Ten Commandments!); and finally in Deut 27:8 and 31:9, that Moses wrote “this torah” (i.e., this teaching or instruction), which again most likely refers to specific instructions within its context, or possibly this author was making a claim about the core of the book of Deuteronomy itself.

It should furthermore be mentioned that just because the text claims particular words, commandments, or even sections were penned by Moses does not mean that this was actually the case. Ancient Near Eastern literature—not to mention the ancient literature of Greece, China, and India as well—is full of these sorts of practices. Authorizing a politically or religiously oriented text by assigning its authorship to an ancestral hero, or even a god, was common practice in the ancient Near Eastern world. Second, Israelite writing, or writing in antiquity in general, required large economic and political institutions that would have necessarily been absent in the context of the wilderness narratives of the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy—institutions that would have been quite present in the late 8th century BC and onwards however. Third, there is strong evidence from the biblical texts themselves for a post-Mosaic, late monarchal, and even exilic date for the composition of much of the Pentateuchal narratives, especially the book of Deuteronomy whose date of composition has unanimously been shown to be the 7th century BC, under king Josiah’s reign (I shall blog about this soon). Furthermore, as we shall see, the actual 8th through 6th century BC authors of the Pentateuch’s texts and traditions had specific theological and ideological agendas in claiming that Moses wrote such and such part of the text, many of which were used to legitimate and authenticate political and/or religious claims of the factual author’s time period, and often against other and earlier authors who had also employed the same literary technique. As a final note, the process of collecting and canonizing the various texts and traditions that now make up the Pentateuch was a lengthy one that culminated in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Due to specific social, religious, and even pedagogical needs of this period, Israel’s ancient writings were not only collected and read as instruction (torah) to the public, but they were authenticated, that is hailed as authoritative, by appealing to, and even creating, Mosaic authorship.

It may more appropriately be asked, then, how and why did the traditional belief of Mosaic and/or divine authorship arise in the first place. The view that the text was somehow divinely inspired is itself an interpretive stance that gets formed from the specific theological, ideological, and even polemical concerns of much later generations of readers. In fact, it is already an interpretive claim that rests on another a priori assumption, namely that we are speaking about a canonical text, “the Book.” In other words, not until after these diverse texts came to be canonical scripture did one then claim divinely inspired authorship for “the Book.” Consequently, from late antiquity through the Dark Ages and into the Middle Ages, the biblical text was received, understood, and read by means of this prevailing, and rarely questioned, theological interpretive framework. Against this traditional view, however, it should be recalled that the biblical texts make no such claim. The scholastic endeavor, therefore, might be seen as one that pushes back beyond this traditional and theological understanding, which in the end is not founded on any textual data but carved out of theological conviction, to get at the texts before they came under the scrutiny of this theological postulate. Other posts go into more detail on this topic [see here].

The traditional claim of Mosaic authorship for the Pentateuch first emerges in, and thus seems to have been fabricated for, a specific time—the 5th century BC religious reforms and scriptural canonization of the Torah under Ezra in the Persian period. This canonical view soon became authoritative and through subsequent centuries more books were added to this growing canon. Finally, this canonical and authoritative interpretive framework extended itself into the late Judaism and early Christianity of the 1st century AD. Both Jewish writers, such as Philo of Alexandria and the historian Josephus, and the writers of the Gospels acknowledged the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, or Torah. Just a couple hundred years later, however, the authors of the Talmud advocated a position that saw Joshua, Moses’ military successor, as the author of the last verses of the Pentateuch, those which described Moses’ death in other words. How could Moses have written about his own death? was the guiding exegetical query in this early stage of examining the Torah’s origins.

The problem of the authorship of Moses’ death did not subside throughout antiquity; in fact, more vexing questions emerged, those that not only questioned the Mosaic authorship of an ever increasing number of Pentateuchal passages, but also those that questioned whether the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible—was even authored by a single individual. Not only were educated and informed readers of the Bible observing anachronisms, geographical anomalies, phrases that suggested a later post-Mosaic audience, and events that happened long after Moses died—all of which presented problems to the traditional claim of Mosaic authorship—but they were also observing textual duplicates and contradictions throughout the Pentateuchal narrative, which in general questioned the authorial integrity of the text as a cohesive unity penned by a single author, or inspired by a single god for that matter. The staunch response to these claims by the Christian apologists and church Fathers of the 2nd to the 5th centuries was a massive re-interpretive program that sought to harmonize such contradictions, inconsistencies, and anachronisms through an elaborate process of figurative reinterpretation, which, obviously, never addressed the compositional nature of the biblical sources nor their origins, and moreover proceeded from a theological base that already presumed what the Bible was. In fact, much of the biblical commentaries written by the church Fathers were an attempt to ward of three distinct groups of opposition (the literalists, the Jews, and the gnostics) and at the same time apologetically defend their orthodoxy. This was done to support a canonical and theological reading across the Testaments. Little if any knowledge of the origins and compositional nature of the biblical texts were known then. Rather, the Christian interpretive tradition, prompted by ever-changing religious and social circumstances, became the authoritative spokesperson for the various biblical texts themselves, regardless of what these texts said independently [for an interesting read see this post]. Nevertheless, this was to change in the early beginnings of pre-modern scholarship, when learned and invested individuals sought to read and understand the texts on their own merits, beyond what the authoritative interpretive tradition maintained.

For the next post, I will provide a brief summary of how the Torah was discovered to be a compilation of various textual traditions that were all written hundreds of centuries after Moses!

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