Who wrote “the books of Moses”?

The composition of the first five books of the bible.

The first five books of the bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (or as Hebrew-speakers call ’em, Berešít, Šemót, Vayiqrá, Bamidbár, and Devarím) are commonly called the books of Moses. They’re also called תּוֹרָ֣ה/Toráh, meaning “Law,” because the Law’s in them; Greek and English speakers also call them Pentateuch, which comes from πέντε τεῦχος/pente téfhos, “five tools.” (I know; people regularly claim “Pentateuch” means “five books”—and they don’t know Greek, so of course they do. The Greek for “book” is βίβλος/vívlos, the word we got “bible” from.) I tend to call these books Torah, as I will throughout this article.

They’re called the books of Moses even though Moses isn’t in Genesis at all… but his ancestors were, so there’s that. Largely they tell us the creation of the Hebrew people: How they got into Egypt in the first place, how they became Egyptian slaves, how the LORD saved ’em, how God covenanted with them and gave them his Law and the Levant/Canaan/Palestine/the land of Israel. They’re the oldest books in the bible (weird young-earth creationist theories about Job aside), and predate the rest of the books by at least four centuries.

And we don’t know who wrote ’em.

Well we don’t. For convenience I tend to refer to Torah’s author as “Moe,” who is not Moses ben Amram, the prophet who led the Hebrews out of Egypt. Moe’s the person who put Torah into its current form. Most scholars, regardless of how they think Torah came together, agree at least one person ultimately did this. So, “Moe.”

No it wasn’t Moses. We know he wrote parts of Torah. Big parts. More than once the LORD ordered Moses to write down his commands and rulings, so Moses wrote those parts. Ex 24.4, 34.27, Nu 33.2 And Deuteronomy is almost entirely a first-person speech given to the Hebrews by Moses—so he composed that part, though realistically someone else wrote it down. Plus since Deuteronomy ends with Moses dying, Dt 34 he can’t have written that part.

Plus Torah is full of anachronisms, statements and words which indicate someone wrote them way later than the 1400s BC, when Moses was alive. (I listed a few of ’em in my “Who wrote the bible?” article.) Fr’instance Genesis states Abraham was born in Ur, Chaldea. Ge 11.28 That’s like saying Abraham was born in Ur, Iraq—which is the present-day country where we nowadays find Ur. In Abraham’s day it was neither called Iraq nor Chaldea; it was Sumer. Wasn’t called Chaldea till the Assyrians conquered the land in the 800s BC. Which means someone updated the name long after Moses’s day.

Now, calling things by their present-day names is a common practice. But historians try to make it clear it wasn’t called that then—becuase when they forget to say so, it confuses people. When Exodus states the Hebrews built “Raamses,” Ex 1.11 but doesn’t point out it wasn’t yet called Raamses, people get the idea the Hebrews built it during or after the reign of Pharaoh Raamses 2 in the 1100s BC. Which is why they think the Exodus took place in the 1100s… and not in the 1300s like it indicates elsewhere in the Old Testament. Jg 11.26, 1Ki 6.1 It messes people up as to when Abraham left Sumer, or under what pharaoh Joseph ruled Egypt, or how long Judges covers.

Now it is possible Moses wrote the first draft of Torah, and someone else got hold of the books centuries later and updated them. But the very fact someone updated Torah means Moses isn’t their final author—and we don’t know how far these updates went. Maybe Moe made a few small changes; maybe Moe made extensive, profound changes. Maybe Moses’s first draft was a random list of commands—and I’m not at all saying Moe later removed any, but could’ve seriously reorganized them, or added the stories about why the LORD added this or that command; we honestly don’t know.

Anachronisms and bible difficulties.

Thanks to these anachronisms, we wind up with discrepancies in Torah. Sorry; we’re gonna call ’em “bible difficulties.” There the parts where it looks like there are contradictions and errors, but once you realize they’re just anachronisms, it’s not so big a deal.

Fr’instance when God told Moses he wasn’t known as יְהוָ֔ה/YHWH, “the LORD,” to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Ex 6.3 it contradicts the stories where Abraham specifically refers to his God as the LORD, Ge 12.8, 13.4, 14.22, 21.33, 22.14, 24.3, 24.7 or where the LORD proclaims his name to Abraham. Ge 15.7, 18.19, 22.16 Or where Jacob likewise calls on the LORD, Ge 28.21, 31.49 and the LORD declares his name right back. Ge 28.13 Either we figure the Torah’s author added “the LORD” to those Genesis stories when it wasn’t originally there, or we’re forced to conclude Exodus is wrong and God never actually told Moses any such thing. (Or worse: God was fibbing.)

Anyway, if you don’t realize there are anachronisms in Torah, your interpretations aren’t gonna be historically accurate. All those Exodus movies where Raamses or Merneptah was the pharaoh Moses faced off against? Wrong guy by about 200 years. (And no, the Hebrews didn’t build the pyramids; those things were 2,000 years old when Abraham visited Egypt. Yeesh.) All those archaeologists who went digging round the Sinai peninsula looking for where the Hebrews encamped, and found nothing? Wrong continent entirely; the mountain’s in Arabia, Ga 4.25 and the Sinai peninsula was named after an Orthodox monastery in Egypt started calling their mountain “Sinai.” It’s not Sinai.

But if you know your history, and pick up on the parts of the bible which aren’t anachronisms and point to when and where things really happened, you’re gonna find historical and archaeological evidence. Ancient writings from Assryia and Nuzi describe surrogate-parent practices much like we see in Genesis with Hagar, Ge 16.2 and with Jacob’s wives’ slaves. Ge 30.3, 30.9 Ancient suzerain-vassal treaties look a lot like the LORD’s covenant with Israel. The Hammurabi Code resembles a lot of God’s commands—though the LORD is way more gracious, and doesn’t make distinctions for social classes.

(Even though lots of Christian apologists are fond of claiming, “Archaeology proves the bible is true!” that’s not an accurate way to describe what archaeology does. Archaeology confirms, not proves. And since we’re talking about 6,300-year-old events, a lot of artifacts are lost to history. What’s been found thus far does confirm bible, but let’s not pin too many of our hopes on archaeology. Faith means we trust the scriptures because they’re tried and true—not because we’re waiting to see what else scientists can dig up.)

The “documentary hypothesis.”

The most popular current theory of how we got the current form of Torah is called the documentary hypothesis.

Most of the time it gets associated with 19th-century scholar Julius Wellhausen and his 1878 book Geschichte Israels (“Israeli History”). His idea about how Torah came together from multiple documents, each written by someone with a different emphasis, sounds kinda reasonable. Doubtful it came together exactly as Wellhausen imagined, but maybe it came together like this, which is why a lot of scholars still look at Wellhausen’s hypothesis.

The documentary hypothesis also gets called “the JEDP theory” because of the initials Wellhausen used to describe it. The letters reflect the four authors, editors, or redactors, whom Wellhausen figured had contributed to Torah’s composition.

THE YAHWIST. First there’s an author who worshiped YHWH—which the Germans transliterate as JHVH, which is where “Jehovah” comes from, and also why they call this author “J.” The Yahwist, or “J,” wrote all the stories in Torah which use the LORD’s name, or emphasize how super important his name is. It’s why there are stories in Genesis which refer to the LORD, even though the LORD himself told Moses he wasn’t called that yet. Ex 6.3
THE ELOHIST. Next there’s an author who worshiped the One God, and simply refers to him as “God”—or by the Hebrew words אֵ֣ל/El or אֱלֹהִ֜ים/Elohím, both of which mean “God.” Hence “E.” Ever notice how some Genesis stories only refer to “God” (i.e. Genesis 1), and others call him “the LORD God” (i.e. Genesis 2)? Wellhausen’s thinking was these two creation stories come from two different authors’ traditions: E was telling the story his fellow God-worshipers knew, and J was telling the story as the YHWH-followers preserved it.
THE DEUTERONOMIST. This’d be whoever composed Deuteronomy. (Who might possibly be the Deuteronomistic historian, although Wellhausen didn’t speculate such a person existed.) Any stories in Torah which reflect the theme of Deuteronomy—namely if God’s people follow his Law, he’ll let ’em live in the promised land, and if they don’t out they go—were possibly inserted by Deuteronomy’s author.
THE PRIEST. Stories and traditions which have to do with the tabernacle, its construction, its implements, rules for its priests and Levites, ritual sacrifice, ritual cleanliness, and anything priestly, were supposedly by a writer who wanted to make sure Torah spelled out his important job.

According to Wellhausen, these stories are so different from one another in theme and tone, they had to be composed by different people… and Torah’s final editor simply stitched ’em together, changing very little because he wanted to keep them as intact as possible. Probably because he believed they were inspired by God. Which they are. 2Ti 3.16

A number of conservative scholars totally reject Wellhausen’s theory because they really don’t like some of his other speculations as why it came together this way. Namely, Wellhausen believed Israel’s religion evolved from multiple gods to monotheism. Another is he totally bought Karl Heinrich Graf’s wacky idea that the Prophets were written first, and Torah was invented thereafter to explain them. These conservatives figure Wellhausen was too liberal for us to trust anything he hypothesized. I understand their concern… but y’know, regardless of his wonky other theories, if he’s on to something here, it’d be dumb of us to dismiss it altogether.

And I should point out there are certain scholars who have bought into the documentary hypothesis a little too much. They even claim they can detect multiple Elohists who wrote the “E” material, and sometimes designate them as E1, E2, E3, E4, and so forth. I should point out it’s entirely possible every single story in Genesis may originate from a different source, which means you’d have dozens of “E” sources and “J” sources and so on… and you could make yourself nuts trying to differentiate them, or trying to match ’em up. Is that really the best use of your time? Nah.

Torah scholar Richard Elliott Friedman has an edition of Torah with the JEDP sections color-coded, called The Bible with Sources Revealed. His guesses, of course, as to which parts originated with J, which parts came from E, and so forth. It’s interesting. But I much prefer his Commentary on the Torah, to be honest.

Anyway. Regardless of what you think of the documentary hypothesis, most scholars are agreed such a person as Moe exists, and if you wanna call Moe “Moses,” it’s a good-enough shortcut—but be clear; Moe isn’t Moses.