Who wrote “the books of Moses”?

The first five books of the bible 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 get that wrong. “Book/scroll” in Greek is βίβλος/vívlos, the word we got “bible” from.) I tend to call these books Torah, as I will throughout this article. They are:

ENGLISH NAMEWHICH MEANSHEBREW NAMEWHICH MEANS
GenesisbeginningBerešítat the beginning
Exodusmass departureŠemótnames
Leviticusof the LevitesVayiqráand he called
Numbersnumbers; duhBamidbárin the wilderness
Deuteronomysecond lawDevarímwords

Hebrew names tend to come from the first word of a book or psalm, and the Torah’s book titles come from verse 1 of each book. The English names are translations of the Septuagint’s Greek names.

They’re called the books of Moses despite Moses not being 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 rescued ’em, how God covenanted with them and gave them his Law and the Levantine coast/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. In this article, for convenience, I refer to Torah’s author as “Moe.”

Moe is not Moshe ben Amram, the prophet and judge who led the Hebrews out of Egypt, whose English-language name is Moses. We know Moses wrote parts of Torah. Big huge parts. More than once the LORD ordered Moses to write down his commands and rulings, so Moses obviously wrote those parts. Ex 24.4, 34.27, Nu 33.2 And Deuteronomy is almost entirely a first-person speech given by Moses to the Hebrews—so he composed that part, though realistically someone else wrote it down; possibly as a transcript, possibly from memory. (Yeah, some people have that good a memory.) But since Deuteronomy ends with Moses dying, Dt 34 he can’t have written that part.

But Moses isn’t the person who put Torah into its current form. And most scholars, regardless of how they think Torah was assembled, agree at least one person ultimately did this. So I call him “Moe.”

Anachronisms and Moses.

I know; this revelation tends to throw some people, whose King James Versions title each book of the Torah as one of the books “of Moses.” But there’s evidence all over the bible that, other than the parts God dictated to Moses, he didn’t write it.

Firstly it’s 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”—the present-day nation where Ur now is. 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 in the 800s. Six centuries after Moses’s day.

Now, calling things by their present-day names is a common practice. But historians usually make it clear it wasn’t called that back then. Because whenever historians forget to say so, it confuses people. When the Byzantine emperors refer to the Roman Empire, it’s gonna confuse history students who think they must either mean the Holy Roman Empire, or the Roman Empire which (they think) fell before the middle ages. Historians gotta explain the Byzantine Empire is the Roman Empire; that long before it “fell,” the government packed up, left Rome, moved to Vyzantion, and renamed the city Constantinople. (And the Ottomans later renamed it Istanbul.) “Byzantine Empire” is a name historians coined in the 1500s. The Byzantines never called themselves that; they were “Romans.”

Same deal in Exodus. When that book states the Hebrews built “Raamses,” Ex 1.11 but doesn’t point out the city wasn’t yet named Raamses, people get the idea the Hebrews built it during or after the reign of Pharaoh Raamses 2 in the 1100s BC. So they conclude the Exodus took place in the 1100s… and not in the 1300s like it indicates everywhere else in the bible. Jg 11.26, 1Ki 6.1 It messes the chronology all up: People think Abraham left Sumer later than he did, or think Joseph ruled Egypt under some unlikely pharaohs, or think Judges took place only a century instead of three.

It is possible Moses wrote the first draft of Torah. Then 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 extensive these updates are: Moe coulda made a few small changes, or restructured ’em top to bottom. Moses’s first draft coulda been a random list of commands—and I’m not at all saying Moe removed any, but he could’ve significantly reorganized them, or added the stories about why the LORD added this or that command. We honestly don’t know.

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

Fr’instance God told Moses he wasn’t known as יְהוָ֔ה/YHWH, “the LORD,” to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Ex 6.3 But in Genesis, Abraham specifically calls his God “the LORD.” Ge 12.8, 13.4, 14.22, 21.33, 22.14, 24.3, 24.7 There’s even a story where the LORD proclaims his name to Abraham. Ge 15.7, 18.19, 22.16 Jacob likewise calls upon the LORD by name, 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 the 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. When you aren’t aware there are anachronisms in Torah, your interpretations aren’t gonna be historically accurate. All the 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; Sinai’s in Arabia. Ga 4.25 The Sinai peninsula is named after an Orthodox monastery in Egypt which named their mountain “Sinai” after the original Sinai. It’s not Moses’s Sinai.

Once 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’ll find historical and archaeological evidence all over the place. 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 clearly states he makes no distinctions for social classes.

(Yeah, lots of Christian apologists are fond of claiming, “Archaeology proves the bible is true!” It’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 all 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 Moe put together the Torah, is called the documentary hypothesis.

Most of the time the hypothesis is associated with 19th-century scholar Julius Wellhausen and his 1878 book Geschichte Israels (“Israeli History”; here’s a link to the 1885 edition.) 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 Torah stories 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 either 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 traditions: E told the story his fellow God-worshipers knew, and J told 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 guys… 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’re 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 way 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. To be fair, it’s entirely possible every single story in Genesis originated from a unique source, which means dozens of “E” and “J” sources, and you could make yourself nuts trying to differentiate them, or guessing which of them was written by the same author. Is that really the best use of your time? Nah.

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

Anyway. Regardless of what you think of the documentary hypothesis, most scholars are agreed somebody, but not Moses, ultimately put Torah in the form we translate into English. If you wanna call Moe “Moses,” it’s a good-enough shortcut. But be clear; Moe isn’t Moses.