Mosaic authorship

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Moses by José de Ribera (1638).

Mosaic authorship is the Jewish and Christian tradition that the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, was dictated by God to Moses over the forty days an nights he spent on the peak of Sinai.[1] The books are anonymous;[2] Moses is a key character in four of them and is described writing various passages, but he is never identified as their author.[3] The tradition that he was probably arose after c.300 BCE as a Jewish response to author-centric Greek culture,[4] and is first clearly expressed in the Babylonian Talmud, an encyclopedia of Jewish tradition and scholarship composed between 200-500 CE.[5] The numerous problems inherent in the tradition, such as how Moses received the divine revelation,[6] how it was curated and transmitted to later generations,[1] and how difficult passages such the last verses of Deuteronomy, which describe his death, were to be explained, are the subject of extensive Talmudic and medieval rabbinic literature.[5] The tradition was abandoned in the course of the 19th century, and the majority of biblical scholars accept that the five books are the work of many hands over any centuries;[7] nevertheless, Mosaic inspiration is an article of Jewish faith according to the 8th of Maimonides' 13 Principles of Faith,[8] and for some Christian Evangelical scholars it remains crucial to their understanding of the unity and authority of Scripture.[9]

Torah, authorship, and the development of the tradition[edit]

The 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.[10][Notes 1] It forms the charter myth of Israel, the story of the ation's origins and the foundations of its culture and institutions.[11] The exodus is recalled in the Jewish daily prayers and in major festivals and such as Passover and Shavuot, as well as in rituals such as the wearing of phylacteries on the arm and forehead and the redemption of first-born sons.[12] 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.[12]

Authorship was not considered important by the society that produced the Hebrew Bible (the Protestant Old Testament), and the Torah never names an author.[4][2] It was only after c.300 BCE, when Jews came into intense contact with author-centric Greek culture, that the rabbis began to feel compelled to find authors for their books,[4][Notes 2] and the process which led to 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 Pentateuch.[3][Notes 3]

A history of the development of the text of the Torah might have looked like this: by around 600 BCE previously unconnected oral and written material was being drawn together into works similar to the modern Torah; by around 400 BCE these had reached their modern form and were recognised as complete, unchangeable, and sacred; and by around 200 BCE the five books were recognised as the first section of the Jewish canon.[13] It seems that the tradition of Mosaic authorship began with Deuteronomy,[14] which scholars generally agree was composed in Jerusalem during the reform program of King Josiah in the late 7th century.[15] It is this law-code that books such as Joshua and Kings (completed in the mid 500s[16]) mean when they speak of the "torah of Moses."[14] In later books such as Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah the meaning of "torah of Moses" had expanded to include the other laws such as Leviticus, and by Hellenistic times Jewish writers such as Ben Sirach, Josephus, and the New Testament writers regarded the entirety of the five books, narrative and laws, as the Book (or books) of Moses.[14]

Mosaic authorship in rabbinic tradition to the modern period[edit]

The first unambiguous statement that Moses was the human author of the Torah appears in the Babylonian Talmud, an encyclopedia of Jewish scholarship composed between 200-500 CE: "Moses wrote his own book and the section concerning Balaam," the reference to Balaam indicating that although Moses had not been present to witness this incident he had, nevertheless, written it.[17][Notes 4] The rabbis also explained how the Torah was handed down to later generations: "Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the men of the Great Assembly."[1] (The Great Assembly, according to Jewish tradition, was called by Ezra to ensure the accurate transmission of the Torah of Moses when the Jews returned from exile - Ezra's very existence is regarded as highly doubtful by modern scholars).[18] Orthodox rabbis therefore say that thanks to this chain of custodians the Torah of today is identical with that received by Moses, not varying by a single letter.[1]

There are two opinions among the rabbis as to how Moses received the Torah, the "dictation" theory, which holds that he wrote the exact words spoken to him by God, and the "transcription" theory, which is that he remembered the divine words and wrote them down afterwards together with some explanatory phrases of his own.[6] The first is the most commonly held and lies behind the saying of the Jewish mystics of the Kabbala that at the Creation God wrote the Torah in heaven in letters of black fire on parchment of white fire.[19] It is the belief followed by the sage Maimonides (c.1135-1204) in his 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 our master."[8] But the second has had a number of prominent adherents, including the eminent thinker Rashi, as 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 Moses."[20]

The rabbis were aware that the Torah contained passages which were difficult to reconcile with the tradition.[21] The last verses of Deuteronomy, for example, describe the death and burial of Moses, which raises the question of how he could have written them; the Talmud says that "Joshua wrote ... [the last] eight verses of the Torah," yet this in turn meant that the Torah was incomplete when Moses commended it to Israel; the explanation of the rabbis was that the verses were in fact by Moses, but written "with tears in his eyes" as God dictated to him this description of his end.[5] A separate example is a section of the Book of Numbers (Numbers 10:35 — 36) surrounded by inverted Hebrew letter nuns (the equivalent of brackets), which the rabbis said indcated it be from a separate book, the Book of Eldad and Medad.[22][Notes 5] Abraham ibn Ezra (c.1092-1167) made a celebrated comment on Genesis 12:6 ("The Canaanite was then in the land," implying that the person who wrote it lived at a time when the Canaanites were no longer in the land), writing that it contains "a great secret, and the person who understands it will keep quiet."[23] There were two forms of response to Ezra's observation: the first was that Moses had indeed written this and other passages which Ezra pointed out, as he was a prophet; the second, expressed by the 14th century rabbi Joseph ben Samuel Bonfils, was that it made no difference whether these verses were written by Moses or some later prophet, "since the words of all of them are true and inspired."[24]

Biblical scholars today agree almost unanimously that the Torah is the work of many authors over any centuries.[7] 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.[25] The documentary hypothesis aroused understandable opposition from traditional scholars. One of the most significant was 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.[26] 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.[27] Another important Jewish scholar, and one still active, is 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.[28] 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.[28] 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.[29] 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;[30]

Mosaic authorship in the Christian tradition[edit]

The Mosaic tradition is reflected in the New Testament, making it a Christian belief as much as a Jewish one, but support for Mosaic authorship among Christian scholars today is largely limited to conservative Evangelical circles.[31][32] This is tied to the way they 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 not only took the Pentateuch as Mosaic but put their seal on it as Holy Scripture."[9] Apart from the appeal to New Testament texts, there is little if anything in Christian scholarship which is not found also in rabbinic sources, such as allowing for "a-Mosaica" (material not by Moses, such as Numbers 12:3 in which Moses is called "more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth," a description that the most humble of men would not claim for himself) and "post-Mosaica" (written after the time of Moses, such as the description of his death).[33] and Moses' use of prior sources (especially in Genesis) to supplement divine revelation.[34]


  1. ^ Jews believe that God also revealed an oral Torah to Moses, but this article deals only with the written Torah, the forst five books of the Bible.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ 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.
    • Exodus 34:28: 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 Moses recorded the stages in their journey; this is their journey by stages:" There follows a list of the places where the Israelites camped in the wilderness.
    • 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 Lord" and 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 5-30.
    • Deuteronomy 31:22: "Moses wrote down this song on that day." The "song" is presumably Deuteronomy 32, the Song of Moses.
  4. ^ The episode of Balaam is found in the Book of Numbers: it tells how the Canaanite prophet Balaam was asked by Israel's enemies to curse the Israelites, but blessed them instead.
  5. ^ Eldad and Medad prophesied among the Israelites despite not having received the gift of prophesy from God.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Robinson 2008, p. 97.
  2. ^ a b Carr 2000, p. 492.
  3. ^ a b McEntire 2008, p. 8-11.
  4. ^ a b c Schniedewind 2005, p. 6-7.
  5. ^ a b c Robinson 2008, p. 98.
  6. ^ a b Heschel 2005, p. 539-540.
  7. ^ a b McDermott 2002, p. 21.
  8. ^ a b Levenson 1993, p. 63.
  9. ^ a b Tenney 2010, p. unpaginated.
  10. ^ McDermott 2002, p. 1.
  11. ^ Dozeman 2010, p. 73.
  12. ^ a b Tigay 2004, p. 106.
  13. ^ McEntire 2008, p. 8.
  14. ^ a b c Collins 2014, p. 50.
  15. ^ Rofe 2002, p. 4-5.
  16. ^ Bandstra 2008, p. 191.
  17. ^ Robinson 2008, p. 97-98.
  18. ^ Edelman & Zvi 2013, p. 160.
  19. ^ Heschel 2005, p. 546.
  20. ^ Heschel 2005, p. 540.
  21. ^ Brettler 2004, p. 3.
  22. ^ Edelman & Ben Zvi, p. 208, fn.37.
  23. ^ Levenson 1993, p. 66.
  24. ^ Levenson 1993, p. 67.
  25. ^ Ross 2004, p. 185-186.
  26. ^ Shavit & Eran 2007, p. 143-144.
  27. ^ Shavit & Eran 2007, p. 143.
  28. ^ a b Ross 2004, p. 192.
  29. ^ Ross 2004, p. 297, fn.19.
  30. ^ Ross 2004, p. 97.
  31. ^ Van Seters 1998, p. 5.
  32. ^ Davies 2007, p. 19.
  33. ^ Longman 2006, p. unpaginated.
  34. ^ Wolf 2007, p. 64-65.