For the Law was given by Moses...?

Internal Evidence against the Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch


The traditional view that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch was held for a very long time. In the Gospels, this view is presupposed by such passages as John 1:17 (which furnished the title of this article), John 5:45-46, Mark 1:44, 12:26, Luke 24:27. The Apostle Paul also followed the prevailing view of Mosiac authorship in Rom 10:5,19 and I Cor 9:9.

Beginning with the "higher" critics of the nineteenth century, this view began to be challenged. Such German scholars as Graf (1866), Keunen (1887) and especially Wellhausen (1878), drawing upon the critical examination of the Old Testament that sprang from the Enlightenment, established the theory that the Pentateuch was in fact the end product of many centuries of composition, editing and redaction. This view, known today as the Documentary Hypothesis, basically states that there are at least four independent streams of tradition that make up the Old Testament. For reasons that will be explained later, these four streams as generally known as J, E, D and P.

Moses and the Pentateuch

How did these scholars arrive at the conclusion that the Pentateuch was not the work of Moses? There are several lines of evidence that point in this direction.

- The Pentateuch is an anonymous work

Nowhere in any of the first five books do we find any attribution to an author. Some sections are said to be derived from Moses (Ex 17:14, 24:4, 34:27, Num 33:2, Deut 1:5, 4:45, 31:9, 24), but this honor is never extended to the whole work. A special problem is raised by the fact that Moses' own death is recorded in the last chapter of Deuteronomy.

- Temporal evidence of post-Mosaic origin

There are a number of places where the authors of the Pentateuch seem to indicate that they are writing from a period long after the Exodus and Conquest. In Genesis 12:6 we find the phrase "...the Canaanite was then in the land". Gen 13:7 states that "...the Canaanite and the Perizzite dwelled then in the land." The use of such phrases seems to indicate that the authors were living at a time that dated after the conquest of Canaan. Similarly, the use of the phrase "the land of the Hebrews" in Gen 40:15 is anachronistic - Jacob and his family were still nomadic dwellers in Canaan at this point; it is not certain whether the tribe of the Hebrews even existed at the time.

A further indication of the lapse of time between the events depicted in the Pentateuch and the time that they were committed to writing is the abundant use of the phrase "to this day". For example, Deuteronomy 34:7 (NIV), speaking of the death of Moses, states that God "...buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is." Deut 34:10 even goes further, and claims that "Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses..."

- Historical evidence of post-Mosaic origin

The Pentateuch contains a number of references to events that postdate it. For example, the city of Dan is referenced twice: in Genesis 14:14 and Deut 34:1. However, in Judges 18:29, we learn that the city only came by that name during the Conquest - it was known as Laish prior to that point.

An examination of the Law reveals that it presupposes a sedentary, agricultural society (Ex 23:10-11, Lev 19:19 etc.), as well as a monarchy (Gen 36:31, Deut 17:14ff). Neither of these conditions existed at the time when the law was supposedly given. Deut 17:14 puts the monarchy in the future, but Gen 36:31 seems to indicate that the author was living in a monarchical state.

The geographical standpoint of the Pentateuchal authors is also sometimes revealed to be Canaan, and not Sinai. For example, the country East of the Jordan is described as "beyond Jordan" in Gen 50:10.

Evidence of Multiple Authorship

Having noted that the internal evidence of the Pentateuch argues against Mosaic authorship, the question then arises as to what evidence exists against there being a single author.

- Doublets

Doublets are stories that are told two or more times, sometimes with minor variations.

As an example, Genesis contains no less than three separate accounts of a Patriarch being forced to present his wife as his sister in order to save his life from foreign King. This occurred twice to Abraham (Gen 12 and 20) and once to Isaac (Gen 26). While it is indeed possible that these are three distinct, historical events, a close examination of each incident seems to argue against this view. For one thing, each episode appears to be unaware of the others. Another point is that two of these incidents, while centered around two different protagonists, involve the same King (Abimelech), in the same land (Gerar). It is difficult to escape the conclusion that what we have here is one traditional story, told through three different authors.

There are also two stories of the call of Moses (Ex 3 and 6), the naming of Beersheba (Gen 21 and 26) and the flight of Hagar (Gen 16 and 21). There are even two stories of the beginning of Time in Gen 1 and 2.

- Contradictions

In addition to the doublets, we often find that the narratives in the Pentateuch contain discrepancies that are hard to ascribe to a single author. The order of Creation, for example, is different in Genesis 1 and 2. The Holy Mountain is Sinai in Exodus (19:11), and Horeb in Deuteronomy (1:6, 4:10). In the story of the Flood found in Gen 7, we find two different narratives woven together. The number of animals taken into the ark, as well as the duration of the Flood differs among the two stories.

The existence of such discrepancies points to multiple streams of tradition. No doubt, oral stories were told and retold so often that significant differences had accumulated by the time they came to be written down.

- The Divine Name

In Exodus 6:3, God reveals his personal name to Moses, and further states that the Patriarchs did not know him by this name.

Exodus 6:3 (NJB) To Abraham, Isaac and Jacob I appeared as El Shaddai, but I did not make my name Yahweh known to them.

However, the early part of the Pentateuch does indicate that the Patriarchs knew God's personal name (Gen 22:14, 28:21). We are further told that men began to call upon Yahweh in primeval times (Gen 4:26).

How are we to understand this apparent discrepancy? One clue is afforded by the fact that some of the doublets are consistent in their use of the Divine Name. One of the most striking examples is Gen 1 and 2. In the first Creation narrative, God is always called by the Hebrew word Elohim. In the second, we find that God is consistently called Yahweh-Elohim. This fact has led scholars to label the author of Gen 2 as the Yahwist (or "J", from the German word for Yahweh).

(The other author, that of Genesis 1, was given the label Elohist, or "E", because of his exclusive use of the term Elohim for God. This turned out to be an unfortunate misnomer, as scholars later decided that the author of Genesis 1 was in fact a different person, whom they labeled the Priestly author, or "P".)

The Pentateuchal Authors

Who were these authors, and when did they live? What did they believe? There never will be any definitive answers to these questions, but scholars have made some educated guesses. It should be noted that these dates are estimates as best. As Gerhard von Rad states :

"The importance of these dates should must not be overestimated, both because they are in every instance only guesses and, above all, because they refer only to the completed literary composition. The question of the age of a single tradition within any one of the source documents is an entirely different matter. The youngest document (P), for example, contains an abundance of ancient and very ancient material" (Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, 1966, pg. 24)

In other words, it would be a mistake to accuse scholars of attempting to invalidate the historical importance of the Pentateuch by espousing the Hypothesis. The Documentary theory recognizes that parts of the Pentateuch may well reflect ancient history. It is the time that these stories were committed to writing that is of issue.

- The Yahwist (J)

Generally thought to be the oldest author, this writer has a vivid, engaging style that propels the reader along. "J" was deeply concerned with God's affairs in human history on a personal level. Note, for example, the striking difference between the Divine character in Genesis 1 and 2. In the Priestly source (Gen 1), God is portrayed as a somewhat aloof, supremely powerful Deity. In the Yahwist document (Gen 2), God is said to have walked and talked with his creations, and concerns himself with man's personal problems. This distinction between God as a remote creator and as an anthropomorphic, divine protector is generally maintained throughout the Pentateuch. In the Yahwist narrative, God personally closes the door of the Ark (Gen 7:16), and personally descends to inspect the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:5).

Scholars put the date of the composition of the book of "J" at sometime between the ninth and tenth centuries BCE.

- The Elohist (E)

The second to oldest author, by common consent, this writer has a drier style. God does not talk directly to humans, as "J" asserts. Rather, God reveals himself through the "angel of the Lord" (21:17 and 22:11), through dreams and interpretations (Gen 40:8) and, most importantly, through his prophets, typified by the towering figure of Moses (Num 12:6-8).

The Elohist begins his story with Abraham, unlike the Yahwist, whose theological concerns stretch all the way back to primeval history. Scholars put the date of the composition of the book of "E" about one or two centuries later than "J".

- Priestly Writer (P)

This author combined the books of "J" and "E" (or, possibly, inherited the combination of these books, produced prior to this point by an unknown redactor), and added his own comments and traditional stories, thus introducing a third stream of tradition into the nascent Pentateuch. Unlike the previous two authors, the Priestly writer was far more concerned with points of doctrine and ritual than narrative. With the exception of a few perfunctory narrative pieces (such as Gen 1), the Priestly documents consists mostly of lists of excruciatingly detailed and largely incomprehensible laws. The work of the Priestly writer is generally thought to belong to a period shortly after the end of the Exile.

- The Deuteronomist (D)

Scholars noticed that the book of Deuteronomy has a style all its own that is fairly consistent throughout the book. This led to the suspicion that Deuteronomy is the work of a single author, a position that appears to be strengthened by the fact that the "book of the Law of the Lord", described in II Kings 22 and 23 appears to fit Deuteronomy. Some scholars, on the basis of the story of king Josiah, have proposed that Deuteronomy was in fact composed at this time, and passed off as an ancient work. While intriguing, this theory lacks definitive proof. It is equally possible that Deuteronomy was written at an earlier period, and forgotten or lost until the time of Josiah.

- The Redactor

At some later era, probably after the Exile, these two books ("J"/"E"/"P" and "D") were again combined into one long, continuous narrative. It is impossible to say for certain who may have been responsible for this final edition, although ancient Jewish tradition tends to associate the scribe Ezra very closely with the Law (see I Esdras 8-9). It is also quite possible that there was no single redactor, but rather a schools of editors who worked to combine the different traditions of Israel's history into a Pentateuch that began to resemble the Book that we know today.


It should be evident from the foregoing that the Hypothesis is just that - hypothetical. Given the nature of the field, it seems unlikely that there will be any remarkable manuscript finds that could settle the question one way or another. The Hypothesis should rather be seen as an honest attempt to find some workable solutions to the question of where the Pentateuch (and, indeed, the Bible in general) came from, by examining the text itself, rather than retreating into blind faith. In particular, the Documentary Hypothesis should not be seen as a calculated attack on conservative believers, but rather as a way to make the Bible more readable, and, ultimately, to understand the aims, motivations and beliefs of those bygone scribes who bequeathed this curious and controversial document to the world.

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