Good question...

...on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch?
Created Nov 9, 1997
I recently got this letter:
Now, when we say that the Pentateuch was authored by Moses, there are many questions challenging this statement... I'll send these questions to you one by one. This is where I need your help, to begin with.

The first question in this regard is based on the following verses:

Genesis 13: 18 says:

"So Abram moved his tents and went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he built an altar to the LORD."
likewise, Genesis 35: 27 says:
"Jacob came home to his father Isaac in Mamre, near Kiriath Arba which is, Hebron, where Abraham and Isaac had stayed."
Then again in in 37: 14 says:
"So he said to him, "Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me." Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron."
But Joshua 14: 15 says:
"Now the name of Hebron formerly was Kiriath arba, this Arba was the greatest man among the Anakim. And the land had rest from war."
Now the question is:

From Joshua 14: 15, it is obvious that the town "Kiriath Arba" was named Hebron only after the conquest of Palestine... which was years after the death of Moses. But this name appears in the verses quoted from Genesis... and in other verses, ascribed to Moses too. This is an evidence that Genesis, and other books ascribed to Moses, were not really written by Moses.

How do we resolve this issue?

Well, the first thing we must be clear on is what we mean by 'Mosaic authorship'...

And, what is generally understood by that is that Moses wrote substantially all of the content of the first 5 books of the bible--the Pentateuch.

If Moses had written these books somewhere between 1400 and 1200 BC (the two main candidates for the Exodus/Wanderings period), it would have been written in a script VERY FAR REMOVED from the Hebrew of our existing Hebrew Bible. The originals would have been written in either (1)Sinaitic, (2) Canaanite, or (3) North Semitic scripts. These originals would have to have been 'transliterated' into Paleo-Hebrew during the Monarchy or Divided Kingdom (1000-700 BC). Then, this version would have been transliterated AGAIN into Old Aramaic script during the Exile (beginning to look like the square Hebrew characters at this time). [for a discussion of script history, see PCE, chapter 4].

During these projects of transliteration, scribes would have added some explanatory material and updated some arcane references--to help the reader understand. These editorial 'annotations' are generally (not always) very visible (as the ref. in Joshua illustrates), and would have been helpful to any readers. Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch does NOT assert that Moses wrote these glosses (or the account of his own death in Deut 34!).

This general position is stated well by the very conservative scholar Duane Garrett [OT:RTG:85-86]:

"The assertion that Moses is the principal author of the present text of Genesis need not mean that it came from his hand exactly as we have it now. To the contrary, one may confidently assume that the work has undergone post-Mosaic redaction. The main reason such a redaction would have taken place was not to substantially change the book in any way but rather to make it intelligible to a later generation of readers.

"Genesis is written in standard Hebrew, archaic forms notwithstanding. Although one may well argue that the Pentateuch played a major role in the development of standard Hebrew, there is no reason to think that there could not have been any revisions to keep up with semantic developments in the Hebrew language. In addition, the location of geographical settings by names that were common in a later period is an indication of redaction. The most well-known example is the reference to Dan as a place name in Genesis 14:14, an obvious anachronism. But it proves no more than that the text has undergone some revision. The same may be said of the reference to Israelite kings in Genesis 36.31.

Or, take the example of the coastal descriptors of the exodus accounts. At the time of the exodus, the Mediterraean coast was occupied by Canaanites, not by the Philistines, who did not arrive in the Levant until early in the 12th century as a part of the Sea Peoples migration or invasion. Yet exodus 13.17 (When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. ) makes the anachronistic identification. This, however, is narrative explanation, and the actual spies' report in Num 13.29, reflecting the older (and historically actual) event, uses the chronologically correct terms for the day: and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan." . We have a clear case, again, of the older, original forms being present, and then annotation and explanation for somewhat later readers being added.

Now, in a minute we will look at the evidence that the bulk of the Pentateuch is written very, very early, so this will leave us with the situation that the majority of the material 'looks early as Moses' and a minority of the material 'looks later than Moses'. The 'looks early as Moses' material is material that would not make much sense to a later crowd; and the 'looks later than Moses' material would be material that was not known at the time of Moses. What are the possible ways of explaining this?

There are essentially two models:

  1. The Mosaic one: that Moses wrote most of it, and that later editors made annotations and updated geographical or detailed terms; or

  2. A much later author (generally considered late-exilic or post-exilic) wrote it all, placing 'early' terms into the document to make it look authentic.

To evaluate these models, we have to look at a couple of issues:

  1. Presence of relative-dating materials (e.g. citations of/allusions to biblical texts in later materials)

  2. The presence of material that would have BEST fit the context of Moses, or would have been difficult/pointless to write later.

  3. The presence of 'early' material that would have been confusing or misleading to later readers.

  4. Methodological implications of both 'early' to 'late' materials (What is the most reasonable way to account for this.)

Using this framework, we can evaluate the relative worth of the models.

The Data:

  1. Presence of relative-dating materials (e.g. citations of/allusions to biblical texts in later materials)

  2. The presence of material that would have BEST fit the context of Moses, or would have been difficult/pointless to write later (in late-exilic or post-exilic times).

  3. The presence of 'early' material that would have been confusing or misleading to later readers. This refers to the obvious fact that a later writer would not necessarily try to confuse his/her readers DELIBERATELY. To create archaic forms, perhaps to make a document seem more authentic, only makes sense if the forms can be RECOGNIZED as being archaic! To be not understood at all would not help any such purpose.]

  4. Methodological implications of both 'early' to 'late' materials (What is the most reasonable way to account this.)

    Hoffmeier illustrates the wisest approach to 'mixed dated' texts, in OT:IIE:121f:

    "Even if we allow that Goshen is Hebrew writing for the Qederite-Arabic Geshem, this need not mean, as Redford claims, that its use in the Pentateuch points to a sixth-century origin for the Exodus story. The usage could indicate only the later modernization of the text. The use of Rameses in Genesis 47.11instead of Goshen demonstrates that the two were understood interchangeably and Rameses points to the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasty as the period with these narratives were written or edited. It is easier to explain the presence of a single later term or toponym in an earlier text than to account for a name that has been out of circulation for centuries when it appears in a late text. Methodologically, when dating a piece of literature that has had a long transmission, one should not automatically date the origin of the text by the presence of later editorial additions. Indeed, the anomalies need to be explained. At the same time, early indicators (e.g., the appearance of Ramesses in Genesis and Exodus) cannot be summarily dismissed as cases of archaizing or ignored, but must be seriously considered as evidence point to the date of the events described, when they were initially recorded or an editorial stage in the process of transmission. The use of Rameses and Raamses in the text of Genesis and Exodus long after the Delta Capital had been abandoned around 1100 B.C. makes little sense."


We have seen that there is a ton of internal data suggesting the antiquity of the substance and form of the Pentateuch. Garrett sums this neatly in OT:RTG:84-85:

"In addition, a considerable amount of internal evidence for the Egyptian provenance of the Pentateuch, together with the Pentateuch's accurate portrayal of second-millennium legal and social customs and its tendency to use some archaic Hebrew forms, suggests that its origin antedates the Israelite monarchies. In fact, certain forms in standard Biblical Hebrew are borrowed from second-millennium Egyptian. One may infer that these forms were adopted during the sojourn and were made a permanent part of standard Hebrew by their inclusion in the Pentateuch."

The next step is simply to note the external evidence--what did history say about the authorship of these books?

Livingstone summarizes the external evidence in PCE:218-219:

"The term 'the book of Moses,' found in II Chronicles 25:4; 35:12; Ezra 3:2; 6:18; and Nehemiah 8:1; 13:1, surely included the Book of Genesis and also testifies to a belief in Israelite circles in the fifth century B.C. that all five of the books were the work of Moses. Ben Sira (Ecclus. 24:23), Philo, Josephus, and the authors of the Gospels held that Moses was intimately related to the Pentateuch. Philo and Josephus even explicitly said that Moses wrote Deuteronomy 34:5-12. Other writers of the New Testament tie the Pentateuch to Moses. The Jewish Talmud asserts that whoever denied Mosaic authorship would be excluded from Paradise."
To this may be added the explicit statements of Jesus:

Thus, the external evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of Mosaic authorship of the core substance (and most of the form) of the Pentateuch.

We have seen that the internal evidence for the antiquity of the Pentateuchal materials is exceedingly abundant, and that the external witness to Mosaic authority is virtually unanimous and very early. The main residual challenges to Mosaic authorship are in supposed historical inaccuracies (e.g. domestication of the camel), which I cannot go into now, but will later. The vast array of KNOWN historical points of validation, however, should engender a sense of humility in us, before judging this surprisingly accurate text as being in error!

Summary: The mix of archaic features (the vast majority) and later features (the vast minority) is best explained by the model of Mosaic authorship, with subsequent editorial annotation and minor updating of place names. The external evidence also overwhelmingly supports this conclusion.

The Christian ThinkTank...[] (Reference Abbreviations)