Did Moses write the Torah?

Two events happened this month that show the depth and breadth of a question that has been burning for over one hundred years: Did Moses really write the Torah?

What is the Torah? Who wrote it?

The first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) are collectively referred to as the Torah (by Jews), the Pentateuch (by Christians/Westerners) and the Taurat (by Muslims). The fact that all three monotheistic faiths acknowledge these writings show their cultural, historical and religious significance. Countless Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars have referenced these writings down to our day. Jesus quoted liberally from the Torah throughout the gospels.  Even as different scholars from various sects battled each other over interpretation, they had all agreed on one thing – that Moses had indeed written the Torah approximately 1500-1400 BC.

Moses and the Documentary Hypothesis

But that changed in the late 19th century when western scholars advanced a bold new idea: Moses did not write the Pentateuch, instead it developed at a much later time from pre-existing writings that were edited together by unknown editors.  Known as the Documentary Hypothesis, it proposed that material from at least 4 authors, termed J (for Jehovah), E (for Elohim), D (for Deuteronomic) and P (for Priestly) had started being compiled during the Davidic monarchy (9th Century BC) and after centuries was finalized upon the Jewish return from exile sometime in the 5th century BC. In this view the Torah was solely a human product from unknown sources, put together by further unknown compilers.

The Documentary Hypothesis was advanced by Wellhausen (1844-1918) using two main arguments. First, he alleged that writing did not exist way back in 1500 BC, mankind was too primitive then and therefore the Torah could not have been written at such an early date. (Writing going back much further than 1500 BC has been discovered since, e.g. the Ebla tablets dating past 2000 BC. So this first argument is clearly not valid anymore)  He also brought to attention the fact that there were two names for God in the Torah. The first, Elohim, is often translated in English Bibles today as ‘God’, and the other – Yahweh – is often translated as ‘LORD God’. You can see that ‘God’ (Elohim) is used in Genesis 1 but at Genesis 2:4 it switches to ‘LORD God’ (Yahweh). As you read through the Torah it switches back and forth. Wellhausen argued that this was internal evidence of two different sources from two different authors (designated J and E) which were later collated into one document. The theory soon demanded more authors and so D and P were added (and in variant theories many more as well).

Modern scholarship and Moses

While the specifics of the documentary hypothesis have been critiqued by those advocating new theories, what is now almost universally agreed is that the Torah is the work of many people, and its development spanned centuries, only reaching the form that it is in today somewhere around 500 BC. “Certainly Moses in the middle of the 2nd millennium BC had nothing to do with it”, say modern scholarship.

William Dever & the Pentateuch

Consider the following quotes from William Dever, a well-known Biblical archaeologist:

“It is universally agreed that the book of Deuteronomy is a later addition to the Pentateuch (probably it was inserted not earlier than the late 7th century B.C.).”  Dever 2003 Who were the Early Israelites and where did they come from? p. 37

Of course, if the first books of the Bible were written much later then this means that all subsequent ones come later as well. In fact the whole timeline of the Old Testament is affected. Consider how Dever evaluates the book of Joshua, the account of Moses’ immediate successor.

We have already discussed the general character of the “Deuteronomic history” (that is , Deuteronomy through II Kings) of which Joshua is a critical component. We noted that mainstream scholars date the composition and first editing of this great national epic toward the end of the Israelite Monarchy, probably during the reign of Josiah (640 – 609 BC). But the compilers must have had many separate ‘sources’ so we need to look now more closely at the special character of the sources that went into the making of the book of Joshua (Obviously Joshua himself did not write it!)  p.38

The tone and the assertion are identical to what I learned when I took a university course on the Bible. All scholars ‘know’ that the traditional author could not have written the book. It ‘obviously’ was written hundreds of years later during the time of the Davidic dynasty. But how do they ‘know’ this?

The Torah, Dead Sea Scrolls, & Top Events in Human History

This brings us to the two events this month which bear on our question. A few weeks ago the Israeli Antiquities Authority put on public display, for the first time ever, the world’s oldest existing copy of the Ten Commandments – arguably the cornerstone of the Torah – as one of a 14-part exhibit “tracing history’s most pivotal moments”. In other words, the museum people concluded that the issuing of the Ten Commandments was in the Top 14 of humanity’s most important events. That’s pretty big.


The Ten Commandments in the Dead Sea Scrolls – part of the Torah

As part of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, the oldest copy of the Ten Commandments is about 2000 years old and so brittle with age that it can only be on display for a few weeks. It is old, but at 2000 years of age it is so young compared to dates of 1500 BC (traditional date of the Torah) and 500 BC (modern scholarship date) that it is not helpful in answering the question of who wrote the Torah. The time horizon is too deep for even the oldest copy to help answer the question of who wrote those Commands that are in the ‘Top 14’.

The Pentateuch in Palmyra

Deuteronomy inscription in Palmyra

Deuteronomy inscription in Palmyra

Also this month, the Islamic State capture of Palmyra in the bloody war in Syria has made headlines around the world. When the Islamic State captures a city there is always concern for atrocities, but Palmyra has an added worry in that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre due to its preserved ruins of bygone civilizations.  Included amongst the Persian, Greek and Roman artefacts, carved on one of the ancient doorways is preserved the opening verses of the Jewish Shema prayer from Deuteronomy 6:4-9. This shows the widespread influence of the Pentateuch, and its great antiquity.  However, these ancient carvings are still not old enough to shed any light on the origins of the Pentateuch.

‘Jerusalem’, ‘Zion’, the Jews & the Torah: Only Moses could pass over that

You might think that with the relevant textual and archaeological data too recent to be of use, and with modern scholars engrossed in competing theories which are united only in their assertions against Moses, that the question is hopeless to answer.  The religious (Jew, Christian or Muslim) can only answer ‘Moses’ on pious grounds, while the secular, looking for a non-religious reasons for the development of the Pentateuch, must fall back on complex speculations.

But actually, there is a very simple and straightforward way to gain some clarity.  And with internet search capabilities you can do it. Do a search through the Torah and see if you can find the word ‘Jerusalem’. This will do it for you. As you can see, the word ‘Jerusalem’ only appears first in Joshua.  Thus, through the whole Pentateuch, from Genesis to Deuteronomy the word ‘Jerusalem’ is never used. Jerusalem is today, and has been for millennia, the center of the Jewish world.  Its significance to the Jewish people is like that of Mecca for Muslims, or like Rome for Catholics. This is why the word ‘Jerusalem’ appears a full 655 times through the Old Testament and 146 times in the New Testament. It appears 229 times in Kings-Chronicles – but never in the Torah.  Its synonym ‘Zion’ also does not appear even once in the Torah, making its first appearance only in 2 Samuel.  Yet by the end of the Old Testament ‘Zion’ is used 161 times. Consider an excerpt from one of the Psalms from the period of the exile (6th century BC) and get a feel for how important Jerusalem/Zion was to the Jewish people then.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy. (Psalm 137: 1-6)

Jerusalem, founded by the Davidic dynasty, quickly became the sacred heartland for the Jews after the first Temple was built (ca 960 BC). It still is today. Yet modern scholars, no matter which Documentary version they push for, would have us believe that editor ‘Priests’ consciously edited, collated and massaged the entire Torah, over the centuries when their attachment to Jerusalem was at its height – and they produced the entire 80000 word Torah without ever using the words ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Zion’ even once! These ‘editors’ were living in Jerusalem while this editing was going on.  And this while they were concurrently compiling the other books (Kings, Chronicles, Samuel etc) that use ‘Jerusalem’ over 600 times and ‘Zion’ over 100 times!

I find my faith to be way too small and way too weak to believe such an utterly fantastic idea.  Revionist scholars, for whatever reason, fail to note these obvious yet simple facts standing right before their eyes. They claim to be able to observe and interpret facts as minute as fernseeds, yet they cannot see the elephant in the room.  The Pentateuch, with its absolute silence on both ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Zion’ must have been finalized before the rise of the monarchy in 1000 BC. A pseudo-Moses editorial team would not have passed over the opportunity to use ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Zion’ in compiling their Torah while Jerusalem was their keystone.

Though the absolute absence of ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Zion’ from the Torah does not prove that Moses wrote the Torah per se, it proves that its composition comes before the Jewish establishment of Jerusalem and thus it dismantles, in one stroke, all the modern theories which place its composition in the 5th century BC. The only one left standing when the dust settles from the collision of clever theories with one good fact is Moses.