Mosaic authorship

Mosaic authorship
Moses, by José de Ribera(1638).

Mosaic authorship is the traditional attribution of the five books (Torah or Pentateuch) of the Old Testament to Moses, the legendary[citation needed] leader, lawgiver, and prophet of the Israelites.

This tradition becomes apparent in some documents of rabbinic literature of Late Antiquity (the Babylonian Talmud) and is established as the standard rabbinic view during the medieval period. In medieval Judaism, much ingenuity went into debating problems and inconsistencies resulting from it. It was notably defended by Manasseh ben Israel in 1651.

By the Early Modern period, opinions in Jewish scholarship become more diverse. Spinoza attributed the compilation of the Pentateuch not to Moses, but to Ezra, a view that seems to have existed in antiquity. Jean Astruc in 1753 proposed that the book of Genesis was compiled by Moses from two sources, one of which used the word "Elohim" for God, and the other "YHWH." Astruc's hypothesis ultimately led to the distinction of the Elohist and Jahwist sources in modern philology.[1]


Background: the Torah

In the Christian Old Testament the first five books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy - are not set apart in any way from the other books, but in Judaism they are known as the Torah, and are regarded as the most authoritative part of the entire bible. The term "torah" is frequently translated as "law", but this is misleading, as the five books are actually divided roughly equally between laws and stories ("narrative").[2]

Genesis tells of the creation of the world, God's promise to Abraham of descendants and a land, and the descent of the children of Israel into Egypt. Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers follow with the story of God's deliverance of the Israelites from servitude in Egypt, their meeting with him in the wilderness where they agree to accept him as their god, and their onward journey to the border of Canaan, the land which God promised them. In these three books the central human figure is Moses, the greatest of the biblical prophets, who speaks face to face with God and receives Israel's laws from him. In Deuteronomy, Moses addresses the Israelites for the last time, recalling their history with God and delivering a new set of laws for their future life in the promised land of Canaan. The Torah ends with the death of Moses and the Israelites about to take possession of the land.[3]

History of the tradition

The tradition that Moses was the author of the Torah does not appear before the Babylonian exile (6th century BCE).[4] The Pirke Avot, a passage in the mishnah, compiled around the end of the 2nd century CE, records the belief that Moses received the entire Torah, not just the ten commandments, at Mount Sinai. It goes on to say that the Torah was made up of two parts, a written and an oral torah, both of passed down from generation to generation, the written law in the five books, the oral law in the teachings of the rabbis.[5]

Deuteronomy 31:9 and Deuteronomy 31:24–26 describe how Moses wrote "torah" (instruction) on a scroll and laid his writings beside the Ark of the Covenant.[6] Similar passages include, for example, Exodus 17:14, "And YHWH said unto Moses, Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven;" Exodus 24:4, "And Moses wrote all the words of YHWH, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the mount, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel;" Exodus 34:27, "And Yahweh said unto Moses, Write thou these words, for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel;"[7] and Leviticus 26:46 "These are the decrees, the laws and the regulations that the LORD established on Mount Sinai between himself and the Israelites through Moses."

Statements that have been interpreted as implying Mosaic authorship of the Torah are also contained in Joshua,[8] Kings,[9] Chronicles,[10] Ezra[11] and Nehemiah.[12]

Text of the Torah in Talmud and rabbinic tradition

The first unequivocal statement of Mosaic authorship is contained in the Talmud, c. 200–500, where the rabbis discuss exactly how the Torah was transmitted to Moses.[13]

According to the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 60a), R' Yochanan asserted that "the Torah was given in a series of small scrolls." This implies that the Torah was written gradually and compiled from a variety of documents over time. This may be an attempt to account for the composite appearance of the five books, but a contrary Talmudic opinion[citation needed] holds that the entire Torah was given at one time.[14]

The Babylonian Talmud (tractate Shabbat 115b)[who?] states that a peculiar section in the Book of Numbers (10:35 — 36, surrounded by inverted Hebrew letter nuns) in fact forms a separate book. On this verse a midrash[citation needed] on the book of Mishle states that "These two verses stem from an independent book which existed, but was suppressed!" Another (possibly earlier) midrash, Ta'ame Haserot Viyterot[who?], states that this section actually comes from the book of prophecy of Eldad and Medad.[15]

Abaye, a Rabbi who died in the year 339, said that the speeches Moses gave in the first two books were God's words and were said on God's behalf, while the speeches in Deuteronomy where prophetic, but said in his own words and on his own behalf.[16]

Also in the Talmud, Rabbi Judah ben Ilai held that Joshua must have written the final verses of the Torah (Talmud, B. Bat. 15a and Menah. 30a, and in Midrash Sipre. 357).[17]

David Weiss Halivni writes that parts of the ancient Midrash literature retain evidence of the redactional period during which Ezra redacted and canonized the text of the Torah as it survives today. A rabbinic tradition states that at this time (440 BCE), Ezra edited the text of the Torah, and found ten places in the Torah where lacked certainty as to how to fix the text; these passages appear marked with special punctuation marks called the eser nekudot.[18]

In the Middle Ages, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (ca. 1092 - 1167 CE) and others observed that some phrases in the Torah present information that people should only have known after the time of Moses. For example, see Ibn Ezra's comments on Gen 12:6; 22:14; Deut 1:2; 3:11; and 34:1, 6. Rabbi Joseph Bonfils elucidated Ibn Ezra's comments in his commentary on Ibn Ezra's work.[19] (see below.)

In the 12th century the commentator Rabbi Joseph ben Isaac, known as the Bekhor Shor, noted close similarities between a number of wilderness narratives in Exodus and Numbers, in particular, the incidents of water from the rock and the stories about manna and the quail. He hypothesised that both of these incidents actually happened once, but that parallel traditions about these events eventually developed, both of which made their way into the Torah.[20]

In the 13th century Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah (known as the Hizkuni) noticed the same textual anomalies that Ibn Ezra had noted; thus R. Hezekiah's commentary on Gen 12:6 notes that this section "is written from the perspective of the future".[21]

In the 15th century, Rabbi Yosef Bonfils, while discussing the comments of Ibn Ezra, noted: "Thus it would seem that Moses did not write this word here, but Joshua or some other prophet wrote it. Since we believe in the prophetic tradition, what possible difference can it make whether Moses wrote this or some other prophet did, since the words of all of them are true and prophetic?"[22]

A review of these issues from an Orthodox Jewish perspective can be found in Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, edited by Shalom Carmy (Jason Aronson, Inc.), and Handbook of Jewish Thought, Volume I, by Aryeh Kaplan (Moznaim Pub.)[23]

Modern scholarship

Biblical scholars prior to the Renaissance and Reformation were generally not much concerned with the question of who wrote the bible. This began to change as the new field of Classical studies (meaning the study of the literature of ancient Greece and Rome) put the examination of ancient texts on a scientific footing. When these same critical tools were applied to the Torah the numerous duplications in the five books led Richard Simon (1638-1712) to argue that they had not come from one author. Simon proposed that it was Ezra, in the post-Exilic period (5th century BCE), who had produced the Torah in its final form, albeit using documents produced by Moses. Jean Astruc (1684-1766), accepting Simon's evidence but rejecting his conclusion, argued that Moses was indeed the author of the Torah, and that he had used two major sources and ten additional fragments as the basis for his work.[24]

Modern Orthodox Jewish scholarship

David Zvi Hoffman, in his commentary to Leviticus, made use of rabbinic homiletic and exegetical interpretations as well as some of his own insights to explain the difficulties noted by Wellhausen and other critics and to defend Mosaic authorship. His Die wichtigsten Instanzen gegen die Graf-Wellhausensche Hypothese (2 vols., 1903/1916)[25] pointed out several difficulties in the Wellhasuen hypothesis, most notably in his theory that the Priestly code, and hence the Jewish conception of monotheism, was of late post-exilic redaction. His approach to biblical investigation is still studied.[26]

Rabbi Mordechai Breuer believes that "the Torah must speak in the language of men." Therefore Breuer postulates that the Torah resorts to a technique of multi-vocal communication: texts that appear dissimilar in fact offer a powerful counterpoint.[27]

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Kasher points 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 suggests that Moses made use of documents authored by the Patriarchs when redacting that book.[28]

In Revelation Restored, Rabbi David Weiss Halivni develops a theory of Chate'u Yisroel (literally, "Israel has sinned"): "According to the biblical account itself, the people of Israel forsook the Torah, in the dramatic episode of the golden calf, only forty days after the revelation at Sinai. From that point on, until the time of Ezra, the scriptures reveal that the people of Israel were steeped in idolatry and negligent of the Mosaic law. Chate'u Yisrael, as a theological account, explains that in the period of neglect and syncretism after the conquest of Canaan when the originally monotheistic Israelites adopted pagan practices from their neighbours, the Torah of Moses became "blemished and maculated." According to Halivni, this process continued until the time of Ezra (c.450 BC), when finally, upon their return from Babylon, the people accepted the Torah. It was at that time that the previously rejected, and therefore maculated, text of the Torah was recompiled and edited by Ezra and his “entourage.” This is attested in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and Halivni supports his theory with Talmudic and Midrashic sources which indicate that Ezra played a role in editing the Torah. He further states that while the text of the Pentateuch was corrupted, oral tradition preserved intact many of the laws, which is why the Oral Law appears to contradict the Biblical text in certain details.

A-Mosaica and post-Mosaica

Some who maintain that the Pentateuch is mainly the writing of Moses distinguish some passages as a-Moasiaca or post-Mosaica. As an example of a-Mosaica, there is Numbers 12:3, "(Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.)" (NIV), for a humble man would not be expected to claim that superlative of himself. As an example of post-Mosaica, the standard example is the description of the death of Moses in Deuteronomy 34.[29]

See also


  1. ^ Pentateuch", Jewish Encyclopedia.
  2. ^ Van Seters (1998), p.3
  3. ^ Bandstra (2004), pp.11-12
  4. ^ Davies, p.15
  5. ^ Gooder (2000), p.5
  6. ^ Deuteronomy.
  7. ^ Exodus
  8. ^ Joshua 1:7–8
  9. ^ 1 Kings 2:3 and 2 Kings 23:21 and 25
  10. ^ 2 Chronicles 8:13, 34:14 and 35:12
  11. ^ Ezra 3:2 and 6:18
  12. ^ Nehemiah 8:1 and 13:1
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ Campbell, O'Brien (2003), pp.1-2
  25. ^ translated into Hebrew and available here
  26. ^ See Carla Sulzbach, David Zvi Hoffmann's Die Wichtigsten Instanzen gegen die Graf- Wellhausensche Hypothese, MA theses McGill Univ, 1996
  27. ^ "Emunah U-Madda Be-Parashanut Ha-Mikra," Deot, Cheker Ha-Mikra Be-Machshavah Ha-Yehudit Ha-Datit He-Chadashah, 11 (1959):18–25, 12 (I960): 13–27. See also Hirhurim for some articles on this approach
  28. ^ See Torah Shelemah, Mishpatim Part 3 summarised by Gil Student here
  29. ^ pages 41-42, 93-94 Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dilland, An Introduction to the Old Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2nd edition: 2006 ISBN 978-0-310-26341-8.



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