Did Moses Really Write the Torah?

Jewish tradition says that God dictated the Ten Commandments and also the Torah to Moses atop Mt. Sinai - but actually, the bible says no such thing.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Moses draws water from the rock, by Francois Perrier (1642)
Moses draws water from the rock, by Francois Perrier (1642)Credit: Google Art Project
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

On the sixth day of Sivan 6, some 3,500 years ago, Moses climbed up Mount Sinai. During his 40-day stay on the mountain, according to popular Jewish tradition, God dictated to him not only the Ten Commandments but the whole Torah, as well as the Oral Law.

Many believe that Moses not only "received" but even wrote the Pentateuch – the five books of Torah – on Mt Sinai.

Descriptions of Moses going up Mt. Sinai (e.g., Exodus 19, Exodus 24, Deuteronomy 4) say that he received the Ten Commandments there (Exodus 31:18 – "He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God"). But nowhere does it say that he wrote a book on the mountain or came down with one.

There is mention of Moses receiving "torah", which in ancient Hebrew simply meant "law", throughout Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus and Deuteronomy - but this seems not to have been an event confined to Mt. Sinai, rather a process that continued throughout the 40 years the Israelites wandered the desert.

So Moses may well have "received" the Torah on Mt. Sinai. But how did people gain the impression that he wrote the texts himself?

Some sections of the Torah do explicitly say they were written by Moses (e.g., Deuteronomy 31:22: "Moses therefore wrote this song the same day, and taught it the children of Israel"). That might be taken as odd, if he wrote the whole thing.

Also, the entire story of Moses is narrated from third-person omniscient perspective, treating him just like the rest of the characters. That too suggests that Moses was not the author. Take for example the verse: “Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). (Also, by definition, if he was the meekest man in the world, he wouldn't have written that – he would have been too modest.)

And then Moses died

The rabbis of the Talmudic era did believe that, divinely inspired, Moses wrote the Torah himself - up to the last eight verses. The Talmud preserves a rabbinical dispute about whether Moses wrote those last verses describing Moses’ death, burial and legacy - or whether they were written by his successor, Joshua (tractate Bava Batra, 14b-15a).

Come the Middle Ages, the rabbis noticed more difficulties. Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra wrote in his 12th-century Bible commentary that 12 verses in the Torah are anachronistic and seem to indicate that they were written after the time of Moses. For example, when Moses was alive, the Canaanites still controlled the Holy Land. So the verse ending with “And the Canaanite was then in the land” (Genesis 12:6) ostensibly could not have been written by Moses, but by someone who lived after the Israelites took over Canaan, that is, after Moses died.

In his commentary on this verse, Ibn Ezra wrote, “It holds a secret of which the wise man should be silent” (he doesn't tell us what the secret is, but it may be that Moses seems not to have written all of the Torah).

Enter Spinoza

Indeed scholars remained silent on the topic for centuries, until in the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza read Ibn Ezra’s commentary – and could remain silent no more. In his Theological-Political Treatise (1670), Spinoza elaborated on the topic and concluded that Moses could not possibly have written the entire Pentateuch. His English contemporary Thomas Hobbes came to the same conclusions, without Ibn Ezra's help.

A century later, a French professor of medicine named Jean Astruc set out to prove the two heretics wrong, using the newly- emerging science of textual criticism. With the help of techniques that had, up to then, been applied only to Latin and Greek classics, he studied the Torah and came to the conclusion that Moses compiled the Book of Genesis by putting together two older texts. He published these findings anonymously in 1753.

Using similar techniques, in 1805 Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette, a German Bible scholar, published a study arguing that Deuteronomy had been written by a different author or authors from the rest of the Torah.

Half a century later, in 1853, Hermann Hupfeld, an Oriental studies scholar, showed that what Astruc identified as two sources was apparently three.

All these studies were consolidated towards the end of the 19th century by Julius Wellhausen, another German biblical scholar. His coherent theory is, with some alterations, the consensus view of the Torah’s authorship, which is accepted by an overwhelming majority of Bible scholars today.

The different parts of the Torah were written by priests and scribes in the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah during the First Temple period and the Babylonian Exile (9th to 6th centuries BCE). These parts were stitched together by Ezra the Scribe to create a single historic narrative and legal code for the returning exiles. (Ezra was the priest appointed by the Persian overlords to lead the Jews in Judea.)

Judea at the time was a province of Persia, which ruled that the Holy Land should be administered by the rules and laws stated in this authoritative collection compiled by Ezra. The Second Temple officials concurred.

The rise of the author

So it seems that Moses did not write the book after all. The reason Jews came to think so nonetheless was the outcome of two historical processes during the Second Temple period.

The first change was conceptual: Ancient societies had a different grasp of books than we do.

We place emphasis on authors and exhibit their names on the front cover. Not so in ancient Babylon and Egypt: Most books had no specific author. They were created by successive generations of scribes and their authority drew from their antiquity, not from the supposed writer.

It was only once Judea fell under Greek culture that a book market began to develop and the author began to be of importance. The first Hebrew book to state clearly who its author was is the Wisdom of Sirach, written in the beginning of the second century BCE by a Jewish scribe named Ben Sira, well after the Greek conquest.

Thus an identity for the writer of the Pentateuch became sought. But how did the misunderstanding that it was Moses arose? That brings us to the second change – a semantic one.

Everywhere in the bible where it says "hatorah" – it means "the law." There is one exception, in the Book of Nehemiah, where he mentions "hatorah" – referring to the Pentateuch: “And Ezra the priest brought the Torah before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month” (Nehemiah 8:2).

This is the first known use of "hatorah" to mean "the Pentateuch" as opposed to "the law". The practice caught on. Thus, apparently, later generations of rabbis misread the passages in the Torah where Moses received "hatorah" as meaning Moses received not "the law" but "the Pentateuch."

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