Did Moses Write the First Five Books?

Lots of folks think Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament. Probably not.

  • When did Moses live? Probably around the 13th century BCE. But this assumes Moses was a real person. Scholars still debate whether he was real or a symbolic character. Or whether he may even have been the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, who ‘found him in the water.’ 
  • When were the first five books written? It’s hard to say exactly. They were assembled over multiple centuries, first as oral traditions and later committed to writing. The most aggressive guesses for the first drafts are somewhere around the 900 BCE range. 
  • So then Moses could have been the oral originator? Maybe. But there are several sections that make that seem unlikely:
    • There is an account of the death of Moses, and lots of stories afterward. For example, there is an account in Judges of how the Israelites came under subjugation after they settled in Canaan (this all happened after Moses died).
    • There’s a verse in Numbers describing Moses as ‘the most humble man on the face of the earth.’ The world’s most humble man probably would not have written that. 
    • Camels were not domesticated in the region in the time of Moses, despite being mentioned multiple times in Genesis.

If we were to get into it (for more than three bullets), there are a lot of inconsistencies throughout the first five books. Writing styles are different. Stories contradict each other (e.g. two different creation stories). And descriptions of the Jewish relationship to God differs — sometimes God is described as an angry, jealous God and sometimes God is more of an intangible spirit that sends messages through dreams. Most Biblical scholars think that ultimately three or four main writers took quill to parchment. Moses was not one of them.

Last week’s question. The interns are still working on that zombie apocalypse at the end of Matthew that we mentioned last week.

Tip of the hat to Bart Ehrman and James Tabor for their great (and readable) work on the Old Testament.

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