Did Moses Write the Pentateuch?

Don Closson


Most Christians have been taught in Sunday school that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. These books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, are often referred to as the Pentateuch or Torah. However, outside of the more conservative seminaries and churches, it is commonly held that Moses did not write these books, that they are a compilation of works by numerous writers over an extended period of time.

Religious studies courses at most universities teach that the Pentateuch is a composite work consisting of four literary strands. The four strands have been assigned the letters J, E, D, and P; each representing a different document or source that was woven into the fabric of the Bible. This set of assumptions has gone by a number of names including the documentary theory and the Graf-Wellhausen theory. According to this view, the letter "J" stands for the Yahwist ("J" from the German Jahweh) narrative, coming from the period of the early Jewish monarchy, about 950 B.C. "E" stands for the Elohist narrative from the region of the Northern Kingdom dating from about 750 B.C. "D" is best represented by the book of Deuteronomy and is said to have originated in the Southern Kingdom about 650 B.C. or later. And finally, "P" is the priestly document that comes from the period after the fall of Israel in 587 B.C. According to the theory, the Pentateuch reached its current form around the time of Ezra or about 400 B.C.

Why is the issue of Mosaic authority an important one? Those who accept the documentary or Graf-Wellhausen theory argue that the content of these books should be seen as a mixture of credible historical events and religious poetry sparked by man's religious imagination. For example, regarding Moses and God on Mount Sinai, one author of an Old Testament survey writes that, "It would be foolish, for instance, to rationalize the burning bush, as though this vision were something that could have been seen with the objective eye of a camera."{1} Holders of this view reject the notion of supernatural revelation and regard much of the Pentateuch as folklore and Hebrew storytelling.

On the other hand, the conservative view holds to Mosaic authorship and treats the books as a literary unit. This does not mean that Moses didn't use other documents to write his books. He obviously did. But since other Old Testament authors affirm Mosaic authorship, as do numerous New Testament writers and the early church fathers, the veracity of the Bible as a whole begins to crumble if Moses is not the author of the Pentateuch.

In this article we will take a closer look at the source of the documentary theory regarding Mosaic authorship and offer a response that argues for the integrity of the Bible.

Origins Of The Documentary Hypothesis

For almost two thousand years Christians accepted Mosaic authorship of the first five books of the Bible. That's not to say that some didn't acknowledge problems with the text. Many had noted what seemed to be two separate creation stories in Genesis, as well as the problem of Moses recording his own death in Deuteronomy 34.

In 1753, a French physician named Jean Astruc began the modern study of source or literary analysis by writing a commentary on the book of Genesis.{2} He noted that the first chapter of Genesis refers to God as Elohim, while the second chapter uses mostly Jehovah or Yahweh. Astruc believed that Moses must have used two different sources in writing Genesis, each having different names for God, and that the Elohim source was the older. This established the first principle of what would become known as the documentary hypothesis, the assumption that different divine names must mean different authors or sources. In 1780 Johann Eichhorn took this theory and ran with it. He applied the idea of two sources to the rest of Genesis, Exodus, and finally to most of the Pentateuch. He eventually gave up on the view of Mosaic authorship as well.

The next step came in 1805, when Wilhem De Wette argued that none of the Pentateuch was written before David. He established the "D" document standing for Deuteronomy, which he believed was written as propaganda to support political and religious unification in Jerusalem during the reign of king Josiah around 621 B.C. We now have three source documents: J, E, and D. Although others in the late 1700's and early 1800's found as many as thirty-nine fragments in Genesis alone, the final, "P" or Priestly document of the current theory was added by Hermann Hupfeld in 1853. He believed that the E source should be split in two, the later becoming the new P document.

The name most associated with the documentary hypothesis is Julius Wellhausen. His publications in the late 1870's didn't add much new information to the theory, but rather argued for it from a Darwinistic perspective. Wellhausen claimed that the J, E, D, P sequence followed the development from primitive animism towards the more sophisticated monotheism that would be expected as the Jewish culture and religion evolved. The impact of this connection was immediate and powerful.

Even though both liberal and conservative scholars removed much of the foundation of the documentary hypothesis in the twentieth century, the idea remains entrenched. As Gleason Archer states, "For want of a better theory . . . most non-conservative institutions continue to teach the Wellhausian theory, at least in its general outlines, as if nothing had happened in Old Testament scholarship since the year 1880."{3}

Problems With The Documentary Hypothesis

Let's now look at the problems with this theory.

First, it should be mentioned that conservative experts did not sit idly by as this theory developed and spread. In the late 1800's Princeton Seminary scholars Joseph Alexander and William Green "subjected the documentarian school to devastating criticism which has never been successfully rebutted by those of liberal persuasion," according to Gleason Archer.{4} In Germany, Ernst Wilhem Hengstenberg ably defended the Mosaic authorship of all five books of the Pentateuch. His 1847 book The Genuineness of the Pentateuch did much to encourage conservative thinking.

It should also be noted that the Wellhausen theory found what it was looking for. The theory grew out of a movement to find rationalistic, natural explanations for the biblical text. Once one assumes that supernatural revelation cannot occur any other explanation must take precedent. The late dates and various authors assigned to the books allow for purely naturalistic sources. This is a textbook case of question begging. The underlying premise, that there can be no such thing as supernatural revelation, resulted in the conclusion that the Bible is not a supernaturally revealed document.{5}

Another problem with the theory is that it assumes that "Hebrew authors differ from any other writers known in the history of literature in that they alone were incapable of using more than one name for God," or for that matter, more than one style of writing.{6} It is interesting that the Qur'an (Koran) uses multiple names for God, but few question that Muhammad was its sole author. Regarding the various writing styles, it would be like arguing that C. S. Lewis could not possibly have written children's stories, literary critiques, science fiction, and allegorical satire; and insisting that numerous sources must have been involved. Educated as an Egyptian prince, Moses would have been exposed to many writing styles that were available during that period.

Another bias is evident in how critics regard the biblical data as unreliable and suspect, despite its old age even by their own dating methods. The tendency is to disregard the biblical content immediately when a non-biblical source disagrees with it, even when the biblical document is older. In the words of one conservative Old Testament scholar:

It makes no difference how many biblical notices, rejected as unhistorical by nineteenth-century pundits, have been confirmed by later archaeological evidence (such as the historicity of Belshazzar, the Hittites, and the Horites), the same attitude of skeptical prejudice toward the Bible has persisted, without any justification.{7}

In the next section we will continue to offer arguments against the documentary hypothesis and for the Mosaic authorship of the first five books of the Bible.

A Conservative Approach

Despite what Gleason Archer calls "The overwhelming contrary evidence from Genesis to Malachi," advocates of the Wellhausen theory cling to its most fundamental principle: that the religion of the Jews evolved from primitive animism to a more sophisticated monotheism.{8}

But their unsupported assumptions don't stop there. Modern scholars assume that Hebrew writers never used the repetition of ideas or occurrences even though authors in other ancient Semitic languages did so. They also assume that they can scientifically date the texts, even though they have no other ancient Hebrew writings to compare them with. Documentary scholars have felt free to amend the text by substituting more common words for rare or unusual words that they do not understand or do not expect to see in a given context.{9} Although it claims to be scientific, the documentary hypothesis is anything but neutral.

What are the arguments for Mosaic authorship? First, there are numerous passages in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy that point to Moses as author. For instance, Exodus 34:27 says, "Then the LORD said to Moses, 'Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.'" In fact, there are references throughout the Old Testament (Joshua, 1 & 2 Kings, Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, and Malachi) that claim that Moses wrote the Pentateuch.

New Testament writers assumed that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible as well. In Matthew 19:8 Jesus refers to laws regarding marriage in Deuteronomy and credits Moses with writing them. In John 7:19 Jesus says, "If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me." In Romans 10:5 Paul states that Moses wrote the law. It would be hard not to attribute either deception or error to Christ and the apostles if Moses did not write the Pentateuch.

There are many other internal evidences that point to Mosaic authorship. The writer of Exodus gives eyewitness details of the event that only a participant would know about. The author of Genesis and Exodus also portrays remarkable knowledge of Egyptian names and places. This knowledge is evident even in the style of writing used. One scholar has noted that the writer used "a large number of idioms and terms of speech, which are characteristically Egyptian in origin, even though translated into Hebrew."{10}

Having received training in the most advanced literate culture of the day as well as having access to the Jewish oral tradition make Moses a remarkably able and likely candidate for God to use in documenting the founding of the Jewish nation.


Now let's consider the current state of Old Testament studies.

Since 1670, when the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1631-1677) suggested that Ezra might have authored the Pentateuch, source criticism has grown to such an extent that it has successfully removed serious consideration of Mosaic authorship for many scholars. However, the twentieth century has seen the pillars supporting the Wellhausen theory, also known as the documentary hypothesis, weakened or removed. The result has been the uncomfortable reliance by many scholars on a system of literary criticism that no longer has a firm foundation. As one Old Testament scholar has written:

Wellhausen's arguments complemented each other nicely, and offered what seemed to be a solid foundation upon which to build the house of biblical criticism. Since then, however, both the evidence and the arguments supporting the structure have been called into question and, to some extent, even rejected. Yet biblical scholarship, while admitting that the grounds have crumbled away, nevertheless continues to adhere to the conclusions.{11}

Beginning at the turn of the century, scholars have challenged the divine-names criterion for determining authorship. W. F. Albright, who remained within the documentary camp, called the minute analysis of the Pentateuch after Wellhausen "absurd" and "irrational."{12} Hermann Gunkel, who introduced a new type of criticism called form criticism, came to the conclusion that "we really know nothing for certain about these hypothetical documents of the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis."{13} In other words, he refused to accept the numerous authors for the Pentateuch, particularly the J, E, and P sources, that had been speculated about by scholars for decades. There are too many critics to mention by name, but the cumulative effect has been substantial.

Where does this leave us today? In one sense it has left the scholarly community in search for new foundations. But even for those who reject the possibility of supernatural revelation, the evidence from archeology, the Dead Sea scrolls found at Qumran, and information about the languages of the ancient orient are making dependence on the Wellhausen theory inexcusable.

There is a trend among scholars to view the Pentateuch as a literary unit again. Scholars are admitting that the way the books use common words, phrases and motifs, parallel narrative structure, and deliberate theological arrangement of literary units for teaching and memorization support viewing the five books as a literary whole.{14} If this becomes the accepted view, Mosaic authorship can again be entertained.


  1. Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding The Old Testament, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966), 37.
  2. Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1975), 81.
  3. Ibid., 88.
  4. Ibid., 85.
  5. Ibid., 105.
  6. Ibid., 106.
  7. Ibid., 107.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., 108.
  10. Ibid., 113.
  11. R. K. Harrison, Introduction To The Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), 81.
  12. Archer, 94.
  13. Ibid., 95.
  14. Andrew Hill & John H. Walton, A Survey Of The Old Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 81.

© 2001 Probe Ministries International