Thursday, April 02, 2009

Was Moses the author of the Pentateuch?

As I've mentioned before on this blog, leaving conservative Christianity has allowed me to view many things in a new, refreshing light. One of these has been the Bible. When I was a Christian, I believed the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, historically accurate and perfect in every way.

How unexciting!

When I finally accepted that the Bible is a mishmash of different manuscripts from a myriad of unknown authors, pasted together over the centuries, changed and adapted over time to fit different political and religious ideologies, it suddenly became that much more interesting.

Letting go of inerrancy
has allowed me to discover facinating facts about the Bible. Some examples: the word Lucifer doesn't refer to Satan at all, but to the star Venus; the diversity of manuscripts continuously presents translational challenges for biblical scholars; and Matthew mistakenly believed that the virgin birth prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 was a prophecy about Jesus.

Another interesting fact that I've recently learnt, and which is probably old news to most Christians and biblical scholars, is that there is evidence that Moses was not the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. This runs counter to what I was taught as a Christian.

John Loftus, author of Why I Became an Atheist, presents a number of reasons to this effect (page 167). The more interesting ones are listed below:

  • Deuteronomy 34:6 tells where Moses was buried and states that "to this day no one knows the exact place of his burial." The words "to this day" implies that this line was written some time after his death.
  • Genesis 14:14 states that Abraham chased four kings to the city of Dan. This is interesting, as Dan was not the name of that city until the time of Samson (Judges 18:29), three centuries after Moses had died.
  • Genesis 36:31 mentions the names of kings in other lands "before there were any kings in Israel". There were no kings of Israel in the time of Moses (Saul would later be the first king). So, as the author, how would Moses know that Israel would one day have kings?
  • Exodus 16:35 states that the Israelites ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan. Moses was dead before they eventually reached Canaan, so he could not have written this.
This makes the Pentateuch that much more interesting, because it opens the door to many fascinating questions. If Moses was not the author, who was? Was it a number of authors, or just one? If there were a number of authors, did each subtly bring into the text his own culture, ideologies, concerns and beliefs?


CyberKitten said...

It has to be said... Does it really matter?

Jim Turner said...

Stop what you're doing and go read "Who Wrote the Bible?" by Richard E. Friedman.

It's absolutely fascinating. After reading it, the Old Testament made sense to me for the very first time.

atimetorend said...

That is so true, so many facets of the texts which make them interesting are essentially considered "off-limits" as long as you are in a form of conservative Christianity. And the parts that are not off-limits are just unbelievable. For a long time I felt like I was just going through the motions when reading or discussing the bible. It was an excercise in trying to avoid thinking about something that you really don't want to think about.

"When I was a Christian, I believed the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, historically accurate and perfect in every way. How unexciting!"

I will say that I did find the bible as a supernaturally inerrect document exciting as a Christian when I first became a Christian. But that wore off quickly, I think a combination of experience with it and just getting older and maturing. At any rate, as someone long interested in history, the bible has become much more interesting since leaving the faith. Honestly, even without leaving the faith, I think shifting to a more liberal position and less literal reading makes the bible more exciting to read.

Jim, I just added a "who wrote the bible" type book to my amazon wishlist earlier today. I'll probably replace it with your recommendation, thanks. I also enjoy Karen Armstrong's, "The Bible: A Biography."

Anonymous said...


As someone who currently believes in the authority and inerrancy of the Bible, I absolutely agree with you that Lucifer is not intended to be a reference to Satan in Isaiah 14; this belief emerged later in Judaism, and the Catholic Church subsequently and erroneously picked it up as well. However, I do believe in the essentially Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, though I agree with (some of the even most conservative) scholars in acknowledging that inspired editions were inserted after Moses' death (some of which you referenced). Tremper Longman and Raymond Dillard's "Introduction to the Old Testament" does a good job of explaining this, as well as listing the incredibly strong evidence for essentially Mosiac authorship.

Also, I have some thoughts regarding your claim that Matthew misued Isaiah 7:14 when applying it to Christ. Isaiah 7:14 has been very appropriately identified as one of the significant “problem passages” in the Old Testament. After taking a more in-depth look at the interpretative issues at stake, it seems the problem may appear greater than one might acknowledge from an initial analysis. Still, I believe God intends for His people to understand His word, and therefore, an adequate resolution can be reached.

Taking into consideration both the historical context of Isaiah’s prophecy and the citation of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23, it appears that a dual fulfillment of the verse is certain. The general theme of Isaiah chapters 7-12 is trust in God rather than in the nations. The specific event surrounding the Immanuel prophecy is described in Isa. 7:1. Israel and Syria have conspired to attack Jerusalem because of Judah’s refusal to ally with them against Assyria. Ahaz is then understandably tempted to form an alliance with the Assyrians to defend Judah against this attack. Isaiah’s warning to Ahaz, however, is that he should not trust in Assyria (or any other nation), but in God to deliver him. The Immanuel prophecy in v. 14 speaks of a confirmatory sign to Ahaz following his apparent reluctance to trust in God alone. Therefore, the context demands some sort of contemporary fulfillment for Ahaz himself. The subsequent birth of Isaiah’s son Maher-shalal-hash-baz (8:3) seems to be the logical fulfillment of this prophecy, especially considering the clearly stated purpose of Isaiah’s sons as “signs and wonders” in 8:18. The title Immanuel (“God is with us”) indicates perhaps a combination of judgment (God is present to punish those who fail to trust Him) and ultimate blessing (God is present to ultimately purify and save His people). Given Ahaz’s reluctance to trust God here, the former implication is probably emphasized in the initial context.

However, Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7:14 as a description of Christ’s imminent conception and birth demands that the passage bear significance beyond that of Isaiah’s time. The title Immanuel in this case seems to emphasize the latter implication of the term (God’s presence will bring salvation).

The use of "`almah" ("virgin") in Isaiah 7:14 is probably the source of most debate in the Immanuel prophecy. This word appears 26 times in the Old Testament, and means “to hide or conceal” or “not uncovered,” implying the modesty of a virgin. The Ugarit equivalent of the term refers to a young woman being sought in marriage. The challenge that this word does not refer specifically to virginity is largely based on the fact that the Old Testament does not outrightly define `almah in that capacity. However, the context seems to at least strongly imply viginity and/or moral purity and innocence in its normative biblical use (e.g., Gen. 24:43, Ex. 2:8). At the very least, it can be definitely stated that `almah never clearly refers to a currently married woman or to a sexually immoral woman. Therefore, “young virgin” is a suitable rendering of the term. This does not require, however, that Maher-shalal-hash-baz was conceived of the Holy Spirit apart from normal sexual union, but rather that Isaiah’s fiancĂ©e was simply a young virgin at the time of the prophecy made to Ahaz in 7:14. In fact, Isaiah 8:3 indicates that it was Isaiah’s subsequent union with his wife (perhaps their initial sexual encounter, consummating the marriage) which led to the birth of their son.

Prior to the writing of Matthew’s gospel, it may be argued that the Jews were not awaiting an additional fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. Indeed, there is no overt Messianic reference in the prophecy. However, the quotation of this verse in Matthew 1:23 indicates that the (at the time) centuries-old prophecy did in fact contain additional significance when understood through a Christological lens. This was not a unique tactic for the gospel writer; Matthew in fact used secondary interpretations of Old Testament verses at various times in his narrative (e.g., Matt. 2:15, 2:18). Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Matthew found it appropriate to reveal that Isaiah’s ancient prophecy would have additional (and complete) fulfillment in Christ. This time, however, “God is with us” would emphasize the source of salvation rather than the source of punitive justice.

It should also be noted that the debate over the meaning of `almah bears no implications concerning the doctrine of Christ’s virginal conception by the Holy Spirit. Even if `almah could be interpreted as something other than a virgin, the narrative passage of Matt. 1:18-25 eliminates any question of Mary’s virginity at the time Jesus was conceived.


Lorena said...

Yes, I wrote about this a long time ago. Biblical Prophecy: Hindsight is 20/20

I based my views on the book Who wrote the Bible. The scholar bases his arguments mostly on language analysis. The Pentateuch, according to his well-documented findings, was written in post-Babylonian-captivity language.

atimetorend said...

Phil, I won't go into the arguments on either side because a) there are a bazillion scholarly articles out there about these issues on both sides, and b) I'm not smart enough to.

I will say though that you are using circular reasoning in supporting your conclusions. Anybody can read anything into a text depending on what lens they want to use, so seeing Christ in the OT through a Christological lens is always possible, but in itself means nothing. Many (myself included) would posit the story of Christ developed by reading the OT "with a Christological lens."

As to Matthew and 'almah', I think you are asking the wrong question.The question is not did Matthew really mean 'virgin, but rather, did he reach that conclusion because he interpretated Isaiah incorrectly? Or maybe I am reading your comment incorrectly at that point.

Anonymous said...


I understand what you are saying about circular reasoning, though I actually don't know that it is really applicable to the position stated above. As I've stated about some other issues on this site, our starting assumptions will determine how we interpret evidences. Believers in Christ, through the help of the Holy Spirit, are given reassurance regarding recognition of the truth of God's word. Overall, the Bible demonstrates itself to be an incredibly reliable document (it claims to be God-inspired), and Matthew's gospel in particular demonstrates that the writer had a great understanding of the Jewish faith and the Old Testament writings. It is commonly believed that Matthew's chief purpose was to demonstrate to the Jews that Christ was their awaited Messiah, and part of his method of doing this was to articulate the facts of Christ's life by bringing to remembrance certain OT references (with which his readers would have largely been familiar). Therefore, our beginning outlook and understanding make it quite easy to understand that Matthew (under the inspiration of the Spirit) was given additional insight regarding the ultimate fulfillment of "God is with us" in Isaiah-- in fact, it's the logical conclusion based on the contextual evidence. As I've already pointed out, this was not the only time Matthew saw dual fulfillment in OT prophecy, and Matthew is not the only biblical writer to introduce the idea of dual fulfillment-- there was considerable precedent for this. All these facts together make for a sound argument that Matthew was not simply "mistaken" in his use of the OT (he probably understood it much better than most of us do), and that the claim that he was mistaken demonstrates a certain level of ignorance pertaining to OT Judaism and normative scholarly understanding of biblical prophectic writings.

Also, my discussion on "almah" above is a somewhat tangent issue (which is probably why you said it is "the wrong question"), but one I included because of the degree of debate that surrounds it. I believe that, in the ultimate (not initial) fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy, Matthew correctly used the term.


atimetorend said...

Phil, I disagree that we all have starting assumptions, though we do have starting biases which always affect our thinking and often inordinately influence our final conclusions. I will admit to being as guilty as anyone of letting my biases get in the way of thinking clearly.

"Believers in Christ, through the help of the Holy Spirit, are given reassurance regarding recognition of the truth of God's word."

So your starting assumption is that the bible is truthfully God's Word, and you have the Holy Spirit to provide you with certainty. The starting assumption is more important to you than rational thought and critical examination, because you believe that starting assumption has been given to you by the Holy Spirit. I agree with you if you say it is not circular reasoning to hold that position, but it is circular reasoning to defend the bible's truthfullness by esstentially saying the bible says it is so.

Then even if critical examination might give a skeptical view a higher likelyhood of being true, you will stick with the Holy Spirit's "assurance" that the skeptical view is incorrect. Your starting assumption determined what you would believe, rather than a starting bias influencing what you believe. There is a big difference. If you have a starting assumption you are not willing to part with, you will always be able to provide a logical possibility of its being true. But that is different than a logical probability.

Nikeyo said...

To Phil, the only thing I'll say:

"he use of "`almah" ("virgin") in Isaiah 7:14 is probably the source of most debate in the Immanuel prophecy. This word appears 26 times in the Old Testament, and means “to hide or conceal” or “not uncovered,” implying the modesty of a virgin."

Where in goodness name did you get this terrible translation from? And please don't tell me Strong's Concordance. Forgive my strong language, by dear man that is wrong. I know Hebrew, almah means woman, not virgin, and certainly not the other things you mentioned.


As to Kevin, yes, the authorship of the Torah not being Moses is old news in biblical scholarship. =) There are many theories. It does not presuppose unbelief in the Bible, and to some people doesn't erase "inerrancy." I think it would be better to believe in diversity in the Bible in relationship to God, as you said, how unexciting if it's simply a dictation of God! But how thrilling is it if God sanctions a book with many different opinions, perspectives, and ideas? If I were to believe in a God, it would be of one that's so accepting of diversity.

As for who wrote it, there are many theories. Some that Moses wrong most (the laws, for example) and Joshua picked up after he died, or edited some parts. However, if you read Genesis 1-11 in Hebrew, it is very very clear that it's totally different from the rest of the 5 books. The language is in archaic Hebrew. So those books were probably found somewhere, and amazingly, somehow, stayed in it's archaic Hebrew without rendering.

There's also a theory that there are different authors, I can't recall it at the moment, but it's not hard to find.

Anonymous said...

Atimetorend and Nikeyo,

Thanks for reading my above thoughts, and for your responses.

Atimetorend, according to your above comments, you seem to place your greatest degree of trust in your own "rational thought and critical examination." Though we could debate what label is most appropriate, I would call this your starting assumption--the assumption that your (and/or other people's) mind is the best means you have of determining truth. Therefore, you must interepret evidences from that particular starting point, and you understandably always side with what (in your opinion) is the "most likely explanation" for a given issue. The regenerated Bible-believing Christian, however, operates from a different starting viewpoint: while God has given us useful and fascinating minds which He can and does enlighten, we ultimately can not trust ourselves to determine what is true and right because our minds are darkened by sin and the entire universe (including humanity) has been corrupted by the curse. Therefore, we will look to God's word (not ourselves or others) as the basis for truth, and when something God's word says does not seem the "most likely" to us, it means the problem is with our understanding, not with God's word. After all, in many areas of life, often what turns out to be true is not what everyone thought was "most likely."

Nikeyo, my understanding of "'almah" comes not from concordances, but from examining various works of OT scholars and Hebraists. Richard Niessen, Herbert Wolf, and John Oswalt are good sources I would recommend for further insight on this discussion. While you are right in stating that this word can mean "woman," it is not the Hebrew word usually used to describe a woman (by far, the word most commonly used to describe a woman in general in "ishshah"). The word "almah" is used in specific cases to reference a particular type of woman, and as I noted above, at least in the Bible, it always refers to a young, unmarried, modest woman. Hence, my belief that "virgin" is a suitable rendering of the term, and it is completely etymologically understandable why it appears that way in the Septuaguint.


atimetorend said...

Phil, you sum up what I believe fairly well. Though I don't trust in my ability to reason, just that I trust it more than other ways of understanding things. I have to believe that if God exists, that is how he made it, despite Paul's claims about the foolishness of God and the wisdom of men. It is not my starting assumption that I am always right or can know all the answers.

Therefore, we will look to God's word (not ourselves or others) as the basis for truth, and when something God's word says does not seem the "most likely" to us, it means the problem is with our understanding, not with God's word. After all, in many areas of life, often what turns out to be true is not what everyone thought was "most likely."

But what if the bible isn't true, or what if parts of it are not true? What if the canonization process wasn't perfect? Or what if your original divine revelation of it being all true was faulty in some regard? Or is that something you just live with because it is better to not doubt so you can more fully embrace the other parts?

That leaves you lacking the self-correcting function of reason to be able to adjust what we believe (or consider likely) based on evidence along the way. Not that reason and self-correction necessarily has to lead one to reject the bible completely, or even reject parts of it. Just that when that part of reason has been turned off, so can't know one way or another.

And that is what makes reading the bible exciting once you have thrown off the requirement that you must believe it is all literally true. You can look at those unlikely writings and start digging to try to see what they really are. But do watch out for the slipperly slope, if you cross the line and critically examine the bible, you might keep sliding. I did.

CyberKitten said...

I still can't figure out why it matters..... [looks confused]

Anonymous said...


You asked several questions such as "what if the bible isn't true," and "what if the canonization process wasn't perfect?" and indicated that fundamental belief in these ideas leaves one "lacking the self-correcting function of reason." However, I believe reason can only be utilized properly if it is aligned with truth. I have accepted the truth of the Bible by faith through a work of God, not by (subjective and too often faulty) human reason. However, I can examine that which I've accepted using the principles of sound reason to understand why the truth I've accepted is trustworthy.

I do not have a problem with examining the claims of scripture; doing so has actually deepened my trust in it and understanding of it. Some of my interpretive views have changed over time. However, when a foundational shift occurs in one's perception of the center of truth (such as a shift from the Bible to human reason), it is understandable how someone like yourself would "keep sliding."
You might call this enlightenment; I call it error.

I appreciate your thoughts; thanks for this great discussion!


atimetorend said...

However, I can examine that which I've accepted using the principles of sound reason to understand why the truth I've accepted is trustworthy.

I think you are right, you can use sound reason to examine why what you believe is trustworthy. But are you then committed to considering it true no matter what contradictory evidence could turn up? I know you believe that there ultimately can not be any real contradictions. But how can you know that if you can't even consider it possible? Is faith a concious decision to not consider that anything could contradict the bible?

Please know I don't in any way think less of a person who does this, and I don't consider it more virtuous to question the bible, it is just that I lack this belief, cannot make myself have it.

Anonymous said...

Good question, atimetorend. And thanks for qualifying your question with those kind thoughts. I too do not want to cast judgment on those who disagree-- discussion like this is healthy.

You asked, "Is faith a conscious decision to not consider that anything could contradict the bible?" In a sense, biblical faith is exactly that. That may sound dogmatic and narrow-minded to some, but I believe it actually frees the mind to view the universe the way God intended for us to see it (through His eyes). Over the years, I have encountered much evidence which at first (in my view) seemed to "contradict" the Bible, but upon further investigation, it always turns out that the Bible was true, and my understanding of the world around me (so fat as it contradicted the Bible) was false. Again, it comes down to what you trust in most-- your mind (which, in my case, is too often inconsistent and unreliable), or the unchanging principles of God's word (which has proven itself much more reliable thus far).


Anonymous said...

Correction to an above comment: "so fat as it contradicted the Bible" should have read "so far..." Oops.


atimetorend said...

And here we thought you were referring to some obscure passage about fat being prohibited for the Levites in the bible under certain circumstances... ;^)

atimetorend said...

I was going to be done on this thread, but one last thought.

I really don't think the view of scripture has to have two, diametrically opposed views, naturalistic and inerrent. I am sure both views have their problems in some ways, and perhaps strengths in other ways. But there is a way of reading the bible which allows that some "appearent contradictions" are in reality a contradiction of some sort, but does not remove the belief in divine inspiration in the same scriptures. For example, and to over-simplify, Moses may not have to have written the Pentatuch, and maybe somebody ascribed it to him, but it is still inspired by God. It is a view that does not remove God from the equation, but allows the kind of inquiry into the "mysteries" that Kevin wrote about in his original post.

There certainly are Christians who read the bible this way, a more naturalistic, but divinely inspired perspective. Some may consider them second-rate, compromising Christians, but I know if you look at their lives, many of these Christians appear to exhibit "the fruits of the spirit" every bit as much or more so than those holding a more conservative view of the bible. I think Kevin might know a few those. ;^) I believe Peter Enn's book, "Inspiration & Incarnation" is written along those lines, though I haven't read it yet.

Anonymous said...


Good thoughts, and I agree with you that certain isagogical issues (such as authorship of some books) may not necessarily have bearing on one's view of inspiration and/or inerrancy. I still personally favor Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch for the reasons cited in Longman & Dillard's work (referenced above), and based on the fact that as far back as can be documented, these works have always been attributed to Moses by those who would seem to be in the best position to know the facts (e.g., Ezra 6:18).

Temaskian said...

Actually, questions like these excited me very much when I was on the verge of de-converting. Now I bother less with them.

But I still find it interesting to read your post about Lucifer being just the name for Venus, and how it came to be misunderstood to represent satan. Very enlightening. Now we know.

It's indeed true that the bible makes a lot more sense now that I've stopped believing in it being a work of God. It's just a book authored by humans with all the attendant flaws.

I told myself that I would probably enjoy a reread of the bible since becoming an atheist, but have yet to get around to doing it.

Also thought that it would be novel to attend church again, now that I'm an atheist, but never got around to doing that either.

The Spear said...

Isn't Moses the same dude that lead the Jews for 40 years through the desert while following a cloud by day and a cloud by night that burned red?

Sounds like an spacecraft to me. Lol!

Temaskian said...

I think it was a cloud by day and a pillar of burning fire by night.

Doesn't sound like a spacecraft to me.

danielcurran said...

I love you writing. I am a believer bt my blog goes after the Christian Right and how their way of thinking is used to justify the harm done to people who need help.
As I am new to this place, and my blog is also new, I hope I'm not breaking any rules by leaving a link. Please read it. You may enjoy.
It's called Justice Conquering Religion.

MINISTER said...


MINISTER said...