Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 4)

Title page of Genesis from the King James Bible, clearly expressing the traditional authorship assumption. Compare this with your Bible–does it just say “Genesis”?

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

In my first post in response to this question, I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses.  In the next post, I explained that many scholars believe the Pentateuch was instead woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places later in Israel’s history.  Last time I discussed the biblical evidence these scholars offer in support of that view.  Now in this final post in the series I’d like to offer some reflections on how the belief that the Pentateuch has been woven together from a variety of different documents can be put in a positive and constructive dialogue with the traditional view that Moses wrote these books instead.

Let me frame the dialogue this way:  What might a proponent of the so-called Documentary Hypothesis have to say positively about the traditional view?  And what might someone who believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch have to say positively about the other view?

I think someone who held to the Documentary Hypothesis would start by observing that the believing community has had a tendency down through the centuries to attribute anonymous works to known leading figures.  The book of Hebrews, for example, was for a long time attributed to the apostle Paul.  (In the King James Bible it’s actually entitled “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews”–just as Genesis is called “The First Book of Moses,” as shown above.)  But most scholars today, including those who hold dearly to the inspiration and authority of the Bible, acknowledge that this letter was almost certainly not written by Paul.  Most scholars also acknowledge that the anonymous biblical book that has come to be known as the Gospel According to Matthew was similarly not written by the figure it has traditionally been attributed to.  And so forth, in several cases.

However, when we recognize these authorship claims for what they really are–authority claims–we can see how they have abiding validity.  The believing community has attributed these works not just to well-known figures, but to leaders who were first-hand participants in the epochal redemptive-historical events they record.  In other words, through these authorship claims, the community is saying, “We recognize and accept these works as trustworthy accounts of God’s key saving interventions in human history and in the life of our ongoing community.”  And in that assessment of the works, someone who held to a Documentary theory of the Pentateuch’s composition could be in full agreement with someone who believed that Moses was its author.

We can take this even further than that.  The Documentary theorist could also acknowledge that these works have such authority precisely because their contents, the building blocks of material that later writers assembled, go back ultimately to a collection that Moses himself created of the earliest Israelite traditions and to records that he kept of God’s communications during his lifetime.  These building blocks would have been transmitted both orally and in written form down through the centuries until they were worked into written documents by later figures.

Of course it cannot be proved that this happened.  But the strong and enduring tradition associating these works with Moses provides a very strong suggestion that he is the ultimate source of the material.  In the same way, we have confidence that the gospels present the authentic deeds and teaching of Jesus, even though the material in them was transmitted orally (and perhaps also in writing) for a generation before the four evangelists collected and arranged it to create their different works.  I think a proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis could affirm all of these things.

For their part, people who believe that Moses wrote the Pentateuch should have no trouble acknowledging that the materials in it had to be adapted so that later generations could understand and appreciate them.  We see this kind of “updating” throughout the Bible, for example, when the current name of a place is added by way of explanation after it is called by its former name, or when an archaic term is explained so that the audience will understand its use, as in this classic case from the life of Saul:  “Formerly in Israel, if someone went to inquire of God, they would say, ‘Come, let us go to the seer,’ because the prophet of today used to be called a seer.”  (Right after this explanation is offered, Saul and his servant ask a passer-by, “Is the seer here?”–and the audience, used to hearing such figures called “prophets,” understands.)

A person who held to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch might not be prepared to allow that it has been “updated” to the extent that Documentary theorists describe, with separate Judean and Israelite “epics” being composed by the 8th century B.C. to express the national identity and aspirations of those two kingdoms, a “Deuteronomonic history” being added in the time of Josiah, and a rival “Priestly” account composed before the Babylonian exile, with everything woven together upon the return from exile.  But if a person who held the traditional view could agree that the discussion was really about a difference in degree (how much “updating,” to what extent), rather than in kind (one view treating any hand other than Moses’s as negligible, and other other view considering the contributions of other hands to be significant), there might well be room for fruitful and constructive dialogue between these positions.

That, at least, is how I see it.  Thank you again for your question, and I hope I have done some justice to it even in the brief space allowed by the blog format.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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