Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 1)

Rembrandt, “Moses With the Ten Commandments.” Did Moses write out the whole body of law known as the Pentateuch?

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?

While your question has to do with the Genesis creation account specifically, it raises an issue that applies to the entire Pentateuch.  Did Moses really write the so-called “books of Moses,” or were they instead put together over later centuries from different works by various authors?

This is an involved and complicated topic that has generated a vast body of literature, both scholarly and popular, over the centuries, and it will be difficult to do justice to it in the context of a blog.  But I will devote my next few posts to this question and try to explain things as I understand them as best I can.

Let me begin in this post with the observation that the “books of Moses” (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as we know them today could not have been written entirely by Moses.  He obviously did not write the account of his own death at the end of Deuteronomy, for example.  But there are other things in the Pentateuch that seem very unlikely to have been written by Moses as well.

For example, when Abram first arrives in the land of Canaan, the narrative in Genesis observes, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.”  Abram (later known as Abraham) and his descendants will have various dealings with the Canaanites, and the narrative is preparing the reader for this.  But why would this have to be explained to an original audience living in the time of Moses, when the Canaanites were still in the land?  It only makes sense that this this notation was added for a later audience, living at a time when the Canaanites were no longer there.

Similarly, when Moses is describing at the beginning of Deuteronomy the conquests he has just led on the east side of the Jordan, as he explains how half the tribe of Manasseh occupied the former territory of Og the king of Bashan, he specifies that “Jair, a descendant of Manasseh, took the whole region of Argob.”  The text then notes that this region “was named after him, so that to this day Bashan is called Havvoth Jair.”  There would be no reason for Moses to tell his contemporaries that a name a region had just been given was still in use.  Rather, this explanation, too, must have been added for the benefit of a later audience.

Places like these help us recognize that as the material in the Pentateuch was transmitted by the Israelites down through the generations, it was edited and supplemented for the benefit of later readers.  And so, whatever way we understand the nature of biblical inspiration, we need to accept that not every word of the Pentateuch was written by Moses.  Somehow the Bible can be the inspired word of God even if it includes later editorial emendations to the works originally created by the prophets and apostles.

This opens the door for us to consider objectively, without our confidence in the Bible as the word of God being at stake, the possibility that the Pentateuch may actually have been assembled from layers of tradition that go back ultimately to Moses, but which also include the contributions of later editors and custodians.  I’ll summarize the arguments to this effect represented by Hyers’ article, which follows a prevailing view in Old Testament studies, in my next post.

Who was the book of Hebrews written to?

Q. A friend and I recently read out loud through the book of Hebrews using The Books of the Bible.  I can definitely recommend this way of experiencing the Bible.

We do have a question, though.  Your introduction says that the recipients of this letter “seem to have lived in Italy.” But as we read through Hebrews, it seemed to us that it was addressing instead a pre-70 A.D. Jerusalem audience—people who needed encouragement to stand strong while on the receiving end of persecution from temple-observant Jews.  This seemed to us to account better for the letter’s encouragement to persevere and endure persecution.

We thought that the reference in the letter to people “from Italy” sending their greetings was actually describing people who were in Italy at the time, and not, as you say, people who used to live there who were now sending greetings back to their friends in Rome.

We don’t know any Greek and we haven’t looked in any commentaries; this is simply two reasonable laymen looking at each other and reflecting on what we’ve read—both in the text, as well as in the preceding intro.

It strikes me that the questions you’re asking are the kind of broad and comprehensive ones that arise naturally from the consideration of an entire book. You and your friend clearly got the big picture as you read through and listened to the book of Hebrews.  All the more reason to present the Bible in a format that encourages that kind of experience!

Questions like yours, about the background to a whole book, won’t necessarily lead you to a “gem of the day” devotional thought that you can carry around with you.  But they still matter tremendously.  As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart write in their book How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, we can never really recognize what the Bible is saying to “us now” until we appreciate what it was saying to “them then.”  All of the biblical documents arise out of real-life experiences of communities of believers.  The better we can understand those situations, the more clearly we can hear how the word of God was speaking into them, and so into our situation as well.  Anything less does not do justice to the believers whose faith and courage in following Jesus brought us the New Testament in the first place.

You’ve raised an interesting question about the book of Hebrews that other readers and interpreters have also posed.  Why couldn’t the audience of this book have been in Jerusalem, where we would expect the strongest opposition from those who wanted to maintain temple observances and sacrifices?  Why couldn’t the greetings of “those from Italy” be from people who were actually living in Italy, meaning that the book was sent from there, not to there?

The answers to these questions don’t depend on knowing Greek.  The Greek phrase translated as “those from Italy” could mean either people who live in Italy or people who came from Italy.  But there are some other things in the epistle that suggest it wasn’t written to people living in Jerusalem:

– The writer says near the beginning, “This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him.”  So neither the writer nor the audience were eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus.  If this letter was addressed to believers in Jerusalem before AD 70, it’s almost certain that some of them would have seen and heard Jesus when he was alive on earth.

– From the rest of the New Testament we know that the believers in Jerusalem were very poor.  (This is why, for example, Paul took up a collection from wealthier believers elsewhere in the empire to help them.)  But the writer to the Hebrews notes, “You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you had better and lasting possessions.”  This would fit the wealthy situation in Italy much better.

–  The writer also says, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”  This also wouldn’t fit the situation of the Jerusalem believers, who had already seen some of their number killed for their faith.  But there was a large and strong Jewish community in Rome, and Hebrews could be reflecting the threat that was beginning to be perceived from them.

–  Finally, as I note in the introductory session to Hebrews in my Deuteronomy/Hebrews study guide, “At the end the author calls the whole work a ‘word of exhortation,’ the technical term for a sermon or homily in the Jewish synagogue.”  There were, of course, synagogues in Palestine as in other parts of the empire, but if the question is whether the letter arises out of Diaspora Judaism or temple observance in Jerusalem, the synagogue language points more naturally towards the Diaspora.

None of these considerations are, of course, absolutely conclusive, but they are the kind of things that lead me to believe that Hebrews was written to the community of Jesus’ followers in Rome, not in Jerusalem.

Ancient Rome, the likely location of the people addressed in the book of Hebrews.