Authorship Issues

Moses is the central figure in the Pentateuch-at least from the book of Exodus on. He is the leader of the people, God’s spokesman and representative, and above all the Law Giver. Moses goes up to the mountain, and brings down God’s commandments written on stone. He also hears the explanation and exposition of the laws. There are several references to Moses writing in the Torah-not only to his writing of the “laws and commandments” but also to his writing of the historical events. In addition, several chapters-nearly all the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, record Moses’ teaching or speech to the people.

On the other hand, Moses does not appear at all in the book of Genesis, and the narratives of his life are found in the third person in the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy-including the narrative of his death and burial in the book of Deuteronomy.

None of the books of the Torah make any claim of authorship, in the “modern” sense of the person responsible for the book in its finished form. In a strict sense, the books of the Torah are anonymous. And yet,

Moses is obviously the central character, the authority behind the laws and narratives.


The Hebrew word Torah first of all means “instruction.”

In Proverbs the word is used for the teaching of one’s mother and father. Since instruction often comes from an authoritative source, torah can mean “authoritative instruction, commandment, law.” Since the instructions given through Moses are God’s commandments, then torah comes to mean law or commandments.

The instructions given by God through Moses are referred to both as the Torah of Moses (Torat Moshe) and the Torah of God (Torat YHWH or Elohim). Within the Pentateuch and in the later books the Instructions or Law is often referred to as the Law of Moses (Torat Moshe). Then, in later books the words Torah or Torat Moshe can refer to the books of the Torah, i.e. Genesis through Deuteronomy.

Since the books of Genesis through Deuteronomy are called the Torah of Moses-or simply the Torah, Jewish tradition developed the doctrine that Moses was the author of all five books.

We should also note that Judaism was able to live with certain tensions or apparent contradictions. For example, one the one hand it recognizes the historical nature of the Torah. God gave his commandments at a specific time in history, through Moses, a specific man. On the other hand, Judaism understands the Torah as being eternal. Judaism recognizes that changing times require updated interpretations-without rejecting older traditions. For example, with the discovery of electricity, new rulings about work on the Sabbath-for example lighting a fire on the Sabbath-had to be developed to deal with electricity. Yet once these new rulings were final, they were considered part of the eternal Torah.

The Mishnah and Talmud record specific debates between the Rabbis on areas of interpretation. They record when an interpretation became accepted as official. But once it was accepted, the new interpretation became part of the eternal Torah.

Judaism recognizes an oral Torah alongside the written Torah. The oral Torah finds its authority ultimately in God. And like the written Torah it can be traced back to Moses. The oral Torah includes all the interpretations God gave Moses on the Mountain.

We should keep in mind the creative and dynamic way Judaism deals with issues of old and new, historical development and eternal validity, when we look to Jewish tradition regarding authorship. It is in this complex way that Moses is regarded as the author of the Torah.

Jesus and the early Christians evidently accepted the Jewish tradition about the authorship of the Torah. For example, Jesus quotes from the book of Genesis with the words “Moses said” or “Moses says.”

Keeping in mind the issues raised by Peter Enns, in Incarnation and Inspiration, we need to consider the following questions:

1. What are the implications of Jesus becoming fully human in a specific context? Could he be fully human without accepting the traditions of his people? On the other hand, it is the eternal Son of God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ. Further, the Old Testament Scriptures and the beliefs of Judaism are not incidental or trivial matters. The history of the Jewish people is the history of God’s plan of redemption, God’s work to save the world. It is into this history that Jesus came; and his story is the continuation of the story of the Old Testament.

2. Does Jesus actively teach a doctrine or theory of the authorship of the book of Genesis or of the Torah? Think carefully about the question, and consider the context of those passages where Jesus refers to Moses or the Torah. Is the mention of Moses incidental or is it essential to what Jesus is saying?

3.  Jesus sometimes uses hyperbole in his teaching.  How literally are we to take his words “not one jot or tittle” of the law shall pass away?  Is Jesus referring to the Jewish tradition that even the decorative strokes on the letters (the “tittle” or “smallest stroke of a letter” in the NIV) are inspired? Is he endorsing that tradition? Or is he using it to illustrate the importance of respecting the commandments of God? This question is not the same as Jesus mentioning Moses, but it is related. It has to do with how Jesus related to the Jewish traditions about the Torah and how he used those traditions to help his people come to a better understanding of the will of God.

There are similar questions relating to the authorship of the book of Isaiah and other portions of the Old Testament. We will talk about some of these questions in class.


One Response

  1. I enter this post with hesitation.

    Yes, Jesus can become fully human without accepting the “traditions.” For Him truth and redemption are the issues.

    Jesus is continuously affirming Moses’ authorship. It is the interpretation by the “experts”, and the burdens they place upon the people that he has issue with. The same problem faces Christ’s church. Some churches place tremendous burdens on their people. On the other hand, some churches have no expectations.

    “Not one jot or title will pass away” is Jesus commitment to the truths of the commandments which we are to respect. Jesus has a keen sense for holiness, which is different than being perfect in human terms. He also uses theses conversations to direct us toward our need for redemption.

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