The Law of Moses: Does it Read Like Moses Wrote It?

Posted By on January 26, 2012

[Note: In the last post I presumed this post would be about the New Testament; I’m putting that off just a bit. For the first two posts on this topic, see here and here.]

In my last post concerning the authorship of the Pentateuch, I listed two observations that led me to propose what for me is a fundamental question. Here is a summary of those observations and the question:

1. There isn’t a single verse in the OT where the “law” references anything in the book of Genesis. For sure the patriarchal stories are known in Exodus through Deuteronomy, but they are never associated with the “law of Moses.”

2. There is no verse in the OT that (key word) unambiguously uses the phrase “law of Moses” comprehensively — i.e., referring to the five books of the Pentateuch. The same is true for other references to the law in connection with Moses.

Question: The above raises the possibility that at least some (many scholars would say “the entirety”) of the Pentateuch was written by someone other than Moses, and that the final form of the Pentateuch was referred to as the “law of Moses” mainly because so much of it (Exodus through Deuteronomy) has Moses as the central character.

In this post I want to draw your attention to some other features of the text of the Pentateuch that also suggest an author besides Moses.

If we assume Moses wrote the Pentateuch, it would be natural to assume that he would use the 1st person most of the time (e.g., “I said”).  While an author writing about history in which he participated could certainly use the 3rd person (e.g., “he said”) as self reference, it is far more natural to not do so. So, while I do not disallow the use of the 3rd person by an author as self reference, and don’t think it is an argument against Mosaic authorship per se, I would expect that to occur a minority of times in a historical narrative, and that the 1st person would predominate. This seems completely reasonable. So what do we find in the Pentateuch?

The Verbs of the Pentateuch: Grammatical Person and Number

This is the most basic search we could do for 3rd person references. The author would (normally) use the 3rd person to refer to someone other than himself doing something. Here is the search using the Andersen-Forbes syntactical database in Logos (Libronix) Bible software (the older version, 3.0):

The results are striking — 6,631 instances.

If we subtract the number of occurrences in Genesis (2,087), isolating the 3rd person verb references to only Exodus through Deuteronomy, the material covering the lifetime of Moses, we are down to 4,544.

When we search for 1st person verb forms, the results are dramatically less:  994 total 1st person verbs in the Pentateuch.

If we subtract the number of occurrences in Genesis (383), isolating the 1st person verb references to only Exodus through Deuteronomy, the material covering the lifetime of Moses, we are down to 611 occurrences of first person verbs.:

Consequently, we have the following proportions:

3rd person: 1st person verbs in all the Pentateuch: 6,631 to 994 (just under 7:1).
3rd person: 1st person verbs in Exodus-Deuteronomy: 4,544 to 611 (just over 7:1).

I think it’s reasonable to say that’s disproportional to what an author would do when writing historical narrative about events through which he lived.

We can be a little more focused, though.

Here is a search that asks for the number of instances where a 3rd person verb has Moses himself as the subject. That is, instance of where the author writes “and Moses did XYZ.”

The search informs us that there are 282 instances where Moses is the subject of a 3rd person verb in the Pentateuch — where the writer refers to Moses in the 3rd person as doing or saying something. All of them are naturally in Exodus through Deuteronomy.

Another search we can do is to look for instances where the subject of a 3rd person verb (any subject) does or says something with respect to Moses (i.e., Moses is the indirect object or the focus of address). These instances would have the writer saying something was done or said to Moses — as opposed to something being done or said “to me” (first person) if Moses was the author.

Again, it is obvious that the results will only range from Exodus through Deuteronomy. There are 187 occurrences where something is said or done to Moses (third person) — that is, where the writer saying something was done or said to Moses — as opposed to something being done or said “to me” (first person) if Moses was the author.

The Point

Now, you might be asking, “Why does Mike take the opportunity on his blog to bore people with things like grammatical person and number?” It’s pretty simple, actually. I want readers to realize four things:

1. It is reasonable to think that at least some of the Pentateuch, perhaps substantial portions of it, were written by someone other than Moses.

2. It is unreasonable to think that it’s “unbiblical” to think the above thought.

3. If we are going to discuss who wrote the text of the Pentateuch, then we ought to derive our arguments from the text of the Pentateuch.

4. The authorship of the Pentateuch is a whole lot more complex than saying, “Hey, I know this Bible verse over here that uses the phrase ‘law of Moses’ so that settles it.”

Not even close.

Stay tuned!



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16 Responses to “The Law of Moses: Does it Read Like Moses Wrote It?”

  1. rode says:

    this post would certainly catch the attention of many in any given church.

  2. Eric says:

    Interesting research. Not sure I agree with the implied conclusion however. There are other areas which strongly support Mosaic authorship of the Torah.

    • MSH says:

      I haven’t offered a conclusion yet, at least one that has any precision. The first three posts point to the reasonableness of the idea that Moses didn’t write everything. When that is matched with the fact that there is no verse in the Bible that actually says he wrote everything, then that notion is even more possible.

  3. Mike says:

    If Moses did not write The Pentateuch, is it possible that he dictated all 5 books. Also, if Moses did not write the Torah, why did the early scribes cover-up that fact.

    • MSH says:

      I don’t think dictation of the third person makes any more sense. When Paul dictated his epistles he still uses the first person (singular or plural, the latter referring to him and his traveling companions).

  4. Brian Godawa says:

    Boy, once again, you are scratching where I itch.

  5. That’s fair enough. Could we point, say, to Joshua and the post-conquest community as responsible for much of the Pentateuch in its literary form?

    • MSH says:

      “post conquest” is a considerable amount of time! So, I’m not sure how much to agree. In general terms, my view (what used to be known as the “supplementarian” view) is that there is a core of Pentateuchal material that originates in the Mosaic period (and I have no trouble believing there was a Moses and he is responsible for that), which was supplemented at some (post-conquest) point with material in the patriarchal narratives and parts of Deuteronomy (and a Deuteronomic re-purposing of older Mosaic material). I tend to think Gen 1-11 is late (exilic) due to its polemic bent against Babylonian religion (specifically the Marduk theology, which was much later than Moses) and Babylonian chronicles (Sumerian king list, for example, and its parallels to Gen 5). I also think there is a high degree of probability that the whole thing (Pentateuch plus most of the rest of the Tanakh) got a careful editing eye during the exile. We know (from the Qumran material AND LXX) that different editions emerged after the exile. Sometimes there are significant (100s of verses) differences, many of which cannot be deduced as accidental scribal errors. This AM in church (1 Sam 10:17-11:15) we actually hit one (though our pastor didn’t mention if from the pulpit, though he read from the alternate Qumran text). A text from Cave 4 (aligned with LXX) includes a lengthy digression regarding Saul’s conflict with Nahash; McCarter’s AB commentary notes that textual critics cannot discern any accidental explanation for why it isn’t in MT, so it is likely that a scribe just decided to include/exclude the paragraph — that’s called editing).

  6. Drew says:

    Gday Mike
    ……………..Well you have certainly stirred up some of my friends:-)

    Drew, for the life of me i don’t know why you have persisted with this heretical, blasphames teaching.
    Whats his next trick , denighing the deity of Christ or perhaps no such thing as Hell, or maybe God is just a myth..
    It’s all been argued before and found wrong and coming from demonic beginnings.

    I do enjoy your posts, but please do send me any more of this rubbish.

    Looking forward to your conclusion Mike.

    • MSH says:

      that’s good; when there’s a question (even deriving from the text), blame a demon.

      • The Neoplatonist says:

        Thanks for this post Dr. Heiser. I’m learning something from your analysis.

        Your approach is sound and one that is seeking understanding. Those who would disgard it based on a rock ribbed piety for what they see as “heresy” or “demons,” do not recognize their own moral schizoprenia in such statements. It’s statements like these on which this Neoplatonist finds christianity scandalous, one that often looks for “converts” or “enemies” based on their own ideological view-point (and an ideology that usually has about a zilch of analysis or thought).

  7. Josh says:

    I generally believe that the core of the Pentateuch is Mosaic in origin. I, admittedly tend to take a more ‘literalist’ view of scripture while trying to remain reasonable about it. Given that I have tended to take the view that Moses acted as a compiler of traditions and knowledge that was passed down to him from the patriarchal era.

    I don’t have a problem with the idea that material was added subsequently during the era of Joshua etc. I have also tended to think that the books of the law were probably recompiled and redacted during the era of the exile. I specifically have thought it likely that such an effort to recompile the books of the law and the historical writings and psalms etc was probably part of Ezra’s program of re-introducing the law to the people after the exile.

    • MSH says:

      yes; I would agree that Moses played a significant role in what we now know as the Torah; in some respects it’s hard to know what that means and how it worked.

  8. […] my last post on the Mosaic authorship issue, my goal was to produce data from the text that explains why the idea that Moses may not have […]

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