The Law of Moses: Does It Read Like Moses Wrote It? Part 2

Posted By on February 6, 2012

In 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 written all or even most of the Pentateuch could be coherent. I haven’t laid out my thoughts on Mosaic authorship yet; I’m just laying the groundwork for establishing the fact that a view that departs from a traditional “Moses wrote everything in the Pentateuch” view can indeed be text-based, even apart from the JEDP (Documentarian) model (which I largely don’t buy — we’ll eventually get to why).

More specifically, in the last post we saw where Moses was described in the Pentateuch as the subject of a 3rd masc singular verbs (“Moses did XYZ”) vs. when the 1st person singular was used, as though Moses himself was writing (“I did XYZ”). The ratio was 7:1, with the 3rd person instances far outnumbering the 1st person. The conclusion was that it is reasonable to suppose that someone other than Moses wrote some of that third person material — i.e., they are not all self-referential. Put more bluntly: Why would Moses use the third person in a self-referential way seven times more often than using the simpler first person to indicate he was the author? I think that’s not only a fair question; it’s a good one.

In this post I want to explore person and number a bit more precisely (stop yawning).

Think of the book of Acts. The book is addressed to someone named Theophilus (Acts 1:1), just as the Gospel of Luke (1:3). There is therefore virtually unanimous agreement that Luke was the author of both. However, Luke was apparently only an eyewitness for the events of the book of Acts. This conclusion derives from the fact that he was Paul’s traveling companion, as indicated by Paul’s notes in Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11; and Philemon 24, as well as the author of Acts’ use of “we” when recalling events in Paul’s missionary journeys. It is this first person use that draws my attention at this point.

Under the assumption that Luke wrote Acts, one would expect there to be a number of 1st person usages in Acts 13-28, the space devoted to Paul’s ministry. If we do a search for the 1st person plural (“we did XYZ”) verb forms in Acts …

… we learn that there are roughly 82 instances in Acts 13-28 (110 overall). Here are the results. However, these 1cpl forms do not all read as though Luke is including himself in the group (e.g., the “we” may refer to conversation in another group Luke is writing about, such as Gentiles or Jews). If one looks through the search results, there are close to 50 instances where the writer uses the 1cpl verb form to include himself. (See the underlined instances in yellow highlighting). So, to put things in general terms, we have 50 good indications in sixteen chapters of Acts that are consistent with Luke as author of the book.

One wonders how many of these we might find in the Pentateuch — a much larger corpus.† I decided to look through the books of Exod-Deuteronomy, the books that encompass the lifetime of Moses — and, more specifically, the travels of Israel out of Egypt to Canaan under the leadership of Moses.† Here’s what the search looked like (I just changed the title of the book in the search range for each search):

The results are interesting. The numbers below represent the total number of occurrences of 1cpl verb forms in these four books — but remember, we’ll have to look through all of them to see which ones *specifically* show us the writer (presumably Moses in context) is including himself.

1cpl verb (total) in Exodus: 35
1cpl verb (total) in Leviticus: 3
1cpl verb (total) in Numbers: 64
1cpl verb (total) in Deuteronomy: 59

Here are the results in another PDF.† Once again I have gone through them and used yellow highlighting to mark the ones that clearly have the writer including himself in what is being written. Be advised that I exclude instances that are introduced by the THIRD person, as that reads like someone else is writing ABOUT Moses and then has Moses saying something in the first person. What we’re looking for is the kind of thing we saw in Acts with Luke — that is what we should expect from a known author’s narrative — first person and use of the first person to include himself since he was present. In other words, can we find 1st person self-references that aren’t introduced by the third person? I looked through these quickly, so if you want to make an argument for others, let me know.

Cutting to the chase, it was very difficult to find anything like we saw in Luke. It only happens when you get to Deuteronomy, and those “hits” are made somewhat questionable by Deut 1:1 (see my notes in the file).

So, I propose again — in view of the data, it seems reasonable to think that a lot of the Pentateuch was not composed by Moses. For me though (as you will see in the second PDF), there is evidence that suggests an original body of Mosaic first person narrative that was later woven into the larger book of Deuteronomy. And, as I noted at the very beginning of this series, the phrase “law of Moses” need not work only one way (as Moses being the author). The phrase seems entirely appropriate of the Pentateuch (or Exod-Deut) as meaning that the work is about Moses or intimately associated with him, so I don’t see any scriptural inconsistency in its use (only our own misuse). The fact that we moderns have misunderstood the phrase “law of Moses” does not mean it is an “errant” or illegitimate one. The problem is with our lack of precision, not the phrase.

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9 Responses to “The Law of Moses: Does It Read Like Moses Wrote It? Part 2”

  1. Emory Dively says:

    Since the book of Genesis is anonymous, I say we should respect the author’s wishes and not assign a actual writer, and instead approach it from an implied author POV. Same goes for the Gospels. I was not aware of a consensus on authorship of Luke… or even that the consensus is that Theophilus was a person and not a generalized audience. Good article though.

    • MSH says:

      thanks; I think (as you can tell) that POV is important in these questions. Among the other reasons for thinking Luke is the author of Luke-Acts is its discernibly Gentile POV and Gentile audience (e.g., Jewish customs are not taken for granted but are glossed / explained), the presence of unique physiological descriptions / terms (Luke was a doctor), and its elevated Greek (something a highly-educated writer would produce — it is light years above other material, especially the gospel and letters of John). It’s level of difficulty is matched only in the letter to the Hebrews.

  2. kennethos says:

    This is only tangentally related to this immediate post (though related to the greater topic at hand), but I wonder…I hear about things being “earlier” or “later” in terms of material. Where would I go to find out how exactly the “age” of something is determined, i.e., is such-and-such material is deemed early or late, how do we know this is precisely correct, as opposed to being the informational victim of some sort of bias? Or will you be addressing this in regard to JEPD?

    • MSH says:

      The biblical texts are actually difficult to date, since most of them have no direct claim of authorship. The most objective criteria are personal names of figures known from non-biblical texts (but those are few) and allusion or reference to a known historical event (also very few). Things are worse in the OT than the NT. Some scholars have attempted to date OT texts linguistically — that is, by features of morphology [the form of a word], grammar and syntax in the Hebrew (like English, Hebrew evolved over time and there are definite markers). The problem with that approach, though, is that a recent author can mimick such features to make his text appear old (to fit the storyline, or for style). As such, linguistic markers that are clearly pre-exilic and ancient *may* establish a date (for at least a portion of the book) or may not (due to the above — which is called “archaizing” in biblical studies). There are also clear dialectical differences within biblical Hebrew for northern Israel and southern Israel (the Shibboleth incident is an example of regional dialects). SOME of these criteria are used for dating the Pentateuch (and its presumed sources), but only the last one is generally accepted as a (somewhat) firm method. Critics also use the assumption of the evolution of certain ideas as a dating method, but that truly assumes what it seeks to prove, and is circular in reasoning.

      The only real certainty in all this is that the biblical text as we have it does not reflect a script (letter forms) or grammar older than the 10th century BC. That is certain because of epigraphic Hebrew remains (Hebrew inscriptions on stone or pieces of pottery — none of which is biblical material). But that is to be expected since the script changed during the exile, and so when any biblical material was put into the new script, it would logically have been updated in terms of morphology, grammar and syntax. But apparently older material still remains in the text — hence the question of whether those things can be used to date a text before the exile.

      • kennethos says:

        Interesting. So, when we hear a skeptical critic (Ehrman, Spong, et al) expound about late dates, etc., proving biblical material can’t possibly be from that time period, taking their claims with a large amount of salt might not be a bad idea, is that it?

        • MSH says:

          They are just relating the consensus, and that consensus is based on guesses, some more reasonable than others, but even the reasonable ones over-reach what can really be said with certainty. The other issue is editing. There is evidence of editing, which of course would happen later in the history of the biblical books, but just because editorial material was late doesn’t mean the material being edited was roughly of the same period — it could be much older. It’s a very inexact science.

        • MSH says:

          I should add that, in the case of the NT (Ehrman, Spong, etc.), they assume a priori that material that casts Jesus as deity/divine (miracles, resurrection ,etc.) must be post-resurrection (defined as decades later than gospel material that has the more “normal” Jesus). Their assumption is that the gospel writers added such material to earlier accounts of Jesus’ life to sell Christianity (i.e., to make it appealing and win converts). There is nothing textual (grammar, morphology, syntax) about these arguments. They are just assumptions that, to those who hold them, make sense since they rule out truly supernatural events associated with Jesus.

  3. Crayton says:

    It seems somewhat presumptive to say that Moses MUST use the 1st person because Luke uses the 1st person. These are two very different corpora.

    I am of the general opinion that most of the Pentateuch is Mosaic but that Mosaic material along with a pre-monarchial gloss (the Hebrew language in Egypt was likely different in use and appearance than in Canaan 400 years later) were re-compiled into the present 5 books.

    • MSH says:

      The psychology is the same (and normal). Any genre or corpus can use the third person for self reference occasionally, but an account of events in which one participated naturally (in human psychology and consciousness) lends itself to the first person. Please give us an example (ancient or modern) of first person accounting where the first person is used one-seventh the number of times that the third person is used.

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