Moses and the Law of Moses in the New Testament

Posted By on March 20, 2012

In this final post on the issue of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, I want to examine a couple items in the New Testament. As noted before, my position is that “law of Moses” is an appropriate designation for the Torah/Pentateuch despite sound evidence that Moses did not write all or even most of it (see here). This position is akin to the phrase “Psalm of David” (le-dawid) very obviously meaning “Psalm about David” or “Psalm for David” in light of the contents of certain psalms that bear that attribution. The Hebrew syntax allows for this interpretive flexibility (in both cases).

In this post I want to take a look at the New Testament. I have no problem with Jesus or anyone else associating the Torah or parts of the Torah with Moses in light of the above. But I have a question: Does Jesus or anyone else ever specifically quote anything in Genesis and attribute it to Moses? I raise this because in my earlier (and admittedly unsystematic) description of where I’m at on all this in light of the biblical data, I suggested that it was possible that none of Genesis came from Moses’ hand. Instead, Genesis seems best understood as the result of activity during the exile (Gen 1-11) and oral traditions about the patriarchs later codified at a time after Moses was dead.1 Obviously, Moses lived after the events of Genesis, so there’s no necessary expectation that he’d be the writer of that book, but the phrase “law of Moses” includes it, however that phrase is understood. There’s just no specific indication in any other part of the Pentateuch that he wrote anything in Genesis.

So how about the New Testament in that regard? After all, the name “Moses” does appear 80 times in the New Testament. Any clear indicators that Moses wrote something in Genesis?

Not really — at least nothing without uncertainty.

Although many assume it, in the confrontation with the Pharisees over divorce (Matt 5, 19; Mark 10) Jesus does not mention actually Moses in connection with Genesis. He asks what Moses commanded, and the answer (the “bill of divorce”; e.g., Matt 19:7-8) comes from Deut 24. Jesus then talks about the first man and woman, but never actually says that Moses wrote it.

I think the best possible candidate for attributing something in the Torah to Moses directly is this exchange in John 7:21-23 21:

Jesus answered them, ďI did one work, and you all marvel at it. 22 Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. 23 If on the Sabbath a man receives circumcision, so that the law of Moses may not be broken, are you angry with me because on the Sabbath I made a manís whole body well?

The wording is odd. At first, the institution of circumcision (Gen 17) is said to be “from Moses” (v. 22). But then Jesus clarifies (?) that circumcision was not “from Moses,” but “from the fathers” (a very literal rendering, I might add; v. 22). I have yet to find a commentator that explains this language well, or that even considers that the comment might be an allusion to the kind of oral tradition that I and other OT scholars believe is behind the patriarchal narratives. If John was talking about some extraneous rule about circumcision *in verse 22*, he certainly could have made his language much clearer. But verse 23 actually makes it clear Jesus is not talking about a Pharisaical addition to the law, since his point is that one must still obey the law of circumcision (to circumcise the baby on the eight day) even if that happens to be the Sabbath. So how is it that this law is from Moses but not from Moses, being “from the fathers”?

I think my take on Genesis as oral tradition works quite well here, but a view that insists on Moses writing every word has a problem. And this is (surprise) the only passage in the New Testament that gets even close to having Moses responsible for something in Genesis. And lest I be misunderstood, I am not saying that all this means that first century Jews would have denied complete Mosaic authorship. It was their tradition. But that doesn’t mean it is factually coherent. But I doubt they would have cared in any event, as a clear association of the Torah with Moses was something everyone would have affirmed whether Moses wrote every word or not.

Lastly, I think this issue is a good example of where ancient apathy toward pseudonymity provides some helpful context. Recall that back in February I posted about this issue — the fact that many books in the ancient world are named after people who didn’t write them, even though (in many cases) they are written as though the named person was the author. People in ancient times were accustomed to this practice — designed at least in part to garner readership. They didn’t have our modern sensitivities in regard to things like copyright or correctness in citation. The practice wouldn’t have been viewed as an issue of honesty since it was familiar. Most readers would have known better than to think 1 Enoch was written by Enoch, for example, being content to know it was an ancient work about Enoch though it contained material that cast it as the product of Enoch. That was good writing back then; the “incongruity” didn’t dissuade people from taking such a work seriously.

What’s my point? That “law of Moses” would not necessarily have been reflexively understood as “Moses wrote every word” in this cultural context. Modern people immediately take the phrase in only one way, but that is unnecessary.

  1. Readers of course know that I view this in the context of a process of inspiration, the unseen hand of Providence working through very human authors and editors to produce the intended result. I do not view inspiration as a series of paranormal events.

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6 Responses to “Moses and the Law of Moses in the New Testament”

  1. Eva says:

    Hi Mike, thank you for your posts, they are very interesting and helpful.
    I would like to ask you for your opinion on the P.J. Wisemanís hypothesis that Genesis was compiled by Moses from the sources/ancient patriarchal records available to him at the time of exodus. Here are the links to Wikipedia article on Wiseman and Wisemanís book in PDF:
    http://www.biblemaths.com/pdf_wiseman.pdf
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiseman_hypothesis#Donald_Wiseman
    Thank you.

    • MSH says:

      what sources? what patriarchal records? I love Wiseman, but he knows these don’t exist. I think what he means is akin to what I mean — a body of oral tradition transmitted through the patriarchs that someone later codified and woven into what we know as the Torah (but don’t know precisely who – and it Moses, see my earlier posts about the 7:1 ratio of 3rd person language throughout the Pentateuch).

      • Eva says:

        I know that no patriarchal records exist as well as any J, E, D or P sources or records donít exist. It seems to me that JEDP sources are just assumed but widely believed and written about while nobody is talking about Wisemanís theory which does not seem to be much worse.There is no hard proof for any theory. So I just wanted to ask, thank you for your reply and for The Naked Bible posts, I love to read them.

        • MSH says:

          yep, the sources themselves have never been found, but those married to this theory would say they are preserved (in large part) in the Torah.

          Thanks.

  2. Shaun Swanson says:

    This whole series has been very helpful to me. As a lay person coming from the world of apologetics, I’ve heard people do gymnastics to defend a tradition that doesn’t need defending.

    • MSH says:

      Your last line is important — there is no need. Why is it we can’t just rethink the question? Because that takes work.

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