Overview:

Arguments abound as to how Moses could not have written the Torah, but apologetics prefer to argue against a straw man.

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The prevailing consensus among modern scholars of the Bible and Semitic philology (the study of structure and history of languages) is that the Torah—or Pentateuch, if Greek is your cuppa—was largely composed or compiled in its present form during the first millennium BCE. This would place it compiled some centuries after the latest period depicted in it. Yet certain advocates of an orthodox or fundagelical bent cling to the tradition that Moses himself wrote the first five books of the Bible, ca. 1450-1250 BCE. On occasion, some of these apologists resort to a peculiarly persistent textual argument along these lines:

  • Critical scholars argue that Moses could not have written the Torah because there was no adequate writing system then.
  • Alphabetic writing did, in fact, exist during the time period associated with Moses.
  • Therefore, these scholars are wrong.

This thinking suffers from two chief flaws. First, there is zero evidence any practicing researchers who dispute Mosaic authorship believe suitable writing systems were not around during the second millennium BCE. Second, most scholars across the spectrum of belief—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, None, etc.—doubt Mosaic authorship for numerous other reasons that have nothing to do with any supposed absence of an adequate script.

Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet. Chaos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The accusers

Let us look at a few such examples from the apologetics community. Sean McDowell states in this recent clip, “As an apologist, I’ve heard sometimes that there was not even an alphabet during the time of Moses, so he couldn’t have written the first five books of the Bible.”  

Similarly, during the sensationalistic and controversial public announcement of the Mt. Ebal “curse” inscription in March of this year, Scott Stripling of the fundamentalist Associates for Biblical Research triumphantly declared:

Our friends from the other side of the side of the academic aisle have . . . spoken disparagingly of us who believe that the Bible was written at a very early date [mid-2nd millennium BCE], because that was not possible, there was no alphabetic script with which to write it, and clearly this [inscription] flies in the fact of that.

(We’re still waiting on the promised peer-reviewed article about this find, incidentally.) 

And in 2019, the Patterns of Evidence team posted this:

There are many reasons why scholars are skeptical of the Bible’s claim that Moses wrote the Torah, however one reason lies at the beginning of any investigation of this question. A charge brought by some is that not only didn’t Moses write the Torah—he couldn’t have written it. This is because they think there did not yet exist any writing system, or script, at the time of the Exodus that Moses could have used to write what we see in the Bible’s first books.

So on and so forth.

These apologetics have two characteristics in common:

  • A confident, concise summary of the purported argument about the lack of writing during the time of Moses (assuming he existed), and
  • An utter lack of citations to any current books, papers, or other media making or relying on that argument.

The accused

We’re not even given names. Who are these “skeptics,” these “friends” from liberal academia, these “some” scholars? It’s a mystery.

Indeed, I can say with complete honesty that it was vastly easier for me to find apologists imputing this position to skeptical experts than to identify a single practicing researcher who takes it. Joel Baden? No. Josh Bowen? No. Richard Elliott Friedman? No. Ron Hendel? No. Carol Meyers? No. William Propp? No. Francesca Stavrakopoulou? No. John Van Seters? No. No. No. This argument is a non-entity in the relevant professional circles.

And for good reason. No competent scholar of the Ancient Near East denies that we have cuneiform and hieroglyphic/hieratic records pre-dating the time of Moses by at least one or two thousand years. Even alphabetic writing likely emerged in the region by the first half of the second millennium BCE—centuries before the biblical tradition claims the Mosaic Law was committed to stone.

Palermo Stone, a hieroglyphic list of pharaohs, late third millennium BCE. Königlich Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

In short, McDowell, Stripling, et alia, seem to be valiantly declaring victory in a contest in which their opponents are imaginary.

(For a masterful discussion of the apologetic cherry-picking and misinterpretations that may have helped birth this strawman, see The Amateur Exegete’s post, “With Christian Apologists, It’s Never ‘Trust But Verify,’ It’s Only Ever ‘Verify’.”)

Why Mosaic authorship is doubted

So if the existence of writing is not a problem, why does the modern consensus reject the traditional assumption that Moses himself wrote the Torah? The reasons are legion, and would—indeed, do—fill copious books and articles far longer than this article, as many readers here know. But perhaps a few key factors warrant mentioning. (What follows is by no means exhaustive.)

Moreover, it’s impossible to overlook the brute grammatical reality that the Torah refers consistently to Moses in the third person, not the first.

Anachronistic political geography

The Torah’s description of the Ancient Near East aligns far better with the perspective and archaeology of the first millennium BCE than the second. Certain elements of the narrative likely have their roots in events of the Bronze Age Collapse of the late second millennium, but numerous place names, peoples, geographical features, and other data “are most closely associated with the Saite and Persian periods, or about the seventh to fifth centuries BCE.”  (Lester L. Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (2017), p. 97.)

Perhaps most significantly—at least by my reckoning—the books of the Torah (and Joshua) depict pre-conquest Canaan as a land populated and controlled solely by Canaanites, safely beyond Pharoah’s reach, even though this territory was part of New Kingdom Egypt during the centuries usually associated with the Exodus and Conquest. The Bible is conspicuously and comprehensively silent about the Egyptian garrisons, administrative outposts, officials, political and economic influence, monumental structures, and other indicia of Egyptian hegemony in Canaan that a knowledgeable author writing ca. 1450-1150 BCE could not plausibly have missed.

Clues of authorial perspective 

The books of the Torah contain several statements that make little sense coming from Moses. For example, the early story of Abram/Abraham tells us the Canaanites were still then in the land west of the Jordan (Genesis 12:6, 13:7), suggesting a date of composition after the Canaanites were displaced or replaced by the Israelites—in other words, years after the death of Moses. Deuteronomy 1:1 depicts Moses speaking to the Israelites beyond (on the other/east side of) the River Jordan, a word choice indicating the author was writing from the west side, on which we’re told Moses never set foot. Deuteronomy 34 describes the death and interment of Moses, obviously a difficult passage for a deceased man to compose, no matter how well-educated he was at the Egyptian court. 

And so on. Moreover, it’s impossible to overlook the brute grammatical reality that the Torah refers consistently to Moses in the third person, not the first.

Documentary and linguistic evidence 

Our earliest confirmed Old Testament manuscripts are papyrus fragments and scrolls dated to at least a thousand years after the time of Moses, and are written in first-millennium Hebrew with a late first-millennium script. We have zero extant inscriptions, tablets, or papyri of the Torah itself—not even fragmentary—from the second millennium.

Multiple voices 

The Torah is chockablock with repetitions, continuity problems, grammatical markers, motifs, and other compositional clues that point to multiple authors and/or editors. To be sure, experts still debate the number of hands involved, their exact roles, and when they wrote, but the idea that one man named Moses authored the Torah is a waning minority view—arguably now on the academic fringe—that seems to be rooted more in motivated reactionary theology than in sound historical, philological, and textual analysis.

No author asserted in the Torah itself. 

A few passages in the Torah depict Moses writing specific things down, but the “Pentateuch never claims divine or Mosaic authorship.”  The books of the Torah are broadly anonymous on their face. The tradition of Mosaic authorship appears to be an extrinsic phenomenon that likely developed in ancient Hebrew culture during the middle or last half of the first millennium BCE.

Moses with the Tables of the Law, by Guido Reni. Guido Reni, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The ABCs of good-faith debate

Suffice it to say that practicing scholars explore any number of serious archaeological, geographical, historical, literary, paleographical, and philological reasons to think that the Torah as we know it is a comparatively late product of a complicated developmental process. That Moses would have lacked a sufficient writing system in the second millennium is simply not one of these reasons. It is a strawman position imprecisely and inaccurately imputed by some apologists who should know better to the trained and published experts who actually do.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...