Who wrote the Torah?

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Abraham Joshua Heschel writes – The essence of our faith in the sanctity of the Bible is that its words contain that which God wants us to know and to fulfill. How these words were written down is not the fundamental problem. This is why the theme of Biblical criticism is not the theme of faith, just as the question of whether the lightning and thunder at Sinai were a natural phenomenon or not is irrelevant to our faith in revelation


What the Torah says about itself?

The Torah itself never claims that it was written by Moses. Consider what JTS theology professor Rabbi Neil Gillman points out:

“In fact the Torah itself never claims that God spoke all of the words of the Torah to the Jewish people. There is no record in the Torah itself, that God spoke the Book of Genesis to Israel as a whole. True, God speaks within the narrative to Adam and Eve, to Cain, to Noah, later to Abraham, Isaac and to Jacob, and in the first chapters of the Book of Exodus to Moses. Throughout this material, God is portrayed as a character within the story who speaks to other characters within the story, but the story itself as a whole is never acknowledged to have been narrated by God. In fact, the first reference we have to God instructing the Israelite people as a whole is at the beginning of Exodus 12, the chapter in which God instructs Moses to tell the people to bring the Passover sacrifice in preparation for their exodus from Egypt.

So despite [the] claim that all of the words of the Torah…were dictated by God to Israel, the Torah itself makes no such claim. Further on the issue of Moses’ writing down of the Torah, there are only four references in the Humash to Moses writing anything:

• Exodus 24:4 probably refers to the law code in Exodus 20 to 23, the code explicitly associated with the Sinai Revelation.
• Exodus 34:28 refers only to the Ten Commandments.
• Deuteronomy 31:9 refers possibly to the entire book of Deuteronomy or more likely to part of it.
• Deuteronomy 31:22 clearly refers to the song that Moses sang before his death which is recorded in Deuteronomy 32.

If we confine ourselves to the text of the Humash itself then most of the writing down of this text remains unaccounted fo
Thus, it is not until we get to the time of the Mishna, some 1,400 years after the time of Moses, that it became accepted by most Jews that God dictated the entire Torah to Moses. Even at this stage, there was no insistence that every word of the present text was written by Moses himself. It took many more years for this orthodox view to replace most other viewpoints.

What is the Orthodox Jewish view of the Torah’s origin?

Orthodox Jews affirm that God revealed his will to Moses at Mt. Sinai in a verbal fashion. This dictation is said to have been exactly transcribed by Moses; the Torah was then exactly copied by scribes, from one generation to the next.

Based on the Talmud (Gittin 60a) some Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah may have been given piece-by-piece, over the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert. Others hold that the document In either case, the Torah is considered a direct quote from God, and all during the lifetime of Moses.



Is Orthodoxy absolutely traditional?

No. When one looks at all of the classical rabbinic works –  the Mishnah, Midrash and two Talmuds – one finds that there are many exceptions to this orthodox belief. Today these points are usually discussed only within parts of Modern Orthodoxy. Haredi Orthodoxy often censors this material, withholding it from all but the most advanced students, if any.

The Talmud [Shabbat 115b] states that a peculiar section in Numbers 10:35-36, surrounded by inverted nuns, in fact is a separate book.  On this verse Midrash Mishle states that “These two verses stem from an independent book which existed, but was suppressed!”  Another, possibly earlier, midrash [Ta’ame Haserot Viyterot] states that this section of the Torah actually comes from the book of prophecy of Eldad and Medad.

– “Torah MinHaShamayim” HC, [Hebrew] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Volume 2, p.420-424, Soncino, NY, 1962; “The Inverted Nuns at Numbers 10:35-36 and the Books of Eldad and Medad” Sid Z. Leiman, JBL Vol.93 1974, p.348-355;  “Critical Note: More on the Inverted Nuns of Num 10:35” Baruch A. Levine, JBL Vol.(95), p.122-124

– See volume 19 of Menahem Kasher’s “Torah Shelema” (p.328-379), and “Peirushei HaTorah LeRabbi Yehudah HeHasid” (Jerusalem 1975). Because of this and similar midrashim, this work was censored by Rabbi Moses Feinstein – and he recommended that the originals be burnt as heretical! (Igrot Moshe, Vol. 4, NY, 1981).

(D) Deuteronomy is quite different in many ways from the previous four books. Commenting on this, the Talmud says that the other four books of the Torah were dictated by God, but Deuteronomy was written by Moses in his own words (Talmud Bavli, Megillah 31b). Some rabbis have noted that some other parts of the Torah may also have been composed this way as well.
– Jacob ben Asher, Ba’al Haturim to Lev. 1:1; Hayyim ibn Atar, Or Hahayyim to Num 3:2; Menahem Kasher, “Torah Shelemah” to Num 33:2


Rabbi Judah ben Ilai held that the final verses of the Torah must have been written by Joshua. See these sections of the Babylonian Talmud – Bava Batra 15a, Menachot 30a, and also see Midrash Sifrei 357.

Medieval era rabbis note non-Mosaic parts of the Torah

After the Talmudic era, later rabbinic commentators noted that the entire text of the Torah could not have been from Moses, in three different ways:

, the Midrash still retains evidence of the redactional period during which Ezra redacted and canonized the text of the Torah as we know it today. A rabbinic tradition states that at this time (440 B.C.E.) the text of the Torah was edited by Ezra, and there were ten places in the Torah where he was uncertain as to how to fix the text; these passages were marked them with special punctuation marks called the eser nekudot. For discussion of this see either of the books by David Weiss-Halivni in the references section. Also see Piskei Tosafot (on Menachot, no.231); and midrash Bamidbar Rabah III, 13.

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as the Netziv, discusses this in his “Emek haNetziv” in his comments on Beha’alotekha, p.219. For the more contrary Orthodox view, see Moshe Feinstein, who condemned these midrashim as heretical. (Iggeret Moshe, YD 3:114-115).

* Over the millennia many hundreds of scribal errors have crept into the text of the Torah. The Masoretes were a set of Jewish scholars who worked mainly from the 7th to 10th centuries CE. They compared all extant variations and attempted to create a definitive text.

The Idea of the Sanctity of the Biblical Text and the Science of Textual Criticism

* There are a number of places in the Torah where gaps are seen – part of the story in these places has been edited out.
Alfred J. Kolatch’s “This is the Torah”, Jonathan David, p.211-248

Abraham Ibn Ezra noted that there were several places in the Torah which could not have been written in Moses’s lifetime. See his comments on Genesis 12:6, 22;14, Deut 1:2, 3:11 and 34:1,6.

Ibn Ezra’s comments were elucidated  by Rabbi Joseph Bonfils supercommentary on Ibn Ezra’s work.

:Moses could not possibly have employed the word ‘then’ (‘az), for reason demands that the word would have been written at a time when the Canaanite was no longer in the land, and we know that the Canaanite departed only after the death of Moses when Joshua conquered it. Consequently, it would appear that Moses did not write this word here, but only Joshua or one of the other prophets wrote it…. Now since we have to believe in the words of tradition and in the words of prophecy, what difference does it make whether Moses or some other prophet wrote it since the words of all of them are truth and were received by prophecy?
– Tsafenat Paneah (צָפְנַת פַּעְנֵחַ )

–  “Torah Min HaShamayim” [The Theology of Ancient Judaism], Hebrew, Abraham Joshua Heschel  (London: Soncino, 1965), p. 381-412; “Torah Shelema” [Hebrew] Vol. 19, Menahem Kasher (Jerusalem: Machon Torah Shelemah), p. 328-379.

In the twelfth century, the commentator R. Joseph ben Isaac, the Bekhor Shor, noted that a number of wilderness narratives in Exodus and Numbers duplicate each other, in particular, the incidents of water from the rock, and the stories about manna and the quail. He deduced from this that both of these incidents actually happened once, but that parallel traditions about these events eventually developed, both of which made their way into the Torah. In his words “The two are one!”. (6)

In the 13th century, R. Hezekiah ben Manoah (known as the Hizkuni) noticed the same textual anomalies that Ibn Ezra noted; thus R. Hezekiah’s commentary on Genesis 12:6 notes that this section “is written from the perspective of the future!”, i.e. not from the ancient time of Moses.

In the 15th century, Rabbi Yosef Bonfils explicitly discussed the comments of Ibn Ezra, noting: “Thus it would seem that Moses did not write this word here, but Joshua or some other prophet wrote it. Since we believe in the prophetic tradition, what possible difference can it make whether Moses wrote this or some other prophet did, since the words of all of them are true and prophetic?”

As such, some later rabbinic authorities allow for the possibility that these sections of the Torah were written by Joshua or perhaps some later prophet. This view is strongly challenged by right-wing Orthodox authorities, who maintain that anyone who accepts this belief is a heretic. (2)

For more information on these issues from an Orthodox perspective, see “Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations” edited by Shalom Carmy (Jason Aronson, Inc.) and “Handbook of Jewish Thought – Volume I” by Aryeh Kaplan (Moznaim Pub.)

Why did some Jews question the Mosaic authorship of the Torah?

Throughout history, people have been troubled by the presence of the doublets and triplets that abound in the Torah. Doublets and triplets are stories that are told twice (or thrice), with different points of view. Famous doublets include Genesis’ creation accounts; the stories of the covenant between God and Abraham; the naming of Isaac; the stories in which Abraham claims to a King that his wife is really his sister; two stories of the revelation to Jacob at Bet-El. A famed triplet are the three versions of how Be’ersheba got its name.

Further, there are many places in the text of the Torah that directly indicate that it wasn’t written all at once by Moses. Some examples include:

Genesis 11:31 describes Abraham as living in the city Ur, and identifies that location with the Chaldeans. But the Chaldeans did not exist as a tribe at the time of Abraham; they rose to power much later, in the 1st millennium B.C.E.

Deuteronomy 34 describes the death of Moses. It is difficult to attribute the description of a funeral to the deceased.

One passage in Genesis 33 has Jacob legally purchasing Shechem for the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Genesis 34 has Jacob’s sons killing all of the men of Shechem by a trick.

The first part of the story in Numbers 25 about the rebellion at Peor referred to Moabite women; the second part said they were Midianites.

Moses is described as going to the Tabernacle in a passage where the Tabernacle had not yet been built.

A list of Edomite kings included some monarchs who were in power after Moses’ death

Some locations are identified by names that were invented long after the death of Moses. One example is seen in Genesis 14:14; it refers to the city of Dan. That name did not exist until a long time after Moses’ death.

There are many verses in the Torah that state that something has lasted “to this day”. That appears to have been written by a writer who composed the passages at a much later date.

Numbers 12:3 states “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth.” (NKJ) If Moses were that humble, it is unlikely that he would have described himself in these terms.

Deuteronomy 34:10 states “There has never been another prophet like Moses…” (NLT) This was obviously written long after Moses’ death.

The documentary hypothesis (early form, Julius Wellhausen)

What is the documentary theory?

“Starting with Spinoza in the 17th cent, and flourishing with German scholarship in the mid-19th century, analysis grew to the point where, as E. Speiser says in his introduction to the Anchor Bible Genesis, “the conclusion which virtually all modern scholars are willing to accept, is that the Pentateuch was in reality a composite work, the product of many hands and periods.” As with any theory, its acceptance rests on its ability to explain various problems and discrepancies in the text. Although today many points remain in dispute within this school of thought, those disputes are about which source is responsible for a given passage and what were the influences on that source, and are not about whether or not there were different sources or what were the principal characteristics and concerns of each source. As a gross over-simplification of that perspective, analysis of the Torah reveals four separate strands or sources, each with its own vocabulary, its own approach and concerns.” These four sources are known as J, E, P and D. (7)

How was this determined? First, it was noted that the Torah used different names for God. From this one can easily unwind much of the Torah into basic sources. That by itself is not considered proof of anything. However, it turns out that each of these sources tells an entirely separate and self-sufficient sets of stories.

Further, it is what was discovered after this was done that was so shocking: Once the sources were separated, historians were amazed to find that each one of them exactly aligned with a specific set of political and theological views, all contrasting sharply with each other. All of the ‘E’ writings make perfect sense from the viewpoint of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. All of the ‘J’ writings make perfect sense from the viewpoint of people on the southern kingdom, Judea. The ‘P’ sources clearly emerge as being the point of view of the priestly administration in biblical Israel, etc. This is explained in detail in Richard Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible”.

Why would the Torah’s redactor not hide the sources?

Orthodox Jews and similarly minded Christians question the role of the redactor. Why, they ask, would a redactor leave any trace of the sources? They assume that a redactor must have wished to erase all traces of the sources. Since this clearly is not so, they conclude that either the redactor must have been incompetent, or that there was no redactor (i.e. that God dictated every word of the Torah to Moses). However, these are false assumptions; there is simply no need to assume them. At the time that the Torah was redacted, people knew that there were multiple sources, so hiding this would be impossible. Further, there was no reason to do this – at that time people did not believe that Moses wrote every word of the Torah. In other words, fundamentalist Jews and Christians make the mistake of projecting later views backwards on the Israelites of 2,400 years ago. This is a historical anachronism.

From the standpoint of the ancient Israelites, it was important to retain their sacred literature. The Torah’s final redaction was never a project to erase any trace of its original literary sources. The redactor was simply a way to unify the religious and cultural heritage of the Jewish people

Note that the documentary hypothesis is not one specific theory. This name is given to any understanding of the origin of the Torah that recognizes that there are basically four distinct sources that were somehow redacted together into a final version. One could claim that one redactor wove together four specific texts, or one could hold that entire nation of Israel slowly created a consensus work based on various strands of the Israelite tradition, or anything in between. Gerald A. Larue writes “Back of each of the four sources lie traditions that may have been both oral and written. Some may have been preserved in the songs, ballads, and folktales of different tribal groups, some in written form in sanctuaries. The so-called ‘documents’ should not be considered as mutually exclusive writings, completely independent of one another, but rather as a continual stream of literature representing a pattern of progressive interpretation of traditions and history.” (8)

In fact, one can say that the beginning of higher criticism of Jewish religious texts began as far back as the Talmudic era. Consider that “starting from the simple question of how to reconcile inconsistencies in the text, and refusing to accept forced explanations to harmonize them, scholars eventually arrived at the theory that the Torah was composed of selections woven together from several, at times inconsistent, sources dealing with the same and related subjects. The reasoning followed in this kind of analysis is somewhat similar to that of the Talmudic sages and later rabbis who held that inconsistent clauses and terminology in a single paragraph of the Mishna must have originated with different sages, and who recognized that Moses could not have written passages of the Torah that contain information unavailable to him, such as the last chapter of Deuteronomy, which describes his death and its aftermath.” (9)



The documentary hypothesis (later versions)


Who Wrote the Bible - Richard Elliott Friedman

Jewish theological responses to the documentary hypothesis (Orthodox and non-Orthodox)

Does Occam’s razor favor the documentary theory?

Many Jews deny that this is a question that can be addressed as an historical issue; rather, this is presented as a religious faith question that transcends history. Thus by definition it can not be disputed by logic, science, linguistics or any other human discipline. Therefore, they hold, Occam’s Razor cannot be used to test it.

Occam’s Razor, also called the law of economy, is a principle of logic first popularized in the works of William of Ockham (1285-1347). In its simplest form, it states that “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” The more common form used by historians and scientists is that when you have two competing theories, which make exactly the same predictions, the one that is simpler is the better. One uses the simplest explanation to explain the available facts. Note that religious claims do not count as facts; they are only beliefs.

On Soc.Culture.Jewish, Jacob Love wrote:
“For example, compare the volume of scientific constructs, principles, etc which are necessary to understand a question such as ‘Why is the sky blue?’ with the possible religious response of ‘God made it that way.’ Some religion might want to state that originally the sky was tutri-frutti, but on the fifteenth day of creation, the goddess changed her mind and made it blue. There is no way to use Occam’s Razor to diprove this and any exercize of attemting to falls under the Kohelet’s description of ‘chasing after wind.'”

In contrast, other Orthodox Jews do not rely on this form of reasoning. Instead, they believe that it is a historical truth that Moses wrote the entire Torah, and thus believe that an unbiased historical analysis will reach this conclusion. However, once they make this claim, their arguments are then subject to Occam’s Razor and all the modern tools of historical scholarship.

Occam’s razors strongly favors the documentary hypothesis as the correct explanation for how the Torah came to be: We simply admit that the current text of the Torah was redacted together from a small number of earlier sources. Simply by realizing this, we explain the existence of every single one of the errors, contraditions, and inconsistencies that exist within the Torah. This is, by far, a much simpler explanation than the Talmudic and medievel approach, which created hundreds of ad-hoc explanantions for the Torah’s inconistencies and contradictions. In fact, sometimes two or three such explanations were created for each problematic verse, and these explanation themselves often contradict each other.

We need to ask ourselves, which is the more reasonable choice? (A) To accept that the Torah is a composite, or (B) to make a list of hundreds of ex-post facto rationalizations, many of which are self-contradictory, and none of which have archaoelogical evidence?

Biblical scholars, academics, non-Orthodox Jews, and an increasing number within Modern Orthodoxy all agree firmly on the former.

Recommended books

Who Wrote the Bible?

The Bible With Sources Revealed, Richard Elliott Friedman

External links

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