Did Moses Write Deuteronomy?
Traditionally, authorship of Deuteronomy has been ascribed to Moses. While it has long been clear to me that Moses could not have written the last two chapters, I never had reason to seriously question Mosaic authorship of the other 32 chapters until recently. I read a number of arguments against the traditional view in Peter Enns’ article, “When was Genesis Written and Why Does it Matter?: A Brief Historical Analysis.” Enns notes that:
- The book does not claim to be written by Moses;
- Deuteronomy 1:1 says “these are the words Moses spoke on the other side of the Jordan.” (cf. Deut 1:5) Such a comment presumes that the narrator is writing from the perspective of the land of Canaan—a place Moses never stepped foot on (Numbers 20:12; Deuteronomy 32:48-52). At the very least this would seem to indicate at least part of the first chapter was not written by Moses, and perhaps more;
- The book gives a third-person account of Moses’ words and deeds, as opposed to a first-person account as we might expect if Moses was the author (e.g. 1:5; 4:41,44; 5:1; 31:9). (I should point out, however, that this is also true of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. If this calls into question Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy, it would equally call into question Mosaic authorship of the other books. Clearly, it is not impossible that Moses purposely wrote from a third-person perspective.)
Enns also cites the observation of a 12th century Jewish rabbi, Abraham Ibn Ezra:
- Deuteronomy 3:11 describes the nine foot long bed of Og, king of Bashan, as “still in Ramah.” Not only does this indicate that a considerable amount of time had passed, but it also speaks of the bed as if it were a relic in the author’s day.
There are at least five major ways to account for this data:
- The first is to maintain that despite evidence to the contrary, Moses was the sole author of the whole of Deuteronomy.
- The second is to maintain that Moses was the author of the book, but a later redactor-editor added an introduction, the last two chapters, and perhaps other editorial comments throughout the text as well (such as 3:11).
- The third is to maintain that while Moses’ extant writings (Dt 31:9, 24-26) served as the source documents from which much of the Deuteronomy’s content is derived, someone who lived long after Moses weaved and edited those documents together into the larger narrative we know today as Deuteronomy. On this view there are two authors of Deuteronomy: Moses, who provided the source documents, and an anonymous author, who edited the documents together into a larger narrative long after the events transpired.
- The fourth is similar to the second, but thinks two authors and an editor are responsible for the final form of Deuteronomy: (a) Moses who provided the source documents, (b) an author and contemporary of Moses who edited the documents together into a larger narrative, (c) and a later editor who inserted editorial comments throughout the book long after the events transpired (which would explain the editorial comments suggesting a long lapse in time between the recorded events and the narrator’s present day).
- The fifth is to affirm Moses had no part in the composition of Deuteronomy.
In the way of assessment, I think the first approach can be safely ruled out.
The second approach is fruitful. One reservation I have about this approach is that there does not seem to be any clear literary or grammatical indicators that would tell us where the redactor’s introduction ends and Moses’ own writing begins. Clearly the editor is still speaking in 1:5, which begins a lengthy speech by Moses that does not end until 4:40. Did the redactor add this entire sermon to Moses’ original version of Deuteronomy? If so, then are we to think that Moses’ original Pentateuch began with, “Then Moses set apart three cities in the east beyond the Jordan” (Deuteronomy 4:41)? That seems an unlikely way for Moses to begin Deuteronomy. Perhaps the editor replaced Moses’ original introduction with his own. Or perhaps Moses’ version began with the extended sermon in Deuteronomy 1:6, and the redactor simply wished to provide an historical context for the speech. I think we need to ask ourselves, if the introduction was clearly written by someone other than Moses, and if there are no internal clues to suggest a change in narrator, why think there is a change in narrators?
The third and fourth approaches are able to account for all the data without denying Mosaic authorship (although his authorship would be understood to be indirect, rather than direct).
The fifth approach also accounts for the data, but has the disadvantage of completely disavowing the tradition of Mosaic authorship.
I have not come down firmly in any particular camp, but I think approaches 2-4 are the best candidates.
At this point I have to ask myself what practical impacts options three and four (or even five) might have for Bibliology. Would affirming indirect Mosaic authorship (or a complete denial of Mosaic authorship) raise serious hermeneutical or theological concerns? Would it entail a denial of inerrancy?
The surest way to test the latter is to examine references and quotations of Deuteronomy by other authors of Scripture. If Moses is specifically identified as the author (as opposed to its source) of the quote or the book in which it is found, then denying Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy may entail a rejection of inerrancy (I say “may” because it was a common scribal practice to associate a piece of literature with its most famous contributor, even if he was not the only contributor or personally responsible for composing his material into its final form, and thus we cannot presume that just because an inspired writer quotes from Deuteronomy and ascribes it to Moses, that he necessarily thinks—or expects the readers to think—that Moses authored those words). To find out, I examined every reference to Moses outside of the Pentateuch. Here is what I found:
In the book of Joshua, the narrator recalls the command to build an altar with whole stones “as it is written in the book of the law of Moses.” (Joshua 8:31) This command is found only in Deuteronomy 27:6, and thus one might be inclined to think this affirms Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy. While this could be understood to mean Moses authored the book, it could also be understood to mean Deuteronomy contains the laws delivered by Moses to the children of Israel. In other words, it may just be an affirmation that Moses is the source of the laws in Deuteronomy, but not necessarily the author of the book. The distinction between Moses as source and Moses as author is vitally important.
The narrator of Nehemiah tells us that Nehemiah “read from the Book of Moses” that “no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God.” (Nehemiah 13:1) That command appears in Deuteronomy 23:3, and thus Deuteronomy is being identified as the “book of Moses.” Does this prove direct Mosaic authorship? Not necessarily. It may have been called the Book of Moses because it contains the laws Moses delivered to Israel, because Moses is the central character, or because it was understood that Moses’ writings provided the primary source documentation for the book.
Turning to the New Testament, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” (Matthew 19:7), referring to Deuteronomy 24:1. Jesus responded, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way” (Matthew 19:8). It would be easy to reason that since this law appears exclusively in the book of Deuteronomy, and since both Jesus and the disciples attached Moses’ name with the law, that both were explicitly affirming direct Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy. This would be too simplistic of a reading of the text, however. What Jesus and the disciples attributed to Moses was the law allowing for divorce, not the text in Deuteronomy per se (the issuance of the law predated the book of Deuteronomy, regardless of who we identify the author to be). Moses truly did command that a certificate of dismissal could be given to a woman by her husband just as the disciples and Jesus say, but that does not necessarily mean he is the one who committed that law to writing in the book of Deuteronomy. While there is no question that Moses is being identified as the source of the law, it is not clear that he is being identified as the author of the book containing a written record of that law.
In Mark 12:19 we read of the Sadducees’ discussion with Jesus regarding the resurrection. They began, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us: ‘If a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, that man must marry the widow and father children for his brother,’” quoting Deuteronomy 25:5. If we are to believe the Sadducees, this is a clear affirmation of Mosaic authorship. This would rule out the fifth approach, but not necessarily the third and fourth. If the author of Deuteronomy quoted extensively from Moses’ own writings, it would be entirely appropriate to say Moses wrote these words even though he was not responsible for the final composition of Deuteronomy itself.
Of course, it is entirely possible that the Sadducees were simply mistaken in their authorial attribution. Perhaps they thought Moses was the author when in fact he was not. Inerrancy does not require that every claim Scripture records be a factually accurate claim (consider the many false statements of Job’s friends, and the lies of Satan recorded in Scripture). The only claims that inerrancy requires us to understand as factually accurate are those made by God, Jesus, or the authors of inspired Scripture.
In Luke 24:27,44 Luke writes, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures. … Then he [Jesus] said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’” These references to Moses are similar to those found in Luke 16. Jesus did not say those things were written in the law by Moses, but rather that they were written in the law of Moses. Once again, a distinction needs to be made between source and author. Identifying the law as being “Moses’” does not necessarily mean he authored the canonical books which contain his law. Jesus may not be describing anything more than the origin of the law itself.
As for Luke’s claim that Jesus began “with Moses” (meaning the Pentateuch), this does not necessarily establish Mosaic authorship either. The figure of Moses dominates the pages of the Pentateuch, and thus Moses would naturally come to represent that entire corpus of the OT canon, just as the generic “prophets” came to designate the entire corpus of prophetic texts in the OT canon. Nothing that Luke wrote or Jesus said demands direct Mosaic authorship of any book in the Pentateuch, yet alone the book of Deuteronomy. If the author of Deuteronomy used Moses’ writings as source documents for composing the book, however, it would be perfectly understandable for the book to be identified with Moses.
In John 5:46 Jesus said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me.” This is a rather clear affirmation that Moses wrote material that appears in the OT canon. What is not clarified by Jesus’ statement is the number and identify of the books Moses wrote, or the extent of his contribution to the form in which they appeared. While this verse presents a death-blow to the view that Moses did not write any books of the Pentateuch, it does not demand that one affirm he wrote all of them.
In Acts 3:22-23 Peter is quoted as saying, “Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must obey him in everything he tells you. Every person who does not obey that prophet will be destroyed and thus removed from the people.’” Peter was quoting Deuteronomy 18:15,19, and thus it may seem as if he was affirming Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy. But this assumes that Peter is referring to the written source as opposed to recounting the actual event itself. Notice Peter’s choice of words. He did not say “Moses wrote,” but “Moses said.” This does not prove that Peter was referring to the event rather than the text since Biblical authors commonly quoted the OT by saying, “As such-and-such said…,” but if Peter was referring to the actual event itself, then this is precisely what we would expect for Peter to say. And I think it is entirely reasonable to believe that Peter was referring to the event rather than the text. Consider a modern parallel. Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream….” Many individuals have since committed his famous speech to writing. Does it follow that since his words were committed to writing, every modern recounting of “I have a dream” is appealing to the written source? No. Indeed, I would argue that when most people say, “Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream’,” they have the actual event in mind, not any one of the written sources that record King’s speech. And so it may be with Peter.
Perhaps Peter did have the text in mind. If so, would this prove that Peter believed Moses wrote Deuteronomy? No. Consider, for example, how we might speak of Socrates. None of Socrates’ writings have been preserved, but his student, Plato, recorded some of Socrates’ teachings within his own works. Let’s say I were to quote something Socrates said as recorded by Plato. I would likely begin, “As Socrates said, ‘….’” Should such a statement be interpreted to mean that I believe Socrates wrote the book in which the quote appears on the basis that I am specifically appealing to the written source (as opposed to the event) and attributing the statement to Socrates? Clearly not! Just as my statement should not be taken to mean I believe Socrates wrote the book from which I am quoting him, neither should we presume that Peter’s statement indicates that Peter believed Moses wrote Deuteronomy.
Probably the most difficult passage to reconcile with approaches 3-5 is Romans 10:19. Paul writes, “First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous by those who are not a nation; with a senseless nation I will provoke you to anger,’” quoting Deuteronomy 32:21. While Deuteronomy 31:21 appears in the midst of a song of Moses, Moses is quoting YHWH. Why would Paul attribute this to Moses, then? Surely he knew this phrase came from the mouth of YHWH rather than the mouth of Moses. The only reason I can see for doing so is that Paul intended to identify the author of the book in which the quote appears. If so, then Paul is identifying Moses as the author of Deuteronomy (or at least this portion of it, and hence it is clear that Moses’ writings contributed to the final form of the book in some measure, whether great or small).
1 Corinthians 9:9
In 1 Corinthians 9:9 Paul writes, “For it is written in the law of Moses, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’” quoting from Deuteronomy 25:4. Once again, it is important to note that Paul does not say it is written in the law by Moses, but in the law of Moses. As such, this need not affirm anything more than the source of the law in question. Nothing is necessarily being affirmed about the book in which Moses’ law is recorded.
I conclude that the first and fifth options do not fit the Biblical data. Clearly Moses was involved in the composition of Deuteronomy, whether his involvement was great or small, direct or indirect. The following possibilities remain:
- Moses wrote Deuteronomy 1.0, and a later editor make minor additions and tweaks to produce Deuteronomy 1.1 (direct Mosaic authorship; content almost exclusively that of Moses; Moses heavily involved in the composition)
- Moses left behind numerous, disjointed records of historical events and divinely-revealed laws (proto-Deuteronomy) which a later author wove together to form a meaningful, coherent narrative (Deuteronomy 1.0 – indirect Mosaic authorship; content almost exclusively that of Moses; Moses barely involved in the composition)
- Moses left behind numerous, disjointed records of historical events and divinely-revealed laws (proto-Deuteronomy) which a later author wove together to form a coherent narrative (Deuteronomy 1.0), to which a later editor made minor additions and tweaks (Deuteronomy 1.1 – indirect Mosaic authorship; content almost exclusively that of Moses; Moses barely involved in the composition)
- Moses left behind numerous, disjointed records of historical events and divinely-revealed laws (proto-Deuteronomy) which a later author wove together—along with his own material—into a coherent narrative (Deuteronomy 1.0), to which a later editor made minor additions and tweaks (Deuteronomy 1.1 –indirect Mosaic authorship; substantially less Mosaic content; Moses barely involved in the composition)
See also Evidence for post-Mosaic additions to Genesis
1. It is clear that Moses did not author these chapters since they speak of what Moses did “before his death” (33:1), provide details of his death and burial (34:5-7), and provide details of what happened following his death (34:8-9). In fact, it is clear that these chapters were not written until a considerable amount of time following Moses’ death. When speaking of Moses’ burial location, Deuteronomy 34:6 notes that “no one knows his exact burial place to this very day.” Only if the author was separated from the time of Moses by a considerable amount of time would such a statement make sense. The author goes on to say, “Since then, no prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses” (34:10). Again, only if a considerable amount of time had passed since Moses’ death would such a temporal survey make sense. The author would be required to observe and compare a number of different leaders who succeeded Moses before drawing the conclusion that none compared to Moses. As Enns notes, to claim Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy 34 would require that we says “Moses wrote about his future death in the third person and past tense, and also anticipated that his gravesite would become unknown—which strains credulity.”
2. This is not evidence against Mosaic authorship per se (after all, every book of the Pentateuch is anonymous). Its importance lies in the fact that one is not committed by the text to affirming Mosaic authorship. Mosaic authorship could be questioned or even denied without having to conclude that the book is pseudopigraphal.
3. The same could be said of 2 Kings 14:6 and 2 Chronicles 25:4 (parallel account) which also speak of “the book of the law of Moses,” referencing Deuteronomy 24:16.
4. In Mark 12:26 Jesus quotes a passage from the book of Exodus, also calling it “the book of Moses.”
5. Paul does the same thing in Romans 10:20. He writes, “Then Isaiah is so bold to say,” before going on to quote something uttered by YHWH. Paul attributes the quote to Isaiah, not because Isaiah uttered the words, but because those words are found in the book written by Isaiah.
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