The Authorship of the Pentateuch: Multiple or Single Authorship?

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Historical tradition believes that Moses collected, edited, compiled and, wrote the Pentateuch/Torah (the first five books of the Bible) (1). A contemporary advocate of such a view would also point out that there’s biblical New Testament attestation that assigns Pentateuchal authorship to Moses such as in Mark 12:26, Luke 24:27, John 1:45, Romans 10:5, and 2 Corinthians 3:15. It is also believed that Moses would in all likelihood have used sources for his material given that all events within the book of Genesis happened before his birth. For example, Moses may have collected the oral traditions of the family histories of Abraham and his descendants, and put them into a single text. He would have compiled and written Genesis during the Israelite’s exodus wandering period (between 1440 and 1400BC) (2). Thus, given this view, Moses may be viewed as an editor, a historian, as well as a receiver of revelation through God’s direct and supernatural communication. This is a view that persists within conservative evangelical circles today (3) (4).

Those who argue for Mosaic authorship will point to what they consider to be several lines of evidence. For example, some have argued that the unity of composition supports Mosaic authorship. It is argued that the five books of the Pentateuch present a coherent picture of the origins of mankind, mankind’s fall into sin, and the result of that fall (5). The Pentateuch also presents a coherent picture of the birth and development of Israel as a nation in covenant relationship with Yahweh (6). Furthermore, except for Genesis, these books focus on the life and ministry of Moses whom God raised up to lead the sons of Israel out of bondage in Egypt and into that covenant-relationship with himself, and to, but not into, the Promised Land as a fulfillment of his promise to Abraham. The continuing role of Moses as the hero in Exodus through Deuteronomy, and the central focus of Yahweh’s developing covenant–relationship with Israel (in accordance with the promises he made to Abraham) is believed to unify the books of the Pentateuch, suggesting a single author.

Secondly, one will point to the continuity in the narrative structure that exists. This looks at the fact that the main narrative sections of the Pentateuch are concluded by poetic material sometimes followed by an epilogue (7). For example, at the close of the patriarchal narratives are found the blessings of Jacob which are written in poetic form in Genesis 49 and an epilogue in chapter 50. The Exodus narratives are concluded by the song of Moses (Exodus 15) written in poetic form, and the wilderness wanderings are followed by Balaam’s oracles (Num. 23-24) written in poetic form. And at the end of the Pentateuch there is a double poetic section containing Moses’ song of witness and blessing on the twelve tribes (Deut 32-33), followed by an epilogue (Deut. 34) (8). Finally, there is the continuity in grammatical features. The Pentateuch uses only the masculine third person pronoun “he”, whereas in the rest of the Old Testament the books distinguish between the third person pronouns “he” and “she” (9).

However, speaking from my own engagement with Old Testament Studies, for the majority of biblical scholars and experts in the field, this is an unimpressive case. These scholars argue that several features within the Pentateuch suggest with a very high level of certainty that it was the work of more than one author (10) (11) (12). Thus, most scholars will find themselves accepting one of three major hypotheses: the documentary hypothesis, the supplementary hypothesis, or the fragmentary hypothesis. Some scholars, one being Distinguished Professor of Ancient Near East and Bible Studies is John Van Seters, will accept a hybrid of these, however, consensus still holds to the documentary hypothesis; according to Van Seters, “The Documentary Hypothesis is the oldest and most persistent explanation of the literary features of the Pentateuch. It explains the parallels and differences in style and use of the divine names as reflecting independent parallel sources or documents that were interwoven by a succession of editors to produce the final product” (13). All of these hypotheses find common ground in that the Torah is not a unified work from a single author but is made up of sources combined over many centuries by many hands. However, what are the reasons for this?

Firstly, and perhaps most persuasively, there is the obvious diversity in literary style, terminology, and ideological and theological perspective spread throughout the Pentateuch (14). These are often found in larger blocks, sometimes in shorter units, and they often disrupt the narrative flow of the text. Van Seters observes this saying that “one style reflects a special interest in chronology and genealogy construed as a framework into which stories of a very different character have been set. This combination can sometimes create a conflict between the framework and the stories themselves.” Van Seters refers to the story of the expulsion of the slave Hagar and her child Ishmael from the household of Abraham (Gen. 21:7-20), “Ishmael is viewed as quite young. However, according to the chronology of the framework (Gen. 12:4; 16:3; 17:1; 21:5) Ishmael is about sixteen years old. Hence the ridiculous picture of Abraham putting a teenaged youth on his mother’s shoulder as she set out into the desert (Gen. 21:14) and the subsequent scene of the crying child being rescued by God” (15).

The next clue is that the stylistic difference is reflected in various choices for the designation of deity. For example, one narrative prefers to use the divine name “Yahweh,” while another simply uses Elohim (“God”), the generic term for deity. Sometimes divine titles such as El Shaddai (“God Almighty”) or El Elyon (“God Most High”) are also used.

Thirdly, the parallel stories are suggestive of multiple authors. There are a number of cases of parallel narratives in the Pentateuch. For example, the two creation accounts in Genesis 1-3 are probably the most well known. We also have the parallel episodes in the lives of the patriarchs, in the desert journey of the Israelites, in the accounts of the conquest of the eastern territories, the giving of the law at Sinai/Horeb, and the parallel versions of the laws themselves (such as the two versions of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5) (16). What is clear is that these parallels are not simply a repetition of the same event in different places; rather, they are different enough in style, perspective, and details to suggest that they come from different authors.

In contemporary Pentateuchal scholarship the idea that the Pentateuch was penned by Moses has long since been rejected and removed from the table of academic discussion. Rather, the debate is in other areas, and is always grounded on the basis that the Pentateuch is a result of multiple authors. These questions look to answer how exactly the works of these authors came together into one work. It also looks to determine which source is the oldest version and which is later, as well as how are they related to each other.


1. Robinson, G. 2008. Essential Torah: A Complete Guide to the Five Books of Moses. p. 97.

2. Old Testament Studies with focus on Pentateuchal Studies, 2017.

3. Davies, G. 2007. “Introduction to the Pentateuch,” in The Oxford Bible Commentary. p. 19-20.

4. According to the Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, “Faith in Christ and faith in the books of the OT canon stand or fall together [because] Christ and the apostles … took the Pentateuch as Mosaic [and] put their seal on it as Holy Scripture.” Available.

5. Old Testament Studies with focus on Pentateuchal Studies, 2017.

6. Wolf, H. 1991. An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch. p. 18-19.

7. John Sailhamer referred to by Herbert Wolf in An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch (2007). p. 19.

8. Old Testament Studies with focus on Pentateuchal Studies, 2017.

9. Wolf, H. 1991. Ibid. p. 19.

10. Whybray, N. 1995. Introduction to the Pentateuch. p. 15.

11. Berlin, Adele (1994). Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative. p. 113.

12. Baden, J. 2012. The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis. p. 13.

13. Van Seters, J. in The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues (1998). p. 9

14. Old Testament Studies with focus on Pentateuchal Studies, 2017.

15. Van Seters, J. Ibid. p. 6.

16. Old Testament Studies with focus on Pentateuchal Studies, 2017.


4 responses to “The Authorship of the Pentateuch: Multiple or Single Authorship?

  1. The first five books of the bible introduce us to the pagan practice of prayer and praising god. No words can undo the damage and loss of life, the paranoia that is the consequence of being enslaved by such practices. Indeed the practice of slavery comes directly from religion. And we are often drawn to the exceptional music that comes from enslaving the godlike with religion.

    North Korea, and its communist system is pushing us to a possible nuclear war, communism also has its roots in religion.

    ‘Religion Separates Man From God,’ an ebook

  2. As Margaret Barker says:

    “One has only to look at the variety of text forms found at Qumran to see that the idea of one fixed Hebrew text is untenable. Some of the differences from the MT [Masoretic Text] are minor – a fuller spelling, a word here and there, the tense of a verb or the use of a synonym. These would be sufficient in themselves to show that the text was in no way fixed. Some of the differences, however, are very important, and they should be described as differences rather than variants. In Genesis 22.14, for example, the MT has the LORD, the LXX has the LORD, but 4QGenesis-Exodus has ‘God, elohim’, showing that scribes used either name. This is disastrous for the Documentary hypothesis of the formation of the Pentateuch, if the J and E forms of the name were still interchangeable at the end of the second temple period. ” Margaret Barker

    You may be interested in:

  3. I don’t know why the first part of my commentary does not appear. It is this (the part starting with Margaret Barker is the second part):

    The Documentary Hypothesis is a bankrupt theory and modern scholarship has its own biases. The fact that something is agreed by Biblical scholarship today does not make it true. Biblical scholarship agreed yesterday that the Gospels were late in history: second or third century.

    “one narrative prefers to use the divine name “Yahweh,” while another simply uses Elohim (“God”), the generic term for deity. Sometimes divine titles such as El Shaddai (“God Almighty”) or El Elyon (“God Most High”) are also used.”

    Color me unimpressed. Some manuscripts write Elohim where the standard text writes Yahweh (or the other way around). In the middle of a text that uses Yahweh, they use Elohim (or the other way around). As Phillip Cambell says:

    We should finally make mention of the Documentarian “appeal to redactors.” The Documentarian claim in that different sections of the Pentateuch can be isolated to different “sources” based on their literary features, like style, terminology, Hebrew words used for God, etc. Yet sometimes features from one source are found in another source. For example, the use of the divine name Elohim signifies the E source while Yahweh signifies the J source (the P source uses Elohim until Exodus 6:3 but thereafter uses Yahweh). However, Elohim occurs in the J source passages Gen. 31:50 and Gen. 33:5, 11 while Yahweh occurs in P source passages Gen. 17:1 and 21:1, both prior to Ex. 6:3. Yahweh also occurs in the E source passages Gen. 21:33, 22:4, 28:21 and Exodus 18:1, 8-11.

    The critic’s answer to this problem is an appeal to a redactor: that a later scribe who compiled and edited the work either mistakenly copied the wrong name in the wrong spot or else took the liberty of changing the names occasionally. The appeal to the redactors is central to the Documentary Hypothesis and is in fact one of its major weaknesses. It means that where simple breaking up of the text will not yield the source desired by the Documentary critics, it must be alleged that a redactor has altered the sources. If Yahweh is the divine name used by the J source, then the presence of the name Elohim in Genesis 31:50 must be attributed to a redactor.”

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