Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback
Background Image

Who Wrote the Books of Moses?

The first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—are commonly referred to as the “five books of Moses.”

They are also called the Torah (Hebrew, “instruction,” “law”) and the Pentateuch (from a Greek phrase meaning “five books”).

The role of Moses

Moses plays an enormous role in these books. He is introduced as a baby, in Exodus, and he becomes a great leader and lawgiver for the Hebrew people. Through the power of God, he brings them out of bondage in Egypt, delivers God’s law to them, and guides them through forty years of wandering in the desert.

He takes them to the brink of entering the Promised Land, but God does not allow Moses himself to enter. Instead, at the end of Deuteronomy, shortly before his death he is allowed to look into the Promised Land from a mountain.

Moses thus dominates four of the five books, and since they form one connected story, it was natural for people to speak of them as the books of Moses.

Moses as author

Until relatively recently, most Jews and Christians held that Moses himself was the author of the Pentateuch. Despite the fact that he figures prominently in the books and that they quote him frequently, even relating long speeches by him, none of the books state that they were written by Moses. They do not identify an author.

They also contain parts that could not have been written by Moses, such as the material recording his death at the end of Deuteronomy, and indicating that some time had passed since this event: “There has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deut. 34:10).

There are other passages that it’s hard to imagine Moses writing, such as the one stressing his humility: “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).

For much of Church history, it was common to make minimal modifications to the idea that Moses wrote these books. It would be said that he was the main author but that after his death others added bits here and there, such as the material recording his death. (Some have suggested Moses himself did write this by way of prophetic revelation, but this is not a widely held view.)


Eventually, though, a very different view developed. In the 1700s, scholars began to propose that there were certain identifiable sources that were used in the composition of the Pentateuch.

What made them identifiable, it was claimed, were differences of style (such as which name for God is used in a passage), repetitions, and contradictions—suggesting that the Pentateuch had been assembled from a collection of sources without smoothing out the differences.

In 1883, a German scholar named Julius Wellhausen proposed an influential form of this theory. It is sometimes called the “Wellhausen hypothesis,” but it is more commonly called the “documentary hypothesis,” or “JEDP.”

The last designation comes from the initials of the four major sources thought to be used in the Pentateuch.

The J source

The first source that Wellhausen and other scholars claimed to identify in the Pentateuch is called the “J” source, which stands for “Yahwist” (Jahwist is the German spelling).

A characteristic of this source is thought to be that it uses the divine name “Yahweh” when referring to God, sometimes in combination with other divine names (e.g., “Yahweh Elohim”).

This source is thought to be behind the creation narrative found in Genesis 2, which relates the creation of Adam and Eve.

According to Wellhausen, the J source was written around 950 B.C. in the southern kingdom of Judah, which would make it several centuries too late to have been written by Moses. The dates Wellhausen proposed for the other three sources are even more recent.

The E source

The second source is known as the “E” source, which stands for “Elohist.”

This source is supposed to be identifiable because it uses the divine name “Elohim” (without “Yahweh”).

According to Wellhausen, the E source was written around 850 B.C. in the northern kingdom of Israel.

The D source

The third source is known as the “D” source, which stands for “Deuteronomist.”

The Deuteronomist is thought to have been the author of the book of Deuteronomy, where this source is found.

It is also thought that some of the historical books that follow Deuteronomy (Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, but not Ruth or 1-2 Chronicles) were written by the Deuteronomist or by those close to him. They are thus referred to as the “Deuteronomic history.”

According to Wellhausen, the D source was written around 600 B.C. in Jerusalem.

The P source

The fourth and final source is known as the “P” source, which stands for “Priestly.”

It is thought to be the source of the creation narrative in Genesis 1, which lists the different days of creation.

The Priestly source is thought to reflect a priestly perspective. Much of it deals with laws relating to the priests, most of which are found in the book of Leviticus.

According to Wellhausen, it was written around 500 B.C. by Jewish priests who were in exile in Babylon.

The pieces come together?

Various editors, known as redactors, were then supposed to have combined the Priestly (P) material with that of the J, E, and D sources to form the modern Pentateuch.

Sometimes scholars give the designation R to the redactors thought to have edited the pieces together.

Wellhausen suggested that the final redactor was the biblical scribe Ezra, who oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem at the end of the Babylonian Exile.

The changing fortunes of JEDP

After the documentary hypothesis was proposed, it quickly gained ground, particularly among Protestant Bible scholars.

Matters were different in Catholic circles. In 1906 the Pontifical Biblical Commission issued a ruling that the arguments then being proposed were insufficient “to justify the statement that these books do not have Moses as their author but were compiled from sources for the most part posterior to the time of Moses” (June 27, 1906).

Matters changed over the course of the twentieth century, and in a 2005 speech Cardinal William Levada, then president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, said that the early decisions of the PBC are “now viewed as transitory judgments” (“Dei Verbum—Forty Years Later,” Oct. 10, 2005).

Long before this, the documentary hypothesis found increasing approval in Catholic circles, including on the magisterial level, with John Paul II explicitly referring the proposed sources and datings (see sidebar p. xx).

JEDP challenged

Since the Church is not in the business of teaching the proposals of biblical scholars as matters of faith, the documentary hypothesis must stand or fall on its own merits.

Scholars favorable to it continued to propose modifications to it, some suggesting that the four proposed sources could be fragmented into even more refined, individually identifiable sources, with an even more complex history.

There proved to be less agreement on these proposed sub-sources, and some even began to question the major sources, like E.

Others challenged the documentary hypothesis outright, arguing that, whatever sources may underlie it, the Pentateuch is fundamentally the product of a single literary vision, not a patchwork of identifiable sources that have been stitched together slapdash.

While the documentary hypothesis is still influential today, there’s a strong case against it.

What’s in a divine name?

One of the main features supposed to distinguish the sources is the divine name or names each uses. That’s one of the main features defining the Yahwist (J) and Elohist (E) sources.

But does the fact that a book shifts from using one divine name to another indicate that the passages come from different sources, or could there be another explanation?

After all, “Yahweh” is a personal name, whereas “Elohim” is a descriptive term meaning “God.” Perhaps the use of these names has more to do with matters of style and the connotations Hebrew speakers felt them to have.

It has been noted for centuries that the two terms have a different feel in Hebrew. In his commentary on Genesis, the great medieval Jewish Scripture scholar Rashi (1040-1105) suggested that the generic term “Elohim” was used to indicate God’s Attribute of Strict Judgment, while “Yahweh” was used to indicate his Attribute of Mercy (Commentary on the Torah 1:1:1).

Others have suggested, along similar lines, that the name Elohim is used when God is being considered in a more general, cosmic way as the creator of the universe and the ruler of all nations, but his more intimate, personal name Yahweh is used in connection with his chosen people.

Twentieth-century Jewish scholar Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) analyzed extensively the way in which these two names are used in the Pentateuch and in other books of the Bible. He discovered that they obey a set of rules that is based on subject matter rather than source (cf. Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch).

Cassuto’s proposal is fine-tuned enough to explain why a text switches divine names in the middle of a narrative, as happens in Genesis 3:1-5.

This is part of a larger narrative dealing with God’s care for Adam and Eve, and it uses the name Yahweh Elohim as a matter of course. But in the Serpent’s dialogue with Eve, it suddenly switches to the more generic term Elohim—to keep the serpent from uttering the intimate, holy name Yahweh.

The department of redundancy department?

If the divine names are not a sure guide to what source is being used, what about the apparent duplications of events, such as Abraham passing Sarah off as his sister to foreign rulers (Gen. 12, 20) or Isaac doing the same thing with Rebecca (Gen. 26)?

Does this indicate different sources containing the same basic story that got stitched together, creating the duplications?

Not necessarily. It can also that the author means us to understand this as a family tactic—a kind of scam—that the Patriarchs used to get out of tough situations.

There is evidence for this in the Hebrew text of Genesis 20:2, which is normally translated “And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, ‘She is my sister.’”

Contemporary Jewish scholar Gary Rendsburg points out, however, that what it says in Hebrew is not that he said this of Sarah his wife but to (Heb., ’el-) Sarah his wife (The Redaction of Genesis, 35).

Abraham and Sarah have already done this once before, and now the text asks us to envision Abraham turning to Sarah and saying to her, “She is my sister”—cueing her to what his plan is. We can see her thinking, “Oh, we’re going to do that one again.”

Since the ruse worked twice for Abraham, it’s not surprising to find his son, Isaac, using it in a similar situation.

And there is another reason why the duplications do not indicate multiple sources.

Hidden pyramids of the Bible

The biblical authors commonly structure their material according to a literary form known as chiasmus.

This involves a sequence of elements that can be divided into two halves, with the second half being a mirror image of the first, like steps leading up one side of a pyramid and down the other.

A simple example is Jesus statement that the “first will be last, and the last first” (Matt. 19:30), which has an A-B-B’-A’ structure.

This chiasmus occurs in a single sentence, but there are much more involved ones in the Bible, ones that span large blocks of text and that serve as a major organizational principle for an entire book.

This is the case with Genesis. Much of the book is organized into large chiastic structures.

It is this type of organization—not a slapdash mixing of sources—that is responsible for the two accounts of Sarah being passed off as Abraham’s sister (see “The Abraham Cycle” sidebar, p. xx).

What a difference a covenant makes

There are also indications that the two “She is my sister” stories involving Sarah have been carefully crafted as mirror images of each other.

Contemporary scholars Isaac Kikawada and Arthur Quinn write:

What is striking about these stories of Sarah, when they are placed side by side, is that the second story is consistently amplified to soften the first. In the first, Sarai goes into the Pharaoh’s house and the implication is that she has sexual relations with him; in the second we are specifically told that Abimelech did not touch her.

In the first Pharaoh is punished “with great plagues” for his taking Sarai; in the second Abimelech is preserved from any punishment beyond the temporary barrenness of his women.

In the first the Pharaoh apparently infers what has happened himself; in the second Abimelech is informed specifically by Yahweh.

In the first Abram, when accused, says nothing; in the second Abraham is allowed to explain away his lie by casuistry.

Abram is summarily sent away; Abraham is allowed to stay in friendship after he has interceded for Abimelech (Before Abraham Was, 96-97).

They then observe that this may represent “a skillful author trying to teach his people the difference it makes to have a covenant with God. He dramatizes this difference by having the same situation occur twice—once before the covenant, once after” (op. cit., 97).


The same kinds of considerations emerge wherever one looks in Genesis. Cassuto, Kikawada, Quin, Rendsburg, and a variety of schlolars have soundly challenged the division of it into J, E, and P sources.

The examples we have considered come from the book of Genesis, which is by design. Genesis is the most mixed book, according to the documentary hypothesis. Deuteronomy and Leviticus both represent basically one source each (D in Deuteronomy and P in Leviticus). Exodus and Numbers both have less mixing of sources than Genesis (see illustration).

If the alleged sources of Genesis prove to be problematic—as they have—then the whole theory is problematic.

This does not mean that it is impossible to discern sources within the Pentateuch. One might hold, with John Paul II, that the creation narrative of Genesis 1 reflects a different source than the Adam and Eve narrative of chapters 2 through 4, based on their differences in tone (the first being cosmic and the second more intimate).

Moses supposes

It also does not mean that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch. The scholars who have been most vigorous in challenging the documentary hypothesis have not supposed that Moses was the actual author.

Cassuto and Rendsburg, for example, think Genesis contains a number of clues that indicate it was written in the tenth century B.C., around the time of Solomon. For example, Genesis 15:18 seems to describe the farthest borders of the Davidic-Solomonic kingdom (cf. 2 Sam. 8:3).

If that is when the book was written, and if the rest of the Pentateuch was written around the same time, then that places its composition considerably closer to the time of Moses.

We don’t know exactly when Moses lived, but the time is generally placed between the fifteenth and the thirteenth centuries B.C. Either is close enough to the tenth century to allow substantial material to be passed down from Moses.

If the Pentateuch were dated to this period, we might suppose that it nevertheless substantially depends on material stemming from or connected with the historical Moses, even if it were not put in its final literary form until later.

It is thus possible for a Catholic to hold a number of positions, from full Mosaic authorship, to the documentary hypothesis, to intermediate positions, depending on how one sees the evidence.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!