The Pentateuch, commonly called the Torah among the Jews, refers to the first five books of the Old Testament– Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These books are partly historical and partly legal. They trace the history of the Chosen People from Creation through the Exodus event to the death of Moses. They also preserve their civil and religious laws. Traditionally, the authorship of these books is ascribed to Moses, the Lawgiver.
One reason for this credit is because of the recognition in the Gospel of Moses’ teaching. For example, concerning the marriage law of Deuteronomy 25:5, the Sadducees cite specifically the law of Moses which Jesus does not refute or deny; as a matter of fact, in Mark, Jesus replies, “Have you not read in the book of Moses….” In other passages as well Jesus references the teachings of “Moses and the Prophets,” e.g. Luke 24:44: “Everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and psalms had to be fulfilled,” and John 5:46 – “If you believed Moses you would then believe me, for it was about me that he wrote.” Surely Jesus, the “Word who became flesh,” would not endorse or tolerate a belief about Moses’ authorship if it were totally erroneous.
The apostles also give testimony to the authorship of Moses. St. Peter in Acts of the Apostles quotes from Deuteronomy 18:15 with the introduction, “Moses said” (Acts 3:22). St. James and St. Paul attest that the writings of Moses were read in the synagogues on every sabbath (cf. Acts 15:21 and II Corinthians 3:15). Acts also describes how St. Paul sought to convince the people about Christ by “appealing to the law of Moses and the prophets” (Acts 28:23).
Both Jewish and Christian tradition have accepted the authorship of Moses. However, beginning in the late 1600s with the Oratorian priest, Richard Simon, scholars have engaged in critical examinations of the texts, versions, and commentaries of the Old Testament. What developed was the “Classical Four-documentary Hypothesis” which posited four sources or documents which were written at different times by different authors and then later combined to form the Pentateuch. These four documents are as follows: the Yahwist (9th century B.C.), which uses “Yahweh” for God and is very anthropomorphic in style; the Elohist (8th century B.C.), which uses “Elohim” for God and is more didactic in style; the Deuteronomist (7th century B.C.), which is reflected in the Book of Deuteronomy and perhaps in a few brief passages in Exodus; and the Priestly Document (5th century B.C.), which is very liturgical and provides genealogies and precise ritual instruction. Please note that this is a “hypothesis,” and scholars continue to debate and investigate this matter.
So what about Moses? On June 27, 1906, the Pontifical Biblical Commission addressed a series on questions concerning the authorship of Moses in reaction to the current scholarship, much of which denied the authorship of Moses outright. Remember first that Catholic tradition never adopted the rigid stance that Moses wrote every letter of the Pentateuch as it is found today or that the work has been handed down unchanged. For instance, St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine (d. 1621) asserted that, under divine inspiration, Ezra, the priest who lived c. 450 B.C., collected, reworked, and corrected the scattered parts of the Pentateuch after the Babylonian Exile and made additions necessary to complete its history.
The Commission stated that the arguments of scholars do not lead to the definitive conclusion that Moses was not the author, even if one totally ignored the references within the Pentateuch itself, testimony of the other books of the Bible, the consensus of the Jewish people, and the tradition of the Church. Moreover, the Commission asserted that Mosaic authorship does not entail that he wrote everything with his own hand or dictated it word for word; rather, one can hold that Moses, as the principal author and inspired by the Holy Spirit, conceived the work, entrusted these books’ composition, perhaps partially, to others who wrote in accord with his mind, and then approved the final work. Moses, again under divine inspiration, may have borrowed from and adapted existing oral traditions or documents and incorporated them into the Pentateuch. Finally, the Commission admitted that the Pentateuch may have undergone some modifications over the centuries, such as the insertion of explanations by another inspired author like Ezra or the reworking of archaic phrases or words. In all, the Commission wanted to balance traditional research with the new research. To put it simply, the Commission did not want “to throw out the baby with the bath water.”
In 1943, Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu which encouraged scholars to investigate the sacred texts utilizing such resources as recent discoveries in archeology, ancient history, linguistics, and other technical methods. On January 16, 1948, Cardinal Suhard, secretary of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, responded to a question about the origin of the Pentateuch: “There is no one today who doubts the existence of these sources or refuses to admit a progressive development of the Mosaic Laws due to social and religious conditions of later time…. Therefore, we invite Catholic scholars to study these problems, without prepossession, in the light of sound criticism and of the findings of other sciences connected with the subject matter.” However, he did not totally eliminate the authorship of Moses.
To best understand the “authorship of Moses,” Father Lagrange (1855-1938), an outstanding scripture scholar, suggested in 1897 that in Middle Eastern culture, authorship was credited to the person who provided the initial and pervading spirit to the work rather than necessarily the “final” version. Because of his role in the Exodus event, Moses is without question at the heart of the history and theology of the Pentateuch. Clearly, these books, inspired by the Holy Spirit, must reflect and be true to Moses. In this light, one should have no qualms in attributing the Pentateuch to his authorship.