27 October 1994

Joshua, editor of the Torah

[Joshua]Many books have been written regarding various theories on the identity of the person or persons who edited and compiled the Torah – also called the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible – into its canonical form. Two primary theories take precedence in this debate: the first, that Moses himself wrote the entire Torah; the second, termed the Documentary Hypothesis, that several authors wrote their own documents centuries after the time of Moses, and that these documents were edited into the final form of the Torah centuries after that. As will be demonstrated, neither of these theories stands up to any degree of close scrutiny.

An alternative theory would identify the editor of the Torah with Joshua, Moses' recorded protégé and successor. Although this theory has been discounted in recent years[1], the Scriptures themselves provide strong evidence in its support.

Note: This analysis is written from an evangelical perspective, trusting in the historical reliability of Scripture, but does not depend upon an evangelical understanding of the Bible for its arguments. Due to limitations of space, I have not tried to address every argument pertaining to the Documentary Hypothesis or any other specific theory. Such arguments are addressed extensively elsewhere, including several of the books listed in the bibliography. Rather, I have attempted to briefly address some of the key arguments which pertain directly to the thesis of this analysis.

Evidence for an Early Date

The Torah contains numerous indications that it was written in the early years of Jewish history, before the construction of the temple at Jerusalem. Such evidence contradicts the Documentary Hypothesis and other critical theories, which would suggest that the Torah was compiled, at the earliest, shortly before the reign of Josiah in Judah.

Ex Post Facto
Laws are never issued to regulate a state of things which has passed away ages before, and can by no possibility be revived.[2]

It would be absurd for the current Congress of the United States to pass a new Declaration of Independence from England, or for England to declare war on the Roman Empire. Likewise, many of the laws and regulations described in the Torah would be utterly ridiculous if written during the kingdom period of Israel's history.

For instance, Deuteronomy 17:8-13 and 19:16-19 place all legal authority in the hands of the priests and judges, unreasonable stipulations for a well-established monarchy. The passage in v. 23:7 proclaims friendship with Edom, which by the time of the classical prophets had become a symbol of Judah's enemies (c.f. Jeremiah 49:17-18; Joel 3:19; Obadiah; Isaiah 3:1-6). The passage in v. 25:17-19 commands Israel to annihilate the Amalekites, a group of people who were subdued by David (II Samuel 8:12) and eliminated during the reign of Hezekiah (1 Chronicles 4:43).

Origin of Jewish Ceremony
[T]he whole account of the Exodus and the beginning of the great Jewish feasts is life-like and natural, if written at the time, and inexplicable, if written later.[3]

The Feasts of Passover, Tabernacles, and Pentecost all have their roots in specific historical events of the Exodus. It is difficult to explain how they would come into being in a culture which had not recently experienced those events.

The Egyptian bondage and ensuing exodus are repeatedly given as the backdrop for the provisions of the law, particularly in Deuteronomy. For instance, the law of the Sabbath is justified in response to freedom from bondage in Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). Such explanations would not be relevant if the laws were being written for people of a generation which did not remember the exodus.[4]

Journalistic Form

Much of the Torah appears to be written in the form of a journal. From the beginning of the Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy, large portions of the writing can be viewed as a chronological series of autobiographical first- or secondhand accounts, interspersed with records of the law as it was being progressively revealed. Even Julius Wellhausen, perhaps the most influential opponent of Mosaic authorship, acknowledged that the Torah is structured "not according to its matter as contents of a code, but according to its form as the professional doings of Moses."[5] It is difficult to imagine why a later writer would go to such lengths to counterfeit a journalistic form, but it is easy to see why this would be the natural form for Moses or one of his contemporaries.[6]

The Author's Familiarity with Moses

Numerous examples in the text of the Torah reveal that its author(s) must have been intimately acquainted with the person of Moses.

Centrality of Moses

In historical writing, it is common to see greater time and elaboration given to periods which the writer either knows well or wishes to emphasize. It is interesting to note that the first 11 chapters of the Torah cover roughly 2000 years of history; that the next 41 chapters cover somewhere between 400 and 700 years, up through Moses' exile in Midian; and that the last 135 chapters cover the 40 years of the exodus from Egypt[7] – a time, incidentally, which nearly coincides with Joshua's association with Moses.

For all but the first 52 chapters, Moses is the undisputed central character. His name occurs a total of over 400 times. Events are typically described from his viewpoint, in terms of his interactions with God and Israel. The phrase "the LORD said to Moses" occurs over 25 times in Leviticus alone[8], and numerous times throughout Exodus and Numbers. If Moses did not write the Torah himself, whoever did must have been well in touch with his perspective.

Details Specific to Moses

The Torah abounds with descriptions of events humanly witnessed only by Moses. This includes word-for-word accounts of Moses' prayers and encounters with God, which could only have been written truthfully by Moses or someone who knew him well and heard the stories firsthand. There is simply too much detail – for instance, the conversation at the burning bush in Exodus 3 – for the stories to have been passed down orally.

It seems unlikely that a later writer would fabricate such intricate detail on Moses, without adding similar color to the stories about the patriarchs. The only other option is a later author writing under prophetic inspiration, but one would then expect to find an indication of such miraculous activity in the text. The only reasonable conclusion is that Moses himself or someone who talked often with him wrote down the accounts near the time the events occurred.

The Torah of Moses

One of the key issues in resolving the nature of the Torah is the question of its unity: Is it one work, or a compilation of several? If portions of it were penned at different times, at what time did they begin to be considered as a unit? In fact, the evidence supports the belief that the Torah was considered to be a unit from the very beginning, and attributed in its entirety to Moses.

Evidence Within the Torah

The Torah itself provides ample testimony that Moses wrote large portions of it, and might even be considered its primary author.

Exodus 24:4 tells us, "Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said." Numbers 33:2 says, "At the LORD's command Moses recorded the stages in their journeys." In Deuteronomy 31:9 we find that "Moses wrote down this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel." Later we read:

After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law [torah] from beginning to end, he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD: "Take this Book of the Law [Torah] and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God." (Deuteronomy 31:24-26)

Numerous other passages refer to the Torah, or to writing in a book or scroll (e.g. Exodus 17:14; Deuteronomy 17:18). Moses obviously wanted it known that he went to great lengths to write down the words of the LORD and see that this Torah was preserved for generations to come.

The Book of Joshua

At the very beginning of Joshua's commission as the leader of Israel, the Torah already existed in written form. For we read in Joshua 1:7-8:

Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you … Do not let this Book of the Law [Torah] depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.

The Torah of Moses continued to guide the people of Israel through the duration of the events described in the book of Joshua (c.f. 8:30-35; 23:6). Implicit references to the Torah, particularly Deuteronomy, fill the book's pages.[9]

Later Books of the Hebrew Scriptures

The anonymous Chronicler, the writer of 1 and 2 Chronicles, obviously thought of the Torah as an established unit. Dating from the time of King David, references are made to "the law [Torah] of the LORD" (e.g. 1 Chronicles 22:12; 2 Chronicles 12:1). In the days of Jehoiada the priest, and later King Amaziah, this Torah appears as a book, attributed to Moses (v. 23:18, 25:4).

The book of 2 Chronicles reports that in the time when Josiah was king of Judea, "Hilkiah the priest found the Book of the Law [Torah] of the LORD that had been given through Moses." (v. 34:14) This same book is later referred to as "the Book of the Covenant" (v. 34:30), "the Book of Moses" (v. 35:12), and "the Law [Torah] of the LORD" (v. 35:26). Clearly, the Torah discovered by Hilkiah was considered to be a single unit, again attributed to Moses.

When Zerubbabel and the other exiles returned to Jerusalem and began to rebuild the altar of the God of Israel, they did so "in accordance with what is written in the Law [Torah] of Moses the man of God." (Ezra 3:2) They then celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles, also "in accordance with what is written" (Ezra 3:4; c.f. Leviticus 23:33-43; Deuteronomy 16:13-17).

In Nehemiah 8:1-3, we read of a later occasion:

When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra to bring out the Book of the Law [Torah] of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel.
So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly … And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

The very fact that Israel had assembled on the first day of the seventh month demonstrated their respect for the Law (c.f. Leviticus 23:23). Their attitude revealed profound reverence for the unified Torah of Moses.

While we see many examples of sacred writing in later Israel (e.g. 1 Samuel 10:25; Jeremiah 45:1), never after the book of Joshua is there a record of anyone adding to the Book of the Law. This again reflects the respect of the later prophets for the inviolability of the Book of Moses, the Torah.

Early Jews

The earliest Jews have always referred to the 'Torah' as a single entity. In some cases they even used an extended title, 'The Five-fifths of the Law,' emphasizing that these five volumes, no more, no less, comprise the entire Torah. Two Jewish writers of the 1st century A.D., Josephus and Philus, testify to this in their writings.[10] Josephus also mentions that the Jews have divided their Scriptures into three sections, and that the first of these sections, the Torah, they refer to simply as 'Moses'.[11]

Early Translators

Around the year 250 B.C., work began at Alexandria on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which came to be known as the Septuagint. The Torah was the first portion to be translated, and evidence from this work clearly shows that the translators considered the entire Torah to be a single work.[12]

Perhaps more significant is the translation known as the Samaritan Roll of the Law, written at the latest by the time of Nehemiah. This work, still preserved by a people who profess hatred of the Jews and deny the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, nonetheless acknowledges the unity of the Torah, dating back to at least the 5th century B.C.[13]

New Testament Writers

The writers of the New Testament clearly believed that the Torah was a unified work of Moses. In the gospels alone there are over thirty explicit references to the words or commands of Moses, indicating the Torah. For example, in Mark 12:26 we have, "[H]ave you not read in the book of Moses …?" and in John 1:17 we are told, "For the law was given through Moses."[14]

Evidence for Other Writers

Proving that Moses was a major or primary author of the Torah does not, however, make an end to the discussion. The Torah itself provides abundant evidence that other authors had a part in its writing, and that at least one of these authors wrote after Moses' death.

Declaration of Completion

We read in Deuteronomy 31:24, "Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end." Obviously, this completed book did not include this verse, nor, apparently, anything that follows. Some later writer must have added the rest of Deuteronomy after Moses declared his work finished.

Moses' Obituary

In Deuteronomy 34:5 we read, "And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said." This and following events clearly could not have been recorded by Moses. Even one who believes in prophetic gifts would have to acknowledge that the account is written in the past tense, from a perspective which views the events as past history. Indeed, the writing must have taken place some years after Moses' death; otherwise, it would not make sense to say, as the writer does in v. 10, "Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face."

Genesis

Many scholars, including evangelicals, believe that the book of Genesis was compiled from earlier sources. Andrew Hill and John Walton, the authors of a popular textbook, wrote:

Since there is no reason to doubt that some of the material of Genesis was in written form even prior to the time of Moses, we would view someone like Moses as doing mostly the work of an editor rather than the work of an author.[15]

While this editor may have been Moses, there is nothing in the text to either confirm or deny this assumption.

Editorial Activity

The Torah makes reference to other works from which its author draws, namely "The Book of the Wars of the LORD" and "the poets" (Numbers 21:14,27). Exodus and Numbers both contain references which would appear to be editorial comments inserted by an editor after the original writing of the text (e.g. Exodus 16:36; Numbers 13:11,22; 27:14; 31:53). All of these cases are evidence of editing activity by someone other than the primary author.[16]

One scholar suggests that much of the Torah was written by a scribe under Moses' direction. This scribe would then have added Deuteronomy 34, "which no one supposes was written by Moses", as a conclusion "to the writing on which he had been so long engaged."[17] It is reasonable to suppose that this hypothetical scribe might be the same who inserted the editorial explanations described above, as one who was familiar enough with the text to be certain of not corrupting its intended meaning.

Third-Person References

There is no reason why Moses should not have written large portions of text referring to himself in the third person. Such was a common practice in the ancient Near East, in the rest of the Bible, and in classical literature[18], and is not uncommon in modern-day America. However, certain passages in the Torah seem unlikely to have come from Moses.

Most poignantly, in Numbers 12:3, we have the parenthetical comment, "Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth." This may seem an unusual claim for a humble man to make about himself, but it would not seem nearly as strange for a loyal protégé to make about his beloved master.

Anachronisms

Certain references in the Torah simply could not have been written by Moses, because they refer to events or names from a time after his death.

For instance, Genesis 14:14 and Deuteronomy 34:1-2 both refer to a region of the land known as Dan, and Deuteronomy also refers to areas named after several of the other patriarchs. Those name designations were not given to those regions until the land was conquered, when they were allotted by "Eleazar the priest, Joshua son of Nun and the heads of the tribal clans of Israel" (Joshua 14:1). Moses would have had no way of knowing which region would go by the name Dan, but Joshua clearly would.

A parenthetical comment in Deuteronomy 2:12 indicates that Israel had already destroyed the people of the land and settled in their place, a process which would not be completed until a generation after Moses wrote.

In Deuteronomy 2:23, another parenthetical comment describes how a people known as the Avvites were eventually destroyed. However, in Joshua 13:3, we find that in Joshua's old age, the Avvites still had not been driven out. The invasion by the Caphorites described in the first passage must have occurred when Joshua was already old, decades after the time of Moses.

Numerous other parenthetical comments, such as Deuteronomy 10:6-9, do not contain any obvious anachronisms as such, but make more sense when interpreted as the editorial notes of a later writer to aid the understanding of his readers.

Implications

Hill and Walton, while claiming to support the view of Mosaic authorship, write:

It seems reasonable to assume that … passages cited as composed by Moses were collected and arranged by a contemporary, perhaps even his protégé Joshua. … Exodus and the rest of the Pentateuch were probably cast in the form of a unified, five-volume book sometime between the days of Joshua and the elders of Israel … and the era of Samuel.[19]

Undoubtedly there are others who claim to support Mosaic authorship who also, in fact, support the existence of a later editor, such as Joshua.

This does not contradict the common belief that Moses was a major, even primary, author of the Torah. The key here is that, while Moses may have written much or nearly all of the Torah, he could not have completed the entire work.

The Scribal Role of Joshua

If the Torah was not completed by the time of Moses' death, the question remains who actually completed the writing. Since Joshua "had been Moses' aide since youth" (Numbers 11:28), since he was the central character of Israel's history during the ensuing period, and since it is clear from several passages that he functioned also as a scribe (see below), he would seem the most obvious candidate. Further evidence from the Scriptures makes this conclusion even more compelling.

Evidence from the Torah

In the first months after the Israelites left Egypt, Joshua was already being groomed as an historian/scribe. For we read in Exodus 17:14:

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven."

Clearly, Joshua is expected to make sure that the scroll and the news of the fate of the Amalekites get passed on to future generations.

At the end of the description of the Tent of Meeting, where Moses would meet with the LORD "face to face", we have the intriguing observation, "Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent" (Exodus 33:11). "The tent" can only mean the Tent of Meeting. The implication, then, is that Joshua always accompanied Moses to these encounters with the LORD, and remained behind afterward even after Moses returned to the camp. If Joshua truly witnessed all of these face-to-face talks with the LORD, that would prepare him exceedingly well to aid in recording the surrounding events.

After the record of Moses' death, we are told, "Now Joshua son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom because Moses had laid his hands on him" (Deuteronomy 34:9). A possible implication of this "filling with the spirit" would be that Joshua was specially equipped to carry on Moses' ministry, particularly in the recording of divine revelation.

Evidence from the Book of Joshua

Before the Israelites have completed their conquest of the Promised Land, we read in Joshua 8:30-35:

Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the LORD, the God of Israel, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded the Israelites. He built it according to what is written in the Book of the Law [Torah] of Moses … There, in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua copied on stones the law of Moses, which he had written… . Afterward, Joshua read all the words of the law – the blessings and the curses – just as it is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel …

The writer makes a point to picture Joshua in the act of copying down the law, and leaves it ambiguous whether the "he" in "which he had written" refers to Moses or to Joshua. He then emphasizes that this work includes every "word of all that Moses had commanded", making it clear that none of Moses' writings had been left out.

Many years later, when Joshua is now an old man, we again read that he warns the leaders of Israel, "[B]e careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses" (Joshua 23:6), obviously referring to the same Torah which we saw him transcribe in chapter 8. Apparently the writing was not yet complete, however, because later we read, in ch. 24:25-26, "On that day Joshua made a covenant for the people, and there at Shechem he drew up for them decrees and laws. And Joshua recorded these things in the Book of the Law of God." It would seem natural that this "Book of the Law of God" is the same as the "Book of the Law of Moses" just mentioned, with the addition of those "decrees and laws" added by Joshua's hand.

Why didn't Joshua take the credit?

The question of why Joshua did not assign his own name to the Book of Moses can only be answered speculatively. Indeed, one would have to ask this question of any surmised author. It might seem even stranger for Moses, as the central character of most of the work, not to identify his own autobiography, thus adding to its air of authenticity. A later writer, trying to exploit the name of Moses for political ends, would also serve his best interest by attributing the work to Moses directly.

From Joshua's perspective, however, Moses was already God's acknowledged prophet, the deliverer of the people out of Egypt, and the giver of the Law. Joshua most likely considered his own contribution to be too minor to be worth mentioning, except parenthetically in the passages we have already examined. It would seem reasonable that he might not wish to detract any more than necessary from Moses' central role in the work.

Summary

Obviously, it is not possible to "prove" with logical certainty who wrote the Book of Moses, the Torah. However, we have demonstrated from the Scriptures and other sources that:

  1. The Torah must have been written during or shortly after the life of Moses.
  2. The author/editor(s) must have been contemporary with Moses, and intimately familiar with him.
  3. The Torah has been almost universally considered as a cohesive unit and attributed to Moses from the time of Joshua on.
  4. While Moses probably wrote the bulk of the Torah, the final work was completed some years after his death.
Furthermore, we have demonstrated about Joshua that:
  1. He was Moses' trusted aide from a young age, and knew him intimately, witnessing most of what he witnessed during and following the exodus.
  2. He was groomed by Moses as a leader and scribe.
  3. He wrote at least a portion of the Torah.
  4. He was the central figure of Israel's history from the time of Moses' death until the Torah was completed.

The evident conclusion is that Joshua, Son of Nun, Moses' protégé and successor, compiled and edited the Torah in its final form.


Sources

All Scripture references are taken from the New International Version (NIV) © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society.

Bahnsen, Greg L.; "The Inerrancy of the Autographa"; in Geisler, Norman L., ed.; Inerrancy; Zondervan Publishing House; Grand Rapids, Michigan; 1980.

Finn, Rev. A. H.; The Author of The Pentateuch; The Bible League; London; 19??.

Hill, Andrew E., and John H. Walton; A Survey of the Old Testament; Zondervan Publishing House; Grand Rapids, Michigan; 1991.

MacDill, D.; The Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch; United Presbyterian Board of Publication; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; 1896.

Strong, James; The New STRONG'S Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible; Thomas Nelson Publishers; Nashville, Tennessee; 1984.

Tenney, Merrill C.; The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary; Zondervan Publishing House; Grand Rapids, Michigan; 1967.

Wiener, Harold M.; The Origin of the Pentateuch; Bibliotecha Sacra Company; Oberlin, Ohio; 1910.


References

[1] Hill, p. 161

[2] Green, W. H., Moses and the Prophets, pp. 63-64, quoted in Wiener, p. 117.

[3] Davis, p. 60.

[4] Davis, p. 60.

[5] Wellhausen, Julius, L'Histoire Sainte, Int., p. 126, quoted in MacDill, p. 134.

[6] MacDill, pp. 132-135.

[7] Finn, p. 115.

[8] Hill, p. 119.

[9] MacDill, p. 207.

[10] Finn, p. 16.

[11] Davis, p. 76.

[12] Finn, pp. 19-20.

[13] Finn, p. 20.

[14] Davis, p. 76.

[15] Hill, p. 92.

[16] Hill, pp. 76-77, 130.

[17] Finn, pp. 128-129.

[18] MacDill, p. 30.

[19] Hill, pp. 106-107.

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