By Vexen Crabtree 2012
The Five Books of Moses are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Together they are called the Pentateuch. Archaeological and historical evidence shows that these five books were primarily composed in the 7th century BCE. Finkelstein & Silberman explain that the evidence is that "the Deuteronomistic History was written in the days of King Josiah, to serve his religious ideology and territorial ambitions, and ... was finished and edited a few decades later in exile. ... The geographical and ethnic details of both the patriarchal origin stories and the Exodus liberation story bear the hallmarks of having been composed in the seventh century BCE"1. These five scrolls did not start out as being considered the holy word of god. They were modified and moulded over hundreds of years by various editors2 - although Christian tradition fiercely fought for them to be considered to be the works of Moses, this is clearly not the case. "The Pentateuch [was] considered to be canonical by the time of Ezra and Nehemiah in the fifth century BC"2.
Arguing against Biblical inerrantism in the 19th century, Bishop Colenso critically examined the text of the Pentateuch:
“Bishop Colenso in his exhaustive work on the Pentateuch shows that most of the records therein claiming to be historical facts are merely parables and figments of the imagination of different writers, composed at different periods, full of contradictions, interpolations and discrepancies.”
“Genesis contains a creation story of the Earth and the first 2 people, Adam and Eve, and their incestuous (and murderous) family. It describes a version of the ancient Flood story where God, or the Gods, flood the Earth or at least a large portion of it, drowning all living creatures including all animals, men, women, children, infants, but saving Noah and his immediate family. Another period of incestuous family relations afterwards ensues. Genesis then tells the story of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, each of which acted sometimes as immoral tyrant and sometimes as holy spokesperson. They all end up, according to these stories, in Egypt, although historical evidence is clear that most Hebrews continued to live in their homeland. Genesis was written and edited by various authors from between the 10th and 6th century BCE, and some scholars believe it wasn't completely written until as late as the 2nd century BCE4.”
The first half is about the oppression of the portion of the Hebrews who had ended up in Egypt. It contains classic scenes such as the nine plagues. The second half is the unhistorical story of Moses' leading some of the Hebrews out of Egypt and their wonderings in the desert. Some authors believe that this pseudo-history is based on a real, partial, movement of Jews in the 13th century BCE7 but most think that the movement was of a small group of Hebrews in the 7th century BCE. Certainly, the migration did not leave any archaeological evidence (campsites, etc). Moses receives the Law from God on Mount Sinai, where he also receives the Ten Commandments.”
“Authored in the 5th Century BCE and editted until much later. Leviticus is a highly legalistic and ritualistic document, full of precise details about behaviour and rules of behaviour in both ritual and everyday settings. It is responsible for the dietary laws of Jews and early Christians. It is also the source of many of the illiberal and immoral laws that causes Judeo-Christianity to clash with equal-opportunities societies in areas of in marriage, sexuality and gender equality.”
“Numbers begins with some Hebrews on Mount Sinai (which doesn't seem to match any real-life mountain), and describes some of their activities as they approach Canaan and scout it out. Life is hard, but God responds to whingers with large scale massacres of his people (15,000 of them). Moses receives more laws from God. The Book is named 'Numbers' "because of the various numberings and censuses of the people which are described"8. Despite the book's popular appeal, archaeological evidence has proven that there was no swathe of Israelite camps in the deserts during this period, and the stories are likely to be highly exaggerated to the point of being fictitious.”
“The first 30 chapters of Deuteronomy are an (anonymous) author's writings of a speech by Moses, rallying the people to God-belief, and telling them some of God's laws. Although the book generally claims to be by, few believe it9. The Book then talks about the end of Moses' life, his last words, death and burial. Moses is said to have passed the role of leader on to Joshua.8 Deuteronomy has particularly serious moral problems and proscribes a form of ethics that is harsh, deeply sexist and prejudiced, and endorses barbarism, sexism, intolerance, the dealth penalty and all kinds of restrictions on women's freedom.
- Deuteronomy played an important part in the early centralisation and textualism of organised Judaism: "Fundamentalism and Literalism in World Religions: 3.2. Increasing Literalism in the history of Judaism and fledgling Christianity" by Vexen Crabtree (2012)
Although Christian tradition fiercely fought for these five books to be considered the works of Moses, this is clearly not the case. Critics of religion were often persecuted for arguing that the evidence does not support the traditional idea that Moses authored the Pentateuch. Thomas Paine advocated rational analysis of scripture, and ridiculed some of the assumptions that have to be made in order to preserve the idea that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. He points out Numbers 12:3 which says "Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth" - imagine the contradictory embarrassment of arguing that Moses wrote this about himself11! It is clear that Moses was only posited as the author much later than the time the books were written.
“Moses is not the author of them; and still further, that they were not written in the time of Moses, nor till several hundred years afterward.”
Current edition: 2012 Jul 14
Last Modified: 2015 Aug 31
Parent page: Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Holy Bibles Across Different Traditions
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
Finkelstein & Silberman
(2002) The Bible Unearthed. Subtitled: "Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and The Origin of Its Sacred Texts". Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by The Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY, USA. Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. An e-book.
(2004, Ed.) Jealous Gods & Chosen People: The Mythology of the Middle East. Published by Oxford University Press. A hardback book.
McFadyen, John Edgar. (1870-1933)
(1905) Introduction to the Old Testament. Amazon Kindle digital edition. An e-book.
(1807) The Age of Reason. Published by Musiaicum Books. Part 1 published 1794, part 2 in 1795 and part 3 in 1807. An e-book.