By David P. Diaz, Ed.D.
[Note: Parts of the following article were excerpted from my book: The Genesis Labyrinth (2019). For more information and/or to purchase the book go to this page.]
Though the knowledge of authorship is not crucial to a proper understanding of the book of Genesis, Jewish tradition has consistently attributed the writing to Moses.1 The New Testament authors, as well as the early church fathers, also credited the writing to Moses. Thus, we have abundant historic witness to the authorship of Moses. However, others would disagree. So, the question that I hope to answer, at least provisionally, becomes, “Is there sufficient reason to believe that Moses wrote the book of Genesis?”
The Language Argument
Many believe that the Pentateuch couldn’t have been written by Moses because there were no alphabetic languages in existence at that time. Therefore, they would argue that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch in a form that was easily accessible to the masses. While it is true that Hebrew, even early Hebrew, was not existent during the time of Moses (c. 1,400 BC), nevertheless, he could have written the first version of the Pentateuch in any number of languages. No doubt, the training of Moses included Egyptian hieroglyphics and Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, but neither of these languages would have been efficient for the recording of history on parchment or papyrus. It took far too many pictographs or wedge markings to say the same thing as could be said in much less space with an alphabetic language. But it is now clear that there were alphabetic languages in existence during the time of Moses. According to Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen (2006, 305):
[W]e should consider a Moses or a Joshua writing on papyrus, skins, or even waxed tablets in alphabetic late Canaanite. During the two centuries that followed, circa 1200-1000 [B.C.], standard Hebrew evolved out of this form of Canaanite, probably being fully formed by [King] David’s time.
Thus, late Canaanite (sometimes referred to as proto-Sinaitic) represents an alphabetic language that would likely have been understood by Moses and could have been used by him to write early Jewish history. If Kitchen is correct, then the original version of the text was written in a pre-Hebrew script that would have only later been translated into a more developed Hebrew language. Nevertheless, the existence and use of an alphabetic language during Moses’ time removes the language argument against the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.
The internal evidence (i.e., the text of the Bible itself) overwhelmingly supports the notion that Moses authored the book of Genesis. Although some people shy away from using the Bible as a reference, this is ill-advised. The Bible represents a primary source document, which has been shown to be reliable as regards the authenticity of its historical claims (see TIBP article: “Is the Old Testament Historically Reliable?”).
So, let’s examine the internal evidence. First of all, Moses possessed all the qualifications necessary to write such a historical document. According to the book of Acts, “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action” (7:22). Randall Price (2017, 46), distinguished research professor of biblical and Judaic studies, summarized Moses’ qualifications: “Moses wrote from his unique perspective and experience as an educated Egyptian, Levitical priest, pastoralist, and national legislator.” Such a background in the academic disciplines of the Egyptian court, as well as serving as a lawmaker for the nation of Israel, would have surely equipped Moses with, among other things, the ability to write, and most likely in several languages.
Secondly, Moses is clearly declared to be the author of various parts the first five books2 of the Bible. These sections include:
- The judgment of Amalek: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this in a book as a memorial and recite it to Joshua…’” (Ex. 17:14).
- The book of the covenant: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel’ So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” (Ex. 34:27, 28; see also Ex. 20:22–24:4).
- The stages of Israel’s journey out of bondage in Egypt: “Moses recorded their starting places according to their journeys by the command of the LORD, and these are their journeys according to their starting places…” (Num. 33:2ff).
- The “law”: “So Moses wrote 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” (Deut. 31:9, cf. Deut. 5–10, 31:24).
- The “Song of Moses”: “Then Moses spoke in the hearing of all the assembly of Israel the words of this song, until they were complete…” (Deut. 31:30, cf. 31:32–32:52).
Finally, New Testament authors attributed all or parts of the first five books to Moses. Several New Testament authors affirmed that Moses wrote and handed down “the law” (Mk. 12:19; Lk. 2:22; Jn. 1:45, 8:5; Acts 13:39; 1 Cor. 9:9; 2 Cor. 3:15; Heb. 9:19). The apostle Paul attributed the book of Leviticus to Moses (Rom. 10:5, cf. Lev. 18:5). And, Jesus encouraged his listeners to believe Moses who, He said, “wrote of me” (John 5:45–47).
Of course, none of this proves that Moses authored Genesis. However, all such longstanding Jewish and Christian tradition, as well as internal biblical evidence, lends support to this hypothesis.
The late professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages Gleason L. Archer (2007, 94–97) cited indirect grounds for affirming the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Archer pointed to several lines of evidence:
- The details written in the account of Exodus indicate they were written by an eyewitness. For example, the author noted the exact number of palm trees and fountains at Elim (Ex.15:27). The author also described in detail the appearance and taste of the manna (Num. 11:7–8), which was never mentioned again as an experience of Israel in future generations. This reinforces that the author was not writing this document centuries after the fact, but had a first-person understanding of the narrative details.
- The author of the first two books of the Bible demonstrated a thorough knowledge of ancient Egypt. If Moses, indeed, grew up and received an education in Egypt—as affirmed in the Bible—he would be well-acquainted with the languages of the time and place, and his vocabulary would have shown a familiarity with all things Egypt. The author of Genesis and Exodus knew the names of the various gods of Egypt and even the special title of honor bestowed on Joseph by Pharaoh (Zaphenathpá neah, “Nourisher of the land of the Living One” [i.e., Pharaoh]). He also used a greater number of Egyptian words in the text than are used in the rest of the Old Testament. This would be expected of one who lived at that time and in that region.
- The author of the Pentateuch possessed a “foreign or extra-Palestinian viewpoint so far as Canaan is concerned.” References to weather and seasons in the text reflect Egyptian understandings, not Palestinian. Mention of plants and animals also reflect an Egyptian point of view and never distinctly Palestinian. Even the animal skins that served as an outer covering of the tabernacle belonged to a marine mammal found in seas near Egypt and Sinai but well outside of Palestine. These examples show that the author’s viewpoint was distinctly Egyptian, as would have been expected in the case of Moses as author.
- The book of Genesis reflects archaic customs and language consistent with the second millennium BC. Many have tried to push the dating of Genesis forward, into the final half of the first millennium BC. However, the customs outlined in the book of Genesis—especially with reference to legal procedures—were not continued into the first millennium BC, but were found uniquely in the second millennium. These facts were attested by Nuzi documents from 15th century BC, which confirm a more ancient origin of Genesis and pushes the writing of the book back into the time of Moses (circa 1,400–1,200 BC).
Ancient Sources Available to Moses
There were different sources available to Moses that would have helped him craft the biblical narrative. First of all, the keeping of written records was a common practice at the time of Moses (Ex. 17:14; Num. 21:14; Josh. 10:13), especially in Egypt where writing in hieroglyphic and hieratic characters (i.e., abridged hieroglyphics used by priests) was widespread (Archer 2007, 100). Thus, it is likely that some records were preserved from the earliest stages of Israel’s history, which would have provided Moses with various historical writings as references.
Second, oral tradition3 was likely a primary means of preserving the earliest known history. It was a well-developed practice for the Jews as it was for most ancient peoples. According to Kitchen (2006, 370), oral and written traditions were often used separately or side by side “and in some cases initial oral transmission gave way to a written format.” Thus, Moses would have had plenty of oral—as well as written—source material for his biblical works.
Third, the Bible also indicates that God showed special favor to Moses by manifesting His presence directly, appearing face-to-face (Num. 12:6–8). This kind of personal manifestation is called a theophany. If one believes in the historical reality of these appearances (there is no way for history/archaeology to prove such occurrences), then God may have used these occasions to provide a firsthand account of primeval history to Moses or allowed him to ask questions directly.
Therefore, in writing out the narrative of Genesis, Moses took whatever information was at his disposal including oral tradition, written tradition, and information provided through external manifestation (theophany) and used it to author a substantial portion of Israel’s history and prehistory.
In summary, though others have cited evidence to the contrary, there are still substantial reasons to attribute the authorship of Genesis to Moses. At very least, there are no overwhelming reasons why the first five biblical books could not have been written by whom they have historically been attributed. Thus, for these as well as other reasons, I attribute the authorship of the first five books of the Bible to Moses.
About the Author
David P. Diaz, Ed.D. is the publisher and owner of Things I Believe Project. An educator and author, Dr. Diaz has a lifelong love of learning. His pen name (“Don Quixote” or, “DQ”) comes from his love of chasing windmills (i.e., truth and other ideals) and his penchant for tongue-in-cheek humor: “Don Quixote was developing his arguments in such an orderly and lucid way that for the time being none of those listening could believe he was a madman.”
Archer, Gleason Leonard. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2007.
Kitchen, Kenneth A. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.
Price, R. Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology: A Book by Book Guide to Archaeological Discoveries Related to the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017.
- According to tradition, Moses wrote much of the Pentateuch, except for some rather clear exceptions like the recording of his own death (Deut. 34). It has also been noted that since the narrative is often written in the third person, perhaps Moses didn’t write it. But the use of scribes by the composer of ancient documents was a common practice, which may easily explain the writing style and person, as well as the completion of the narrative after the death of Moses.
- The first five books of the Bible are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These are corporately referred to as the Pentateuch (Grk: “five”) or the Torah (“law”).
- Oral tradition is the practice of one generation repeating material by spoken word, which would then be memorized by the next generation and so on throughout history.