The religious conceptions of ordinary believers exist on the level of fairy-tale notions inculcated in childhood, which resolutely persist into adulthood. Among these notions is the common belief that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. This view was rejected long ago by such Jewish scholars as Aben-Ezra and Spinoza, and Maimonides doubted much of Genesis. Most Bible scholars today, with the exception of hard-core zealots, also reject the traditional view. They are pretty much forced to, since abundant anachronisms and other discrepancies disprove Mosaic authorship. Moses, in fact, is quite possibly a fictional hero concocted by the priests of the late monarchical period, but whether he existed or not, only an obstinate disregard of facts can allow the fairy-tale notion of Mosaic authorship to survive even elementary scholarship.
For starters, it must be acknowledged that no Egyptian record exists of Moses or any of the remarkable things he allegedly did. Herodotus, who traveled extensively in Egypt gathering information, made no mention of him. Christians, of course, need to assert that the resentful and humiliated Egyptians had all references to Moses stricken from the official record, but this is pure speculation unsupported by anything, not even the Bible. In fact, it contrasts with the claim in Exodus 11:3, which says that "Moses himself was a man of great importance in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharaoh's officials and in the sight of the people." His miraculous works, even if not part of the official record, might have been preserved in unofficial ones or in folk memory, either of which might have reemerged eventually after the events were safely in the past. Indeed, God would have done well to have ensured that some independent record existed to confirm Exodus--unless he somehow wanted to make faith as problematic as possible.
Christians, however, are not persuaded by the witness (or lack thereof) of unbelievers, so we will return to the Bible. Oddly enough, Moses scarcely figures at all in the historical books. These include Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and Kings and cover approximately 500 years. Of the very few references to him, mostly incidental, none can be shown to have been part of any text prior to the time of Josiah. A man of Moses' stature would, if real, have figured prominently in everything that followed his alleged times. He would have frequently been cited by the religious leadership as their principal authority. He and his entire amazing story could not possibly have become so utterly "forgotten," no matter how much Yahwism allegedly fell into desuetude. So he becomes conspicuous by his absence from the pages of postexodus Jewish history.
The name of Moses does not even appear in the Bible as that of any other person. After the exile, though, the name began to be given to Jewish boys and is common to this day as Moishe. (The same is true for all the big names of Genesis, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.) One can only surmise that Jews were unaware of Moses or his books until postexilic times.
Argument from silence has its place, but the best evidence against the Mosaic authorship is contained in the Pentateuch itself, as well as the historical books of the Old Testament. The former contains anachronistic references impossible to be the work of Moses, while the latter describe religious practices among the Jews that demonstrate a complete ignorance of the Law of Moses, even among the priests themselves. Let's examine the latter first.
Solomon had the first temple constructed, as described in 1 Kings 6-7, but neither he nor the priests seemed to have any awareness of the second commandment's prohibition against making "any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath" (Ex. 20:4), for the text describes images of oxen, lions, flowers, palm trees, and cherubim (6:23-36; 7:23-50) without any condemnation. Zealous religionists going to the trouble and expense of constructing the central temple for the entire faith would have made certain to build it in conformity with their most important precepts. That these precepts did not yet exist is the likeliest explanation of why they were ignored.
The fourth commandment, like the second, seems to have been unknown at a time long after it had supposedly been given. The sabbath, as a seventh-day rest for devotional, is not mentioned in any pre-Deuteronomic text and cannot, therefore, have been important, to say the least, but after the exile, it had become of paramount importance. Prior to this time, the only sabbaths the Jews apparently practiced were lunar ones for the new and full moons. Isaiah (1:14) in the 8th century B. C. denounced lunar festivals, and Hosea (2:11), around the same time, had God promising to destroy Israel's "new moons and her sabbaths." This must refer to the lunar sabbath of the full moon, or it would hardly have been condemned.
Likewise, there is no record of Yom Kippur being observed until after the exile, but Leviticus 23:26-32, presumably written by Moses, commanded that this day of atonement be celebrated yearly on the 10th day of the seventh month as a "holy convocation," but preexilic history is conspicuously silent about this holy day. It, along with the sabbath and possibly passover (2 Kings 23:21-22), was probably stressed by the Jewish priests of the exile to reinforce their religion among the people, lest they became assimilated.
Like the temple, skepticism is raised by the ark of the covenant itself. Exodus 37:1-9 described the ark with two prominent images of cherubim. This is the chest supposedly built to contain the ten commandments, so right off the bat, the Jews chose to disregard the injunction against graven images! It's more likely that the ten commandments did not exist when the ark was built, originally as the seat of Yahweh, but when they were written later and attributed to Moses, the ark retroactively became a receptacle for them.
According to Deuteronomy 31:24-26, the Law of Moses was also placed in the ark to be a reminder to a future generation destined to become apostate, but the ark disappeared from history after it was captured by the Philistines and then returned to the Hebrews to put an end to a streak of bad luck the Philistines had experienced (1 Sam. 6:21; 7:1-2). It was later returned to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:10-17) and then lost to history. It was probably among the "treasures of the house of Yahweh" carried off by Shishak around 950 B. C. (1 Kings 14:26), since no reference was made to it again, and it was not part of the restored temple of Zerubbabel. If Hilkiah in 620 B. C. found "the book of the law in the house of Yahweh" as he claimed (1 Chron. 34:14), then it cannot have been an actual book written by Moses that he rather conveniently found. That book of the law had allegedly been put into the ark.
In addition to the historical books, the book of Jeremiah provides us with an important clue. Reflecting the scarcely noted conflict between prophet and priest, Jeremiah had denied that God instructed the Israelites about burnt offerings: "Thus says Yahweh of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh. For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices" (7:21-22). Either Jeremiah refused to recognize Leviticus, making either him or it uncanonical, or (as most Bible scholars now believe) Leviticus did not then exist! Exilic priests saw to writing it.
The Pentateuch contains telltale items that make Mosaic authorship impossible. Most prominent are geographic discrepancies such as Genesis 11:28 and 15:7, which referred to "Ur of the Chaldees." Ur was a Sumerian city during the time of Abraham. It had become a Babylonia city before the time of Moses, who would have thought of it as such. The Chaldeans did not enter history until several decades after Moses, and it was more years still before they became dominant enough in the area to merit referring to it as Chaldea. Either Shinar (Sumeria) or Babylonia would have been used by Moses to locate Ur rather than Chaldea.
Genesis (14:14) also refers to the city of Dan, named after the tribe, which was named after one of Jacob's sons, but it was not named Dan until after the Israelites had taken it over, which all must admit was after the time of Moses. Judges 18:29 tells us that it was originally called Laish. Genesis 35:19 identified Ephrath with its later name of Bethlehem, which also could not have been renamed until after the time of Moses, who died before the Israelites entered Canaan. Genesis 23:2 identified Kirjath-arba as Hebron, which it wasn't until it was renamed after the Israelite conquest (Judges 1:10).
Genesis 21:32 and 26:1, 8 refer to the land of the Philistines, and 20:1 to Gerar, one of the Philistine towns. At the time of Moses, Gerar was a Canaanite town (Gen. 10:19). The Philistines didn't start colonizing the area until the mid-12th century B. C., so Moses would have been unaware of them. (Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 1987, pp. 828-829, is just one of many reference works that recognize this as the time when the Philistines first entered this region.) The later compilers of Genesis, however, would have thought of Gerar as a Philistine town, and by placing these late comers into an earlier time, they betrayed themselves.
In addition to these discrepant geographic references, the use of such phrases as "until this day" (Gen, 35:20; Deut. 34:6) necessarily entail some passage of time between the events and the written accounts of them. Likewise, Deuteronomy 34:10 in saying, "(T)here has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses," would be meaningless and absurd if it had been written by Moses himself. We should also not neglect Numbers 12:3, which stated that Moses was the meekest guy in the world. If written by a man about himself, it would be boastful, which is the exact opposite of meek.
Apologists will claim that these passages, like the famous self-obituary of Moses (Deut. 34:5-7), are incidental additions by a later redactor and don't necessarily discredit the authenticity of Deuteronomy, but if the original text could be added to or changed in any way, it only leads to questions about what else was added, what might (unknown to us) have been changed, and how we can be expected to trust its reliability.
Not as easy to explain away is Genesis 36:31-43: "These are the kings that reigned over Edom, before there reigned any king over the children of Israel...." This cannot have been written until some time during the period of Jewish kings, from 200 to 600 years after Moses. it cannot be explained as a "prophecy," since it was written in the past tense, made no claim of prognostication, and served no prophetic purpose anyway. Also indicating against the pen of Moses is the fact that this section is virtually identical with 1 Chronicles 1:43-54, which it may have even been copied from. This would give a rather late date for Genesis, since the Chronicles are recognized as postexilic works.
Something else that places Genesis rather late in composition is the story of Noah, who is referred to in 7:2 as distinguishing between "clean" and "unclean" beasts. This distinction wasn't made until Deuteronomy and was made for Jews only, which indicates not only a later date for Genesis but discredits the reliability of the Noah story itself.
Finally, we should observe that the Pentateuch contains not one but several law codes (Ex. 20:1-17; 34:1-28; Deut. 5:6-21), presented in a highly chaotic manner. The very existence of more than one code is an indication of more than one author and a diverse spread of time. Moses would have had no need to issue other codes on the heels of a first, especially if it is taken to be the word of an unchanging, perfect deity.
Given these problems with the text of the Pentateuch, the primary conclusion that it is fundamentally the work of later authors is inescapable for all but the most obstinate zealot. Other conclusions about the history of Judaism may be suggested by the same evidence. First is the suspicion that Yahwism prior to the "reformation" of Josiah (2 Kings 22-23) was not in decline, as is generally thought, but had actually not yet caught on! Second, when Hilkiah claimed that he had found "the book of the law of Yahweh," the earliest appearance of Deuteronomy, he or another priest had composed it at that time and passed it off as some ancient authority as part of a successful scheme to gain status for Yahwism as the official state religion. Third, Moses was a fictional character created as a legendary hero for the people to look up to, the intermediary who brought what was allegedly God's word to Israel, since its presentation merely by ordinary, contemporary men would not have been convincing. This suspicion is supported by not only the absence of historical confirmation of the existence of Moses but also by the apparently borrowed biographical details. Being placed in a basket sealed with pitch and set adrift on a river is the story of Sargon of Akkad, the first regional conqueror, who had lived more than a thousand years before Moses. The story of how he was set adrift in a basket on the River Euphrates was inscribed on an Akkadian Stela.
Sargon, the great king of Akkad, am I. Of my father I know only his name.... Otherwise I know nothing of him. My father's brother lived in the mountains. My mother was a priestess whom no man should have known. She brought me into the world secretly.... She took a basket of reeds, placed me inside it, covered it with pitch and placed me in the River Euphrates. And the river, without which the land cannot live, carried me through part of my future kingdom. The river did not rise over me, but carried me high and bore me along to Akki who fetched water to irrigate the fields. Akki made a gardener of me. In the garden that I cultivated, Inanna (the great goddess) saw me. She took me to Kish to the court of King Urzabala. There I called myself Sargon, that is, the rightful king.
This translation of the inscription and a picture of the Stela of Sargon can be found in Behind the Bible, Fredericton, NB, Canada, 1990, pp. 1-2. In addition to Sargon's account, this story of the abandoned child who went on to be a great leader occurred elsewhere in mythology. These coincidences, like the aforementioned discrepancies, strain credulity.
(Stephen Van Eck, RR 1, Box 62, Rushville, PA 18839-9702)