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What Difference Does It Make?

A debate is quietly raging in the halls of academia, a debate so significant that it has persisted for over two hundred years. Both sides have tenaciously clung to their positions, neither side willing to concede defeat to the other. Scholars on both sides of the issue have made careers out of defending their point of view. The books and articles written on this subject would fill a large library. And yet, until 1987, relatively few people knew about it. I did not encounter it until my graduate days in college. Everyone I knew who had not attended a Bible college or seminary had not heard of it, let alone been affected by it. I was content, therefore, to let the debate remain in the halls of academia while I went on to pursue other interests.

Then, in 1987, while riding home on a bus, I happened to see the title of an article in the Los Angeles Times that intrigued me. It was about a soon to be released book that was bringing the debate to the general public. Upon its release, the book immediately caught the attention of the national media. It was the subject of “Column One” in the Wall Street Journal. And U.S. News and World Report devoted a two-page article to it. The book is Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman, currently the Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and the Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego.

The title of his book is misleading, for he does not discuss the authorship of the entire Bible. Instead, he focuses on the authorship of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, collectively known to scholars as the Pentateuch, to the Jews as the Torah, but to most everyone else as the Five Books of Moses). Friedman is a documentarian, which means that he agrees with those in the debate who support the theory known as the Documentary Hypothesis. This theory states that the Five Books of Moses were not written by Moses at all. It postulates that four or more authors wrote four initially independent documents (all of them written hundreds of years after Moses supposedly lived), which editors then combined (along with some contributions of their own) to create the Pentateuch.

Many of the people who were familiar with the debate (including myself) had assumed that the general public would not be interested in this subject. But Friedman guessed that there was a large enough group of people who would be. And he was correct. Though his book did not make the New York Times bestseller list, it did sell far more copies than his publisher had ever hoped to sell: it went through three printings in its first three months. Since then, he has responded to this interest by producing a second edition of his book in 1997, as well as writing other books that touch, in part at least, upon this debate.

Still, when people are first presented with this subject, many of them ask, “What difference does it make? Does it really matter if we know whether Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible?” My answer is that it does matter for one very simple reason.

According to the Gospels, during the three and a half years that he spent preaching and teaching in Israel, Jesus had many confrontations with the Jewish leaders who were trying to silence his ministry. In one of those confrontations, Jesus said to them,

You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life.
I do not receive honor from men. But I know you, that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in My Father’s name, and you do not receive Me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God?

Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you—Moses, in whom you trust. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?
John 5:39–47

When Jesus referred to Moses’ writings, his Jewish audience understood him to mean the five books of the Pentateuch, and he did not contradict that understanding. Jesus here not only agrees with the traditional belief that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, he also says that what Moses wrote testifies to the validity of what Jesus himself had to say, including his claim that we obtain eternal life only by coming to him. What is at stake, then, is whether we hear the message of Jesus—and the confirming message of the Pentateuch—and believe his words and so come to have eternal life. If the Documentary Hypothesis is correct, then we cannot believe the writings of Moses, for Moses did not write anything. And if Moses did not write anything, then we will not believe the words of Jesus, for if Jesus is not correct about the authorship of the Pentateuch, something that can be checked, then how can we trust him to be correct when he tells us that we obtain eternal life by simply believing in him, something that cannot be checked? And if the Bible is incorrect about these things, then perhaps it is incorrect when it says that Jesus has risen from the dead. “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” (1 Corinthians 15:17). The Hypothesis, therefore, strikes at the very heart of the Christian faith.

After reading Friedman’s book, I decided that I would write a popular presentation of the traditional side of the debate, the position that defends the view that Moses did indeed write the Pentateuch. Within a year, I had written half of the book. I had arrived at the point where I was writing about the stories in which Abram/Abraham lied about his wife (claiming instead that she was his sister), when I ran into a problem so serious that I had to throw out all that I had already written and revamp my way of thinking.
The problem was that I finally realized that the arguments of the traditionalists were ineffective. The traditionalists had been using the same arguments against the Hypothesis for over two hundred years, yet the Hypothesis has persisted. And it has persisted in part because the traditionalists have failed to answer the question that the documentarians have been asking since the beginning of the debate, namely, “If Moses really did write the Pentateuch, why did he put it together in this fashion and not some other fashion? Why did he include these laws and these stories? Why did he not leave some of them out or include others?” In other words, the documentarians want to know what the overall plan of the Pentateuch is. The traditionalists have all along claimed that the Pentateuch had been written according to a plan, that Moses had some very good reasons for including the materials that he did, but I could not find anyone who could explain what that plan is to my satisfaction, let alone the satisfaction of the documentarians.

So, I set out on what has proven to be a twenty-one-year quest to find that plan. After engaging in much research, much thinking, and much prayer, I believe I have found that plan. This book presents the results of that quest. A few of the classic traditional arguments have made their way into this book, but most of what I present here I have not seen anywhere else. Much of this research and evidence will be new to both the traditionalists and the documentarians.

Who really wrote the Bible? You will not be surprised when I tell you who. You already know my answer to that question. But you may be surprised when I tell you why Moses is the one who really wrote the Bible.

Note for the Second Edition

The closure of the publisher for the first edition made the self-publication of this second edition necessary. It also gave the opportunity to correct minor errors.
My thanks go to my son, Christopher, for his help in producing this second edition.

October 2017

Notes for the Third Edition

Friedman released the second edition of Wrote again in January 2019 with a new epilogue in which he presented a new argument. I answer that argument in chapter 3.

In chapter 2, I divide chapter eight of his book into an S text and a W text. I originally wanted to print the S text in bold, but the publisher of the first edition would not print in bold, so I was forced to use italics for the S text, even though Friedman used italics for emphasis, as most authors do. This edition goes back to my original plan and now has the S text in bold.

Since Friedman’s list of terminology in Sources only includes words or phrases that appear three or more times in the Pentateuch, I have revised my list of vocabulary to include only words or phrases that appear three or more times in chapter eight of his book. I still end up with a list comparable to his.

As any good documentarian does, I have made some minor changes in how I divide the texts. In another ten years, I may change it again.

March 2019

Is there proof that Jesus rose from the dead? Find out here.