Moses Established the Written Tradition of the Pentateuch
by Richard A. Michaels
In the sacred tradition of the Church, the understanding that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch is indisputable. Most obviously, one need only to review what Our Lord Himself says about Moses; the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor confirms Moses as deliverer of the Law and, of course, a real person – not a legendary personification of an eponym in Hebraic history; not an exemplar of popular history used as a pseudonym for someone else=s work or some group=s work; not especially a pseudepigraphic or apocryphal entity cloaked under the name, AMoses.@
The question of how his writings or speeches were arranged, redacted and formalized by the worshiping community of ancient Israel and latter Judaism is a speculative pursuit which does not affect the authority of Moses or the integrity of the law entrusted to him by God Himself. How the long history of the Pentateuch evolved is an established tradition begun by Moses. What appendixes came later do not threaten Mosaic foundations.
There can be no doubt that God chose Moses to be His prophet, spokesman and representative, even His friend.1 The call of Moses and his astonishing intimacy with God is a great mystery. His unique historical and religious stature and the abundance of grace that saturated his person permeates the whole Old Testament. He towers over all other great personalities portrayed in Scripture. So pervasive is Moses= influence on the development of Israel=s faith and the subsequent emergence of the Christian faith, that St. Paul juxtaposes him with Our Savior in the letter to the Hebrews. And this is all done under the authority, inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit.
Moses= name is mentioned in connection with essential Christian doctrines, having their lineaments in the commandments, ordinances, testimonies, statutes, laws and covenants contained in the Torah. Moses drew the contours of the faith in order to contain its full content.2 He is responsible for standardizing the proper worship of God even for the Christian Church at the theophany on Mount Sinai. Our own sacraments can be seen under the veil of Mosaic rituals concerning the ark, Tabernacle, and later, Solomon=s Temple. Presented in typological relief, we recognize our Church in the style and content of the worship of ancient Israel.3
Moses is referred to about nine hundred times in the Bible. Jesus speaks of him as the author of the law about twenty-five times. In his debates with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, He defers directly to Moses= authority:
ADo you think that I will accuse you to the father; it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words. Did not Moses give you the law?@ (Jn.5:45-47; 7:19, RSV)
St. John also mentions that Moses gave the law in his gospel.4 Christ revealed it; the Apostles confirmed it; and the Church proclaims it in every variant of her self-expression and through every aspect of her tradition. From where we view things, no further evidence for Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is needed. But other assurances, including the historical kind, can be added here. There is an abundance of material available to the serious student of Biblical studies that supports the legitimacy of the Church=s claims.
It is ironic that much of modern, historical and scientific biblical research questions and, for the most part, rejects the traditional understanding of Mosaic authorship; those most scrupulous in demanding historicity as the measure of authenticity doubt the real identity of the person largely responsible for the preservation of that history. Moses is, after all, the central personality and the inspiration for the Exodus event; all early Hebrew history after the era of the Patriarchs involves and revolves around Moses, the creator, curator and catalyst of Israel=s identity.
The absence of Moses as a person and a personality cannot make the Scriptures more intellectually objective and secure, only more dubious. One rather trusts a tradition of exegesis that rests on real historical events and persons than on the hypotheses of various scholars, however eminent those scholars may be. Without the man, there is no message. Without the Incarnate Word speaking the words in the Gospels, there is no absolute, unimpeachable and authoritative foundation for the saving message contained in the Gospels. Jesus Himself validates and authenticates His own word. To edit out Moses as the personal author of the Pentateuch breaks the thread of salvation history and makes the Old Testament merely a collection and a collage of disparate words and scenes from ancient history having to do with a minor nation of semites caught in the corridor between Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Such exegesis means exit Jesus. To doubt the real person of Moses or of any biblical person is to endanger and, at least, obscure the faith which rests on Persons, first of all on the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity and then on the human persons providentially chosen by God to advance His plan to save the creation He willed into existence and maintains in love.
Contrary to the scholastic philosophy of the Western Christian tradition, the Orthodox faith does not believe natural human reason was unaffected by Adam=s ancestral sin. Hence, the Church does not believe natural reason, autonomous and free, can objectively and dispassionately discern and disseminate the truth. Man not only has a soul that reasons, he also has a spirit which communes with God; the answers that come from dialectic through logical deduction are no substitute for the instant cognition that comes from a direct knowledge of and encounter with God. Intellectual perspiration cannot explain what only pious inspiration can grasp. Clear thinking is dependent on clean living; a pure heart is the prerequisite for sharp intellectual perceptions.
For this reason, we cannot test the credibility of Mosaic authorship on the textual examination alone, carried out by even the finest Biblical critics and scholars. The mere application of even the most gifted intelligence to the inspired words of Scripture cannot relate completely and authoritatively what graced-filled hearts are prompted to reveal by God concerning His own words, His own Scriptures.
This is why we turn to the saints and the tradition of piety and study practiced by the Holy Fathers in our evaluation of the Bible. It is comforting to behold how the writings of the Holy Fathers often compliment the historical criteria for the real authorship of the books of the Bible; those whose names appear as the authors in the Bible.
The lenten sermons of St. Basil the Great on the Genesis account of creation called the “Hexaemeron,” have been referred to as an inspired masterpiece by St.Photius, St. Jerome and St. Gregory Nazianzus. In it St. Basil frequently identifies the book of Genesis as having been composed by Moses.
We recognize that in the Church the same Holy Spirit both inspires the writing of the Scriptures and the interpretation of them. It is not conceivable that the Spirit of Truth, whose mission it is to “guide
“Now it is Moses who has composed this history…..; Moses whom the daughter of Pharaoh adopted; who received from her a royal education, and who had for his teachers the wise men of Egypt….. It is this man, whom God judged worthy to behold Him, face‑to‑face, like the angels, who imparts to us what he has learned from God. Let us listen then to these words of truth written without the help of ‘enticing words of man’s wisdom’ (1 Cor.2:4) by the dictation of the Holy Spirit; words destined to produce not the applause of those who hear them, but the salvation of those who were instructed by them.”5
St. Basil said Moses received a royal education. This means he was taught the knowledge of the ancient world, which, as historians and archeologists have related, was more advanced and considerable than most of us assume.
For most of her history, during the early Bronze age through the Iron age, about two thousand eight‑hundred years, Egypt was a world power in the near East and Western Asia. She competed with the Mesopotamian powers of Assyria, Babylon and Persia for a millennium for complete dominance in what has been called the cradle of civilization. As a nation, Egypt had extensive commercial and trade activities and bureaucracies all over the settled world. Arising from these enterprises, an intricate and sophisticated administration was built up which required scribes and secretaries, scholars and accountants.
Literacy was commonplace in the ancient world since the middle of the fourth millennium, about two thousand years before the Exodus. In classical Sumeria, ca. 2850‑2360, there were established scribal schools or universities which produced a vast body of literature. By the time of the First Dynasty in Egypt, ca. 2850, Egyptian writing was already in a state of advanced development. 6
We know that Moses was racially semitic, and that he lived during the centuries of semitic dominance over the world. All the social, cultural, technological and educational advances we are accustomed to today were bequeathed to us in their basic forms by the ancient semitic civilizations which exercised control in the near East for thousands of years. Moses was from one branch of this semitic stock, the Hebrew branch. It is reasonable to infer that after the passage of fifteen-hundred years since a written language had been developed and refined; and considering that Moses had received the royal education in Pharaoh’s kingly court school; and also that the era in which Moses lived was the flourishing reign of the great, long-lived Pharaohs of the New Kingdom, who themselves merely extended and embellished an already old tradition, that Moses is very likely to have been not only an able scribe, administrator and writer, but an exquisite one.
God Himself chooses those who are skilled in areas He needs at the time. Analogous to Moses in the new Testament is the highly educated St. Paul whom God used to deliver the Christian doctrine to the pagan world. We remember that Moses was not a gifted speaker, that Aaron was used as the preacher of the law. God selected, it seems even by a simple reading of the literal text in Exodus, a writer and scholar, someone who would record His Law and register His covenant. (Ex. 4: 10‑6)
Moses took away from Egypt more than a staff, sandals and the clothes on his back; most essentially he took with him the whole intellectual and artistic tradition of the ancient world, a tradition reaching back about two-thousand years. Cleansed of its polytheistic accretions, the devolution of man’s spiritual powers, this knowledge marked the crucial nexus in the progress of messianic sacred history. The architecturally flawless plan of the Tabernacle; the detailed, sublime law codes; the charismatic, prophetic pronouncements displayed particularly in the book of Deuteronomy, speak eloquently of how reason and revelation cooperate to advance the plan and program of God to liberate and save man and the world.
Moses was raised in Egypt, instructed in Egypt, exposed to architectural design in Egypt; in the pomp and privilege of Pharaoh’s household, Moses learned the things he needed to serve a greater King and to prepare for His royal visitation at a later date. Familiarized with the religious texts and temple devotions of the deviated worship of Egypt, Moses purified it to create the content and conditions of the Old Testament faith; the law and the Tabernacle would become the concrete slab of truth upon which the whole edifice of God’s revelation, in the person of Jesus Christ, was set. And because of Moses, even though through time and fallen human history “the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon [the] house, i.e. [the Old Testament community and the New Testament Church],……. it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” (Matt. 7:25‑26)
Moses, according to the attributes of his own unique self, using his scholarly training as a tool in the service of his faith, under the directing eye of God and through the grace of God, bequeathed to believers the words of God in preparation for the birth in the flesh of the Word of God, who came not “to abolish the law……. but to fulfill it.” (Matt. 5:17)
There is a clear passage in the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” that, perhaps, is all one needs to show that Moses wrote the Law and that God instructed him to teach it:
“The brethren came to Abba Anthony and laid before him a passage from Leviticus. The old man went out into the desert, secretly followed by Abba Ammonas, who knew that this was his custom. Abba Anthony went a long way off and stood there praying, crying a loud voice, ‘ God, send Moses, to make me understand this saying.’ Then there came a voice speaking to him. Abba Ammonas said that although he heard the voice speaking with him, he could not understand what it said.”7
The Holy Fathers in the East and the West teach that there is a higher degree of knowing than what scientific investigation can give; it is attained by spiritual intuition, made more and more exquisite through the diligent practice of the virtues. Such knowledge does not require the medium of deductive reason to be true; it is immediate and refreshing, grounded in the Word and Wisdom of the Father Himself, in fact, united in love with the Word in the light of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing higher for the mind; and from this summit one can speak with Moses and get, from the primary source himself, what higher criticism can only speculate about.
1 See Exodus chapters 3 and 4. Numbers chapter 12 also contains a startling conversation between God and Aaron and Miriam concerning Moses and the relationship God has with him.
2 Hebrews 11: 39‑40.
3 There are a myriad of types and prefigurations of the Christian sacraments in the Mosaic ritual and in the construction of the Tabernacle, Ark, and other furniture of the Tabernacle. In Orthodox worship, as our liturgical theologians have eloquently stated, Old Testament worship is continued, extended and completed in the New Testament. See the covenant ceremony on Mt. Sinai as a prelude to our Eucharist in Exodus 24:3, 6‑11. The opening of the Divine Liturgy where the priest announces the Blessed Kingdom is heard already in Numbers chapter 6. For examples of the Prayer of the Trisagion see Isaiah chapter 6 and Ezekiel chapter 1. The place of Angels in worship and their participation in worship with the covenant community can be seen in Genesis 3:22‑24; Exodus 25:18‑22; Ezekiel chapter 1; in the Anaphora prayers in the Liturgy we see that true meaning of the cherubim hovering around the Ark in the Old Testament. Beyond the comparison and continuity of Old and New Testament worship, see the Ecclesiastical structure, the Apostolic foundation, in Mosaic institutions; see Numbers 11:24‑30 concerning the seventy elders or apostles which exactly matches our Lord’s arrangement in Luke chapter 10.
4 John 1:17.
5 St. Basil the Great, “The Hexaemeron,” in Nicene and Post‑Nicene Fathers, St. Basil: Letters and Selected Works, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Bloomfield Jackson, vol. 8 (Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1895; reprint Peabody, Massacheusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995), p. 52.
6 T. Walter Wallbank et al, “Civilization Past and Present,” 6th ed., vol.1 (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1969), p. 37.
7 The Desert Christian: Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1966) p. 108.