On the authorship of the Pentateuch

June 24, 2010

All Christians and Jews until the 18th century believed the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) to be the work of Moses (cf. The Doctrines of Genesis, Rev. Victor Warkulwiz M.S.S., The John Paul II Institute of Christian Spirituality, 2007-2009; p. 24).  This belief has largely been replaced by the Documentary Hypothesis, associated primarily with the German Protestant Julius Wellhausen (1841-1891), which states that the Pentateuch was a conflation of four different sources, some exilic and post-exilic (i.e. dating from no earlier than the 6th century B.C., whereas Moses certainly lived in the second millenium B.C.).

The great majority of modern Catholics, and especially modern Catholic scholars, have accepted this hypothesis, or a form of it (see for instance, among others, the Jerusalem Bible – even the original 1960s version: the New Jerusalem Bible of the 1980s goes even further – the episcopally-approved, “official” New American Bible, and even such a relatively conservative edition as the Navarre Bible).  It is nevertheless illogical, unsupported by any evidence and contrary to tradition.  Most importantly, it is contrary to the 1906 decree of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC), an authoritative arm of the Magisterium at that time (under Pope St. Pius X), which upheld Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (see below).

On the authority of the PBC responses

Pope St. Pius X: “By this our act we do declare and decree that all are bound in conscience to submit to the decisions of the Biblical Commission relating to doctrine, which have been given in the past and which shall be given in the future, in the same way as to the decrees of the Roman congregations approved by the Pontiff; nor can all those escape the note of disobedience or temerity, and consequently of grave sin, who in speech or writing contradict such decisions, and this besides the scandal they give and the other reasons for which they may be responsible before God for other temerities and errors which generally go with such contradictions” (Motu proprio Praestantia Scripturae, 1907).

The PBC on the Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch (my translation from the Latin)

The following doubts being proposed, the Pontifical Commission for carrying out studies of Biblical Matters saw fit to respond as follows:

1. Whether arguments brought together from critics impugning the Mosaic authorship of the sacred books, called the “Pentateuch,” are of such weight, that, with the many points of evidence taken from both Testaments, the unbroken consensus of the Jewish people, the constant tradition of the Church also, as well as internal indications elicited from the text itself being subordinated, they bestow the right of affirming that these books do not have Moses as author, but were assembled from sources for the most part later than the Mosaic age?

Resp. No.

2. Whether the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch necessarily demands such a redaction of the whole work, that it must absolutely be held that Moses wrote each and every thing with his own hand or dictated them to his secretaries; or is the hypothesis also to be permitted of those who think that he, having conceived the work himself under divine inspiration, entrusted the writing of it to another or to several, in such a way, however, that they rendered its sense faithfully, wrote nothing against his will, and omitted nothing; and finally that the work produced through this plan, approved by Moses the chief and inspired author, was published under his own name?

Resp. No to the first part, Yes to the second.

3. Whether without prejudice to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch it can be conceded that Moses, in composing his work, employed sources, namely written documents or oral traditions, from which, according to the specific mark he set up for himself and under divine inspiration, he drew some things for word or sense and inserted them, shortened or lengthened, into the work itself?

Resp. Yes.

4. Whether, substantially keeping safe the Mosaic authorship and integrity of the Pentateuch, it can be granted that nevertheless in long course of ages some modifications met with it, as: additions after the death of Moses or things based on the sacred writer, or inserted glosses and explications of the text; certain words and expressions translated from an archaic into a more recent language; finally, faulty readings to be ascribed to the fault of copyists, concerning which it be allowed to investigate and judge according to normal critical methods?

Resp. Yes, saving the judgment of the Church.

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