Did Moses write the last chapter of Deuteronomy?
In the vein of redaction criticism, it is commonly claimed that Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy 34 is impossible or implausible, because it records Moses’ death. The difficulty, most claim, is that someone (i.e., Moses) would record the details of his death before he actually died. It’s cryptic at worst; weird at best. Imagine writing your own obituary and knowing the exact circumstances surrounding your death.
But in fact, it seems that that is what happened, according to Deut 32:48-52. And I am not the only one to hold this view (see, for example, this detailed article by Bill Barrick, who also argues for Mosaic authorship of Deut 34). This section (Deut 32:48-52) begins by stating that Yahweh spoke directly to Moses. There are two commands he gives Moses in this speech: 1) go up Mount Nebo, and 2) die there on the mountain. He further provides Moses the reason for these commands: his sin at the waters of Meribah-kadesh (cf. Num 20:1-13; 27:14). In fact, this judgment against Moses had already been given to Moses a number of times already. So even before Deut 34, there is evidence that Moses already knew of his impending death and the reasons for it.
Furthermore, there is nothing logically dissonant in Deut 34 that would indicate that Moses did not write it. If we assume that Moses received divine revelation throughout the majority of his time as the prophet of Israel, why wouldn’t we suspect that this divine revelation continued until the end of his life? “It’s just weird” doesn’t seem to justify appropriating just this chapter to a later writer or redactor. A future full-length article may be warranted to flesh out my view on this and respond to appropriate objections to this view, but if divine revelation was a major part of Moses’ ministry as prophet, I don’t see a problem seeing Moses as completing Deuteronomy shortly before his death. That Moses claiming himself to be an incomparable prophet in Israel’s history as being prideful seems to me a misunderstanding of what pride actually is.
Having said this, however, there are some who would claim that a non-Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy has bearing on the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy. I am not of that persuasion. I want to affirm that, in my mind, I don’t see any inconsistencies with someone advocating a non-Mosaic authorship of Deut 34 and at the same time accepting its inerrancy and inspiration. But just to be clear, to answer the question to begin this post, yes, I believe he did write his own obituary. But he had done much weirder things as Yahweh’s prophet.
10 thoughts on “Mosaic Authorship of Deuteronomy 34: Plausible or Preposterous?”
Interesting thoughts, Dave. I would hold that an editor completed the book with this obituary and not see any tension with so-called high views of Scripture. The OT canon is one completed by editing and so I’m not concerned that this obituary could have been placed there by an inspired editor.
Are you arguing for the Mosaic authorship on the basis of later texts that claim the Torah to be written by Moses? I didn’t see you mention them here as part of your argument. Without those texts it makes me wonder what the need is to defend Mosaic authorship in the first place. If I have read you properly, your argument basically reads that because Moses was told he would die on the mountain he *could* have written his obituary before he died and there is nothing logically dissonant about that.
You mention that saying “it’s just weird” doesn’t justify pushing it to a later editor/redactor, but on the flip side, there should be a good reason to believe someone *would* write something as strange as they’ve written when the simpler answer would be to accept that it’s not Moses writing about Moses in the third person and about his actual death of all things. I haven’t thereby proven anything, I’m just skeptical of your approach 🙂
Hey Andrew, thanks for reading and commenting here. I appreciate your thoughts on this subject.
In answer to your question, I would take the common understanding (or what seems to be the common understanding) of the NT writers that Moses was responsible for the Torah. Knowing that ancient Jewish scholarship was extremely careful regarding the Torah (almost to the point of bibliolatry, as we might say today), I would hesitate to take any theory that considers redaction of what they considered holy writ. By that I mean that I find it implausible that ancient Judaism would allow and accept redaction of any kind of what they thought to be God’s Word. We see this evident in their textual criticism practices to a degree. Now, it’s entirely possible that the phrase “Moses and the Prophets” was a simple designation for the Old Testament (certainly “Moses, Prophets, and Writings” is) and non-commital to precise authorship, but I’d prefer to make assumptions based on ancient testimony (or indication of ancient testimony) that Moses is responsible for the Torah rather than later theories of redaction criticism.
I certainly don’t think non-Mosaic authorship of parts of the Torah is heresy or a violation of inerrancy like some might. But I do consider internal criteria/evidence for these things to be of lesser value than external criteria/evidence, if that makes any sense. So I’d prefer to accept that Moses received divine revelation that may seem a bit ridiculous to our modern minds over the possibly that there was any redaction or addition without a clear statement for such.
If Deut 34 was an addendum of sorts, I would imagine that the ancient scribes would make it clear that it was an addendum, as reflected in OT textual criticism. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, and conjecture of course, but that’s what I would suspect if an addendum explained it.
Thanks for the response. What I’m not clear about is on what grounds redaction would be considered off limits in Jewish “scholarship” through the ages. I’m not an OT scholar so I can’t sit here and defend my position all day, but drawing on the scholarship I have read it seemed to me that redaction of the canon was simply an accepted notion.
Saying “Moses and the Prophets” could simply be a helpful moniker for Torah in the sense that he certainly penned what was given to him by God and a great portion of the body of the Torah, but it doesn’t exclude redaction and force the idea of our post-enlightenment desire for single authorship on the text.
Well when we look at the care that the ancient Jewish scribes took in textual critical practices, things like making sure they distinguished between their own insertions and the original text (more so than scribes for the NT did), we see that they considered the original text so “holy” that I can’t imagine that they amended it without noting so. For example, we see that when a scribe came across what he might consider to be a “mistake” in the source copy, he left the mistake as is and inserted his own comments on the side. Using that paradigm, I just don’t see it plausible that there were redactors without any reference to them. You’re right, redaction of the OT canon is probably considered an accepted notion, just like in NT scholarship where source criticism of the Gospels was accepted without question until recently (e.g., Bailey and Bauckham).
I think the case of Jeremiah might be helpful in this instance. The canon feels no tension designating the book as Jeremiah, including ascriptions of authorship, etc., but even internal evidence in Jeremiah itself makes it abundantly clear that a great deal of what is recorded was recorded not by Jeremiah but by his scribe/assistant Baruch. (See Jer 36, for instace.) All that to say that a view such as “Moses was responsible for Torah” is not precisely the same as every stroke of a pen in the Torah coming from Moses’ hand (which would be rather difficult to defend, given that Scripture was recorded with a different script after the exile!).
Maybe it is because of my work in the Psalter that I really don’t feel any tension between redaction and editorial work on the one hand and a high view of Scripture (including inspiration and inerrancy) on the other.
Of course it is possible that Moses could have written prophetically about his own death. But honestly, not a lot of ink was spilled about this before the rise of higher criticism, in my opinion. It was a common view among the rabbis that Joshua wrote this chapter. (I’ll track down a reference for you—I don’t have one at hand at the moment.)
Regardless of who wrote the bit about Moses going up the mountain to die, I think 34:10 makes very little sense if it comes from the hand of Moses. In my opinion, for it to make any sense at all, it is probably an editorial note from a period very very much later. I mean, what rhetorical effect would it have (if any) for Moses to write (even prophetically) that no prophet like him has arisen since… well, since 15 minutes ago when he left to climb the mountain? 😛
Thanks for your comment Tony. Again, I want to reiterate that I am not making any assertions on high/low views of Scripture with regard to this issue. But I think Jeremiah’s example is actually helpful. In his case, there is an explicit statement that it was Baruch the scribe that assisted in writing, whereas there is no such statement at the end of Deuteronomy. Again, it seems like in general, textual critical practices of the OT reflects a careful preservation of the OT text, and while this is not necessarily a TC issue, I think we can draw appropriate principles and apply them here.
There are no references to redactors in the book of Psalms, but their work is plainly evident. A lot of it is associated with David, but many of the named authors come centuries after David, as well. And who was responsible for arranging these psalms in their present order?
I really don’t think the general observation on the reliable transmission of the Hebrew text is at all relevant. You are talking about a post-NT phenomenon in the transmission of the Masoretic Text within the Jewish scribal community, which has absolutely nothing to do with the relationship of any part of the Torah to its central figure, Moses.
Although it may not be related to your blog series, it’d be cool to hear your thoughts on the authorship of Hebrews sometime! Just for interest sake…
Yea sure, when I figure it out, I’ll write on it. 🙂