Who Wrote the Book of Genesis?


Bible readers love the book of Genesis because it explains the origins of the universe, people, sin, the nation of Israel, and more. Furthermore, the stories of the Garden of Eden, the global flood in Noah’s day, and the biographies of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph continue to fascinate people. Because Genesis is technically an anonymous work, many readers wonder who wrote it.

Moses wrote Genesis according to the Old and New Testaments, including Jesus. The traditional Jewish and Christian view that Moses wrote Genesis wasn’t seriously challenged until the 1800s. The Documentary Hypothesis is a source-critical approach that assumes Genesis had multiple authors.

How did Moses write Genesis if its stories predate his life? What are the three possibilities? What is the Documentary Hypothesis? What is the basis for its key arguments? Where does the Old Testament to Moses’ authorship of Genesis? Where does the New Testament? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Book of Genesis
Didn’t Moses live after the events recorded in Genesis? See below

How did Moses write Genesis if its stories predate his life?

All of the events of Genesis predate the life of Moses, so he was not an eye-witness to anything he wrote in the book. Exodus records Moses’ birth in its second chapter, which takes place approximately 400 years after Joseph’s narrative ends at the conclusion of Genesis. Conservative scholars generally date Joseph’s life to the 1800s B.C. They generally date Moses’ life to the 1400s B.C.

What is the Pentateuch? The word “Pentateuch” refers to the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The term is Greek in origin and means “five books.” The Torah and the Law are common Hebrew names for the first five books. The Bible sometimes refers to them as “the Book of Moses” or “the Law of Moses” (verses below).

Genesis is the only book in the Pentateuch that predates Moses’ life. This fact leads to the question: How did Moses know the stories? Among those who subscribe to Moses’ authorship of the book, three theories are common, all of which may be true. (1) Moses wrote down oral accounts. (2) He compiled it with written sources, perhaps editing them. (3) Moses received direct revelation from God.

Did Moses use oral and written stories to write Genesis?

When the Bible (verses below) and scholars attribute the authorship of Genesis to Moses, it doesn’t mean that he didn’t use oral or written sources. For example, stories like the creation account (Gen. 1-2), Adam and Eve (Gen. 3-4), and others may have been passed down orally from one generation to the next. However, some scholars who defend Moses’ authorship allow for the possibility of him using literary sources.

Genesis commentator Henry Morris theorizes that “Moses compiled and edited earlier written records that had been handed down from father to son via the line of the patriarchs listed in Genesis. That is, Adam, Noah, Shem, Terah, and others each wrote down an individual account of events which had occurred in his own lifetime, or concerning which he in some way had direct knowledge.”

Morris continues, “These records were kept, possibly on tablets of stone, in such a way that they would be preserved until they finally came into Moses’ possession. He then selected those that were relevant to his own purpose (as guided by the Holy Spirit), added his own explanatory editorial comments and transitional sections, and finally compiled them into the form now known as the Book of Genesis.” [1]

Did Moses receive direct revelation from God to write Genesis?

Those who hold to the inspiration of Scripture (e.g. 2 Tim. 3:16-17) believe that the Holy Spirit guided the authors of the Bible to write what God wanted. The theory of direct revelation goes beyond the doctrine of inspiration, suggesting that God communicated directly with Moses, even audibly. This possibility is consistent with Moses’ direct interaction with God in other passages (e.g. Exod. 3).

Moses author of Genesis
Who are J, E, P, and D? See below

What is the Documentary Hypothesis?

The Documentary Hypothesis, sometimes called Wellhausenism (more below), is a source-critical approach to understanding who wrote the Pentateuch, including Genesis. It rejects Moses as the principal author or compiler of the stories in Genesis. It argues that unnamed editors wrote and refined the first five books of the Bible as they appear in standard translations today.

Who was Julius Wellhausen?

Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) was a German Bible scholar who significantly influenced biblical scholarship with his theories about who wrote the Pentateuch, i.e. the first five books of the Bible. Wellhausen wasn’t the first to suggest that Genesis had multiple authors, but his arguments were more refined and persuasive to some scholars.

Some modern Genesis scholars praise Wellhausen. For example, Victor Hamilton writes, “Even to this day [Wellhasuen] remains one of the legitimate Erzvater [a German word meaning ‘founding fathers’] of biblical studies. He is to modern scholarship what Abraham is to the Jews, the father of the faithful. More lucidly and compelling than any other, he gave what many have considered the definitive formulation of the documentary hypothesis.” [2]

Other modern Genesis scholars disagree with the hypothesis. Bill Arnold writes, “Wellhausen’s reconstructions were dominated by antisupernaturalism and philosophical evolutionary thought. The theory made no allowance for divine intervention in history or for unique divine revelation.” [3]

Arnold adds that the hypothesis ignores the “internal self-claims of the Pentateuch,” like the historical nature of the stories, and claims that Moses wrote it (verses below). It also ignores archaeological evidence from the Ancient Near East, comes from outdated 19th-century philosophies, and is too subjective. [3]

How many authors wrote Genesis according to the Documentary Hypothesis?

Advocates of the hypothesis commonly argue that the Pentateuch, including Genesis, had four primary authors, J, E, P, and D. What distinguishes the authors are variations found in the text. For example, one author uses the name Yahweh for God, while another uses Elohim. Authors also wrote at different times. The hypothesis argues that one writer composed his passages one thousand years later than the others.

Alleged AuthorsHypotheses
“J” stands for Yahweh (or Jehovah)Written around 850 B.C.; he prefers the name Yahweh; he describes God with human-like qualities
“E” stands for ElohimWritten around 750 B.C.; he prefers the name Elohim; he attempts to refine J’s theology and the quality of his writing
“D” stands for DeuteronomyWritten around 650 B.C.; he is concerned with Israel’s worship; he attempts to refine the work of J and E
“P” stands for PriestlyWritten in the 400s B.C., a millennium after Moses lived; he describes the sacrificial system and has a more transcendent view of God than J

The traditional view is that Moses wrote Genesis and the other books of the Pentateuch after the exodus before Israel entered the Promised Land. If this is true, the composition of the books occurred in the 1400s B.C. However, as the table above reveals, the Documentary Hypothesis dates the books centuries later than that, even a millennium later in the case of P.

Holy Bible
What does the New Testament say about who wrote Genesis? See below

Where does the Bible teach that Moses wrote the Pentateuch?

The Old and New Testaments mention Moses as the author of the Pentateuch no less than 21 times. The references occur across several centuries, in various literary genres, and by different authors.

Old Testament

The Old Testament includes several references to Moses being the author of the Pentateuch, including Genesis. The Pentateuch attests to his authorship, as do the historical and prophetic books. This amounts to over a millennium of conviction that Moses wrote Genesis. (The verses below are from the ESV.)

Exodus 17:14, “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.'”

Numbers 33:2, “Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the LORD, and these are their stages according to their starting places.”

Joshua 8:31, “Just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the people of Israel, as it is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, ‘an altar of uncut stones, upon which no man has wielded an iron tool.’ And they offered on it burnt offerings to the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings.”

1 Kings 2:3, “And keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his rules, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn”

2 Kings 14:6, “But he did not put to death the children of the murderers, according to what is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, where the Lord commanded, ‘Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. But each one shall die for his own sin.'”

Ezra 6:18, “And they set the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their divisions, for the service of God at Jerusalem, as it is written in the Book of Moses.”

Nehemiah 13:1, “On that day they read from the Book of Moses in the hearing of the people. And in it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God.”

Daniel 9:11, “All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him.”

Daniel 9:13, “As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us; yet we have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth.”

Malachi 4:4, “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.”

New Testament

The New Testament reflects a strong conviction that Moses is the author of the Pentateuch. Jesus himself refers to it multiple times. All four Gospels mention it. The Apostle Paul also refers to Moses’ authorship in three different letters.

Matthew 8:4, “And Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.'”

Mark 12:26, “And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?”

Luke 16:29, “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.'”

Luke 24:27, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Luke 24:44, “Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.'”

John 5:46, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.”

John 7:22, “Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath.”

Acts 15:1, “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'”

Romans 10:19, “But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.'”

1 Corinthians 9:9, “For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned?”

2 Corinthians 3:15, “Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.”

References:
[1] The Genesis Record by Henry Morris. p. 26-27.
[2] The Book of Genesis by Victor Hamilton. NICOT. p. 13.
[3] Encountering the Old Testament by Bill Arnold and Bryan Beyer. p. 70.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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