Intensive study of the Old Testament, reading critically and analytically rather than reverentially and devotionally, casts serious doubt on the historicity of Moses. Now you can point out the lack of extrabiblical evidence for his existence, but this, of course, is unpersuasive to the pious. You can point out the uncanny similarity between the story of Moses and the earlier one of Sargon of Akkad (a foundling cast adrift in a basket of reeds sealed with pitch, who becomes royalty) but this will get you a blank expression. The only evidence that counts to them is Scriptural; unknown to them, the Scriptures provide serious evidence that undermines the Moses tale. It discredits itself.
First, let’s note the surprising paucity of references to Moses in the books outside the Pentateuch. Certainly someone with such an amazing and foundational story would be mentioned a good deal, but he’s not. What few mentions exist read like an afterthought or scribal addition. If Moses existed at all, he was a minor figure. Fundamentalists, however, would obviously point out his central role in Exodus through Deuteronomy, and the traditional view that he was the author of the Pentateuch. But real Bible scholars were forced to concede long ago that the Pentateuch was written centuries after the time of Moses. They’ve merely stopped short of concluding that the story itself is bogus. We, however, do not share their sentimental attachment to the story, so this is something we’re able to see.
The Pentateuch contains numerous anachronisms that make it impossible to have been written by anyone of Moses’s alleged time. Whoever wrote it refers to some places–not as they were known in Moses’s day–but only as they came to be known centuries later, such as referring to the Philistines (Genesis 21:32) living in Palestine before they had even arrived there, which occurred after the lifetime of Moses. Or when Genesis (35:19), presumably before the invasion of Canaan, uses the post-settlement name for Ephrath (Bethlehem), which it received only after the death of Moses, who admittedly never entered the land. Then there’s the reference to “Ur of the Chaldees” (15:7). Ur was a Sumerian city during the time of Abraham. It was a Babylonian city during the time of Moses. The Chaldeans emerged on the world stage 600 years after Moses, so he wouldn’t have known to use this term. It would be like finding a sample of writing allegedly from the early 1600’s that referred to New York when at the time it was only known as New Amsterdam. This one error would disprove its authenticity.
As does Deuteronomy 29:28, which is clearly post-Exilic. Genesis 12:6 flubs when it refers to the Canaanites in the past tense. In the time of Moses, they were a present presence. An even worse error in chronology occurs when Genesis 36:31-43 presents a list–in past tense–of the Kings of Edom, none of whom reigned until after the time of Moses. It appears to have been copied from I Chronicles 1:43-54, which would give a rather late date for Genesis, and refutes the attribution of Mosaic authorship.
In addition, the use of such phrases as “until this day” (Genesis 35:20, Deuteronomy 34:6, 29:28) necessarily implies some passage of time between these events and the accounts of them, as does Deuteronomy 34:10 in saying, “There arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses”, which would be meaningless and absurd if written by Moses himself. And while we’re on absurd, we should not overlook the contradictory boast in Numbers 12:3, nor the famous “self-obituary” of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:5-6).
Apologists would suggest that these passages, and the earlier anachronisms, are the additions of later redactors. But if the original “word of God” can be added to or changed in any way, it only raises questions about what else was added, and what may have been changed (unknown to us), and how the text can ever be trusted. It’s all too human in origin.
Worst of all for the claims of Mosaic authorship is the fact that the Old Testament describes religious practices among the Jews that demonstrate a complete ignorance of the Law of Moses, even among the priests themselves. When Solomon had the first Temple constructed, it was filled with graven images of oxen, lions, flowers, pomegranates, “knops” (gourds), palm trees, and cherubim. [I Kings 6:20,23-29,32,35;7:18-20,24-26,29,36.] No one objects to this blatant violation of the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4). Why? Because the commandment did not yet exist!
The Ark of the Covenant, in addition to being the portable throne of Yahweh, was also the chest which supposedly contained the Decalogue, but it is described as being topped with two graven images of cherubim (Exodus 25:18:20; 37:1,7-9). Keep in mind that cherubs then were not the little Dan Cupids we think of today, but winged bulls with human faces and stacked crowns, a pagan Assyrian image. If it existed, would the Second Commandment have been ignored so soon after it had been given? Would there be no denunciation of this lapse, no dramatic punishment?
The Fourth Commandment was also unknown at a time long after it had supposedly been given. Fact is, the Sabbath as a seventh-day rest for devotionals was a product of the Babylonian Exile. It was one of several measures to preserve a separate Jewish identity so they wouldn’t completely assimilate. A day off from work is not possible for nomadic herdsmen. It is only possible for settled existence, as in Babylon.
Prior to this, the only sabbaths the Jews observed were the lunar sabbaths of the new and full moon. Isaiah (1:13) in the 8th century BCE denounces these lunar festivals. Hosea (2:11) around the same time has God promising to destroy Israel’s “new moons and her sabbaths.” This (as well as I Kings 4:23, Amos 8:5, and Ezekiel 46:3) must refer to the lunar sabbath of the full moon, or it would not have been condemned in such general terms, with no distinction made between it and a “proper” sabbath.
Jeremiah also provides us with an important clue. In 7:21-22, Jeremiah has God deny that he instructed the Israelites in burnt offerings and sacrifices. Yet the first chapter of Leviticus has God doing exactly that! Either Jeremiah, from a priestly family, refused to acknowledge the canonicity of Leviticus–making either his book or Leviticus uncanonical–or Leviticus, the alleged third book of Moses, did not yet exist.
The scholarly consensus is the latter. Leviticus wasn’t written until the 5th century BCE, 800 years after the alleged time of Moses. Leviticus, like Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, does not claim to have been written by Moses. But when others make this claim, they are severely mistaken.
Also suspicious is the account in II Kings 22:8-13 when a priest named Hilkiah found “a book of the law of the Lord” in the Temple in 621 BCE, sparking an alleged Grand Revival. Most scholars have concluded that this is the first version of the book of Deuteronomy, which does claim to have been written by Moses (and is thus lying). Some scholars even conclude that either Hilkiah or another priest had composed it fairly recently. (It does seem the product of a settled existence and not a nomadic pastoral one.) To accept that it was an older text requires us to believe that even the priests had allowed “God’s word” to become totally forgotten. This is implausible in the extreme.
Given the anachronisms in the text and the gaps in practice, the foundational event of Judaism is revealed as a fictional fraud. Moses was not given the Ten Commandment, he cannot have written the Pentateuch, and he likely never even existed. Note that there are no others in the Bible named Moses or Aaron even though people commonly name their sons after past luminaries. These names (along with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) only became common among the Jews after the Exile, when the story of Moses (and the others from the new book, Genesis) first became known among the people. Moses was the creation–or gross embellishment–of Jewish priests around the time of Hilkiah, as part of a scheme to bolster their elite position in society and gain status as Official State Religion. They needed a larger-than-life intermediary to bring what they claimed was God’s word to the nation since its presentation by ordinary contemporary men would not have been impressive enough.
For 2500 years, the unthinking have been impressed by the fantastical story of Moses. But given the irresistible urge for political power among religionists, this is an attachment we can ill afford to perpetuate.
More Telltale Anachronisms in the Pentateuch
1) Exodus 31:34 & 32:15 refer to camels being part of Middle Eastern life centuries before they were domesticated and put to use.
2) Exodus 13:4 refers to the month of Abib. This is a Canaanite name, one they would learn and use only after having settled in Canaan. The recently escaped Egyptian slaves would have used an Egyptian name.
3) The so-called “Song of Moses” (Exodus 15) alludes to alleged historical events after the time of Moses–and no, it isn’t issued prophetically. There’s the wander in the desert (V. 13), the conquest of Palestine (V. 14)–a term not used until after the time of Moses and the founding of the Temple (v. 15) by Solomon.
4) Leviticus 19:28 prohibits making cuttings in the flesh to mourn the dead. Jeremiah 41:5 refers to it matter-of-factly, with no condemnation. So again Jeremiah knew no Leviticus.
5) Psalm 81:3 is another reference to the practice of lunar sabbaths, which is apparently acceptable. The author did not know any Sabbath Commandment.
6) Psalm 40:6 is another place where the Bible claims, contrary to Leviticus, that God did not ask for burnt offerings. Leviticus came well after its alleged author, Moses.