Since Moses is regarded as the author of the Pentateuch, it seems odd that he is so often referred to in the third person, which naturally gives the impression that Moses is not narrating. This occurs in other books of the Hebrew Bible as well.

Does anyone know of any resources that discuss this issue from a conservative standpoint?

I only know of John Sailhamer's view expressed in his book The Meaning of the Pentateuch. He says that while the Pentateuch is based on documents by Moses, its structure was decided by a prophet later in Israel's history. While Sailhamer doesn't discuss this issue directly, his theory could account for Moses occurring in so much 3rd person narrative, while at the same time basically preserving the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.

Does anyone know of other viable theories?

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    The traditional (i.e. Orthodox) Jewish understanding is that God is the narrator (and God refers to itself in the 3rd person). Other than Moses' speeches in Deutoronomy, the Pentateuch is viewed as the dictated by God to Moses (and even the speeches, or portions thereof, are only included because God told Moses to put them in). Unlike the rest of the Bible, the Pentateuch is the literal word of God and therefore given higher status than the Prophets. Jan 7, 2016 at 12:04
  • Thank you conceptualinertia. Could you or someone else provide references where the traditional Jewish understanding is more fully discussed? Jan 11, 2016 at 0:36
  • I plan on writing a more elaborate answer at some point when I have time. On one foot, Maimonides discusses it in the first section of his Mishnah Torah. Jan 11, 2016 at 23:46
  • @Brandon (A.) As conceptualinertia notes, this is a traditional belief only. If I understand "Conservative" correctly, it is to rely on the text, not tradition. (B.) Jesus actually pointed out this issue -- that people were mistaken as to what was from Moses, or not, (John 7:22); (C.) In Eze. 20:25, God declared that in judgment -- he corrupted the law Moses gave them -- to prove to the other nations they were not his people; (D.) God didn't promote reliance on what was written, but rather his spirt--promising to write his law on everyone's heart instead, (Jer. 31:33). Feb 9, 2016 at 2:37
  • See P.J. Wiseman's Hypothesis on the toledoth. It suggests that Genesis was written by eyewitnesses. If the authors referred to themselves in the third person, it explains why Moses would adopt this style.
    – Bob Jones
    Dec 25, 2017 at 17:50

3 Answers 3


My understanding is that the use of the third person is not so smart evidence against Moses’ authorship of the Torah. His authorship is more than suggested (Ex 17:14; 20:21—23:33, cf. 24:4, 7; 34:27; Num 33:2; Deut 1:1; cf. Jos 1:7-8; 8:31-34; 23:6; 1Ki 2:3). Israel has always believed the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch.

There are indeed some anachronic statements (e.g. Gen 12:6; 13:7; Dt 2:20), updates (e.g. Gen 14:3, 14; 23:2) or even larger passages (Gen 36:31-39; Deut 34), that may be easily explained as late editorial activity, beginning with Joshuah up to Ezra. But the books themselves, even their literary structure belongs to the most probable author Moses. At the same time, the old Hebrew writers, beginning with Moses, were not interested in pushing their authorship in front, because on one hand their contemporaries knew it, and on the other hand, they saw themselves as collective and successive contributors to a grand history of God’s people, running from Genesis to 2Kings. Each new author added his personal, contemporary chronicle, to the Great Book. The 1-2 Chronicles cover the same period from a postexilic, didactic perspective, but the attitude of the author(s)--researcher(s) is similar.

Only the Prophets and a few Wisdom books name explicitly their authors, who nevertheless, prefer to speak of themselves in the third person. I don’t see any serious reason to abandon the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Traditions are sometimes more trustworthy and reliable than the solutions of the skeptics and distructive criticism. One cannot approach such special Book as an all-understanding and omniscient critical researcher. (I studied the Hebrew of the Pentateuch in comparison to the Hebrew of Job. While my study is not yet finished, it shows that those books have in common a number of exclusive terms and phrases that must represent not only the same diachronic phase of the language, but quite probably they have the same author).


As John Sailhamer says (The Meaning of the Pentateuch, page 70), most OT books are anonymous and we have no way of knowing who wrote them. This applies as much to the Pentateuch as to any other book of the Bible, except those with specific authorship notations. On page 23, Sailhamer asks whether Moses was really the author of the Pentateuch. He does not find the answer to this question within the texts, but in Joshua 1:8 and John 5:46:

Joshua 1:8: This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.

John 5:46: For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me.

Sailhamer seeks to resolve the issues that speak against a single author, by assuming that a later editor took over and, for some reason, rewrote what Moses had already written. According to Sailhamer (page 24), the last edition of the Pentateuch was written late, after the time of Malachi. He calls this an evangelical view, but it is far from the most well supported explanation.

Does anyone know of other viable theories

The most common theory is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. The Documentary Hypothesis defines four independent sources (JEDP) for the Pentateuch, which not only explains the changes in authorship style, theology and early to late Hebrew language, but also the frequent use of the third person in regard to Moses.

The Documentary Hypothesis, as originally proposed by Wellhausen, is no longer accepted by the majority of biblical scholars as definitive but, with various proposed modifications under consideration, it remains the best explanation we have for the development of the Pentateuch. Joel S. Baden says, in 'The Re-Emergence of Source Criticism: The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis' that European scholarship abandoned the JEDP hypothesis during the second half of the twentieth century, as American scholars continued to support it. He says this situation is changing, as the Documentary Hypothesis is regaining its place as a viable, productive, and current approach to the Pentateuch. One of the main contributions of more recent source-critical work has been the identification and correction of the methodological problems that plagued earlier scholarship and had contributed to the move away from the Documentary Hypothesis in Europe in recent generations. The Documentary Hypothesis has been worked over, revised, criticised and redefined by numerous scholars for well over a century and has survived as a viable theory.

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    I could be wrong, but I think the OP is only interested in theories that would preserve an aspect of Mosaic authorship (hence his use of "conservative standpoint"), which is not something the Documentary Hypothesis does.
    – ThaddeusB
    Jan 9, 2016 at 20:26
  • Thanks to Dick Harfield for your answer, however ThaddeusB is correct, I am interested in theories that fundamentally preserve Mosaic authorship. Jan 11, 2016 at 0:30

See P.J. Wiseman's Hypothesis on the toledoth. It suggests that Genesis was written by eyewitnesses, and the toledoth indicates who the author was.

If this is the case, we observe that the authors referred to themselves in third person.

Furthermore, the implication of Wiseman's theory is that Ge 1 was written by God himself on a tablet which was given to Adam. He wrote the 10 commandments on stone and he wrote on a wall once, so we know he knows how to write.

In Ge 1 God is referred to in 3rd person, it sets the tone for future authors who thought it important to write history because God started it.

Answers referring to Wiseman often get down votes because some people don't like him. But his theory was thought valuable by R.K. Harrison and others. And it is a theory in direct response to the OP.

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