The Pentateuch: Definition, Timeline & Authorship

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Few other collections of writings have left such an indelible mark on civilization as the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Old Testament. Questions of timing and its very authorship still arouse significant controversy.

What is the Pentateuch?

Coming from the Greek words for five scrolls, the Pentateuch are the writings commonly referred to in English as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. While the English names are more commonplace, the Hebrew names deserve special mention; respectively, the books are known as Bereshit (In the beginning), Shemot (Names), Vayikra (And he called), Ba Midbar (In the wilderness), and D'varim (Words). Incidentally, these are also the first words of each of the books in Hebrew.

The written Torah
Torah Scroll

Combined, the Pentateuch is the written Torah, traditionally believed by Jewish people to be the word of God written by Moses. In fact, it is so synonymous with the word 'Torah' that some people use the two terms interchangeably. However, this is incorrect, as the Torah also includes various other writings. As the written Torah, it is believed to be the unaltered word of God and as such, is subject to the highest degrees of respect. In past persecutions of Jews, copies of the Torah would often be spirited away to safety at great personal risk, such was the importance of the Hebrew texts.

In the books themselves, the story of Creation is relayed, starting with Adam and Eve but then switches to a discussion about the foundations of the Jewish people. Starting with patriarchs, such as Abraham, much of the content is focused on the leader of the Jews out of Egypt, Moses, and the inevitable rules that will eventually serve to set them apart as a people who not only believe themselves to be God's chosen people but also a people that actively believes they have chosen God. This is accomplished through adherence to a number of rules, laid down throughout but especially in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The contents of these rules, as well as the nature of the authorship, remain controversial to this day in some communities, especially among some Evangelical Christians.

Who Wrote It?

Traditionally authorship of the Pentateuch is assigned to Moses, save a few verses that describe his death and burial. Deviations from this theory are often hotly debated because the texts are perceived by some to gain their supernatural influence from the fact that God revealed them directly to Moses, with the latter immediately committing them to writing. According to such belief, the last verses that deal with Moses's death were added afterward and were likewise divinely inspired.

Moses and the Law
Moses and the Law

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