For many Jews, the Torah's authority does not derive from being a divine document.
The traditional Jewish position is that the Torah is all divine in origin. Yet nowhere does the broader Bible suggest that it was all written by God and in no way is this belief necessary to live as an observant Jew. The Jewish Bible, the Tanach, attributes authorship of some of its sections to God, but these are few and far between.
Let’s start with the second part of the Jewish canon, the Prophets (Nevi’im). The early prophets — the Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings — claim to tell the history of Israel from the time of the conquest of the land after the Exodus through the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. Nothing in the style of these books suggests that they are divine in origin. Though in places they certainly talk about God (in the third person), they present many different perspectives on this era and share all the pitfalls of humanly written histories.
Some of the later prophets — Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve minor prophets — explicitly claim to reflect divine revelation. The second verse of the Book of Jeremiah states that “the word of the LORD came to him [Jeremiah] in the days of [King] Josiah …” In case this is not definitive enough, the first real prophecy in the book opens: “The word of the LORD came to me.” (Jeremiah 1:4) Several other prophetic books contain similar claims, though not all. Isaiah simply begins: “The prophecies of Isaiah son of Amoz, who prophesied concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the reigns of…” (Isaiah 1:1). The book makes no explicit assertion of divine origin, though this was surely assumed by his audience.
Most of the books of the Writings (Ketuvim), the third section of the Tanach, completely lack the suggestion that they are from God. Psalms is a book of prayers to God, not from God (though some early Jews considered it divinely inspired). In most of the Book of Job, God is spoken of in the third person. Proverbs is mostly human wisdom. The five Megillot (scrolls) also lack any suggestion of divine authorship. Song of Songs, for example, is explicitly attributed to Solomon, with no hint of divine inspiration. Only some sections of Daniel contain prophecies attributed to God—though unlike earlier prophecy, these are mediated by an angel.
In sum, much less than half of the Prophets and the Writings contain any internal suggestion that it originated from God. Much of later Jewish tradition assumes that these books may have a divine hand behind them —whatever that might mean. But this idea developed only in the post-biblical period.
Even the Torah itself – the first five books of the Bible—nowhere suggests that it is all divinely authored. Only in Exodus, the Bible’s second book, does the ubiquitous formula “The Lord spoke to Moses saying” begin. Absolutely nothing in Genesis suggests that it was originally understood as given from God. The first words of the Bible are, “When God began to create heaven and earth” — not “God said to Moses, ‘When I began to create heaven and earth.’” The final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy, presents itself as Moses’s speech, not God’s.
And yet, the traditional Jewish position is that it is all divine in origin. This position is taken for granted in rabbinic literature, but is already suggested by some late biblical books that call it “the Lord’s Torah,” “the Torah of Moses,” or even “the Lord’s Torah given by Moses” (2 Chronicles 34:14).
The classical formulation of the divine origin of the Torah comes from Maimonides: “The eighth fundamental principle is that the Torah came from God. We are to believe that the whole Torah was given us through Moses our Teacher entirely from God … through Moses who acted like a secretary taking dictation….” (For a longer version of my claims here, see the second chapter of “The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible Critically and Religiously.”) This assertion has some roots in earlier rabbinic literature and, as noted above, in the very latest books of the Bible.
But its status as dogma is debated, and is connected to the fraught issue of whether Judaism is just a religion of deeds or also has central creeds like Christianity.
Even so, Maimonides’s position concerns the Torah only—not the entire Bible, and as noted above, goes beyond the explicit claims of the Torah concerning its authorship.
Modern biblical scholarship even casts doubt on the divine authorship of the sections of the Torah which explicitly claim to have come from God, including those that follow the formula “The Lord spoke to Moses.” The Torah contains too many contradictions to all be seen as divine. Do servants get released after six years, as stated Exodus, or at the Jubilee year (once every fifty years), as noted in Leviticus? Which divine speech is the correct one?
Biblical scholars have shown that the Torah contains too many contradictions and infelicities to be divine, and it instead came into being over a very long period of time, reflecting the understanding of various ancient Israelites, living in different places at different times, of what God wanted of them. (For more on this, see TheTorah.com.) But a text that reflects people’s understanding of God is quite different from a text dictated by God to Moses and preserved without error for three millennia — the view of Maimonides and a position upheld by many Jews within the Orthodox community.
Should this matter? Does scripture need to be perfect in order to retain its scriptural status?
For many Jews, the Bible does not get its power, or even its authority, from being a divine document. When reciting the blessing recited after reading from the Torah, we laud it as Torat emet— a Torah of truth. That need not mean that it is entirely true, but only that it contains profound truths. Sometimes these truths are close to the surface. Other times they are brought out through interpretation — even radical interpretation that fundamentally changes the original meaning of the text.
Truths can be found in many places, but as Jews it is our obligation to search out and to follow the truths we find in the Torah—to make the Torah, indeed the whole Tanach, into our central orienting text. The Jewish community has created the books of the Bible and placed them — most especially the Torah — as the central compass of Jewish life.
Being Jewish means adopting this Bible-centric position — buying into the Torah and using sections of it (along with other wise texts from other traditions) as a guide for our lives and to create continuity with our ancestors — even if we are not following the Bible as God’s revealed truth.
Marc Zvi Brettler is a professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University.