Did Moses Write Deuteronomy 34?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
The Holy Spirit is silent regarding whom He used to pen certain books of the Bible. Job and 1 and 2 Kings fall into this “unknown writer” category. Other books of the Bible, however, clearly identify the individual through whom the Holy Spirit chose to communicate His message. We know that the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1:1-2), while Peter wrote two of the New Testament epistles, which we call 1 and 2 Peter.
Repeatedly in Scripture, the Holy Spirit indicated that Genesis through Deuteronomy was penned by the inspired writer Moses. Exodus 24:4 indicates that “Moses wrote all the words of Jehovah.” Deuteronomy 31:9 reveals that “Moses wrote this law and delivered it unto the priests…” (cf. Exodus 34:27; Numbers 33:2; etc.). Furthermore, Bible writers throughout the Old Testament credited Moses with writing the Pentateuch (also known as the Torah or “the Law”). A plain statement of this commonly held conviction is expressed in Joshua 8:32: “There in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua copied on stones the law of Moses, which he [Moses] had written” (NIV).1 Notice also that 2 Chronicles 34:14 states: “Hilkiah the priest found the Book of the law of Jehovah given by Moses” (cf. Ezra 3:2; 6:18; Nehemiah 13:1; Malachi 4:4). As Josh McDowell noted in his book, More Evidence that Demands a Verdict, these verses “refer to an actual written ‘law of Moses,’ not simply an oral tradition.”2 [NOTE: In the Hebrew Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy was considered one unit, and thus frequently was called “the Law” or “the Book” (2 Chronicles 25:4; cf. Mark 12:26). They were not intended to be five separate volumes in a common category, but rather, are five divisions of the same book. Hence, the singular biblical references to “the Law” or “the Book.”]
The New Testament also shows no hesitation in affirming that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. John wrote: “The law was given through Moses” (John 1:17). With this Paul concurred, saying, “For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, ‘The man who does those things shall live by them’” (Romans 10:5, NKJV). Jesus Himself claimed “the Law” came from Moses. In Mark 7:10 Jesus quoted from both Exodus 20 and 21, attributing the words to Moses. Mark also recorded a conversation Jesus had with the Pharisees regarding what “Moses permitted” and “wrote” in Deuteronomy chapter 24 (Mark 10:3-5; cf. Matthew 19:8). But, perhaps the most convincing passage of all is found in John 5:46-47 where Jesus said: “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” (John 5:46-47).
Even for those who are completely convinced by the evidence that Moses was the inspired writer of “the Law,” some respectfully question whether he actually penned the end of Deuteronomy, which records the death and burial of Moses, as well as “the changing of the guard,” from Moses to Joshua. How could Moses have recorded these things if he had already died?
First of all, is it possible that the same God Who gave Moses supernatural revelation about what happened at the beginning of the Creation of the Universe (which no human being witnessed) also supernaturally revealed to Moses what would happen at (and after) his death? To ask is to answer. Furthermore, God revealed a number of things to Moses about the future that he penned in the Pentateuch—from Israel’s future earthly kings (Genesis 36:31; Deuteronomy 17:14-15) to the coming of Jesus, the King of kings (Genesis 3:15; 12:1-3; 22:18; 49:10; Numbers 24:17; Deuteronomy 18:15-18). If Moses could write accurately through inspiration about events that would happen hundreds of years after his death, could he not also write about his impending death? Certainly he could.
It also may be, however, that a Bible believer could reasonably and respectfully make the case that, though Moses wrote the Pentateuch, the last few sentences in Deuteronomy could have been written by another inspired writer (possibly Joshua). Even J.W. McGarvey, who penned an entire volume defending the Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy in 1902, believed that “the account of the death of Moses, and some comments on his career…undoubtedly came from the pen of some later writer or writers.”3
Consider a possible modern-day parallel: What if a mother wrote a 200-page book titled “10 Things to Remember when Educating Kids at Home,” but as she was finishing the final few sentences (after having already concluded her 10 main points) she suffered a stroke and died? Could her husband and children publish the book and call her the author even though they actually completed the final 10 sentences of the book? Surely few, if any, would think that such actions on the part of the family would be unfair or dishonest. However, if the mother was called the author but had not written any of the book, such attribution could legitimately be considered deceitful. Or, if she was called the author, but most of the material was written hundreds of years later, that, too, would be a false claim.
In short, the account of Moses’ death serves as no stumbling block to the Christian. Perhaps Moses recorded it by divine revelation prior to his death. Or, perhaps God used Joshua or someone else of His choosing to pen it by inspiration. Either way, one can still be confident that “the Book of the law of the Lord” was “given by Moses” (2 Chronicles 34:14).
1 All bold text in Scripture quotations has been added for emphasis.
2 McDowell, Josh (1975), More Evidence that Demands a Verdict (San Bernardino, CA: Campus Crusade for Christ), pp. 93-94.
3 McGarvey, J.W. (1902), The Authorship of the Book of Deuteronomy (Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing), p. 199.