Until the 18th century, hardly anyone questioned the unity of Genesis, whether rabbinical scholars of Judaism or ecclesiastical scholars of Christendom. For all of them, Genesis was a unified work of Moses written in the 15th century BC (around 1450-1410 BC). It was probably written slightly before or after the Israeli Exodus from Egypt (dated about 1446 BC). This approach to the authorship of Genesis is now labelled as the “traditional” or the “precritical” approach, with a slightly negative connotation.
The situation was gradually but completely turned around since mid-18th century. The academic world totally adopted the new “critical” approach which holds that Genesis is [a] not a unified work and [b] also not written by Moses. This position dominated the academic world so much that anyone holding the traditional view was labelled pejoratively “fundamentalist”. However, it should be noted that the traditional view has always been upheld in conservative evangelical churches. Moreover, recent academic research since the 1960s has found evidences that contradict the critical approach and support the traditional approach.
Today, after intense discussion in the last 200 years, the definitive answer to the authorship of Genesis remains unknown. It is likely that the argument will never be resolved. Hamilton (1990:38) says it well: “Theories about Genesis’ origin grow like the old pagan pantheons. New ideas are added; old ideas are never discarded. For some this boils down to an exercise in futility. For others this is the genius of scholarship, the endless (literally!) pursuit of empirical truth, ‘always searching, but never coming to a [consensus] knowledge of the truth.’ (2 Tim. 3:7)”
Despite all these academic arguments, it is even more important to point out that the authorship of Moses is supported by the rest of the Bible, including Jesus Himself.
In the Pentateuch, God commanded Moses to write down His words (Ex 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; Nu 33:2; Dt 31:9,24; 33:2).
In the rest of the OT, many verses mention that the Torah was written by Moses (Jos 8:31; 23:6; Jdg 3:4; 1Ki 2:3; 2Ki 14:6; 21:8; Ezra 6:18, Neh 13:1). The discovery of the autograph copy of the Torah in the reign of Josiah (2Ki 22:8) proves the existence of the Torah well before captivity.
In the NT, Moses was frequently mentioned as the author of the Torah (Mt 19:8; Mk 1:44; 7:10; 12:26; Lk 5:14; 24:27,44; Jn 1:17,45; 5:46-47; 7:19; Ac 3:22; 13:39; 15:5-21; Ro 10:5,19; 1Co 9:9; 2Co 3:15; Rev 15:3).
It is appropriate to claim Moses as the author because it would be difficult to find in all the history of Israel’s life a man who was better qualified to write this book. Trained in the “wisdom of the Egyptians” (Ac 7:22), Moses was providentially prepared to understand available records and manuscripts in the Egyptian palace. The authorship of Moses does not preclude minor editingby subsequent generations, as demonstrated by: [a] the presence of the phrase “and to this day” (Gen 22:14; 25:33; 32:33; 35:20) or [b] by the altered names of places (probably made by Ezra who revised and corrected the version of the ancient Scriptures). Neither does it preclude the use of different earlier documents by Moses in his composition of Genesis. Nevertheless, Moses was under the guidance of God and would not use any erroneous information from those documents.
Documentary Hypothesis: Attack on Genesis
The first people to attack Genesis for “internal inconsistency” were English priest Richard Simon in 1678 and Dutch theologian Campegius Vitringa in 1707. Their arguments at first were not taken seriously. Later in 1753, the doubt as to the authorship of Moses was expressed by French physician Jean Astruc. He observed the puzzling distribution of different names for God scattered through Genesis, sometimes “Yahweh” and sometimes “Elohim”. He concluded that Moses was not the “author” of Genesis but only a “redactor” (editor), who put Genesis together by copying verbatim from two earlier documents.
His idea was picked up by German historian J.G. Eichhorn (1780) who established other criteria for multiple sources in Genesis (and the Pentateuch), such as phraseology and literary style. Later academics (mostly German) pushed this view in the 19th century, culminated in the formulation of the documentary hypothesis (also called JEDP hypothesis) by Julius Wellhausen (1878).
The hypothesis identifies 4 major literary strands behind the Pentateuch: [a]Yahwist (J source, use “Yahweh” for the name of God; “Yahweh” begins with “J” in German) written in Judah during the reign of Solomon around 950 BC; [b]Elohist (E source, use “Elohim” for the name of God) written in northern Israel after Solomon’s reign around 850 BC; [c]Deuteronomy (D source) written in northern Israel around 620 BC, confined to the writing of Deuteronomy; [d]Priestly Writer (P source) written after the Babylonian exile around 550-450 BC.
They raised a number of reasons for positing the existence of a multi-traditional Genesis, in fact for the whole Pentateuch:
[a] the different names of God, e.g. “Elohim” in 1:1—2:3, “Yahweh Elohim” in 2:4—3:24, both “Elohim” and “Yahweh” in ch.6—9.
[b]the presence of duplications, the same story told in different accounts which are perhaps irreconcilable, e.g. the Creation accounts (1:1—2:3 and 2:4ff.), the Flood accounts (meshed in ch.6—9), the accounts of God’s covenant with Abraham (ch.15 and ch.17), accounts of Hagar’s banishment (ch.16 and ch.21), accounts of Jacob’s name change to Israel (ch.32 and ch.35), accounts of Joseph’s sale to merchants (37:25-27,28b and 37:28a,36), 3 accounts of wife abduction (ch.12, ch.20 and ch.26).
[c] the presence of anachronism, which must be dated much later than the time of Moses, e.g. Abraham’s “Ur of the Chaldeans” (15:7) as Chaldeans appeared only later; also, the list of Edomite kings in ch.36 as Edomites did not settle in Transjordan before the 13th century BC.
[d] the detection of distinctive literary styles or religious ideology, e.g. P’s style is reckoned to be more formal and repetitious; J’s is more simple but with anthropomorphic tendencies describing direct contact of God with the patriarchs; E’s tends to dilute the contact with God by introducing dreams and angels as intermediate factors. (D source is only found in Deuteronomy and therefore not in Genesis.)
By applying their criteria, the document analysts cut up the book of Genesis into about 170 small segments based on the 3 hypothetical documents. For example, Gen 21:1-7 is broken up into: v.1a (J), 1b (P), 2a (J), 2b-5 (P), 6-7 (E). Based on this hypothesis, the book of Genesis could have only been completed after the first Jews returned from Babylon in 538 BC, perhaps as late as 400 BC.
Since they believed that the documents were written a long period after the recorded events (death of Joseph at the end of Genesis happened in about 1805 BC), they argued that the information presented in Genesis could not be authentic. Thus the documentary hypothesis led to direct attacks on the accuracy of the Bible.
Wellhausen’s work was followed by many academics, notably Hermann Gunkel (1901), and Martin Noth (1948). However, since the 1960s, the documentary hypothesis has been attacked by both sides of Biblical scholarship. From the radical side, John Van Seters (1975) and H.H. Schmid (1976) simply dated the whole Abraham traditions to the 6th century BC and believed there was actually no historical Abraham. However, this position is full of major unanswerable problems and lacks credibility. From the traditional side, J.H. Tigay (1975), Isaac Kikawada (1974), and Arthur Quinn (1985) refuted the documentary hypothesis by quoting persuasive examples from ancient writings showing the homogeneity of Genesis. With attacks from both sides, many writers now believe that the documentary hypothesis is untenable and should be discarded.
Y.T. Radday and H. Shore (1985) used the computer in a thorough word-level linguistic analysis of Genesis and concluded that the book is a unity, written by one author. K.A. Kitchen (1966) and R.K. Harrison (1969) collected convincing archaeological evidence to support the authorship of Moses composing at about the time of the Exodus. With these works, they satisfactorily answered the two main attacks on Genesis: unity and authorship.
In the first half of the 20th century, the documentary hypothesis was so dominant in the academic circle that to argue for the Mosaic authorship of Genesis was akin to argue for the flatness of the Earth. However, because of many recent studies by Jewish scholars and evangelical Protestants, the traditional view has gained much ground and Mosaic authorship is again dominant in orthodox churches.
NOTE: This section is mostly based on Hamilton (1990), supplemented by information from other references listed in the bibliography.