The date of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 3)

Until the nineteenth century most Biblical scholars simply assumed that Duteronomy was written during the days of Moses, its Biblically acknowledged author. The book is presented as an address from Moses’ mouth, so its authorship and approximate date of origin were seen as self-evident.

Certain features of Deuteronomy, however, seem incompatible with Mosaic authorship. An obvious issue is that someone other than Moses must have written the account of Moses’ death and Joshua’s assumption of leadership (Deuteronomy 34:5-12). On the other hand, it is important to realize that the central issue is not whether Moses wrote Deuteronomy precisely as it now reads, but whether he actually gave the speeches contained in the book. Thus it would be quite possible to accept that someone else wrote about Moses’ death and still not deny that speeches are authentically Mosaic.

Some scholars, however, have questioned the entire notion of a Mosaic origin for Deuteronomy. Many of them contend instead for a seventh century B.C. date for its writing, associated with the reign of the former king Josiah. Such theologians/historians argue that the “Book of the Law” that was “found” during a renovation of the temple in Josiah’s day (2 Kings 22:8) was in fact Deuteronomy – but that the work itself was a pious fraud written by Josiah’s officials to legitimize the king’s reforms.

Critical to the argument either way is the comparison of Deuteronomy to other ancient Near Eastern “suzerain-vassal treaties”. Because Deuteronomy is also a treaty (covenant) between a suzerain (God) and a vassal (Israel), it most likely dates to the time of the particular treaties it most closely resembles. Some scholars argue that Deuteronomy parallels fourteenth century B.C. Hittite treaties (suggesting a traditional, fourteenth cntury date for Deuteronomy as well), while others view it as more similar to the later, seventh century B.C. Neo-Assyrian treaties. Incidental points have variously been used to support both sides of this argument:

  • Scholars supporting a later date point out that the order of the curses in Deuteronomy 27 and the Neo-Assyrian treaties dating from Esarhaddon’s day are similar.
  • Deuteronomy and the Neo-Assyrian treaties share such phrases as “to go after” (“to follow”, “to fear” and “to listen to the voice of”.
  • But historians supporting an earlier date point out that Hittite treaties included a historical prologue like Deuteronomy, a feature lacking in their Neo-Assyrian counterparts.
  • Deuteronomy and the Hittite treaties both use the word “love” to indicate the sovereig’s fidelity to the vassal, but such usage is absent in the later, Neo-Assyrian treaties (where love is only commanded of the vassal). An identical, dual use of “love” appears among the Amarna letters, fourteenth century B.C. correspondence between Egypt and its vassals and allies in Syria-Palestine.
  • Most significantly, the overall structure of Deuteronomy more closely follows the structure of Hittite (fourteenth century B.C.) than Neo-Assyrian (seventh century B.C.) treaties.

Another issue related to the dating of Deuteronomy is its similarity to the so called “Deuteronomistic” texts of other Biblical books. Some scholars contend that several other Old Testament books. Some scholars contend that several other Old Testament books reflect a theological perspective similar to that of Deuteronom, citing this as the reason this particular viewpoint has been dubbed Deuteronomistic. Many of these other Biblical texts date from the eighth to sixth centuries B.C. (e.g. Jeremiah, Hosea and portions of Samuel and Kings). Based on this reasoning, such scholars argue that Deuteronomy was written during this same time, when “Deuteronomistic” theology was in its ascendancy. Yet a strong case can be made that the books like Hosea allude to a Deuteronomistic brand of theology that already existed – in the book of Deuteronomy.

The theological problem posed by the projected “late date” for Deuteronomy is significant. If the book is indeed a “pious fraud” written during the reign of Josiah, it is difficult to imagine how it could still be regarded as authoritative Scripture. Overall, arguments for dating Deuteronomy to the second millennium B.C., as well as for believing its speeches to be authentic and written by Moses, remain strong.


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