Volume 11 - Issue 1

The date of Deuteronomy: linch-pin of Old Testament criticism (Part 2)

By Gordon Wenham

In the first part of this article the author, who is lecturer at the College of St Paul and St Mary in Cheltenham, explained the arguments for the critical consensus which dates Deuteronomy in the late seventh century bc. Then under the heading ‘Reopening the question’ he began critically to re-examine those arguments, looking first at the question of language, then at ancient legal texts paralleling Deuteronomy. He continues below.

The central sanctuary

The chief argument for supposing that Deuteronomy was written in the seventh century is its repeated insistence that worship should be limited to ‘the place which the Lord will choose’. This is generally taken as a code word for Jerusalem, so we should regard Deuteronomy either as the programme for or a justification of Josiah’s centralization measures. This reading of Deuteronomy is, it is held, confirmed by 2 Kings 22 which mentions that a law book was discovered in the course of the reform.

Now there are several objections to this equation of Deuteronomy with the Josianic reform programme. The first oddity is that the book never specifies where ‘the place’ is. It is generally explained as reflecting the writer’s unwillingness to put obvious anachronisms into the mouth of Moses. But if pseudonymous writing was as acceptable as liberals usually allege, why such coyness? If Moses was the greatest of the prophets, as Deuteronomy certainly claims (18:15–22; 34:10–12), why should he not have predicted that Jerusalem would be the chosen city? It would certainly have added credibility to Josiah’s reformation. If an unnamed prophet of Bethel could be credited with predicting three centuries beforehand that King Josiah would carry out his reforms (1 Ki. 13:2), why should not the much better known Moses have been allowed to name Jerusalem?

Secondly, the usual critical contention that Deuteronomy limits all worship to Jerusalem is demonstrably false. Nowhere does the book specify what place is meant by ‘the place which the Lord your God will choose’. It is just a guess that Jerusalem is intended. But Deuteronomy does specify by name one place where an altar is to be built and sacrifices offered. Read Deuteronomy 27:4–8. There you will see that sacrifices must be offered on Mount Ebal, a hill near Shechem, approximately forty miles north of Jerusalem. At least Shechem was an important shrine in the days of Joshua (Jos. 8:30–35; 24) and also in the tenth century in the days of Rehoboam (1 Kings 12). Then it faded out as a significant centre until it became the capital of the Samaritans in postexilic times.24

It must be admitted that it is totally incongruous for a book which is supposed to be vitally concerned with limiting all worship to Jerusalem to state that Moses ordered sacrifice to be offered at Mount Ebal, at what Josiah would have called a high place. In the light of chapter 27 it seems impossible to regard the present book of Deuteronomy as either the programme for or as a tract justifying centralization of worship. Chapter 27 would surely have been omitted if that were the book’s purpose. For this reason it seems very difficult to believe that Deuteronomy was written in the seventh century bc in Jerusalem.25

Rather surprisingly, few critical scholars pay much attention to the problems posed by chapter 27 for the usual dating of Deuteronomy. There seems to be a blind spot here with many: they have been so conditioned to believe that Deuteronomy wants to limit all worship to Jerusalem that they overlook what chapter 27 is saying. Those who do notice the problem often suggest it contains later interpolation.26 But this is hardly satisfactory. For reasons already stated above, formally and stylistically chapter 27 is an integral part of the book. Furthermore, even if it is construed as an interpolation, it is necessary to suggest when it was inserted into our book. If it was not in the original Deuteronomy written to promote or justify Josiah’s centralization, why insert it soon afterwards? The editors of Kings, often alleged to be the final editors of Deuteronomy, were also fiercely opposed to the high places such as Ebal, so why should they have wanted to make this comment? Therefore even if one is disposed to see this chapter as an interpolation, for which there is little evidence, there are still difficult questions which a seventh-century date for Deuteronomy’s composition seems unable to answer.

Finally it should be noticed that though the book of Kings associates the discovery of the law book with Josiah’s reforms, it does not actually say all the reforms including the centralization of worship were prompted by the discovered law book. As is widely recognized, at least two quite distinct sources have been combined in 2 Kings 22–23: first, a full and circumstantial account of the discovery of the law book in 22:3–23:3, 21–23, and second, a list summarizing Josiah’s measures in 23:4–20.

The implications of the composite nature of 2 Kings 22–23 were brilliantly worked out by N. Lohfink27 some twenty years ago. He argued that, if the law-book source (22:3–23:3) is distinct from the centralization source (23:4–20), it is doubtful whether the discovery of the law book had anything to do with the centralization programme. In other words it is dubious whether 2 Kings 22–23 lends any support to the notion that Deuteronomy was a seventh-century work written to support the centralization of worship in Jerusalem. It may be noted that Lohfink’s conclusions were partially anticipated by D. W. B. Robinson in his excellent monograph Josiah’s Reform and the book of the Law.28 Robinson relied on 2 Chronicles 34, which places Josiah’s centralization measures in his twelfth year, six years before the discovery of the law book in his eighteenth year (2 Ch. 34:3–18). There is certainly nothing in 2 Kings to refute this chronology. Indeed the fact that the temple was being repaired when the law book was found surely implies that certain reforms preceded the law book’s discovery.

How then should we take Deuteronomy’s references to the central sanctuary, if they are not to be read as a cryptic allusion to Jerusalem? Here McConville’s important new work Law and Theology in Deuteronomy29needs to be consulted. He argues that Deuteronomy must not be read as a religio-political tract attempting to adapt old legislation to the social conditions of the late monarchy period. In fact he shows that the cultic legislation of Deuteronomy does not fit the seventh-century situation at all convincingly. It stands much closer to the conditions in the Judges period. What we have in Deuteronomy are not changes in regulations necessitated by social changes in the late monarchy period, but a theological reinterpretation of older pentateuchal law (including P) in the light of God’s great new act of generosity, the gift of the promised land.

Because God is doing so much for Israel, particularly giving them the land of Canaan, they are expected to respond more generously than in the past. They must take care of the widow, the poor and the Levite. They must go beyond the letter of the old law; giving interest-free loans that are written off after six years, or offering bulls instead of lambs at passover, and extra pieces of other sacrifices. For God’s goodness to Israel is shown not simply in giving the land, but in dwelling in it himself at the place which he will choose. The place is to be the new Sinai, the new heaven on earth, because it is where the Lord will put his name and his habitation. Thus according to McConville, Deuteronomy is not so much interested in the location of the place, but in the fact that it will be chosen by God for his dwelling. The geographical location is unimportant: the theological significance of the place is all-important.

Religious ideology

It is often supposed that the ideology of Deuteronomy supports the case for a seventh-century date. The warnings of judgment and the threats of exile match the situation Judah faced with the Assyrian and Babylonian attacks on Jerusalem. The relevance of Deuteronomy to this situation is undoubted, witness the use Jeremiah and Ezekiel make of deuteronomic ideas, but whether this proves Deuteronomy was specially written for this period is another matter. As Peter Craigie argued in his commentary,30 the themes that are most prominent in Deuteronomy, the promises to the patriarchs, the covenant, the kingship of God, holy war and the conquest of the land are exactly those found in what is often regarded as the earliest poem in the Old Testament, the Song of the Sea in Exodus 15. This poem is unquestionably early, as its grammatical forms show, and was presumably composed soon after the crossing of the Red Sea which it celebrates. The coincidences between Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy are striking, but owing to our limited knowledge of the development of religious ideas in Israel, we cannot appeal to the parallels as proof that Deuteronomy must be early. However at least they show that there is no theological incongruity in positing an early date for Deuteronomy.

Marriage laws

Similarly the civil law of Deuteronomy fits the second millennium as well if not better than the first millennium. The demand for multiple witnesses for conviction is a recognized principle of old Babylonian laws. The double inheritance of the first-born and the practice of Levirate marriage are attested in Middle Assyrian Law. Though the extra-biblical parallels cited come from the second millennium, it seems likely that similar legal principles continued to operate later.31

However the large group of laws on sex and marriage in Deuteronomy 22 do seem closer to second-millennium legal requirements than to what we know of Jewish practice in the late fifth century bc.32 This is strange if Deuteronomy were only written a century or two earlier. Deuteronomic definitions of and punishments for adultery find close parallels in old Babylonian and Hittite laws (1750/1500 bc). The arrangements about bride money also fit early practice well. But in the Jewish colony of Elephantine divorce rather than death was the penalty for adultery, and the bridal payments were lower. It must be admitted that this evidence does not constitute conclusive proof of the second-millennium origin of the deuteronomic laws. We are not exactly comparing like with like when comparing official collections of law like Hammurapi’s or Deuteronomy with private legal documents like those found at Elephantine. Nevertheless it does suggest that the legal parts of Deuteronomy could also have originated early: they do not require a seventh-century date, indeed they are difficult to square with it. But this is an area which requires much more work before definite conclusions can be drawn.

The use of Deuteronomy in Jerusalem

It has already been argued that it is wrong to see Deuteronomy as a programme to centralize worship in Jerusalem, but that is not to say it had no place in Jerusalem religion. Though Deuteronomy did not prompt Josiah’s reforms according to a critical reading of 2 Kings 22–23, it does appear that the law book found in the temple was a version of Deuteronomy, or at least included Deuteronomy. Lohfink33 has however shown that the law book narrative (2 Kings 22:3–23:3) only makes sense if the book discovered was an old and authentic one, whose authority was immediately recognized by the religious and political leaders of the day. He argues that the book discovered in the temple was a covenant document used from time to time in official rites in Jerusalem, perhaps at royal coronations. Certainly it was regarded as binding on the king and his subjects. In a long and complicated argument he suggests that the document, which he regards as some briefer form of Deuteronomy, was brought to Jerusalem with the ark in the time of David. Lohfink’s arguments are suggestive rather than conclusive, but again they point to an earlier origin of the book than is usually assumed.


This examination of the main arguments for the dating of Deuteronomy has been far too brief to deal with them adequately. Nevertheless there are very good reasons for concurring with Rendtorff that the dating of this pentateuchal source ‘rests on hypothetical assumptions which only have any standing through the consensus of scholars’. Time and again we have observed how exegetical and other data have been interpreted on the assumption that Deuteronomy was written in the seventh century, and then often as not these interpretations are claimed to support this dating. The style of Deuteronomy, its approach to war, its attitude to the central sanctuary, its relationship to the treaty texts, have all been evaluated in the light of a prior assumption about its seventh-century date.

It has been our argument that this assumed date not only conflicts with Deuteronomy’s own statements about its origin, but that it creates other critical problems in its train. The style of Deuteronomy and its parallels with the legal texts are certainly compatible with an earlier date. However Deuteronomy’s directive that sacrifice should be offered on Mount Ebal makes it most unlikely that it should be regarded as a tract whose main purpose is to encourage or justify centralization of worship in Jerusalem. Nevertheless if the consensus of scholarship on Deuteronomy is to be changed, much detailed work must be done, as it involves reassessing and often rewriting the whole critical tradition about the Old Testament. This is an immense undertaking. McConville’s book shows some of the many issues that are involved. May it be the forerunner of a series of fresh studies of the history of Old Testament literature and of religion and Deuteronomy in particular. For it is not just our understanding of history that is affected by our view of Deuteronomy’s date, but our view of the inspiration of Scripture, since a late date clearly implies its pseudonymity.

However conservatives should not merely be concerned to defend the truth of Scripture. Though that is often a very taxing and difficult intellectual task, it is not the chief purpose of Scripture to teach us about Moses’ life history or whatever. Rather it is to train us in righteousness, in the obedience and love of God and his laws. ‘To love God with all our heart, soul and mind,’ as Deuteronomy puts it. As a result of biblical scholars’ preoccupation with critical issues for nearly two centuries the church has lost out in two directions. First, the theories of authorship often adopted have led to a low view of biblical inspiration and the authority of Scripture. ‘If it is not really by Moses, or by Paul, we need not believe it or obey it,’ is the unspoken corollary of many critical theories. And second, Bible-believing Christians have spent so much time worrying about when this was written or how it was written, that they have forgotten to listen to the voice of God speaking to them through Scripture. This ought to be our first priority: to discover what God is saying to us through Deuteronomy, not whether Moses or some great unknown wrote it.

24 On Shechem see G. E. Wright, Shechem: The Biography of a Biblical City (London: Duckworth, 1965). Most recently what is apparently a large and roughly built altar dating from about the twelfth century BC has been found on Mount Ebal itself. This could go back to Joshua (cf. Jos. 8:30–35). See also G. Garner, Buried History (1984).

25 I have developed this argument more fully in ‘Deuteronomy and the Central Sanctuary’, Tyndale Bulletin 22 (1971), pp. 103–118.

26 Cf. H. D. Preuss, Deuteronomium, pp. 149–154.

27 N. Lohfink, ‘Die Bundesurkunde des Königs Josias—Eine Frage an die Deuteronomiumforschung’, Biblica44 (1963), pp. 261–288, 461–498.

28 D. W. B. Robinson, Josiah’s Reform and the Book of the Law (London: Tyndale, 1951).

29 J. G. McConville, Law and Theology in Deuteronomy (Sheffield: JSOT, 1985).

30 P. C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 59–66. Craigie’s is the more incisive of the two recent conservative commentaries on Deuteronomy, but J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy(London: IVP, 1974) also contains much of value not to be found in Craigie.

31 For a convenient list of parallels between biblical and other collections of law see S. Greengus. Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Supplementary Volume) (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), pp. 533–534.

32 For a discussion of the Elephantine texts, see B. Porten, Archives of Elephantine (Berkeley: 1968). Porten has also republished and translated a representative selection of these texts in Jews of Elephantine and Aramaeans of Syene: Aramaic Texts with Translation (Jerusalem: 1974).

33 N. Lohfmk, Biblica 44 (1963), pp. 261–288, 461–498.

Gordon Wenham

Cheltenham and Gloucester College