Sunday 8 August 2021




As we have seen in a previous article, the theology of  Don Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508) - leader of Spanish Jewry at the time of the Expulsion in 1492 - is difficult to define and characterise.  He seems to have vacillated between rationalist and mystical ideologies, but he also had some interesting views on who wrote some of the books of the Tanach.  This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Eric Lawee[1], deals with some of Abravanel’s views on biblical authorship.


Lawee (1996:65) writes how some of the classical rabbis would “periodically” discuss their views on biblical authorship “at times with great subtlety”. Abravanel was not so subtle. He entertains the notion of a ‘human side’ to the writers and advocates that some of the texts may have been edited and put together at a later date.

Abravanel asks questions like why are the books of Judges, Samuel and Kings incorporated into the section of Prophets, while Chronicles which deals with some of the same events, is placed in Ketuvim, or Writings? And why is the book of Ruth which was to have taken place in the time of the judges, not part of the book of Judges? Also, why are there discrepancies in the parallel biblical accounts of King David and King Solomon as depicted in the different versions of the books of Samuel and Chronicles? Why, in general, are there often depictions of the same biblical events in different versions? Why is the Torah called “Torah” which means law, and not another designation based on narrative or prophecy? Could this mean that while the authority of the Law is not to be questioned, the narrative and prophetic sections of the Torah may be open to historical scrutiny?

Some of the answers to these questions are to be found particularly in his introduction to his commentary on the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings.



What follows is a paraphrase of Abravanel’s introduction to his commentary on the Former Prophets, dealing with the authorship of the books of Joshua and Samuel. One notices his sense of freedom of inquiry in a subject he knows to be sensitive, to say the least, particularly as he challenges rabbinic views as expressed in the Talmud itself[2].

This being the case, it is understandable that some latter rabbis like Malbim and Rav Tzadok haCohen and others were strongly opposed to Abravanel’s radical views on biblical authorship.



Abravanel begins by quoting the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b-15a):

וּמִי כְּתָבָן מֹשֶׁה כָּתַב סִפְרוֹ וּפָרָשַׁת בִּלְעָם וְאִיּוֹב יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כָּתַב סִפְרוֹ וּשְׁמוֹנָה פְּסוּקִים שֶׁבַּתּוֹרָה שְׁמוּאֵל כָּתַב סִפְרוֹ וְשׁוֹפְטִים וְרוּת דָּוִד כָּתַב סֵפֶר תְּהִלִּים עַל יְדֵי עֲשָׂרָה זְקֵנִים עַל יְדֵי אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן עַל יְדֵי מַלְכִּי צֶדֶק וְעַל יְדֵי אַבְרָהָם וְעַל יְדֵי מֹשֶׁה וְעַל יְדֵי הֵימָן וְעַל יְדֵי יְדוּתוּן וְעַל יְדֵי אָסָף וְעַל יְדֵי שְׁלֹשָׁה בְּנֵי קֹרַח יִרְמְיָה כָּתַב סִפְרוֹ וְסֵפֶר מְלָכִים וְקִינוֹת חִזְקִיָּה וְסִיעָתוֹ כָּתְבוּ (יִמְשָׁק סִימָן) יְשַׁעְיָה מִשְׁלֵי שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים וְקֹהֶלֶת אַנְשֵׁי כְּנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה כָּתְבוּ (קַנְדָּג סִימָן) יְחֶזְקֵאל וּשְׁנֵים עָשָׂר דָּנִיֵּאל וּמְגִילַת אֶסְתֵּר עֶזְרָא כָּתַב סִפְרוֹ וְיַחַס שֶׁל דִּבְרֵי הַיָּמִים עַד לוֹ

And who wrote the books of the Bible?

Moses wrote his own book, i.e., the Torah[3], and the portion of Balaam in the Torah, and the book of Job.

Joshua wrote his own book and eight verses in the Torah, which describe the death of Moses.

Samuel wrote his own book, the book of Judges, and the book of Ruth.

David wrote the book of Psalms by means of ten elders of previous generations, assembling a collection that included compositions of others along with his own. He included psalms authored by Adam the first man, by Melchizedek king of Salem, and by Abraham, and by Moses, and by Heman, and by Jeduthun, and by Asaph, and by the three sons of Korah.

Jeremiah wrote his own book, and the book of Kings, and Lamentations.

Hezekiah and his colleagues wrote the following, and a mnemonic to remember which books they wrote is yod, mem, shin, kuf: Isaiah [Yeshaya], Proverbs [Mishlei], Song of Songs [Shir HaShirim], and Ecclesiastes [Kohelet].

The members of the Great Assembly wrote the following, and a mnemonic to remember these books is kuf, nun, dalet, gimmel: Ezekiel [Yeḥezkel], and the Twelve Prophets [Sheneim Asar], Daniel [Daniel], and the Scroll of Esther [Megillat Ester].

Ezra wrote his own book and the genealogy of the book of Chronicles until his period.


For our purposes, we need to remember the following:

·         Joshua wrote his book (the book of Joshua) and the last eight verses of the Torah.

·         Samuel wrote his book (the book of Samuel) the book of Judges and the book of Ruth.

·         Jeremiah wrote his own book and the book of Kings.


Abravanel reminds us that the Talmud continues by presenting a more detailed breakdown of the authorship of Joshua, Samuel and Psalms:

יְהוֹשֻׁעַ כָּתַב סִפְרוֹ וְהָכְתִיב וַיָּמׇת יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן עֶבֶד ה׳ דְּאַסְּקֵיהּ אֶלְעָזָר וְהָכְתִיב וְאֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן מֵת דְּאַסְּקֵיהּ פִּנְחָס

It is stated in the baraita that Joshua wrote his own book. The Gemara asks: But isn’t it written toward the end of the book: “And Joshua, son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died” (Joshua 24:29)? Is it possible that Joshua wrote this? The Gemara answers: Aaron’s son Eleazar completed it. The Gemara asks: But isn’t it also written: “And Eleazar, son of Aaron, died” (Joshua 24:33)? The Gemara answers: Pinehas completed it.

And in a similar vein:

שְׁמוּאֵל כָּתַב סִפְרוֹ וְהָכְתִיב וּשְׁמוּאֵל מֵת דְּאַסְּקֵיהּ גָּד הַחוֹזָה וְנָתָן הַנָּבִיא

It is also stated in the baraita that Samuel wrote his own book. The Gemara asks: But isn’t it written: “And Samuel died” (I Samuel 28:3)? The Gemara answers: Gad the seer and Nathan the prophet finished it.

We saw a similar explanation with the Talmudic source stating that King David relied on other authors to complete the book of Psalms. Thus, even according to the Talmud there is no claim of total or sole authorship of these books.

However, Abarbanel writes that when he probed this matter further, he could not believe that Joshua even wrote parts of the book of Joshua (not just because the Talmud concedes that Joshua died and the work was completed by Eleazar and then by Pinchas – which would have still been around the same time period), but rather because of other indications within the text of Joshua itself.



Importantly, Lawee (1996:73)[4] explains that Abravanel was comfortable in breaking with ‘Talmudic tradition’ in instances where the Talmud speaks with more than one voice as it indicates that there was, in fact, no one authoritative ‘Talmudic tradition’ in the first instance.

Abravanel makes this point very clearly:

Do not be amazed that I have deviated from the opinion of our sages in this matter, since even in the Gemara, they did not agree on these matters… Given that our sages themselves exhibited doubts in a part of the dictum [concerning biblical authorship], it is not inadmissible for me also to choose a more plausible and satisfying approach as regards a part in accordance with the nature of the verses and their straightforward purport.

Having established that, in his view, Abravanel is not breaking with Talmudic tradition and that his freedom of inquiry is perfectly permissible, he moves on to the book of Joshua:



Abravanel quotes a number of verses from the book of Joshua, where events and interventions are described as remaining “until this day”:


1) Joshua also set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan, at the spot where the feet of the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant had stood; and they have remained there to this day (4:9).

וּשְׁתֵּ֧ים עֶשְׂרֵ֣ה אֲבָנִ֗ים הֵקִ֣ים יְהוֹשֻׁ֘עַ֮ בְּת֣וֹךְ הַיַּרְדֵּן֒ תַּ֗חַת מַצַּב֙ רַגְלֵ֣י הַכֹּהֲנִ֔ים נֹשְׂאֵ֖י אֲר֣וֹן הַבְּרִ֑ית וַיִּ֣הְיוּ שָׁ֔ם עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃


2) And the LORD said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” So that place was called Gilgal, as it still is (5:9).

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־יְהוֹשֻׁ֔עַ הַיּ֗וֹם גַּלּ֛וֹתִי אֶת־חֶרְפַּ֥ת מִצְרַ֖יִם מֵעֲלֵיכֶ֑ם וַיִּקְרָ֞א שֵׁ֣ם הַמָּק֤וֹם הַהוּא֙ גִּלְגָּ֔ל עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃


3) They raised a huge mound of stones over him, which is still there. Then the anger of the LORD subsided. That is why that place was named the Valley of Achor—as is still the case (7:26).

וַיָּקִ֨ימוּ עָלָ֜יו גַּל־אֲבָנִ֣ים גָּד֗וֹל עַ֚ד הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה וַיָּ֥שׇׁב יְהֹוָ֖ה מֵחֲר֣וֹן אַפּ֑וֹ עַל־כֵּ֠ן קָרָ֞א שֵׁ֣ם הַמָּק֤וֹם הַהוּא֙ עֵ֣מֶק עָכ֔וֹר עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃ {פ}


4) Thus Hebron became the portion of Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite, as it still is… (14:14).

עַל־כֵּ֣ן הָיְתָֽה־חֶ֠בְר֠וֹן לְכָלֵ֨ב בֶּן־יְפֻנֶּ֤ה הַקְּנִזִּי֙ לְֽנַחֲלָ֔ה עַ֖ד הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה יַ֚עַן אֲשֶׁ֣ר מִלֵּ֔א אַחֲרֵ֕י יְהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃


5) But the Judites could not dispossess the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the Judites dwell with the Jebusites in Jerusalem to this day (15:63).

וְאֶת־הַיְבוּסִי֙ יוֹשְׁבֵ֣י יְרוּשָׁלַ֔͏ִם לֹא־[יָכְל֥וּ] (יוכלו) בְנֵי־יְהוּדָ֖ה לְהוֹרִישָׁ֑ם וַיֵּ֨שֶׁב הַיְבוּסִ֜י אֶת־בְּנֵ֤י יְהוּדָה֙ בִּיר֣וּשָׁלַ֔͏ִם עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃ {פ}


Abravanel then states:

Now, if Joshua wrote all of this, how could he have said unto this day regarding them? For [if so], the writing [of them] would have followed immediately after the occurrence of these events, whereas the force of the expression unto this day indicates necessarily that it was written a long time after the events happened.

Abravanel then brings another example, this time of anachronistic writing belonging to a different period of time, where we read:

וַיֵּצֵ֥א גְבוּל־בְּנֵי־דָ֖ן מֵהֶ֑ם וַיַּעֲל֣וּ בְנֵי־דָ֠ן וַיִּלָּחֲמ֨וּ עִם־לֶ֜שֶׁם וַיִּלְכְּד֥וּ אוֹתָ֣הּ ׀ וַיַּכּ֧וּ אוֹתָ֣הּ לְפִי־חֶ֗רֶב וַיִּֽרְשׁ֤וּ אוֹתָהּ֙ וַיֵּ֣שְׁבוּ בָ֔הּ וַיִּקְרְא֤וּ לְלֶ֙שֶׁם֙ דָּ֔ן כְּשֵׁ֖ם דָּ֥ן אֲבִיהֶֽם׃

But the territory of the Danites slipped from their grasp. So the Danites migrated and made war on Leshem. They captured it and put it to the sword; they took possession of it and settled in it. And they changed the name of Leshem to Dan, after their ancestor Dan (19:47).

Abravanel explains:

And it is known that this was in the days of the graven image of Mikha at the end of the [period of the] Judges. This is decisive evidence that this statement was not written until many years after Joshua’s death, which proves that Joshua did not write this his book.



Abravanel continues with the same analysis of the book of Samuel, showing how Samuel could not have written this book either:


1) That is why, to this day, the priests of Dagon and all who enter the temple of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod (I Samuel 5:5).

עַל־כֵּ֡ן לֹֽא־יִדְרְכוּ֩ כֹהֲנֵ֨י דָג֜וֹן וְכׇֽל־הַבָּאִ֧ים בֵּית־דָּג֛וֹן עַל־מִפְתַּ֥ן דָּג֖וֹן בְּאַשְׁדּ֑וֹד עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃ {פ}


2) As for the golden mice, their number accorded with all the Philistine towns that belonged to the five lords—both fortified towns and unwalled villages, as far as the great stone on which the Ark of the LORD was set down, to this day, in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.

וְעַכְבְּרֵ֣י הַזָּהָ֗ב מִסְפַּ֞ר כׇּל־עָרֵ֤י פְלִשְׁתִּים֙ לַחֲמֵ֣שֶׁת הַסְּרָנִ֔ים מֵעִ֣יר מִבְצָ֔ר וְעַ֖ד כֹּ֣פֶר הַפְּרָזִ֑י וְעַ֣ד ׀ אָבֵ֣ל הַגְּדוֹלָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִנִּ֤יחוּ עָלֶ֙יהָ֙ אֵ֚ת אֲר֣וֹן יְהֹוָ֔ה עַ֚ד הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה בִּשְׂדֵ֥ה יְהוֹשֻׁ֖עַ בֵּ֥ית הַשִּׁמְשִֽׁי׃


Again, Abravanel writes:

“Now if these events occurred in the days of Samuel, how did he say unto this day, which indicates the passage of a long time?

Furthermore, Abravanel brings another verse that describes an interaction with Saul:

 לְפָנִ֣ים ׀ בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל כֹּֽה־אָמַ֤ר הָאִישׁ֙ בְּלֶכְתּוֹ֙ לִדְר֣וֹשׁ אֱלֹהִ֔ים לְכ֥וּ וְנֵלְכָ֖ה עַד־הָרֹאֶ֑ה כִּ֤י לַנָּבִיא֙ הַיּ֔וֹם יִקָּרֵ֥א לְפָנִ֖ים הָרֹאֶֽה׃

Beforetime in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he would say, “Come, let us go to the seer,” for he that is now called a prophet was beforetime called a seer (9:9).

And again, Abravanel challenges the attribution of the authorship of the book of Samuel to Samuel:

And this verse indicates of necessity that Samuel did not write it; for Saul was his contemporary and so how could he say with respect to him: “Beforetime in Israel […] for he that is now called a prophet was beforetime called a seer?” But this demonstrates by evident certainty that this was written a long time after Samuel’s death. When the [linguistic] habits had changed.

It is interesting to note the R. Yosef Kara[5] (a student of Rashi) also concluded, based on this verse, that the book of Samuel “was not written in the days of Samuel”.[6]



After showing how, in his view, neither Joshua nor Samuel wrote the books bearing their names, Abravanel suggests instead that Samuel wrote the book of Joshua as well as the book of Judges:

And being as the book of Joshua was written by Samuel, it says the sorts of things that I mentioned – unto this day and the mention of the conquest of Leshem by the children of Dan – because that which is written [like the conquest] had already occurred at the time of the book’s writing…

Now who wrote the book of Samuel? … What I think correct concerning this matter is that Samuel recorded the events that occurred in his time and similarly [that] Nathan the prophet recorded on his own [what happened in his time] similarly Gad the seer on his own, each one what occurred in his time. And these writings (ketuvim) were [eventually] gathered and compiled together (kibbetsam ve-hibberam yahad) by Jeremiah the prophet, who arranged (sidder) the book as a whole on their basis. For if this is not so, then who gathered these discourses (ma’amarim), which were the work of diverse agents? …

It seems, though, that Jeremiah, when he wished to write the book of Kings, prepared the book of Samuel that precedes it, and it was he who gathered the discourses of the aforementioned prophets into a book. There is no doubt that he [then] added things to clarify the discourses as he saw fit …

All of these were the work of the editor (metakken) and assembler (mekabbets) … This is what I wished to explain with respect to the agent and writer of these books.



Abravanel, referring to the relationship between Samuel and Chronicles, states:

These are the plethora of doubts that beset this great question, and in seeking an answer and their resolution, I am bereft, with nobody working with me on them. For concerning this topic I have found nothing, great nor small, good nor bad, from our sages – not the early ones, the Talmudic masters, nor the latter writers and commentators. Not even one alluded to the difficulty at all and not one among them suggested a path towards its resolution…[7]

Abravanel cites Aristotle and declares:

It is incumbent upon us to thank earlier scholars [rishonim] who initiate investigations; for even if they did not achieve the truth, they nevertheless achieved disclosure of the problem. And had they not initiated investigation, we latter-day scholars [acharonim] could not have completed it.[8]


Lawee (1996:66) writes:

[E]ven as he insisted on the novelty of his inquiries into the various literary and historical features of the Former Prophets, Abarbanel by no means considered his conclusions the final word concerning them. At the end of his general introduction to the books of the Former Prophets, he states: “As for what I have understood of this, let the wise person pay heed and increase instruction (yishma hakham ve-yosef lekah).” …

[W]hat he meant by this was that beyond learning from his pioneering investigations, future students should also build on them.

In what measure later Jewish writers did learn from and build on Abarbanel’s discourses on biblical authorship and related issues is a topic in need of investigation.



Without, at this stage, wishing to go into an elaborate discussion on the Documentary Hypothesis as put forth by the proponents of biblical criticism, some points stand out and are worthy of note.

The Documentary Hypothesis is only two hundred and fifty years old. It was pioneered by Jean Astruc and claims that the Pentateuch was finally redacted at around 500 BCE, from earlier sources and oral traditions. According to the Hypothesis, these various sources, or documents, were woven together to form the biblical text as we have it today.

Of course, it presents people of faith with huge challenges but the interesting thing is that it remains, as the name suggests, a Hypothesis and there is tremendous disagreement and variety in the number of models and theories it encompasses. It is also not based on any known historical documents containing the different textual traditions it suggests. Usually, a historical text produces a theory as to its origins or provenance, but in the case of the Documentary Hypothesis, it remains a theory without a foundational text. Nonetheless, some of its arguments are rather compelling and amazingly, in many cases, have rabbinic counterparts in one form or another.

(I have prepared a substantial research essay on a Rabbinic Counterpart to the Documentary Hypothesis which I have submitted to my academic and rabbinic teachers for review.)

Abravanel is one such example. There is no doubt that Abravanel is seen by some as a controversial figure, and for good reason. He speaks about biblical anachronisms and is concerned with historical accuracy. But what is astounding is that he actually refers to “ketuvim” and “ma’amarim” or writings and documents - akin to documents as per the Documentary Hypothesis - which were later “kibbetsam ve-hibberam yahad”, gathered and collated together to make the final biblical form we have today.

Abravanel acknowledges that he is just breaking ground in this genre but encourages future students to take the matter further! And, amazingly, he also speaks of an editor metakken and assembler mekabbets” of these “ma’amarim” which could be said to respond to the final redactors referenced by the Documentary Hypothesis. 

This is not such an outlandish idea as the Talmud itself, as we have seen above, refers to a number of biblical works, including the book of Ezekiel, as being written by the Anshei Keneset haGedolah: אַנְשֵׁי כְּנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה כָּתְבוּ ... יְחֶזְקֵאל. Ezekiel is said to have lived between 622-570 BCE, and the Kneset haGedolah was established around 539 BCE when the exiles returned. If these dates are correct, then according to the Talmud, the book of Ezekiel was written after his death.  Additionally, the Sefaria translation of that same Talmudic passage refers to King David's drawing from "earlier source material", and puts it as him "assembling a collection that included compositions of others along with his own".

However one chooses to view Abravanel, what is most interesting and surprising is that one could very easily argue that some of the basic ideas of the Documentary Hypothesis were not formulated and developed for the first time by Jean Astruc (d. 1766), but were openly and freely written about and indeed pioneered by Abravanel (d. 1508) two and a half centuries earlier (and to some extent even by the Talmud, over a thousand years earlier).





Kotzk Blog: 073) THE ALEPPO CODEX - The Mystery Surrounding the Most Important Manuscript in Jewish History:

[1] Lawee, E., 1996, Don Isaac Abarbanel: Who Wrote the Books of the Bible? Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, vol. 30, no. 2, 65-73. 

[2] b. Bava Batra 14b-15b.

[3] Could this not be a reference to the book of Deuteronomy? If it means the whole Torah, then why is the portion of Balaam (in Bamidbar) singled out and not, say, Lech Lecha?

[4] Footnote 25.

[5] Not to be confused with R. Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch.

[6] Perush R. Yosef Kara al Nevi’im Rishonim, ed. Simon Eppenstein (Jerusalem 1972), 65.

[7] Perush al Nevi’im Rishonim, 163-4.

[8] Perush al Nevi’im Rishonim, 13.


  1. "a century and a half earlier"
    actually 250 years earlier.
    Great post in any event, as usual.

  2. There is a difference between what Abarbanel says about Nach and what the documentary hypothesis posits about the Chumash.There were others who said similar things about Nach, f.e. the beginning of Rinah Shel Tora and Intro to Sheiltos, Shaagas Arye about DIVREI Hayomim and others. Torah is another thing altogether. At most, some kind of very limited supplementary hypothesis may he supported, limited to words or phrases here and there.

    In my podcast, Hebrew Bible to the World: What it tells, not what it says, I propose a unified approach to Torah as a work of argument, and the peculiarities of language, repetition and style as a sophisticated intentional

  3. Thank you Unknown. As you would know, there are many approaches besides the Documentary Hypothesis, such as the Fragmentary Hypothesis (where different traditions were later woven together) and the Literary or synchronic approach (where one interprets the final shape or form of the redaction and attempts to extract meaning). Contemporary scholars like Wohrle and Levenson are examples of those approaches respectively.
    But, without minimizing any approach, for those interested in the “structure” and “form”, what the text “says” is as important than what the text “tells”. For these people, especially if they want to remain with the parameters of Torah Judaism, Abravanel may be of great value in that he speaks – ahead of his time – of notions such as editors, documents, compilation dates and redactions. And he encourages future student to build upon these ideas (as R. Chaim Hirschensohn say “as part of Talmud Torah”!).
    Granted, in this article, the focus was on Nach, but to the best of my knowledge, he does not specify anywhere that these processes may not to applied to other texts as well. In fact, as with Hayyun's Hypothesis, we see how Abravanel questions the provenance entire book of Deuteronomy.