In the 18th year of King Josiah of Judah (622 B.C.E.), a remarkable discovery was made during temple renovations, according to 2 Kings 22:3-8. The high Priest Hilkiah came across a scroll that purported to be written by Moses himself–“the book of the law.” The king was greatly affected by what he read in his scroll, and it inspired him to begin a series of religious reforms that would last the rest of his reign and significantly change the face of the kingdom. The repercussions have lasted until today.
But what was this scroll? How long had it been sitting tucked away in the recesses of the temple? No one knows for certain the document’s provenance, but it has been positively identified as the law code now found in the book of Deuteronomy. (For convenience, scholars of the Torah refer to this Deuteronomic Code as D.)
The principal concern of the code is the covenant made at Horeb (Sinai) and its significance in Israel’s community. The scroll’s audience is reminded of the solemn pact made between Israel and its God and explains what that entails for Israel. For those who choose to live by the covenant, there will be life and blessings, and for those who do not, death and curses.
It seems clear that the nucleus of the Deuteronomic Code goes back to a time centuries earlier than Josiah, as it preserves many ancient laws and customs from the days before the monarchy and reflects traditions of the priesthood and cult center at Shechem. However, there are other portions that are clearly late, such as the call for centralization of worship in a single sanctuary, a principle of exclusiveness that is unlikely to predate the time of Hezekiah.
It is unclear whether these portions of the code were added by the Josianic editors or were already present in the code when it was found in 622 B.C.E. Since we are unable to identify the author or authors, we refer to the composer simply as the “Deuteronomist”. For the Judahites of Josiah’s day, the author was unquestionably Moses.