Thursday, July 18, 2013

Who Wrote the Bible?

The test of a great book is whether it is able to stand the test of time.  By this standard, the Bible is a great book.  The question is: what sort of book is it?  It is many things to many people.  To believers, it is God's Word, a true guide for life and all things spiritual.  For English majors, it is a classic work of literature that influenced countless writers like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Dante.  For scholars, it is a great many things, depending on your discipline.  For some feminists, it is a text that set the precedent for patriarchy and oppression of women.  For post-colonial theorists, it is a book that was used to justify slavery and conquest.  The Bible is all of these things and more.

Here's an interesting question: What did the Bible mean to its authors and to the people for whom it was originally written?  That is a question I've been pondering lately, as I just finished reading a fantastic book called Who Wrote the Bible?

But first, a bit of personal context.  I grew up in a large evangelical church, steeped in sermons and Bible studies and missions trips and worship songs.  For a long time, questions of biblical authorship were sort of irrelevant.  It was God's word.  What did it matter which humans God chose to use as His instruments?  Questions of historical and social context were pretty much off my radar until I hit college.  And that's when the shit hit the fan, textually speaking.

It's sort of ironic that my years at a Christian college were what shattered my faith in the Bible as God's Word.  I blame professor VanWinkle.  He was a Bible scholar who taught a course called "The Latter Prophets."  Dr. VanW's area of specialty was the Book of Isaiah.  From his class, I learned that the book traditionally attributed to the Israelite prophet Isaiah actually had at least three authors who wrote in different time periods and each author had different socio-political concerns.  The book we now know as Isaiah was edited together by later scribes with their own sociopolitical and religious interests.  In short, this book that I'd believed God had basically dictated to a holy man was actually the work of several humans, each with their own views and biases.  For me, this was not exciting news…it was earth-shattering.  The more I studied, the more I came to believe that the Bible was a quintessentially human document.  And thus my faith began to unravel.

And it stayed unraveled for a very long time.  In fact, if I'm completely honest, it's still unraveled.  The Bible is no longer something I can "just believe."  I know too much.  I know the human conflicts out of which it arose, and these are messy and complicated.  If God inspired the Bible, he chose a pretty wacky way to do it.  

Meanwhile, everyone else in my family still believed.  What was I to do?  I'd heard of people leaving the faith because they wanted to, like, do drugs and have sex and stuff.  But what about people who leave the faith because they simply can no longer believe, intellectually?  For a long time, I was afraid to really talk with my parents about this stuff.  I guess I felt like I didn't want to distress them or something.  Meanwhile, they were probably more distressed because they knew I was doubting, but we didn't know how to talk about it.  Things become scarier when they remain unspoken.

As I've gotten older, and gotten to know my parents better, I've begun to be more open about my doubts and questions.  And so, when my parents recently asked me if I'd like to do a Bible study of the book of Genesis with them, I said "sure."  I warned them that I was going to approach this Bible study academically, not devotionally.  I was going to bring up context and scholarship and all my questions.  They said "okay."

So far, we've met twice and discussed Genesis chapters 1 and 2.  Despite my reservations, this Bible study is turning out awesome.  Last week, we had a great discussion of the patriarchy implicit in the story of Eve being created out of Adam.  This led to a discussion of gender roles in which we talked about how patriarchy in the Bible has been used to justify the subordination of women.  My parents did not shun me or try to "pray away" my questions.  They listened and engaged.  The week before, when reading about humanity's relationship with nature in Genesis 1, I said that it made me want to recycle more.  My parents liked this.  Best Bible study ever!

And so, to enrich our ongoing discussion, I've read a book called Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Georgia who got his doctorate at Harvard, and also studied at Oxford and Cambridge.  This dude knows his shit.  After years of doubt and disbelief, this book, written by a contemporary Jewish scholar, has given me a newfound appreciation for the Bible.

Friedman's work, first published in 1987, and revised in 1997, is a brilliant and (highly readable) synthesis of many scholars' work.  His intention was to present, for academics and laymen alike, the current state of affairs of who is believed to have written the Bible.  His work is not a "tearing down" so much as a "putting back together" of many separate pieces.  He writes, "That is perhaps what has been lacking in much of the research on the authors of the Bible thus far.  It has often been a tearing-down without a putting-back-together.  And that may be, in part, why this sort of analysis so offended the faithful of Christianity and Judaism.  For a long time it appeared that the aim of the enterprise was to take the Bible apart and arrive at numerous pieces, none of which was the Bible any longer.  Perhaps that was as far as the enterprise could go in its early stages.  However, we are now at a point in which our discoveries concerning the Bible's origins can mean an enhanced understanding and appreciation of the Bible in its final, developed form."

When I read those words, I felt as if Richard Friedman was writing directly to me.  That had been my journey thus far--a tearing down with all the pain and disorientation that implies, and no building back up.  And that is the goal, and ultimate success, of his book.

So what do we learn from Friedman?  His focus is on the first five books of the Bible, known to Jews as the Torah and to Christians as the first books of the Old Testament.  These are the five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  For centuries, these books were believed to have been written by Moses, and inspired by God.  Those who challenged this view were, for centuries, persecuted for heresy.  A few examples from Friedman:

1.) In the eleventh century, Isaac ibn Yashush, a Jewish court physician of a ruler in Muslim Spain, suggested that a list of kings in Genesis 36 was written by someone other than Moses because it listed kings who lived after Moses.  The response to his conclusion was that he was called "Isaac the blunderer."

2.) In the sixteenth century, Andreas van Maes, a Flemish catholic suggested that a later editor inserted phrases and changed the name of a place to its more current name so that readers would understand it better.  Van Maes' book was placed on the Catholic index of Prohibited Books.

3.) In the seventeenth century, Isaac de la Peyrere, a French Calvinist, wrote explicitly that Moses was not the author of the first five books of the Bible, noting several problems running through the text.  His book was banned and burned.  He was arrested and informed that in order to be released he would have to become Catholic and recant his views to the Pope.  He did.

4.) About the same time, in Holland, the philosopher Spinoza produced an in-depth analysis, showing several problematic passages which called into question Moses' authorship.  He was excommunicated from Judaism, his book was condemned by Catholics and Protestants, thirty-seven edicts were issued against it, and an attempt was made on his life.

There are many similar examples demonstrating that, for centuries, to question the authorship of the Bible was not only controversial, it was dangerous.  Things began to open up more in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the Age of Enlightenment and the development of textual criticism.  By the 19th century, scholars could publish their findings without fear of condemnation (or worse).  

It was in Germany in the 19th century that the modern discipline of biblical textual criticism began to flower.  Notable pioneers in this area include W.M.L. De Wette, Karl Heinrich Graf, Wilhelm Vatke, and most notably Julius Wellhausen, who proposed the famous "Documentary Hypothesis" which, building on the work of earlier scholars, suggested that the five books of Moses had at least four distinct authors with different styles and concerns.  These four authors came to be known as the Yawhist (J), the Elohist (E), the Deuteronomist (D), and the Priestly writer (P).  These writers take their names from their different styles and concerns.  For example, they have different names for God.  The Yawhist refers to God as Yahweh.  The Elohist refers to God as Elohim.  There are many other differences, which I will return to.

In short, Wellhausen's theory may be likened to Darwin's, as it represented a watershed moment in his field.  According to Friedman, "To this day, if you want to disagree, you disagree with Wellhausen.  If you want to pose a new model, you compare its merits with those of Wellhausen's model."

Julius Wellhausen

Of course, there was still opposition to textual criticism of this sort and, frankly, there is still opposition today.  Today, it is less a case of overt opposition, but simply widespread ignorance of the fact that textual criticism even exists.  I never learned about it growing up.  I never heard of Wellhausen or the Documentary Hypothesis in church, and I would wager that most people of faith haven't.  Sometimes it takes a long time for the ideas of scholarship to trickle down to mainstream thought, especially when those ideas create tension with long-established beliefs.  Darwin's theory of evolution would be a good comparison.  Though it is the generally-accepted (and most useful) model for people actually working in the field of biology and the natural sciences, there still remains widespread resistance because it creates tension with the idea of God creating things.  

But, if you are like me, you do not flee from tension, but dive right in.  So, let's dive into the Documentary Hypothesis, and what it teaches us about who wrote the Bible.  In order to understand who wrote the Books of Moses, we must first understand some history of the ancient Israelites.  They began with a tribal structure, but when foreign neighbors became too powerful for any one tribe to resist, they established a centralized monarchy.  The first king was Saul, who was kind of a disappointment.  Saul was followed by David, whose dynasty was, according to Friedman, "one of the longest-lasting ruling families in the history of the world."  David was followed by Solomon.  Under the reign of Solomon's son, Rehoboam, the kingdom was split in two: Israel in the north (with their own king Jeroboam), and Judah in the south (under Rehoboam.)  Both kingdoms worshipped Yahweh and shared the same religious traditions, but they were divided politically.

The traditional religious center for the Israelites (north and south) was Jerusalem (located in the south).  This created a delicate problem for the northern king, Jeroboam.  He had to establish new centers of worship for his nation's people.  He chose the city of Beth-El.  And so, from the division of the nation into two, there emerged not only political differences, but religious ones as well.

It was out of this division that we find the first two writers of the Bible and begin to understand their different concerns.  The Yahwist (J) was from Judah and his primary concern (and bias) was with the south.  The Elohist (E) was from Israel and his primary concern (and bias) was with the north.  

How do we know there are different writers with different concerns?  Friedman gives several ways: 1.) Doublets (that is, stories that are repeated more than once) 2.) place names 3.) the names of God (Yahweh or Elohim) 4.) Linguistic patterns.  Obviously Friedman gives way more explanation and examples than I can give in this blog post.  My interest here is simply to give the broad picture Friedman paints.  

Why were the different (sometimes conflicting) sources combined?  History gives us strong clues.  In 722 B.C. the great Assyrian empire invaded and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel.  Thousands of refugees fled into the south.  Thus, a once-divided kingdom was re-united.  Out of this re-unification, according to Friedman, came the first combining of different texts: J and E.  Priests who were once hostile to one another were forced to live together and forge a document that would bring unity to a suffering people.  This theme, of new texts emerging out of disaster, will run throughout the Bible's literary history.  Friedman writes, "The biblical world's landmarks seem to be its disasters."  

After the fall of Israel, Judah had a number of kings, some good, some not so good.  One of the most important Judean kings of this time period was King Hezekiah.  In the Bible, Hezekiah is praised for bringing about many religious reforms.  It is in the time of Hezekiah, Friedman believes, that the Priestly (P) text was written.  For many years, there were different classes of Jewish priests.  Some traced their ancestry to Aaron.  Some traced their ancestry to Moses.  The priests who came to power in the time of Hezekiah were Aaronid, meaning they revered Aaron.  The problem was that the documents they inherited, J and E, tended to treat Moses much more favorably than Aaron, because they were produced by priests of Shiloh, who were Mosaic priests.  Thus, in an attempt to combine their own traditions with the received traditions of J and E, they produced a third text, primary of laws, that came to be known as the Priestly account.  It is the priestly passages that portray Moses as timid and weak, and Aaron as his mouthpiece.  There are numerous examples of this which Friedman gives.  Interestingly, out of this synthesis of seemingly opposing accounts, we get a much more psychologically rich portrayal of Bible heroes like Moses.  He was not all good.  He was a flawed human being.  This, I think, also lends itself to the greatness of the Bible.  The combined texts, rather than contradicting each other, serve to give a richer narrative.

And then the southern kingdom of Judah fell in 587 B.C., when it was conquered by the great Babylonian Empire.  The temple was destroyed, cities were leveled, priests and politicians were carried off into exile or killed.  Out of this devastation emerged the fourth writer, known as the Deuteronomist (D).  Friedman makes a compelling case that this book was actually written by the prophet Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch.  This makes sense because Jeremiah lived before, during, and after the fall of the kingdom of Judah.  The book of Lamentations (presumably also written by Jeremiah) is one of the most devastatingly sad books of the Bible.  The prophet looks upon the ruins of a kingdom that God had promised would endure forever.  What was he to do?  What were "God's chosen people" to do?

Jeremiah was a writer, so he wrote.  Reading the story of Jeremiah, what he lived through, what he endured, and his efforts (through writing) to make sense of so much suffering, began to stir in me a renewed awe for how this book came to be.  It was not produced in quiet, comfortable temples.  It was born out of conflict, pain, and confusion.  I could relate to this.  Jeremiah's task, then, was to compose a text that combined tradition and also provided a way to understand current events.  Friedman paints a beautiful picture of Jeremiah: 

"One gets an impression of Jeremiah from the book that is called by his name…quite often an impression of a tortured man, spiritual, bound to his mission, rejected by humans, persecuted.  He gives the impression that he would rather be doing anything else than his appointed task, that he wishes that he could not see the future, and that he could escape his present, even by death.  He must tell the truth no matter what the consequences.  He is profoundly solitary."

The Prophet Jeremiah, from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel

The book of Deuteronomy then "appears to be a sincere attempt, by a sensitive and skillful man, to tell his people's history--and to understand it.  The historian painted his people's heritage.  The prophet conceived of their destiny." When I got to this section in Friedman's book, I almost started crying.  It seemed so relatable and profound.  As an English major who has read a great deal of world literature, I can tell you that most of the books that matter, the ones that stand the test of time, are the ones about suffering humans trying to find meaning in their lives.  From a purely literary standpoint, the Bible begins to emerge as a great work that deals with all the misery of human life, and the persistent hope of renewal.

So we have accounted for the times and places that produced the J, E, P, and D narratives.  One important question remains:  Who put them all together?  It seems an impossibly imposing task, to give structure and synthesis to all these different narratives with their different biases.  Friedman makes the case that this final editor, or Redactor (R) was none other than the prophet Ezra, who lived at the time when the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland, after the Persian Empire conquered Babylon.  Ezra was both a priest and a scribe in the time of the return from exile, and to him fell the task of helping to rebuild not only his people's homeland, but their shared ancestry.

At a time of rebuilding, Ezra saw value in bringing together all the different accounts into one continuous narrative.  For a people who were putting their lives back together, and needed a sense of identity, the old religious divisions didn't make much sense any more.  And so, according to Friedman, it was Ezra who (quite artfully) combined the J, E, P, and D sources into one narrative, into the Torah we know today.

Friedman, of course, gives lots of textual evidence, but of more interest to me is the recurring idea that the Bible didn't just spring up out of a vacuum.  It emerged from very real human circumstances.  Its various writers had their own interests, and were influenced by their culture.  This makes sense to me, and it seems to be the general consensus among scholars.  Of course, there is (and will always be) disagreement regarding specific points.  But the general idea stands.  The Bible, in its final form, is the result of generations of people trying to hold onto their religious identity in the midst of current struggles and conflicts.  

In this sense, the Bible is quite extraordinary.  it was not the result of one person.  It was many people, over centuries, who produced it.  No one author could possibly foresee the final product of which his/her narrative would form a part.  The God of the Priestly writer was most interested in justice.  The God of the Yahwist was most interested in mercy.  The God of the Torah is interested in both.  Friedman states it very well: "We can read a page of the Bible and know that three or even four persons, all artists, all writing from their own experience, in their own historical moments, separated by centuries, contributed to composing that page.  And, at the same time, we can read the page as it is, to enjoy the story, to learn from it, to find out how others interpreted it over millennia."

I'm very much looking forward to reading, studying, and discussing the next chapter of Genesis with my parents.


  1. Thanks, Jesse. I appreciate the research, effort, and passion that resulted in this blog post. I hope to carry some of this information around for the rest of my life.


    The prevailing thought of many is that since the Bible was not canonized until sometime between 300 and 400 A.D. that the church of Christ did not have New Covenant Scriptures as their guide for faith and practice. That is simply factually incorrect.

    The Lord's church of the first 400 years did not rely on the man-made traditions of men for New Testament guidance.

    Jesus gave the terms for pardon 33 A.D. after His death and resurrecting. (Mark 16:16) All the words of Jesus were Scripture.Jesus did not have to wait for canonization of the New Testament in order for His word to be authorized.

    The terms for pardon were repeated by the apostle Peter 33 A.D. on the Day of Pentecost. (Acts 2:22-42) The teachings of the apostles were Scripture. The words of the apostles were Scripture before they were canonized.

    The apostle Peter said the apostle Paul's words were Scripture. (2 Peter 3:15-16...just as also our beloved brother Paul , according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, 16 as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand,which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures...

    The apostle Paul's letters and words were Scriptures when he wrote and spoke them. Paul did not have to wait for canonization to authorize his doctrine.

    John 14:25-26 'These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to you remembrance all that I said to you.

    The words and writings of the apostles were Scripture and they did not have to wait for canonization to be deemed authoritative. The apostle did not use man-made creed books of the church or man-made oral traditions to teach the gospel of the New Covenant.

    Did the early church have written New testament Scriptures? Yes, and they were shared among the different congregations. (Colossians 4:16 When the letter is read among you, have it read in the church of the Laodiceans and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodica.) Paul's letters were Scripture and they were read in different churches.

    They were New Testament Scriptures long before they were canonized.


    Matthew A.D. 70
    Mark A.D. 55
    Luke between A.D. 59 and 63
    John A.D. 85
    Acts A.D. 63
    Romans A.D. 57
    1 Corinthians A.D. 55
    2 Corinthians A.D. 55
    Galatians A.D. 50
    Ephesians A.D. 60
    Philippians A.D. 61
    Colossians A. D. 60
    1 Thessalonians A.D. 51
    2 Thessalonians A.D. 51 or 52
    1 Timothy A.D. 64
    2 Timothy A.D. 66
    Titus A.D. 64
    Philemon A.D. 64
    Hebrews A.D. 70
    James A.D. 50
    1 Peter A.D. 64
    2 Peter A.D. 66
    1 John A.D. 90
    2 John A.d. 90
    3 John A.D. 90
    Jude A.D. 65
    Revelation A.D. 95

    All 27 books of the New Testament were Scripture when they were written. They did not have wait until they were canonized before they became God's word to mankind.

    Jesus told the eleven disciples make disciples and teach them all that He commanded. (Matthew 28:16-19) That was A.D. 33, They were teaching New Covenant Scripture from A.D. 33 forward. The apostles did not wait to preach the gospel until canonization occurred 300 to 400 years later.




  3. Hello, the bible was written by the persons who are guided by GOD. some text in the bible are written for us..... in order to identify the good and the evil. So, be carefull of reading the bible with out the guidance of the HOLY SPIRIT of GOD, because the spirit of evil is trying hard to convince you to do bad things in life.

  4. Hello, Please, always be a good person all the time, don't worry about bad people forgive them always, only GOD will give you a reward. Make it in the secret way, GOD will rewards you in secret. Our great mission here on earth is to forgive the bad people, how can you do it? If you can not do it, You are not a good messanger of GOD.