Apart from the most rabid fundamentalists among us, nearly everyone admits that the Bible might contain errors — a faulty creation story here, a historical mistake there, a contradiction or two in some other place. But is it possible that the problem is worse than that — that the Bible actually contains lies?
Most people wouldn’t put it that way, since the Bible is, after all, sacred Scripture for millions on our planet. But good Christian scholars of the Bible, including the top Protestant and Catholic scholars of America, will tell you that the Bible is full of lies, even if they refuse to use the term. And here is the truth: Many of the books of the New Testament were written by people who lied about their identity, claiming to be a famous apostle — Peter, Paul or James — knowing full well they were someone else. In modern parlance, that is a lie, and a book written by someone who lies about his identity is a forgery.
Most modern scholars of the Bible shy away from these terms, and for understandable reasons, some having to do with their clientele. Teaching in Christian seminaries, or to largely Christian undergraduate populations, who wants to denigrate the cherished texts of Scripture by calling them forgeries built on lies? And so scholars use a different term for this phenomenon and call such books “pseudepigrapha.”
You will find this antiseptic term throughout the writings of modern scholars of the Bible. It’s the term used in university classes on the New Testament, and in seminary courses, and in Ph.D. seminars. What the people who use the term do not tell you is that it literally means “writing that is inscribed with a lie.”
And that’s what such writings are. Whoever wrote the New Testament book of 2 Peter claimed to be Peter. But scholars everywhere — except for our friends among the fundamentalists — will tell you that there is no way on God’s green earth that Peter wrote the book. Someone else wrote it claiming to be Peter. Scholars may also tell you that it was an acceptable practice in the ancient world for someone to write a book in the name of someone else. But that is where they are wrong. If you look at what ancient people actually said about the practice, you’ll see that they invariably called it lying and condemned it as a deceitful practice, even in Christian circles. 2 Peter was finally accepted into the New Testament because the church fathers, centuries later, were convinced that Peter wrote it. But he didn’t. Someone else did. And that someone else lied about his identity.
The same is true of many of the letters allegedly written by Paul. Most scholars will tell you that whereas seven of the 13 letters that go under Paul’s name are his, the other six are not. Their authors merely claimed to be Paul. In the ancient world, books like that were labeled as pseudoi — lies.
This may all seem like a bit of antiquarian curiosity, especially for people whose lives don’t depend on the Bible or even people of faith for whom biblical matters are a peripheral interest at best. But in fact, it matters sometimes. Whoever wrote the book of 1 Timothy claimed to be Paul. But he was lying about that — he was someone else living after Paul had died. In his book, the author of 1 Timothy used Paul’s name and authority to address a problem that he saw in the church. Women were speaking out, exercising authority and teaching men. That had to stop. The author told women to be silent and submissive, and reminded his readers about what happened the first time a woman was allowed to exercise authority over a man, in that little incident in the garden of Eden. No, the author argued, if women wanted to be saved, they were to have babies (1 Tim. 2:11-15).
Largely on the basis of this passage, the apostle Paul has been branded, by more liberation minded people of recent generations, as one of history’s great misogynists. The problem, of course, is that Paul never said any such thing. And why does it matter? Because the passage is still used by church leaders today to oppress and silence women. Why are there no women priests in the Catholic Church? Why are women not allowed to preach in conservative evangelical churches? Why are there churches today that do not allow women even to speak? In no small measure it is because Paul allegedly taught that women had to be silent, submissive and pregnant. Except that the person who taught this was not Paul, but someone lying about his identity so that his readers would think he was Paul.
It may be one of the greatest ironies of the Christian scriptures that some of them insist on truth, while telling a lie. For no author is truth more important than for the “Paul” of Ephesians. He refers to the gospel as “the word of truth” (1:13); he indicates that the “truth is in Jesus”; he tells his readers to “speak the truth” to their neighbors (4:24-25); and he instructs his readers to “fasten the belt of truth around your waist” (6:14). And yet he himself lied about who he was. He was not really Paul.
It appears that some of the New Testament writers, such as the authors of 2 Peter, 1 Timothy and Ephesians, felt they were perfectly justified to lie in order to tell the truth. But we today can at least evaluate their claims and realize just how human, and fallible, they were. They were creatures of their time and place. And so too were their teachings, lies and all.
A Full Breakdown Of Who wrote the Bible? (5 Parts)
The answer is neither simple nor straightforward–just the way we STR8 up like it. But this subject is complicated even for us. Rather than try to pack the answer into one article, we’ve decided to split it into sections and give a detailed account.
Part 1 Who wrote/compiled/edited (and when) the first five books of the Bible, called the Torah or Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses?
Now to the first part of our story. Who wrote/compiled/edited (and when) the first five books of the Bible, called the Torah or the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses?
The five scrolls or books of the Pentateuch tell the history of the Israelites from the creation of the universe, through the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai to their entry into the Promised Land. The first book, Genesis, contains most of the stories–the creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah; and the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, etc., ending with the story of Joseph and the arrival of the Israelites in Egypt. The book of Exodus tells the story of the enslavement in Egypt, the exodus, the revelation of The Ten Commandments and the Law at Mount Sinai, the golden calf, and the construction of the Tabernacle (a portable house of worship, carried through the desert). The book of Numbers tells of the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert and the legal and religious structure of their society. The book of Leviticus deals largely with the rules of the priesthood, sacrifice, and worship. The book of Deuteronomy is essentially Moses’ farewell address to the Israelites as they are about to enter the Promised Land, recapping much of what was covered in the prior three books.
How did these books come to be written? There’s a wide range of opinion. We’ll only present the two most commonly held views–what we’ll call the “traditional view” and the “scholarly view.” This is perhaps misleading terminology, since there are many profound scholars on both sides. We use the term “scholarly” in the sense of “academic” or “scientific”, although neither of those terms are right, either. Perhaps the best term is “documentarist”, but that’s cumbersome. So we shall stick to “traditional” and “scholarly”, without implying lack of scholarship on the other side.
The traditional explanation is that the Five Books of Moses were written by Moses himself. There are several variants of this explanation:
- Traditional Judaism and fundamentalist Christianity believe that the text was dictated by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, letter for letter (or pretty much letter for letter).
- Other religious groups still ascribe authorship to Moses, but use words like “divinely inspired” rather than “dictated letter for letter.”
- Still others say Moses was the sole author, but there’s nothing “divine” about it except in the sense that all great works of literature and poetry are “inspired.”
Mosaic authorship would mean the five books were written around 1280 to 1250 BC, the most commonly accepted range of dates for the exodus from Egypt, give or take 30 years.
It has long been recognized that there were a few problems with the traditional view of Moses as author. The text reports the death of Moses–how could Moses have written of his own death? It also describes Moses as “the most humble man who ever lived”–how could Moses write that about himself? But these are minor issues. Some say Moses’ successor Joshua wrote the few lines that describe the death of Moses; others say that Moses himself was commanded to write that text before it happened. None of this represents a serious challenge to Mosaic authorship.
As time went on, however, scholars became increasingly skeptical of the idea of Moses as single author. Among their objections:
- Several stories are repeated, with different characters or different emphasis (called “doublets”). For instance, there are two creation stories (Gen 1 and Gen 2). There are three stories of a patriarch traveling among pagans and pretending his wife is his sister. There are two stories of Moses striking a rock to produce water. There are two versions of the Ten Commandments (one in Exodus, one that Moses recaps in Deuteronomy) with slightly different wording. There are, in fact, a lot of these doublets.
- There are internal inconsistencies. The number of days of the Flood story don’t add up right. At one point, Noah takes two of each animal; at another point, he takes two of some, seven of others. Joseph is sold into slavery to Ishmaelites in one verse, to Midianites a few verses later. The Mountain of Revelation is sometimes called Sinai and sometimes Horeb. Moses’ father-in-law is sometimes called Yitro and sometimes Ruel, and so on.
Scholars in late 18th century Germany noted that in most of the duplicated stories, one set described God using the Hebrew word Elohim (usually translated “God”) while the other set tended to use God’s four-lettered Name Y-H-W-H (usually translated “Lord,” sometimes miscalled “Jehovah.”) This gave rise to the theory that there were two different authors, one called E and one called J (German for Y), whose works were somehow combined to form a single text.
Later analysis of the grammar, vocabulary, and writing style provided evidence for two other authors–called P for the Priestly author (mostly Leviticus, and lots of the genealogy) and D for the Deuteronomist, since the book of Deuteronomy seemed different (grammatically and politically) from the earlier books. The multiple-author view has come to be called the “Documentary theory.”
We interject at this point to say that traditionalists have answers to all the points raised by Documentary scholars. The E-word for God is used when God’s justice is predominant; the J-name is used when God’s mercy is predominate. The doublet stories are complementary, offering different interpretations and insights. For example, each of the creation stories has a different emphasis, one on the physical universe and one on the pre-eminence of mankind. Textual differences (such as in the different versions of the Ten Commandments) make a point by comparison. For example, “Remember the Sabbath” and “honor the Sabbath” means to do both.
Documentary theorists see a much more complicated story, with four different texts by four different authors (although some think “schools” of authors might be responsible for each text rather than a single author). These were later combined by an editor, called the Redactor. The Redactor sometimes put the different authors’ stories one after the other (as with the creation stories) and sometimes interwove them (as with the two stories of Noah’s Flood and of Joseph’s mistreatment by his brothers). The Redactor also added comments like “Now it came to pass, after these things . . .” as a transition between sections.
Scholars differ on when the various authors wrote and when the Redaction occurred. No one today knows who the initial authors were–the predominant view is that many of the stories were handed down orally for generations before being written down. It’s not clear which texts are older (although the Song at the Sea in Exodus 15:1-8 is usually acknowledged as among the oldest verses), or which author wrote which verses. Nor is there agreement on the gender of the authors. Some scholars believe the J-writer was a woman, as described in The Book of J by David Rosenberg and Harold Bloom (1990).
Our favorite interpretation of the Documentary theory is presented by Richard E. Friedman in his book, “Who Wrote the Bible?” It’s a marvelous book, written for the lay person, and you feel like you’re reading a detective story as Friedman disentangles various threads and ties the authorship to historical events. Friedman’s version is summarized below (most dates are rough approximations).
1250 to 1000 BC – Conquest of the land of Canaan begins before 1200, and the tribes of Israel form a loose confederation. The histories of the tribes of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses are told orally, handed down from generation to generation.
Around 1000 to 950 BC – The tribes are united under King David. Many of the stories are written down by the author J. These stories describe the creation of the universe, the birth and history of the tribes and their special relationship with God. The stories have an intense focus on morality, on examples of behavior, reward and punishment. Even the ancestral heroes are depicted as having human faults and weaknesses.
920 BC to 722 BC – following the death of Solomon (around 920 BC), the kingdom splits in two, Judah in the south with the royal capital at Jerusalem, and Israel/Ephraim in the north with major shrines at Shechem and Bethel. The J-stories primarily reflect the Davidic (southern) point of view. In the north, some stories begin to accumulate twists reflecting the political situation there. The stories from the south stress the importance of Jerusalem, Aaron and the priesthood, and the centralization of sacrifice. Those from the north are about sacrifices conducted anywhere and de-emphasize Aaron in favor of Moses.
The essence of the stories remains the same but the details vary. In the north, the mountain of significance is Horeb, not Sinai, and greater emphasis is placed on Joseph, his mother, and his son Ephraim (one of the largest of the northern tribes). In the southern version, Judah (head of the chief tribe of the south) saves Joseph from being killed by the other brothers; in the northern version, it’s Reuben (head of the chief tribe of the north.)
The northern stories–let’s call them E-stories–are written down and become the E-document. Northern prophets such as Amos (2:9) and Hosea (12:2-6) use the E-stories in their messages to the people. By the eighth century BC, then, we have two sets of stories, E-versions (northern) and J-versions (southern), both evolved from a single tradition.
722 BC – Israel is conquered by Assyria and the ten tribes of the north are scattered and exiled. Many refugees flee to Judah in the south. Although they are all Israelites, those from the north have somewhat different versions of stories from those in the south. Both texts are viewed as ancient and sacred, so someone combines the two to form a single document, called JE. As they’re sitting around hearing the consolidated story read, the people from the north hear familiar phrases and elements and say, yep, that’s the story my grandpa told me, all right. The people from the south, ditto. The combined text helps the process of social integration and tribal distinctions disappear.
The JE version subordinates the E-stories to the J-stories, since Judah (the southern kingdom) was politically dominant. Some of the E-stories may have been lost at this time–there aren’t separate versions of all the stories. Perhaps in some cases there weren’t any differences. Perhaps the southern authors who combined the stories dropped northern variants they couldn’t accept. We don’t know, and some say the absence of a complete E-document is a weakness in the Documentary theory.
770 BC to 600 BC – A third work appears, mostly concerned with Temple rites, sacrifices, priestly garb, genealogy (focused on the priestly tribe), etc. This is identified as the P-document. The P-stories in all likelihood are very old and handed down from oral tradition. Arguably many of them were compiled as a pro-Aaron response to the anti-Aaron slant of E. Where JE mentions God speaking to Moses, P mentions God speaking to Moses and Aaron. Where JE talks of the staff of Moses, P talks of the staff of Aaron. P accounts for the largest amount of text in the Torah, containing most of the legal sections, rules of sacrifice, genealogies, and priestly matters.
The dating of the P document is hotly debated among Documentary scholars. Some date P as late as Second Temple times (after 580 BC), but we find Friedman’s argument compelling, that it appeared in response to JE.
640 BC to 609 BC – Reign of King Josiah. The book of II Kings describes (23:8-13) how a “lost” scroll of Moses was found by Halkiah around 622 BC and read to King Josiah. Most scholars argue (based on internal evidence) that this was the book of Deuteronomy–in fact, this was suggested by the early Church fathers, including Jerome. (Traditionalists usually say the entire written Torah had been lost, the people had strayed so far.) Deuteronomy largely recapitulates the other books, but also contains new material. The Documentary theory labels this last author D, the Deuteronomist.
The content of Deuteronomy is very old, although the literary style seems to be from the later period of Josiah. The D-author, in attributing the writings to Moses himself, certainly felt he was simply reviving Moses’ teachings, as understood 600 years later. In much the same way a modern biographer might put together a collection of the sayings of Thomas Jefferson for a modern audience.
So at this point, there are three different texts: JE, P, and D. There were doubtless other texts as well (Genesis makes reference to the “Book of the Wars of the Lord,” for example) which are long lost.
587 BC to 536? BC – The southern kingdom of Judah is conquered by Babylon in 587 BC. The people are exiled for 50 years, then return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and restore their religion. There is no longer a king of the line of David, but a high priest. The process is not easy. Other exiled peoples were assimilated by their conquerors and disappeared; the Israelites remained faithful to their homeland and their God. But the religion had been weakened by the exile, and needed to be strengthened and consolidated.
Approximately 450 BC – This is perhaps the most remarkable part of the story, as the Redactor emerges on the scene. He sees the need for religious revival and renewal, for strengthening and centralization. So he combines the three documents (JE, P, and D) into one smooth flowing narrative–the five books of Moses.
The Redactor did lots of cutting and pasting. Genealogies that probably started all together in a P-text were interspersed throughout JE, acting as bridging material or section dividers. Materials that told the same story from pro-Aaron and anti-Aaron viewpoints (for example) were neatly woven together.
The Redactor was respectful of his sources and kept them largely intact. These were all sacred and ancient texts/traditions, so the Redactor presumably didn’t drop material–duplication was preferable to omission. Sometimes he combined the different texts; sometimes he left the two stories side by side.
The single document became the center of the Israelite religion, under the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah. Authorship was ascribed to Moses. This wasn’t deception. The Redactor in all likelihood knew nothing of the prior 500 year history of authorship and honestly believed the material he was editing had all been handed down from Moses.
From 450 BC on the document was fixed–no more changes. The oldest existing parchments, the Dead Sea scrolls, date from around 100 BC. They’re almost word-for-word identical to the versions we have today (although there are occasional transcription errors, most so small they would be noticed only by an experienced scholar).
That’s the story as viewed by Friedman, and we venture to say it comes closest to representing the consensus among Documentary scholars. We like Friedman’s approach because he neatly connects the political history (as described in the text and as known to archaeology) with the religious and social history. He also draws on the grammar and vocabulary of the different authors to form a coherent explanation of the text’s evolution.
Some Documentary scholars advocate different time lines. All agree on the four basic authors (J, E, P, and D) but some separate D into D1 (around 600 BC) and D2 (around 550 BC). Some say that P is older than D, some put E as oldest, some date all the documents much later. Archaeological finds occasionally shed some light (for instance, on the question of “household gods” in Genesis 31:19), helping to date the origin of a story or a phrase. But for the most part there’s no firm evidence for one view over another. It’s mostly a matter of trying to analyze internal elements such as writing style, vocabulary, and grammar–a highly subjective business. Arguments are waged over which author wrote which sentence.
Questions of provenance notwithstanding, the text is one of the great works of literature. It has endured for at least 2,500 years, parts of it for at least 3,200 years, and is still read today. There is hardly a work of art or writing in the western world that does not build from the five books or use images or phrases from them. Our notions of good and evil, of history as a linear process, of the relationship between the individual and morality, of the dignity of man (“created in the image of God”), all stem from this seminal work. The pagan nations surrounding Israel did not see anything wrong with mistreatment of animals, with leaving unwanted babies out in the woods, with working slaves without relief. The famous legal code of Hammurabi, often cited as a source for the laws of the Torah, declared that chopping off a man’s hand was suitable punishment for stealing a loaf of bread. The Torah says the punishment must be proportionate to the crime.
It’s hard for us to consider the profound impact of this text on human history without thinking that there was a divine hand in its authorship, whether the human author was one or many.
Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman, 1987
Understanding the Old Testament, by Bernhard W. Anderson, 1986
The Art of Biblical Narrative, by Robert Alter, 1981
The Religion of Israel, by Yehezkel Kaufmann (trans: Moshe Greenberg), 1948
Surpassing Wonder, by Donald H. Akenson, 1998
— Dex and Eutychus
Part 2 Who wrote/compiled/edited (and when) the various histories in the Old Testament (such as Judges, Kings, etc.)? (This section will also include a brief essay on the problems inherent in dating ancient events.)
So let’s get down to it. Who wrote/compiled/edited (and when) the various histories in the Old Testament (such as Judges, Kings, etc.)?
The books of the Old Testament can be classified as three types: histories (Samuel, Kings, etc.), prophecies (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.), and wisdom literature (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.).
Little is known for certain about the authorship of most books of the Bible. Broadly speaking, there’s often a “traditional” view and a “scholarly” view, but the arguments are entirely from internal evidence and beliefs. There is no external, independent evidence of authorship or dating of these books. If you have five scholars in a room, you’ll get seven different theories.
To given you an idea of the complexity of dating: If a text contains a Hebrew rendition of a Greek word, some scholars argue that the text (or that portion of the text, anyway) must date after Alexander the Great, roughly after 300 BC, when the Israelites were exposed to Hellenism. On the other hand, other scholars may say that the Greek word itself is derived from a much older Assyrian word, and thus the Hebrew could also be derived from the Assyrian, not the Greek. So the presence of a seeming Greek cognate doesn’t necessarily date the text as post-Hellenistic.
Dating wasn’t done according to a common calendar system. We can date only by inference and correlation and counting, when we have a common event reported by different sources that can tie two calendars together. The different languages make such correlation difficult: does an Egyptian reference to the “Ivri” correspond to “Hebrew”?
Further, it was not uncommon in ancient times to attach a famous name to an anonymous work, to give it greater authority. A scroll attributed to Solomon would be more likely to be preserved than a scroll written by some unknown poet of the same period.
And finally we are also often dealing with prophets who, well, prophesized the future. If a prophet writes that the “walls are fallen,” and if we know that the walls fell in the year X, then scholars tend to date the writing after year X. However, religious tradition may say that this was prophecy, not fact, and so could have been written before X. Verb tense in ancient Hebrew does not use “past” and “present” and “future” as does English, so the same words might easily been used for “have fallen” and “are fallen” and “will fall.”
Archaeological evidence sometimes offers a clue. For example, some potsherds dating from just before the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC show a literary style consistent with the prose style of Jeremiah, perhaps a fashionable “rhetorical prose” of the time. However, such inferences are far from conclusive. Not only don’t we know authors, we often don’t know dates, not even within centuries.
Biblical histories, since they deal with kings and campaigns–the usual stuff of history–are easier to date than some parts of the Bible. In a few cases archaeology has turned up many points of correlation, making it possible to compare how different cultures saw the same set of events. The best-documented example is the invasion of Canaan by King Sennacherib of Assyria. II Kings 18 reports that Sennacherib was paid tribute; II Kings 19 (and Isaiah 37) then report that Sennacherib’s army was devastated by plague and he retreated. Carved friezes found in Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh report that his invasion was successful, he got tribute, and then went triumphantly back home, with nary a word about plagues–a difference in detail not unfamiliar from Middle Eastern war reporting today.
Many volumes of scholarly and religious analysis have been written about each of these books. We provide only a broad overview of each–content, historical setting, and the most commonly held views of authorship.
Biblical histories aren’t “history” as we understand the word. They attempt to describe the story of Israel within a moral or religious framework. Each author advocates a pattern of religious life, and describes what a proper kingdom under God should be like. Each presents examples that are consistent with that vision. The authors aren’t interested in a balanced view of history. This is the history of God’s people, after all, and so must fit the view of God’s world.
If these aren’t histories in our modern sense, neither are they fiction. They’re selective accounts, meant to illustrate a point, and in that sense are no different from a contemporary high school history text trying to cover a thousand years in one book. World history books today are much different from those of 40 years ago, reflecting the changing concerns of the times (more on Africans, Asians, and women; less on white European males). We see the same process at work in the Bible.
The historical books form two series:
(1) Genesis through Kings II (excluding Ruth) and
(2) Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
The two sequences differ in scope and point of view, but were probably put in final form during the same editing process, known as a redaction. Older writings were combined and compiled. As a rule, the compilers didn’t rewrite but rather excerpted from existing documents, making it possible for scholars to determine the points of juncture.
Following the exodus from Egypt and the years of wandering in the desert, Joshua assumed leadership from Moses (around 1200 BC, give or take 50 years) and began the conquest of the land of Canaan. The story of that conquest is told in the Book of Joshua, including the famous story of the walls of Jericho plus other military exploits. According to religious tradition, the book was written mostly by Joshua himself, with a few verses (such as the death of Joshua) added by contemporaries. The scholarly view is that many of the stories are indeed old–some scholars find in Joshua traces of the J and E authors of the Pentateuch. Probably they were transmitted orally to begin with, then later written down. The final process of compilation, including editing and some writing, was done later still, perhaps as late as 600 BC.
The time of Joshua was followed by a period of 200 to 300 years during which the Israelites were a loose confederation of twelve tribes, each occupying its own territory. There was no central leadership, but from time to time a Judge arose to help one or more tribes face a common enemy. The Judges were heroes, such as Deborah, Samson, Gideon, et al., and the book of Judges told their story. Religious tradition holds that this book was written mostly by Samuel, the last Judge, around 1000 BC. The scholarly view is that many of the stories are older–again, some scholars find traces of the J- and E- authors of the Pentateuch–and were handed down from generation to generation. Somewhere around 600 BC, the collection of stories was compiled and edited, with some re-writing. The framework into which the separate stories are set is consistent with the principles of the Book of Deuteronomy and bespeaks a common hand.
The Israelites clamored for a king, and the last judge, Samuel, appointed Saul as first king over all twelve tribes. Saul was a failure as king, and was succeeded by David, the shepherd boy who killed the giant Goliath, was persecuted by Saul, and finally won the kingship and established a dynastic line, perhaps around 1000 BC. These stories are all included in the two books of Samuel, although in the original Hebrew there was only book. Tradition ascribes the authorship of most of the first part of the book to Samuel himself, with final touches by Gad the Seer and Nathan the Prophet, but this seems unlikely to modern scholars.
The scholarly view is that there may be two authors, the first one working during the reign of Solomon, writing about the career of David. This unknown author arguably deserves the title “Father of History,” for he shows the life of David, with all his glory and all his failings, in a way no known author had done before. Donald Akeson writes that David “is probably the first human being for whom we have a biography.”
The second author wrote later, perhaps 750 to 650 BC, about earlier events in the life of Samuel. An editor subsequently put the pieces together, probably at the same time the books of Judges and Kings were compiled, around 600 BC. More about that in a moment.
Solomon succeeded David as king. Following the death of Solomon (around 920 BC), the kingdom split in two, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Although the two nations had common background and tradition, they had very different politics, and different prophets arose in each country. The two books of Kings tell the stories of the succession of kings in both kingdoms, more or less in chronological order. In 722 BC, Assyria overran and destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, and that line of kings ended. In 586 BC, the Babylonians overran the southern kingdom of Judah, destroyed the Temple and burnt Jerusalem, taking what remained of Judaism into captivity in Babylon (the Exile). The Book of Kings ends with the Babylonian exile, so the final chapters, at least, were written just after 586 BC.
Among traditionalists, majority opinion says that the prophet Jeremiah wrote this text. Why is this interesting? Wait, we’ll get to it.
In the scholarly view, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are largely collections of stories placed in a framework or overview. The editing and style of all six books are fairly uniform, and all are consistent with the Book of Deuteronomy. For instance, the kings are judged as good or evil in the eyes of God based on how well they adhere to the rules set forth in Deuteronomy. The six books therefore are sometimes called the Deuteronomistic History.
If you believe Deuteronomy was written by Moses, you can accept that one hand edited these later books in a manner consistent with the last words of Moses. If you believe that Deuteronomy was written by an author D, as described in the first installment of this report, you may include Deuteronomy itself in the category of “Deuteronomistic history.” Some scholars believe the Deuteronomistic historian was also the redactor of the Torah.
Who was the Deuteronomistic historian and when did he (or his school) flourish? Most scholars place the work around 600 BC, give or take 20 years, with the books completed and edited following the exile in 586 BC. Friedman, in Who Wrote the Bible, argues that the D-author/editor is none other than the prophet Jeremiah (more discussion when we get to the Book of Jeremiah), perhaps assisted by Baruch, his aide. He describes how the Deuteronomistic history is consistent (in theme, poetic style, etc.) with the book of Jeremiah.
Friedman’s view is interesting, since tradition assigns the book of Kings to Jeremiah. Friedman’s view thus offers a rare convergence of tradition and scholarship. Other scholars, though, propose different dates and authorial/editorial hands, including a Deuteronomistic “school” that may have involved several authors.
The bottom line is that we don’t know exactly who wrote these books, nor who put them into their final form. Nonetheless, general opinion is that they were edited and compiled around 640 – 580 BC.
Ezra and Nehemiah
Fifty years after the Babylonian exile, by 538 BC, the Persians under Cyrus overran the Babylonian Empire and the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem. The exiles returned in several waves. From about 521 to 485 BC, the time of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the second Temple was built. Around 450 BC (the dates are uncertain, perhaps as early as 460 BC, perhaps as late as 398 BC), Ezra the scribe and Nehemiah the governor re-established centralized Judaism in Jerusalem. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of that era of regeneration and rebirth. “Miraculous” is not too strong a word–no other people, in all of history, has been re-established and reborn after conquest and exile.
Originally, Ezra and Nehemiah was a single book, and ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts treat them as such. They’re still only one book in the Hebrew Bible. The book was split in two by Jerome, at the end of 4th century AD, and appears as two books in the Catholic and Protestant bibles. Authorship is generally attributed to Ezra, who was a scribe and a priest, and to Nehemiah; or alternatively to a party known as the Chronicler (who might have been Ezra, anyway). More about the Chronicler below.
As a side note, Richard Friedman suggests that Ezra might have been the final redactor (editor) of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Tradition credits Ezra with codifying the script used in Torahs and settling all controversies as to where paragraphs begin and end, use of small and large letters, and missing or extra letters. Of course, tradition says that all these go back to Moses and that Ezra’s actions were merely clarifications of ambiguities that had arisen over the centuries. Whatever Ezra may have done, tradition and scholarship (at least some scholarship) again agree in assigning him an important editorial role.
Chronicles tells the story of Israel from the earliest days through the Babylonian Exile in 586 BC. Of main importance is the history of the kings, from David (1000 BC) onward. In the Christian Bible, Chronicles is two books; in the Hebrew Bible, it is only one.
In the original Hebrew, the scroll of Ezra-Nehemiah was attached to the book of Chronicles–the last verses of Chronicles are identical to the opening verses of Ezra, thus connecting the works. The author is often called the Chronicler by scholars. Some (including Spinoza) speculate that the Chronicler was Ezra; others, not surprisingly, disagree. Chronicles was likely written (or edited into final form) about the same time as Ezra/Nehemiah, around 450 – 400 BC. Tradition says the book was begun by Ezra and completed by someone else, perhaps Nehemiah.
Chronicles is a fascinating book. It seems to have been written as a revision of or response to the Deuteronomistic history of Israel as told in the books of Joshua through Kings, which it clearly post-dates. At some points it copies the Deuteronomistic history from the books of Samuel or Kings verbatim; in other places the D-tradition is ignored, changed or omitted.
The Chronicler (whether one person or a school) viewed himself as an interpreter of the past and used history to make moral points. He included or excluded material according to how well it fit his ethical outlook. The theological perspective is pretty clearly a priestly one, which makes sense in light of the traditional view of Ezra as author, since he was a priest as well as a scribe. Where Deuteronomistic history judges kings on their adherence to the laws of Deuteronomy, Chronicles judges kings based on their treatment of the priesthood. The two frequently arrive at the same conclusion on “good” vs. “bad,” but there are some minor differences.
The Chronicler viewed Israel not as a nation but as a religious community. The center of the religion was the Temple and the priests and Levites, and Zion was the Holy City. This perspective is different from that of the Deuteronomistic editor of the book of Kings, who viewed Israel as a nation.
Another explanation of the difference between Chronicles and Kings arises from the fact that in Jewish scripture the book of Kings is included in the section called “Prophets.” Kings is mainly a rebuke of Israel, since that was what the prophets did. Chronicles is in the section called “Writings,” inspirational messages. Chronicles thus focuses on matters that will help rebuild the nation, looking toward the future.
The story of Ruth is set during the era of the Judges, around 1100 BC (three generations before David.) The Catholic and Protestant canons accordingly place it between Judges and Samuel. The Hebrew Bible places Ruth at the end, as one of the five special scrolls.
Tradition says the text was written by Samuel–say, around 1050 BC. Based on literary and stylistic analysis, most scholars believe it was fixed in its current version by the 9th century BC, although some think it was put in its present form in the post-exile period (after 530 BC) based on parts written earlier. It gives the impression of having been based on an ancient tradition, perhaps a written source from the time of Solomon (around 950 BC.)
The story is set during the reign of a King of Persia called Ahasuerus, generally accepted to be the Hebrew version of the Persian Khshayarsha, called Xerxes in Greek. The description of the personality of Xerxes I (486 – 465 BC) given by Herodotus (vain, dumb, etc.) coincides pretty well with the personality of Ahasuerus in the text. The story is set at the king’s winter palace in Susa, the remains of which, interestingly enough, have been excavated. Authorship probably dates from the late Persian period, say 350 BC, when the recollection of Xerxes and his reign had faded, and when the Jews were subject to persecution for their refusal to be assimilated. The story has some plot points that are historically implausible, and a good deal of humor (Haman being literally hoist on his own petard). But the basics of the story may rest on a real historical memory and a real threat.
Other bits also coincide with historical references. For instance, the book describes a feast held in the third year of the reign. This coincides with Herodotus, who says that in the third year of Xerxes’ reign, he gathered together military leaders to plan an assault on Greece.
The author was likely a Jew who was familiar with the Persian court. The court descriptions are largely in agreement with the archaeological facts, although probably from a later period. Tradition says the scroll was written by Mordecai, who is featured in it. A few speculate that Esther was written as late as the Maccabbean period (around 165 BC). Certainly the story was popular then, when the Jews were being pressed to assimilate by the Greeks.
.There was some dispute during the Talmudic era (roughly 200 BC to 200 AD) whether or not the scroll of Esther was to be considered amongst the holy writings. It’s the only book of the Bible that never explicitly mentions God, for instance. However, the feast of Purim, in which Esther figures, was extremely popular, so the scroll was included in the Bible.
The version of Esther in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox canon is longer than the story in the Hebrew and Protestant Bibles. The additional material is found in the Protestant Apocrypha, “Addition to Esther.”
Alexander the Great’s kingdom was split into several governorships after his death. The Seleucids ruled Syria and the Middle East, imposing Hellenistic culture on the region. Around 165 BC, the Israelites lead a successful rebellion, recounted in the Book(s) of Maccabees. This established the Hasmonean dynasty in Judea, a succession of hereditary high priests who wielded military, political, and religious power. The books were strongly influenced by the Hellenistic approach to writing history, in that they reflect a somewhat more secular orientation. I Maccabees probably was composed around 103 – 76 BC, during the reign of Alexander Yannai. Around 120 BC, Jason of Cyrene composed a history on which II Maccabees was based. The books of Maccabees are included in the Catholic and Orthodox canon, but not in the Hebrew or Protestant Bibles.
That’s it for the histories. Next up: the prophetic books.
Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman, Harper & Row, 1987
Understanding the Old Testament, by Bernhard W. Anderson, Prentice-Hall, 1986
The Art of Biblical Narrative, by Robert Alter, Basic Books, 1981
The Religion of Israel, by Yehezkel Kaufmann (trans: Moshe Greenberg), University of Chicago Press, 1948
— Dex and Euty
Part 3 – Who wrote/compiled/edited (and when) the various prophetic books (Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc.) and the wisdom literature (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) in the Old Testament?
The 3rd part will consist of the authorship of the prophetic books and wisdom literature.
Each prophetic book presents the poems, prophecies, and thoughts of the prophet for whom it is named. It’s not always clear whether a particular book is the work of the prophet himself or his disciples. It’s fairly certain in most cases that the original work was revised and reorganized later–in some cases, such as Jeremiah, by the prophet himself, as described in the text.
The prophets arose mostly at times of crisis in Israel. Each prophet’s primary message was directed to the people of his own day, calling on them to turn from wickedness and return to the faith. The prophets were reformers, religious teachers, and political advisors. They held up the ideals of moral duty, adherence to religious truth, and national renewal. Notwithstanding our modern notion of a prophet as someone who foretells the future, long-term predictions were not the primary concern, although sometimes messages about the Messianic Era were important.
Nonetheless, the fact that the prophets sometimes did make oracular pronouncements sharpens the disagreement between tradition and a scholarship in matters of dating. As we mentioned earlier, if a prophet says, “the walls are fallen,” and we know the walls fell in year X, then scholars tend to date the prophets word’s after the year X. On the other hand, if this was prophecy, then traditionalists have no problem in dating the passage before the year X.
Scholars tend to discount prophecy. A specific reference, such as the fall of one king and the ascent of another, is deemed to have been written after the event. In addition to obvious internal evidence, scholars base their dating on textual analysis–peculiarities of language and style and so on–and on correlations with archaeological findings.
Traditionalists have developed a separate dating, noting that Babylonian kings (upon which much of the dating relies) often adopted the names or titles of their predecessors. Since they didn’t use the dynastic numbering that helps us distinguish Henry VI from Henry VIII, it’s not clear which king reigned when. While we favor the scholarly dating, we’re compelled to say traditional dating and chronology is both coherent and internally consistent. We’re not talking about a 4,000-year-old earth here, but about whether the fall of Jerusalem was in 422 BC (the religious/traditional view) or in 587 BC (the scholarly view), a matter of 165 years. What scholars see as anachronism and contradiction traditionalists explain through this later dating and prophetic vision.
We’ll discuss the prophets more or less chronologically, according to scholarly (secular) dating.
We know very little about Amos. The text says that he prophesized during the reign of Uzziah (783 to 742 BC). He was born in the southern country of Judah and moved to the northern kingdom of Israel, evidence that the two countries were bound by tradition and religion and separated only by politics. The book is a compilation of short poems, presumably written down by the prophet himself, exhorting the northern kingdom to social reform before impending devastation.
Hosea describes events in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of king Menahem (around 745 – 737 BC). His earliest prophecies are from the year of Jeroboam’s death, probably 746 BC, not later than 730 BC, although the text says he prophesized during the reign of four kings, including Hezekiah (715 to 687 BC). Most scholars feel it is unlikely he was still around during Hezekiah’s rule.
Hosea’s brief poems describe the difficult social upheavals faced in the north. The separate poems were linked together, either by the prophet himself or by his followers, to form a single scroll. Scholars believe the text to be well preserved with very few later amendments.
The book of Isaiah is complex and difficult to deal with. The traditional perspective is that the book was written entirely by Isaiah of Jerusalem, who prophesied around 742 to 687 BC. However, the scholarly view is that the last part of the book must have been written much later, after the return from exile (after 539 BC). Scholars think there were two Isaiahs and perhaps three.
The first Isaiah (sometimes called Isaiah of Jerusalem) or his disciples probably wrote most of Chapters 1 – 11, a series of poems and narrative prophecies, around 740 to 730 BC. Chapters 13 – 23 are rants against foreign nations–possibly only a fraction of these chapters were actually written by Isaiah. Chapters 29 – 32 seem to date from 715 – 701 BC, during the reign of Hezekiah.
The later chapters of Isaiah appear to date much later. Some of the material, such as Chapters 36 – 39, appears to be lifted largely from II Kings 18 – 20.
The first part of Isaiah addresses people living in Judah under the Davidic kings. Jerusalem is the Holy City that God will protect, the Temple and sacrifice are in place, the Assyrians are a threat. This is consistent with a date in the 700s. The later parts of Isaiah describe how the cities of Judah are desolate, the Temple is in ruins, and the people are in exile in Babylon. The Assyrians aren’t mentioned. There is a new theological emphasis, as well as a changed political scene. This leads scholars to believe there were two different prophets named Isaiah, living 150 to 200 years apart, whose works were later combined.
The second Isaiah author probably wrote around 528 to 500 BC, assuring the people that Cyrus would overthrow Babylon and restore them to their land. It’s not clear if all of chapters 40 – 66 were written by the same person, or if there were a third Isaiah.
Multiple authors or not, the separate pieces of the book of Isaiah do not, in fact, stand well alone. Each new piece supplements and expands the prior work, so that the combined work has a wonderful unity, even if its individual parts were written over a period of 200 years. The traditional view, however, is that the entire work was compiled from the spoken words of a single man, Isaiah of Jerusalem, by disciples who were members of Hezekiah’s court.
We know very little about Micah. His prophesies date to around 722 to 701 BC, through the Assyrian conquest of Samaria and Israel (722 BC). The text was revised and expanded after the fall of Jerusalem, and perhaps during the time of rebuilding (485 BC or later), to reflect changed circumstances.
It’s impossible to date Zephaniah’s book or career exactly, although his attack upon corruption in worship suggests (to some) a time before Josiah’s reform in 621 BC. The text implies that he was prophesying during Josiah’s reign. He must have been a citizen of Jerusalem, part of the “establishment.”
The prophecies of Nahum date from around the time of the fall of Nineveh, hence around 612 BC according to scholars. Tradition dates him much later, a disciple of Joel and teacher of Habakkuk.
The text places his prophecies just after the battle of Carchemish in 605 BC, as Nebuchadnezzer was coming to power in Babylon.
Ezekiel was taken to Babylon with the exiles in 597 BC, and prophesied there during the exile from 593 to 563 BC. His period overlaps the conquest of Judah in 587 BC. The book records his prophecies, although there was some revision (perhaps by Ezekiel himself) plus later supplements by his disciples. Some scholars think the later revisions were extensive, some not.
The story of the book of Jeremiah easily merits its own report. Jeremiah stands as a giant amongst the other prophets. Only Isaiah rivals him in stature.
The material is not organized in a coherent way except for being vaguely chronological. Very vaguely–Jeremiah delivers a sermon at the Temple in Chapter 7, and the audience response is found in Chapter 26. The Greek version of the text, the Septuagint (around 200 BC), has a different arrangement of material, and is shorter than the common Hebrew text.
Much of the text is first-person narrative poems, seemingly dictated, then revised from time to time by Jeremiah himself (see Jer 36:32) as well as by later disciples. There is no reason to doubt that Jeremiah wrote (or at least dictated) this book, so the secular and the traditional views are in agreement. Some biographical verses may have been written by Baruch, his assistant.
Jeremiah prophesied and witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem. He also witnessed the exile, but remained in Jerusalem rather than go to Babylon.
It has long been noted that Jeremiah uses many phrases and quotes from Deuteronomy. Richard Friedman makes the interesting argument that Jeremiah might be D, the Deuteronomistic historian, who was the author/editor of Deuteronomy, editor of the historical books Joshua, Judges, and Samuel, and author of the book of Kings. As we noted earlier, tradition also holds that Jeremiah wrote the book of Kings, so there is some correspondence between the religious and the secular perspectives.
Lamentations was obviously written at the time of the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. It is a lament for the destruction and suffering during and after the siege. The second and fourth parts were written soon after the catastrophe, the first and fifth near the end of the exile. The third section could be post-exilic. Tradition attributes Lamentations to Jeremiah, based partly on 2 Chronicles 35:25, although that probably refers to the death of Josiah, not to the destruction of Jerusalem. It’s certainly possible Jeremiah was the author–there are many parallels between Lamentations and the book of Kings (see discussion of the Old Testament histories) and the book of Jeremiah. But scholars think it’s unlikely. There are points of variance with Jeremiah, and neither the content nor the diction seem consistent with Jeremiah’s prophecies. Lamentations may be a combination of the work of several authors.
Obadiah condemns the Edomites for ravaging Judah after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC, so he presumably was writing between 585 and 500 BC (by which point the Edomites had been conquered by Arab tribes). Tradition, on the other hand, says this is the same Obadiah who is mentioned in I Kings 18, living during the reign of King Ahab (about 869 – 850 BC), and that the references to future events are, um, prophetic.
Zechariah and Haggai
The two prophets were contemporaries, their prophecies dating from the second wave of exiles returning from Babylon, when construction started on rebuilding the Temple.
Internal evidence indicates Malachi was writing a generation or so before Nehemiah was appointed governor, so during early 2nd Temple times, say 450 to 400 BC.
According to tradition, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi all wrote during the same period, around 350 BC, and were all members of the Great Assembly that compiled several of the books of the Prophets.
There is no agreement on when Joel prophesied, except that it was after the Return, so somewhere from 539 to 331 BC. Nothing is known about his life, and there are no clues in the text. Religious tradition is not uniform. Most scholars place him during the late Persian period, around 400 to 350 BC.
The dating of Jonah is unclear. The text itself offers no clues about historical period, and isn’t tied to any other text. Jonah himself (assuming he was a real person and not a parable) apparently lived in the days of Jeroboam II (786 – 748 BC), but one strong tradition claims he was a disciple of Elisha, around 840 BC. Most scholars think the book was not written earlier than the 5th Century BC, perhaps towards the end of the Persian period (4th Century).
Although the author mentions the Assyrians and Nineveh, the details are hazy. The sins of Nineveh are not related to its mistreatment of Israel, which argues for a later dating, when the Babylonians were the enemy, not the Assyrians.
Some claim the story is history (if a fetus lives nine months without access to air, why couldn’t Jonah live in the belly of the great fish for three days?). Others go to the opposite extreme and say all the experiences related in the Bible are visions, not reality. But most now agree this is a parable, a story that makes moral points.
The book of Daniel is set during the Babylonian Exile (580 BC and after), and tradition says it was written at that time, with an oracular preview of several centuries of future history. The book is a favorite of those who believe “biblical prophecy” accurately predicted the future.
Scholars find that too many details of the Babylonian court in the book of Daniel don’t correspond to evidence gleaned from archaeology and other sources. Further, the accuracy and detail of the descriptions of “future” events contrasts with the ambiguity and vagueness of most prophecy, leading some to think there is something ex-post-facto about them.
Thus, the scholarly view is that the book was written much later, probably during the Maccabean Revolt in 165 BC. The author of Daniel expresses his opposition to enforced Hellenism by disguising the situation as Babylonian, using the long-dead and far away Nebuchadnezzer as a stand-in for the contemporary tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes. The book stands firmly in opposition to the reign of tyrants, and declares their days are numbered–a very popular message in 165 BC, less so in 580 BC.
The book of Daniel is often classified as apocalyptic literature, of a type popular from 200 BC to 100 AD, such as the New Testament Book of Revelation, the Apocalypse of John, and others. The apocalyptic books are full of supernatural intervention, bizarre portents, and mystic visions.
The Book of Daniel, like the book of Esther, appears in longer form in the Catholic and Orthodox canon than in the Hebrew and Protestant one.
The books of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job are classed as “wisdom literature”–poems and philosophy, emphasizing moral imperatives based on religion.
The book is a compilation of songs of praise (Tehillim in Hebrew), thanksgiving or supplication, “a response to God’s presence in history.” Few psalms offer any indication of date or other circumstances. They were certainly composed over many generations. At the earliest, many psalms are attributed to David (1000 BC), and a few are attributed to Moses (1250 BC). Popular tradition has it that David composed the entire book and included psalms by other author such as as Moses, the sons of Korah, etc. On the other hand, Psalm 137 is clearly written during the Babylonian Exile (after 586), over 400 years after David lived. (Of course, if you believe David compiled the entire book, then Psalm 137 was prophetic.)
The scholarly view is that entire final book was probably compiled from earlier collections for use in the Second Temple, say by 515 BC. Some say it was compiled later, possibly in the 3rd century BC.
As with so many other Biblical books, undoubtedly large parts were handed down orally at first and later in writing, until the book took its final form. Religious tradition blames the Proverbs on Solomon (920 BC), renown for his wisdom, and credits King Hezekiah’s court (which scholars date to 700 BC) with compiling and editing (see Proverbs 25:1). Most scholars suggest instead that the compilation occurred around the time of Ezra (around 400 BC) although Solomon and early tradition may have provided the core of the work. As the book is basically a collection of unrelated, undated, bumper-sticker type thoughts, it is likely that contributions were made by many authors throughout the Old Testament period.
Tradition says that Job was written by Moses. Scholarly opinion holds that the book of Job was probably written by at least two authors, one who wrote a prose prologue and epilogue that are likely quite old (say from 1000 BC or so), and one who wrote a poetic middle section, perhaps before 600 BC. There were later additions and revision of the poetry, perhaps as late as the 4th century BC. Ezekiel (prophesizing around 580 BC) mentions Job, but we do not know whether Ezekiel meant the folk-story or the scroll that we have today, or some other Job. Song of Solomon
Called “Canticles” in the Latin tradition, the book is actually a compilation of about 25 songs, mainly sensuous love songs or wedding songs. The two lovers mentioned in the songs are presumably Solomon and the famed Shunammite (or Shulammite) beauty (according to I Kings 1:1-4). However, there is also a (somewhat strained) interpretation that these are love songs about God and Israel. If it were not for this latter interpretation, and for the popularity of the Songs in ancient wedding festivities, this book might well have been left out of the canon. The traditional view holds these songs were all written by Solomon, and then compiled/edited into final form by Hezekiah’s court, same as for Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. Scholars find little basis for this claim, although there is no general agreement on when the compilation may have occurred. The absence of Greek dualism of body and soul leads some to date this before Hellenism began to influence Israelite culture, possibly as late as the 3rd or 4th century BC.
The Hebrew name of the book is Koholet, the name the author gives himself. The word probably derives from “assembly” or “school,” so the author is “the one who assembles” sayings or things heard; which is why the Greek name Ecclesiastes (“member of the assembly”) was given to this book. The author describes himself as a son of David, and ancient tradition accepted uncritically that this was a work of Solomon. Without that authorship, it might well have been excluded from the Bible. It is evident that Koholet was not Solomon; even Rambam (1100s AD) knew that many verses were not written by Solomon. Beyond Chapter 2, the pretense of being the “son of David, a king” is dropped.
Tradition dates the compiling of the book to the court of King Hezekiah (715 – 687 BC). However, modern scholars believe the text shows shows considerable Hellenistic influence, and certainly a post-Exile attitude, so we might put authorship around 250 – 200 BC. However, some date it as late as 100 BC. The work may have been touched up later, presumably to be more palatable to tradition. Some of these revisions are probably by disciples (Ecc. 12:9-11) of the original author, and some by a critic (12:12-14). There seem to be three different “voices.” However, it is certainly possible (indeed, likely) that one author composed the dramatic poem in which three separate “characters” speak.
The question of whether to include this book in the Hebrew Bible was debated during the Tannaitic period (100 BC – 200 AD). It’s a good thing they did, because the book contains a few notable quotes that have echoed throughout Western history, such as, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2) and, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” (3:1 ff).
Understanding the Old Testament, by Bernhard W. Anderson, Prentice-Hall, 1986
The Art of Biblical Narrative, by Robert Alter, Basic Books, 1981
The Religion of Israel, by Yehezkel Kaufmann (trans: Moshe Greenberg), University of Chicago Press, 1948
Soncino Bible, Soncino Press
— Dex and Eutychus
As with the Old Testament, we just don’t know who wrote most of the New Testament. Tradition has assigned the Gospels and most of the Epistles to certain authors, all of whom were important figures in Jesus’ life or the early days of the faith. It was important for the early church to believe the authors wrote the works attributed to them, since their eminence lent the writings authority. But since we don’t have the original signatures, none can be verified except through textual clues.
The first generation of Christians didn’t see any need for a permanent written record of the sayings and stories of Jesus. Jesus’ return and the restoration of the Kingdom of God on earth were imminent–why bother preserving stories if the world was about to end? Stories were simply passed along orally, primarily as a means of preaching and convincing outsiders. But as the first generation began to die off and hopes for the Second Coming dimmed, there was a need to preserve Jesus’ words and deeds for posterity.
Quite a few collections of stories about Jesus circulated in the early church, among them The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, and the Secret Book of John. Some of these gave very different and in some cases conflicting accounts of the gospel and, most importantly, of Jesus’ alleged resurrection. Some argued for the physical resurrection, with the mantle of leadership falling on those who had experienced it firsthand: the apostles. Others said the resurrection was a spiritual event that anyone could experience. Some thought this latter “heresy” would have led the church away from an organized entity into a situation where anyone could judge the truth for themselves. As Elaine Pagels points out in The Gnostic Gospel, this was no trivial matter. The decision on which interpretation was “correct” was central to the future of the church.
We’ll return to the question of how the “canonical” books of the New Testament were determined in the fifth and last installment of this answer. For now we’ll just say that Iraneus, the bishop of Lyons in 180 AD, decided that the validity of any work had to be judged by whether it was “apostolic.” That is, it should have been written by or for one of the twelve apostles. But, as Pagels goes on to say, regardless of whether the names given to the Gospels are those of the actual authors or merely reflect a claim to apostolic authority, “we know virtually nothing about the persons who wrote the Gospels.”
Recent scholars or, more correctly, recent rethinking of previous scholarship has brought an intriguing possibility to the table. Matthew, Mark and Luke are termed the Synoptic Gospels, so called because they generally agree on the details and timeline of Jesus’ life, sometimes even using the same words to describe the same events. Because of this similarity, quite a few scholars posit that there was a previous collection of Jesus’ sayings and works which all three gospel writers relied on when compiling their histories. This collection, as yet just a theoretical construct, has been given the name “Q” (short for Quelle, German for “source”).
It’s a tempting idea. Mark is regarded as the earliest gospel and hence closest to Q. Of the 661 verses in Mark, only 24 aren’t quoted in either Matthew or Luke. Matthew and Luke occasionally disagree with Mark regarding Jesus’ words or the order of events, but they never both disagree on the same point.
Burton Mack in The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins offers another conjecture. It’s possible Q was the work not of a single person, but rather of a community trying to give written form and substance to what it believed. If that’s the case, the question of authorship in the usual sense evaporates. But rather than have this discussion come to an abrupt end, we’ll work on the assumption that the authors were individuals, not a committee.
Mark, not an apostle himself, was an associate of the apostle Paul for a short time, but the gospel bearing his name is (to some minds) based on the preaching of Peter. It’s generally assumed to have been the first gospel written, coming in right before Matthew at about 65 AD.
The author of Matthew is traditionally held to be the tax collector mentioned in Matthew 9:9, sometimes referred to as Levi. However, Matthew borrows heavily from the Gospel of Mark. It’s hard to believe someone who was in close contact with Jesus would have had to rely on secondary sources. Since this gospel has the most quotations from the Old Testament, sometimes going to ridiculous lengths to try to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, it’s assumed that Matthew was written for a Jewish audience. There is suspicion that it might have been originally written in Hebrew, although only Greek texts have ever been found. Scholars differ on the composition date, but most agree on roughly 65 – 70 AD with a few placing at as late as 100 – 134 AD.
The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are assumed to have been written by the same person, since they are addressed to the same individual, a Roman named Theophilus. The author was a doctor, Paul notes in Colossians 4:14. If Mark represents the teachings of Peter about Jesus, Luke most likely represents the teachings of Paul. Luke claims to have researched his material, but his dating, especially in the early chapters regarding Jesus’ birth, is inconsistent with other sources.
The book of Acts can be seen as a sequel to the gospel of Luke, starting where the previous book ends. But where in the earlier work Luke needed to research the story, in Acts he is a character in it. He was a companion of Paul on his missionary journeys and was present during his imprisonment. In this sense, Luke had more first-hand experience of Paul than he had of Jesus. Both books were probably written after Matthew and Mark, probably around 65-70 AD but before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The Gospel of John differs markedly from the other three books both in tone and in some historical details. John does not follow the timeline in the other three and adds quite a few stories and details not found in them. For this reason, it’s thought that John’s gospel was not a child of Q, but a completely original work either by someone who knew Jesus directly or by one of his associates. The three letters of John found near the end of the New Testament are generally assumed to have been written by this same individual.
The identity of John has remained a mystery, although tradition has it that he is “the disciple that Jesus loved” mentioned in John 13:23. But here is a curious thing. In the entire gospel, John never mentions his own name (although he does mention other gospel writers). His purpose is to exalt the deity of Jesus. It seems out of character for him to pat himself on the back in that one verse, if in fact he was John the apostle.
William Barclay gives us an elegant answer. He states outright that even if John was not the direct author of the book, it was at least written under his authority. The book likely dates from about 100 AD, the last of the books to be written. If this dating is accurate, John would have been very old. Barclay posits that it was probably a group writing remembrances from John’s fading memories, and it was they who described John as the disciple Jesus loved..
The letters to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, the Colossians, the Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus and Philemon are widely assumed to have come from the hand of the apostle Paul and are called the Pauline epistles for that reason.
E. P. Sanders says it’s fairly clear Paul was unaware of the four Gospels, and the authors of the Gospels didn’t know of Paul’s letters.
A few small stylistic variations in Colossians and Ephesians make some scholars suspect Paul didn’t write them, but the evidence is sparse and unconvincing. The letters to Timothy and Titus are suspect as well, and some critics feel they were later edits of some of Paul’s more personal correspondence to individual church leaders, or pastors. Hence, they are often referred to as the Pastoral epistles.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews is completely unknown. Stylistic or literary criticism has failed to match it with any known author, although it is usually included among the letters of Paul. Some names that have been bandied about are Barnabas (an associate of Paul), Apollos, or even a dual authorship of Aquilla and Priscilla, two Christians who ran a church out of their house in Rome. Early tradition knew that it was anonymous, but since it was such a popular work among the early Christians, it was included among the letters of Paul in order to insure its apostolicity and thus its place in the Bible.
The letter of James isn’t anonymous, but it’s not known who exactly James was. Five people named James are mentioned in the New Testament, one of whom was the brother of Jesus. It’s this person whom tradition has accepted as the author, although the evidence is sketchy.
It’s always been assumed the first and second letters of Peter were in fact written by Saint Peter. No real objection to that belief has been raised until rather recently, largely because few early church fathers quoted it as they did other canonically accepted books.
The Revelation is often called the Revelation of Saint John. Tradition says this is the same as the author of the fourth gospel, but that seems implausible. The style of the Greek is different, and while the gospel author avoids mentioning his own name in order to focus attention on Jesus, the author of Revelation mentions his own name repeatedly. He doesn’t call himself an apostle, as would be his right, but merely a prophet. Exactly who the author was is open to conjecture. There is no real consensus, except that he was apparently a Jewish writer, writing in Greek to the Jewish believers after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Most critics put the date at about 95 – 100 AD.
The Literary Guide to the Bible, edited by Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, Belknap Press, 1987
The Gospel of John, by William Barclay, Westminster John Knox Press, 1975
The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, by Robin Lane Fox, Knopf, 1992
The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins, by Burton Mack, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993
Testament, by David Morell, Warner Books, 1993
The Synoptic Gospels, by Keith F. Nickle, John Knox Press, 1980
The Historical Figure of Jesus, by E.P. Sanders, Penguin Books, 1993
The Catholic Encyclopedia – online at www.newadvent.org/cathen/
— Dex and Eutychus
Part 5 – Who decided which books should be included and which excluded from the Bible(s)? Why are there differences in the Bibles for Catholics, Protestants, and Jews?
In the four previous parts of this magnum opus, we’ve discussed how the various individual books (or groups of books) of the Bible came to be written. Now we’re ready for a metaquestion of sorts: How did the Bible come to be fixed? Who decided what to include and what to exclude? What was the process of canonization?
In 1985 Robert Funk convened the “Jesus Seminar” to investigate the “historical” Jesus. (The “historicity” of Jesus is a long-running debate over how much of what we know about Jesus qualifies as fact.) One of the first items on the agenda was to read through the gospels and decide which words that the gospels put in Jesus’ mouth were things he actually said. The participants did this by discussing and then voting on them. An outcry was heard from conservative Christians who declared such decisions were too important to be put to something as prosaic as popular vote. But for the most part, that was exactly the way the modern Bible was assembled.
Here’s the story of how the various versions of the Bible came to be, insofar as we’ve been able to piece it together.
THE HEBREW BIBLE
The Pentateuch or Torah was accepted as Law very early–according to tradition, since the time of Moses, around 1250 BC, give or take a few decades. Most documentary scholars say bits and pieces were accepted as Law from early times, but that the books did not take final form until around 400 BC. Most traditionalist scholars say the whole Law dates to Moses, but agree that Ezra did some “editing” or clarification of minor discrepancies that had arisen, thus would also agree (roughly) on the date for final form. Whenever it was finalized–or possibly even before it was finalized–the Torah was accepted as canonical. For Judaism, it is the foundation.
The other Old Testament books were all generally accepted as sacred by Jews from the time of their writing, but for a long time there was no formal determination of which books were essential (canonical), which were simply pious (though still sacred), and which were not sacred or divinely inspired at all.
In 70 AD, as a result of continuing tension between the Jews and their Roman overlords, Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed along with the Temple. The destruction of the Temple in 70 AD was a turning point in Jewish history. It remade Judaism. Where before Jewish life revolved around the Temple, sacrifice, and the priests, it now became more fragmented, centering on local communities & prayer, led by rabbis. Fragmentation meant that there was no longer any central authority to which Jewish leaders could refer.
Around the time that Jerusalem was under siege, Rabbi Johannon ben Zakkai asked and received permission from the Romans to withdraw from Jerusalem and establish a place for Jewish study in a town near Jaffa that in Greek was called Jamnia (Jabneh in English, Yavneh in Hebrew–the current town of Yebna in Israel is built on the ruins). After Jerusalem fell, the academy became the center of Jewish learning. Scholars came there both to escape the destruction of Jerusalem and to debate how Judaism was to survive the loss of centrality. Naturally, a major point of discussion was what parts of Jewish literature were to be considered the word of God.
The Torah was accepted as the writings of Moses, and hence the basis of Jewish life. For the other books, the issue was primarily whether each agreed with Jewish law and history as found in the Torah. Each book had to be meticulously read and dissected and any anomalies resolved before it could be accepted as having the authority of Scripture. For some books, like Joshua, Judges, Kings, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, the discussion was brief. For other books, like Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon, the discussion was lengthy.
One inevitable result of such critical investigation of existing material was the establishment of an officially recognized text, even if there weren’t one before.
Finally, around 90 AD, after much debate, 39 books were declared to comprise the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the “Old Testament.” To Jews, of course, it’s just the Bible. In one of the greatest successes of Jewish tradition, the list of canonical books has remained constant to this day. There are three large sections: Law (Torah or Pentateuch), Prophets (books telling the history of Israel, both histories and prophetic works) and Writings (psalms, proverbs, and wisdom literature).
Today, there is considerable disagreement about the importance of the rabbinic school at Jamnia in the canonization of the Hebrew Bible. The process certainly began long before, and there is no doubt that some sections (like most of Prophets) were closed and accepted as canonical by the second century BC–the writings of the grandson of Ben Sirah, around 130 BC, clearly mention the Law, Prophets, and other writings as the divisions of sacred text. The school at Jamnia may have done little more than formalize decisions made long before, rejecting “newer” books such as the Book of Maccabees, despite the popularity of the holiday of Hanukkah that it commemorated.
Jamnia didn’t settle matters once and for all. It’s known that texts with slight variations persisted until the second century AD, such as the Septuagint and the Samaritan versions. Furthermore, long after 90 AD, there were still debates about the canonicity of some of the sacred writings (again, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon). Even today, Ethiopian Jews include some books in their canon that mainstream Judaism excludes as apocrypha, such as Jubilees and Enoch.
We don’t know much about how the debate over canonization progressed. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, dated from 100 BC to 70 AD, include all the books of the Hebrew Bible except Esther. Is that coincidence? Does that mean that the Qumran sect rejected the book of Esther? We will probably never know, but it’s interesting that all other Biblical books (plus some others) were stored in the caves, long before Jamnia.
At one time scholars thought there were two Jewish canons, one from Jerusalem and one from Alexandria in Egypt. However, it’s now clear there was never a rival canon–an indication of how little we know about the canon’s history.
All we can say is that many scholars look to Jamnia and 90 AD as the point at which the Hebrew Bible was fixed. Others point to dates anywhere from 200 to 400 years earlier. We can only assert, with a fair degree of confidence, that the Hebrew Bible was certainly fixed by 90 AD and probably before that.
THE CATHOLIC AND ORTHODOX BIBLES
The first part of the Christian Bible is called the Old Testament, and is largely the Hebrew Bible. However, knowledge of Hebrew was rare among the early Gentile Christians. Rather than attempt to create their own version of the Hebrew canon, they seem to have adopted what is called the Septuagint translation–a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible plus some other books, dating from around 250 BC. The Septuagint apparently was the Greek version most commonly available (it was the basis for the earliest Latin translations as well).
Manuscripts of the Septuagint include texts in Greek for which no Hebrew versions exist. These are now called the Apocrypha.
Origen was one of the very few early Christian scholars capable of working with Hebrew texts. He recognized that there were minor differences between the Septuagint text familiar to Christians and the Hebrew text used by Jews. He created the Hexapla, a massive “parallel columns” document comparing the Septuagint, other Greek translations, and the Hebrew versions.
Jerome, when he came to work on his translation (known as the Vulgate or “common tongue” translation), denied that any text other than the Hebrew canon was an authoritative basis for the Old Testament. But his view did not prevail.
The road to canonization of the New Testament was quite a bit rockier and quite the reverse of the Old. What ended in orthodoxy actually had its roots in heresy. While the Jews examined books to see if they were consistent with the main religious text (the Torah), the early Christians engaged in a more fundamental argument about what constituted Christianity and especially about the nature of Christ. Judaism was a centuries-old ancient religion with clear traditions. Christianity was new, had no tradition, and was torn with disagreement about what it was and what it should be.
The chief competitor to what would become mainstream Christianity was Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that one did not need the intermediary of the church to experience God; that one could and should experience him firsthand if one knew the “secret tradition.” One can easily see how this would threaten the orthodox church.
But the Gnostics did give one important idea to the church. A second century Gnostic named Marcion gave us the first list of books he felt appropriate for a New Testament. It was very short, including only an edited Gospel of Luke and some of Paul’s letters. Marcion was also extremely anti-semitic and thought that Christianity should be completely divorced from Judaism, going so far as to say that Jesus was not born of Jewish parents but sprang full-grown from the mind of God.
None of Marcion’s writings survived, having been expunged by the orthodox church. The only record we have of his activities are the church’s attacks on him. But in setting out a canon he had planted an important seed. A literary fragment known as the Muratorian canon (named after Lodovico Muratori, who first recognized its importance) gave a list of possibly four Gospels and a major part of the rest of the New Testament. Other early Christian writers compiled other lists. Eventually church councils were held to determine a single set of books.
The first officially sanctioned canon of the New Testament was attempted by Irenaeus of Lyon. Irenaeus saw the effect Gnosticism was having on Christianity and feared that the church was splintering into factions. Formalizing doctrinal authority seemed to be the answer. He felt there were two sources of authority: Scripture and the apostles. A work could be accepted as canonical if the early church fathers used it. He never really compiled a list of books, but he did establish the basis for subsequent determinations of orthodoxy.
The work of Irenaeus was solidified by Bishop Eusebius some 150 years later, early in the 4th century AD. Eusebius was a prolific church historian who gave us most of what we know of early church history. He also gave us the first surviving list of New Testament books that matches what we have today, putting them in thematic order as well. Relying on the tradition of the church, Eusebius created what was probably the first Christian Bible as we know it today.
In 367 AD, Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria under Constantine the Great, set forth what proved to be the final canon of New Testament books in a letter listing 27 works. In 382 AD, at a synod held at Rome under Pope Damasus, church leaders influenced by Jerome adopted this list. The list was affirmed in councils at Hippo in 393 and 419 AD under Augustine and was officially ratified at a council in Rome around 473 AD. However, that council added no books that had not already been included in most earlier lists, and excluded no books that had not already been excluded by most lists.
The Greek Orthodox Church did not finalize its canon until the tenth century (primarily in doubt was inclusion of the book of Revelation). The Syrian Church had an even more complicated debate, and today recognizes only 22 books in its New Testament (excluding 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation). The Copts and Ethiopians have a few additional books included in their New Testament.
THE PROTESTANT BIBLE
At the time of the Reformation, one of the main struggles between reformers and conservatives centered on the question of authority. To the reformers, the authority that had for centuries been held by the Church more properly rested with the Bible.
Early Christians regarded several Jewish religious books as the Word of God even though they had been denied a place in the Jewish canon–Maccabees, for example. The early Christian church accepted these books as Scripture, ignoring the pronouncements from Jamnia as irrelevant. Since they were Old Testament books (pre-dating Jesus), part of the Christian canon but not part of the Jewish canon, the Edicts of Trent in 1546 called them the Second or Deutero canon.
When Martin Luther reviewed Scripture during his break from Catholicism, he judged the contents of the Bible in the light of his convictions. He found a number of books difficult to reconcile with what he understood of the Gospel–specifically, II Maccabees, Esther, James, Hebrews, and Revelation. As the Cambridge History of the Bible puts it, “The test was whether a book proclaimed Christ. ‘That which does not preach Christ is not apostolic, though it be the work of Peter or Paul; and conversely, that which does teach Christ is apostolic even though it be written by Judas, Annas, Pilate, or Herod.'” Thus the differences between the Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox bibles.
Some English Protestants–specifically, the Presbyterians and Puritans–took matters a step further and rejected the Apocrypha. Article VI of the Anglican “Articles of Religion” says of the Apocrypha that “the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners, but yet doth not apply them to establish any doctrine.” The Westminster Confession, on the other hand, says the Apocrypha shall be “of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be otherwise approved, or made use of, than any other human writings.”
Consequently, Protestant bibles in English are most often printed without the Apocrypha. As a result, most Protestants in the U.S. are unfamiliar with the Apocrypha and consider it part of the Catholic Bible.
It should be noted that there are other canons as well. The Mormon Church, for instance, has additional books in its canon and believes that the canon is NOT closed, but remains open.
Here we close the book on The Book, at least for the time being. We feel sure, however, that the Teeming Millions will continue to argue about the subject for some time to come.
The history of the Bible is debated still. We knew at the outset that we’d never be able to cover in five short columns what takes up entire shelves in some libraries. Some aspects only skimmed here may be the subject of follow-up articles. We’ve already seen Dex’s article on the book of Job and Cecil’s article on the Gospel of Thomas. Topics we may return to someday include:
- How did so many different translations and versions come about?
- Who were the Gnostics and what was their effect on the development of early Christianity?
A word about us: Dex is Conservative Jewish; Euty is a lapsed Southern Baptist. We felt that two people looking at the subject from different and sometimes opposing viewpoints would give a more complete portrayal. We are also indebted to Straight Dope Message Board regulars CMKeller (Orthodox Jewish) and tomndebb (Catholic) as well as to Dex’s friend Pastor Allan (Lutheran) for their help in reviewing, adding, and challenging. Their help was valuable, and we thank them for it.
While researching this subject, many works were consulted. Some of these are listed as resources following specific sections. If you are interested in this topic, go thou and learn.
— Dex and Eutychus