How Was the Bible Formed? by Justin Walker; Jacob L. Wright

The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) occupies a unique place in contemporary society. Subtle allusions to these ancient texts find their way into films, public debates, and even political speeches. References to what “the Bible says” in contemporary culture often give the impression that these ancient texts appeared without any human assistance; but in fact the writing, editing, and collecting of these texts were the result of human activity over the centuries.

Prior to modern times, readers assumed that the texts of the Hebrew Bible were composed by important figures from Israel’s history—individuals like Moses, Joshua, or Samuel, who took it upon themselves to record their experiences. This traditional understanding of biblical authorship originated in the texts themselves. For example, several passages refer to Moses writing God’s commands (Exod 17:14, Exod 24:4, Exod 34:28, Num 33:2, Deut 31:9, Deut 31:22), and many others make mention of the “law(s) of Moses” (for example, Josh 8:30-31, 2Kgs 14:6, Ezra 3:2). Clues like these led readers to identify Moses as the author of the Pentateuch.

Similarly, because Solomon often appears in the Wisdom literature and is remembered as an exceptionally wise individual (1Kgs 4:29-34), premodern readers credited Solomon with writing books such as the Song of Songs (Song 1:1), Ecclesiastes (Eccl 1:1, Eccl 1:12), and major portions of Proverbs (Prov 1:1, Prov 10:1). Associations like these not only provided a straightforward explanation of how the Hebrew Bible came into being. They also lent the collection a special authority. As faithful accounts from biblical heroes, these texts were believed to be trustworthy representations of Israel’s experience and God’s character. According to this traditional perspective, the Hebrew Bible was simply a collection of individually authored texts composed and collected over several centuries (from about the 13th century through the fifth century B.C.E.).   

With the dawn of the modern era, however, scholars began to propose other models for the Hebrew Bible’s formation in light of newer reading methods and the textual details they revealed. Scholars in classical studies had developed particular ways of analyzing ancient Greek and Roman literature in order to determine how those texts were composed, when they were written, how they were edited, and what situations brought them about. As early as the 17th century, biblical scholars began to adopt these methods and apply them to the Hebrew Bible. Their analyses first took note of obvious issues in the flow of pentateuchal stories—things like the repetition of a story, multiple introductions or changes in writing style and grammar within a story, or interruptions in plot.

Instead of attempting to resolve these narrative hiccups by maintaining Mosaic authorship, modern scholars saw these bumps as clues to a different model for the Hebrew Bible’s composition. This newer model understood the Bible to be the result of an extended writing, editing, and compiling process that brought individual traditions together into larger books over time. These insights were further confirmed by the increase of archaeological data and a growing understanding of how other cultures recorded, edited, and preserved their important texts. Like these other texts, the Bible is likely not the work of prominent individuals. Rather, the Bible is the product of generations of authors and editors who wrote, edited, and supplemented these books across Israelite, Judean, and Jewish history. 

Although the last two centuries have witnessed a variety of theories about how the Hebrew Bible came into being, most scholars today now conclude that the first major period of literary production was not during the time of Moses (13th century B.C.E.) but instead during the political peak of the southern kingdom of Judah (eighth–sixth centuries B.C.E.). This is not to say that biblical texts were not written earlier than this time. Northern traditions (for example, Jacob stories that take place in northern locations such as Bethel) were likely written prior to the northern kingdom of Israel’s destruction in 722 B.C.E., and texts like the earliest portions of Proverbs, some of the royal psalms, or even the Covenant Code (Exod 20:19-23:33) may date as early as the 9th century B.C.E. However, most scholars no longer attribute large blocks of written material to the time of the “united monarchy.” On the contrary, archaeology has shown that Judah developed a writing culture quite late in its history, with the 8th  and 7th centuries marking the zenith.

This does not mean, however, that the majority of the biblical corpus was composed during the later period of the Judean monarchy, nor does it suggest that exilic and postexilic Judeans had only a slight editorial role in the formation of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, critical scholars understand much of the Hebrew Bible (especially the Pentateuch) to be a product of the Persian period (sixth–third centuries B.C.E.). Many texts composed during the exile (for example, Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah) and after (for example, the Priestly source of the Pentateuch, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Daniel). Scribes from these periods continually edited and supplemented whatever written traditions they inherited from preexilic times. The biblical texts as they now stand (from Pentateuch to Prophets) are either the written by or the editorial product of Persian and Hellenistic Jews.

Although “editing” may imply tampering with or misrepresenting “authentic” or “original” writings of older generations, scholars now understand that the scribal revision of texts was intended not to deceive new readers but rather to make sense of the previous materials for their present circumstances. Thus, editing, adding, and combining were ways of faithfully receiving and interpreting Israel’s stories and writings for the readers who lived after the exile. Within the Hebrew Bible itself, we can witness the fascinating history of how generations of readers appropriated the stories of those who preceded them.


Justin Walker, Jacob L. Wright, "How Was the Bible Formed?", n.p. [cited 21 Sep 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/bible-basics/how-was-the-bible-formed

Contributors

Justin Walker

Justin Walker
Ph.D. student, Emory University

Justin Walker is a Ph.D. student in the Hebrew Bible program at Emory University. His research interests include ancient Near Eastern iconography, poetic studies, ancient Near Eastern languages, and biblical theology.
Jacob L. Wright

Jacob L. Wright
Associate Professor, Emory University

Jacob L. Wright is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University.  He  taught for several years at the University of Heidelberg and is the author of a number of articles on Ezra-Nehemiah as well as Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers, which won a 2008 Templeton prize, the largest prize for first books in religion. He delivered the prestigious 2010-11 lecture in Milieux biblique at the Collège de France in Paris, and was awarded a 2011-12 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. 

Indirect references to another idea or document.

Genuine; historically accurate.

Evaluating its subject carefully, rigorously, and with minimal preconceptions. "Critical" religious scholarship contrasts with popular and sectarian studies.

Isaiah 40-66, or "Second Isaiah," so called because the author is different from and later than the author of Isaiah 1-39; sometimes also subdivided into Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55) and Trito-Isaiah ("Third Isaiah," chapters 56-66).

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

The people of the tribe of Judah or the southern kingdom of Judah/Judea.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

Artwork composed of small pieces of material—glass, stone, pottery—arranged in patterns or depicting persons and scenes.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

The period of Israelite and Judean history before the Babylonian exile, from circa 1000 B.C.E. until 586 B.C.E.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

The kingdom of Judah, according to the Hebrew Bible ruled by a king in the line of David from the 10th century B.C.E. until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E.

A category of biblical literature that typically deals with the nature of God and the moral and practical aspects of human experience.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Exod 17:14

14Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek fro ... View more

Exod 24:4

4And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corres ... View more

Exod 34:28

28He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten c ... View more

Num 33:2

2Moses wrote down their starting points, stage by stage, by command of the Lord; and these are their stages according to their starting places.

Deut 31:9

The Law to Be Read Every Seventh Year
9Then Moses wrote down this law, and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the ... View more

Deut 31:22

22That very day Moses wrote this song and taught it to the Israelites.

Josh 8:30-31

Joshua Renews the Covenant
30Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel,31just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the I ... View more

2Kgs 14:6

6But he did not put to death the children of the murderers; according to what is written in the book of the law of Moses, where the Lord commanded, “The parents ... View more

Ezra 3:2

2Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer bur ... View more

1Kgs 4:29-34

Fame of Solomon's Wisdom
29God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore,30so that Solomon's ... View more

Song 1:1

1The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's.

Eccl 1:1

Reflections of a Royal Philosopher
1The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Eccl 1:12

The Futility of Seeking Wisdom
12I, the Teacher, when king over Israel in Jerusalem,

Prov 1:1

1The proverbs of Solomon son of David, king of Israel:

Prov 10:1

Wise Sayings of Solomon
1The proverbs of Solomon.

A wise child makes a glad father,
but a foolish child is a mother's grief.

Exod 20:19-23:33

19and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”20Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for Go ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.