Bible Basics

Who Wrote the Bible? by Sarah Shectman

Ancient writers didn’t write by the standards we use today. They didn’t have the same ideas about intellectual property and plagiarism that we have, so writing in someone else’s name or without citing sources was acceptable. Often writers (or rather scribes) were working for a king, producing what we might consider propaganda. The identity of an author was therefore not important, and so ancient texts very rarely say who composed them.

The Hebrew Bible is no exception: it says very little about who wrote its books, though traditions have developed about authorship regardless. For example, Jewish tradition says that Moses wrote the Torah (b. Baba Batra 14b). Other books of the Hebrew Bible, like those named after prophets, are traditionally attributed to those prophets. But very few biblical books contain specific accounts of who wrote them. The book of Jeremiah is one of the few that does, describing how Jeremiah dictated the text to the scribe Baruch (Jer 36:1-4).

Even in the case of Jeremiah, however, there are indications that a single person did not write the whole book. Another account in the book reports that Jeremiah, not Baruch, did at least some of the writing (Jer 51:60). The Hebrew edition of the text contains material not preserved in the earliest Greek translation, the Septuagint, suggesting that there was a variant edition of the book with added material.

Many other biblical books contain similar evidence that they were written or edited well after the periods that they concern. Daniel is a good example. The book is set in the Babylonian and early Persian periods (sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E.). But a number of aspects of the book, such as its use of the late genre of apocalyptic and its thinly veiled references to later events (see especially Dan 11, which describes events in the two centuries after the death of the “warrior king” Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E.), make clear that it was written in the second century B.C.E.

Similarly, the books of the Torah bear markers that Moses did not write them. First of all, they don’t ever say he did! They only mention Moses writing certain parts. God is also said to have written certain parts (namely, the Ten Commandments). The end of the Torah reports Moses’ death—making clear that he could not have written it all. In addition, a number of stories are repeated, sometimes with conflicting details that show that they must have been independent traditions at some point (compare, for example, Gen 1:1-2:4 with Gen 2:5-3:24, or Exod 17:1-7 with Num 20:1-13).

Repetitions, inconsistencies and contradictions, and the use of different narrative styles and vocabulary have led scholars to propose that there were multiple authors of the Torah, whose works were composed independently and combined by a later editor. This model, called the Documentary Hypothesis, stipulates four authors: J, E, D, and P, each named for a feature of its narrative: J favors the divine name Yahweh (Jehovah in German); E, the name Elohim; P is concerned with priestly matters; and D is limited largely to the book of Deuteronomy. An editor then combined all four sources in one or two stages. Other models suggest that the text developed in a more complicated and layered fashion, building on previous material that various authors and editors sought to supplement or even supersede. Despite the differences between these approaches, scholars still generally agree about which parts of the text derive from different authors.

Scholars also think that the books of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings include older traditions that were woven together with newer material by a later editor. This editor was apparently sympathetic to the worldview of Deuteronomy, especially the themes of covenant and idolatry, and so these books are often called the Deuteronomistic History. The figure (or group) who brought them together is called the Deuteronomistic Historian.

The prophetic books are named for the prophets whose oracles, works, and words they feature. Many scholars conclude the prophetic books were written by those prophets’ followers, sometimes within or shortly after the prophet’s lifetime. However, these books don’t usually contain an account of their composition, and many of them contain traces of editing from later periods. Probably these original followers continued to use and add to the books after the prophets’ deaths.

The authors of many other books of the Bible are even harder to identify. Traditionally, the Song of Songs was attributed to King Solomon, either because of his reputation as a lover or because of his wisdom, thought to be reflected allegorically in the book. But the poetry of the Song of Songs also bears markers of a later stage of Hebrew than the language that was used at the time of King Solomon (about whose existence there is very little historical evidence), and so most scholars think that it was likely written much later. The same is true of the books of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, also traditionally associated with Solomon.

Because of King David’s reputation as a musician (1Sam 16) and because the psalms were originally sung (there is no difference in Hebrew between the word poem and the word song), a number of psalms contain a superscription linking them to David. In fact, these are secondary additions based on the tradition that David wrote psalms. The vast differences in content, language, and style, though, make it very unlikely that a significant number of them were written by a single person. As with Solomon, there are linguistic and other problems with this tradition of Davidic authorship. Likely the Psalms come from a variety of authors; some of the psalms may indeed be very old and probably developed as prayers for use in Israelite religious practice.

Were all biblical books written by men? It’s likely that this was the case. Though books like Esther and Ruth, which are named for female protagonists, might be candidates for female authorship, subject matter is no guarantee of authorship. Some scholars have suggested that the Song of Songs could have been written by a woman because much of its poetry is seen as accurately reflecting a woman’s experience. However, literacy was not very widespread in ancient Israel and it’s likely that very few women would have been literate. Most literacy would have focused on the palace and the temple and would have been limited to the male officials who worked as scribes in those places.

 

Sarah Shectman, "Who Wrote the Bible?", n.p. [cited 22 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/bible-basics/who-wrote-the-bible-test

Contributors

Sarah Shectman

Sarah Shectman
Independent Scholar

Sarah Shectman is the author of Women in the Pentateuch: A Feminist and Source-Critical Analysis (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009). She is an independent scholar living in San Francisco, California.

A Macedonian (Greek) general who conquered the Persians and ruled over a vast empire, from Greece to the Indus River, in the 330s B.C.E.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

Related to the religious beliefs connected to Deuteronomy, which emphasized monotheism, the Jerusalem temple, observance of the Law, and the destruction of idolatry.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

The theory that the Pentateuch (Torah) is composed of four distinct literary sources, known as J, E, D, and P, that were edited together by a redactor into a single composition.

A category or type, often of literary work.

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."

Worship of a diety or cultural value not associated with the one, true, God.

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.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

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

Those biblical books written by or attributed to prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.

The addition of a title or subtitle in an ancient work; see especially the designation of certain types of psalms in the book of Psalms.

Jer 36:1-4

The Scroll Read in the Temple
1In the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord:2Take a scroll and write on ... View more

Jer 51:60

60Jeremiah wrote in a scroll all the disasters that would come on Babylon, all these words that are written concerning Babylon.

Dan 11

1As for me, in the first year of Darius the Mede, I stood up to support and strengthen him.2“Now I will announce the truth to you. Three more kings shall arise ... View more

Gen 1:1-2:4

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more

Gen 2:5-3:24

5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there ... View more

Exod 17:1-7

Water from the Rock
1From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, bu ... View more

Num 20:1-13

The Waters of Meribah
1The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died ... View more

1Sam 16

David Anointed as King
1The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil a ... View more

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