A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Who wrote the Bible? (Part 3)

January 9, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

Who wrote the Bible? I hear the Catholics did some pretty heavy editorializing...

SDStaff SDStaff Dex and SDStaff Eutychus reply:

OK, enough of that. We're pretty sure you know the question by now. To reprise this five-part answer:

Today's topic is Part 3, the authorship of the prophetic books and wisdom literature.

PROPHETIC BOOKS

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 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.

Amos

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

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.

Isaiah

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.

Micah

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.

Zephaniah

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."

Nahum

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.

Habakkuk

The text places his prophecies just after the battle of Carchemish in 605 BC, as Nebuchadnezzer was coming to power in Babylon.

Ezekiel

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.

Jeremiah

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

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

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.

Malachi

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.

Joel

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.

Jonah

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.

Daniel

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.

WISDOM LITERATURE

The books of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job are classed as "wisdom literature" — poems and philosophy, emphasizing moral imperatives based on religion.

Psalms

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.

Proverbs

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.

Job

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.

Ecclesiastes

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).

RESOURCES

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

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