Who wrote the Bible? (Part 1)


Dear Straight Dope: Who wrote the Bible? I hear the Catholics did some pretty heavy editorializing back in 300 A.D. or so. But where does the original text trace its origins to? Concerned Pagan

SDStaff Dex and SDStaff Eutychus reply:

The answer is neither simple nor straightforward — just the way we at the Straight Dope 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, to be presented over several days.

These reports were written bySDSTAFF Eutychus andSDSTAFF Dex, with valuable assistance from Straight Dope Message Board contributors tomndebb and CMKeller, and also from Dex’s friend Pastor Allan, who has a Ph.D. in early Christian writings. Volumes have been written about this topic — the Cambridge History of the Bible alone is three large books. The answers are seldom clear cut. The best we could do is summarize and condense. We hope you enjoy.

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

SDStaff Dex and SDStaff Eutychus

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.