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?
SDStaff Dex and SDStaff Euty reply:
We’ve discussed the authorship of the Torah, but we’ve still got a lot of Bible left to go. This is the second installment of a five-part answer. To review:
- 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?
- 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.)
- 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?
- Part 4 – Who wrote/compiled/edited (and when) the various New Testament Books?
- 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?
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- — he 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
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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