Whether you see the Bible as the word of God or not, one cannot ignore the fact that it has human fingerprints all over it. After all, it didn’t fall from heaven in the format commonly found today, as convenient as that would have been. It is worth emphasizing again then that the Bible is not a single book but rather many books; an anthology, each with its own author, each with its own historical and theological context.
Different authors have different points of view. You can’t just say, “I believe in the Bible.” ― Scholar Bart Ehrman
Furthermore, these writings weren’t sewn together as an official anthology until many years after its composition – hundreds of years in most cases. Indeed, while the oldest contents of the Old Testament are believed to have originated as early as the 12th century BCE (beginning as oral tradition), it isn’t until 200 BCE that we find clear evidence for a Biblical canon taking shape. Given the unique makeup of the Bible, then, as more than one book, perhaps it is best to not stick with one question. Let’s focus first on the authorship of the Old Testament followed by the New Testament, and lastly when each group of texts were canonized as scripture.
Who wrote the Old Testament?
According to Jewish and Christian tradition, the prophet Moses was the author of the first five books of the Old Testament known as the Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. While this belief is widely maintained to this day among conservatives, it has long been rejected by most biblical scholars for reasons I’ll now explain. Note that the following information has been condensed into a bulleted study guide format for quick review purposes. For a more loquacious response to this question I recommend reading 1. this interview with Michael Coogan by PBS, 2. this three-part post by Steven DiMattei, and, 3. the best-selling Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman, the first three chapters of which you can download here. I should begin by pointing out however that the Jewish claim that Moses wrote the Torah is a fairly new one. As the New Oxford Annotated Bible explains, “Only during the Greco-Roman period do we start to see statements in early Jewish texts that Moses wrote Genesis and the rest of the Pentateuch. By this time Judaism had been influenced by Greek culture, where authorship was important adn the writings of Homer enjoyed the highest prestige. In response, the Jewish authors of the texts such as Jubilees (second century BCE) claimed that their Pentateuch had an ancient author as well—Moses” (p. 7). Nonetheless, the claim that Moses is the author is very much alive today, so let’s go through some problems with it.
First, there is little evidence that Moses even existed. It is now widely believed that he and most of the Exodus narrative is a literary invention rooted in King Josiah’s religious reform in the 7th century BC. This is largely because:
- There is absolutely no external – that is, extrabiblical – witness to Moses, either textual or archaeological. This also goes for the biblical claim of a mass migration of Israelite slaves out of Egypt which will be covered in a future post.
- In the oldest reference to the Exodus, Miriam’s “Song of the Sea” (Exod. 15), Moses is not even named.
- Israel’s most ancient creedal recital, the Magnalia Dei (Deut. 26:5-10), makes no mention of Moses in connection with the deliverance from Egypt. This piece of textual evidence in addition to the one above suggests that perhaps in the earliest versions of the Exodus story it was God alone who rescued the Israelites from Egypt.
- Outside of Exodus-Numbers, scant attention is paid to Moses. Even in the pre-Exilic prophetic literature, only Jeremiah (15:1) and Micah (6:4) mention him by name. It is only in the book of Deuteronomy and the sweeping historical epic of Joshua through Kings, shaped by the “Deuteronomistic school” of the era of Josiah in the late 7th century BC – at the very end of the Monarchy – that Moses looms large. There, as the focus of the “Yahweh-alone” reform movement, Moses appears as lawgiver and the founder of Israelite religion. But scholars have long regarded these materials as largely nationalist and orthodox propaganda. This basis for the attempted Josianic reform – a scroll containing a long lost sermon by Moses himself, and supposedly rediscovered in the archives of the Jerusalem Temple (2 Kings 22:8-13; 23:23) – is suspected by scholars to have been our present book of Deuteronomy (or “Second Law”), written and planted by some other reformist parties. In this view, the “larger-than-life” biblical Moses would be mostly a later literary invention – although invented for theological purposes that some might deem legitimate.
Second, one only has to read the Torah to notice textual clues which strongly points against a Mosaic authorship:
- There is no claim of Mosaic authorship in any of the five books. Though there are passages attributed to Moses (Deuteronomy 1:5, 4:45, 31:10) and passages that said that Moses made specific written records (Exodus 17:14, 24:4, 34:27, Numbers 33:2), in all of these texts Moses is depicted as recording only specific events and particular legal codes, not the whole Torah. In Deuteronomy, however, Moses is pictured as compiling the entire law code contained in that book (Deuteronomy 31:9), as well as lyrics to a “song” he taught Israel (Deuteronomy 31:19, 22). According to Deuteronomy 31, he was responsible for “the words of this law [Torah] to the very end” (Deut. 31:24), composing “this book of the law,” which he then entrusts to Israel’s priest for safekeeping (Deut. 31:9, 24-26). Most scholars believe that this legal work is the same “book of the law [Torah]” found during repairs on the Jerusalem Temple during the late 17th century BCE, more than 600 years after the period when Moses supposedly lived (2 Kings 22:8-23:3). It is also worth
- There is an account of Moses’ death and burial (Deuteronomy 34:5-8). Furthermore, the presence of the phrase to this day implies that a long time has elapsed between the death of Moses and the writing of the passage. There is an old tradition that Moses’ successor Joshua wrote this account, however it is written in the same style as texts that precede it.
- Moses is always written in the third person.
- The author calls Moses the humblest man in the world (Numbers 12:3), which would be ironic if Moses wrote it. Friedman: “Normally one would not expect the humblest man on earth to point out that he is the humblest man on earth.” p18
- We find references to Moses that spoke of him as though he was a long gone prophet (Exodus 11:3; Deuteronomy 34:10).
- The text sometimes states that something is the case “to this day.” “To this day” is not the phrase of someone describing a contemporary situation. It is rather the phrase of a later writer who is describing something that has endured.
- The words, “across the Jordan” in the first verse of Deuteronomy. That verse says, “These are the words that Moses spoke to the children of Israel across the Jordan…” The problem with the phrase “across the Jordan” is that it refers to someone who is on the other side of the Jordan river from the writer. Israel’s tribes did not occupy this western region until well after Moses’ era (Gen. 50:10; cf Num. 21:1) and Moses himself was never supposed to have been in Israel in his life.
- “There never arose another prophet in Israel like Moses…” sound like that words of someone who lived a long time after Moses and had the opportunity to see other prophets and thus make the comparison. (They also do not sound like the words of the humblest man on earth.)
- There are instances of anachronisms, i.e. allusions to names or things in the wrong historical setting. A good illustration of this can be found in Thomas Paine’s book The Age of Reason (1796). The city of New York, before 1664 was called New Amsterdam. Should we discover an undated document that discussed events of, let us say, mid 17th century New England, which referred to the city as New York, we can immediately conclude that it must have been written after 1664. For no one could have known before 1664 that New Amsterdam would be called New York after that year. A similar name change occurred to a city in the Bible:
- The city of Dan is mentioned (Genesis 14:14). The problem is that the name of the city of Laish was changed to Dan at least 200 years after the death of Moses and during the time of the Judges (Judges 18:27-29)
- Similarly in Genesis 23:2 which provided an explanatory note that Kirjath-arba, the town where Rachel died, is Hebron. The city of Kirjath-arba was not called Hebron until the time of the conquest when Joshua gave it to Caleb (Joshua 14:13-15).
- A list of Edomite kings that appears in Genesis 36 named kings who lived long after Moses was dead and “before an Israelite king ruled” (Gen. 36:31). The author therefore must have lived at a period after Israel’s monarchy had been established, centuries after Moses’ day.
- *There are many “doublets,” the same story told twice which sometimes contradict each other in details. This alone highly suggests multiple authors. Some prime examples:
- Two accounts of creation (Gen. 1:1-2:4a vs. 2:4b-25)
- Two accounts of the flood (Gen. 6:19f vs. 7:2f)
- Two accounts of Abraham’s migration (Gen. 12:1-4a; 12:4b-5)
- Three varying accounts surrounding irresistible beauty of an Israelite woman and the threat of this attraction had to fulfilling God’s vow to multiply Abraham’s descendants (Abraham and Sarah vs. the Pharaoh: Gen. 12:10-20; Abraham and Sarah vs. Canaanite king Abimelech: Gen. 20:1-18; Isaac and Rebekah vs. “Phillistine” ruler Abimelech: Gen. 26:1-14)
- Two accounts of the story of the covenant between the deity and Abraham (Gen. 15 vs. 17)
- Two accounts of how Hagar was driven out from Abraham’s household (Gen. 16:4-14 vs. 21:8,21)
- Two accounts of God changing Jacob’s name to Israel (Gen. 32:22-32: occurs at Bethel vs. Gen. 35:9-15: occurs at Peniel)
- Two accounts of Joseph sold into Egypt (Gen. 37:25-27: brothers sell him to Ishmaelites, who then take him to Egypt; Gen. 37:21-25, 28-30: Midianites pull him out of a dry well where his brothers had thrown him, and it is they who sell him to the Ishmaelities.
- Two accounts of Yahweh’s revelation of his sacred name to Moses (Exod. 3:1-4:17: God identifies himself as the “God [Elohim] of your father,” whose previously hidden name is Yahweh; Exod. 6:3: Yahweh states that he was formerly known to Israel’s ancestors not as Elohim, but as El Shaddai [God of the Mountain]). This contrasts with Genesis 2:4b which states that Enosh, grandsom of Adam, was the “first [person] to invoke the name of Yahweh.”
- Two accounts of Moses’ getting water from a rock at Maribah (Exod. 17:2-7 vs. Num. 20:2-13)
The investigators saw that they were not simply dealing with a book that repeated itself a great deal, and they were not dealing with a loose collection of somewhat similar stories. They had discovered two separate works that someone had cut up and combined into one…At present there is hardly a biblical scholar in the world actively working on the problem who claims that the five books of Moses were written by Moses-or by any one person
The tenth and final point made above is crucial, as it provides us with a much more accurate answer regarding the authorship of the Torah. In short, internal evidence tells us that the Pentateuch as we know it today was composed out of four separate documents written in different times by different authors. These source documents are called J, E, P, and D.
J, the Yahwist source
- The earliest source, originated from the southern kingdom of Judah around 848-722 BCE (after Edom’s independence from Judah in 848 but before the fall of the northern kingdom)
- Author typically uses the name Yahweh
- Portrays god with human-like (anthropomorphic) characteristics and behaviors
- Has a strong orientation toward the traditions of Judah, setting many Genesis tales in that region
- Incorporates ancient oral traditions about Israel’s prehistory as well as tales of the ancestral fathers and mothers
- Opens the second creation story (Gen. 2:4b-25)
- Many scholars find it difficult to determine exactly where J’s narrative ends
- Features a vivid, concrete style and dramatic storyline, beginning with creation and extending at least to the conclusion of the Mosaic Covenant at Sinai
E, the Elohist source
- Originated from the northern kingdom of Israel somewhere between 922-722 BCE (i.e. from the time the united monarchy separated into 2 kingdoms until the fall of Israel to the Assyrians).
- Refers to god generically as Elohim – i.e. “god”
- Features a less picturesque style and a less human-like view of the Deity
- Has a strong orientation toward the northern kingdom of Israel (the chief tribe of which was Ephraim), where most of his genesis stories are set
- Begins the narrative with Abraham and concludes with the Israelites at the “mountain of God,” which E calls Horeb
D, the Deuteronomist source
- Dated to before 609 BCE (during the reign of King Josiah) with a final second edition dated to 587 BCE (after the fall of Judah).
- Empathizes the conditional nature of the Mosaic covenant and interprets Israel’s military/political defeats as a result of not worshiping Yahweh alone
- Empathizes monotheism, insisting that only one sanctuary is acceptable to Yahweh
- Features a more elaborate rhetorical style than J or E
- Reflects policies of Josiah’s religious reforms (c. 621 BCE)
- Has a strong influence on the writing of Joshua through 2 Kings, the Deuteronomistic History (DH)
P, the Priestly source
- Written between 722-609 (after the fall of the northern kingdom but before the death of King Josiah in 609).
- Focuses on priestly interests, particularly legalistic and ritual aspects of Israel’s religious practices
- Features a precise, pedantic style, meticulously listing genealogies, censuses, dates, and instructions for the Tabernacle cult
- Extensively revising the older material, the editors compiled the vast body of legal material that extends from Exodus 35 through Leviticus to Numbers 10.
- Made additions to the JE narrative during and after the Babylonian exile in (after 587 BCE), e.g. interpolating a priestly version of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 17); weaving their tradition of the Flood story into that of J, producing a considerably expanded (and self-contradictory) version of a global deluge.
- Shows a strong resemblance to the concepts that exilic priest-prophet Ezekiel expressed
- They added another creation account (Gen. 1) and the narrative of Moses’ death (Deut. 34), this giving the Pentateuch its crucial opening and closing passages and determining its final shape and structure
- P’s creation account emphasizes the distinctions and divisions that characterize the separations of the pure and impure in Leviticus. Culminating Elohim’s establishment of the first Sabbath, P’s version provides cosmic validation of that priest-regulating institution.
For me, re-reading the Bible through this lens was nothing short of a revelation. To see for yourself, check out this interactive reading of the sources (fun!) as rendered by Friedman from his book The Bible with Sources Revealed. Here we see one of the clearest examples of two, once independent sources having been edited together. There’s also a great article by Friedman that goes into further depth on how the Documentary Hypothesis sheds light on the Flood story.
[The Documentary Hypothesis] continues to be the starting point for research, no serious student of the Bible can fail to study it, and no other explanation of the evidence has come close to challenging it.
What about the other books of the Old Testament?
Unfortunately, the authorship of most of the other books of the Tanakh do not pan out much better for similar reasons, as shown in the following table constructed by Paul Tobin (The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager, p. 126-27). The books which most scholars believe to be fully or at least partially authentic are those belonging to the Prophets, namely: Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Micah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
Sources and further reading:
- Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman. Read the first three chapters here!
- The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction by David M. Carr
- The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis by
Michael L Satlow
- The Bible with Sources Revealed by Richard Elliot Friedman. Read the intro and first chapter here!
- “Who Wrote the Flood Story?” PBS interactive article by Friedman
- “Writers of the Bible” by Michael Coogan and PBS NOVA
- “Did Moses write the Torah?” by Dr. Steven DiMattei
- “Origins of the Written Bible” by PBS NOVA
- “Moses and the Exodus” by Carol Meyers and PBS NOVA
- Wiki on Historicity of Moses
- All about the Documentary Hypothesis (PDF)
- Wiki on the Authorship of the Bible
- Understanding the Bible by Stephen L. Harris, p. 63-71
- The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager by Paul Tobin, p. 120-27
- Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? by William G. Dever, p. 234-236