Who wrote the bible?

by K.W. Leslie, 10 June

A lot of times, we don’t know. And that’s okay.

No, the answer’s not “God.”

The bible was written by prophets, people who heard from God and shared what they heard. Out of humility, some of ’em didn’t necessarily describe themselves as prophets, but all the same, that’s what they are: Their God-experiences inspired them to write about him, and thus we have the books and letters which make up our bible.

“God wrote it” is the short answer people give when we’ve no clue how God works. We assume God did with his prophets the same as he did with Moses: He stated a bunch of things, and the prophets took dictation like a secretary. Or they assume how the Holy Spirit “inspired” the authors was to work the prophets’ hands like a puppeteer with a marionette, and made them write the bible.

Generally they’ve got micromanagerial ideas about how God works, and figure had to take absolute physical control of the circumstances to guarantee we have the bible he wanted… ’cause he didn’t trust his followers enough to describe him accurately. Really they don’t trust God’s followers enough. Which I get; we suck. But there are such creatures as trustworthy believers, and the Spirit did trust ’em enough to get him right.

So yeah, whenever some skeptic states, “The bible was written by men”—okay it was. And so what? The dictionary was likewise written by women and men, and I don’t see ’em dismissing the dictionary as unauthoritative. Those who wrote the dictionary, know what they’re talking about. Same deal with the prophets who wrote the bible: They knew God. They wrote what they knew. Their testimonies are trustworthy, solid stuff. We should be able to easily defer to their knowledge: The God they describe is the very same God we know.

God didn’t have to write the bible in order for it to accurately, infallibly describe him.

Okay. As for which prophets wrote the bible: We know the names of a number of its authors. The New Testament letters have their authors’ names on ’em. The prophetic books likewise. But a lot of the books actually have no name on them at all… so we don’t know.

Moses wrote some. But not all of “his” books.

Who wrote Genesis? Again, the answer’s not “God.” And it regularly surprises various Christians to discover it’s not Moses. After all, their King James Version titles it “The first book of Moses, called Genesis.” So they leap to the conclusion Moses wrote it. Right?

Well, that’s been the tradition. Even Jesus refers to the first five books of the bible as “the book of Moses.” Mk 12.26 Thing is, did Jesus call them that because he knew Moses wrote those books, or because everybody called ’em that? Was he declaring something from his stash of divine knowledge, or was he simply meeting people at their cultural level?

Now yes, Moses was the guy who wrote down what the LORD dictated. Ex 34.27 But what about the stories in the “books of Moses” which he wasn’t directed to write down? Who wrote ’em? Moses? His assistant Joshua? His head priest Aaron? His prophet Miriam? (Who did compose a really brief psalm in one of those books. Ex 15.21)

There’s some evidence other hands than Moses wrote the narratives in “his” books. Fr’instance the story of his death Dt 34.5 clearly had to have been written by someone else. Plus there are a number of anachronisms, details which were written by someone who couldn’t have been from Moses’s time. Fr’instance a list of Edomite kings begins with this statement:

Genesis 36.31 KWL
These are kings who reigned in Edom’s land before a king reigned over Israel’s sons.

Obviously the person who wrote this line, knew Israel would have a king; it wasn’t purely hypothetical. So it wasn’t Moses, who died four centuries before Saul ben Kish became Israel’s first king. Obviously whoever wrote this verse did know of Saul. Maybe even the kings after him.

Or when Abraham and his troops went to the city of Dan. Ge 14.14 Thing is, “Dan” wasn’t yet that city’s name. It was only named that after the Danites conquered it some 400-plus years later, Jg 18.27-29 and named it for their forefather Dan… Abraham’s great-grandson. In Abraham’s day it was still called Laish. In Moses’s day too. Somebody other than Moses clearly updated the name.

Or when the Hebrews built the city of Rameses, Ex 1.11 or as the ancient Egyptians called it, Per-Ramessu. Its name came from Pharaoh Ramessú Usermaátre Setépenre, whom we call Ramesses 2, who renovated the town of Hutwarét and made it his capital in the early 1200s BC. Problem is, the Exodus took place two centuries before, in the 1400s (about 480 years before Solomon began building the temple 1Ki 6.1 in the mid-900s). So the Hebrews must’ve built Hutwarét… and when Ramesses changed its name, the story got updated with the new name. But the story got updated long after Moses.

So Moses might’ve written big parts of the first five books, but he’s clearly not the final author who put the books together. Someone else did. (Scholars have a theory as to how, which I’ll discuss another time.) Tradition may say it was Moses, but tradition isn’t infallible. The bible is, and the bible indicates it can’t be Moses.

So who was it? We don’t know. The author didn’t include it in the books. Didn’t think it mattered: Only God mattered.

And you’ll find this mindset is precisely why authors left their names out of a lot of parts of the bible. We don’t know who wrote the Deuteronomistic history; it’s clearly not Samuel, who died near the end of its first book. 1Sa 25.1 We don’t know who wrote Ruth, or Esther, or Job, or Chronicles. Most of the psalms have the author’s names attached, but some of ’em don’t. We think Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, but the author gave his name as קֹהֶ֣לֶת/Qohélet, “gatherer [of wisdom],” Ec 1.1 which sounds like a pen name, meaning he wanted to be anonymous. As many of the bible’s authors did. God, not they, is more important.

Yep, even in the New Testament.

We don’t know whether Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John wrote the gospels. I know; their titles have their names on ’em! But these names are nowhere in the gospels’ texts. The authors deliberately left their names off. Jesus is more important.

Christians deduced who their authors are: The author of John is “the student Jesus loved,” Jn 21.24 and by process of elimination he’s John bar Zebedee. The author of Luke also wrote Acts, and when Luke shows up in the Acts narrative suddenly the text starts referring to “we” instead of “they”—so he’s likely the author. As for Matthew and Mark, Christians didn’t get their names from the text, but tradition. Which might be correct… but it wasn’t about Moses, y’know.

The letters have their authors’ names on them… well, all but John’s letters and Hebrews. We deduced the letters are John’s because they were written in the very same style as John’s gospel. As for Hebrews, a number of Christians presume Paul wrote it, but it’s not his style. It seems to have had its introduction trimmed off, possibly because its author scandalized people—but they wanted to keep the letter because it’s good stuff. My guess is a woman wrote it; many scholars guess Priscilla, but that’s no more than a guess. Like Origen of Alexandria said, only God knows who wrote it.

Although y’might notice the apostles who wrote the New Testament didn’t use their full names. Those with Roman citizenship had at least three names—a nomen (family name, like westerners’ last names), prænomen (given name, like our first names), and a cognomen (nicknames, ’cause Roman custom was to give everybody in the family the same names); and often multiple cognomens. But y’notice Paul only ever used his cognomen, Παῦλος/Pávlos. We know his praenomen, “Saul.” But we never get his nomen. Possibly because it wasn’t safe to give it; his family might get persecuted. And you’ll notice the other folks in the New Testament never provide more than given names and nicknames.

But again: Anonymity, or semi-anonymity, was about keeping the attention away from them, and pointing it towards Jesus. They didn’t feel they mattered as much as he. Only his name is worthy of glory.

Their culture and ours.

Skeptics make a big deal of the semi-anonymous nature of the bible. Mostly because they assume the reason the bible’s authors were anonymous because they were hiding. Because they were up to no good.

Fr’instance Benjamin Franklin, in his teenage years, went under the pen name of Silence Dogood. Partly because he knew no one would take a smart-alecky 16-year-old seriously, but they might read what appeared to be a witty older widow. Partly because he was trying to get published in his brother James’s newspaper, and knew James didn’t take him seriously. And partly because everybody back then used pen names: There was no such thing as freedom of speech, so if they wrote anything which offended an official, they and the publisher could be jailed. As James Franklin later was.

So skeptics distrust anonymity. As everyone kinda should.

The bible’s authors had very different motives for their anonymity. Like I said, they wanted the attention on God, not themselves. But our culture can’t help but read our motives for anonymity onto them.

And certain Christians overcompensate for this. They insist they do know the authors of the bible: Moses musta written “the books of Moses,” Joshua musta written Joshua (except the bit at the end where he died), Samuel musta written Judges and Ruth (even though they were written centuries apart), Ezra or somebody else wrote the other history books (except the first-person Nehemiah, obviously written by Nehemiah), Job wrote Job (except for his death scene), David wrote all the anonymous psalms, Solomon all the anonymous proverbs, and Paul wrote Hebrews. There; all accounted for.

This overcompensation shows they don’t understand history… and don’t really trust the scriptures. ’Cause it’s not enough to trust the Holy Spirit inspired the bible’s authors; they have to know who each specific author was, and these authors all have to be famous bible figures.

Problem is, their estimations are easily exploded. Which doesn’t help ’em convince skeptics at all. We must be careful to not make outrageous claims about the bible based on what we wish it was: We gotta look at what it legitimately is. Anything else is wishful thinking. Not faith.

So what the scriptures are, for the most part, is anonymous. That’s okay. Truth is truth, even if we don’t know who tells it.