Who Wrote the Bible

Talk at First Presbyterian Church of Skaneateles, April 2000


Thanks for having me for breakfast once again. Jack said one of the questions on people's minds is, "Who wrote the Bible." So I did a little research. Also, let me commend Thomas Cahill's new book, "Desire of the Everlasting Hills." He is doing important popular writing.

Who wrote the Bible? What a question. Didn't God write the Bible? Hasn't it always been there? Did God or an angel of God dictate the Bible to someone and say, "Take this down word for word?"Islam believes the Koran was a case of divine dictation. From Gabriel to the Prophet; "Write."


First the Old Testament; The Bible starts with Genesis and ends with Revelation. The first three-quarters of the Bible is what we call the Old Testament. The newest writings in this part of the Bible were written in approximately 150 B.C. For our older brothers in the Christian faith, the Jews, this is the whole Bible. Even today we Christians - as well as the Jews - regard this as Holy Scripture, inspired by God, transcribed by man, endorsed by time and consensus and daily proved true by faith.


The oldest part of the Old Testament dates from the beginning. The very beginning. The Old Testament spans a period somewhere between 8 and fifteen billion years while the New Testament takes place over a more recent 100-year span. We obviously have more clues about the New Testament writers than we do about the Old Testament writers. It was written practically yesterday.


Obviously the writer of Genesis was not there when God created the heavens and the earth. Traditionally, the OT is divided into three groups, called the Torah, The Writings and the Prophets. The Torah is the first 5 books, or chapters, of the OT. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These are also called the books of Moses, and traditionally, authorship of these first 5 books is ascribed to Reb Moishe, or Moses, in English. Moses is a principal figure all through the last four books of the Torah, but he probably did not record the period before his birth, nor record the events surrounding his death. In fact the latter are written in the third person, so somebody else's hand was in it.


Scholars detect the distinct hand of at least four authors in the books of Moses. These are people unknown to us by name, but only by style. They are referred to by four letters; the J author, the E author, the P author and the D author. The first two, the J author and the E author, are shorthand for the way the text refers to the sacred name of the God. J stands for the Yahwist, or as we call it in English, the Jehovah name user. Here the unspeakable name of God is spelled only by consonants that stand in stead of the name, which is too holy to be written. These Hebrew consonants are (in English) J, H,V, H. From this we get the name "Jehovah." In fact this name was never pronounced. When these characters were read aloud, they were substituted for with the word, ADONAI, which means simply "Lord." Another imputed author was the E author. This stands for ELOHIST. The Elohist author used the word, Elohim as the name for God. Both the name and the writing style have convinced scholars these were two distinct authors.


A third identified author is the P author, or PRIESTLY author. This author wrote distinctively about the laws surrounding the priesthood, primarily in Leviticus. The fourth author, the D author, is the DEUTERONOMIC author. This is the style characterizing the restatement of the law, which is in the book of Deuteronomy, and then Samuel and Kings.



J author 9th or 10th century - full account from Creation to the conquest of Canaan

E Elohist, from 8th century - begins with Abraham

D late 7th century - Deuteronomy, perhaps to Samuel and Kings

P 6th or 5th century - concentrates on covenant and revelation of the law at Mt. Sinai, but sets that into a narrative beginning with Creation.


The point of this is that no one man or woman wrote the entire Bible. It was the inspired hand of many. But, if it was prewriting, never mind pre-historic, how can we have confidence the events and words were carried accurately down through time to the moment when, probably in about 500 BC it was all written in a book?


Have you ever been invited to a Bar Mitzvah? I don't mean the party afterward, but the service where the Bar Mitzvah boy on his thirteenth birthday reads from the Torah, marking his entrance into ritual and spiritual adulthood. When the birthday boy reads the ancient Hebrew words from the sheepskin scroll, he doesn't just read them. They are chanted in an ancient melody and meter. This chant, invariant across the ages, is the old, old story. Have you ever changed the words of a favorite bedtime story to your four year old? Will she let you get away with it? Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great dream? Had a great idea? Nah! You couldn't get away with it. The same is true for the rabbi and his pupils. The story is constant through the ages until finally written down. Fidelity to the holy, living word has been demanded down through the ages.


We have been speaking of the Torah. But there are two other sections of the OT; the Writings, which include the Psalms, the story of Ruth, the Book of Judges, Chronicles, Kings, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and so forth. The third section is the Prophets, which are the four Major Prophets and the twelve so called Minor Prophets. Some of the Psalms are ascribed to King David, about 70 of the 150. Some are by others. The Proverbs are ascribed to King Solomon, but most believe they are ascribed to Solomon because Solomon established schools of wisdom.


The New Testament is also written in three sections; the Gospels, the Acts and the Letters. We know more about the identities of these men - yes, they were men - who wrote these, but even here there is some mystery. The oldest Gospel known is Mark, but Matthew is nearly as old, and has many similarities to Mark, although a different emphasis. Scholars believe both these Gospels were written based on an even older lost Gospel called the Q gospel. "Q"is from the German "Quelle," which means "the source." There were many gospels and fragments which have either never been found or have been discarded for one reason or another. But, here is what we do know about the writers of the gospels, the people who wrote the Bible:


Matthew, Mark and Luke are the "Synoptic"gospels, a term which comes from a "synopsis" of the Life of Jesus, historic, but from three different points of view:


Mark was a simple Jewish fisherman, whose Greek was awkward and whose style was blunt and to the point. One of the many memorable features of Mark's gospel is the sense of fear the disciples felt after the resurrection of Jesus. Matthew too was a Jew, well educated in OT scripture, and his gospel focuses on how Jesus fulfilled the prophetic writings of the earlier Jews, and was the Messiah for Israel. Earliest estimates are that both Mark's Gospel and Matthew's gospel were first written down about 45 AD and that the authors were eyewitnesses to the events or had directly discussed the events with eyewitnesses. They were recording the events, words of Jesus and others as they heard themselves, or were faithfully reported by the believers. They were both writing primarily for the believers, who were Jews. Luke, however, was very Greek, very polished, very cool, and probably not Jewish. Different from Matthew and Mark, Luke wrote for a wider, pagan, Greek, NON-Jewish audience. (As an aside, I sometimes wonder if Luke may have been a Jew writing in Greek clothing for the wider Greek audience. To paraphrase Paul himself, "I become a Jew unto the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks, so I might by all means win them to Christ.")


Then John. John may be both older in part and more recent in part. Certainly smoothed over by great editing. John went through three evolutions. 1st, oral testimony of the Beloved Disciple (not the Gallilean fisherman) to his followers; then as the work of a writer who set down his testimony, now colored by later controversies within the Johannine Community - sort of an Evangelical community at odds with Judaism and the Jewishness of the Mainline Church; lastly by an editor who smoothed away wrinkles from the course of development and added some final touches.


Similar for the writer of the three letters of John who calls himself, HOS PRESBYTEROS, "The Elder." Of interest to Presbyterians; "Presbyter" turns, through elision, into "Priest," who was an older resident who dispenses wisdom to a community. More like a rabbi. The Letters of John appear to be directed against Gnosticism, which developed as excess from the Gospel of John, a very spiritual Christ. But in Love, the community of the beloved disciple reached out to the Great Church.


Estimates are that The Gospels were written between 45 and 90, as was Acts. We don't know for sure. Paul's letters are the earliest, between 50 and 60 AD. The remaining books are dated between 90 and 150. Paul was knocked from his horse about 33-35, was silent for 14 years and then began his epistles. Paul was a cultured Jew, well educated in the Old Testament, and fluent in Greek as well as Aramaic. The remaining books seem to be aimed at a 2nd or 3rd generation community. In these documents, the immediate followers of Jesus are now dead; early enthusiasm and high expectation for the final return of Christ to end history has now waned, and the focus is on preserving and institutionalizing the church. Heretics and apostates are called out and attacked, and everybody is called to hang on for the persecutions about to come. The 2nd Epistle of Peter, probably the last Book written, tries to reinvigorate expectation of an immanent end of history.



Finally, who decided on what to include in THE BIBLE? There were many gospels and documents. Canonization came from the community itself. There was consensus in practice on what was read and used. Marcion in 150 made the first serious effort to canonize. He only wanted to include the Gospel of Luke, and 10 letters of Paul. Probably opposition to this guy gave impetus toward a canon of wider acceptance.


Eusebius: Church History early 300's had three categories: Widely accepted, Disputed (Not Sure) and Heretical. His version of the canon accepted: Gospels, Acts, 14 letters of Paul, 1 John, 1 Peter. Maybe Revelation is in this group; "If it seems desirable." Disputed, are James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, Acts of Paul, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache. And he notes that Hebrews might be in this category. Rejected: are the Gospels of Peter, Thomas and Matthias and others, and the Acts of Andrew, John and others.


Over time the judgments of theologians became determinant, people such as Origen, Athanasius in the East, and Jerome and Augustine in the West. The development of the canon, of the Bible as we know it, belonged fully to the ongoing life of the church. It was not an isolated decision by one person or council. Community custom determined regulation. Even today, most Protestants exclude the Apochryphal books, while others accept them as scripture.


The New Testament was written over a 50-year period by two generations of authors, many of whom had some contact with one another. They have marked consistency and even unity, especially in their portrayal of Jesus. Quote from Cahill; "Though he (Jesus) is presented in various lights and shadows, depending on the concerns, personality, and skill of each author, we feel on finishing his story, whether it is told well or badly, simply or extravagantly, that we know the man - and that in each telling he is the same man. This phenomenon of consistency beneath the differences makes Jesus a unique figure in world literature."


So, what is the short answer? Who wrote the Bible? I see it as 3 authors:


1.    God the Holy Spirit

2. The Jews, the Jews of the Old Testament and the new

3.   The Community of Faith - all of us - the Believers, who in practice test the Word for what is true.

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