Thursday, October 27, 2011

Who Wrote the Bible

I can’t really answer the question that is the title of this blog. This is actually a book review/summary. If you are curious about that question, this is a great source. It summarizes the work that has been done on this question since Joseph ben Eliezer Bonfils first asked, if Moses wrote the torah how did he write of his own death. And if it was written in his time, why would he say, “and so it has been to this day”? That sounds like someone writing about the distant past. And it explains why there are two creation stories. I get so tired of people pointing that out.

You can get most of this information by googling “Documentary Hypothesis” or “J,E,D,P”, those are the letters assigned to the four distinct styles of writing. Most interesting in this book is the introduction of the writer “R”, the redactor. He combined the earlier 4 and did his best to make them a coherent history.

If you want the traditional answers to who wrote what, there are plenty of websites for that too, and of course there is Timothy 3:16 that says the Bible is “god breathed”. Some have taken that to mean the entire Bible, every word, is perfect and inerrant and has survived all of the translations to come to you directly from the Almighty. A little further down the spectrum, some say it means God inspired the writers and imperfect humans since then have introduced some errors.

We will probably never know how people 2,400 years ago responded to the Bible that Ezra brought to Jerusalem from his exile in Babylon. Would they have been comfortable with two creation stories, two sets of the commandments, a God that wreaks vengeance and is merciful, mixed up stories of Noah and Goliath? By time it got that way, the kingdom of Israel had already risen and fallen and been conquered by Assyrians then Babylonians, so whatever records there were, were already lost. Story telling was holding the community together, then this new idea of writing down history came to be accepted.

This book only covers the Old Testament, and not even all of that. The New Testament is barely mentioned and the story of how the Christian Bible was canonized is more about politics than history. What I found most interesting about this book was the tracing of how people related to writing through the ages, including the last few hundred years as we have unraveled this mystery.

I should mention that this is a Christian book. The study known as “textual criticism” has been done by Christian scholars. Friedman does not question the facts of the stories of Moses or Joshua or even Abraham. He starts in the time when scribes already had collections of these stories and were copying them. He does not discuss scientific facts like the age of the earth or whether or not Noah’s flood actually happened. He assumes there was a time when these stories were passed on orally and they eventually came to be written down. On two or three occasions, he mentions in passing that these stories ultimately come from God, but he does not spend any more time on this and it does not detract from the interesting history, regardless of your religious bent.

By the time that we can start to identify who the scribes were, or at least what community they came from, there were already multiple versions of the foundational stories. In the Bible, and in other writings, there are references to existing libraries that have not yet been discovered, and may be gone forever. We can only speculate how people related to these early libraries, and how the stories changed during the time of the oral traditions. According to the scholars of the Documentary Hypothesis, we can find two distinct voices in the early chapters of Genesis, from two kingdoms that resulted from division of the one that David brought together. This tells us these authors were distinguishing their communities by creating unique versions of the stories that came from their shared ancestry.

Ancestry was important to these people. The author who claimed to be a descendant of Moses would highlight him and make commentary on the descendants of Aaron by making Aaron look bad in the story. The Aaronid descendants would do the opposite. When Kings or priests wanted to create new laws that benefited them, they would write new stories, but weave them into the old stories and demonstrate how these new ideas were predicted or anticipated by the ancestors.

This might have unintended consequences, as a promise from God that the sons of David would rule forever seemed to be broken when first the Northern kingdom was overrun by the Assyrians and later the Southern kingdom fell when King Josiah was killed by the Egyptians. To explain this, new authors returned to old writings and found the conditional promises made to Moses. God’s promise still held, but the people had failed to uphold the law, so they would have to wait for a future descendant to return to the throne, a messiah.

At this point, there is no “Bible”, only a bunch 0f separate scriptures.
With the kingdoms in ruins it gets even more difficult to trace the writings until, under Babylonian rule, Ezra arrives in Jerusalem with all of these stories and more combined into one “book”. With growing influence from Greece, the idea of writing as a way to preserve history had worked its way in and this book was accepted as just that. Copying, adding and translating continued and with the decline of the empires of that time even more was lost. The differences of the 12 tribes were no longer passed on culturally. There was just one version of Jewish history.

Many centuries later, with the invention of the printing press, the Bible became more widely read and with the Protestant Reformation, asking theological questions became safer. When investigations like this start however, it is not known how they will turn out. What if whole sections of the Bible were found to be forgeries? Could it be shown that the Bible was not “God breathed”? Picking apart scripture was seen as blasphemy by some.

Textual criticism was one of the primary motivations for the fundamentalist movement. Believing in miracles has always been a problem. All of the prophets chided their people for not having faith. Now historians and scientists were creating more reasons for doubt and they might even prove that previous miracles never happened. Christians had to decide what it meant to be Christian. Believing the miracles and believing the stories really happened, no matter what anybody else says, was going to be the definition. Again the consequences of this were unintended. It is doubtful that anyone predicted or wanted a Christianity that focused on one or two issues like abortion or gay rights.

As it turned out, Christianity has survived a tremendous amount of being picked apart. Questioning and discussing scripture has always been a Jewish tradition, so it has also fared well. Many now consider the Bible a mix of history and symbolism, which may be a return to how it was viewed before Ezra. Preachers and writers continue to attempt to use the old stories to legitimate their actions and predict the future, but with peer review and the elite class of scribes being replaced by a legion of bloggers, that is a difficult sell. Although they can find a national stage, those who make truth claims based on the Bible also receive national ridicule.

As Friedman points out, by combining these different authors, we ended up with a book that reflects the world we experience. Sometimes rules must be obeyed and justice is swift, other times they can be bent, authority can be wrestled with, and sometimes transgression is met with mercy. By honoring all of the traditions, even though the story is sometimes confused and contradictory, it came to be accepted as one coherent tradition.

Parents have to decide between justice or mercy every day and as nations we have to continue a similar debate. Religion is declining in some ways and in some places and growing in others. Any predictions of its future are tenuous. The discussion of when or whom we shalt kill, what we should eat and what goods we shall covet is obviously a long way from over.

Note ** Since this book was published, more archaeology has been done and more textual hypotheses have been introduced. As quoted in wikipedia, sorting them out is “not for the faint of heart.”

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