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Writers of the Bible

  • Posted 11.18.08
  • NOVA

Biblical scholars since the 17th century have pointed to evidence that human writers, and in fact a number of different writers, composed the Bible. Mainstream Jewish and Christian organizations, including seminaries and rabbinical schools, generally embrace such scholarship—seeing the voice of God in a text compiled by human hands. In the following interview, Michael Coogan, Professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College and Director of Publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum, offers insights into how scholars today understand how the first five books of the Bible were written.

Writing on parchment paper.

Mainstream scholars like Coogan point to strong evidence that humans had a hand in the writing and editing of biblical texts. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

An anthology of sacred texts

NOVA: Most people may see the Bible as a single text, but is it?

Michael Coogan: One way of thinking about the Bible is that it's like an anthology of literature made over the course of many centuries by different people. Think of an analogy: The Norton Anthology of English Literature, which covers over a thousand years, from Beowulf into the 20th century. The Bible covers a similar span. The earliest texts in the Bible likely date to before 1000 B.C., and the latest texts go at least to the 2nd century B.C., and for Christians, into the 2nd century A.D. So it is an anthology of the literature of ancient Israel and early Judaism, and for Christians, of earliest Christianity, as well.

Like any anthology, it's selective. There were many other texts that the ancient Israelites and early Christians produced that we no longer have. We have reference in the Book of Numbers, for instance, to the Book of the Wars of Yahweh. Yahweh was the name of the God of Israel. And it must have been a wonderful book, but all we have is a kind of learned footnote.

If it's an anthology, what ties the Bible together?

More than anything else, the Bible is an account of the actions of God in the world from creation, and especially his dealings with humans, and especially with a certain subset of humans, the ancient Israelites. So it's really the story of God acting in history.

Do you think it has a central theme?

That's a difficult question to answer. I think the central message is that there is a God who is deeply and passionately involved in human history, from the scope of empires to the details of an individual's life. Within that larger framework, one of the major themes of the Bible is that of covenant. In Christian tradition, the two parts of the Bible are the Old and New Testaments, and "testament" is just an archaic word for covenant.

Was the Israelites' idea of a having a covenant with God unusual?

Well, the word "covenant" in Hebrew, berit, really means contract. It's used in the Bible to describe all sorts of secular agreements. It's used for treaties between one king and another. It's used for marriage. It's used in debt slavery, in which someone would pay off a debt by agreeing to work for someone. Contracts like that are known throughout the ancient world.

The biblical writers used this legal metaphor to describe the relationship between God and Israel, and God and various individuals within the ancient Israelite community. And that seems unique. No other ancient people used that metaphor to describe their relationship with their god or gods.

Moses holding the Ten Commandments.

For nearly 2,000 years, Jewish and Christian tradition held that Moses, directed by God, composed the first five books of the Bible. Enlarge Photo credit: Public Domain/Edmund Ollier

The Five Books of Moses

The first five books of the Bible, which Jews know as the Torah, are also called The Five Books of Moses. Where did the idea that Moses wrote these books come from?

In the Hebrew Bible, Moses is the single most important human character, and more space is devoted to the account of Moses' life and speeches by Moses than to anyone else in the Bible. Moses is also considered closer to God than anyone else in the Bible. And certainly by the 5th century B.C., the idea developed that Moses had written down words that God himself had spoken on Mt. Sinai. Eventually—and this didn't happen until several centuries later—it came to be understood that Moses wrote all of the first five books of the Bible.

What were some clues that led biblical scholars to question this belief?

The view that Moses had personally written down the first five books of the Bible was virtually unchallenged until the 17th century. There were a few questions raised before that. For example, the very end of the last book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy, describes the death and burial of Moses. So some rabbis said Moses couldn't have written those words himself because he was dead—perhaps Joshua, his divinely designated successor, wrote those words. But other rabbis said, no, Moses was a prophet, and God revealed to him exactly what would happen at the end of his life.

"Underlying the Bible are several different ancient documents or sources, which biblical writers and editors combined at various stages into the Torah."

It wasn't until the 17th century, with the rise of critical thinking in many disciplines—in science, in philosophy, and others—that people began to look at the Bible not just as a sacred text but as they would look at any other book. And they began to notice in the pages of the first five books of the Bible a lot of issues that didn't seem consistent with the idea that Moses was their author. For example, Moses never speaks in the first person; Moses doesn't say, "I went up on Mt. Sinai." There are also a lot of repetitions—the same stories told from different perspectives. And there are also many, many inconsistencies; as the same stories are retold, many of the details change.

So scholars began to think not just that Moses was not the author, but that ordinary men and women (mostly men) had written these pages.

What are some obvious inconsistencies, for instance in the Noah story?

In the story of the flood, in Genesis chapters 6 to 9, there seem to be two accounts that have been combined, and they have a number of inconsistencies. For example, how many of each species of animals is Noah supposed to bring into the ark? One text says two, a pair of every kind of animal. Another text says seven pairs of the clean animals and only two of the unclean animals.

[For more analysis of the flood story, see Who Wrote the Flood Story?.]

A painting of Noah and the animals for the ark.

The Book of Genesis offers what appear to be two disparate accounts of Noah and the flood interwoven together. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy The Bridgeman Art Library International

Why would the biblical writers compiling the various accounts include such clear discrepancies?

Even before the Bible became the Bible, even before these texts became official canonical scriptures, there was an idea of preserving ancient traditions. Preserving ancient traditions was more important than a kind of superficial consistency of plot or detail.

The Documentary Hypothesis

What is the Documentary Hypothesis?

The Documentary Hypothesis is a theory to explain the many repetitions, inconsistencies, and anachronisms in the first five books of the Bible. In its classic form, it says that underlying the Bible are several different ancient documents or sources, which biblical writers and editors combined at various stages into the Torah as we have it today.

What's the earliest source?

The earliest of these sources is the one known as J, which many scholars initially dated to the 10th century B.C., the time of David and Solomon, or perhaps a bit later, to the 9th century, after the split of the United Kingdom into the Kingdom of Israel in the north and the Kingdom of Judah in the south. Some scholars today, however, question that dating, placing J as late as the 4th century B.C.

How did it get the name "J"?

The J source gets its name because it uses the divine name "Yahweh." In the stories about Abraham, for instance, God is called Yahweh. The German word for Yahweh is spelled with a J instead of a Y. And the German scholars who initially worked on the Documentary Hypothesis called the source "J."

Script with the letters

Separate biblical writers in Genesis seem to have used different names for God. One of these names is YHWH, generally pronounced "Yahweh." Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

People reading the Bible today in English don't come across the name Yahweh. Why is that? Tell us more about the name.

It's a very mysterious name. In Jewish tradition it came to be considered so sacred that it was never to be pronounced. When you ran across this name in the Bible, written with its four consonants, which in English would be YHWH, you never read what that name was, you read some other word, usually a word that means "Lord." The Hebrew word is Adonai. This pious substitution became standard in Jewish tradition and also in Christian tradition. Almost all translations of the Bible say "The Lord."

It's also a mysterious name because we don't know exactly what it means. It seems to have been the personal name of the god of Israel. His title, in a sense, was God, and his name was these four letters, which we think were probably pronounced something like Yahweh.

How does the Bible, in the sections that are attributed to this oldest source, J, depict Yahweh when he first appears?

The earliest poems we have in the Bible depict the God of Israel, Yahweh, as a god who comes from the south, surrounded by an entourage of heavenly warriors who fight with him. He appears on mountains with all the accoutrements of a storm—the mountains quake, and the Earth shakes, and the clouds drop down water. He is, in effect, a storm god, like many other storm gods of the ancient Mediterranean world. J uses some of this language, and also, J describes Yahweh as a god personally involved with humans, like deities in myths of other cultures.

A person pointing at a passage in the Torah.

In Jewish tradition, when reading from the Torah, the Hebrew word Adonai ("The Lord") is substituted for the sacred name "Yahweh." Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

The E and D sources

So the J source used the name Yahweh, but other sources used a different name for God. Tell us about the so-called E source.

In Genesis, in many passages, God is called not Yahweh but Elohim. And some of these passages were identified in the Documentary Hypothesis as coming from a source called E, for Elohim. The E source is very difficult to characterize. The J source has a fairly coherent narrative, but the E source is extremely fragmentary. Some scholars even wonder if there is an E source.

In the classic understanding, the E source seems to have a northern origin, because the stories in the book of Genesis are frequently set in the northern part of Israel, in what became the northern Kingdom of Israel.

"In the Book of Deuteronomy there seems to be a new understanding of God's relationship with Israel and Israel's relationship with its God."

Does E depict God differently than J does?

Yes. In the J source, God appears directly to people. For example, he speaks directly to Abraham—he even comes to visit him and has dinner with him in his tent. In the E source, however, God is more remote. God doesn't appear in person to human beings, but God appears to them in dreams or sends messengers, later to be called angels, or sends prophets, but doesn't deal with human beings directly.

Scribes sitting in a row, writing on parchment.

To portray the writers of the biblical texts, NOVA turned to actual scribes living in Jerusalem today. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

What's the next source, according to the chronology of the Documentary Hypothesis?

The third source is called D, and it takes its name from the Book of Deuteronomy. It is found almost exclusively in the Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy has a very distinctive style, which is very different from that found in the earlier books of the Torah. It also has important themes that, although found earlier in the Torah, are given special emphasis in Deuteronomy, especially the insistence on the exclusive worship of the God of Israel.

Is it known when this source was written?

Many scholars think that it was written in the late 8th century B.C. It was subsequently used by King Josiah, in the late 7th century B.C., in support of his effort to unify the kingdom and to enforce religious observance.

What does the Bible itself—the later books of the Bible—tell us about Josiah and his link to Deuteronomy?

We are told in the Book of Kings that King Josiah learned that a scroll had been discovered in the temple archives. The scroll was brought to him and read out loud before him. And the narrative goes on to say that, as the scroll was being read, Josiah began to weep, because he realized that it was a sacred text containing divine commands that the people had been breaking.

After he heard the scroll read, King Josiah ordered a sweeping religious reform throughout his kingdom. And the details of that reform, as described in the Book of Kings, correspond in many details to the divine requirements in the Book of Deuteronomy.

What were some of the requirements?

Josiah required, for example, that all of the shrines to other gods and goddesses throughout the land be destroyed. He also forbade the worship of Yahweh, the God of Israel, at any place other than Jerusalem. The Book of Deuteronomy says, "You shall worship the Lord, your God, only at one place, at the place he will choose."

Scholars have wondered about Josiah's motivation. Was it simply his piety? Or was there a political motivation as well? By requiring that all Israelites worship Yahweh only in Jerusalem, Josiah brought under his direct control the enormous religious establishment of ancient Israel, which up until that time had been scattered in various centers of worship throughout the land.

How does Deuteronomy describe Israel's relationship with God?

In the Book of Deuteronomy there seems to be a new understanding of God's relationship with Israel and Israel's relationship with its God. One of the terms that Deuteronomy uses repeatedly is the term "love." "You should love the Lord, your God, because he has loved you. He has loved you more than any other nation." So the divine love for Israel requires a corresponding loyalty to God, an exclusive loyalty to God. And Deuteronomy, more than any other part of the Bible, is insistent that only the God of Israel is to be worshipped.

The final synthesis

What events led to the last major phase of the writing of the Torah?

In the 6th century B.C. the Babylonians invaded the Kingdom of Judah twice. In the second invasion, which began in 587 B.C. and ended in 586 B.C., they destroyed the city of Jerusalem. It was the end of a way of life. It was the end of control of the Promised Land by the descendants of Abraham for many, many centuries. It was the end of the dynasty founded by David. The Temple, which was supposed to be the only place where Yahweh was worshipped, was destroyed, and a significant part of the population was taken to exile in Babylon. It was a crisis of enormous proportion.

The great Israeli biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann said it is a watershed, it is when ancient Israel ends and Judaism begins. Amongst the exiles from Jerusalem to Babylon were priests from the temple. And they seem to have brought with them their sacred documents, their sacred traditions. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, they consolidated these traditions—they edited them, and they constructed what became the first version of the Torah.

"The priests collected the ancient traditions and shaped them into the Torah."

These last writers, the priestly writers, are known as P, right?

Yes. So it was P who took all these earlier traditions—the J source, the E source, the D source, and other sources as well—and combined them into what we know as the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. The P source, in fact, frames the Torah with its own material: The first chapter of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, is from the P source, and most of the last chapter of the last book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy, is also from the P source.

A man writes on parchment paper.

Coogan and other scholars think that a group they call the Priestly Writers compiled the work of previous authors during the Babylonian Exile. Enlarge Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

After the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the Israelites retained their faith. That seems remarkable.

Yes. In the ancient world, if your country was destroyed by another country, it meant their gods were more powerful than yours. And the natural thing to do was to worship the more powerful god. But the survivors of the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. did not give up the worship of Yahweh. They continued to worship Yahweh and struggled to understand how this could have happened.

One explanation was that they were being punished deservedly for their failure to live up to the covenant obligations. Probably one of the reasons why the priests collected the ancient traditions and shaped them into the Torah was so that these covenant obligations would not be forgotten again.

So they kept the faith that, as long as they were loyal to God, God would protect them and return them one day to the Promised Land.

Yes. One of the pervasive themes in the Torah is the theme of exile and return. Over and over again, individuals and groups leave their land only to return. Abraham goes down to Egypt and comes out of Egypt. Jacob goes to a foreign land and returns. The Israelites go to Egypt and get out. And for the exiles in Babylon in the 6th century B.C., that theme must have resonated very powerfully. God, who had acted on their behalf in the past, will presumably do so again.

To assure that divine protection, the priestly writers stress aspects of religious observance that were not tied down to the land of Israel itself, that were not attached to any particular institution such as the temple, that did not require a monarchy—all of those had ceased to exist. So the P tradition emphasizes observances such as the Sabbath observance, such as dietary observance, such as circumcision. You don't need to be in the land of Israel to keep the Sabbath. You don't need a temple or a king or a priesthood to observe the dietary laws. Any Jew anywhere in the world can do that. So the priestly tradition, writing for these exiles, was teaching them how to be faithful to the covenant.

[For more on the The Rise of Judaism, read this interview with Shaye Cohen.]

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program "The Bible's Buried Secrets". See the original site for more related features.

Interview conducted in September 2007 by Gary Glassman, producer, writer, and director of "The Bible's Buried Secrets," and edited by Susan K. Lewis, senior editor of NOVA Online

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