My Take: It doesn't matter who wrote the Bible
April 1st, 2011
01:00 AM ET

My Take: It doesn't matter who wrote the Bible

Editor’s note: David Hazony is the author of "The Ten Commandments: How Our Most Ancient Moral Text Can Renew Modern Life," published recently by Scribner.

By David Hazony, Special to CNN

I am a person of faith. But sometimes I like to step outside of faith and just think about things rationally. Usually this oscillation between faith and skepticism serves me well, with faith giving reason its moral bearings, and reason keeping faith, well, reasonable.

It’s a nice balancing act — except when the question of who wrote the Bible comes up. My Jewish faith tells me that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah or the Pentateuch. Reason tells me to be open to the idea that somebody else had a hand in it.

And there are definitely a few glitches in the text that back up those suspicions - notably the last eight verses of Deuteronomy, which describe Moses’ own death.

But try as I might, I just can’t believe that the Five Books of Moses were written by J, E, P and D – the four main authors whose oral traditions, biblical scholars say, were cobbled together to make the Torah. (The letters stand for the Jahwist, the Elohist, the Priestly source and the Deuteronomist. Those, we may assume, were not their real names.)

Call me an academic infidel.

I know, it’s been generations now that Bible study scholars at universities around the world have accepted as true that:

(a) the Pentateuch was composed over many centuries through these four oral traditions, which were later written down;

(b) these main texts were woven together by an editor or series of editors living around the 6th century B.C.E.; and

(c) these different traditions are detectable by scholars today, to the point where you can justify entire conferences and an arena’s worth of endowed chairs to figure out not only the source document of every scrap of biblical text, but also the gender, political inclinations, subversive intentions, height, weight and personal traumas encumbering every one of its authors.

The first two are plausible, I suppose. But the third has always struck me as pure fantasy, the point where idle speculation gives way to heavily funded hubris. Of course, if I’m right about the third, the first two lose their authority as well.

Why don’t I buy it?

It’s not just because of how stark, uninspiring and vaguely European those four letters look in a byline. Nor is it the fact that in more than a century’s worth of digging up the Middle East by archaeologists, not a single trace of any of these postulated “source texts” has ever turned up. And it’s certainly not because the scholars’ approach contradicts my faith — after all, it was the willful suspension of faith that led me to consider it in the first place.

No, faith and skepticism dwell together in my confused bosom like pudding and pie.

Rather, my rebellion against these scholars comes from experience. Specifically, my experience as an editor.

It all started a few years back when, as the senior editor of a Jerusalem-based journal of public thought, I ran into trouble on a 10,000-word, brilliantly researched essay about Israeli social policy composed by the sweetest man on earth who, unfortunately wasn’t a stellar writer.

I spent a few weeks rewriting, moving things around, adding and cutting and sweating. Finally I passed it up the chain to Dan, my editor-in-chief.

"Hey Dan," I said. "Could you take a look at this? I added a whole paragraph in the conclusion. Tell me what you think."

A few days later I got it back, marked up in red ballpoint. On the last page, in the conclusion, he had written the words “This is the paragraph you added,” and drawn a huge red arrow.

But the arrow, alas, was pointing at the wrong paragraph.

You see, it turns out that it’s not very easy to reverse-engineer an editing job. To take an edited text and figure out, in retrospect, what changes it went through — it’s about a million times harder than those tenured, tortured Bible scholars will tell you.

Language is fluid and flexible, the product of the vagaries of the human soul. When an editor has free rein, he can make anything sound like he’d written it himself, or like the author’s own voice, or something else entirely. It all depends on his aims, his training, his talent and the quality of his coffee that morning. A good editor is a ventriloquist of the written word.

That’s when I started to suspect that what Bible scholars claim they’re doing — telling you what the “original” Bible looked like — might be, in fact, impossible to do.

Think about it. My case was one in which the author, editor and reader are all known entities (in fact, they all know each other personally); the reading takes place in the exact same cultural and social context as the writing and editing; and the reader is himself a really smart guy, Ivy-league Ph.D. and all, who had spent a decade training the editor to be a certain kind of editor, with specific tools unique to the specific publication’s aims.

Not only that, but he was even told what kind of edit to look for, in which section. And still he couldn’t identify the change.

Now compare that with what Bible scholars do when they talk about J, E, P, and D. Not only do the readers not know the writers and editors personally, or even their identities or when or where they lived. The readers live thousands of years later and know nothing about the editors’ goals, whims, tastes, passions or fears — they don’t even know for sure that the whole thing really went through an editorial process at all.

(If anything, the same textual redundancies, narrative glitches, awkward word choices and so forth that the scholars claim are the telltale signs of an editing process are, in my experience, very often the opposite: the surest indicator that an author needs an editor, desperately. If the text was edited, it was done very poorly.)

As with any field of research that tries to reconstruct the distant past, biblical scholars get things wrong on a daily basis.

And that's OK: Getting things wrong is part of the nature of reconstruction. Whether you’re talking about the origins of galaxies, dinosaurs, ancient civilizations, medieval history or World War II, the conclusions of all historical research come with a big disclaimer: This is the best we’ve got so far. Stay tuned; we may revise our beliefs in a couple of years.

With biblical scholars, however, you often feel like they’re flying just a little blinder than everyone else. At what point does a scholar’s “best guess” become so foggy as to be meaningless?

The Five Books of Moses take place somewhere in the second millennium B.C.E., centuries before our earliest archeological corroborations for the biblical tales appearing in the Book of Joshua and onward. We have no other Hebrew writings of the time to compare it with. So all that scholars really have to go on is the text itself — a wild ride on a rickety, ancient, circular-reasoning roller-coaster with little external data to anchor our knowledge of anything.

This would be fine, of course, if there weren’t so much riding on it.

With other fields, we usually don’t have our own dinosaur in the fight. But with the Bible, it’s not just the scholars duking it out with the clergy. There’s all the rest of us trying to figure out what to do with this stupendously important book — either because it anchors our faith, or because it contains enduring wisdom and the foundations of our cultural identity.

Where does that leave us? Some people, sensing their most cherished beliefs are under siege, will retreat to the pillars of faith — whether that faith is religious or academic. Either it was Moses, or it was J, E, P, and D. End of discussion.

As for the rest of us, it may raise questions about whether we really ought to care that much about authorship at all, or instead just go with Mark Twain’s approach. “If the Ten Commandments were not written by Moses,” he once quipped, “then they were written by another fellow of the same name.”

Using our reason means sometimes admitting there are things we just don’t know, and maybe never will.

Maybe that’s all right. After all, isn’t it enough to know that the book is really important, that it has inspired love and hate and introspection and war for thousands of years, that it is full of interesting stories and wisdom, poetry and song, contradiction and fancy and an unparalleled belief in the importance of human endeavor - in the possibility of a better world - despite the enduring and tragic weaknesses that every biblical hero carries on his or her back? That it is an indelible part of who we are?

Isn’t that enough to make you just read the thing and hope for the best, forever grateful to Moses, or that other fellow by the same name?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Hazony.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Bible • History • Judaism • Torah

soundoff (2,549 Responses)
  1. Alanis Morrisette

    The Bible is illegal.
    Here are some verses that are against the law in the U.S.A. and the modern secular world.
    (Leviticus 20:13/24:16/24:10-15/25:44//27:29/,
    Numbers 15:35-36/31:31-40,
    Deuteronomy 22:28-29/21:15/21:18-21/22:13-24/13:6-18,
    Hosea 2:2-13/9:12-16,
    Exodus 35:2/21:7,
    Zechariah 13:3,
    Judges 11:30-40,
    Daniel 11:30-39,
    Jeremiah 12:14-17,
    Matthew 5:25,
    Samuel 15:3/10:21,
    1st Samuel 15:3,
    1st Timothy 2:12,
    Psalm 12:3/137:8-9

    April 1, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  2. Matt

    The question of who wrote the Bible in some was isn't as interesting as the question of who edited it (and when? and how many times? and in what ways? and why?). It's been edited and translated and changed up many, many times. That, to me, is the biggest reason why we can't take the bible as the word of God. It seems incredibly foolish to do so.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  3. George Greek

    "We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes." – Gene Roddenberry

    April 1, 2011 at 11:03 am |
  4. George Greek

    "Faith means not wanting to know what is true." – Friedrich Nietzsche

    April 1, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  5. Eric Martin

    I don"t know, and I don't care that i don't know. That's the gist of this one.

    Move on...

    April 1, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  6. George Greek

    'THE GOD DELUSION" by RICHARD DAWKINS. Read it for your own edification.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:00 am |
  7. Pathetic

    I LOVE the very 1st sentence ("I am a person of faith. But sometimes I like to step outside of faith and just think about things rationally.") where the author ADMITS that faith equals irrationality!
    So.... if you are happy being irrational, be religious!
    As adults, we deal rationally with our finances, medical issues and careers and nobody is looking to be irrational on any of these important aspects of life.
    The only exception might be in the area of romance... and with a 50% divorce rate... maybe a little rationality might help there as well.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  8. Meanwhile, back to the article...

    Sorry to interrupt the incesssant back & forth between the two groups of fundamentalists (atheist and theist) whose self-appointed calling is to dominate the discussion of any article mentioning religion. But you raise a very valid discussion [for those of us who care]. I wish I had had access to this article back my OT studies class in college. The whole J,E,P,D theory has its own series of flaws, many of which you point out, and in addition directly contradicts Occam's Razor. My own conclusion? Yes, there were several sources, obviously, Moses wasn't around to interview Adam or Noah. Moses compiled the bulk of them into the Pentateuch; later writers added a few details, such as his death and various comments and details which show up as anachronisms. Unfortunately this explanation is far too simple for even a good dissertation, let alone a conference or better yet, some grant money. So from an academic standpoint it's basically worthless.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Jason the Pendleton Rat

      Agree totally. This is a very fascinating series of postings. Apart from yours and maybe two or three others, almost none actually address the content of the article. Am thinking that tells me a lot. Clearly a VERY hot button subject, that almost no one seems to know anything specific about. Very interesting.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  9. Think about it

    Last night I dreamed Darth Vader was talking to me and this morning when I left my house it was really windy ( without a doubt a sign from Darth Vader that he WAS talking to me). Then I heard my favorite song on the radio driving into work ( Definitely another sign from Darth to me..not the other thousands of people listening). Then I stubbed my toe walking in to work and Shrek touched me on the head and Healed my toe ! None of these things would be possible without Faith !!!

    April 1, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  10. imurfavorite

    not tryin to bash any religious books or bashing any religion. but both the old and the new testament has been tampered with for this specific reasons, headlining this article. there are plenty of evidence in these holy books or divine scriptures where they illustrates many contradictions. some may have been added and some may have been taken out, thus considering them corrupted. this has been proven many times. dont be mislead and misguided! for now i leave you with this, "those who submit themselves absolutely to GOD alone, while leading a righteous life, will receive their recompense from their Lord; they have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.[QURAN 2:112]. peace be upon you all.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  11. George

    I would really like to hear an explanation from such a scholar of the parallels between the Egyptian book of the dead and Moses'
    Ten Commandments. The simplest answer is often the truth, easier to believe Moses copied from the Egyptian than was handed a stone tablet directly from God.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • Eric G.

      @ George: Most of the Abrahamic religions are a collection of stories borrowed from other religions. Look up the Egyptian story of Horus and compare it to the Jesus story. Think of it as a re-boot. Kind of like what they did with the Batman movies. Religions take an outdated myth, modify and add to it to gain some sort of social relevance, change some names around and voila, new and updated method to control regional populations. The problem with most believers is that they only read their own religious texts.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  12. FDR

    Let the Bible speak for itself. You want to know what faith is? Hebrews 11:1 You want to know why you need it? Hebrews 11:6. Why you should have it? John 3:16 Why you shouldn't just simply stop after looking up those 3 scriptures? John 17:3.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • blondegirl6

      simple things confound the wise. people dont want to believe the Bible is God's Word because they want an excuse to keep doing what they are doing with no consequence. thanks for posting FDR

      April 1, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  13. Byrd

    The Bible literally translated: The Lie.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:57 am |
    • Ryan

      The Origin of Species literally translated: Racism Handbook.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  14. Kevin Cleary

    Glad to see that there are roughly as many skeptics/agnostics in these posts as faith-based people. I challenge the former to be as open and zealous in your everyday conversations (i.e., not just semi-anonymous blogs) as the religious people are in theirs. Why? Too much of our system – from no Sunday beer sales in Georgia to fighting wars against Muslim countries (ironically, mainly because they are against our support of Israel – not our lifestyle) are originated by Christian fanatics. Keep your religion, your fairy tales and imaginery friends. Just keep it out of my life.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  15. Newfie

    Moses actually wrote 613 commandments in your delusional book from the Bronze Age. Someone in your profession edited out 603 of them. "But sometimes I like to step outside of faith and just think about things rationally. Usually this oscillation between faith and skepticism" I'll give you a real challange, Step back into your faith and look at it rationally,( Noars Ark would have to had 2.2 million animals on it) with skepticism,(a talking snake, virgin births etc) both being the enemy of your faith. Oh I almost forgot, the Devil will cause confusion if you do that. Fires of Hell forever! LOL

    April 1, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  16. Martin

    Don't people of faith believe that The Bible is The Word of God?

    Therefore, GOD wrote The Bible, anyone who claims to have written it merely wrote it down.

    To claim anything else is hypocracy and might be considered heresy.

    Personally, I think The Bible is just a collection of folk tales collected down through the ages.

    However, I DO have faith, I just have no faith in organized religions of any stripe.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Ryan

      Very well put, Martin. It's nice to see an Atheist who actually says the belief in nothing is still a belief, or a faith as you put it. I admire your honesty and open-mindedness.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:07 am |
    • Tim

      "amen Brother"

      April 1, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  17. Shane

    Jen do you believe you were created by God? If not how do you believe you came into existance? The bible is the truth since everything that was prophesied is comming to past. Find the time to study it and you will see.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Tengu

      "comming to past"... kill yourself and join your lie.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Sirena

      Shane... my parents "got it on" and thus i was created.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Odie Colognie

      Wrong. The phrase is "coming to pass". Unbelievable.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:03 am |
    • Phil

      I was going to keep quiet on this story since I'm not a 'person of faith'.

      How did we come into existence. It's simple. Our parents copulated when our mom's were ovulating. A 'god' had absolutely nothing to do with it. It's absurd to think that something like that actually played a role in the creation process.

      Have you taken a look at the size of the universe? Billions and billions of galaxies with trillions upon trillions of stars and billions of planets, many with life on it... Do you really think your god rules over all of that? I don't think so.

      Man wrote the bible. It was an invention purely created in the mind of a man, and no magical creature had any part in it.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  18. Tengu

    Your God is a lie, Christians. Move on, so the earth will have a fighting chance for sanity.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Ryan

      Atheists – Evolution never existed, so get down off your high horse and start actually tolerating those who you claim to tolerate, which is one of your core beliefs.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Phil

      @ Ryan

      Science flies you to the moon.
      Religion flies planes into buildings.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  19. andybud

    I agree: it doesn't matter who wrote the Bible.

    Because it's a work of fiction, and the author is long dead and not getting royalties anyway.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  20. George Greek

    "Not only is there no god, but try getting a plumber on weekends." – Woody Allen

    April 1, 2011 at 10:55 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.