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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. Alex

    So we're created in god's image, right? (Well, the white males are, at least.) So does that mean that god has internal organs, an immune system, a need for nourishment, GI bacteria, etc? How long did this bearded man hang out in nothingness before he decided to create the universe? And for that matter, where did god come from? Something can't come from nothing, right? God had lungs before he created oxygen? A stomach before he created food? Eyes before there was anything to see? A tongue before there was anyone to talk to? Make reproductive organs before... well you get my point.

    The idea of a man in the sky is an infantile fantasy. It's fun to fantasize that you're so special that the creator of the universe loves and favors you (unless he gives you cancer, or something) and wants you to live forever with him after you die. It just boggles my mind that reasonable adults refuse to really give any serious, critical thought to these archaic god myths.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:27 am |
  2. Louiext

    @Kevin – If we are not supposed to look into the bible 'literally' then why should we even both to look into it figuratively?

    Materialism and science have done wonders for mankind. To pursue knowledge and understanding is to be man. I don't see you complaining about longer lifespans, lower mortality rates, better nutrition values, and globalization. One can believe in God and still think the Bible is rubbish, like myself.

    Read up on the Codex Sinactus. It is a 1600 year old Bible that does not mention the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, or the Ressurection. It also has two new books. Explain that while keeping your argument intact.

    Religion has been the single greatest cause of conflict since the dawn of Mankind. Why do we need organized religion? What is wrong with just faith?

    April 1, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  3. BrewtownPsych

    Wow, this is extraordinary. He's painting with quite a broadbrush an entire academic community with the flimsiest of arguments. No where does he even touch on what the scholarly work has to say about what they do or don't (yet) know, or what is hotly debated or generally accepted, etc. Virtually nothing is addressed on the merits. All he has is his 1) faith and 2) experience as an editor in a context completely unrelated to a Bronze Age oral tradition. Extraordinary. Leave the real scholarly work to the, oh, I don't know, scholars, and keep your unsupported "beliefs" on the subject to yourself. By the bye, many of us believe this book is "stupendously important" not because of the reasons you mentioned, but because of its complete lack of moral and historical relevance, and the evidence it provides of an ancient myth involving unspeakable acts of immorality involving a vengeful, petty and vindictive god - not to mention the heaping helpings of contradictions and xenophobia. Maybe a more balanced piece of work would consider such things.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  4. Ruth

    Faith is believing God's promises and that He will do what He says. He is NOT a man that He should lie. Faith is not blind nor irrational. Most of the comments are obvious from those that have not read the scriptures and do not believe in the Creator of heaven and earth. Consequently, they believe that they have evolved from monkeys. Those that believe in a Creator, know that He formed them and that HE is God. No matter how much you deny God's existence, He is eternal. Just look at nature, flowers, sunsets, stars and galaxies. He created all things. He is a God of love and mercy and justice. However, it takes ignorance and blind faith to deny that. That's where choice comes in. Truth is established by 2 -3 witnesses. If your quest is truth and you desire it, you will find it. If not you will continue in living in darkness devoid of life. Read the entire Bible starting from Genesis, then we can begin to have a conversation . Otherwise, how can you intelligently opine on something you have not read, much less understood.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Sirena

      After reading the bible from start to finish i realized god was a lie.
      Prior to reading the bible i believed what the preachers said. And i was a christian. Then i learned how to think on my own and grew up. you might want to try it too...

      April 1, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Terre

      Nice comic relief. Just amazed there are still people like you around.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Eric G.

      Hello Ruth. As one who enjoys a civil and constructive conversation, I would like to point out a few logical flaws with your post.

      You make many claims of knowlegde without providing any supporting evidence. You will need to provide verifiable evidence to support your claims before you can use them to dispute other theories, such as evolution. If constructive conversation is what you seek, you will need to base your comments on verifiable fact, not as-sumption and faith.

      I look forward to your response. I hope to hear from you soon.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • glenn robert

      Faith is both blind and irrational. Scientifically, it not testable.

      June 10, 2011 at 2:22 am |
  5. ELLINAS

    "Gods dont kill people. People with Gods kill people." – David Viaene

    April 1, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  6. ELLINAS

    "There are no atheists in foxholes” isn’t an argument against atheism, it’s an argument against foxholes. – James Morrow

    April 1, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  7. DoodleSheep

    Dear God (yes, irony implied) are you an idiot. It doesn't matter who wrote it? It was written by man as a method of control and inspired by Egyptian, Greek, and other previous mythologies. If you put faith in that waste of dead tree material you might as well take up belief that it's magic that pops up the next tissue in a tissue box and that storks really do deliver babies. Basically what I'm saying is set aside religion and take up rationality. Your faith is a crutch and holds you back.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Brian

      I'd rather have a crutch of faith than a weight of hopelessness.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  8. MALAKA

    "When a man is freed of the chains of religion, he has a better chance to live a normal and wholesome life." – Sigmund Freud

    April 1, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Dennis Pence

      I would have hoped you had a better source than Freud (Fraud as I like to call him). If you have FAITH – no explannation is necessary – If you do not have FAITH – no explanation is possible. We have been given FREE WIIL to make our choices – we can hear and obey or we can choose to live our life to pleasure ourselves. BUT – there are consequences for our choices – and we will understand what those consequences are someday – but when we find out, it will be too late to change our minds.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  9. Brian

    I don't care who wrote the Declaration of Independence, Mein Kampf, The Art of War, or Anne of Green Gables because historical context has no meaning, purpose or place in our understanding of literary works ... right? Come on, this is ridiculous. The authors give the work a context.

    For example, it matters that Moses was the primary author of the Torah because he was recognized as the great deliverer and lawgiver of Israel. The first 5 books of the Bible are also known as "The Law" and who better to put the fundamental moral principles in historical context than the man that was primarily tasked with delivering the Israelites out of slavery?

    Furthermore, without understanding the author we lose the divine context of the themes of the Torah – Genesis: the election of the nation; Exodus: the redemption of the nation; Leviticus: the sanctification of the nation; Numbers: the direction of the nation; Deuteronomy: the instruction of a nation.

    To disregard the voice of any historical literary work is to cheat oneself out of the true context which ultimately denies a deep understanding of the purpose of the work. Of course in our "Cliff's Notes" culture if we can get the idea in 2 paragraphs then it's probably not worth our time.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  10. Kyllo

    How about the Epic of Gilgamesh as a source text? Honestly, most of the stories from the Torah are word for word copies of this much older text.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  11. MALAKA

    "Religion does three things quite effectively: Divides people, Controls people, Deludes people." – Carlespie Mary Alice McKinney

    April 1, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  12. mdee

    it takes faith to believe it, then the Truth makes it clear who wrote it. the Truth speaks beyond our capacity to reason. the Truth has spoken since the beginning of creation and still is speaking. who could have predicted what has transpired thru the ages concerning what has happened, is happening today and is about to transpire. i'm not the one to prove it, but anyone in need of proof need sincerely ask the source of Truth the question. the answer will be revealed, when the answer is revealed, be receptive and receive it, a change of mind will confirm the Truth.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  13. Yahright

    You scare the hell out of me. BRAIN WASH

    April 1, 2011 at 11:20 am |
  14. MALAKA

    "I’m a polyatheist – there are many gods I don’t believe in." – Dan Fouts

    April 1, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  15. Randy

    His conclusions about the literal meanings of what has been passed down are so obvious to anyone who has ever written or edited any thing. Just whisper a simple phrase one at a time to 10 people in a circle and see what comes back to you. But Mark Twains point is on target. It's not the medium but the message.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  16. Tim

    The bible is a wonderful old book full of great stories... and that's it !!

    April 1, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  17. Johny Lovebone

    but it doesn't have to be a lie ... it could just be something plain wrong.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  18. MALAKA

    "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?" – Epicurus

    April 1, 2011 at 11:17 am |
    • Joel

      That was Hume, not Epicurus.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Terre

      "Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest." Diderot

      April 1, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Henry

      Maybe we've all been given the divine gift of free will. The alternative universe you seem to propose is that every action each person takes is carefully scripted by an omnipotent and benevolent Author of all things – to ensure each person is never mean to anyone else. What is the point of being a mindless (lacking free will) robot in such a universe?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
  19. MALAKA

    "Of all religions the Christian is without doubt the one which should inspire tolerance most, although up to now the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men." – Voltaire

    April 1, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • andrew

      "It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere."
      Voltaire

      April 1, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • CMT

      Nice quote but Voltaire misses the point about Islam. Islam wins on the intollerance hands down....

      April 1, 2011 at 11:31 am |
  20. Max

    David,
    is there any particular reason why you chose to publish this article on April 1. Its fools day you know.
    I liked your article, it was very funny. Those Jews... See you at church on Sunday

    April 1, 2011 at 11:15 am |
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About this blog

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.