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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. Armando

    The Bible is nothing more than guidelines and lectures to keep man good and keep man in his place by putting the fear of God. Man and only Man wrote the Bible.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  2. Ben

    Deuteronomy was written by the Hebrew prophet Moses on the plains of Moab in 1473 B.C.E. and covers somewhat over two months. Likely, the last chapter was added by Joshua or High Priest Eleazar

    We see this today if someone dies before finishing a book or a move, it will be finished for them.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  3. Shawn Irwin

    It would be nice if more people who profess christianity would actually READ the bible, simply because, the more you read it, the more you learn about it, the more you become convinced that it is nothing but an antiquated pile of BS.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • crucified

      Read Cover to Cover..many times.... I do not believe you have however. the Bible re-enforces my Christian Belief. Usually people that turn away from the faith or never had it to begin with.. is because.. they do not want to face just how VILE they are in the light of a Holy God.. they do not want anyone telling them andything. not even to watchout they are going to fall of a cliff.. therefore they fall...off the cliff..moreover, jumpoff...and there you have it... they are Dead in their sins.. for what Selfish Pride. Mave fun with That,

      April 1, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  4. Chris

    I tore my bible up and threw it in the garbage.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • Seer

      It's high time to organize Bible-burnings. The Gospel of Thomas specifically says that your relationship with God is personal and inauthentic if it is mediated by a religion. No wonder it was left out of the Bible. Burn them all, I say, and set people free to find God for themselves.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  5. Scott J

    And have we considered the internet's power to be a religious "text"? The internet is spreading knowledge of science, shedding light in all corners of the world, and opening the eyes of viewers to the many endless beliefs and systems that exist in this world. Gone are the bounds of belonging to just one state or one mind, the internet connects alls classes, all government, all religions in one universal screen of knowledge. Answers are more readily and logically found, and new questions can be researched across multiple spetrums, and with the priceless knowledge of manyl things human and mysterious available, all great ponderings and idle musings, are all found in one great electronic library book called the internet. The internet is a profound device of human aspirations and culminations of technological and social progress, perhaps it is the new religious 'text" of our times?

    April 1, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  6. PastDM

    Kate – at 11:41 – If that is the way you feel, then don't read the article. For many of us, and many around the world these are important topics (just look at all the strife over different views of religion). There are many other front pages stories I have no intereste in – so I dont read them.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  7. freepalestine

    new testament was written in greek not hebrew. zionism rearing it's ugly head again...

    April 1, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • Ruth

      You obviously are not aware that the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew has been located. Several copies of it.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  8. The truth

    the actual bible has been falsified because people dont want to act according want GOD want them to do, but what they feel is good for them. you want to know about a book that have never been changed go to http://www.quranexplorer.com thank you and enjoy

    April 1, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  9. crucified

    If You have not Experienced GOD/Jesus/Spirit maybe You just were not Chosen. Sorry 'Bout that.. maybe next time. of course if I were you I would beg for the experience to be sure I was right.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  10. PastDM

    responding to educatedguess at 11:07 -"Jesus said he wasn't Christian if the Bible represented Christianity."

    UM – Jesus never claimed to be a Christian at all – becuase it did not exist in his day. Jesus was Jew, teaching Jewish people about a Jewish God and how to live a good Jewish life. Christianity did not exist until after he had been crucified, and his followers (of what he termed "the Way") eventually realized that they needed to part from Judeaism. This became more relevanat through the 1 and 2nd centuries AD as the group took on more and more non-jewish (Gentile) followers.

    You would be amazed at how many people get upset at this idea – that Jesus was a Jew – but its true.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  11. Dennis Pence

    It is very interesting to me that there is a defense for and against GOD. Really – God doesn't care either way. If you don't believe – He gave you that ability to choose – If you do believe – He gave you that ability also. With out a hereafter and accountabilty to a Creator for your life – Why can't everyone just do as they PLEASE? If there is no accountability – why do we feel the need to do good? The Bible was given to us as a "road map" – problem is – many don't know how to read the map or choose not to.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:42 am |
    • Eric G.

      A "road map"? Are you speaking about morality? Having read the Bible, I do not need to as-sume I have a higher moral standing. I know that I do, and I can prove it.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:50 am |
    • Scott J

      If you NEED a Bible to do GOOD, then you are one who should probably keep reading the Bible. Many of us feel that understading the basics of doing good deeds (helpful, caring, selfless) vs doing bad deeds (harmful, uncaring, selfish) is basic experience that humans come to understand and learn from very early ages in our social life, with or without a Bible. And needless to say there are many other religious texts that have these basic preceps as well, Bible not required, sorry.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      i love the argument that god gave us the ability to choose. How can anyone possibly think this still? Just read the Bible, where is the choice there? God says to Abraham, kill your son for me. God appears in front of Moses as a burning bush. Heck, god rains down fire from the skies and turns rivers to blood, also kills the first born of a whole civilization. LET MY PEOPLE GO. How about he actually sends his own son to be our savior, granting miracles such as raising the dead, turning water to wine and walking on water to boot. How are any of these things allowing us to 'choose?'

      The very argument is ridiculous!

      April 1, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Mariospants

      "ability to choose", my foot. Say that to an atheist living in the middle of the bible belt and he/she would laugh at you.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
    • Eric

      Or have a bunch of children slaughter on the outskirts of a town because they made fun of a guy's bald head. Or smite someone for collecting sticks for a fire on the sabbath, or turning someone into a pile of salt for the horrible act of looking over their shoulder.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Odie Colognie

      I received no ability to chose from anyone. I have a brain, and feel compelled to use it. I can't chose to be disingenuous. If I did, wouldn't I be dishonest to god, if there happened to be one ?

      April 1, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
  12. Kate

    Why does CNN insist upon posting irrelevant opinions about the Bible and religion on the front page of their website EVERY DAY? This is not news – it is not even an editorial about the impact of current events. If I wanted to learn more about the Bible I would go to a Bible study, or a church, or attend religion classes. The fact that it is an article about biblical history and textual criticism, and not necessarily about faith, still doesn't change anything. It is still not news or an opinion about the news!!!

    April 1, 2011 at 11:41 am |
    • Seer

      The reason CNN posts "irrelevant" (and I take it you're confused and mean "irreverant") opinions about God is that not everyone is mindless enough to go to Bible study like an automaton and accept everything they're told, but rather, like our nation's founders and even Christ's disciples, they ask questions about God for which religion has no answers. If your faith cannot stand up to rational questions from people honestly seeking answers about the Divine, then what is it worth? What is the basis for your life worth?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Mariospants

      Why do you think? Because it gets eyeballs. They know what side the bread is buttered on.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  13. Bruceter

    His second sentence says it all -
    "But sometimes I like to step outside of faith and just think about things rationally."

    April 1, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  14. Anne Chovey

    written by man
    edited by man
    and man says its god's word

    who can you trust?

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

      Anne Chovey well said.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  15. Ruth

    I agree with Another Believer-Reply. As a Torah observant believer, that does read Hebrew, what are the qualifications and basis of opinions of those that have not read nor studied the scriptures?

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

      you believe that a talking snake tricked two nudists in a garden?

      April 1, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  16. Hurley23

    "an unparalleled belief in the importance of human endeavor" – I don't see that anywhere in the Bible. Perhaps we have different Bibles.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • Hurley23

      In fact the Bible seems pretty clear cut that if you have a new idea you should keep it to yourself, and if you want to build something impressive, God will smite it. I think the Bible stands for pretty much the opposite of what you describe in that quote.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  17. Ed

    An implication seems to be made that religion is required for morality. I believe you can have moral values without being a member of any organized religion. My mantra is simple and requires no religion – Treat others as you wish to be treated.

    April 1, 2011 at 11:38 am |
    • Chanselor Jenkins

      Yes you are right on. You are a Christian and don't even know it. Love they neibor as they self.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Name (required)

      So, Ed, if you don't mind being treated like garbage-maybe you're a masochist and you really do want people to treat you like garbage-does that mean it is moral for you to treat others that way?

      April 1, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      @chancelor, I suppose that's why christians slaughtered thousands of tribal members when they helped to 'colonize' the americas?

      Or I know, how about we tell gay people they don't have the right to get married, since that's how I'd want to be treated?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • Odie Colognie

      Chanselor,
      How about "love thy neighbor as thyself".

      April 1, 2011 at 7:29 pm |
  18. anobody

    and I quote: "I am a person of faith. But sometimes I like to step outside of faith and just think about things rationally." No more needs to be said.

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

      So you are admitting that people of faith are irrational? Then why are they allowed to serve in public functions, hold jobs, raise children, or vote? No more need be said.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      @ seer, kind of a double standard here, it's ok for 'accepted' religions to practice their faith and be a part of society, but if you believe in a non-mainstream religion, then you get persecuted, fired and sometimes killed. Witch hunts. You realize there are countries around the world where you can still be killed for being a 'heretic?'

      April 1, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
    • Eric

      they hold public office because most of the people in America vote with their emotions and not with their brain. I bet there are a few closet atheists in high public offices because they won't get elected if they admitted it.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  19. mdnc

    A myth is still a myth.

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

      Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein agree that God exists... so I guess it is still a myth

      April 1, 2011 at 11:55 am |
    • Southern Christian

      The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God. – Psalm 14:1

      April 1, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • Seer

      The greatest PR problem that God has is his followers.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      Stephen Hawking just published a book detailing how our universe does in fact create something out of nothing, regardless of a god.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
    • Eric

      Neither Einstein or Hawking believe in a personal God. There isn't much debate on that, a deistic god maybe but that's still a stretch. Less than 10% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences believe in god. Which is inverse to the general population. That should be pretty telling what scientists think about a personal god or god in general.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  20. CJ

    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

    Let's ask those people in countries, Yemen and Libya for example, how things are when they are under the rule of a leader they are forced to follow. How well has that worked out?

    People don't accept the force of love and respect on to anyone, man or God. They have to come willingly, they have to have a choice.

    God does allow bad things to happen and we constantly question why. That's okay. The problem comes when we ask but don't seek an answer. Let's stop shaking our fists at God and blaming Him. Let's start realizing that people are to blame for their actions.

    To sum it up, a quote by Billy Graham's daughter in reference to 9/11:
    "I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives.
    And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?"

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

      I agree with you. God made us to be with him, but man is the one who wanted to become like God and sinned. Without any problems and darkness in life, who would seek God? And why do people seek God? So that they can receive all the answers for themselves for what reasons? We believe in God to get things in life. Do we care what God seeks in us? This is no different than pagan worship in the old days.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Sirena

      The problem is, that Christians have insisted on their god being Omniscient, Omnipotent, and Omnibenevolent. No god can be all three at the same time. They contradict each other.

      If god knows what He will do in the future and because He is Omnipotent, does something else, then He is not omniscient.

      If god knows what He will do in the future and cannot not do something else, then He is not omnipotent.

      If God knows the future, that means that the future is predictable and unchangeable. This, in turn, means that our actions are predetermined. If god is all knowing, free will is an illusion.

      This also binds god, in that He knows what he will do in the future, and He must do it.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      @CK, so god made us to be with him, and yet he purposefully doesn't reveal himself so we can choose if we even believe in a god that created us to be with him? And the choice is believe in god and go to heaven or burn in hell for eternity?

      Because that's a real choice there.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Eric

      and creates a huge loop hole for those who do evil. Kill a million people, ask for forgiveness to heaven you go.

      Never harm a living soul but don't believe in god, hell. That seems fair.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      ..also, if god didn't want us to be like him, then why did he create us in his own image?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
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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.