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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. Blaqb0x

    Excuse me but, if you can't prove that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible and still believe he did then you are NOT a skeptic.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  2. Anne Chovey

    do biblical scholars exist?

    April 1, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  3. Chris

    I see all the fools are coming out on April 1st.

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

    April 1, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • richunix

      But only a fool could believe in foolish ideas.... Chris seen Elvis lately?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  4. Seer

    Christians have been duped for nearly two millenia! The latest research – by a Christian Bible scholar no less – says that the Bible was forged or written by impostors: http://www.christianpost.com/news/is-the-new-testament-forged-49605/

    April 1, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  5. Renee

    All of you who put negative response and who does not believe in the Holy Bible, I just have one thing to say If you denied Jesus in front of his Father then His Father will denied you also. You will be cast into lake of fire!!!

    April 1, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Blaqb0x

      You can't deny something that you don't think exists.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
    • Drito

      LOL

      April 1, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • Eric G.

      Ah! The last statement of a believer with nothing left of their position..........threats.

      You have the wrong idea about us atheists. If you cannot provide any verifiable evidence that your God exists, why do you think threats of hell would influence our thoughts?

      Or, you can provide some evidence of your claim. If not, please be quiet while the adults talk.

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

      Right now it's snowing outside, so at lest I'll be warm....were do I sign up?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
    • DW

      "Ah! The last statement of a believer with nothing left of their position..........threats.

      You have the wrong idea about us atheists. If you cannot provide any verifiable evidence that your God exists, why do you think threats of hell would influence our thoughts?

      Or, you can provide some evidence of your claim. If not, please be quiet while the adults talk."

      Ahh let us reason together. Reason would say that if you believe there is a God, and it turns out there is not – no big loss, you probably lived a fine life. However if you do not believe there is a God, and it turns out there is one – well then, you're screwed. Whose shoes would you rather be in?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • ted

      RENEE this is exactly what makes me not want anything to do with religion . you all claim to be good and don't want war and crimes
      BUT YOU JUST CAST A PERFECTLY GOOD PERSON INTO A LAKE OF FIRE. OUCH !!!! I AM BURNING WITH MORE ANGER THAN BEFORE. AND FOR DOING THE BEST JOB I CAN WITH 2 CHILDREN A LOVELY WIFE AND 9 ANIMALS.
      THANKS

      April 1, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Clayton Colwell

      @DW:

      Again, Pascal's Wager ignores the diversity of religion. If Zeus is the true Deity (and we're ignoring pantheism here), then believing in the Christian God does you no good.
      If religion is composed of a bunch of monotheistic deities, each one promising Hell to non-believers, then Pascal's Wager is actually playing the lottery.

      April 1, 2011 at 1:36 pm |
  6. ted

    YOU CAN WORSHIP THE DEVIL ,IF ITS DONE IN YOUR OWN HOME . JUST STAY FAR FROM MY CHILDREN PLEASE.
    THAT GO'S FOR ALL RELIGIONS TO . TOUCH MY CHILD &^&&^&(^*&&(*()*)(*)( PRIEST AND YOU,LL FIND YOUR MAKER.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
  7. Chanselor Jenkins

    Some ideas are timeless. Love your neibor as yourself. that is a good thing 10,000 years ago and a good thing today.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  8. Ready1

    This comment section only points to the validity of one little New Testament prophecy:

    2Pe 3:3 Having first of all the knowledge that in the last days there will be men who, ruled by their evil desires, will make sport of holy things,
    2Pe 3:4 Saying, Where is the hope of his coming? From the death of the fathers till now everything has gone on as it was from the making of the world.
    2Pe 3:5 But in taking this view they put out of their minds the memory that in the old days there was a heaven, and an earth lifted out of the water and circled by water, by the word of God;
    2Pe 3:6 And that the world which then was came to an end through the overflowing of the waters.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  9. Risky

    66 books by different authors and all conveys the same message. to me that is a feat in inself.
    the things that I have experienced / seen / witnessed cannot be explained other than miracles.
    faith – believing in things that cannot be seen or explained.
    yes...that's what I have ...faith
    and I have faith that we go to Paradise with Jesus (the believers anyways)
    2 sides of a coin.... God exists or God does not exist.
    if God does not exist...well I have that base covered and will be going to the same place the non-belivers are going
    if God does exist.... you guys are in big trouble

    April 1, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Jowicr

      So you believe in God out of fear of punishment? Why does your God make you feel like a child?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • Clayton Colwell

      If Zeus exists, then you are also in big trouble.
      Pascal's Wager ignores the diversity of religion.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • what the heck...

      are you serious right now? your logic is absolutely ridiculous, "let's all believe in God just in case". I'm a man of faith because I choose to, because I have that faith, if someone disagrees then so be it, it's not something that can be reasoned out. You're right 2 sides of a coin, but fear does not dictate my faith (more logically, lack of knowledge does :/ ).

      April 1, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
  10. Scott Johnson

    At leats "Big Red" acknowledges that the Catholic Church gave us the Bible – except he is partly wrong. The Catholic Church did give us the New testament (Gospels, Epistles, etc.) Its contents are there only because of the Catholic Church's authority on the matter.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  11. thnkfryyslf

    "faith and skepticism serves me well, with faith giving reason its moral bearings, ...." Reason is at its best is a moral guide in and of itself without the need for faith. Faith and reason are simply opposing paradigms. Faith is not achieved through reason and reason deconstructs faith. Human beings can be good without a god.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  12. CJ

    Two problems here: 1 – Ancient writers, indeed two centuries ago, did not have to abide by modern peer reviewed rules of scholarship. They could do what they willed. 2 – He assumes that 'goodness' comes from reading the Old T and New T, which is possible, but is contradicted by 2000 years of selfishness, bigotry, murder and genocide on the part of followers of this doctrine. Stone age ideas don't necessarily solve our problems today.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  13. Reality

    Again, the 1.5 million Conservative Jews and their rabbis are way ahead of David Hazony. No mention of the "New Torah for Modern Minds" in Dave's comments. One wonders why that is? And he does not mention The Code of Hammurabi or the Egyptian Book of the Dead both of which predate the Torah as "Ancient Moral Codes".–

    To wit:

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

    "New Torah For Modern Minds

    Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions – the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years – have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity – until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument. "

    The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "litany of disillusion" about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel – not one shard of pottery."

    Read the rest of the review at the cited web address.------------

    April 1, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  14. Blind man

    All these books and letters are just paper and ink unless you ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you the Truth.

    Even a blind man can "see" the Truth.

    God gave us the Truth, but we did not believe and crucified it.

    If anyone reads to you one verse from the Bible, don't just believe it, but read the whole book/letter and then read the rest of the Bible. If you don't do this then you will create religion.

    Religion does kill, but God is not religion. Religion is man playing God.

    If anyone can put a watermelon inside a pea then he is wise.

    I come from family of Muslim and Catholic faith and I am of Protestant faith, go figure! Respect where you come from, where you are, and where you will go.

    If any offense has been taken from these words then I offer my apologizes.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  15. Maya

    Of course it matters who wrote it. If you're going to claim that a book has divine authority, that its laws should be applied to all men and that those who don't believe it should be discriminated against, ostracized, or even killed, it sure as hell matters who wrote it.

    We better hope that if God exists that he had no hand in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. If God is a deity who would order animal sacrifices, command that parents kill their disobedient children, tolerate slavery, and condemn women to second-class status, we're all screwed.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • ThsIsNotReal22

      The ones who wont be screwed are the ones who realize we cannot overpower or outsmart God, He made us and we belong to Him and have no authority about it. End of story.

      Choose to submit to God and Obey and give your life to His son Jesus and then you won't have to worry about His judgments.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  16. John

    What makes some religions "truer" than others?

    April 1, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • crucified

      That the Christian God actually cared enough to dwell with us.. fell much more pain than we will ever feel..and Die for us so me may become incoruptable for our New Home in Heaven... The Christian God is Intimate, not distant.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Eric G.

      Interesting question. My guess would be money and weapons.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Seer

      The truest religion is the one best able to force you – by weapons, peer pressure, monetary reward (read the history of Catholicism) or sheer toomfoolery and magic tricks – to accept that you are better than someone else who doesn't ally themselves with it. Unfortunately – for all of us – what makes a religion best has nothing to do with spirituality.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • richunix

      Here's why:

      Stephen F. Roberts' popular quotation:

      “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

      April 1, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
    • LMAOO

      LMFAOO at the person who said that the The Christian God is superior because he died for us. You must be one something to be able to believe that God would actually die for his creation

      April 1, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  17. crucified

    Athiest are a Fable..I do not believe in them..therefore they do not Exist!

    April 1, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • CJ

      Wow, the long winter nights must fly by in your house...

      April 1, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • Sir Craig

      And yet there is actual, testable, reproducible proof atheists exist, therefore your denial is irrelevant. Try again when you have something more substantial to say.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
    • BILBO BOOMERBOTTOM

      What a foolish post,and you didn't even spell atheist correctly! Duh!!

      April 1, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
    • crucified

      @Sir Craig... No I do not believe them.. therefore they do not exist.. you cannot prove they exist.. you can only tell me.. but that would be heersay.. not verifiable proof therefore they do not exist... and you Sir are irrelavant because you do not exist.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • Blaqb0x

      Crucified,
      Did you let an 8 year old take post logic under you name again?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Matthew

      Saying that something doesn't exist because you don't believe in it is as ridiculous as saying something does exist because you do believe in it.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Josh

      Sir Craig, the point is that there is testable proof that a higher being exists. Take the most brilliant minds the world has ever seen and ask them to create a tree, an animal, or a human using nothing but the raw minerals found on earth. Life cannot be created from the non-living. Better yet, where did matter come from, even non-living matter. One basic rule of physics...you can't get something from nothing.
      Christians may be wrong, Jews may be wrong, Muslims may be wrong, Budhists may be wrong, but Atheists ARE wrong.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  18. jim

    One of the best books on JEDP , Who Wrote the Bible, gives many reasons why Moses wasn't the author of the Torah. To say if it wasn't written by Moses it was written by someone else with the name of Moses is really dumb.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  19. ChrissyinFL

    I suspect religion began on April Fool's Day, millenia ago.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  20. Mitch.and.Sarah

    4 letter words? Do you mean YHWH which was Hebrew? What are you talking about?

    April 1, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
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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.