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. QS

    If you identify as any denomination of Christianity and claim the bible is the infallible word of god, but still justify that you are able to pick and choose the parts of the bible not to follow because, obviously, at the time it was written they didn't know (fill in the blank), then you are not 'Christian', you are agnostic.

    It's ok to set aside your indoctrination and accept that you may have your belief in a supreme being of some sort, but that it's not the "god" of the bible. If it were, then you must believe and accept the bible as truth...as you admit that you don't by your very actions of not following the tenets of your faith to the letter, you are not of that religion.

    So many people seem only to identify with any given religion out of obligation, because their family is that religion, or because they're afraid of alienating family members by actually "confessing" that they don't believe what the rest of the family does.

    I'm an Atheist but I have no problem with people who have faith in something I don't believe in. It's when that psychotic fanaticism requires them to form a 'church' and 'congregate' in order to feed off of each other's fear and prejudice that I start to take issue.

    Sadly, because of the culture and environment of guilt that religion creates and promotes, far too many people are still trapped between their own ability to reason and the fear of "coming out" as a non-believer.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  2. Zargoth

    He values faith more than reason... Hence, his reasoning is suspect.

    Seriously, folks, it is long past time to stop listening to the voice from the past. There are no gods or afterworlds, just us all here together trying to get it worked out. Stop arguing over nonsense & get busy with the facts that we can all see!

    April 1, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • hilltop

      We all stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Your proposal is a formula for narscissistic navel gazing.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  3. Maru

    The bible has been put through never ending scrutiny over the last several thousands of years. This debate and argument has been played out by many an intelligent man and woman, so any discussion or comments are interesting at best. My one question would be, does reading the bible and trusting in it's word change lives- for the better. Have the statements been proven, year after year, life after saved life? Have the prophecies come to pass? Does trusting in God and His word change us? Clearly, if one looks at those who have put their trust in God, one would clearly see that the bible does what it says it will do.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  4. Alienbrother

    All I have to say is watch Ancient Aliens on the History channel – the answers to everything are contained there.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  5. Andrew

    You can tell how much a book has changed because we have many versions of the same book. Many translations with many different meanings, with added words and whole paragraphs. Now, even if a comma is changed then the perfection is lost and the Bible is no longer the perfect and holy word of God. Even Christian apologetics will admit that 1% has been modified. And that's on the low end.

    Even the bibles today don't match. Catholics have 6 more books then protestants, and the Jehovah's Witnesses use botched up translations to fit their view of Christianity. To them Jesus was not the Son of God equal to God in nature, but an archangel, the first creation. The holy spirit is simply a force. No such thing as a trinity. Now, these are important doctrinal differences brought about by different bibles. And even protestants who have the same bible still manage to believe different things.

    Faith is truly reasonable.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  6. logosrevisited

    Thank your for writing an honest piece! I really enjoyed how open you were about yourself and your thoughts!

    April 1, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  7. Robert Ray

    god is alive-APRIL FOOLS

    April 1, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Steve (the real one)

      Robert Ray
      god is alive-APRIL FOOLS
      Yes He is alive but not just for April fools! Don't forget the fools of June, July, August, September.. and so on! God is alive, he reigns and you will stand before Him one day. Robert Ray, you are rejecting the only true hope you have!

      April 1, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
  8. WIll III

    Has anyone ever thought that maybe belief is what makes God real. Scientist will point out to that the reality we see now is little more than smoke and mirrors and that their is much more goin on at macro and micro levels that cannot be explained and possibly will never be explained.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  9. Veronica

    Great article, written sensitively about the best-selling book on Earth. I'm glad to see an article like this.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  10. PAUL


    April 1, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  11. Thinker

    If people were not sheep there would be no organized religion. Faith is BS. It's simply Hope packaged neatly. Believe in yourself, no one is coming to save you.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  12. Colin

    I don't think it matters who wrote the Bible because I think it is a piece of fiction. It belongs in the Sci-Fi / Fantasy section at the local book shop.

    BUT, far too many people continue to claim that it is the literal word of a Bronze Age god and therefore that it is the ultimate truth. That is why it does matter who wrote the Bible.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  13. Oscar

    What I don’t understand is how atheists will say that Islam, Christians, Jewish, etc. force people to believe in their faith but atheists will fight to their deaths (or type until the fingers fall off) if you tell them they are wrong and God is fact.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Facts are generally considered to be verifiable properties or phenomena, which God is not. Why is that confusing?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Tommas

      They typically don't force people, childhood brainwashing / indoctrination is usually all that is needed.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Oscar

      I knew that would get them going.

      April 1, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Trent

      Their comments proved your point. *Priceless*

      April 1, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • stemcell

      Trolls.... (Clueless)

      April 1, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
  14. CW

    Why is this article even on the front page? This is religious op-ed. And M13 I like what you wrote but he should rephrase that: to think rationally you have to step into reality, not religion

    April 1, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  15. Enoch_knows_whos_names_are_written

    Maybe the word of G_d is the bible code found only in the Torah.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  16. Ben Dover

    Simply put it's a book of parables, WRITTEN BY MAN. The entire concept of a "god" or "jesus" is a myth created by man to control, profit and subjugate man and to explain that which their small minds could not grasp. 3000 years ago what we call scientific laws and theorems, physics, mathematics, biology etc were "magic" and believed to be caused by a "god" or "gods". Fortunately, the ancient greek philosophers and scientists USED their minds and understood critical and logical thinking rather than believing in an imaginary bearded man in the sky.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Name (required)

      Actually, most ancient greeks, philosophers and scientists alike, believed in a god.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • L in Seattle

      Everyone has something they worship and adore, whether it is the ancient Greeks' bearded guys on Mount Olympus instead of 'in the sky' or the scientific principles you praise. Maybe in 3000 years, people will mock the theories you idolize now because they will have learned something by then that makes our current scientific understanding seem primitive and the result of a bunch of "small minds."

      April 1, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • rt

      Hmm, ok so can you explain the reason why there's a big ball of fire that happens to be burning right in center of all the planet's orbits for the past 4.5 billion years? Can you explain why there's no other planet that can sustain human life? Can you explain why there are no other planet in this universe that's teaming with life? Get back at me and get on the thinking reasonable level here. Don't think that you're on this earth by some sheer luck or an accident.

      April 1, 2011 at 1:27 pm |
    • EZNY

      L I can agree everything we know now is probably wrong. I would like an explanation of why something written 2000 years ago is still relevant today.

      RT we don't know there isn't life on other planets. We don't know a lot about a lot of things but the nice thing about reason is we don't come up with the space man hypothesis first. Most of what we knew about history 100 years ago was wrong. What we know about history 100 years from now would make our current belief in God and even what we know about Egyptians, Greek and Romans, Incas and Aztecs seem ridiculous because we had a period of about 800 years controlled by religion that did everything it could to keep knowledge out of the hands of the common people.

      April 1, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • L in Seattle

      ENZY – because it has principles that still apply today. For example, "Love one another" – every time I look at the news, I think we desperately need that teaching and to live by it. "Thou shalt not steal", "Thou shalt not bear false witness" – how much harm is caused by people taking from others and hurting others with lies and deception? The Bible teaches us a lot about how we can be better to our friends and families and the people we associate with. I think those things are very, very relevant.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Magic

      L in Seattle,

      The golden rule, do not kill, do not steal and do no harm are fine principles; but they are not original nor unique to the Bible. They can be found in much older writings and in writings from other religions and philosophies.

      It is the unfounded supernatural myth and fantasy of the Bible which is objected to... and the single-minded insistence by some that everyone must believe those myths and fantasies... or else.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
  17. HeavenSent

    Well God is a man I'll still worship him.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  18. mike

    I would say that when you have a significant part of our population saying this is the literal word of God – it matters. The actual history of how the bible came to be is very important. Many of these folks are troubled by the idea of various authors or multiple translations or heaven forbid cultural norms of the period in question. so raising awareness of the origins of scripture is vital to dealing with the simplistic 'literal word of God" meme that many hold on to.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
  19. Reads

    My favorites ones:
    Golith gets taller and taller with each rewrite of the story, in the older versions he is about 6 foot 4 inches, I think he is up to like 10-12 foot tall these days.
    There are multiple version of Revelations and the number of the beast changes in each one, 666 stands for Nero, there is another version that refers to Caligula's name number.

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

      You're talking about the English versions. He is talking about the Hebrew version. Threre is only one Hebrew version known today.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Thinquer

      Hello... it's spelled "Goliath", and they did not measure in inches in those days, they measured in cubits. Good idea ... Let's read the Bible before we bash it.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • NL

      "Threre is only one Hebrew version known today."
      But it was standardized only after Jesus' time, which begs the question whether he read the same scriptures that folks do today, and how that affects the meaning of his message?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Ruth

      They have found over 20 copies after the one you are referring to (I'm assuming the one from the Spanish Rabbi). Apparently, the vatican also "discovered" one in their library. The Hebrew Matthew I am referring to are the one found in St. Petersburg and Austria and the Vatican. The importance is that some of the more difficult passages to understand in the current Greek copies, can be know understood. It clearly supports the Torah and there is no conflict but better understanding what Jesus was teaching.

      April 1, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • Ruth

      I am not talking about versions, I am talking about copies. Let me restate. There are 20 manuscripts of the Hebrew Matthew. Is that what you mean?

      April 1, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  20. M13

    I like how in the second sentence, he admited that in order to think rationally you have to step outside faith.

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

      Rationality and religion have always been constructs of dueling ideals.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Seer

      I don't have "faith" that God exists, I have personal experience of it. So I can discard "faith" because it now seems like a really, really, fervent hoping that what you want to believe is true, rather than an experience of it. Churches rely on faith... now isn't that a house of cards?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Tommas

      Seer, subjective experiences mean nothing. A shorted wire in your brain and you can experience just about anything.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:45 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.