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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. crucified

    "God does not play Dice" -Albert Eistein

    April 1, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  2. thnkbfruspk

    Is it just me or is there an overwhelmingly narcissistic need to "be right" by all parties where discussions of God and religion take place? Fervent believers will not move beyond faith and equally zealous atheists will not budge on rational thought. In the end, who cares who is right so long as we accept both religion and science as part of the journey of the human experience. Simply put, we ain't figured it all out yet folks, so relax and enjoy the ride.........

    April 1, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • James

      I don't have anything against Science...the word simply means knowledge. What I am against is people pretending that Science is the same as invention. When a man discovers how something works it doesn't mean he created it. He is simply gaining knowledge of something that already existed. There has to be something out there that knows more than the goofballs that thought the Earth was flat...only 500 years ago.

      April 1, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
  3. James

    This is the 2nd article that CNN has posted in about a week pertaining to religion. All I have to say to you people who are just so sure there is no God is...I hope DEATH works out for you. One person stated that you need to believe in yourself because nobody was coming to save you. Well, if I just believe real strongly in myself can I keep them from putting me in a box and dropping me six feet underground? Doubt it. This has to be the most prideful generation that has ever existed. We can't even get past the moon in space exploration, can't prove if there's other life than ours, yet you are SO SURE there is no God. Good luck with that.

    April 1, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
    • stemcell

      You haven't read a word or consider any of the comments here have you? Troll.

      April 1, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • Ana

      We are all going to die, you included. Nothing will save you, there will be no exceptions. The millions before you
      who believed fervently have died, the pious and decent and courageous have died, we will all die.

      I am so terribly sorry you live your life with such overwhelming fear. At least realize we are all in this awful 'mortality'
      thing together, and you aren't alone. No story will save any of us from the grave. I'm sorry.

      April 1, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  4. Jackson

    Someone please pass the beer nuts, cheers to: BEN DOVER

    April 1, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  5. william reno

    Maybe they got the words wrong also. say like Celebate was actually Celebrate

    April 1, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  6. Fred

    Oh, yes, another religion article and another chance for the atheists to pop out and try to be funny.
    We've seen how well the school system operates with God and religon removed, haven't we?
    The courts took out the Bible and prayer and replaced them with metal detectors and armed guards.
    We are so much better off now, aren't we?

    April 1, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  7. Rasheed

    26 ¶ And God said, Let us make man in our image, 1 Cor. 11.7 after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
    27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. Mt. 19.4 • Mk. 10.6

    28 And God blessed them, Gen. 5.1, 2 and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. – Yahvist
    Genesis 1:26-28

    Genesis 2: 7-8
    7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. 1 Cor. 15.45

    8 And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.- Sacerdotal

    Yahvist-
    Bible writer using Tetragrammaton: the unknown writer of the parts of the Old Testament of the Bible in which a set of four letters (Tetragrammaton) is used to refer to God. Also called Jehovist. The Yahvist text that appears in the text today was written several centuries before the Sacerdotal text. The Sacerdotal was added to it later. Came in Genesis 2: 7-8
    .
    Sacerdotal
    of priest: relating to or characteristic of a priest or the priesthood
    [14th century. Via Old French from Latin sacerdotalis “priestly,” from the stem sacerdot- the stem of sacerdos “priest.”]

    Microsoft® Encarta® Reference Library 2004. © 1993-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  8. Phil in KC

    To the author's summation: if it is not true or made up,then the fact that it has created all this hub-bub makes whoever wrote it very relevant – and sad.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  9. FOXTON

    Not much more can be said. Either you believe or you don't! You will die one day and then I guess you can say Lord I didn't know... You didn't tell me...I was in your shoes once...I didn't know Jesus.. Thank God I know now... I Love you Lord..."Forgive them for they know not what they say"......

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

      thank you foxton...i agree

      April 1, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  10. SeanNJ

    "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."

    There is nothing about the validity of third statement that would make the first two any less correct. Apparently, he chose to abandon his reason and go back to faith a quarter way through the article. Nice attention span.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  11. m

    Faith is an interesting thing. Fun word to play with. The religious community will have you believe they have faith in "God." Actually untrue. They actually have faith in Man, but have been led to believe they have faith in "God." There is no connection between a person and God, or Jesus. You HAD to be TOLD to believe. No one is born with knowledge of Jesus. This is why it is so insanely important WHO WROTE the Bible! Why would you completely and totally believe a person your own religion tells you is fallible? Dont you at least want to make sure you get the religion correct? All we atheists want is to ask, "why do you believe that?" and have the answer not be "no reason not to."

    April 1, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Mohareb

      Well said, m. The next time someone opens their bible, they should realize that it is a translation of a translation of a translation... Do you have faith in each of those human beings that made each of those translations to keep their own personal interests and misperceptions out?

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

    The truth is already indicated in the article. Mr. Hozany is just as human as anyone who handles scripture. He obviously has not stepped back in detachment from his position as he claims. Further, there is problem in to what parts of the scripture to hold and revere. For Christians, the new testament takes precedence. However, nothing was written as such till years after the event of Jesus Christ. All was handed down orally. I appreciate his reverence but that only supports his subjectivity. He says it doesn't matter but then later says "I just can't believe...." My final position is that the God we experience is superior to any book. Anything put to writing by humans is going to have some kind of limitations and even mistakes. No scripture is superior to God who inspires it. Sorry but I found his reasoning faulty.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  13. RN

    Many would like to consider ourselves highly educated and carry our own destiny in our own hands.
    A people without the True and Only God are lost for eternity. The Bible shows us over and over again that the Jewish people are "The Chosen" because God needed One People to Save the many. Jewish people do not understand this. They are in bondage to the indifference and to the laws that they will never be able to comply with. The Mercy and Grace of The One True God happens to be The same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. History proves and Muslims attest to the fact that Abraham is also the father of Their Faith. Then comes the real question. What purpose does the Bible serve? Each one of us was created to seek God. We were created to have an Intimate Relationship with Him. The Bible is the roadmap to Him. Then, came Jesus! Why did Jesus come for us? He did NOT come to bring us a new religion. Jesus came because of God's endless Love for ALL of us and to Restore our relationship with God our Father. God abhors all religion, the religious spirit and man's iniquities. God knew that the average man would not be able to reach God's intended destination with only an ancient roadmap. God sent His only begotten son Jesus to show us the way back to the Father. Jesus is The Truth, The Way and The Life. Those who SHOULD believe in Him shall not perish but have ever lasting life. JOHN 14:6

    April 1, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • YBP

      Oh, honey, you have gone off the deep end. Wake up.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Wake Up

      Preach it RN! The whole Bible points to Jesus Christ and His redeeming power to save mankind! I LOVE IT!

      April 1, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
  14. 1nd3p3nd3nt

    I haven't read a post yet about Gilgamesh, and thought it deserved a mention.
    Talking about writers and credit and all, figured it should at least be mentioned.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  15. Faith is a Disease

    Faith is a disease of the mind. The only sure for the disease of faith is Experimental Evidence. Your faith is soon to go extinct along with your books about Zeus and Apollo. God loves you AND HE NEEDS YOUR MONEY!

    April 1, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  16. Scott J

    What makes up a sign a signifier and the signified. The bible is signified. The problem is the lack of a signifier. People need a signifier. No don't say Jesus is the signifier, because he is a part of the Bible, the signified. The signifier for people today cannot be something in the Bible, but rather something they can witness that can point to the Bible as a true sign. I have seen people go nuts over the bible, seen lots of coincidence and allusions, but never have I sign an angel (an actual angel with wings etc.) nor have I ever seen anything in science that was opposite of what was testable, or read anything provable in history that could be a signifier of the Bible's God being true. When people hold the Bible and say give me a sign, they mean give me a signifier, not a feeling, not a notion, but an actual interaction with God that is verifiable, fulfills more than one sense, is not heresay, not a "voice in the head" or a "burning in the bosom". These things are falliable. With the lack of a signifier, the Bible is not a sign! It is just signified, and that has no real meaning and thus people make up their own meanings to make it significant.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  17. Zach

    there has to be an author because someone had to right that fiction book, just like Stephen King and many other author, the things that happened in that book are not real they are made up to give a though of a false truth, no proof a dog that came back to life in a magical semitary and killed people no proof the man named "god" every existed or will every be true, until this man come down from Narnia, i mean "heaven" and shakes my hand i will never believe in this false hope for a crazy religion

    April 1, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  18. airwx

    I keep hearing from Atheists that science has or will have all the answers. Then why is it that cosmologists refuse to search for diminsions larger than our own, only smaller? One goes as far as to say it is not "profitable to think about it". If you pin your faith on science, then you better demand answers to all the questions of life...or else you are not a rational thinker but a sheep in your own right.

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

      What is a question that science cannot answer that religion can?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Colin

      Science will never have all the answers. Religion will never have any.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
    • john

      When will Jesus bring the pork chops?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Jerone23

      I think you have it backwards, science has standards, and must be proven. Faith or religion is the only time you are told not to ask for proof, and just be lead like sheep.

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

      So far I see three sheep who are acting irrational. To believe that science will never have all the answers and yet rely on it for the foundation of your thinking is just as or more irrational than religion. And I love pork chops....

      April 1, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • Mohareb

      For those of you that think that science has nothing to say about morality, try reading The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris.
      And to airwx, if you had a better understanding of cosmology you would know that "large" dimensions are already plainly apparent to us. The "smaller" dimensions only seem smaller because our velocity through those dimensions is so close to the speed of light that they are compressed down to almost nothing, smaller than our ordinary capacity to perceive them..

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

      airwx... being an Atheist doesn't mean you believe science has all the answers, it just means you don't believe there is a God ... that's all.

      April 1, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • airwx

      @ IceT... Thank you for your response. My point is simple; I am looking for answers. Science can only supply a certain percentage of the knowledge (facts) that I desire to know. I choose to leave the door open to possibilities beyond the realm of science. What you have chosen is your right, and I respect your feelings.

      April 1, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Adam

      You ask why atheists see science as searching for the smaller rather than the larger... Well, it's reverse engineering. Scientists look back through time and into mass to come to a fundamental understanding of how the little things make the big things. I understand that there is a bit of theoretical postulating to get the scientific community talking, and often enough it either leads to a dead-end, or to more questions. But it is the search for truth. REAL truth, not truth based on the assumption that a metaphysical being created all of everything. So far, it's worked pretty well.

      Consider that there are religious people today who believe the earth is six thousand years old, and that man lived with dinosaurs. People who believe that a man built a large boat and filled it with a male and female of every species on earth and floated for forty days and forty nights. How were they fed? Did he get every insect, as well? Have you ever tried to herd ants? It's not easy, I tell you. I digress.

      So, we are left with allegory. I'm more comfortable with that. Perhaps the allegory is that this earth is like an ark, and that we have to care for all of its creatures. I don't profess to know, I'm but a simple atheist.

      Science has determined: The earth is not flat; that it's not the center of the universe; that the night sky is not some great, dark sheet with holes in it; the planet's about 4 billion years old, and our universe about 11 billion; our moon is likely the result of a massive collision with a Mars-sized satellite; and it's theoretically observed time back to 10 to the negative 34th of a second... I could go on.

      As for the bible? Well, I have a hard enough time believing something said was heard by a 'friend of a friend,' never mind text that was written from a tradition of oral history stretching through decades, even centuries. Oh, I've read it. There are some good parts, some good parables that help teach how we should treat one another. As for it being the word of a metaphysical being? As for that metaphysical being responding to things people ask of it? As for appeasing it with a sacrifice of our time and money? Yeah, I don't think so.

      April 1, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Ana

      "demand" answers? In your desperation, your fear of death and the unknown, you are willing to accept answers
      that are magical. People who live in reality do not have this luxury, and we all have to find our own way to come
      to terms with the unknown. You can't demand answers to these questions, but I suppose you can accept silly
      answers if you are so simple and ignorant a person that they allow you to overcome your personal fears.

      April 1, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  19. Ana

    "I am a person of faith. But sometimes I like to step outside of faith and just think about things rationally"

    "Sometimes" you like to be rational? You dabble in being rational, but spend the rest of your time in blissful
    delusion? I stopped reading at this sentence, you're a dolt.

    April 1, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • john

      HAHA – I thought the same thing

      April 1, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • YBP

      This is a guy who wrote a book about how the Ten Commandments are "moral" and can "renew modern life." Clearly he is not well. A few lessons in Science, History and Archeology would help.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Mohareb

      Heh, I reached the same conclusion after just "I am a person of faith."

      April 1, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Joe

      Ana,

      I stopped reading after the same line for the same reason. Not a very bright or inspirational journalist here.

      April 1, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  20. kscholar

    I attend a Catholic high school and the religion course this year is Scripture & Social Justice. We literally just spent five months learning about the sources like P, D, and E and I am unsure why this man would not believe in them.... its ridiculous. It is not heretical or sacrilegious to believe that God works through many people in order to spread his message or that the Jews wrote their traditions and stories with pseudonyms. To me, this man is openly stating that he does not believe what facts and research show us about the Bible when obviously God meant for the Bible to be written this way. This article really has no business being on CNN unless all every uneducated person gets to share their spiel on the Bible...

    April 1, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Colin

      How can you seriously call a subject that assumes the existence of a sky fairy "academic". What's next, a course in how the Easter bunny hops?

      April 1, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • John

      Bible? Facts? These two words in the same sentence make me laugh hysterically.
      Ohhh it is April Fool's. Forgot about that.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • 1nd3p3nd3nt

      most intelligent people know that the easter bunny hops vertically one foot for every two feet he travels horizontally : )

      April 1, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Red

      Don't embarass me as a Christian any further, bro.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Red

      Don't embarass me as a Christian any further, scholar.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • C+

      I went to a jesuit college and took courses similar to those you are referring to. If you listen really close to the professor, or simply read the material, you realize that they are basing their conclusions of authorship on opinion. You can follow their "evidence" where ever it leads, but they always end up having to make their best guess, or, if they are really weak, they will say its true because the bible told them so.

      April 1, 2011 at 1:13 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.