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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. LBCSongbird

    It matters very much who wrote the Bible. The Bible is the inspired word of God. And just because you don't believe in God or Satan doesn't mean it isn't true.

    Consider this: If the Atheists are right and Christianity is wrong, I'll never know and when I die, I will have lost nothing. But if the true Christians are right and the Atheists are wrong, when they die they will have lost everything..... for eternity.

    April 3, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • Magic

      LBCSongbird,

      Classic Pascal's Wager - it has been refuted to bits.

      What if you have chosen the wrong "God". What if the real one (Allah, Zeus, Ra, etc.) is very jealous and punishes you forever?

      What if the real "God" is really annoyed with your self-serving praise and worship and smites you?

      What if the real "God" sees that you are just covering your azz with this gamble?

      What if the real "God" prefers people who use their brains and figure out life for themselves, not living by supersti.tions?

      April 3, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
    • Right On Bye

      I think its that last one, but unfortunately we don't all have the same brains or have lived the same experiences or grew up in the same culture. So I think that compassion and understanding thing in many religions and outside as well, should be stressed a bunch.

      April 3, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  2. DC

    Yo Bill Maher, you gotta have an input on this right?!

    April 3, 2011 at 4:33 am |
  3. DC

    Oh you definitely have to honor history and it absolutely depends on the situation:

    If you want to bring man's ability and inherent EGO to the equation, you will definitely have to honor the source.
    Hey, a Man/kind will have a tendency to say which religion is better than the other: Look at all the damn wars now and throughout history in which wars were started by, "my religion is better than yours!" in a very unfavorable way.
    With EGO involved and in a favorable way, it would have to make sense and be very clear that the finding father/s of the source of all religion may have come from one source so that at least respect could be shown for the source and maybe wars will be at least reduced for the future or any wars based on religion will be eliminated.

    Take out the EGO of mankind and yeah, I definitely agree:
    As long as good people are walking around the world and believing in their freedom for faith and religion, people have a choice to believe whichever GOD or NO GOD they want to believe in.

    Do ya know what I mean? Are you gettin' what I'm sayin'?

    April 3, 2011 at 4:31 am |
  4. Frederica

    The Bible is written by God. Mankind is destined to eternal hell according to the conduct. Salvation is possible by repentance and accepting the atonement of Divine Savior Jesus.

    April 3, 2011 at 3:44 am |
  5. clnbailey

    Who cares who wrote the Bible? Does it really matter? Just because we don't know who exactly wrote it doesn't me we can't try to to form our entire Nation's beliefs around it. We shouldn't we pass laws that adhere strictly to the words that are written by anonymous authors, regardless if they infringe on the individual liberty this country was supposedly "based on". It's a good story and if you don't like it, then you can just go live in some other country. We don't put up with people who don't subscribe to what's written in the book here in America.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:38 am |
    • Right On Bye

      Wow again.

      April 3, 2011 at 3:03 am |
  6. Fuyuko

    Of course it matters who wrote the bible.

    April 3, 2011 at 1:09 am |
  7. A LIVING LEGEND!!!

    George Washington wrote it on hemp after he chopped down the Apple tree that Adam & Eve ate from.Washington was a true pawtucket pat patriot who who was general of the yankees during the crusades who defeated New England and won the gold rush. He did however lose all his teeth due to his daily habit of smoking crystal m3th.

    April 3, 2011 at 12:39 am |
    • Right On Bye

      Have another puff or two.

      April 3, 2011 at 3:00 am |
  8. william

    your intellectual process has decieved you- it matters a great deal who wrote the Bible. It was written by the hand of God through faithfull men and women.
    In it is the message and way of LIFE – not earthly life only but a preparedness for eternity.

    April 2, 2011 at 11:05 pm |
    • Reality

      Again, the 1.5 million Conservative Jews and their rabbis are way ahead of David Hazony. No mention of this 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.

      ///////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////

      April 3, 2011 at 12:09 am |
  9. stevie

    Freud called religion "a mental illness". We see evidence of that everyday. Keep you invisible friends to yourself. I don't need to
    hang a voodoo doll (crucifix) on my wall to be a good person. Whatever good there is in religion, can be had without it. Teach
    ethics, instead. Grow up.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
    • Army gal

      Much of Freud's philosophies and thoughts have been discredited. C'mon- the electra complex, and women wanting to have certain male parts? Freud seemed to have a very low opinion of women. Would never take him as any kind of authority, much less religious.

      Truthfully, without religion, what is the point of ethics? Where does a conscience come from? What's in it for me to help my fellow man?

      April 2, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
    • Maybe

      Army Gal,
      "Where does a conscience come from? What's in it for me to help my fellow man?"

      Ok, we'll keep religion for the under 80 IQ bunch who couldn't possibly figure that out.

      April 2, 2011 at 11:26 pm |
    • Right On Bye

      Maybe: and we'll only keep the ritualistic superst-i-tious ideas about what religion is for the 80 – 100 IQ group like you. Wow. Sorry about that. Insults don't feel as good as the look if you have the brains enough to know better.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:57 am |
  10. Nodack

    All religions are man made cults designed to control other men through the use of fear. You are gullible sheep. Stay away from me and my family please.

    April 2, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Right On Bye

      Only the organized ones. Think for yourself and learn what you can.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:52 am |
  11. Larry

    To much for me!

    April 2, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
    • Right On Bye

      Take what you need.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:49 am |
    • Right On Bye

      Larry: You only need to take what you need.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:51 am |
  12. LoneZero

    @God is All aaahh

    "No one should be made to believe things that don't make sense. But if someone wrote something that doesn't seem to make sense, trying to understand why, and why others thought it was important, has its values too"

    Yes that's true =)I didn't mean to make it sound so only negative cause it's not, there are a lot of meaningful life lessons within with imporants.

    The Bible has it share of good and bad it's not perfect.

    Did you see how easy it was to use Ephesians 6:5-9 and spin it out of context so easily? Christian Slaveholders in the South during the Civil War did too.

    What about Corinthians 14:34-36 and Timothy 2:11-15 on woman's treatment? Christian men and some churches against woman's rights used those on soapbox too.

    That's the point I was attempting to make. An all knowing, powerful, forgiving, and loving God shouldn't allow something like that to exist in his word. It should be crystal clear, direct, where it cannot be taken out of context or spinned into something else. It is what it is.

    The Bible can be used at you're will, can be taken it out of context, and can be spinned to how you see fit (westboro?). That's not right. Full of human fault and human error.

    Another question I have is why would slavery and the ways to treat slaves and woman's treatment so harshly even be in Bible? Why would God want that to ever take place? He loves all of us. Doesn't it sound more like men using their superiority at the time to say what they think is right and use the word of God as justification for their actions? What about a need for a Hell? That doesn't sound like something an all loving, forgiving, knowing, and powerful God who loves all his children equally and only would want what is best for each one would allow his children to suffer in any way. Why a need for a Hell then? He created all of us? Why punished what you design?

    To me, in my opinion, The Bible just sounds too much like the words of man for man, writing it down as he see's fit and using God to justify the text. It's a great mystery, who wrote The Bible? It should be challenged and discovered.

    April 2, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
    • Right On Bye

      Like God I come in many names. God is All ahhh, Bless my Scroll, and others above. You may want to check them out.

      I understand where you're coming from I think, but we make the mistake of deciding what is good and evil when we really have no capacity to understand what is and isn't in the larger picture, We're only very small parts of God, not the central point of existence to anyone or anything but ourself, so we can only speak from our own experience.

      The Bible is often written for men of its times, though there is timeless wisdom in lots of it. It should have been allowed to continue growing, so the issues you mention would have been adequately dealt with, for each time as situations evolved. I think that was what Mohammed was inspired to do, and others before and after as well.

      That's why I also give God a little more credit and look for God's Logic (Logos in Greek also means logic not Word as the translators chose) in other religious books, music, nature, science and even popular song lyrics that sometimes might not seem to have a religious theme. I remember being told that the bible book the Song of Solomon, a somewhat errotic love poem, was supposedly poetically expressing an allegorical or metaphorical description of love for God. I realized that the same can be done with many other popular song lyrics in popular culture, at least those from the 60's and 70's and probably later as well. It was then and learning about the parables and their hidden meanings that I realized the bible is not as literal as the fundementalists want you to believe and that knowledege of the times it was written in and the history around it also helps.

      The literalism probably came about erroneously because the Catholic Church at first didn't want people reading the Bible and then when the people had it, the Protestants made an idol of it, which I think was not intended.

      I know I get a lot of jaw dropping responses to my posts sometimes, but I think that's because so many have been unnecesssarily restricted in their religious searches that they can't step outside the box or book and see God in anyway other than what mommy and daddy made them think of it. I desperately wish I could have my parents understand as well, but I won't return to such a lack of knowledge to make others happy, because that only causes further harm.

      Unfortunately there will alway be different interpretatations and i think that is because everyone is not on the same spiritual level and therefore requiring different thoughts and methods (an answer to your question as to why it just can't be clearer). The key is to work out something that works for you and yours with a good heart behind it. Sometimes its a lonely road, but I'd rather be on the right one for me and mine that will help them more in the future, than being dragged down some other road for someone else's benefit that will just leave more confusion.

      Thanks for responding in a more considerate manor than I sometimes get. To be fair though I sometimes try to pick and prod others too, to try and get thoughts moving more.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:45 am |
  13. Moonflame

    End literal Bible belief. Stop the hate. Stop believing literally that those who do not believe are eternally burned forever or murdered (i.e. Hell). Stop it.

    April 2, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  14. Willow

    Until religious leaders stop claiming that those who do not believe literally in the Bible are tortured or murdered (i.e. Hell), it does matter who wrote the Bible.

    Stop claiming that it does not. Stop literall Hell belief.

    April 2, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  15. Charley

    Head

    April 2, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
  16. robert

    Ass

    April 2, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  17. A moral athiest

    To answer your question as posited in your closing sentence – no. You and others may consider it 'stupendously important', but it hardly has the hammerlock on good ideas, and frankly if your soul is so sterile that you have to have some omnipotent (and fairly sadistic) diety rule your life via the scibblings of a series of semieducated and completely culturally landlocked people who were 'divinely inspired' over the millenia, I truly feel sorry for you. I will also stay as far from you as I can, since people of such conviction have a bad habit of slaughtering the heretics periodically. Really, 'thou shalt not kill' is a revelation that only a god could present? Seriously? If faith is the cost of salvation, I'll take hell, or whatever the Jewish (or whatever) equivalent is – god wont event have to judge me, I'll walk there myself, thanks.

    April 2, 2011 at 7:41 pm |
    • Glenn

      What an interesting position? What have you got against faith?

      April 3, 2011 at 2:05 am |
    • n3kit

      Jupiter has better use taking in those comets and meteors that might otherwise have hit you. Animals afford men to live physically, so do trees. If you make men believe you will walk to hell, what benefit is that to men? It follows, Jupiter, the animals, and the trees are better than you. Your words are no good.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:19 am |
    • elgeevz

      I think that it was Mark Twain who defined faith as " believing in something that you know ain't so." I'm afraid of people capable of believing anything that makes them happy.

      April 3, 2011 at 7:17 am |
    • VAL89

      My sentiments exactly, you sir are wise. No deity needs to tell me wrong from right.

      April 3, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • Glenn

      @elgeevz that is an interesting quote. As I read it I wondered if a person really knew something was not true or not then no faith is required they would just know. However it is the really knowing part that is difficult. No one has proof one way or the other about the existence or not of God, evidence possibly but proof, no. I simply offer that we all have faith in something.

      April 3, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  18. Chaplain John

    Yes, it does matter who wrote the Bible. If men alone wrote it, there is no room for God. If men, under the divine influence of God, wrote it then what it says comes directly from God. If men alone, the Bible has no more moral credence than "Atlas Shrugged". If God, then the Bible is the Operator's Manual for life. If you seriously believe that it does not matter who wrote the Bible, then there is no room in your life for either God or faith. There is room for both in mine.

    April 2, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
  19. donald Headley

    Hi,Sorry, but the authors of the Bible are many and most of them have an aramaic or hebraic background. With regard to the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, that text, as marvelous as it is, certainly went through countless editorial revisions dependent on the times the editors themselves were living, which of so many empires was oppressing them at the moment, etc. So, sorry, my friend, but the Bible is surely God's Word, but that is a mere reflection of the God who dares to be revealed in the everyday events of human history. And unlike the belief of Muslims in their Quran, we have a lot of historic people who have dipped their pens to write that Word's cloak of poetry, myth, legend, history and theology. God is great and we are just God's folk.

    April 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  20. planetxx

    Satan's got a stranglehold on you! It matters don't be decieved

    April 2, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • mmi16

      The Bible was written by mankind, it was edited by mankind and was published by mankind to be read by mankind.

      April 3, 2011 at 1:30 am |
    • stubbycat

      Tell me, sweetcheeks, which is greater, Satan or the god who made him?

      April 3, 2011 at 1:33 am |
    • n3kit

      Dont be so quick to judge. He steps out of his faith and writes it doesnt matter who wrote the bible. He just needs to step right back into his faith and realize it does. Honor to whom honor is due. Why, this author had his name written in the article, I guess he wants himself to matter. His take for his glory not necessarily God's.

      April 3, 2011 at 2:50 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.