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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. Pedro

    Moses wrote:
    Deu 31:22 Moses therefore wrote this song the same day, and taught it the children of Israel.
    Jos 8:32 And he wrote there upon the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he wrote in the presence of the children of Israel.
    Jhn 5:46 For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me.

    God inspiration:
    Exd 24:4 And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD, and rose up early in the morning, and builded an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel.
    Num 33:2 And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of the LORD: and these [are] their journeys according to their goings out.
    Deu 31:9 And Moses wrote this law, and delivered it unto the priests the sons of Levi, which bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and unto all the elders of Israel.

    Then the inportance is that God spoke .
    And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD.

    Exd 31:18 And he gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.
    Deu 9:10 And the LORD delivered unto me two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them [was written] according to all the words, which the LORD spake with you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly.

    But This He wrote by Him self in stone. Remenber?

    April 1, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  2. Nicholas

    I have two faults with what he said.
    The first was the line that faith gives his reason a moral bearing. This statement is saying that he would be a serial killer, thief, mass murderer, etc if he lost his faith, something I highly disbelieve
    My second fault is the claim that the work on dissecting the Bible is impossible. The Catholic church has been doing this for the past two thousand years and while their are faults in the system, there is an ability on the part of many to figure out specific authors. Peter Abelard in Sic et Non, a deeply religious man from the 11th and 12th centuries found conflicting passages in the bible and canon law and tried to find the "true" and "correct" one using only logic and reasoning. Even if scholars may not be truly able to know if the bible was written by x y or z or even which passages are truly the work of x y or z, just the fact that the passages are blatantly composed by different people should be enough to question the validity of the work. No one accepts the Iliad as the truth today even though it describes the same kind of magic that the old testament in particular is a fan of.
    Richard Dawkins has one of the best quotes,"We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." Believing in a god may make you feel better, but believing in the bible, which is continually being ignored, is an extremely scary prospect.
    If you truly want to have lived around 600 BCE, be my guest, but I'm positive the people back then would have probably scared you to death

    April 1, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  3. Derek

    Article makes sense to me. The Pentateuch is clearly an assembled/revised piece of work which has roots in oral tradition, but to assume there are only four 'authors/editors' is indeed silly. As the Jewish tradition was, there would have been far more than four people working on it. 'Scribes/Pharisees' or whatever they were called.

    So why does the comment area here become NOT about the article but rather about everyone's individual religious/antireligious agenda? Seriously, how old are we...

    April 1, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  4. Evan

    "I pity the fool who rejects Christ as Savior and finds out the hard way that the Bible is the inspired Word of God."
    I pity the fool who wastes his time on Earth believing in nonsense and wasting his life believing in fairy tales. The bible is full os mistakes and the church has been on the wrong side of scientific discovery forever! Living your whole life waiting until death to find out if you are right is pathetic. People living this way should be committed to an insane asylum.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • wordhungry

      William F. Albright – "There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of Old Testament traditions."

      April 1, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  5. Wm Ingold

    THE BIBLE!
    A fairy tale of stories written by people with shortness of knowledge AND
    little Intellect, conveying to the Ignorant.
    THIS IS STILL WORKING TODAY

    April 1, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • ryan

      Only by the grace of God.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  6. love righteousness

    Atheist love to troll.

    The living word is not BS
    Its a blueprint for living an abundant life and understanding what our God is like.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  7. everteta

    Would all the smug Christian haters be quite? We know what you think, and are not changing our convictions, so shut up.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • HowIsThisNews?

      Smite me.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • God Illusion

      Be quite what? Did you say "shut up" – not very christian of you – dissent and alternative views threaten you?

      April 1, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  8. untestableClaims

    "the thick atheistic excrement"
    more love from the christians.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  9. jon doe

    see Zeitgeist and watch out for the fallacy of prophecy...someone will make it happen, 2012,temple mt.Read R.A.Wilson and expand your reality tunnel...

    April 1, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Bill the Cat

      Zeitgeist was garbage. Plain and simple. The "Christ Myth" is nonsense.

      http://www.amazon.com/Shattering-Christ-James-Patrick-Holding/dp/1606472712

      April 1, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  10. untestableClaims

    "finds out the hard way that the Bible is the inspired Word of God."
    hey buddy, that's a threat.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:40 am |
  11. Upperhand

    I love how just mentioning the word bible stirs the thick atheistic excrement.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • HowIsThisNews?

      The Bible is a great story, but i doesn't belong on a NEWS site. maybe nunstoday.com but not CNN

      April 1, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Upperhand

      Gee, that's to bad...seems like CNN doesn't really care what atheists think.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • HowIsThisNews?

      no CNN is just here to spread fear and hate. there's no money to be made in peace.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  12. HowIsThisNews?

    The Bible.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Council_of_Nicaea

    April 1, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • HowIsThisNews?

      Putting together all the best parts of the story that works with what they want you be believe. Written by MAN to control MAN.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:41 am |
    • Bill the Cat

      The abomination of misinformation strikes again!!

      April 1, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • goingtoheavenforsure

      The Bible (from Greek τὰ βιβλία ta biblia "the books"), sometimes referred to as the Holy Bible, is the various collections of (sacred) scripture : From Wikipedia.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:28 am |
  13. untestableClaims

    it doesn't matter who wrote the bible.
    however, it does matter who believes the crap.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:39 am |
    • Upperhand

      Crap? Join the party you'll fit right in.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Chris

      so what do you believe

      April 1, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  14. rev.spike

    Hmmmmmm.... hmmmmmmmm. Hmmmmm. Ah! Eh? Hmmmm....

    April 1, 2011 at 9:39 am |
  15. Robert Holt

    God did not leave us without His Word. God gave us His Word – the Bible. He has revealed Himself to us through the Bible and through His Son Jesus (God the Son. The second Person of the Trinity) as expressed in the Bible. I pity the fool who rejects Christ as Savior and finds out the hard way that the Bible is the inspired Word of God.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Dude

      I suppose you even pity the Jewish writer of this blog post, right?

      April 1, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • margot707

      The key word is "inspired." Humans wrote the bible through their own inspirations and interpretations of the world around them. Some big hand didn't come down out of the clouds and put words on parchment.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  16. justcurious1

    I think the author makes some valid points, but with so much hanging on this issue and so little of the evidence mentioned here, it is misleading to resign to some kind of benign agnosticism–who knows and who cares as long as it helps? Anyone who really takes their religion seriously wants to know if it's true. I don't think it's academically responsible to simply mitigate the JEPD claims without also putting at least some mention of the growing academic sector that claims evidence for Mosaic authorship. I've done quite a bit of research on Pentateuchal authorship myself, and Mosaic authorship is at the very least a plausible option.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:38 am |
  17. hadeze

    no need for all of this. we know how a text is written... 3-4-5 versions, then someone else is consulted, changes are made. then, the editor or the scribe of the 2nd millenium Before Our Calendar gets a copy, expurges passages and so do all the scribes following him, changes and more changes. there never was an "original" text to start with – which one of the 3-4-5 versions would it have been? not the 1st, not the 5tth. if you have to believe in a higher power, believe in this: there are 200 billion suns in our galaxy (Milky Way) and your original copy is somewhere out there.... good luck.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • carl schmidtschmidt

      Love it !! Thank you some people are smart in here...

      April 1, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  18. J Green

    "I am a person of faith. But sometimes I like to step outside of faith and just think about things rationally."
    Those two sentences very nicely sum up the folly of religion.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • ryan

      So you classify all Christians with this editor? Your statement is completely naive.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • Mark

      "I am a person of mathematics. But sometimes I like to step outside of quantification and just think about things artistically."
      Does this then sum up the folly of education?

      April 1, 2011 at 9:59 am |
    • margot707

      ryan – The author of this article is Jewish. Why do you think his statement pertains to Christians? He says "religion" not "Christians." A little defensive, aren't you?

      April 1, 2011 at 10:03 am |
    • elgeevz

      They do indeed. People capable of believing whatever makes them happy really scare me.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  19. jenkins

    So many desperately need the Bible to NOT be true.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Ryan

      So, based on the story, we shouldn't read the Bible because it was written by different people. Using this logic, we also shouldn't read history books, The Iliad, or any book over one hundred years old because the contents aren't verifiable, right?

      April 1, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • dnfromge

      What?!? So many just don't care.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • soliman

      WE can not say the bible is not true, but if you know the romans later took an interest in it, then they surely modified it to fit their political needs to control people for their cause, while jesus taught peace and turn the other cheek, the romans turned it around to conquor and enslave

      I am sorry, but that is the truth. the bible has been altered by the romans.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • The Real Tom Paine

      @Ryan: its apparent you've never read a history book, or the Bible in any depth either. You are very good with knee-jerk reactions, but lousy on facts. I think you just don't like someone who thinks about the bible in terms other than what you are used to. Grow up.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  20. carl schmidtschmidt

    Here we go more of this book of wonder? This is not a book about a god ! This is a plan to control the people and make a lot of money at the same time !! Let's look at what this control manual has done for the earth. 90% of all wars are about some dam religion and still counting ! Terrorist bombings all over the earth in the name of some make believe all powerful god ! Crimes that go with out punishment but the man with the pointy hat will have a talk and straiten it out ! We all know what that's about ! A church that marched around the world and destroyed some of the most loving cultures ever in the name of what ! Time to grow up people there is no boogieman,tooth-fairy,ghost in the closest and no supper GOD ! If we just stopped all this nonsense we just might have a nice place to live. But humans are just to greedy and stupid to do that.

    April 1, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Ryan

      Evolution is the biggest attempt to control the people. Hitler, Stalin, Marx, Lenin, Pol Pot, Mao Tse-Tung, Kim Jong Il; all leaders who used Natural Selection and the phrase "There is no God, so get in line" to control their people. Yes most wars are about religion – they're about stupid Atheists trying to get rid of religion!

      April 1, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • Proud Atheist

      Totally agree. Only the non-thinking sheep follow these fairy tales.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:46 am |
    • ryan

      Do you really believe if there was no such thing as religion we would live peaceful lives? Your statement is completely rediculous.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Steven

      Nailed it in one! And Ryan, by the way, Hitler was a Catholic – as were all of the senior nazis. Athiests were gassed alongside Jews. Was that a war to get rid of religion? I don't think so.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • Seraphim0

      @Ryan- Might want to go take a look at some of the reasons for those wars you mentioned.

      @ryan- yes, actually. Morality is not dependant on religion. Community and wellbeing of those within it can exist in a state of balance and harmony without religion. Dont believe it? Look at groups of communal animals. They do just fine without religion.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • The Real Tom Paine

      Realy, Ryan? So wars are about atheists trying to impose their will? Was the pope who started the Crusades an atheist? The Thirty Years War, which left Germany depopulated, the English Civil War were all started by atheists? The Holocaust was started by a new Age Type, with the tacit support of the Catholic Church, the Armenian Holocaust by the Turks, the wars in the Balkans during the 90s ( which were supported by the Serbian Orthodox Church.) What about Northern Ireland( a good old Protestant/Catholic fued, or the Civil war in Lebanon between Christian and Moslem militias? Your statement has so many holes its ridiculous. Do a little reading before you post something so appallingly ingnorant. People like you are the reason many lose their faith.

      April 1, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • carl schmidtschmidt

      Hitler ( Roman Catholic ) Marx ( Jewish ) Lenin ( Jewish ) Pol Pot ( Crack Pot )

      April 1, 2011 at 9:55 am |
    • geauxLSUtigers

      .............here we go with people like you who ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY KNOW for a fact that their opinion that is correct. Here we go with the sad fact that there are people like you who criticize without even touching the book. Here we go, here we go............

      April 1, 2011 at 10:00 am |
    • Karen Neff

      I've actually thought about the war issue a lot lately. While on the surface it looks good that many if not most wars were fought over religion, I think the more accurate statement would be that wars were begun because of man's lust for power and religion was only the pretext used. The crusades, if my understanding is correct, came about because the Pope needed something to keep the faithful loyal and thus paying tributes to the church in Rome. Power, greed and ego probably have more to do with starting conflicts. Religious differences were only cover of convenience.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • carl schmidtschmidt

      Hey geauxl my uncle was a Presbyterian preacher in Calf and every Sunday I got my fill till I joined the military and woke up.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • geauxLSUtigers

      @ Carl- good. One day God will use that knowledge to work on your heart. Trust me, I used to be in your shoes. Deny, deny, deny – then I WOKE UP! 🙂 Have a great weekend and God bless you!

      April 1, 2011 at 11:26 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.