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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. Daisy

    Great article! It is nice to hear that someone can have faith in God, yet not have a belief that the Bible is 100 percent true. A struggle that has kept me out of every church I tried. The Bible is a great book and full of wisdom, but not infallible...it was written by man after all.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • JohnR

      The Bible may be full of a lot of things, but wisdom makes at best an occasional appearance on its pages.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  2. SeaTurt1e

    Joe said, "People are not flawless as the bible says, and people wrote the bible. People seem to think that the bible is not susceptible to corruption due to its content, Christians believe that the entire world has been corrupted by darkness and sin to the point where god needs to burn this entire world up, if the corruption has spread that bad what makes you think that the bible is 'magically' unblemished when all is said and done? Personally I don't have that much faith in people."

    Christians think it is 'magically' unblemished because it says so. Circular logic.

    Of course, if you accept that the Bible is God's Perfect Word filtered through the minds and pens of imperfect men, then the question still remains: which parts should we believe, and which parts should we not?

    April 1, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  3. timetothink1

    This progression of now taking emphasis off who wrote the books falls in line correctly with how understanding religious doctrine and creating dogma has been moving forward.

    Through rationalizing the realities of the situation, we collectively determine certain things to be true or likely- things that would have gotten us burned as heretics 500 years ago.

    It's not the argument of whether god exists or whether religion is true that interests an atheist, but the lack of willingness by the religious to participate in real conversation about how religion is organic and always changing. And simply if it is changing, then it shows an opposition to supposed past inherit truths. An opposition creating by pitting traditional beliefs with morally changing secular reasoning.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  4. Jim

    The people who wrote the bible are dead.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  5. George Greek

    The Bible, and ALL religious books, tomes, manuscripts, etc. were written by MORTAL MEN, not some imaginary, unproven, 'pie in the sky' deity!!! WAKE UP simpletons!!!

    April 1, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  6. Hunter

    Whats crazy is this,

    I think that anybody who claims to know the origins of this thing we call a universe, and this experience that we call existence, is pure crazy.

    Point blank...
    In my opinon, the crazy people are the peole who think they know,
    Or even worse, they believe that somebody else knows (pastors, preachers, rabbis, pope, etc..)

    I'm totally at peace with not knowing.
    In my opinion, that is the beauty of GOD (a.k.a. The unknown and unawnserable).
    Something so powerful and grand, its purely idioctic to even thnk that any human being would have an inkling of understanding.

    I don't need a book to make me believe in a God.

    I can simply open my eyes and use my senses to realize that we are int he midst of something absolutely amazing.
    And the people who think they know, is quite hilarious, and disturbing, all at the same time.

    Most people need religion because it allows them to not think. It allows you to say, oh God did it. Or God made it, or god will fix it.

    Religion gives people the blanket of comfort that they need in a world that is so vast that trying to comprehend it can literally shut the brain down.

    Sit back and imagine a human brain, as tiny as it is, claiming to have the answers to the entire world.

    As I said, the crazy people are those who think that they know.

    Im not an aethiest, I believe in a God, (Because all things have origins), but I dont ever pretend to know what God is.
    Nor will I ever need a book to convince of what God is. I

    April 1, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Always Right

      Correct in every detail!

      April 1, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  7. rick

    ryan...ryan...ryan, you just don't get it. Atheists are thinkers rather than believers or wishers or hopers or wanna-bes. Anyone that claims to talk to god is simply delusional. If a person uses reason instead of religion then why would he want to harm tiny innocent children????? To sodomize an innocent 7 year old child is just plain sick and disgusting. Admit it...... atheists just don't go there. Too busy with cosmology, astronomy, psychology, the arts and just your every day academics. We wish nobody any harm. Open your eyes to a world of fanatics of every religion torturing, abusing and causing misery to each other and plain laying waste to this land. This issue could and has gone on and on and on and on and on. Relax, take a deep breath and try and get a grip on life......and stay off that fox news channel. As an old and wise man once said, "that ole tunnel vision's a mutha". Take care all.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  8. Matthew

    April Fools!

    April 1, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  9. Meep

    Faith, due to it's very nature, is never reasonable.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  10. Stephen

    This is possibly the best post I have read on this religion blog. It is thoughtful and respectful of both sides of the debate. It is written with both reason and humility, which are not often found when discussing religion (both for and against it).

    April 1, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  11. MatterOfFact

    People are silly animals who believe in anything that suits their purpose. And that's why humans are so dangerous.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Head Loonie

      Including you, I suppose. Which begs the question about the veracity of your own beliefs about other people's beliefs, doesn't it?

      April 1, 2011 at 10:37 am |
  12. JohnR

    This author and his appalling "contribution" here is a good example of what's wrong with people who try to split the difference between faith and reason. Of course there will always be a "zone of unknowing" concerning who wrote and/or assembled and/or edited what passages of this old text. And the J, E, P, D theory may well be way off. But this bit of normal scientific skepticism means you should junk all serious scholarship and instead be "forever grateful to Moses" for a book that may have inspired some good, but which has also been used to justify atrocities? This guy is an embarrassment to the human race.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • CSmith

      You clearly didn't understand his point. His point is that, from a purely scientific standpoint, this reverse-editing of the Bible is complete bunk (these biblical scholars can't even agree on what parts of the Bible go together). Given that real science (not the I-want-a-grant hubris he talks about) is silent on the issue, that only leaves faith. Take it or leave it yourself, but it's the only even somewhat credible voice on the topic.

      I agree that his last paragraph is a problem. It does matter who wrote it. It's just that, since we can't really prove anything, it's an open question.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • JohnR

      I understand this fool perfectly. YOU fail to understand that one anecdote about what some editor did on the job does NOT stand as a refuation of several decades of scientific text analysis. And you also don't understand that EVEN IF the current "standard theory" re biblical authorship proves incorrect, that doesn't entail that one should go back to adopting the "single, divinely inspired" author thesis. Indeed, THAT is truly absurd.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  13. dave cole

    Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm Brothers wrote the bible!!!!!

    April 1, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  14. Doc Vestibule

    Faith is not a virtue.
    Faith is belief in a proposition despite a lack of evidence. It is the willing cessation of rational inquiry. It is intellectual apathy.
    The advancement of humanity depends on questioning authority and rejecting dogma.
    The great trouble with religion – any religion – is that a religionist, having accepted certain propositions by faith, cannot thereafter judge those propositions by evidence. One may bask at the warm fire of faith or choose to live in the bleak certainty of reason- but one cannot have both.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • CSmith

      Your ignorance is appalling, especially considering it's directly contradicted by the article you're commenting on. Faith means so much belief in something unproven that you are willing to act on the belief, even to the point of risk. What it does not mean is the cessation of trying to validate that belief. Quite to the contrary, Christians (not sure about other religions) are encouraged to question what we read and compare and contrast the teachings of the Bible with what we know.

      Long experience in this field has taught me that any contradictions between them are most likely due to a mistake in understanding something. After all, what we're really comparing is our (faulty) understanding of the Bible to our (faulty) understanding of the Universe. Take Genesis, for example. The Bible says the universe was created in 6 days, while Cosmology says it took 13+ billion years. Obviously they can't both be right. Except that they can. At the same time. Thanks to modern relativistic physics, we know that time isn't constant, and that 6 days in one time frame can be the same length of time as billions of years in another. In fact, in the most extreme transition away from our frame of reference possible, the beginning of the universe (REALLY slow time) sees all of creation from then to now as taking only 6 days. Perhaps God looked forward to write Genesis Chapter 1, while we look backward to write Cosmology 101. A direct contradiction is completely undone through a simple paradigm shift.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:42 am |
  15. AMM

    The revelations that Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Muhammad and other prophets (peace be on them all) received were from God - meaning the revelatons were not man made. The preservation was another thing. Many parts of the Bible (old and the new both) still contain the words of God. The Quran (in Arabic) is fully intact – the translations in other languages may vary a little.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • JohnR

      Nope.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:30 am |
    • Glenc

      For the Quaran to stay pure you must resist the temptation to translate it into local languages. I see this in Christianity all the time. Every year there is a new "hipper" more "down with the people" translations that have turned the Bible into a comic book. Stick with the Quaran in Arabic. I read Torah in Hebrew and the New Testament books in Latin (though they were written in Aramaic. It provides a much greater depth into the truth of faith.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  16. McLuhan

    If Jesus was a Carpenter, where is the Math? There's not one equation in the Bible! The ancient Greeks are why anyone is able to blog on this site, yet they offer everything to a fictional book that wasn't even put together for nearly four hundred years after the death of Jesus. What four hundred year old anything would you trust today?

    April 1, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  17. Glenc

    The Torah is the dictate of God to Moses in the wilderness. Without that absolute bedrock 4 great religions are in jeopardy.
    The rest is of little to no importance who wrote them. As a person of Christian faith I focus my reading on Torah, the book of Mark, the book of Acts and the Revaluation. The rest are nice books (except for the letters of Paul which I do not read) but I base my faith on these bed rocks.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Mike

      4 "GREAT" RELIGIONS??? ALL RELIGIONS ARE EVIL AND DESTRUCTIVE AND SHOULD BE BANNED FROM THE FACE OF THE EARTH!!!

      April 1, 2011 at 10:25 am |
    • pourquoi pas

      Revaluation seems about right.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  18. MatterOfFact

    Belief is only belief.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • McLuhan

      We should be worshipping the electron. We put our faith in it and it actually works!

      April 1, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Don Camp

      Let's imagine all the things you can not do without faith. You can't drink a cup of Starbucks because you don't KNOW is is not poison. And. . . . Well, that's probably the only one that matters. 🙂 But if it matters, you wouldn't bother going to work today because you do not know if you'll be paid. You can't gas up your gas because you don't know if the pump will actually deliver gasoline. Etc. These are trivial, but the fact is we all live believing a bunch of stuff without actual concrete proof. So maybe go easy on faith, your skepticism will turn and bite you.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:40 am |
    • Blaqb0x

      @ Don Camp,

      Of course, one can't have 100% proof of anything but, you don't need 100% 70% or above is reasonable.
      You examples ignore that fact that we typically base our confidence in something based on our experiences. If someone says jumping off a six story building is safe I would disagree because I know anything that falls from six stories get smashed from experience. however, "faith and belief" can only make it more likely to ignore that fact.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Dorianmode

      Problem with that is no one knows what an electron is. It is said to have a "negative:charge", but no one really knows what that means, except it appears to be opposite the proton's charge. Is it something inherent to the particle, or something that the particle does to the space around it ? The fact that the lights appear to be on in this room seems to be evidence that the concept is valid. I put a little faith in it, but the concept will no doubt be refined a lot in years to come, and until then I think I won't be putting my "faith" in it. But your point is well taken, and I agree it makes a lot more sense to believe in what we have evidence for.

      April 1, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  19. SH

    Whoever wrote the Bible, THEY managed to brainwash people who wouldn't even be born for thousands of years later. They managed to subvert reason, progress and peace for millennia to come.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Mike

      I couldn't have said it any better myself!!! RIGHT ON!!

      April 1, 2011 at 10:23 am |
    • Krreagan

      A true definition of evil if there ever was one!

      April 1, 2011 at 10:27 am |
    • Blaqb0x

      I doubt that was their intentions but, it sure turned out that way. sad. 🙁

      April 1, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  20. all of you all dont know the real truth!!!!

    ALLL OF YOU ARE SO WRONG .......THE JESUS STORY CAME FROM ANCIENT EGYPT ........WHY IS IT SO HARD TO GIVE THE ETHIOPIANS THEIR PROPS AS THE RULERS OF THE EARTH ......UP UNTIL IT WAS TAKEN BY FORCE .......WE ALREADY HAD A MOSES STORY LINE JESUS,AND MANY PROPHETS THAT YOU ALLL ADORE WERE ALL BLACK ........IF YOU DONT BELIEVE ME GO TO ANCIENT EGYPT LOOK AT TEH PYRAMIDS AND SEE 4 URSELF........THIS HYSTORY WHICH I MAY ADD IS IN STONE VERSUS YOUR HISTORY WHICH HAVE NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO ARCHAELOGICAL FACTS NONE.......ANCIENT KEMIT DATES BACK OVER 40-90 THOUSAND YEARS AGO .......WHILE THE MASSES ONLY CAN GO BACK A FEW THOUSAND YEARS ......WE ALREADY CONQUERED THE WORLD AN SHARED KNOWLEDGE WITH THE EARTH ...AND WAS BETRAYED BY OUR OWN KINDNESS.......YOU CAN SAY WHATEVER ........JUST CHECK HISTORY~~!

    April 1, 2011 at 10:18 am |
    • Odie Colognie

      You are such a racist ! Who cares. Have you never heard about Mitochondrial Eve? Every human on the face of this planet is genetically related to an African woman, whom they call Mitochondrial Eve. It's been proven by DNA. We are all almost completely identical, genetically, and related through her. So who gives a rip about your racist nonsense. We are all the same.
      Are you ever going to stop "shouting" with you "caps lock" ? Do you know what that even means ? Are you afraid no one will read your rants ?

      April 1, 2011 at 2:11 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.