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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. all of you all dont know the real truth!!!!

    FOOOLISH PEOPLE BLACKS STARTED THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    April 1, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  2. Charles

    I often wonder how people are so eager to believe that man landed on the Moon but they are so sure that the Bible is a fairy tale. I find the concept of just oral tradition a little bit unbelievable. Many cultures have written records back to before 5 BC. The Koreans for instance were almost anal in their need to have records of everything and everybody.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  3. Jose Herrera

    People will believe anything nowadays. My opinion: is it does matter who wrote the bible in the first place. Human's can think their writing's or thoughts of faith or whatnot is " Okay" but never compare "GOD's" first book of the bible to others in the modern days.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  4. Gary S.

    I'm not sold on the idea of any organised religion...however, I do believe that organized faiths throughout history, including Christianity are responsible for bloodshed against those who don't accept the doctrine. On the positive side, The Bible, as well as many other religious texts provide true words to live by. Human kindness, love and compassion as well as moral guidelines that form the basis of our laws. That being said, it's unfortunate that too often, self-professed religious leaders fail to live by their own teachings and twist the written word to meet their personal agendas. Peace and Love to all...

    April 1, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • biggins

      well said.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  5. ironau

    I'm devoutly agnostic, as ironic as that phrase seems. The ultimate point is that it really doesn't matter who wrote what when. The morals are still valid and the morals are transmitted regardless of the details. The fundamentalist view that the text is word for word unequivocally correct is what needs to be and should be challenged, not the morals that are taught.

    If you look across many religions both monotheistic of polytheistic; you will see the same morals taught many many ways. It is these common morals that are the true nuggets of worth. By divine providence Humanity has determined the same the same moral across multiple cultures. These common morals to me are what are divinely inspired not the text in any book.

    Since humans run every religion in the world, there will be translations to purposely slant the teachings for the providing "divine" support to a specific human desire. I don't have faith in any specific religion but I can see clear divine providence in the commonality that exists in all of humanities many religions.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  6. BeHonestWithyourself

    If you have a $10000 worth computer and if something goes wrong it and then if i give you a manual(AUTHOR UNKNOWN and a few things in the manual does not make sense just like bible) to fix it. will you try fixing the computer based on the manual ? Every human beings Life is worth more than $10000. GOD is not the author of confusion.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  7. all of you all dont know the real truth!!!!

    LOLOLOLOL YOU KNOW WHAT IS SO FUNNY NONE OF YOU WANT TO ADMIT THAT EUROPEANS HAD NO CULTURE NO WAY OF LIFE OTHER THAN IN CAVES.......NOONE WANTS TO ADMIT THAT THE ETHIOPIAN BLACK RACE WAS A GREAT RACE THAT CREATED MOST OF YOUR SO CALL GREEK THINKING AND PHILOSOPHIES....LOLOLOLOLOL JUST GIVE IT UP TO THE BLACK MAN AS THE FATHERS OF TEH EARTH ..........WHOM I MIGHT SAY HAS THE OLDEST BONE TO BE FOUND DATING BEYOND UHMMM SUMERIANS .......LOLOLOLOL UP TIL NOW WE STILL LIVE IN THIS RACIST WORLD.......ITS ONLY A MATTER OF TIME THE TABLES WILL TURN WATCH AND SEE

    April 1, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • Odie Colognie

      Could you please keep it down. Shouting is not polite, to say nothing about your horrible use of the English language. We take it for what it's worth, and when it's presented like this well,........."clixk". Bubye.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:52 am |
    • Robert

      Well, if you say it in all caps it has to be true.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  8. SeaTurt1e

    Ryan, you are incapable of someone believing something different than you (or nothing at all) can be a good person. Instead, you believe that atheists are all pedophiles. First of all, you're incredibly wrong and self-deluded. Second of all, if the only thing that keeps people in line is 1) fear of hell and 2) hope of heaven, then how can you say people are good at all? Who is a better person? Someone who helps another only because he thinks it will help him get to heaven or stay out of hell, or someone who does good deeds without expecting any kind of punishment or reward beyond the grave?

    Atheists don't have a problem with God; how can they, if they don't believe he exists? They have a problem with the narrow-minded fairy tale believers who claim to speak for Him.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  9. Justin

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

    Great unintentional comedy! Why wouldn't you ALWAYS think about things rationally??? You people are hilarious.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:33 am |
    • JNN

      The irony here is that you believe rationality is superior to faith, and yet you lack the basic human decency to respect the opinions of other people. Hilarious.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  10. ecnav

    "Usually this oscillation between faith and skepticism serves me well ..." Opinions are like ... everyone has one and they usually stink.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  11. Mk

    No, it is not enough. This book is taken as gospel, incredible claims require incredible proof.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • Ryan

      Anyone who is complaining about contradictions in the Bible – read "The Case for Christ" and "The Case for Faith". It explains the contradictions, of which none have to do with taking it out of context.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  12. chuck

    @Kevin – Live as you please. But, before you go – could you list some of those contradictions – I've been studying the Bible for over 20 years and haven't found one - but, people that don't study it always tell me it full of them.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Tommas

      Don't have to go far into the mythology. Try genesis and the order in which animals and humans were made.

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

      Then you are not reading the bible very well.
      First, Jesus is god right? God knows everything right? Well then why did jesus inncorrectly predict when he would return?
      Second, Murder is a sin correct? Well god murdered people in the flood.. actually he murdered the earths population according to the bible. So wouldnt that make god i sinner?
      If god is a sinner then he is not perfect.. and also not a god.
      I could name more but i think proveing (by using the "word of god" that god is not in fact a perfect god is good enough....

      April 1, 2011 at 10:41 am |
    • biggins

      can god be seen?

      yes-
      "And I will take away my hand, and thou shalt see my backparts." (EXO 33:23)
      "And the Lord spake to Moses face to face, as a man speaketh to his friend." (EXO 33:11)
      "For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved." (GEN 32:30)

      No-
      "No man hath seen God at any time." (JOH 1:18)
      "And he said, Thou canst not see my face; for there shall no man see me and live." (EXO 33:20)
      "Whom no man hath seen nor can see." (1TIM 6:16)

      "but your taking it out of context blah blah blah".... shut up

      April 1, 2011 at 10:42 am |
    • Odie Colognie

      You need to read you some Bart Ehrman. He discusses hundredes, if not more, contradictions. Start with "Jesus Interrupted".

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

      Thank you, I was beginning to think there was no one out there that believes Bible is the true inspired Word of God, that people are now rejecting for the comforts of the world. But it will all end and all will face the Judgement of God, and then you will know that all you rejected was in error. We all need to wake up!
      There are NO CONTRADICTIONS in the Word of God.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  13. davej

    Read Exodus 20-31 and then tell me that you can believe it. If you can then you are absolutely nuts and deserve a straitjacket and a rubber room, because it is completely and utterly ridiculous.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:31 am |
    • Ryan

      Go to any inner city and read out loud the chapter in the Origin of Species about the ascent of man and see if you live past the part about how colored are between chimpanzees and neanderthals on the evolutionary ladder.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Maybe

      Ryan,

      The difference is - science's search for facts did not STOP with Darwin's book.

      April 1, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
  14. Cody

    You need a book that says contradicting things written 2,000 years ago by who-knows-who to give you morals? lawl

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

      You think you can be moral without the Bible, which is a fair opinion, but you should know that the Bible is the foundation of human morality. (Obviously, if you read it, you'll find some passages that are immoral, but as a whole, it certainly trends toward morality) If you read the Bible, you'll know that it was written at a time when everyone practiced idol worship, human sacrifice, etc. Perhaps morality would've come about in some other way, but just know where the concept of morality came from.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  15. George Greek

    JESUS IS COMING... LOOK BUSY!

    April 1, 2011 at 10:30 am |
  16. EMERSE

    A.Quoting the bibles is hardly meaningful in comments on an artical about who wrote the bible. buh. B. We as humans can't even keep our verbal story straight for one year. So to say that I should base my whole life on the words of gullible people who lived in a time when humans were even less intelligent as they are today is ludacris! Most humans in B.C did not know the earth was round! Stop! Don't throw Moses with his hanging earth or Isaiah 40:22 at me because I know the bible. However, the bible was written in symbols and we have lost the meaning of a lot of those symbols throughout the years so I am sure that a good amount of the bible is inaccurate. I for one will not consider inaccurate information to be the conerstone for my life style.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  17. SteveW928

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

    Major problem already in the first two sentences?!?!?! Why would one have to 'step outside' of faith to think rationally? Seems like the author doesn't understand what faith is. Faith is a trust in something or someone based on the historical evidence of your relationship with the thing or one. For example, I have faith that a chair I see in a room I enter is safe to sit on, because my history with chairs tells me that they are generally constructed to do so. I have faith that my wife loves me because all her behaviors and actions are consistent with that. It is completely rational for me to do either, though I can't be completely sure of either. That is faith! (Should I have faith this author is worth reading if he already messed up this early on?)

    April 1, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Tommas

      You can test if a chair is real or ask your wife if she loves you, that is not "faith" as it is defined by a theist. ie believe what someone else tells you with NO proof whatsoever.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:36 am |
    • SteveW928

      @ Tommas –

      Why would you say the theist has no proof? (I suppose we'd better define 'proof.') That's what the whole discipline of apologetics is about. There is TONS of evidence. In fact I'd say much more in support of, than opposed to theism.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:43 am |
    • think4yrself

      I have faith that if I continue to purchase a lottery ticket every week, I will win the jackpot before I die. Where are the facts surrounding that statement?

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

      No, his analysis of faith is correct. Faith = Delusion. That seems harsh but both are belief in something despite no evidence, including experiential evidence. You have experience with your wife and with chairs in general, you have no "scientific" experience with god. He is correct, and brave for saying there is a difference. But he fails in that he thinks he is using his reason, to justify his faith, those are the mutually incompatible aspects here.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • think4yrself

      If there was sufficient evidence to prove one religion over another, then everyone would have the same religion. The FACT is that there is no evidence to prove that one's religious beliefs are correct or superior to another's. People base the Bible as thier proof. Mormons have the book of Mormon. They swear by that book the same as other Christians do the Bible, but Christians have no faith that the Book of Mormon is factual. Muslims have the Quran. Chistians also do not have "faith" in these texts. Instead they have faith that what is written in the Bible is fact. Words are not proof. Even words that say it was witnessed by millions of people who are now dead

      April 1, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • dangin

      Stevew928, there is no proof. None. If there is proof, there is no faith. If you have proof of Jesus, you have no faith in Jesus. Faith is weakened (destroyed) by proof. Faith is strengthened by lack of proof.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  18. HOLY SPIRIT

    OH HOLY SPIRIT !!!! TOUCH THIS LIFES ........PRAY FOR EACH AND ONE OF YOU .

    April 1, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • John

      Can I report abuse of the English language?

      April 1, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  19. Marvel

    With the translation of the Sumerian text that existed thousands of years before anyone related to the Bible existed, it appears the Hebrew text is flat out plagerism of the Sumerian historical account of creation, the great flood, Edin, etc. The names were changed to suit the Hebrew Culture but the abbreviated stories originated with the Sumerian.

    Does it matter? Can this obvious fraud be reconcilled for future Christians? Can we still have the Christ without the Hebrew?

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

      That's not what plagiarism is. Let's say (for the sake of argument, and due to my own ignorance) that the stories you mention match up exactly with Biblical accounts. It would only be plagiarism if the Bible writers claimed the text as their own. In the books we're talking about, they don't. (This is also laying aside the faith question of whether the writers who name themselves are even taking credit at all by doing so, or whether– as Timothy writes in 2 Timothy 3:16, it is all inspired by God and attributable indirectly to Him.)

      April 1, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  20. Science Rules

    Bible a nice book of fiction. Nothing with religion is real. Has never been, never will be.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:28 am |
    • George Greek

      EXACTLY!

      April 1, 2011 at 10:32 am |
    • JNN

      You probably think that by calling the Bible completely false, you're being open minded.

      But in reality, there's no evidence for or against the validity of the Bible, so by calling it false, you're actually being close-minded.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • Flawed Science

      Science books – Interesting theories based on a lot of assumptions tied very loosely to facts, yet considered factual until another "scientist" proves it wrong. I don't have a problem with that. I just think they shouldn't declare things like evolution a fact. It should be their "best plausible explanation" (aka THEORY). Remember, "experts" declared the world was flat once and LAUGHED at anyone who could possibly think it was round....duh....how could anyone possibly stand on the bottom...surely you'd fall off - All you stupid Round Earthers.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:50 am |
    • Rational Believer

      Oh really. Lol. Here's a challenge for you. Go to you tube. Put in Chuck Missler learning the bible in 24 hours. Then see if you still think the bible is a work of fiction. lol

      April 1, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Adrian

      What're you, on a sports team or something?

      April 1, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
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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.