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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. RickInLA

    Only a person of "faith" can continue to ignore the facts and keep their head firmly rooted in their butt. It's a free country (HA!) and I suppose it's his right to ignore all of the scholars who've been researching this for over a hundred years, however, isn't it time to start taking off the blinders instead of finding ignorant excuses to keep them on? Not only the Old testament is full of errors and contradictions but the New Testament is also full of forgeries. Doubt this? Read Bart Erhman's new book "Forgery". I'm thankful someone had the integrety to call it what it is. Forgeries, half-truths, out-right lies and deception. If the Bible is holy then so is Gone With the Wind or any other piece of fiction of your choosing.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:55 am |
  2. krashundburn

    """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"""

    This really says it all, folks. This "stupendously important book" – quite frankly – confuses the hell out of its intended audience.

    Not exactly what I would expect from an omniscient, omnipotent god with an important message to convey to all mankind.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • Steve

      THat's the thing...why would people on their own have written it like this...showing their own errors and doubts, etc. Could it be we are missing something, and in coming to the scripture with our personal prejudices we miss it, because we haven't even allowed for acceptance of the message contained therein?

      April 1, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • krashundburn

      """Could it be we are missing something"""

      We ARE kinda dumb. Maybe god should have made it just a LITTLE easier for us to understand, eh?

      April 1, 2011 at 1:25 pm |
  3. Writewurds

    It took a long time for me to admit I am an atheist. The reason; social conditioning from my peers and my community taught me it would be an unforgivable sin. Why have I joyfully, and with much peace of mind, come to embrace atheism; because I've read the Bible (New and Old Testament) many times over and find it to be illogical and in gross error. Additionally, I've found the historical and local community practice of Christianity to lack any consistent and verifiable proof of the existence God or his ability to intervene in our lives. This is not the case with my study of science, math, anthropology, archeology, etc... Everyday these studies become more concise and trustworthy. They enlighten the world and bring progress, health, wealth, and peace. The scriptures, whether you choice the Qur'an, the Bible, The Book of Mormon, or whatever, bring confusion, strife, hatred, war, death, injustice, inequity, and ignorance. I take great comfort when I read articles such as these:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12811197

    Additionally, I'd love to see CNN dedicate a blog to all the non-believers.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  4. George Greek

    “If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.” -WOODY ALLEN

    April 1, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  5. jen

    why is it when someone has something good happen its: praise the lord. When something bad happens: it is in his plan.
    so children being murdered is a plan???? and god loves them? he wants to bring them home??? what BS.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • Steve

      So, Jen, is there any comfort found in believing there is no God...in fact, why would any of this matter...and upon what grounds would these atrocities be called unjust? Nobody said there aren't mysteries in faith...and biblical authors wrestle with these issues, as well, as do people of faith. And never forget, just because someone says they are belivers, in whatever, even in Christ, doesn't mean they really are.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  6. Park

    And NO, God is not an invisible man in the sky. I know that HE is active in my life daily as I have seen HIS direction and all sufficient wisdom many times and HE as real as the ground I walk on. Just look around and tell me there is no God or that HE is make believe. Boy, that would take allot of faith to not believe in HIM.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • jen

      so who decided god was a him???? maybe its a her??? how would you know if you have never met it? such bs.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • andybud

      OK, I looked around and took note that 16000 children died today from hunger-related illness.

      So, maybe your God is real, but he's a monster.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • james

      Jen, you really do not care if God is a He or She. If you really wanted to know you would be searching. See this is all about who Jesus says He is again. Not religion.

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

      Andybud, are you saying God is not God? Or are you saying man is killing children?

      April 1, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • Odie Colognie

      Jen,
      Ding ding ding. Precisely, exactly. It's called anthropomorphic projection. 🙂

      April 1, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  7. OUTSIDE THE BOX

    CLEARLY THE COMMENTS SHOWN HERE ARE GREAT EXAMPLES THAT RELIGION CAUSES NOTHING BUT IGNORANCE AND WAR. NOTHING BUT ARGUING. PATHETIC PEOPLE. BE A HUMAN.

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

    "A thorough reading and understanding of the Bible is the surest path to atheism”

    April 1, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  9. Matou

    There is no god. History is what it is; the past. We can write it down and learn from it or we can start wars over our own version of it. Look at all of you clawing at each other.

    There is no divine intervention. We are the universe trying to understand itself. Where is that blasted Higgs boson lol.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  10. james

    Why are so many concerned with who the writers of the Bible were[which I believe is great to know], but should focus more about who it is written about...Thats the biggest issue why people battle its not because of religion its about who Jesus is. When we all stand before God on Judgement day He is not going to ask us if were Christian, Muslim , Catholic, Jewish, He is going to ask us. Who do you say Jesus is.....that will give fate to our eternal life.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  11. George Greek

    JESUS SLAVES

    April 1, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  12. FOXTON

    The thing about Jesus Christ is that he never made anyone beleive. It is your choice, and pray that you see the Lord before it's too late. If you can't see the devil in society today then you are doomed. The purpose of God's law is to kept us from sin. The bible isn't a book you can just read, you have to ask God to guide you through it. I have my Faith in God before anything on the Earth. Not because it makes me feel comfortable, or as some people say "religion is a getway for some people" but because time and time again he has blessed my life. We are born with an evil nature, a take take what about me nature. This is real and we have gotten so far away for the principles of this Nation it is sickening. But no one sees it. We are no longer free.... we are saves to the devil here.... the only underground railroad is Jesus Christ...........

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

      some people are so far gone...

      April 1, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  13. ab_contador

    Those first two lines are so precious - I wish to god (no pun intended) that religious people WOULD think rationally a little more often, maybe they would wake up already.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • Steve

      Faith is not necessarily opposed to reason. Reason can also lead to faith. They can embrace each other, in fact. There are very intelligent people from evey academic disiciplne who are also believers in God.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • andrew

      @Steve – I always have cover my feet with the sheets when I'm sleeping, ever since I was little, because otherwise I feel vulnerable to monsters or whatever other imagined creatures might be under the bed. Weird stuff, right?
      I also still have the courage to go to work as a computer programmer.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  14. Cpat

    Our problem we believe is self centeredness. God is within us and nowhere else.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  15. Park

    The bibles ultimate author is God who said that scripture was written by men inspired by Him, so, why the hassle over who wrote it ?????? And no, there is no contradictions in it if you know " to whom it speaks, of whom it speaks, and why and when and where" !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! We do not need to understand it to believe it. I don't understand gravity, but I know that all things fall when dropped. Thank God for the bible as we follow the good examples in it and shun the bad examples in it.

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

      """We do not need to understand it to believe it."""

      This is so sad.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:05 am |
  16. DA

    If you were oppressed by people who use the Bible as justification believe me – you'd care just who wrote that damn thing. He's a white (apparently) Christian male. Of COURSE he doesn't care. Talk about being completely blind.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Ryan

      You're such an idiot! While he was male, Jesus wasn't white and wasn't a Christian. He was darker skinned, but not African, like most Arabians, and the debate's still on as to whether he was Christian or Jew. After all, a Christian is by definition a follower of Christ, so how do you define Christ Himself? Wonder how Buddha feels – is he a Buddhist?

      April 1, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  17. Steve

    I would appreciate at least limiting the discussion to those who have actually read the Bible...the entire Bible. I enjoy a good dialogue or debate, but not one that's uninformed about the subject matter. Read the Bible, and then you've at least taken the first step toward having any credibility about what it says or represents.
    The article on this blog..."thumbs up"!. Thanks!

    April 1, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • andrew

      I've read the Bible and attended Catholic school for 12 years. I give it 2 out of 5 stars. The Harry Potter books were way better!
      EXPELIARMUS!

      April 1, 2011 at 11:06 am |
    • Victor M. Robinson

      I would insist then that the biblical scholars read something other than the Bible intend to have a debate as well. More often than not its the biblical scholars that have never considered anything else besides the bible, rather than non-theists challenging the bible that have never read it. In fact, statistics show that atheists are more informed about religion than religious people are.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:22 am |
    • Moses

      Why don't YOU read the entire Necrocromicon? Apparenlty, from what I've heard, its a book of Devil worship.

      How can you be against that book if you didn't read the entire thing?

      Sheesh!

      April 1, 2011 at 1:22 pm |
  18. Moses

    Of COURSE it matters that one of the most influential books of all time is nothing more than a bunch of crap made up by crazy zealots, suffering from hallucinations, as the desert baked their brains.

    I can forgive ancient peoples for making up stories to explain things that they could not understand. They were ignorant.

    I CANNOT forgive modern people who still believe that an invisible man floats around on a cloud and rules every aspect of the universe. They are stupid.

    It is said that we should be tolerant of diverse religious beliefs. This is also stupid. What is right is right. What is wron is wrong. I do not tolerate stupidity.

    We we never evolve as a people until we get over this bullcrap.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:47 am |
    • Steve

      You contradicted yourself in regard to tolerance...you've demonstrated so much in relation to yourself.

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

      @ Moses...You've pretty much nailed it. I can think of nothing to add. We absolutely should not tolerate stupidity, religious or otherwise.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • andrew

      There's no contradiction the guy clearly said he doesn't believe being tolerant to "religious beliefs" is the way to go.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:04 am |
    • Steve

      @ andrew...here's the thinkg...this intollerance toward religious beliefs IS a "religious belief." It's just an intollerance toward others' religious beliefs, and not one's own religious belief. What is dispised is actually being espoused.

      April 1, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  19. james

    Nobody can remove the Word of God. He is the creator we are His creation. He will return soon on the Mount of Olive in Isreal. Some of you will be here when His foot steps down. Others of us will be coming back with Him.

    April 1, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • andrew

      Hopefully by the time "His" foot steps down our advancements in science and technology will allow progressive independent thinkers to travel to another habitable planet or colony where we can leave people like you behind.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Odie Colognie

      The Mount of Olive ? Is that Popeye's wife's place ? Maybe you meant Mount of Olives ? I've been there. Funny, am not sure Popeye was home that day.

      April 1, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  20. all of you all dont know the real truth!!!!

    ALL OF YOU ALL ARE RACIST AND WONT CHHHHHHHHHHHHEEEEEEEEECKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK HISTORY!!!!

    ANCIENT KEMIT B4 ALLL OF YOU EVEN THOUGHT OF BEING CREATED ........BLACKS ARE THE OLDEST PEOPLE ALIVE!!!!!

    April 1, 2011 at 10:46 am |
    • Matou

      you are the racist

      April 1, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • andrew

      OMG! My birth certificate says I'm only 30... It must be a government conspiracy...

      I don't believe in 'race' or 'black' people but I wouldn't be so proud of the ignorance propogated by a religion anyway. If you want to speak about racial pride you should reference the advancement of mathematics and astrology in the cultures of the lower Nile.

      April 1, 2011 at 10:58 am |
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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.