The standard Christian response to the question “What is the Bible?” is that the Bible is the Word of God. In other words, the Bible is not just a story about God, its very words and message were inspired by God. The problems begin when you ask us to be more specific.
Some will tell you that by the “Word of God” they mean that God inspired various people to write the very words of the Bible. They “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (1 Peter 1:21). In modern terms, we would say that God dictated the Bible and these scribes simply transcribed the information onto parchment and scrolls.
Others will say that God inspired the writers of the Bible, but more like how a poet is “inspired” to write a piece of poetry. The words and the ideas come from the mind and life experiences of the author, but the “essence” or “truth” or “deeper meaning” of what is written has an alien origin. It is inspired by God.
Still, another even more controversial take is that the Bible is purely a work of human literary genius, but it “contains” or “carries” the Word of God — whatever that means.
The history of the Bible
How the Bible came to be and how it got to us (the history of the Bible) has been a topic of great debate and division for longer than Christianity has existed. It is not uncommon to see on the cover of Times Magazine or the New York Times new studies on the origins of the New Testament (especially around Easter and Christmas) and why we should doubt their validity.
So when I came across Who Wrote the Bible? my first thought was that this would be one more Bart-Ehrmanesque account of how the four gospels were forgeries and the New Testament is a work of Christian propaganda. I was surprised to find that the book focuses exclusively on the Old Testament (especially the first five books) and the circumstances in which the first dozen books were written.
Richard Friedman spends almost all of the book summarizing the scholarship on how the Torah (the first five books of the OT came to be, as well as the other six historical books that follow. And he begins turning the tables right from the introduction.
Moses the author?
First, he outlines why, contrary to common Jewish and Christian tradition, Moses could not have been the author of the first five books of the Bible. This is not just disproved by the fact that the stories refer to Moses in third person, or even that they seem to refer to places that hadn’t been named till centuries afterwards — it is also disproved by the very style of writing.
Friedman goes further: Not only did Moses not write the first five books of the Bible (in 1,300 BC), these books were written centuries after Moses had died (no earlier than 700 BC or thereabouts). What we have is not just a revised and edited (or even editorialized) version of something Moses wrote initially, it is an entirely new creation and product of its time — a much later time; just before, during and after the Babylonian exile.
Four main sources
The author argues that the historical biblical narratives are products of four main documentary sources combined to form one narrative.
- The first source document, J, was associated with the divine name Yahweh/Jehovah.
- The second document, E, was identified as referring to the deity as God (in
- The third document, by far the largest, included most of the legal sections and concentrated a great deal on matters having to do with priests, and so it was called P.
- And the source that was found only in the book of Deuteronomy was called D.
It is these fours sources, complete with distinct styles, emphases, references and agendas, that were combined into the first five books of the Bible (The Torah). The most controversial case made by the author is not that these source documents were edited and combined around the exilic times, it is that these very source documents were also written not very long before that (at the time when Israel was divided into two kingdoms).
Not to bog you down with the scholarship details, but you can already see why such a book would be interesting (or upsetting). It forces the Christian to confront anew what he or she means when she says the Bible is the inspired Word of God.
Friedman doesn’t go into the archaeological debates and controversies (some of which contends that the Exodus may never have happened), he simply deals with the text as a literary work. He does the same thing scholars do to the New Testament to establish when the manuscripts for the different books and letters were written. And his conclusions are worth reflecting upon.
The Old Testament began to be written around the time of the Babylonian exile. It was written by the prophets and the priests that lived around this time (the author even suggests some names). Not only was it written in the style of this time and extensively referred to landmarks that existed at the time, it was also largely dealt with the issues and controversies that troubled the Israelites during this very period.
How all these diverse sources, with their diverse interests, were eventually threaded together into one book without the editor not cutting out apparent contradictions, is something scholars still can’t explain.
For instance, the source of Genesis 1 (P) is different from the source of Genesis 2 (J). The former tackles creation from a cosmic perspective while the latter handles the same from the ground up. Yet the two chapters were left side by side, joined into a single narrative to inform one another and feed into each other. The “editor” never tried to reconcile or smooth out the edges. He thought them too important, too sacred to tamper with.
What this ends up doing is that the combined Bible we have is more complex and more mysterious than the sum of its parts (sources). One may almost say that the fact that we ended up with our current Old Testament; and it surviving for as long as it has; and having had the impact it has; is nothing short of a miracle. It seems more than a work of human genius.
It is almost as if God wrote it.