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The Seekers' Guide to the Bible

Authorship, transmission and accuracy

Traditional authorship

The traditional authorship of the Old Testament has, like that of the NT, been under fire in the last hundred years or so. Much of the Old Testament was thought to have been written by either Moses (the first five books), King David (many of the psalms) or his son, King Solomon (Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes) with the prophets at least writing most of the books carrying their names. Finally, 1 and 2 Chronicles, as well as Ezra and Nehemiah, are often attributed to Ezra himself.

The quickest of perusals of Ecclesiastes and Proverbs reveals them to have radically different philosophies. Proverbs is a very optimistic book that says if you do as it says everything will be fine. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, is deeply fatalistic and seems to anticipate the nihilism of nineteenth-century existential thinkers. If they are both by Solomon then he must have had a serious personal crisis between writing the two.

Few people worry about exactly who wrote down much of the Old Testament. When it was written is perhaps more interesting as we would like to think it is close to the events it describes. This is especially true for the Prophets as they would need to have written before the events they predict to be truly considered to have known something of the future. We will look at two of the most famous prophets after considering the most contentious question of Old Testament authorship - the documentary hypothesis regarding the Books of Moses.

The documentary hypothesis or JEPD

The tradition that Moses wrote the Pentateuch is undoubtedly very ancient although there is confusion between the claim that Moses composed just the Law itself or also the books within which it is contained. However, the case for Mosaic authorship was firmly entrenched by the Enlightenment when it began to be chipped away piece by piece. I should state that I am convinced by the case for the modern documentary hypothesis but do not think that it invalidates the claim that the foundation of the law itself does date back to Moses himself. After all, far older law codes like the Code of Hammurabi from the 18th century BC, are extant and accepted as dating back to Hammurabi himself even though the inscriptions it is found on date from hundreds of years later.

The documentary hypothesis claims that the books of Moses are in fact made up of four different sources called J, E, P and D for reasons explained below. Some scholars also identify a redactor, R, who put the four sources together. The major pieces of evidence presented to support this view are as follows:

  • Many stories appear twice in the first five books of the Bible in more than one guise. For instance, there are two creation myths (Genesis 1:1 - 2:3 and 2:4 - 2:25), two contracts between Abraham and God (Genesis 12:6 - 7 and 15:5) and most convincing of all two water from the rock accounts (Exodus17:3 - 6 and Numbers 20:2 - 13).
  • Between many of these doublets a different Hebrew word for God is used - either Elohim or YHWH - which are usually translated as God and LORD respectively in modern English Bibles. The parts where God is called Elohim are assigned to the Elohimist or "E" whereas the parts with YHWH are assigned to the Yahwist or "J".
  • The emphasis changes many times suggesting that the authors' priorities are not always the same. For example, there is a tension between Moses and Aaron that may be indicative of a rivalry between their respective descendants. Much of the pro-Aaron material is ascribed to a Priestly source or "P" because Aaron was supposed to be the ancestor of all the priests in Israel.
  • The Book of Deuteronomy appears to be written in a very different style from the four books that proceed it and is in part a review of previous events. For this reason the author is called the Deuteronomist or "D" and he is often also credited with the Deuteronomistic History of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings.

I find the documentary hypothesis or JEPD convincing in its outlines although it tells us nothing about the common origin of the traditions in the Pentateuch. In particular, the second half of Genesis seems to adhere with unnerving accuracy to what is known about life in Canaan at the time it depicts and the Law does not seem appropriate for a settled monarchical state but rather a nomadic tribe with no fixed abode. So, although I am happy with JEPD as a theory of the compilation of the first part of the Old Testament, it is grossly inadequate as an explanation for the stories themselves or the degree of historical truth that they may contain.

Controversies on Daniel and Isaiah

Of the prophets, the two which cause the most debate over authorship are Daniel and Isaiah. The simplest reason for this is that both include some uncannily accurate predictions which cause all sceptics to insist that they must be written after the event. This does seem to me a reasonable position for a sceptic to take.

On Isaiah there is not a lot to say. He mentions the name Cyrus twice and says that he will free the Jews from their captivity. Cyrus the Great did exactly that when he conquered Babylon and allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem in 539BC. If the traditional date of 700BC for Isaiah is correct then this is an impressive prediction but critics say that although books 1 - 39 of Isaiah were indeed written by the prophet of that name, the next section was by a Deutero-Isaiah writing later  Chapters 56 - 66 are by a third Isaiah writing after the return of the exiles. The critics cite differences in style between the sections while explaining the use of anachronistic language and similarities between the three parts of the book by postulating a later redactor who tried to join them into a seamless whole. More conservative commentators claim that the book is the work of one man over a period of years and, if it were not for the fulfilled prophecies, no one would bother postulating otherwise.

From a Christian point of view the most important part of Isaiah is the Song of the Suffering Servant at 52:13 - 53:12 which is considered to refer to Jesus. Although this is in the part attributed to pseudo-Isaiah there is no question that it was composed before the life and ministry of Jesus.

The authorship of the Book of Daniel is a far more complicated matter. We have already seen how certain elements of the book that survive only in the Greek Septuagint are excluded from Protestant Bibles but even what remains is very controversial. Once again the root cause of trouble is some remarkably accurate prophecies which suggest to sceptics that Daniel must have been written well after the traditional date of about 500BC and go so far as to place him in 195BC on the basis that this is the date his prophecies cease to be very reliable.

Both sides can muster an impressive amount of evidence. Conservatives claim that the use of Babylonian loan words in the Hebrew points to it being written by Daniel, the exiled Jew with a high rank in the Babylonian court. They also point to detailed knowledge of Babylonian customs and characters including Balthazar himself who, until recently, was unknown outside the Bible. This led sceptics to doubt that he ever existed, but has now been found referred to in ancient Persian accounts which prove that he was real. In turn, those arguing for a later date point to other historical mistakes, the fact that Daniel is not mentioned as a great prophet by Jesus bar Sirach in the apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus (chapter 49) and the presence of other anachronisms.

To be fair, most mainstream scholars, Christian or not, subscribe to the later dates for both of these books and the traditional date, like the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, is very much a conservative position. I tend to side with the mainstream on most things and a complete lack of knowledge of ancient Hebrew leaves me unwilling oppose the weight of academic opinion.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

In 1947, a shepherd boy looking for a goat near Qumran in Israel stumbled across some old pots that contained ancient scrolls. The discovery was a sensation around the world but politics and academic feuds meant that the Dead Sea Scrolls remained unnecessarily mysterious for decades after their discovery. A vast number of books have been published on the scrolls disseminating so much false information that it is hard to tell fact from fiction. The prosaic truth of the matter is that there was no conspiracy to conceal the scrolls and they have nothing directly to do with Christianity. But conspiracies and Christianity sell books whereas obscure first century sects and academic pride do not. The reason for the long delay in the publication of the scrolls was that there were just seven scholars working on them and they wanted to keep all the glory to themselves. This monopoly was eventually broken when James Robertson published facsimiles of nearly all the scrolls without permission in the early 1980s.

Although many puzzles remain, most scholars now believe the scrolls were the property of a Jewish sect mentioned by Josephus called the Essenes. Their beliefs and activities had been a great mystery because Josephus said very little about them. Now they can speak for themselves.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, as confirmed by recent carbon dating, were written in the two centuries before the birth of Christ and the community they belonged to was abandoned during the first Jewish War of 66 - 70AD. The dating alone, of course, eliminated any possible reference to Christianity in the scrolls although it would be theoretically possible for there to have been some contact between the Essenes and early Christians before the community dispersed.

Although the Essenes themselves would not have differentiated them thus, there are three different kinds of literature contained within the scrolls - fragments of the Old Testament, fragments of Jewish apocryphal works and sectarian documents unique to the Essenes. Every book of the Hebrew Old Testament is represented at Qumran except Esther and there are two scrolls containing complete but different versions of Isaiah. These manuscripts of the Old Testament are a thousand years older than the earliest that were previously known and have been eagerly examined by textual critics to improve our modern renderings of the Bible. In the latest translations you will often see the Dead Sea Scrolls (or "DSS") mentioned in the footnotes.

Manuscripts and transmission

The standard text of the Hebrew Old Testament is called the Masoretic Text after the Masoretes, a group of scribes who were responsible for transcribing it in the early Middle Ages. The first among these was Moshe Ben-Asher in the tenth century AD. An incomplete example of his work has survived in the Aleppo Codex, now in Jerusalem, and a complete copy in the Leningrad Codex in St Petersburg public library. It is from these that our modern Bibles are taken.

The reader might be taken aback to hear that the earliest versions of the Old Testament date from two thousand years after they were supposed to have been written but in fact we can trace the Old Testament manuscript tradition back to well before the birth of Christ. Most important are the Dead Sea Scrolls which we have already discussed.  Among them is a fully preserved copy of Isaiah that appears to be a direct ancestor of the Masoretic text. It tells us that in a thousand years of copying the actual text did not change very much. Textual critics have recently been able to make full use of the Scrolls to try and get our Bibles as close as possible to the original text but no really radical changes have been necessary.

The earliest near complete copy of the Greek Septuagint is in the Codex Sinaticus that also contains the earliest complete New Testament. It dates from the mid-fourth century and is housed in the British Library in London. Although there are translation and other differences between the Hebrew and the Greek Old Testaments, we can see that the texts are very similar. Arguments have raged over the use of the Greek word for 'virgin' at Isaiah 7:14 where the Hebrew uses 'young woman' but much of the Jewish distaste for the Septuagint is over its adoption by early Christians.

When St Jerome came to translate the entire Bible into Latin for his Vulgate he decided to use the Hebrew version of the Old Testament rather than the Greek. This was a controversial decision but was almost certainly the right one. This means that the Vulgate is a witness to the state of the Hebrew Bible in the forth century AD and once more suggests that the Masoretic texts are accurate.

Finally, mention must be made of the Samaritan Pentateuch. That the community of Samaritans mentioned in the New Testament is still alive and well is a quite remarkable thing.  They have their own copy of the scriptures. Unlike other Jews, they accept only the Pentateuch as divinely inspired and possess a sacred scroll containing it. The scroll itself is medieval but the traditions it contains have long been independent of other text families and are fully utilised by modern textual critics. Needless to say, it closely reflects the version of the first five books of the Bible that we use.

Historicity of the Old Testament

What do we make of the Old Testament? This question is troublesome today in a way that it was not for previous generations. Whereas the cultural background of the New Testament is being confirmed by archaeology and it has always fitted comfortably into the framework of classical history, the Old Testament has no such advantages. Robin Lane Fox examines the Bible from a historian's point of view and whereas his conclusions about the New Testament are largely encouraging to the believer, he offers no comfort at all for the traditional view of the Old Testament.


Most arguments on the Old Testament start and also finish with Genesis. Indeed, it is right at the start that biblical literalists face their toughest challenge with two creation accounts that modern scientists are supposed to have demolished. Between the irreconcilable extremes, most Christians are content with the idea that, while Genesis 1 and 2 may not be scientific treatises, they do contain deeper truths about where the universe and man came from. That God created the earth and the heavens seems to me as obvious today as it was to Plato two and a half thousand years ago. And Plato did not need our Bible to work it out.

The Fall of Man has been central to Christian theology for centuries and traditionalists will go so far as to claim that without it, Christianity is meaningless. We have learnt from gene sequencing that we are in fact all descended from both a single woman and a single man. We can even try and figure out when they lived. Alas, it will certainly not have been at the same time! However, as an allegorical message, the story of Adam and Eve is as powerful today as it ever was. We all learn about right and wrong at the moment we disobey and it is then that our innocence is forever lost.

The Deluge is another story that has suffered at the hands of scientists. Indeed, the modern incarnation of creationism was started off by the works on diluvianism (so called flood geology) by one George McCready Price. A great many myth cycles include flood stories, including those of the Greeks and Babylonians. It is likely that these tales do echo ancient catastrophes such as widespread flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates or tidal waves caused by volcanic eruptions in the Mediterranean. Most recently, a book called Noah's Flood suggested that a natural dam across the Bosporus broke in 5,000 BC and caused the Black Sea to be formed. The theory is attractive but I am not at all sure that we can expect an oral tradition to last for several thousand years so that it is eventually recorded in the Bible.

In summary, I must admit, against biblical literalists, that I cannot accept the literal truth of anything in Genesis before Abraham moves from Ur. I do not feel that this impinges on my faith at all. I have never felt it necessary to uphold the Bible on a higher plane than other ancient works. It is a collection of books written by men about their experience of God and the beginning of Genesis expresses their understanding of many of the same metaphysical questions that exercised the minds of the Attic philosophers and still concern us today.

Chronological problems

The stories of the patriarchs are not amenable to historical enquiry and we must accept that we will never learn anything about them a part from what is in the Bible. This is not to say that no useful background to the customs and society of the times has been discovered and Genesis does appear to give an accurate portrait of life among early bronze age nomads. That is in itself evidence that the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob date from well before when they were written down. The most important point about these stories is the patriarchs are not all particularly good men and God certainly did not choose them for their saintliness. We should not look to their behaviour as being any sort of example of right and wrong in today's world.

With the story of Joseph, the patriarchs come into contact with the outside world and the problems start to multiply. It is a truism of ancient history that numbers are very often inaccurate. This makes tying the Old Testament to history extremely difficult. One of the main problems is that the dates around the beginning of the first millennium before Christ are extremely fluid with a gap of up to two hundred years between the views of orthodox and revisionist chronologists. And where there is an academic vacuum, popular authors, such as David Rohl in particular, are sure to get involved. This makes telling facts from unbridled speculation extremely hard but I suggest the following web site based on the book Centuries of Darkness.  This is highly informative if still rather partisan.

The upshot of all this is that identifying which Pharaoh employed Joseph and which one allowed Moses to leave is impossible with the current state of knowledge. Furthermore, the destruction layers at Jericho cannot be solidly associated with the stories in Joshua. Even which strata should correspond to the united Monarchy of David and Solomon is a mystery. This has led some archaeologists to declare that King David never existed and others to attribute finds to the period of his reign that have nothing whatsoever to do with it. We can hope that the many dating methods now available (carbon 14, dendrochronology, ice cores and good, old fashioned pottery comparison) will eventually sort all the problems out and tell us exactly what happened when. For the moment vital questions about the biblical chronology will have to go unanswered (which has not actually stopped people trying - see Bible Mysteries for an interesting example).

The exodus itself has not left any of the traces in the Sinai that we might expect from such a large number of people on the move. This does not have to mean it didn't happen but rather that the numbers of Israelites given in the Bible are massive exaggerations. Once again, we must remember that in ancient history, numerical figures can almost never be trusted. The popular picture of a vast horde of Hebrews descending on Palestine is not backed up even by the Bible. Even after the conquests in Joshua, the book of Judges makes clear that the Hebrews could only hold on to the hill country and that worship of Yahweh was not all that widespread. It took several hundred more years before a centralised monarchy ruled over most of what we now think of as Israel.

United and divided monarchies

You will sometimes hear archaeologists claim that there is no sign of the united monarchy of David and Solomon to be found in the ground. They sometimes go so far as to claim that it never existed. But in reality it is not at all surprising that finding traces of this period is rather difficult because a careful reading of the Bible makes clear that it was neither very big nor did it last very long. Indeed, even the figures of forty years each for the reigns of David and Solomon sound figurative; a much shorter period seems likely. This is all compounded by the way in which the ancient history of the Middle East impinges on modern politics. The degree to which a unified Israel existed under David and Solomon matters enormously to those trying to justify the existence of Israel today. Conversely, demonstrating that there was no ancient Kingdom is something that has been associated with the Israeli left and peace parties in their efforts to support accommodation with the Arabs.

Bearing in mind both the brevity of the United Monarchy period and the current insurmountable chronological problems mentioned above, the elusiveness of the archaeology is to be expected. Many different periods have been identified, including times of comparative wealth and prosperity, but it is impossible to tell which of these correspond to particular periods. Wise archaeologists are already well aware that very little has been preserved in the ground and that their work must always deal with generalities rather than specifics. To claim this or that did not happen on the basis of the paltry remains available to us today is the height of foolishness.

Scholars not armed with a trowel, but who instead examine texts, are more impressed by the historicity of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. In particular, 2 Samuel is singled as being perhaps a valuable historical record. This is because, unlike 1 Chronicles, it is far from being uncritical approbation of King David. On the contrary, it is quite happy to expose his faults and failings. These are turned to apologetic uses but it remains most unusual in the ancient world to give a measured and even handed account of a king.

Kings and Chronicles

The most fun that you can possibly have with a biblical literalist are the differences between 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles. Both cover pretty much the same period up until the exile but do so in very different ways. It also seems clear that one of the Chronicler's sources is the Deuteronomical history of which 1 and 2 Kings are part.

The most obvious differences are misprints of numbers such as 2 Chronicles 9:25, which records Solomon as having 4,000 stalls for his cavalry, as opposed to 40,000 given in 1 Kings 4:26. As I am not an inerrantist such difficulties concern me not at all.

From a historian's point of view, both these pairs of books are valuable but Kings is seen as earlier and so more helpful. If, as is often assumed, 1 and 2 Chronicles were written by the same author as Ezra and Nehemiah, they date from after the exile whereas most of Kings seems to come from before it - perhaps even the reign of King Josiah. 1 and 2 Chronicles have a very obvious theological message that looks back at the wonderful reign of David and forward to the disaster of the Persian conquest. Events superfluous to this grand scheme are hardly covered. For instance, King Omri is considered to have been one of Israel's most powerful rulers by secular history but merits a mere eight verses in 2 Chronicles.

In one case, we can make a direct comparison between the Bible and an outside source. The siege of Jerusalem in 701BC by the Assyrian king Sennacherib is recounted at 2 Kings 18 - 19, Isaiah 36 - 37 and 2 Chronicles 32 as well as Assyrian court annals. We find that whereas the biblical account emphasises that the Assyrians were unable to reduce the city and had to retreat, Sennacherib's records insist that the withdrawal was at the expense of a large tribute being paid. Clearly both accounts are heavily biased in their own favour and the truth can probably be found somewhere between the two.

Although the order in the Bible is Ezra and then Nehemiah there is a school of thought that the later refers to earlier events. They are both about parties of Hebrews returning from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem. Once there, Ezra codifies the law (and is sometimes even credited with writing 1 and 2 Chronicles as well as Nehemiah and Ezra itself) whilst Nehemiah supervises the rebuilding of the Temple. It is here that the story of the Old Testament comes to an end although, as we have seen, it is continued in the Apocrypha or Deuteronomical Books.

Prophets and prophecy

The first thing to realise about the prophets of the Old Testament is that they were not necessarily expected to predict the future. A prophet was simply someone through whom God spoke. The message was very often not 'this will happen' but instead, 'if you go on misbehaving, I, the Lord, will do this.' The classic example is where Jonah preaches to Nineveh about its eminent destruction.  When the Ninevans repent and chance their ways, God spares them. Jonah is rather put out by this.

Now, there are obviously cases where it is the future being predicted and the ambiguity in these cases makes it rather hard to tell exactly what it is being prediction is aimed at. Not only that, but as we discussed under the authorship of Daniel and Isaiah, some of the most accurate prophecy appears to have been written down after the event. This makes the whole issue irredeemably tricky to analyse. In general, I would not recommend using the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, even the ones about Jesus, for apologetic purposes. They just don't sound very convincing to modern ears and our knowledge of the period is not good enough to make cast iron judgments.

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� James Hannam 2001.
Last revised: 09 June, 2013 .