Multiple authorship and the Old Testament

Who wrote the Old Testament?

Traditionally the first five books of the Bible were ascribed to the authorship of Moses, but ever since the latter half of the nineteenth century and the application of source criticism to the documents this has looked increasingly unlikely.  However, not only has his role here been called into question but also whether the actual narrative within the books reflects his real historical role or rather a considerable enlarged and “fictitious” version of it.  But that very label “fictitious” indicates the considerable problems involved in making a fair assessment across more than two thousand years. To us, of course, to present anyone other than he actually as is to tell a culpable untruth.  But that is not, as we shall see, how the ancient mind worked.  Indeed, for more the more interesting question is this:  what was it that produced the desire to attribute so much to Moses?  (David Brown – Professor St Andrews previously Durham and Oxford)

According to early Jewish tradition, God had revealed the entire contents of the Torah to Moses, who wrote it down… That tradition was also accepted by the writers of the New Testament, many of whom were Jewish themselves…. But did Moses really write the Torah?  A few medieval scholars pointed out problem with this belief, such as the account at the end of Deuteronomy of Moses’s death and burial… Another issue concerned passages describing the same events, but with differing details.  There are two accounts of creation of the world and of humans at the beginning of the book of Genesis, two accounts of the Flood, several versions of the Ten Commandments and so forth.  Did God make animals before humans, as in Genesis 1:24-26, or did he first make a human, and then animals, as in genesis2:7,19? Did God tell Noah to bring a pair of each species of animal into the ark, as in Genesis 6:19, or seven pairs of clean animals and only one pair of the unclean, as in Genesis 7:3?  Did God give the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, as in Exodus 19:20, or on Mount Horeb, as in Deuteronomy 5:2?… these and other issues  led scholars to conclude that the Torah… is a composite… scholars were able to isolate several distinct sources.. each with its own characteristic vocabulary and themes… [became] widely accepted among Protestant scholars, although Jewish and Roman Catholic scholars did not join the consensus until the mid-twentieth century, and many Conservative Jews and Christians still reject it.  (Michael Coogan – Harvard)

At present… there is hardly a biblical scholar in the world actively working on the problem who would claim that the Five books of Moses were written by Moses – or by any one person.  Scholars argue about the number of different authors who wrote any given biblical book.  (Richard Elliott Friedman – Professor Georgia, previously visiting Professor Oxford and Cambridge)

… the book of Isaiah was traditionally ascribed to the prophet Isaiah, who lived in the eight century BC.  Most of the first half of the book fits with such a tradition.  But chapters 40 through 66 of the book of Isaiah appear to be by someone living about two centuries later.  (Richard Elliott Friedman – Professor Georgia, previously visiting Professor Oxford and Cambridge)

Scholars
believe the early Biblical books were written by separate groups of writers,
one who emphasised El, the Canaanite god, and another who stressed Yahweh, the
Israelite one God… … … the earlier books of the Bible are a mixture of ancient
texts and backdated stories written much later… … … There were at least two
authors of the Book of Isaiah – one of them wrote over 200 years later.  (Simon Sebag Montefiore – Professor
University of Buckingham)

It is now demonstrated,” he wrote, “that there were many different
Hebrew versions of such books as Exodus, Deuteronomy, Samuel, Kings, etc., and
that the uniformity of medieval Hebrew manuscripts is chiefly the result of
careful editing by Jewish rabbis in the first two centuries A.D.  (William Foxwell Albright – Professor John
Hopkins)

Someone was merging four different, often opposing sources so artfully that it would take millennia to figure it out.  This was the person who created the Torah, the Five Books of Moses that we have read for over two thousand years.  Who was this person?  … I think that it was Ezra.  (Richard Elliott Friedman – Professor Georgia, previously visiting Professor Oxford and Cambridge)

In order to understand the shifting currents in the interpretation of the prophetic books, it is useful to recognise that until quite recently most readers accepted in some form the biblical claim that these books were written by the prophets whose names are attached to them.  (Robert R. Wilson – Professor Yale)

The question still remains as to why the redactor had to mix them all together.  Why not just preserve them all side by side like the four Gospels of the New Testament?  The difference was that by Ezra’s time all of the sources apparently had come to be attributed to Moses.  What was the redactor to do?  He could not have two or three different texts all be by Moses, especially way they sometimes contradicted each other.  And so he took on the enormous, intricate and ironic task of combining these alternative versions of the same stories into one work.  (Richard Elliott Friedman – Professor Georgia, previously visiting Professor Oxford and Cambridge)

One implication of this chronological survey is that Israel was a late arrival on the stage of Near Eastern history.  The great civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia had already flourished for a millennium and a half before the tribes of Israel appeared on the scene.  The history of Israel was shaped to a great extent by its location between these great powers…  A second implication of the chronological survey is that on any reckoning there is a gap of several centuries between the date when the biblical books were written and the events that they purport to describe.  Traditionally, the books of the Torah were supposed to be works of Moses, but it has long been clear that Moses could not have been their author.  For much of the twentieth century, scholars believed that the stories contained in the Torah were first written down in the tenth century, in the time of David or Solomon, although the final form of the books was clearly much later.  Confidence in the supposed tenth-century sources has been eroded, however… While the Torah incorporates material from various centuries, it is increasingly viewed as a product of the sixth century BCE or later.  There is then a gap of several hundred years between the literature and the events it describes. (John J. Collins – Professor Yale)

Most of the books that make up the Hebrew Bible were composed in several stages over many centuries (there are some exceptions, mainly among the writings and the shorter books of the Prophets).  Books like Genesis and Judges incorporate tales that may have originated as folklore or popular short stores.  But these stories were shaped and edited, probably by several different hands, over hundreds of years… “composite artistry…[requiring] “excavative scholarship”. (John J. Collins – Professor Yale)

During the past century or so, archaeologists have found the first mention of Israel outside the Bible, in an Egyptian inscription carved by the pharaoh Merneptah in the year 1207 B.C. They have found mentions of Israelite kings, including Omri, Ahab, and Jehu, in neo-Assyrian inscriptions from the early first millennium B.C. And they have found, most recently, a mention of the House of David in an inscription from northern Israel dating to the ninth century B.C. These are conclusive pieces of evidence that these people and places once existed and that at least parts of the Bible are historically accurate.  (Eric H. Cline – Professor George Washington, previously Stanford, Yale)

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