All scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).
There is a festering dissonance today between the traditional view of the Bible by people of faith (both Jew and Christian), and the data uncovered within its text by those scholars known as Text- or Source-critics – people who study only the text to learn its dating, and authorship/sources.
But, (and this will be my key point) I have concluded that the text-critical data concerning when or by whom the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) was written actually makes no difference; either to God or my faith. This note is intended to explain why that is.
The View of Traditional Christians and Jews
What traditionalists[i] believe about the Bible is that: 1) it (all of it) was authored by people inspired by God Himself – that is, if God wanted something recorded in “His Word”, He saw to its being written down; 2) the Bible relates a series of author-as-witness stories that tell the history of God’s (YHWH’s) interactions with His Creation, with the “Fathers”, and with the people of Israel. And 3), that the Bible is “God-breathed”/inspired. This later point will be essential to hold on to.
I don’t want to paint “traditionalists” as those who willfully or simply ignorantly disregard evidence that there are problems with the authenticity[ii] of the Hebrew Bible. Many have looked at the same or similar data I have and have concluded, as I have, that it just doesn’t matter. Yes, biblical authors writing in Babylon, or Jerusalem after their return from exile, is quantitatively different than authors writing alongside Moses, or David, or Hezekiah. But it can accomplish precisely the same purpose: the purpose for which God inspired those authors.
What many tend to miss in the debate on scriptural authenticity is that God never demanded we read His words, and only His words, in order to communicate His message of faith. (He is hardly so limited.) All He requires is that we believe the messages of scripture and follow Him in obedience, rather than ourselves.
The Conclusions of Text-/Source-Critical Hebrew Bible Scholars
First off, there is no one comprehensive conclusion on the authorship, timing, or authenticity of the Hebrew Bible. But, (as I learned in researching a previous piece), there are some common ideas:
- The majority of the Hebrew scriptures didn’t attain the form we see today until likely after the 70 AD destruction, when the religion transformed from one based on the practices of the Temple cult to one based exclusively on those scriptures and their Rabbinic interpretation. However, their assembly into a pre-canonical whole likely happened sometime between the mid-third and mid-second century[iii].
- The “Desert Scrolls” retrieved in the last century from caves in the Judean desert substantially corroborate the Greek LXX, thought to have been created from the Hebrew scrolls in the 3rd century BC. However, these desert scrolls differ quite substantially from the Hebrew texts from the Masoretes, produced between the 7th and 10th century CE. The production of the desert scrolls dates to between 250 BC and 100 AD.
- The general consensus of scholars based on the occurrences of specific words, spellings of those words, idioms, and textual analysis is that most of the Hebrew Bible was written between the 7th and 5th centuries BC — in other words, during the time of the Babylonian exile and immediately thereafter, during the remnant’s return to Judah. Some would date some of the books later than this (e.g. Chronicles). They believe the prophet Ezra played a significant role in beginning the assembly of the scrolls that would ultimately become the Tanakh upon his return from Babylon.
So what does it mean that we have narratives of Adam, Cain, Lemech, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, Jeroboam, Hezekiah, Josiah all documented long after they lived (if they lived)? It means the Israelites had an oral tradition being passed from the ancients down through each generation to the exiled generation who began writing it down and organizing it. Did they embellish the narrative to make themselves look as good as possible? Of course! But just as often were they inspired by God to tell His truth, in spite of themselves? Yes, they were. Just read the Prophets[iv]. They’re hardly reverential concerning Israel or its leaders, including its sometimes varying statements of what their history consisted of.
Even non-experts who study their bibles are well acquainted with its frequent insertions of phrases such as: “as it is to this day”, or; “across the river”. These are unapologetic statements that the author/editor is writing at a point in time after (sometimes long after) the narrative he is relating occurred.
Assessing the Text-Critical/Traditionalist Dichotomy
There are many points of disagreement between (secular) text-critics of the Bible and traditional believers. We’ll hit as many as we have space for. But before starting here are a couple of questions to consider:
- If “all” scripture is inspired by God, then what, exactly, does He want us to learn from multiple, competing, stories of the same events (“doublets”)? (Perhaps some scribes took some liberties with their narration – Jer 8:8.)
- Why would a nation proclaim to the world its abject failure to follow its God, and see to the preservation of that proclamation for 2,500 years?
The “Priestly” Writings
How should we explain/justify the Bible’s priestly stuff as “inspired”? Why, for example, did God inspire authors to proclaim to the world the excruciating details of Temple sacrifice and purification? (After all, it wasn’t a mystery to Him that one day all of that activity would end, under His supervision and judgment.)
The pre-exilic priests bear a significant burden here. During the monarchy, the religious leaders (i.e. those purportedly charged with leading the Israelites in Mosaic law-keeping) consisted of the Kings, the priests, and the prophets. After the monarchy, it consisted of the priests and prophets. And, based on the biblical dialogues, the prophets fairly unanimously opposed what the priests were doing, which may have also included perverting the Mosaic law (Je 8:8). But whatever else the priests did, they did not prevent Israel’s apostasy in the post-monarchic, pre-exilic period, despite the attempted reforms of people like Hezekiah and his great-grandson Josiah.
On one level, the priestly authors were apparently quite proud of their system as in some ways it distinguished them as a unique nation. But perhaps God’s motive in inspiring these same authors (e.g. Leviticus, Numbers, Exodus, and parts of the “Deuteronomic History”) was to institute these procedures to demonstrate His case that theirs was not the behavior nor the heart that He was looking for in His people, a theme well-documented by Moses and all the Prophets, extending well into the New Testament (Mt 23).
It seems that God’s purpose in promoting the Temple cult all along may well have been to expose their rote rituals as, to Him, anathema – that what He was seeking was the devoted lives of His children, not priests killing animals on their behalf (and for their own gain) (e.g. Is 1:11, Je 7:22, etc.) In so doing, God would have been contrasting for those first exposed to these scrolls (whenever that was) the complete “otherness” of the character of worship He sought from His people in contrast to how their neighboring nations carried out ritual sacrifice to their gods.
What Are We to Make of Variant Narratives?
The books of the Hebrew Bible often disagree with themselves (e.g. the killer of Goliath – David [1 Sam 17] or Elhanan [2 Sam 21:19]?). (This Site documents 693 such discrepancies[v].) Should we be concerned about this? Apparently, the final redactors weren’t. They were the ones whose interest was in telling the story of Israel (and its Messiah) in the best possible light. Certainly, not all (if any) of the discrepancies are flattering to the book itself, nor those that compiled it. After all, they’re the ones that included the two (or more) versions in the same canon.
Variant texts/readings for the same passage of scripture are simply part of the landscape of biblical texts.
This must mean that the differences are at best incidental to God, and do nothing to obscure the truths He is intent on us receiving from these same texts. Why else would God allow their inclusion? But, it also means that the Hebrew Bible is not a self-consistent history book, as many of its critics love to point out.
An Example of National Pride vs Human Defect
The book of Samuel is apparently inauthentic, inasmuch as it was written/assembled probably in the Babylonian captivity[vi], and relates a history of the advent of King David and the rise of the United Monarchy. (That is certainly not all Samuel teaches us, but it is a major theme.) This book is emblematic of the Biblical authors’ intent to mythologize Israel’s history.
But it’s fascinating that in pursuing this goal, the authors don’t hesitate to note the apostasy of Israel in Samuel’s day, e.g. Eli’s thinking that Hannah is drunk when she is praying at the door of the Tabernacle for a son, simply because he may never before have seen someone actually praying; the book’s position as chronologically following Judges, of which it is said [Jdg 21:25]: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes”, etc. (Apparently, the priests weren’t particularly effective at this time.)
It may have been based on scrolls/passed-down oral stories from that time and so may, indeed, convey some real history. But, its intent to portray a venerated history, and its King, is clear.
We shouldn’t be surprised, given the human authors’ intent, that it presents (among other things) the inauguration of a human king of Israel (something God lamented – 1 Sam 8:7), the commission of adultery and murder by its most revered King, David, and the sin and treachery of David’s sons.
Samuel, therefore, is perhaps our most instructive instance of a book/narrative intended by its later, human authors to extol the virtues of Israel’s history, but which instead tells an unrelenting story of disobedience to God and God’s resulting judgment on its heroes, even David, the one characterized by its authors as “a man after God’s own heart”.
The Story of Israel’s Disobedience to YHWH
Israel did not follow YHWH, from their very beginning up to their expulsion from their land by the Babylonians and after. There are no scriptures that attest that the people obediently followed the law of Moses, nor the Temple cult until, aside from a couple of feast observances (Ezra 6:19-22), they had returned from exile. And even then it was sketchy, as Ezra attests (Ezra 3:1-5). When we have archaeological remains of catfish in Persian period contexts in Jerusalem, and human and animal images on all Jewish coins from the 4th and early 3rd centuries, clearly the Mosaic law was not being followed, if the people were even aware of it.[vii] So, if we are to be honest to the scriptures and the archaeological evidence, Israelites did not start following “Judaism” until likely the Hasmonean period –2nd-1st century BC! Up until this time, despite whatever else the Bible has to say about their history and their priests and their prophets and their kings, there is no evidence that the Israelite people were faithful to the Mosaic law.
NOTE: It may well be that the Israelite elites were convicted of their apostasy as a result of their exile in Babylon and so came to understand that reform was essential. However, it does not seem as though this was communicated effectively to the exile returnees, as documented by Ezra (and others).
Despite its fifth-century pedigree, I still believe that Deuteronomy was, in its historical essence, created by Moses, or at least represents a recounting of the transmission of what a historical Moses said and did. There is no concrete literary (or archaeological) evidence for this conclusion other than its first-person voice. It is simply that it would seem inconceivable that God would sanction a narrative creating His “chosen” people, and a book/scroll/safer outlining how they were to live with one another in the land He was giving them (which, it is widely noted, they completely ignored) that was fraudulent. Why invent this? Why, in the 5th century exilic Israel, charge Israel with caring for widows and orphans, sojourners, and Levites as God’s workers?
If Israel so completely ignored its strictures, why even bring it up? Certainly, that wouldn’t contribute to Israel’s renown, as God relates to Moses (Dt 31:15-16).
And, if it was fraudulent (i.e. not an honest accounting of God’s instructions to Israel upon entering Canaan), why include it in the Canon?
What’s my evidence for this belief?
First, certainly, Moses isn’t portrayed as blameless in the Pentateuch. He resisted God’s enlistment into the cause of redeeming the Hebrews. He struck the rock (not once, but twice – Num 20:11), contrary to God’s instruction, and this resulted in him, according to the narrative, not being granted the right to enter the promised land.
In fact, Deuteronomy, and all of the historical books of the Hebrew Bible, succeed despite whatever the intentions of their authors, in communicating through subtle details, types, allusions, and repetition of a sequence of God-honoring events for a completely new set of characters and circumstances, in helping us see that the current story is God-honoring as well – that God is, in fact, in charge of the situation.
To help see this pattern, you may want to do a little study of all of the Patriarchal and later Prophetic period’s women who were “barren” until God intervened. Have a look at the circumstances of how they eventually conceived and bore sons, and the role those sons then played in constructing the Messianic genealogy. When reading any one of the stories individually, one can only see the facts of that story. But when they are seen as instances of a common theme, they’re seen in a completely different light – one in which God is orchestrating events for His larger purpose.
This is classic orchestration of the Biblical authors by God. God gave them, through inspiration, the score to play. And the authors played it.
Could these authors have been aware of all the previous stories (e.g. Rachel, Hannah, etc.) with their related images and themes that connected their stories? That’s possible, and their use of those interlinked images, themes, and types could have been by their design.
While I’m no literary critic, however, I would have to believe that such authors would have had to have shared a brilliance, as attested by an analysis of the texts, that is virtually unprecedented across all literature, let alone ancient literature.
Either these authors were all gifted and exceedingly brilliant storytellers, or they were simply writing what God’s inspiration led them to write – which details to point out; what traits of the character to mention, perhaps echoing previous characters in the same predicament; perhaps what their genealogy was. I think it’s easy to see God’s hand all over these scriptures.
What Do the Traditionalists Think?
Traditionalists (and others) see the Biblical narratives in very simple terms – good vs evil; righteous vs disobedient; God in perfect control vs instances of God “repenting” of actions He has taken; Israel as exalted in God’s care vs Israel as the poster child for human apostasy. It’s all there. Those who see it (in considerable ignorance) as the mythical story of God shepherding His faithful people over the course of their history, until finally He intercedes to gift them with their ticket to heaven, have missed its entire point. (Sadly, there’s not enough room to clear up that perception here.)
What Does Late Authorship of the Scriptures Do to Our Biblical Understanding?
How should we think about the Hebrew Bible’s historical narratives knowing that virtually all of them were written centuries after the point in time they describe[viii]? And, perhaps more challenging; how should we think about these narratives if, in fact, they were simply invented, perhaps informed by an oral history, by later authors? (There is a long-running debate, for example, over the lack of any physical evidence for the Exodus that the Bible describes, and which serves as the exclusive pedigree for the nation of Israel, biblically.)
The proper question to ask is not whether, if some of these stories are inventions, God is “lying” to us. The proper question to ask is: “What, exactly, is God trying to show us in these narratives that will lead us, ultimately, to trust and obey Him?”
As I have written elsewhere, the Hebrew Bible is not a 21st-century history textbook. That was never its purpose. Its purpose was to document God’s desired relationship with the people of His Creation (starting with Adam and Eve in the garden), and the people’s refusal to acknowledge and be faithful to God. That’s its purpose.
Has it achieved that purpose? Yes, it has. Has it done so at the expense of the reputation of the Israelites? Yes. However, He has also inspired them to document their apostasy in their own history, whether it be their desire for a Temple and all of its cult rituals that He rejected (2 Sam 7:7), or their desire for a human King which He rejected (1 Sam 8:7).
But, if God had chosen another people to be emblematic of humanity’s self-willed refusal to follow His instructions, their history and fate would have been identical to that of the Israelites. They were human. And the natural human can’t live in obedience to God of his own resources.
This is the entire moral message of the Hebrew Bible.
This is precisely why Christians receive and embrace the Gospel of Christ which claims for its believers the gift of God’s Spirit to indwell them and enable them to live as God desires, and to thereby equip them to live in the Kingdom of God, as God’s adopted children (John 16:7).
The historical accuracy or authenticity of the Hebrew Bible is not a God seeker’s concern. Its message is his concern[ix]. Once the God-seeker gets beyond all the sound and fury of source-critical analysis (assuming he notices it), traditional acceptance of patently corrupted narratives, and the doubt these can be used to instill, he is left with the overarching story, “inspired” by God to teach his children what He seeks for them. He wants us to choose His life (Dt 30:19) that He inspired the Biblical writers to articulate.
[i] Some who write on this subject use instead the term “fundamentalists”. I choose not to use that term because when it’s used it typically has a pejorative meaning. In my experience, most people of faith are just that – “of faith”. They haven’t spent months or years delving into Biblical text scholarship, scholarly theological discourses, or other analyses. They are simply people who, without premeditation or malice, believe what they have been taught. And some of what they have been taught may be suspect – theologically or otherwise. But that doesn’t impugn the faith of those people in their Lord, which, at the end of the day, is the only thing that counts.
[ii] In this note the term “authenticity” means that a literary work describing a piece of history was a) recorded, initially, at the time that history was happening, and b) that it was accurate, to the best of the author’s ability.
[iii] Adler, Yonatan, The Genesis of Judaism · The BAS Library, p48-49
[iv] I’ve actually seen one explanation for the Bible’s caustic treatment of Israel’s history as it being written by the Persians to act to weaken its vassal state, and perhaps the power of its God.
[v] Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina has made a career of pointing out and analyzing discrepancies in the Bible. You can check out some of his comments on his blog site here. He famously left his Christian faith upon being informed by his college professors of these “inaccuracies”.
[vi] Books of Samuel | Old Testament | Britannica
[vii] Adler, Yonatan, The Genesis of Judaism · The BAS Library, p46
[viii] Goldenberg, Robert, The Origins of Judaism: From Canaan to the Rise of Islam, Cambridge University Press