The following is a point-counterpoint debate about the authorship of scripture. We are proud to feature three perspectives from Patrick Murray (University of Alabama), Gideon Lazar (The Catholic University of America), and Will Deatherage (The Catholic University of America). Please participate in the comments and make sure to take our survey about what you think of Biblical authorship!
Table of Contents:
An Argument against Literal Biblical Authorship by Patrick Murray
An Argument for Literal Biblical Authorship and History by Gideon Lazar
An Argument that Biblical Authorship does not Matter by Will Deatherage
An Argument against Literal Biblical Authorship
By Patrick Murray, University of Alabama
Catholics like I often find ourselves defending the authorship and historicity of the New Testament. While professors at my esteemed University, for example, may teach that the Gospel of Mark was anonymously written and later named after the prominent Christian, we point out historical records indicating that Mark is the true author. When atheist college students claim that Jesus Christ never existed, we explain that the Gospels are ancient biographies whose reliability is established by the non-Christian historians Josephus and Tacitus. The instinct to defend authorship and historicity is essential for our defense of the New Testament, but it may lead to a harmful attitude toward the Old Testament. The Old Testament was not, as some believe, authored by a few divinely inspired prophets such as Moses, Solomon, and Isaiah. As this article will discuss, the past two hundred years of scholarship and church teaching have revealed a complex network of authors and oral traditions which developed the Old Testament over the course of centuries. The most characteristic case of Old Testament authorship is that of the Books of Moses, so the majority of the article will be focused on it.
Against Mosaic authorship
The character of Moses dominates four of the five books of the Pentateuch: He was born in Egypt at the beginning of Exodus, the second book, and died at the end of Deuteronomy, the fifth book. Thus, it is natural to assume, as every Jew did at the time of Jesus, that Moses wrote these books about himself and left them to be finished with a brief account of his death. However, at no point do these five books actually state that they are written by Moses; the preexisting consensus that he is their author is nothing more than a pious assumption. We are entirely orthodox and in fact more intellectually responsible not to assume that Moses is the author of the Pentateuch.
There are elements other than the Deuteronomy description of Moses’s death that indicate that the Pentateuch is not a single, unaltered document handed down from Moses. One example is a description of Moses as “humble, more than all men that were on the face of the Earth”! In addition, verses such as Genesis 12:6 “The Canaanite was then in the land” suggest an author long, even centuries after the life of Moses. Finally, there are many verses such as Deuteronomy 1:1, “These are the things Moses said to all Israel…” which present themselves as third-person reports of Moses’ actions. A first glance at the Torah indicates that Moses is no closer to the documents than a distant author of a first draft; but in fact, many modern scholars both secular and Catholic have found that Moses is even further separated from the Bible we read today.
To challenge one idea, one must propose another; if Moses did not write the Pentateuch, then who did? The most prominent theory of Old Testament authorship is the documentary hypothesis of Julius Wellhausen, a nineteenth-century German scholar. In his Prolegomena, Wellhausen summarized the work of many other scholars to propose four sources of the Torah, which together are known as JEDP. J, the Jahwist or Yahwist source, was written in the 10th century BC court of Solomon and contributes parts that refer to God as Yahweh, a personal and loving creator. E, the Elohist, was adapted from J in the ninth century BC northern kingdom of Israel and generally refers to God with the less personal name Elohim. D, the Deuteronomist was the entire book of Deuteronomy produced not by Moses but by scribes of the religious reformer and compiler of scriptures King Josiah. Finally, P, the priestly source, involves much of Leviticus and was written in the sixth century BC, when priests and the temple were the center of Jewish spirituality. While Mosaic authorship imagines one divinely inspired man as the source of all of the Torah’s rich depth and tradition, the documentary hypothesis treats the Torah as a living document that evolved along with its people, gradually revealing the divine plan of salvation by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
To explore briefly the developing and democratic character of non-Mosaic sources, it is worth focusing on just one of the four proposed sources: the Deuteronomist. Study of the Deuteronomist has revealed a beautiful textual development that paralleled the rise and fall of the kingdom of Israel.
This is how the book of Deuteronomy was written: It began with Moses, a prophet who received instructions from God and transmitted them to his people, instructing them to “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and away” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). These people, lacking the Greek concept of “authorship,” kept Jewish history and rituals alive through oral tradition. As William Schniedewind notes in How the Bible became a Book, there is not even a word for “author” in classical Hebrew; instead, there is only sofer, “scribe,” meaning a transmitter of tradition and text. The absence of credited authors in other ancient Semitic works such as the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Babylonian Enuma Elish, the Egyptian The Shipwrecked Sailor, and the Canaanite Baal and Mot, Schneidewind writes, shows that it would not have been unusual for the Jews, too, not to credit their sacred book to a single author (Schneidewind 7). He goes on to explain that the tradition of crediting authorship to Moses began in the Hellenistic age, when works of literature were expected to have credible authors. Thus, it seems that the Book of Deuteronomy was first the oral tradition Moses had commanded the Israelites to keep and later a written document maintained by scribes. But there is, in fact, more to the story.
The book of Joshua also refers to a “book of the law” given by Moses to his successor in Joshua 1:8 and 8:34, around the 14th century BC. This book of the law reappears the key passage 2 Kings 22-23, in which King Josiah of Judah discovers a book of the law, written by Moses, during a renovation of Solomon’s temple. It could only be the same book Moses had given to Joshua! Moved by the realization that Israel had broken the laws he found, Josiah consulted a prophetess, “rent his garments,” initiated a reform, and made a vow “to re-establish the words of the covenant written in this book.” In the Hebrew for “law” is “torah”: the book of Torah. Was this book of the law none other than the book of Deuteronomy?
A fascinating literary analysis of 2 Kings 22-23 by Dr. Jonathan Ben-Dov from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem suggests not. His article points out many context-sensitive uses of the word תורה (torah) and notes that while the majority of the Bible, particularly the Wisdom literature, uses “torah” in a secular sense of any instruction, command, or law, priestly sources use the word in vow professions and the instructions of prophets: For example, Isaiah 2:3 states “from Zion will come forth תורה (instruction), and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Beyond either of these senses, the Book of Deuteronomy makes “Torah” the center of its message: Thus, the book begins “Moses undertook to expound this תורה” (Deuteronomy 1:5). In Deuteronomy, “תורה = word of God = law.” Dr. Ben-Dov goes on to point out that the prophetic nature of King Josiah’s consultation with both the found book of תורה and the prophetess Huldah regarding the book suggests that the word refers not to the entire body of law but instead to a prophetic instruction from God (Ben-Dov, 223-239). And what was the instruction? It was to renew Israel’s covenant with God by instituting a reform based on the laws in the found book. This reform would have included the production of a new body of law that included both the found book and the speeches and instructions of Moses which had been passed down through oral tradition. Now, like explorers seeking the source of the Nile, we have arrived at the Deuteronomist source of the Old Testament.
Scholarly consensus is that Deuteronomy chapters 5-26, which are a covenant between God and Israel and the Deuteronomic code, were mostly written under King Josiah and based on this miraculously found source. Through it, King Josiah’s Israelites would regain their distinct national and religious identity after the Assyrian captivity. And through the so-called Deuteronomist scribes, they would also learn an encouraging account of their national history that showed how God would reward obediance to his covenant – and punish disobedience to it.
Indeed, a certain narrative unity and continuity between Deuteronomy and the historical books, particularly through the theme of Israel’s punished disobedience, has suggested that the so-called Deuteronomistic history – the books of Joshua, Judges, first and second Samuel, and first and second Kings – were all written during this period! A secular work by the German historian Martin Noth, Überlieferungsgeschichtliche, made the key step toward identifying this source. Überlieferungsgeschichtliche is my new favorite word, apparently meaning “tradition history,” and the fact that I have been able to type Überlieferungsgeschichtliche three times now is the only reason I have included this paragraph. Überlieferungsgeschichtliche. Überlieferungsgeschichtliche. Nice.
If it seems plausible that the Deuteronomist wrote as many as seven books of the Old Testament, it may be more credible now that other books of the Bible may have emerged from similar traditions. A longer essay may have described the Priestly source, which wrote Leviticus, and the Jahwist and Elohist sources, which together contributed Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. But there is another note to make about authorship before moving on to another topic.
It has been stated that, while unimportant in oral Semitic traditions, the concept of authorship was very important in the Hellenistic period. As the Gospels, epistles, and other works of the New Testament were written within this latter tradition, their authorship is much more clearly established. So please don’t go using this essay as an excuse to question the authorship of the Gospels; none of the many recovered original copies of the gospels have lacked a title or been wrongly attributed. Responsible scholarship is sometimes revolutionary and sometimes reserved.
I would encourage any readers who are skeptical of source criticism to flip through their copies of the New American Bible, which is the translation approved for liturgy and personal use by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In it, you will find many footnotes and introductions that refer to J, E, D, and P, the Deuteronomic history, the Book of Law, and other such ancient Biblical sources. The Catholic church is in favor of the documentary hypothesis! Ever since the papal encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (“Inspired by the Holy Spirit”) was released in 1943, the Catholic church has desired that scholars of the Bible “neglect none of those discoveries, whether in the domain of archaeology or in ancient history or literature, which serve to make better known the mentality of the ancient writers, as well as their manner and art of reasoning, narrating, and writing” (Divino Afflante Spiritu, paragraph 40). To accept advances in archaeology, history, and literature is to accept the secular historical consensus that Jewish scripture developed over time! The Vatican II document Dei Verbum went further to call for the Church to develop new translations of the Old Testament from the original languages, where before it had always used the Latin Vulgate as the basis for new translations. Implicit in this position is the belief that the modern church, through scholarship and archaeology, has access to better biblical sources than those possessed by Jerome. Today, in the New American Bible, we enjoy the fruits of the Church’s decision to courageously challenge our assumptions about who wrote the Old Testament and when. It is safe to trust an established teaching of the Church, Christ’s appointed guardian of Scripture and Tradition.
It is important to emphasize that identifying authors other than Moses of the “books of Moses” does not make Moses any less pivotal a leader of the people of Israel. Just as Jesus is not snubbed by the four evangelists who described his life and quoted him at length, neither is Moses nor Isaiah nor any other supposed Old Testament author snubbed by the nameless scribes who put his words into writing. In fact, it is a credit to Moses that he features so heavily in the history of his people.
Further, it does not secularize the Old Testament to realize that its books were for a large part not written by the names on their covers. In fact, the Old Testament becomes far richer when studied as the collective story of an entire people, guided always by God in Wisdom first to an earthly promised land and finally to the promised land of eternal life. The types of Christ, motifs of God’s love, and narrative unity found throughout the Old Testament become more profound when seen as God’s ever-developing word of love to his people. The story of salvation told itself even as it unfolded.
Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. United States, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003.
Schniedewind, William M.. How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel. United Kingdom, Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Ben-Dov, Jonathan. “Writing as Oracle and as Law: New Contexts for the Book-Find of King Josiah.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 127, no. 2, 2008, pp. 223–239. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25610118. Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.
Noth, Martin. Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien. Germany, M. Niemeyer, 1943.
Pius XII. “Divino Afflante Spiritu.” The Holy See, 30 Sept. 1943, www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_30091943_divino-afflante-spiritu.html.
Tavard, George H. De Divina Revelatione: The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of Vatican Council, Promulgated by Pope Paul Vi, November 18, 1965. Glen Rock, N.J: Paulist Press, 1966. Print.
The Bible is Historically Accurate, and That Matters
By Gideon Lazar, The Catholic University of America
It is popular among Catholics these days to say that the historical meaning of scripture is not important. All that matters is the spiritual importance. This view is not only false, but extremely spiritually dangerous.
First, let us examine the reasons why the historicity of scripture is important. Regarding the real existence of Adam and the fall, the doctrine of original sin rides upon it. As Pope Pius XII decreed in Humanae Generis that it is forbidden for Catholics to believe that humans came from more than two parents because “it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with … original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all…” (37). If original sin is destroyed, then there is no need for baptism. The historical truth of Adam touches on the validity of the sacraments.
Regarding the real existence of other biblical figures, Christ explicitly attests to many of them, including old ones such as Abel (Luke 11:51), Noah (Matt 24:37) Abraham (John 8:39), and Moses (Luke 16:31). In fact, Christ actually claims that Moses wrote about Him (John 5:46), so at least some degree of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch must be true. To say that Christ got these wrong is to attack the doctrine of the incarnation. If Christ is truly God, then His divine mind would have known everything. If Christ were truly sinless, He never would have lied. So, if these people are said by Christ to have existed, and the incarnation is true, they must have. To say otherwise is to implicitly deny one of the central dogmas of the faith. Some may respond that these are just parables. However, four of the five above listed examples are not in the context of parables. If we just end up reducing everything Jesus says to a parable, why take transubstantiation literally? Isn’t this just another parable by Jesus?
Not only does the historicity of scripture have dogmatic importance though, but it also has direct relevance to our lives. For example, St. Peter addresses people who are worried that God has forgotten them, and that Christ will not come again. St. Peter addresses this by reminding people of the expulsion of the demons from heaven, the flood of Noah, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Pet 2:4-7). He concludes then that “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment” (9). But what if St. Peter was wrong that there was a flood in which only “eight persons were saved” (1 Pet 3:20), or that God really destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. The conclusion would be that God does not save the righteous and destroy the wicked. We would no longer have hope of Heaven and Hell according to St. Peter.
In fact, St. Peter uses this same argument against unbelievers who say “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Pet 3:4). St. Peter responds that “They deliberately ignore this fact, that… the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (5-7). If there was no flood that destroyed the past world, then aren’t the unbelievers right to declare that there will not be a coming judgement according to St. Peter?
Some may object that even if all the above is true, the Church does not even hold the authority to bind on such matters since the Church can only bind on matters of faith and morals. However, historical claims can be matters of faith. For example, in the Nicene Creed, we assert that we “believe” in at least 6 distinct historical events. Additionally, many dogmas of the Church relate to historical events, such as the incarnation, the resurrection, the immaculate conception, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and the bodily assumption of Mary. To assert that we should take even these only spiritually is certainly heretical. For the last of these dogmas for example, the official dogmatic definition on the matter is “that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (Munificentissius Deus 44). If this is not clearly trying to make a dogma about a historical event, I do not know what the Holy Father possibly could have added to clarify it further.
To make my view clear, I am not asserting that a Catholic must hold to a young earth creationist position. Some matters such as evolution and the age of the universe may be freely debated by Catholics. However other matter, such as polygenism, the belief that humanity has more than 2 ancestors, have been explicitly condemned by the Church (c.f. Humanae Generis 37). However, just because we can debate certain matters does not mean we can declare some biblical stories to be ahistorical. Pope Pius XII clarifies that “the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense” (38).
At this point, many readers may be in despair. If the Catholic faith requires the Bible to be historically true, and if its stories are not, then it seems the Catholic faith is false. However, the evidence, if fairly examined points to the historicity of scripture.
One interesting discovery in the last century seems to suggest the historicity of Adam and Eve and the flood. If we take the biblical story as what it says, there should be two genetic bottlenecks in history. First, there should be a bottleneck at the time of Adam and Eve, from whom all humans come. Secondly, there should be a bottleneck at the time of Noah. However, each of Noah’s sons had wives from different families. So, we should expect the Y-chromosomal bottleneck, that is the bottleneck which would only go through the male side, should be younger than the mitochondrial bottleneck, which goes through the female side. This is exactly what the evidence suggests. The most recent female bottleneck is dated to 100-230 thousand years ago while the most recent male bottleneck is dated to 50-80 thousand years ago.
Another evidence for the flood is the historical record of it. It is pointed about by many skeptics that the flood story is taken from other nearby civilizations. However, this is an understatement. Almost every culture on earth has a flood myth. This testifies to the fact there really was a flood in the past, and so every culture has a record of it, even if the details have changed over the millenia.
In addition, in the Bible we see that humans were monotheists first. This contrasts with popular view that humans were first animists, then became polytheists, then monotheists. However, this was invented in the nineteenth century by deists and atheists to justify their superiority as they had finally come to the last stage of the evolution of religion. While this idea is popular in pop culture, it is not backed up by real evidence. In fact, the best evidence suggests that the original faith of man was monotheistic. This is defended well in Winfried Corduan’s book In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism. Even polytheistic religion had some monotheistic elements. For example, the head of the Indo-European pantheon was known as Deus Pater, which means Bright Sky Father, likely a pagan corruption of the true worship of God the Father.
Moving on to the biblical stories about the Israelites, there is extensive evidence of the historicity of these. The best work on this has been done by Egyptologist David Rohl (who interestingly happens to be agnostic himself). Rohl has pointed out that the Greek Dark Ages, which lasted around 500 years, seems to have been inflated by around 300 years. When Rohl shifted the timeline forward because of revising the chronology of the third intermediate period of Egypt, he found that there was extensive evidence for Joseph coming into Egypt (including Joseph’s palace and tomb), the Exodus (including an Egyptian account of the 10 plagues), and King Solomon (including his palace), among many other things. Rohl has written many books on the subject which are all worth reading, but the best introduction to his thought is the documentary Patterns of Evidence: Exodus, which is available for free on Tubi.
Even if Rohl’s views on chronology turn out to be false, there is still a case to be made for the historicity of scripture. One of the top Egyptologists in the world, Kenneth Kitchen, who is also a major critic of Rohl’s work, has written a book defending the historicity of the Old Testament, called On the Reliability of the Old Testament. However, further evidence being uncovered seems to be vindicating Rohl’s theories. Either way though, this is an internal debate among Egyptologists, and the historicity of scripture is likely true in either case. The Church has the authority to bind on the matter of the historicity of the Exodus, but not which Pharaoh it occurred under.
As shown above, the historicity of the events of scripture is not a matter for Catholics to debate but ought to be believed with supernatural faith as it is taught by both scripture and the magisterium. This is not merely an abstract doctrine though, but something for our spiritual lives. Whenever we despair, we can remember how God has many times in the past miraculously delivered His people and will deliver us to. The scientific, anthropological, and archeological evidence vindicate the Church’s claim on the matter. While it is certainly good for Catholics to debate matters of theology, history, science, and other topics, this debate ought to happen within the bounds set for us by supernatural revelation.
Who Wrote the Bible? We are Missing the Point
By Will Deatherage, Executive Director
A man approaches St. Peter at the gates of Heaven, which, of course, floats on an ocean of clouds.
“Patrick,” the bearded Apostle says. Putting his arm around the perplexed Patrick, he continues, “You lived a good life. I see that you attended Church regularly, went to confession often, raised a wonderful family, and devoted much time to serving the poor. I am happy to grant you admittance into our gated community…” he motions to the light beaming behind him, “…so long as you can answer one simple question; one quick test to confirm that you are a true Christian. Are you ready?’”
Giving a confused look, Patrick responds, “Oh, uh, sure.”
“Great! I’m sure you’ll do fine! After all, you’re a model Christian, and the Big Guy’s had His eye on you like a camel through a needle! So… who wrote the book of Exodus?”
Patrick confidently replies, “Well, at this point it’s been speculated that for centuries, oral traditions were gradually compiled and redacted until they were attributed to Moses by a priest named Ezra in the fourth or fifth cent…”
Patrick’s explanation is interrupted by a shove, and he tumbles into the depths of Hell.
As Patrick’s screams of agony echo from the fiery furnace, St. Peter turns away, sighs, rolls his eyes, and sarcastically whispers, “Great. Another Theology major.”
This hyperbolic scenario summarizes my opinion of Biblical authorship: The essence of Christianity is found in matters of faith and morals, not historical accuracy, for living an ethical life in Christ, not correctly guessing who wrote down which Bible verses, will ultimately yield salvation. While speculation about Biblical authorship might lead to enlightening theological nuances, such details are not only unessential to the core dogmas of our Faith, but an overemphasis on them risks dividing Christians and diverting our attention from what really matters.
Because this is a systematic-philosophical analysis of the issue, I will avoid using citations as much as possible and instead appeal to basic logic and common sense. I will also avoid endorsing specific theories but will instead explore the limitations of what Catholics can believe concerning Biblical authorship.
Is there evidence that certain books of the Bible were not written by their credited authors?
This question merits a crucial disclaimer: Biblical scholars have access to very few artifacts and manuscripts from the time periods they study, and archaeology continues to give historians surprises, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls found in 1946, that drastically change how they understand Biblical composition. Illustrating just how unpredictable Biblical Studies can be, just decades ago, many scholars were certain that the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) was composed by four key sources (also known as The Documentary Hypothesis). Since then, because of continued linguistic, historical, and archaeological analyses, this theory has been challenged by a more complex one that involves continuous, sporadic edits to the Bible. That said, why do scholars craft alternative compositional theories to begin with? What is wrong with a Bible that was strictly written by Moses and the prophets? The answer may be found in linguistics.
The Bible is a rather messy text. One sentence in Genesis might be composed in Ancient Hebrew, and the next might be in first century Hebrew. This would be akin to reading Tom Sawyer when suddenly it slips into Middle English. However, these leaps in linguistics are not recent discoveries. Scribes and priests were well-aware of them for centuries (see The Bible as it Was by James Kugel), but they accepted them as developments in the text’s tradition. They were also aware of historical inaccuracies in their texts. Genesis 11:31, for example, describes how Abraham’s family came from the land “Ur of the Chaldeans,” even though the Chaldean empire would not have existed for another one thousand years. On a larger scale, the book of Judith miscasts Nebuchadnezzar, the infamous Babylonian King, as Assyrian. Even in the New Testament, there are inconsistencies in the Gospel chronologies, which shows how little their authors cared about precise history. Even the most conservative Biblical scholars now acknowledge that the Bible was almost certainly edited and redacted over time. The predominant lingering questions involve to what extent the texts were edited, when such edits occurred, and how involved the credited authors actually were in their texts’ formation. Such questions, in my opinion, will never be answered and, as I will argue, simply do not matter. For further information on these various theories and hypotheses, I recommend The Paulist Press Biblical Commentary and David M. Carr’s The Formation of the Hebrew Bible: A New Reconstruction.
Why would a religion invent its own authorship?
In a post-empirical world, myths and legends have a bad reputation because their events “never happened,” but as I stated earlier, historical accuracy was not a chief concern of early scribes and theologians because stories, regardless of their historicity, were a method for preserving cultural values. To understand why this was the case, we must enter the mindset of someone living in a pre-literate world. Humans are moral beings, we learn best through stories, and the most memorable stories are about incredible, legendary figures. As a culture learns and grows, it modifies its stories to fit developments in its values. Concerning historical figures and events, the way they are portrayed also changes as morals shift. Consider how a biography about President Harry Truman written immediately after Victory Day might portray its hero differently than one written at the height the nuclear arms race. It is impossible to write a purely objective history; the impacts of events take time to tease out. This same principle applies to scripture. The Book of Chronicles, for example, was written long after The Book of Samuel was, and its depictions of Kings David and Solomon are far more positive than those of its predecessor (see The Paulist Biblical Commentary). It is quite plausible that the Holy Spirit could have guided the authors of scripture to not only encode God’s commandments in myths, legends, and histories, but to redact them over time until Christ, the ultimate interpreter of scripture, came to us. There was one problem, though. As Ancient Judaism and early Christianity developed their authoritative canons, unorthodox doctrines and stories multiplied. How was an average, illiterate, Christian or Jew supposed to know which stories they could trust for learning about morals and values?
Pseudepigraphy is the common ancient practice of attributing texts to a popular figure in order to assert authority, honor a legacy, or build on someone else’s work. Consider the Ripley’s Believe it or Not franchise. While the original author, Robert Ripley, has been dead for decades, the brand retains his name to assure audiences that his work lives on. Or consider Caleb Weatherbee, the eternal fictional weatherman from the Farmer’s Almanac. If copies of this almanac are analyzed thousands of years from now, someone likely might posit the existence of a historical Caleb. Those of you who are fans of The Princess Bride will recall that the legendary Dread Pirate Roberts was later revealed to be not one person but several people who carried on his legacy, since no one would have feared or respected names such as “Wesley” or “Cummerbund.” Ancient Judaism and early Christianity were constantly threatened by heterodox works like the Book of Enoch and the Gospel of Thomas. To establish legitimacy, the leading authorities of the time often attributed their texts to legendary figures like Moses. This practice continued into the New Testament, as certain letters written by St. Paul’s disciples were attributed to Paul himself. Again, this was not an uncommon practice. Here is a short list of suspected Ancient Greek pseudepigraphal works.
With this in mind, I must stress that pseudepigraphy does not imply that the originally acknowledged author never existed or never intended an idea. Just because Plato wrote down the words of Socrates, it does not mean that the latter never said them. Likewise, just because a disciple of Paul probably wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, this does not mean that Paul never endorsed its ideas. It is also quite possible for works to have been preserved orally and written years after they were first proclaimed. Homer’s The Odyssey was an oral tradition for centuries before it was written down, yet this does not necessarily call Homer’s existence into question. In summary, there are plenty of viable explanations for why the authorship of a Biblical text would have been invented, but they do not necessarily mean that the alleged source of their inspiration never existed. Again, I am not arguing for the validity of such theories; I am stating that they should be taken seriously. They should not be shunned just because they do not suit our (ironically) modern obsession with historicity.
Didn’t Jesus claim that figures like Moses, Abraham, and Noah existed?
Effective communication requires the speaker to use terms that the listener will understand. For example, missionaries to tribes would often explain Christianity using pagan symbols and imagery, which is how Mexican Catholicism enjoys a fusion between Christianity and Native American cultures. Perhaps more fittingly, when a parent attempts to describe a complex subject to his or her child, he or she must use terminology, including mythical, legendary, and even fictional characters, that their children will understand. I fondly recall convincing my little cousin to eat broccoli because it was what gave Yoda from Star Wars his strength (and color). Similarly, Santa Clause is an excellent conduit for teaching children the virtue of justice, and George Washington’s ahistorical chopping of the cherry tree teaches them honesty. Children, who are vastly imaginative, craft impressive lore to understand the world, just as our pagan ancestors did when theologizing about God. If Christ had made Himself known to the Buddhist tradition, I guarantee that he would have invoked its mythical figures to teach His commandments, but God chose to reveal Himself to the Jewish tradition, which means Christ had to speak to His people by invoking their beloved characters, both historical and legendary.
Christ was given the impossible task of translating perfect, immutable, divine laws into fallible, changing human language. His words are strictly analogous to a perfect and infinitely beautiful theological reality that goes beyond the limits of human vocabulary. This is likely why He spoke in so many parables. These stories conceal matters of faith and morals, regardless of their historicity. We do not care about who the Prodigal Son was or if he really lived. We are only concerned by how his story impacts our faith journeys. Americans have traditionally portrayed our founders as idealized caricatures, even if they were flawed human beings. When we teach our children to be like George Washington, we refer to George Washington the legendary symbol of strength, grace, and humility, not George Washington the historical owner of slaves. Likewise, Christ calls us to emulate Moses the myth, the beloved caricature constructed from generations of reflection and theologizing, not Moses the man.
But hasn’t the Church defined that certain events must be understood literally?
Christ blessed the Apostles and their successors with two key abilities. The first is the authority to make judgments in matters concerning faith and morals, since such matters impact our salvation. But since our understanding of God’s Word changes over time and we find ourselves entangled in new ethical dilemmas throughout history, the Apostles were also given the responsibility of binding and loosening what we are required to believe in for salvation. Take usury, or charging interest, for example. For centuries, the Church forbade the practice because it exploited vulnerable people. When capitalism introduced a credit-based economy, though, charging interest was no longer about exploitation, so the Church reversed its stance on the issue. Authority over faith and morals, coupled with binding and loosening, have two core implications. First, the Church has no jurisdiction over matters that are not directly related to what Christ revealed as necessary for our salvation. For example, the bishops or pope cannot make a dogma about a scientific phenomenon like the Big Bang or a historical event like the existence of William Shakespeare. This does not, however, mean that all historical moments in the Bible are open for question, since events such as Christ’s life, death, and resurrection must have occurred for Christianity to retain its moral authority. This is why we are required to profess belief in key events from the life of Christ in the Apostles Creed but we are not required to profess “and I believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old.” Though our fundamentalist brethren might disagree, such details are insignificant to our salvation.
Of course, many conciliar and papal documents have commented on the historicity of Biblical events, not every conciliar statement (and hardly any papal one) is definitive. While a document might offer an opinion or perspective on a historical event, it cannot be definitive unless it is absolutely necessary for the preservation of our faith and morals (see Francis Sullivan’s Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church). The debate surrounding Biblical authorship is really about what events we are required to believe in for our salvation. Some theologians think that the existence of a historical Moses is necessary, others think that only some aspects of a historical Moses are required, and others believe that Moses never needed to exist at all. While Catholic theologians today are allowed to take each of these positions, there were points throughout Church history when Biblical scholars were forbidden to do so.
In the late 1800s, the Church was threatened by Modernism, a loosely organized movement that attempted to marry Biblical scholarship with a strictly Rational-Empirical perspective that only valued historical events. At the same time, the Church was caught in a theological sparring match between Roman loyalists, who believed the pope should have full authority over the Church, and their opponents who thought that authority should be dispersed between bishops, kings, and theologians (see Joseph Kelly’s The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: A History). Because of advances in technology, heretical ideas spread like wildfire. This tension combined with rising skepticism about Biblical authorship, and rogue theologians began claiming their own authority in matters of faith and morals, independent of Rome. This eventually led to the First Vatican Council, which defined the dogma of Papal Infallibility. It was followed by a series of blistering documents that condemned new methods of conducting Biblical studies. Of course, almost a century later, once the Holy See was assured that theologians could explore such topics without threatening Church authority, these policies were reversed. I liken this reversal to the controversy of nuclear energy. Just as governments had the right to ban it after World War II for fear of its misuse, they also had the right to allow it once it was known that it could be harnessed in a safe, effective way.
What are the implications of a more skeptical approach to Biblical authorship?
There are several reasons a non-literal understanding of authorship might seem attractive to theologians. The Church, since its foundations in Judaism, has never been about individuals; it is communal in nature. A communal Biblical authorship embraces the notion of a gradual and shared theological discernment of God’s nature throughout human history. It humanizes our faith, making it less about legendary figures and more about the ordinary person’s role in discerning God’s plan. It helps us move away from why Moses or Elijah wrote something down to why God’s people, as a whole, wrote and redacted their theology. I also believe that Hollywood conditions us to consider revelation as a grand moment when the skies open and God’s voice thunders from the clouds. Such a vignette disregards how God reveals Himself to us in the humblest ways, through the whisper, not the pillar of fire, and through the infant, not the mighty king. A nuanced understanding of Biblical authorship helps us to appreciate that God did not confine His revelation to an exclusive club of prophets and kings; He was always there, speaking to His people, through good times and bad. It also humbles us to know that the people He entrusted His message to were not always mighty, wise, and powerful men, but were fallible, ordinary people. On that note, such an understanding of authorship could vindicate God’s character in the Old Testament. There is little denying that the Old Testament commends war, rape, and genocide. I find it easier to believe that these controversial ideas came not from faulty divine commandments but from faulty human understandings of them.
Of course, there are also great risks that come with the promotion of these theories. There is still the threat of rogue theologians who insist they can interpret scripture better than our bishops can. There is also the risk that good Christians, who otherwise live Christ-like lives, could be confused or scared by these theories. Finally, by obsessing over historical accuracy, as many historians have done, we can often neglect what really matter to our salvation. Knowing the historical Moses will not save anyone; living like the mythical one will. Therefore, regardless of who wrote which book of the Bible, we are still obligated to follow Christ, respect the Church Fathers, and submit to the authority of the bishops because at the end of the day, we must remember Christ’s missionary charge: “Go out and make disciples [not historians, biographers, or scientists] of nations!”