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If you know how Wikipedia works, you have a good idea of how the authorship of biblical books went down: an anonymous text is added to over time, but none of the additions are screaming for individual recognition.

Benjamin Sommer explains the phenomenon this way:

As Walter Jackson Bate and Harold Bloom have shown, poets since the romantic era [sic] have attempted to cover up the extent to which they are indebted to their predecessors. Ancient and medieval authors, however, saw their writings as valuable only if they contribubted to a mighty stream that predated and transcended them. Where a modern author (to borrow language from T. S. Eliot) emphasizes individual talent, the ancients found meaning in tradition. They believed in all sincerity that anything of merit in their writing was the product of insight they culled from earlier authorities and of skills they learned from their masters. (Revelation and Authority, p. 139, my emphasis; see also  here and here and here).

Modern notions of  “authorship” value individual talent and creativity. In antiquity, “authors” were valued by being seen as part of a greater whole, as standing in a tradition.

The modern obsession with individual authorship of biblical texts is the very thing that the Old Testament “authors” seem determined to obscure.

Consider the book of Psalms. Over time, David came to be associated with the book as a whole, which included  “authoring” psalms that stem from a much later time. Why? Because these later authors and compilers saw themselves not as individual authors, but as purveyors of a tradition.

Likewise, the book of Proverbs is associated with Solomon, but the book as a whole is a compilation of proverbial sayings that span a great length of time.

This same notion can be applied to Isaiah. All but a very few scholars agree that the book of Isaiah, though rooted in the 8th c. BCE, is added to until the postexilic period (late 6th and into the 5th centuries BCE) where it reached the form as we know it. These later authors, however, continue to attribute the book as a whole the 8th century prophet Isaiah—not in an attempt to fool anyone, but because their notion of “authorship” demanded it.

And of course, we have the Pentateuch—that diverse collection of laws and narratives that did not reach it’s final form until well after the return from Babylonian exile (539 BCE), though all of it claims to be rooted in the time of Moses.

Scribe Additions / Biblical Authoriship

The “late” authorship of biblical books—which is so central to modern biblical scholarship and yet so problematic, even heretical, to others—makes perfect sense if we adopt ancient notions of “authorship” rather than modern ones.

Adding one’s voice to an ancient tradition without acknowledging it isn’t “lying” or “showing disrespect for God’s word.” It is how ancient authorship works—it is how the truth is told and how one shows respect for the tradition.

Modern assumptions of how authorship “should” work need to be set aside if we want to “take seriously” the biblical text.

Sommer uses a well-known internet joke to explain further how ancient authorship works: “Why God Could Not Get Tenure at a University.” The reasons include:

  • He only has one publication
  • it has no footnotes
  • it is in Hebrew
  • when one experiment went amiss, He tried to cover it up by drowning all the subjects
  • some doubt He even wrote it Himself

A real knee-slapper, of course, but Sommer noticed that none of the forwarded emails contained precisely the same list. Some of the reasons remained constant, but the exact wording was tweaked and the number of reasons given varied. (I might also add that the joke exists with at least one alternate name, “Why God Couldn’t Get a PhD,” or some other variation).

Sommer explains:

Because anyone who forwards an email can alter the text, various people (whether my friends, or the people who sent them, or some unknown person in the chain before that) had introduced small modifications, additions, and subtractions. Some people must have said to themselves, “It would be even funnier if I rephrase this one a little,” “Here’s a good one I thought of myself,” “I can take a joke as well as the next guy, but this one’s just sacrilegious.” Even though it was clear that people who passed the lists on often intervened in the text, I never saw anyone’s name attached to a list as author, even as partial author. It would have been ridiculous for someone who made a minor alteration to claim that status.

The situation of biblical scribes, mutatis mutandis, was similar. A scribe who added a line, even rephrased a sentence, or combined two texts did not regard himself as the author, and no one person is the “real” author. As a desire to attribute texts to particular authors became more common over time in ancient Israel, scribes connected texts with specicific figure, but putting their own name on texts they were transmitting would have been grossly inappropriate.  In such a situation, attribution to a respected symbolic figure from the past was culturally sensible. (p. 141, reformatted, emphasis added)

Wikipedia, emails, and the Internet as a whole are helpful analogies for understanding what the Bible is—a living, moving, dynamic, tradition.

The “word of God written,” as some describe the Bible, is itself complex and dynamic, a back-and-forth between respect for tradition and the need to continue transforming it. That much seems crystal clear to me.

The question we need to be asking, however, is as it has always been for Christians: does reading the Bible faithfully mean continuing that “transformative” trajectory, or shutting it down? Does the biblical “canon” function as a closed book of rules or as a model for a necessarily continuing theological process?

I think these are viable questions raised by paying attention to the Bible itself—both within the Old Testament and in how the New Testament authors appropriate it.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • Jeff says:

    This is an elementary question, but one I get a lot when discussing such things. If, as 1 Timothy 3:16 states, the Bible is inspired by God, is it safe to assume his continued inspiration throughout the editing and translation processes? Thx.

    • PeteEnns says:

      I think the more pressing question is what “inspiration” means. That is a discussion worth having. Itis often assumed it mean “plenary verbal” but there are other models of inspiration (such as what Benjamin Sommer is offering) where the question behind the question you are asking would have to be totally reframed.

      • Jeff says:

        It is true that ‘inspiration’ in this sense can be a theologically loaded term. I tend to lean toward 2 Peter 1:21 which states “…men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (I think that’s sufficiently vague…lol).

        In the end, whether a person sees inspiration as ‘plenary verbal’, some sort of Holy Spirit influence or even as Mike McHargue says– that scripture is inspired by God just as the love song he wrote for his wife was ‘inspired’ by his wife… however it’s defined, do you have a sense that this inspiration was present beyond the initial ‘Wikipedia submission’?

        I think a part of me hopes, however the word is defined, God’s hand in inspiration has always been active and perpetual; from the first moment those stories were told to when they were written down, to when someone thought of a better way to frame the story, to when I’m sitting at home reading in my Bible– God constantly breathing on each and every human interaction with these words.

        Maybe that’s a little too ethereal or even spooky for some. But then again, maybe it was the plan all along?

    • Simon Timperley says:

      I recently read something regarding 1 Timothy 3:16 “The Bible is inspired by God”. The text is “All scripture is God breathed…” so the points are “scripture” can mean “anything written” or “all writing” and not exclusively “The Bible” which didn’t exist as we know it when 1 Tim was written, because no one read or wrote, so the writer to Timothy is extolling the written word in any form as being of use for Godliness and service. Then there’s “God breathed”, which is a far cry from “dictated word for word in 17th century middle English and just waiting for movable type to be invented and universal literary education to be available”. My personal take on this (and *only* mine that I can speak of personally) is that God curated and cintonues to curate his written and published self revelation and desires us to engage in it along with a willingness to embrace His presence by His Spirit and living a live modeled by His Son Jesus, our natural inclination to *not* doing that having been paid for in some way by the death and resurrection of “THE WORD”. As far as “modifying the text” goes every preacher ever does this, as do the kitten and puppies memes, any time we “quote” or attempt “Bible Bingo” to win arguments we *add* to the intent and meaning.

      • PeteEnns says:

        I think Sommer would echo what you’re saying here, Simon. The line between Scripture and tradition is less clear than we sometimes assume it to be.

    • Marshall Janzen says:

      Since the writings Timothy received from childhood (2 Tim. 3:15) are the immediate context for Paul’s statement about Scripture’s inspiration, it seems inspiration must include writings translated into Greek and far removed from any hypothesized autographs.

      Perhaps one dead-end is associating “God-breathed” with “God-spoken.” Breath isn’t primarily about speech, so this would be a curious metaphor to describe God’s authorship of the Bible. God breathes into Adam and other animals to make them alive. Ezekiel has a vision of dry bones that receive breath, coming to life. Jesus breathes on the disciples to enable them to do his work in the Spirit’s power. Breath is about being enlivened which in turn is about being set into motion.

      This naturally leads to a version of inspiration that focuses on the purpose and power of Scripture rather than its supposed inerrancy or historical precision.

  • Brad Harris says:

    My friends and I struggle frequently with exactly these issues. What, exactly, does it mean for the Bible to be the Word of God? Would it be appropriate for individuals today to modify the text? I think in some respects the second question is easier to answer: We see this happen all the time in Bible translation work. In an in-person Bible study group I attend we all bring different translations, and each of us favors one translation over another for different reasons. The translators in every case did more or less interpretation of the text in order to get it from what they considered the “best” Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek “original” into the language my friends and I are familiar with. We then read through the text together, and with our limited education and perspective we make judgments about which seems most like God’s intent, as we understand God. And not surprisingly, as a group we have yet to decide that one colloquial translation is always the “right” one and all the others “wrong.” The translators and editors make choices about how to communicate God’s Word, and we do our best to decipher God’s intention. Notably, if we as 21st century Americans had access only to the unedited “original” manuscripts as first committed to parchment or stone by the person receiving the Word from God, in their original ancient languages, none of us would have any ability to interpret the scribbles at all. Only through generations of interpretations, updates, revisions, and translations am I able to glean any content from the text at all.

    • Tim says:

      I think one mistake we make with this is to assume that the Bible is the Word of God. Ironically, the Bible itself declares the Word of God to be Jesus, not the scriptures.

  • Skeptical Christian says:

    Various translations themselves are doing this. The meanings come out very different, depending on what the translaters believe to be the “clear” meaning.

  • Fred says:

    Good stuff, Pete. I am looking forward to your next book explaining what we should actually *do* with scripture. I feel like I’m getting a pretty good grip on what *not to do* with scripture reading your blog posts. But now, when I read something anywhere in the Bible, I sort of think to myself, “Wait a minute. Did that really happen?” Just last Sunday we were reading the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts and I got to thinking: Did God really strike these two people down in the moment Peter talked to them? Did they die a while later and the author embellished the story a little bit to drive a point? It even occurred to me that the text is a little vague. Maybe Peter (or another disciple) actually killed them. Wouldn’t the Roman authorities actually have investigated the strange and random death of two people at the hands of a group of disciples of the Jesus movement who both seemingly had heart attacks and passed out at the same moment? Why isn’t that discussed?

    Anyhow, like I said, I’m looking forward to your next book!

  • Wyatt says:

    Comparing the Bible’s authorship to Wikipedia is a brilliant analogy.

  • John Franklin says:

    Insightful post. You think we have problems figuring things out now, with just 66 books–makes me a little happy that some folks had enough sense back then to close the “canon” when they did lest we have a bible, today, the size of the Library of Congress.

  • David says:

    Great article. I’m curious – I’ve been thinking about Isaiah 53 quite a bit lately. The writers of the Gospels and Apostle Paul clearly applied this passage to Jesus’s crucifixion, when developing their christology of Jesus being the lamb of God, carrying our diseases and sins. However when I read the passage today, it never actually refers to Jesus Christ, so isn’t really prophesy, strictly speaking, and wouldn’t have occurred to the writers that they were predicting Jesus of Nazareth, 600 years later.

    If you can comment here…
    1) What do you think the Suffering Servant was referring to when the passage was written?
    2) Also, any idea as to what context would this have been read? Public religious services, or would it have been restricted to certain Jewish priestly sects?


    • PeteEnns says:

      Short answer, I think the “servant” is Judah in exile suffering on behalf of the whole nation.

      • David says:

        Okay, thanks! Great analogy comparing it to Wikipedia and emails. That’s really helpful.

        On a different topic more related to your article: Regarding your question “Does the biblical “canon” function as a closed book of rules or as a model for a necessarily continuing theological process?”
        … I’m curious, do you have an opinion as to what that “continuing theological process” should look like? I have seen a lot of modern Charismatic groups believing in continual revelation, seemingly leaving scripture alone, and yet seem to go off onto crazy tangents… And yet this is where I see a “continuing theological process” going…

  • Beau Quilter says:

    The differences you draw between contemporary academic notions of authorship and ancient “authorship” are valid if people have an expectation that David wrote the Psalms, Solomon wrote the Proverbs, and Isaiah wrote the entire book of Isaiah (though I don’t think the texts themselves explicitly make such claims).

    But the case is different with New Testament letters, especially those which specifically claim to be written by a particular apostle to a particular person or church, but which most New Testament scholars agree, make the claim falsely. Such letters have long been referred to as pseudepigapha, but the word “forgery” is being used more commonly by scholars in recent years, especially in light of the fact that ancient historians and ancient Christians did, in fact, recognize and denounce writings that were falsely attributed to famous writers.

    • PeteEnns says:

      Beau, I’m not sure who you’re referring to re: forgery (Bart Ehrman?) but it was common in 2T Judaism to ascribe books to famous figures (Testament of Moses, Abraham, 12 Patriarchs, etc., etc).I don’t think that is exactly the same as, say, the Pastoral Epistles or 2 Peter, but it certainly suggests that later authors can anonymously ascribe their work to someone of notoriety, esp. if they are “extending the tradition.” Of course, we have two types of “post-Pauline” letters: Deutero-Pauline and Pseudo-Pauline, and those two can’t be looked at in much the same way.

      Having said that, your first paragraph is confusing to me and the point you are seeking to make in the second is largely irrelevant to my post, which focuses on the development of the OT. It’s an interesting question, but I was not claiming to speak into those issues.

      • Beau Quilter says:

        Yes, sorry; I think my first paragraph was a clumsy agreement with the point you were making: that OT attributions of famous authors to the psalms, proverbs, and prophecies demonstrate “ancient notions of “authorship” rather than modern ones.” Is “authorship” even the right term for such traditional OT ascriptions?

        I know that you are dealing primarily with “authors” ascribed to OT literature, but you did seem to be making points about how biblical literature, as a whole, is read. And since New Testament passages, including some taken from pseudepigraphal Pauline epistles, were brought into the comments, I thought I would point out that New Testament letters are a very different genre of writing than the OT literature you were discussing.

        Yes, I think you’re right that Ehrman makes the most exhaustive case for forgery as a categorization of NT epistles, but I’ve seen the term used for NT letters by Einar Thomassen (in “The Invention of Sacred Tradition”), articles by John W. Marshall, and in other sources. If most scholars are in agreement that Paul did not write the Pastorals, for example, and if the author of the Pastorals goes out of his way to convince us that he is Paul, by including personal details; it certainly does look like a form of deception at work. Ehrman makes a strong case that there are clear examples of early Christians denouncing false attributions (forgeries), but no examples of early Christians promoting any sort of tradition of attributing famous authors to letters they did not write (at least not purposefully).

  • EricH says:

    I too found this a most illuminating post, and it raises two questions for me please.

    1. Would Sommer’s view on how OT authorship works be the consensus view among OT scholars, or is it novel?

    2. Like Beau, I wonder whether this can explain how a book like 2 Peter was ascribed to the apostle when it is generally believed not to have been written by him, or should we regard it as a forgery?


    • PeteEnns says:

      See my response to Beau. On #1, yes, authorship is generally seen as a development of tradition. What Sommer is doing is fleshing out that process as he sees it (and which I find quite convincing).

  • Jenkins says:

    This seems a very reasonable idea to me, given the state of literacy in the ancient world.
    Is this a similar idea used to explain the authorship of The Illiad and The Odyssey by Homer? Was there any analogous oral tradition in the development of the OT?

  • Fred Moore says:

    So, how does Revelation 22 verse 19 play into this thought process: “And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.”

    • Skeptical Christian says:

      Well, that covers the book of Revelation. Yet the church did not unanimously receive it for centuries.

  • Ross says:

    A big part of me wonders why the Canon was formed. My understanding is that both the NT and OT Canons were formed in a sort of similar timescale by two different groups, for some reason (what was that?). and this was after Jesus died, by quite a while. Although I think there may have ben a sort of agreement with say the Septuagint as to what were the major authoritative documents within Judaism. Was there a strong feeling at the time of the formation of the Canons that a Canon needed to be formed? Did the reasons for a canonical formation set us up for yet another Red Herring? Was the formation of the Canons purely down to the growing split and antipathy between what became Christianity and Judaism?

  • Anthony says:

    What is the relationship between, All scripture is God breathed, Inerrancy , and literal interpretation ? At the end of the day are they just nuanced ways of implying the same thing ?

    • PeteEnns says:

      Why does God breathed have to mean inerrant?

      • Anthony says:

        If inerrant means free from error, or infallible, incapable of error , wouldn’t God Breathed, which is the implied source be same also ?

        • PeteEnns says:

          You’d think that, wouldn’t you–until you read it. “Inerrant” doesn’t capture the intracanonical debate that we see in the Bible.

  • Francesco Giannangeli says:

    I wish too I had thought of it (of the Wikipedia collaborative analogy)!
    But does this require a unique model of inspiration / tradition / community authorship for all of the Bible?
    Why not diversity also here? There may be diverse types of “authorship” so that both the Pentateuch and say Luke’s writings may belong to the same Scripture.
    I am perfectly comfortable with a non-homogeneous authorship / inspiration / tradition / writing / rewriting model, be the “author” known or unknown, community or individual, schools and tradition or personalities.
    Thank you for having directed me to Sommer’s work (my next reading).
    (Sorry for the poor English, I could have said that better in French…)

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