Over the centuries, billions of people have read the Bible. Scholars have spent their lives studying it, while rabbis, ministers, and priests have focused on interpreting, teaching, and preaching from its pages.
As the sacred text of two of the world’s major religions, Judaism and Christianity, as well as other religions, the Bible has also had an unparalleled influence on literature, especially in the Western world. It has been translated into almost 700 languages and although exact sales figures are difficult to find, it is widely regarded as the best-selling book in the world.
But despite the undeniable influence of the Bible, mysteries persist about its origins. Even after almost 2000 years of existence and centuries of investigation by biblical scholars, we still do not know with certainty who wrote his different texts, when they were written or under what circumstances.
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Old Testament: single author theory
The Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, tells the story of the people of Israel for about a millennium, starting with the creation of God of the world and of mankind, and contains the stories, laws and moral lessons that form the basis of the religious life of the two Jews. and Christians. For at least 1,000 years, Jewish and Christian tradition has maintained that a single author wrote the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – which together are known as the Torah (Hebrew for “instruction”) and the Pentateuch (Greek for “five scrolls”). This sole author was believed to be Moses, the Hebrew prophet who led the Israelites out of captivity to Egypt and guided them across the Red Sea to the Promised Land.
Yet almost from the start, Bible readers have observed that there are things in the so-called five books of Moses that Moses himself could not have witnessed: his own death, for example, occurs towards the end of Deuteronomy. A volume of the Talmud, the collection of Jewish laws recorded between the 3rd and 5th century AD, dealt with this inconsistency by explaining that Joshua (Moses’ successor as leader of the Israelites) probably wrote the verses on death of Moses.
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“This is one opinion among many,” said Joel Baden, professor at the Yale Divinity School and author of The composition of the Pentateuch: renewing the documentary hypothesis. “But they are already asking the question – was it possible or not for [Moses] having written them?
By the time the Enlightenment began in the 17th century, most religious scholars were more seriously questioning the idea of the authorship of Moses, as well as the idea that the Bible could have been the work of a single author. These first five books were filled with contradictory and repetitive material, and often seemed to tell different versions of the history of the Israelites, even in a single section of text.
As Baden explains, “the classic example” of this confusion is the story of Noah and the flood (Genesis 6: 9). “You read and you say, I don’t know how many animals Noah took the ark with him,” he says. “In this sentence, it is written two of each animal. In this sentence, he takes two animals and 14 animals. Likewise, the text records the duration of the flood as 40 days in one place and 150 days in another.
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The Old Testament: various schools of authors
To explain the contradictions, repetitions and general idiosyncrasies of the Bible, most scholars today agree that the stories and the laws it contains have been communicated orally, through prose and poetry, over the centuries. From the 7th century BC, different groups or schools of authors noted them at different times, before they were at some point (probably during the first century BC) combined into one only multi-layered work we know today.
Of the three main blocks of source documents that scholars recognize to understand the first five books of the Bible, the first would have been written by a group of priests, or priestly authors, whose scholars designate the “P.” A second block of source material is known as “D” – for Deuteronomy, that is, the author (s) of the vast majority of the book of Deuteronomy. “The two of them are not really related to each other in any meaningful way,” says Baden, “except that they both give laws and tell a story from the first story of Israel. ”
According to some scholars, including Baden, the third major block of source material in the Torah can be divided into two different, equally consistent schools, named after the word that each uses for God: Yahweh and Elohim. The stories using the name Elohim are classified as “E”, while the others are called “J” (for Jawhe, the German translation of Yahweh). Other researchers do not agree on two complete sources for non-priestly material. Instead, Baden says, they see a much more gradual process, in which material from many smaller sources has been layered over a longer period of time.
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New Testament: Who wrote the Gospels?
Just as the Old Testament tells the story of the Israelites in the millennium before the birth of Jesus Christ, the New Testament records the life of Jesus, from his birth and his teachings to his death and later to his resurrection, a story that forms the basic foundation of Christianity. From around 70 AD, around four decades after the crucifixion of Jesus (according to the Bible), four chronicles of his life written anonymously emerged and will become central documents in the Christian faith. Named after the most devoted earthly disciples or apostles of Jesus – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – the four canonical Gospels were traditionally viewed as eyewitness accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
But for more than a century, scholars have generally agreed that the Gospels, like most New Testament books, were not actually written by the people to whom they were attributed. In fact, it seems clear that the stories that form the basis of Christianity were first communicated orally and passed on from generation to generation before being collected and written.
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“Names are attached to the titles of the Gospels (” the Gospel according to Matthew “)”, writes the Bible specialist Bart Ehrman in his book Jesus interrupted. “But these titles are later additions to the Gospels, provided by publishers and scribes to inform readers that the publishers thought they were the authorities behind the different versions.”
Traditionally, 13 of the 27 New Testament books were attributed to Paul the Apostle, who converted to Christianity after meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus and wrote a series of letters that helped spread faith in the Mediterranean world. But scholars now agree on the authenticity of only seven of Paul’s epistles: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon. These are believed to have been written between 50 and 60 AD, making it the first known evidence of Christianity. The authors of the last epistles could be disciples of Paul, who used his name to give authenticity to the works.
In the 4th century AD, Christianity had been established as the dominant religion in the Western world, and the New and Old Testaments as its most sacred texts. In the centuries to come, the Bible will no longer become central to the lives and faith of millions of people around the world, despite the mystery surrounding its origins and the complex and ongoing debate over its authorship.