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Who Created the Bible?

August 15, 2016

This is a question I get asked with increasing frequency. Most Christians throughout history have simply accepted and assumed the authority of the Bible; they were told it was God’s inspired Word, and that was the end of the matter. But this answer is no longer sufficient for growing numbers of Christians. We live in a society of religious pluralism and of many sacred scriptures. We can’t help but wonder, then, what makes the Bible different and how it came to be. So for a few weeks I’ll write a few blogs about the Bible itself.

So who created the Bible, and how was it created? It’s complicated. And, to some extent, no one knows! But let me suggest a thumbnail outline. Let’s begin with the Old Testament.

Most scholars believe that the Old Testament, as we know it today, began to be created while the Jews were living in exile in Babylon. In 587 B.C. the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and they brought the nation of Judah to an end (the northern kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed by the Assyrians over a hundred years earlier). The Babylonians deported Jerusalem’s elite to Babylon, where they lived as war refugees for a few generations. This was a time of great existential despair, as can be seen in Psalm 137, which was written at this time. With the loss of their nation, the Jews were also faced with the loss of their faith. After all, their God had not protected them. The god of the Babylonians had defeated them.

If the Jews had been like any other people this would indeed have been the end of their religion, and the end of their identity. But the Jews in exile did something extraordinary: they reformed and strengthened their faith in God. They decided that even this catastrophe was part of God’s larger story and plan. They decided to love God and trust God and follow the ethical principles of God despite their horrific suffering. Like the story of Job, they would question God, wrestle with God, but ultimately rest in God.

So they took their ancient stories of God and their ancestors and began creating a written history of Israel, weaving together materials from many different sources. They also preserved and edited the words and writings of various prophets who had challenged the nations of Judah and Israel to follow God’s ethical principles or face disaster. Some of the sources they used were many hundreds of years old. Some had been written more recently, such as the Book of Deuteronomy, which had been discovered in the temple just a few decades before the exile.

When the Persian Empire destroyed the Babylonian Empire, the Persians allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and its temple. At this point, the Jewish leaders updated their history, adding the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah (the book named after him is his own record), as well as others.

Now, for the first time, the Jewish people had an “official” history and story of their faith, including law codes and rituals and songs. This was the beginning of the Bible as we know it. The first five books–Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy–were considered the most important and sacred because they describe the foundations of the faith. Joshua through Esther describe the story of Israel as a nation. Another section, created last of all, includes the words of the prophets, the psalms, and other reflective writings. This, more or less, is the Bible as Jesus knew it. It was regarded as written by ancient leaders such as Moses (the first five books) and David (most of the psalms), though scholars today find this improbable. Most of its authors and editors are unknown to us; but the process was based on an unshakable faith–inspired, indeed.

The creation of the New Testament was quicker. Paul’s letters to various churches were so inspirational and helpful that those churches made copies and shared them with other churches, and they read them aloud in their worship services. Soon Paul’s letters were being treated as sacred scripture. Then the four Gospels were written–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–within 40 to 70 years of Jesus’ ministry. These four Gospels, written anonymously (the names given to their authors were added later; scholars disagree about who the actual authors were), were quickly accepted by the early churches as authoritative sources for the teachings and ministry of Jesus. Although other Gospels (stories of Jesus) were written later, none of the later Gospels ever received widespread acceptance. The early church did a good job of identifying the oldest and most authentic material.

Over the next few decades a few other letters were written, purportedly by Paul or Jesus’ original disciples (though modern scholars dispute this). It took longer for these later letters to be accepted by the church in general, but ultimately they were regarded as helpful, inspired, and consistent with the earliest faith.

There was no official meeting during the first few centuries for the church to agree on which books should be included in the New Testament. It was, instead, a natural (and spiritual) process of winnowing out what was less helpful, and keeping that which was most helpful for building faith. It took centuries for the churches to come to general agreement on the 27 books that make up today’s New Testament–although the core documents of Paul’s letters to the churches, and the four Gospels and Acts, were broadly accepted early on. In general, the church was looking for books that had “apostolic authority”–based on the teachings of Jesus’ original disciples and Paul. They did a good job of it.

So who wrote the Bible? The authors are mostly anonymous. But even though the faith community quickly assigned authorship to authoritative figures such as Moses and David, or Matthew and John, the fact is these many books became authoritative for what they said, not who said it. The Bible is authoritative because these are the books that saved the Jews from oblivion, these are the books that wrestled with faith in the most profound way and found the deepest truths, these are the books that told the complex story of the Jewish people, these are the books that preserved the teachings and ministry of Jesus, these are the books that inspired and guided new congregations that turned the world upside down. In other words, the Bible has stood the test of time–proving that it creates and sustains vital communities of faith and healing under the most diverse circumstances, times, and places. This is why the church today can and must continue to rely on the guidance and inspiration of the Bible.

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