How Did We Get the Bible? Part I

Have you ever wondered where the Bible came from? Christian doctrine states God inspired human beings to write Scripture, but few of us have unpacked what that means. As a kid growing up in church, I imagined Moses hiking up a mountain and God hand-delivering the first five books of the Bible. “Here you go, Moses—the Torah. Now go down and read it to the people.” I also imagined prophets sitting at their desks writing as God audibly dictated to them. In my mind all the books of the Bible were each a single document written by one particular author (e.g. Moses or Ezekiel or Solomon.) I didn’t give much thought as to how all these books came together into one volume. It never occurred to me that Scripture, at one time, looked any different than the nice leather bound book my parents gave me. But, the Bible did not fall out of the sky. Nor did God dictate words to human beings through mechanical writing. God inspired human beings in their cultural context.

We tend to think writers of Scripture wrote down every single word as enunciated by God. But Peter suggests otherwise:

As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look (I Peter 1:10-12; NASB).

Peter understood inspiration as the Spirit of God within the prophets illuminating them to truth. These messages were not always as crystal clear as a phone call from God, but involved “searches and inquiries.” Even Moses’ trip up Mt. Sinai contains a certain amount of mystery. God’s encounter with Moses and the people is described in figurative language of natural phenomena: a “thick cloud” (Ex 19:9, 16; 24:15-16, 18; 34:5; Deut 4:11; 5:22), “thunders and lightnings” (v. 16; 20:18), “smoke” (v. 18; 20:18), “fire” (v. 18; 24:17; Deut 4:11-12, 15, 33, 36; 5:4, 23-26), and earthquakes (v. 18). At Sinai God spoke to Moses “in thunder” (Ex 19:19). Storm and earthquake language is often used in ancient Near Eastern rhetoric to describe cosmic events. When the earth and heavens are shaken, God is up to something big (see also Jdg 5:4-5; Ps 18:6-13; Is 30:29-30). Similarly, in the ancient Near East mountains are closely associated with the dwelling place of deities. Even though Scripture describes God speaking to Moses “face to face,” this is not to be understood literally (Ex 33:11). Only a few verses later, we read “[God] said [to Moses], ‘You cannot see my face, for humankind shall not see me and live” (v. 20). This is not to say there was no mountain or powerful spiritual event. Its simply to recognize the biblical author used literary devices to convey the genuine and dynamic encounter between God and Moses.[1]

We can easily misunderstand the meaning of Scripture if we don’t have an awareness of ancient Near Eastern rhetoric and stock imagery. If Peter is right, God appears to have spoken through his prophets by illumination of the Spirit. This dovetails with other evidence we see in the Old Testament. Prophets received God’s revelation in visions (Hab 2:1-2), dreams (Dan 7:1), and when the Spirit came upon them. Significantly, Habakkuk says he will “keep watch to see what [God] will speak” to him. This suggests divine messages could come through images. The dreams that Joseph and Daniel interpreted are good examples. Prophets also received God’s revelation when the Spirit entered or came upon them: “Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to [Moses]; and He took of the Spirit who was upon [Moses] and placed him upon the seventy elders. And when the Spirit rested upon them, they prophesied” (Num 11:25).

When prophets prophesied by the Spirit, the result was not the dictated words of mechanical writing. This is why Scripture is written in the language and rhetoric of the ancient Near East and not a “heavenly” language. By some profound mystery the Bible is a collaborative effort. God inspired human beings, but that message was articulated through the mouths and pens of a particular people and culture. So what did this look like on the ground? How was the Bible written? Below I summarize findings from Karel van der Toorn’s Scribal Culture and the Making of the Hebrew Bible. [2]This helpful study sheds light on the incipient stages of the Bible.

Who wrote the Bible?

Scribes wrote the Bible. The ancient Near East was an oral culture. Scholars debate the level of literacy. But certainly a good percentage of the general public did not read or write. Trained scribes did much of the writing and reading. Yet even what the scribes recorded was intended for oral performance. The Hebrew verbs for reading mean “to cry, to speak aloud.” Texts were meant to be heard. Habakkuk was told to write down a prophecy so that a reader could “run” with it (i.e. go about proclaiming it orally to others; 2:2). Isaiah said the deaf will hear the words of the scroll (29:18). Texts were primarily transcriptions of oral compositions. Even when a scribe invented a text, he often composed it orally before writing it down. This is why Scripture has many stylistic devices useful for oral performance such as rhythm, repetition, stock phrases, etc. Oral culture also affected the length of texts. The Old Testament “books” are not actually books, but collections of shorter texts that could be performed orally in one sitting. This is quite unlike our text experience today where we expect to come back to the same book multiple times to finish it. We read long texts silently and individually. They heard short texts aloud and corporately.

In the ancient Near East the public did not buy books or check them out from a library. Texts were primarily for official reference in the archives located in the palace and/or temple. There was no market for books. “Books” as we think of them did not begin to develop until the Hellenistic period when literacy rates seemed to rise.[3]This appears to be the result of an increase in libraries (official) and schools. But even still, the first example of an actual codex is not evident until late first century C.E. Prior to the codex, everything was written on scrolls. Scrolls had limitations in terms of space and thus affected the organization of texts. The codex did not surpass the use of scrolls until after 300 C.E. The earliest extant codex we have of all the Old Testament texts in one volume dates to circa 930 C.E. In the ancient Near East, including the time of the early Christians, biblical texts were on separate scrolls. There was no single “book” called the Bible. There were multiple texts from different time periods written by different authors and redactors. Eventually, the Jewish and Christian communities determined which of these different texts they believed were inspired and should be preserved together in a canon.

Who Were the Scribes?

The scribes responsible for the biblical texts were most likely Levites associated with the Temple. In Mesopotamia and Egypt the intellectual center was the Temple. This is where scribes learned their trade. Ancient Near Eastern scribes were typically trained in specializations: astrology, exorcism, divination, medicine, liturgy, etc. All of these specializations were categorized under “wisdom.” Scribes were also proficient in languages. However, they were not “authors” in the modern sense. Most texts in antiquity were anonymous. Scribes were known especially for their craft. They took pride in their “penmanship.” In Egypt, students chanted and memorized classical texts before copying them down by memory. Advanced students graduated around the age of 20. Professionally, scribes served as secretaries in government, drafted business documents, copied and preserved sacred texts, read the liturgy, or engaged in scholarship.

Similarly, Israelites scribes were involved in governmental and religious affairs (e.g. 2 Sam 8:15-17; 2 Chron 34:13). Some scholars have suggested the palace scribes were primarily responsible for the writing of Scripture. However, it seems more likely priests were responsible for sacred text. Palace scribes took care of administrative and diplomatic matters. Priests, on the other hand, had to be literate in order to read God’s word to the people. Levites, in particular, are the ones who explained Torah, read from the scroll, and performed liturgy (2 Chron 17:8-9; 34:13; see also Jubilees 45:15 and the Levi Document). Priests also wrote curses (Num 5:23). Like other ancient Near Eastern scribes, Israelite scribes knew different languages (II Kings 18:18-27). They were also familiar with the literature and stylistics of other nations. For example, Deuteronomy 28 exhibits similarities with Assyrian treaty curses. And some Israelite proverbs are emendations of Egyptian maxims.

Israelite scribes also wrote down many of the prophetic oracles.[4]Jeremiah did not do his own writing. A scribe, Baruch, recorded his prophecies and read them aloud for him (Jer 36:1-10). Even the Pentateuch, attributed to Moses, was shaped by scribes from previous oral and written traditions. This does not mean Moses didn’t contribute anything. However, the Hebrew language appears to have developed after Moses’ lifetime. Any oral or written traditions passed down by Moses were edited by later scribes.[5]This is not surprising. The biblical texts were preserved over hundreds of years. Copying and updating texts was necessary to make them accessible. We still do this today. For example, most of us don’t read the same English Bible produced by John Wycliffe in 1385. Similarly, the laws of Moses were copied and updated by scribes from an early date. Even the king was required to make a copy for his own edification (Deut 17:18-19). We see scribal activity evident in, among other thing, the addition of Moses’ obituary (Gen 34:5-12), as well as clarifying comments for a later audience (e.g. “and the Canaanites were then in the land”; Gen 12:6). Scribes also collated various texts and organized them together, adding content as necessary. For example, Genesis is not one document but several.

In What Sense Did Scribes “Write” the Bible?

As indicated earlier, much of Scripture was originally produced orally and then written down. So are the scribes the “authors” of the Bible? Or did they only record the words spoken by prophets? Several scribal tasks are evident:

1. Transcription of oral tradition. This occurred at the time the prophecy was spoken such as with Baruch and Jeremiah. Or, a scribe might write down an oral tradition that had been circulating and not yet preserved in text.

2. Invention of new texts. No biblical text is explicitly an invention of the scribes (except Ezekiel?). They almost always worked with previous oral or written tradition. However, it’s possible that the biblical acrostics are a scribal invention used in the scribal school. Acrostics were used in schools elsewhere in the ancient Near East. Also, the book of Chronicles appears to be a scholarly creation that references several other works. Van der Toorn does not mention Ezekiel. However, Ezekiel was a scribe and prophet. He wrote his own text albeit like most texts, his work was redacted by later scribes.

3. Compilation. Proverbs and prophetic oracles were collected together and organized in specific ways. The book of Proverbs is a collection of maxims. Similarly, Isaiah is a compilation of multiple oracles. The scribes were thoughtful about their arrangement of these texts. Thus, even if there was not a unity prior, the scribes created unity.

4. Expansion. Even though the scribes were careful to preserve tradition through meticulous copying, they sometimes expanded on texts. Many of these expansions are quite evident in other ancient Near Eastern literature because the cuneiform tablets have preserved how specific texts expanded over time. Since the papyrus the Israelites used disintegrated, we have very few explicit examples of expansions. However, one undisputed sample is the book of Jeremiah.

5. Adaptation for a new audience. Sometimes the Israelites re-worked an existing ancient Near Eastern tradition. For example, Proverbs 22:17-24:22 is an adaptation of the Egyptian Teaching of Amenemope.

6. Integration of documents into one composition. Genesis 6-9 is considered by some to be an example of two or more different sources merged together into one. This assertion is based on the repetitions (6:5-8/6:9-13), redundancies (7:7/7:13)(7:17/7:18), and contradictions (6:19-20/7:2).

Why Does This Matter?

Understanding how Scripture was written is crucial for proper interpretation. For example, when we realize the biblical authors engaged ancient Near Eastern concepts and literature, we are less likely to confuse graphic Assyrian curse rhetoric with a verbatim script from God. Scripture has an ancient Near Eastern “accent” to it. If we don’t recognize the accent, we can mistake the culture, language, and customs of antiquity with revelation itself. We must be able to distinguish the heart of the divinely inspired message from Israelite cultural “packaging.”

In my next post, I will discuss in greater detail examples of scribal expansion, adaptation, and contextual engagement.


[1] Many Christians think of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) as the “Law of Moses.” Thus, the tendency is to imagine God giving the Pentateuch to Moses at Sinai. But much of the Pentateuch does not consist of laws. Genesis is narrative and the other books are also full of narrative—much of it recounting past events. In other words, the text itself indicates much of the content is post-Sinai. This is especially explicit in Deuteronomy. The book is clearly identified as after-the-fact interpretation of Sinaitic law (e.g. Deut 1:5). In fact, the biblical narrative does not even claim all the laws were given on the mountain top (Lev 1:1). The Ten Commandments appear to be the primary Sinaitic revelation (e.g. Deut 4:11-13). Furthermore, scribal activity points to more complex literary development than a singular writing project. To list only a few evidences of scribal activity: different traditions of what is included in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:2-17; 34:12-26; Deut 5:6-21), different names given to the mountain (Sinai/Horeb; Ex 19:20; Deut 4:10), and divergent views or changes in law (e.g. Ex 20:5; Deut 24:16). Finally, many of the laws are similar to other ancient Near Eastern laws that pre-date Moses—there are certainly differences as well, but it’s clear the laws are shaped, in part, by the culture of the ancient Near East. With this in mind, we readily see most of the Pentateuch was not written in dramatic fashion on a mountain top. Rather, we should imagine a lengthy process involving writing implements, scrolls, and the Spirit’s influence guiding and illuminating (i.e. something along the lines of what Peter envisioned).

[2]I primarily recommend chapters 1-5 of this work. Van der Toorn bases his argument on a combined examination of three categories of evidence: 1) comparative evidence found in ancient Near Eastern texts; 2) internal evidence in the biblical text; 3) external evidence in extra-biblical Jewish sources. For a specifically evangelical discussion of these same concepts see: John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013).

[3] Extra-biblical Jewish books, such as 1 Enoch, began to appear after 300 B.C.E.

[4] An exception is Ezekiel who was a prophet trained as a scribe. He appears to have written his prophecies for a scholarly reading audience, which suggests texts might have begun to take on new significance in the 6th century B.C.E.

[5] Interestingly, the narrative indicates the Ten Commandments were written on stone tablets. In much of the ancient Near East, aside from Egypt, texts were written on clay tablets called cuneiform. These were very durable and thus archeological remains have found complete Mesopotamian libraries. However, thus far, no Israelite cuneiform tablets have been found. The Israelites appear to have done all of their writing on perishable material. But, we know various texts existed as we have clay tags that were attached to scrolls. The earliest extant copies of biblical scrolls are from the mid-second century B.C.E. and were found at Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls).  However, the oldest citation to date that agrees with Scripture (Numbers 6:24-26) was found in late 7th century amulets.