The Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) occupies a unique place in contemporary society. Subtle allusions to these ancient texts find their way into films, public debates, and even political speeches. References to what “the Bible says” in contemporary culture often give the impression that these ancient texts appeared without any human assistance; but in fact the writing, editing, and collecting of these texts were the result of human activity over the centuries.
Prior to modern times, readers assumed that the texts of the Hebrew Bible were composed by important figures from Israel’s history—individuals like Moses, Joshua, or Samuel, who took it upon themselves to record their experiences. This traditional understanding of biblical authorship originated in the texts themselves. For example, several passages refer to Moses writing God’s commands (Exod 17:14, Exod 24:4, Exod 34:28, Num 33:2, Deut 31:9, Deut 31:22), and many others make mention of the “law(s) of Moses” (for example, Josh 8:30-31, 2Kgs 14:6, Ezra 3:2). Clues like these led readers to identify Moses as the author of the Pentateuch.
Similarly, because Solomon often appears in the Wisdom literature and is remembered as an exceptionally wise individual (1Kgs 4:29-34), premodern readers credited Solomon with writing books such as the Song of Songs (Song 1:1), Ecclesiastes (Eccl 1:1, Eccl 1:12), and major portions of Proverbs (Prov 1:1, Prov 10:1). Associations like these not only provided a straightforward explanation of how the Hebrew Bible came into being. They also lent the collection a special authority. As faithful accounts from biblical heroes, these texts were believed to be trustworthy representations of Israel’s experience and God’s character. According to this traditional perspective, the Hebrew Bible was simply a collection of individually authored texts composed and collected over several centuries (from about the 13th century through the fifth century B.C.E.).
With the dawn of the modern era, however, scholars began to propose other models for the Hebrew Bible’s formation in light of newer reading methods and the textual details they revealed. Scholars in classical studies had developed particular ways of analyzing ancient Greek and Roman literature in order to determine how those texts were composed, when they were written, how they were edited, and what situations brought them about. As early as the 17th century, biblical scholars began to adopt these methods and apply them to the Hebrew Bible. Their analyses first took note of obvious issues in the flow of pentateuchal stories—things like the repetition of a story, multiple introductions or changes in writing style and grammar within a story, or interruptions in plot.
Instead of attempting to resolve these narrative hiccups by maintaining Mosaic authorship, modern scholars saw these bumps as clues to a different model for the Hebrew Bible’s composition. This newer model understood the Bible to be the result of an extended writing, editing, and compiling process that brought individual traditions together into larger books over time. These insights were further confirmed by the increase of archaeological data and a growing understanding of how other cultures recorded, edited, and preserved their important texts. Like these other texts, the Bible is likely not the work of prominent individuals. Rather, the Bible is the product of generations of authors and editors who wrote, edited, and supplemented these books across Israelite, Judean, and Jewish history.
Although the last two centuries have witnessed a variety of theories about how the Hebrew Bible came into being, most scholars today now conclude that the first major period of literary production was not during the time of Moses (13th century B.C.E.) but instead during the political peak of the southern kingdom of Judah (eighth–sixth centuries B.C.E.). This is not to say that biblical texts were not written earlier than this time. Northern traditions (for example, Jacob stories that take place in northern locations such as Bethel) were likely written prior to the northern kingdom of Israel’s destruction in 722 B.C.E., and texts like the earliest portions of Proverbs, some of the royal psalms, or even the Covenant Code (Exod 20:19-23:33) may date as early as the 9th century B.C.E. However, most scholars no longer attribute large blocks of written material to the time of the “united monarchy.” On the contrary, archaeology has shown that Judah developed a writing culture quite late in its history, with the 8th and 7th centuries marking the zenith.
This does not mean, however, that the majority of the biblical corpus was composed during the later period of the Judean monarchy, nor does it suggest that exilic and postexilic Judeans had only a slight editorial role in the formation of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, critical scholars understand much of the Hebrew Bible (especially the Pentateuch) to be a product of the Persian period (sixth–third centuries B.C.E.). Many texts composed during the exile (for example, Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah) and after (for example, the Priestly source of the Pentateuch, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Daniel). Scribes from these periods continually edited and supplemented whatever written traditions they inherited from preexilic times. The biblical texts as they now stand (from Pentateuch to Prophets) are either the written by or the editorial product of Persian and Hellenistic Jews.
Although “editing” may imply tampering with or misrepresenting “authentic” or “original” writings of older generations, scholars now understand that the scribal revision of texts was intended not to deceive new readers but rather to make sense of the previous materials for their present circumstances. Thus, editing, adding, and combining were ways of faithfully receiving and interpreting Israel’s stories and writings for the readers who lived after the exile. Within the Hebrew Bible itself, we can witness the fascinating history of how generations of readers appropriated the stories of those who preceded them.