The real origins of the Bible

Who wrote it?

Christians say the Bible was written by people who were there to witness the events it describes. But it’s unrealistic to think that, for instance, there were four people who were all perpetually present to personally witness all the important events throughout the entire life of Jesus. (Including the things that happened before they met him!) And some stories in the Bible couldn’t have had any witnesses, because they’re about people staying out in the wilderness alone, or about private meetings the author wasn’t invited to, or about what God was up to in heaven, etc.

Anyway, we know that hardly any of the Bible was actually written by the people it’s traditionally attributed to:

Who wrote the Old Testament?

For some reason, a lot of people apparently think Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. I don’t know why anyone would think that. The Bible doesn’t say Moses wrote all that. It does say (always in the third person!) that he wrote down the law, but that’s no reason to think he wrote down all the stories in those books. (And even if he had, Moses wouldn’t have been an eyewitness to any of the events of Genesis anyway.)

If you look at what’s in those books, you’ll see they clearly can’t have been written by Moses. The book of Numbers declares that Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth“. That is not something the most humble person on earth would say about himself. Neither is what Deuteronomy says about him, that there has never been another prophet as great as God’s personal friend Moses was.

It doesn’t even make sense for that book to be talking about whether there has been a prophet so great since Moses, unless it was written a long time after Moses died.1 And it was written after Moses died. It says so right there in that same chapter. The last chapter of Deuteronomy says Moses died, and was buried, and was mourned, and was succeeded by Joshua, and the people listened to Joshua… Did Moses write all that before or after he died?

People also say (or used to say) that Joshua wrote the book of Joshua, even though just like with Moses, the book of Joshua tells about Joshua’s death, and things that happened after Joshua was dead.

Even more absurdly, people apparently think the books of Samuel were written by Samuel. I’ll just point out that Samuel dies well before even the first of those books is over, let alone the second. Do people think those books were written by ghost-Samuel or something?

The so-called books of Moses, Joshua, and Samuel often use the words “to this day“, even when comparing “this day” to when those people died. That only makes sense if those books were written long after the death of Moses, Joshua, and Samuel.

Joshua and the preceding books mention a lot of places that didn’t all exist as inhabited towns at the same time until the 7th century BC. Joshua’s list of towns perfectly matches the geography of Judah during the reign of Josiah, but it’s unrealistic as a description of the land several centuries earlier, when Joshua is supposed to have lived. Even Genesis makes geographical assumptions that wouldn’t be true until at least the 7th century BC.

Judges is written from the perspective of someone who is used to Israel having a king. But a lot of the stories in that book are set long before Israel became a monarchy, so the author can’t be someone who was there to witness those events.

A lot of people think of the Psalms as having been written by David, even though the majority of the psalms aren’t actually labeled that way in the Bible. And the Bible says a lot of them are by other people. And some of them were clearly written after the exile.

Jews traditionally attribute the Psalms to a certain nine individuals plus the sons of Korah. The book of Psalms itself attributes psalms to only some of those people, and does not say any of them were written by Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, or Jeduthun. It says a few were written for Jeduthun, but not by Jeduthun.

The book of Proverbs actually claims to have been written partially by Solomon, unlike all those other books that people just assume were written by biblical characters for no biblical reason. Parts of Proverbs claim to have other authors, though. Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs pretty strongly imply that Solomon wrote them. But that doesn’t mean he actually did write them. There are words and phrases in these three books that the Hebrews didn’t start using until after the exile of Judah, hundreds of years after Solomon.

The book of Isaiah sure doesn’t seem like the whole thing was written by Isaiah. Starting with chapter 40, the writing style and theological ideas suddenly change, and it stops mentioning anything about Isaiah, and now it’s suddenly set during the exile, and predicting that the exile is going to end soon. And then the setting for the last 11 chapters is when people have already started returning from exile. The exile didn’t even happen until a hundred years after when Isaiah is traditionally said to have finished writing this book.

The book of Lamentations is traditionally attributed to Jeremiah, even though the book itself doesn’t say anything about Jeremiah, and it often seems to disagree with the book of Jeremiah.

Why does the book of Daniel make some “predictions” that are more or less accurate for a while, but then suddenly stop getting anything right about the future? Probably because that turning point is when the book was actually written. That’s four centuries after when its supposed author Daniel supposedly lived.

And if this is the Daniel that Ezekiel mentions, that would mean Ezekiel too must have been written hundreds of years later than it’s supposed to have been written.

The book of Jonah is apparently said to be written by Jonah, though I certainly never got that impression from reading the actual book. It was actually written by someone who lived so long after the alleged events of the story, he didn’t realize that “the great city of Ninevah” barely even existed anymore by the time he was writing about.

Who wrote the New Testament?

Christians tend to think the gospels were written by eyewitnesses. They were actually written anonymously. No one ever referred to their authors by name until more than a century after the death of Jesus, and over 50 years after the gospels were written. By the time people decided to name them, they had no reliable way to know who actually wrote them, so they had to guess. And they guessed wrong. People decided the gospels were written by the apostle Matthew, Peter’s follower Mark, Paul’s friend Luke, and the apostle John.

The author of Mark was too ignorant of the local geography and Jewish culture to have actually been a Jew who lived where Jesus lived. Most of the book of Matthew is just copied nearly verbatim from Mark,2 which an actual disciple of Jesus would not have had to do. “Luke” is also the author of Acts, whose identity was guessed based on letters allegedly written by Paul that turned out to be fake. The author of Acts got an awful lot of things wrong about Paul’s story3 for someone who was supposedly a close companion of Paul. (And Luke wouldn’t have been an eyewitness to Jesus’s life anyway.)

Five books of the Bible (one of the gospels, three epistles, and Revelation) are traditionally attributed to Jesus’s disciple John. But none of the books themselves actually claim to be written by him. The apostle John was uneducated and probably couldn’t even write. The person who first attributed the fourth gospel to John seems to have confused him with a different John from a later time. Whoever actually wrote the gospel of John didn’t realize that the Jews didn’t start excluding Christians from their place of worship till over 50 years after Jesus died.

A lot of the books of the Bible were not written all by one person at one time, but had parts added to them hundreds of years after they were initially written. For instance, the story where Jesus convinces people not to enforce God’s law can’t be found in any of the earliest manuscripts, nor are there any records of anyone in the first few centuries of Christianity mentioning that story, because somebody made that part up later. Same with the part where people see Jesus alive again after he died, which was retroactively tacked onto the end of the earliest gospel.

The first 13 epistles in the New Testament claim to be written by Paul, but for several of them, that seems unlikely. As the letters themselves acknowledge, there were fake letters “from Paul” going around. Some of the epistles attributed to Paul make it seem like he was on better terms with the original apostles than the genuine epistles show he really was. And some of the letters have Paul suspiciously insisting that he’s a real apostle, when he’s supposed to be writing to close friends who wouldn’t need to be convinced of that.

The letters to Timothy and Titus sound in many ways like they were written when Christianity was more developed than it was during Paul’s life. 1 Timothy has Paul quote “scripture” saying the worker deserves his wages, even though that’s not in the Old Testament. It’s from the gospel of Luke, which wasn’t even written till after Paul died. Clearly Paul didn’t actually write that. That letter must have been written by someone who lived in a time when the gospel of Luke existed, and was considered scripture. 2 Timothy and Titus have similar anachronisms.

The book of Hebrews is traditionally labeled as another letter from Paul for some reason, but that one doesn’t even claim to be from Paul. It’s anonymous, and there’s very little in the letter that even suggests that Paul might have written it.

One book in the New Testament is a letter claiming to be from James (Jesus’s brother). But considering his background, it’s unlikely that James would have been capable of writing so well in Greek. Same with the apostles John and Peter, who the Bible specifically says were uneducated.

There are two epistles that claim to be from Peter. The first one mentions widespread serious persecution of Christians as something that was already happening, even though during Peter’s life, it wasn’t. Persecution of Christians for being Christians didn’t begin until around when Peter died, and it didn’t start happening “throughout the world” till decades later.

The second of those letters very unrealistically refers to Paul’s letters as scriptures. The real Peter considered Paul a heretic, died long before any of the epistles were considered scriptures, and probably would never have even seen Paul’s letters.

The book of Revelation gives its author’s name as John, unlike the other books of the Bible that are attributed to John. But it doesn’t seem like it was written by whoever wrote those other books, since it’s written so differently. Revelation is not as well written in Greek, it uses different spellings and word choices, it doesn’t use the same rhetorical devices and themes, etc.

How did they decide what to write?

A lot of the stories in the Bible, including the gospels, were passed on orally for decades or more before anyone actually wrote them down. A few decades of oral transmission (AKA hearsay) from memory is plenty of time for a historical story to be corrupted into a mythological story. It has been known to happen, and people persistently prefer to believe the fantasy version that the story has become, even if there are still people around who were actually there who disagree, or even if there are written records that disagree.

So even if the stories in the Bible are based on historical events, and even if the writers weren’t trying to make things up, fictional supernatural elements could have easily become accepted as part of the originally mundane stories by the time they were written down.

Even if the stories had been written by people who were there, it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to be able to accurately remember even one short passage of what someone had said after even a few minutes, let alone a few decades. No wonder the Bible is so full of contradictions and other errors. There’s no way the words it attributes to people are the same words they actually said. The authors made up those words, and there were no eyewitnesses around by then to disagree.

The Bible has an awful lot of stories that are suspiciously similar to other stories in the Bible. In some cases, that’s because the writers had this weird idea that history systematically repeats itself. So if they didn’t know enough about the life of Jesus or whoever they were writing about, they figured they could just look at stories about similar people in the earlier scriptures, and assume Jesus must have done the same things.

Similarly, people who were convinced that Jesus was fulfilling prophecies probably wrote stories about him based on the Old Testament prophecies, rather than based on any actual knowledge of what Jesus did.

For example, even though Matthew was obviously copying from Mark when he wrote his gospel, he changed Mark’s account of Jesus riding one donkey, and made it into an absurd story where Jesus rides two donkeys at once. Why would he do that? Because that’s what he thought the Old Testament predicted. He had such a strong preconceived idea that Jesus had to have fulfilled prophecies, that he treated the prophecies as if they were the most reliable source of information on what had happened in Jesus’s life, overriding any actual sources of knowledge he might have had.

The Bible also has an awful lot of stories that are suspiciously similar in some ways to the myths of older religions. Some people would say the writers were “plagiarizing” those other stories, but that concept really doesn’t apply when the stories are supposed to be true.

The intention was probably more to correct what the Bible writers thought the pagans were getting wrong. The pagan stories had elements that the Hebrews and Christians found objectionable, so they wrote their own “corrected” versions. For instance, taking a story that portrays country people (like the ancient Hebrews mostly were) unflatteringly, and turning it into a story about the inventor of cities being the first murderer.

“Luke” seems to have been influenced by the Greek playwright Euripides. Several phrases and stories in the gospel and the book of Acts are awfully similar to what Euripides had written hundreds of years earlier.

The Bible was, naturally, also influenced by the cultures its writers lived in. The New Testament writers, who lived in a Greek-influenced culture, had very different ideas from the Old Testament writers, who didn’t.

The New Testament concept of demons is a corruption of the Greek concept of daemons. New Testament demons are not the same as Greek daemons, which aren’t always evil. They’re also not the same as Old Testament evil spirits, which always come from God. A lot of Christian ideas about heaven and hell, which didn’t exist in Judaism in Old Testament times, also seem to come from Greek and other pagan beliefs.

How did they choose which writings should be considered canonical?

Until around 200 BC, the Hebrew Bible consisted of just the first five books. (Samaritans still consider only Genesis through Deuteronomy to be scripture.) Jews gradually accepted the rest of the Old Testament as canon over the next few hundred years.

When they made the first Bible translation, around the same time that the canon was just starting to expand beyond the first five books, they included the books now known as the Apocrypha. Apparently it wasn’t until around the end of the first century AD that those books were removed from some denominations’ canon. One popular theory was that this happened when some rabbis got together and made decisions about which books should officially be considered scripture.

They didn’t have particularly good reasons for their decisions. An eight-chapter erotic poem made it into the Bible just because they mistakenly thought Solomon wrote it, while more significant books were rejected just because they reminded the rabbis of unpleasant recent events, or because they weren’t available in Hebrew at the time.

That’s supposing that there actually was a council at Jamnia in the year 95 to determine which books are canon, but the consensus now is that the council didn’t really happen that way, and nobody really knows when the Jews settled on their canon. It could have been quite a bit earlier or later than that.

Putting together an official collection of canonical books to form a Christian Bible (with a New Testament and everything) was originally Marcion of Sinope‘s idea. He was a heretic who believed that the God of the Old Testament was an evil enemy of Jesus.

For over a hundred years before that, Christians made no distinction between the books that are now considered canon and the ones that are not. Because aside from our knowledge in hindsight of which ones would eventually become accepted, there’s no significant difference between them.

You’d think if some books were the inspired word of God, those books would be obviously better in some way than the other contenders, but they’re not. That’s why Christians kept coming up with different canons over the centuries, and the different branches of Christianity still can’t agree on which books are canon. There are books that the writers of the now-canon epistles quote, that they seem to consider authoritative scripture, but that didn’t make it into the modern Christian canon.

Marcion’s canon didn’t last too long, naturally. His definition of the Bible completely excluded the Old Testament (since that was the work of an evil God), and it had only one gospel, the gospel of Marcion. So Irenaeus put together his own canon. He said obviously there should be four different gospels in the canon, because “there are four winds“.

The Septuagint was the first ever attempt at a Bible translation, made a few hundred years before Jesus. Gentile Christians originally used that as their Old Testament text, since they could mostly only read Greek and not Hebrew, and that was the only Greek translation available. The Jews, meanwhile, started to realize in the 2nd century that the Septuagint wasn’t a very accurate translation of the actual Hebrew scriptures, and they no longer approved of that version.

They tried to convince the Christians that this flawed translation was giving Christians all kinds of wrong ideas about God and the Messiah. But those wrong ideas were too fundamental to Christianity for the Christians to accept that, so they decided the Jews must be changing their scriptures just so they could reject Jesus.

The Old Testament Apocrypha, since they were included in the Septuagint, were considered canon by all Christians for a lot longer than Jews considered them canon. Those books weren’t fully removed from the canon of some denominations of Christianity until the 16th century, when Martin Luther made his German translation of the Bible. Martin Luther hated Jews, but he happened to agree with them that those books shouldn’t be part of the Bible. Catholic and Orthodox Christians continue to accept those books as canon, though.

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