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.1 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 gives us no good 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.2 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 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. The so-called books of Moses and Joshua often use the words “to this day“, even when comparing “this day” to when Moses or Joshua died. That only makes sense if those books were written long after the death of Moses and Joshua.

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 Psalms are thought of as having been written by David, though not even half of them are actually labeled that way in the Bible, and the Bible says a lot of them are by other people. And some of them are clearly written after the exile.

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 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.

The book of Jonah is apparently said to be written by Jonah, though I 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,3 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 from Paul that turned out to be fake. The author of Acts got an awful lot of things wrong about Paul’s story4 for someone who was supposedly a close companion of Paul. (And Luke wouldn’t have been an eyewitness to Jesus’s life anyway. Nor does he claim to be.)

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 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. 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. 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. The letters to Timothy sound like they were written when Christianity was more developed than it was during Paul’s life. 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.

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 nothing in it that suggests that Paul wrote 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 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.

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 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, or 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.

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 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 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.

“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.

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 300 years.

Putting together an official collection of canonical books to form a Christian Bible 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.

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