Overview of the Books of the Bible
Who wrote the Bible? Unlike most texts, ancient and modern, the writing of the Bible cannot be attributed to a single author.
The Bible was written by over 40 authors across a span of 16 centuries, from around 1500 BC to approximately 100 AD, and is organized into 66 distinct books grouped into two major divisions, the Old Testament and the New Testament that describe the events and teachings of the ancient Israelites, the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, and the advent of Christianity. Within each testament, the books of the Bible are further grouped by chronology and type of writing.
This article examines the historical attribution of who wrote the Bible – each book of the Bible, on the basis of the traditions established both by ancient Jewish teachers and early Christian writers, as well as the evidence found within the text of scripture itself. Further, this article examines how the disparate writings, produced across many centuries and three continents, came to be collected and preserved as a single volume. And finally, this article addresses the criticism of scholars that suggest more recent authors wrote much of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.
In the Christian Bible, the Old Testament is comprised of 39 books which are organized into five categories; the law, history, the wisdom writings, the Major Prophets, and the minor prophets.
The writing of the Old Testament, which records events from the creation of the universe until the Jewish people’s return from Babylonian exile in the fifth century BC, began around 1500 BC and continued until approximately 430 BC.
Written almost entirely in ancient Hebrew, with some portions in Aramaic, the Old Testament describes the work of God through the creation and fall of man, the establishment and ongoing history of the nation of Israel, and the promise of a messiah through whom the world would be saved.
The Books of the Law
The first five books of the Bible are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Collectively, they are known as the Law, the Pentateuch, the Torah, or the Books of Moses. These five books begin with the creation story and continue through the establishment of the nation of Israel and their arrival at the Promised Land. They also include the priestly code and general societal laws.
When is comes to uncovering who wrote the Bible, longstanding Orthodox Jewish traditions attribute the authorship of the Torah to Moses – the central person in the narrative from his birth at the beginning of Exodus to his death at the end of Deuteronomy, and date his writings to 1450-1400 BC.
Moses was raised in the household of the Egyptian Pharaoh and was well educated. And though no book of the Torah claims an author, verses throughout the five books attest to Moses being instructed by God to record His words, or add to the book, including Exodus 17:14 and Deuteronomy 31:9. Further attestations to Moses’ authorship are found in the historical books, the gospels, and the epistles of Paul.
Though the events of Genesis took place prior to Moses’ birth, he is believed to have compiled and recorded the Genesis narrative from a series of oral traditions and preserved texts. Throughout Genesis, the Hebrew word toledoth, generally translated as “the account of” is used to mark the beginning or end of the story of key figures in the narrative, providing textual evidence of earlier writers’ accounts used by Moses to compile the Genesis account.
The Books of History
The twelve historical books are the single largest section of the Bible, and together they document the story of Israel’s history, from their conquest of the holy land around 1400 BC through their return from Babylonian and the rebuilding of Jerusalem in the fifth century BC. Nehemiah is the only historical book to attribute its author, and the rest leave few clues from which we can identify their authors.
Various traditions ascribe authorship of certain historical texts to Joshua (Joshua), Samuel (Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel), Jeremiah (1 and 2 Kings), and Mordechai (Esther). But one tradition that is best substantiated by textual evidence is Ezra’s authorship of 1 and 2 Chronicles, which retell the events of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, but from a priestly perspective to emphasize the religious implications of Judah’s history. The final verses of 2 Chronicles, (vs. 36:22-23) are repeated in the opening verses of Ezra (vs. 1:1-4).
Ezra and Nehemiah are both shown to be written by their namesakes, as each wrote his respective book in the first person. Nehemiah also attributes the authorship of his book in verse 1:1.
The Wisdom Writings
Sometimes called the poetic books, this five-book collection is an eclectic compilation of songs, poems, sayings, and one epic drama.
The first book in this section, Job, is considered by many scholars to be the oldest book of the Bible, using a unique early version of the Hebrew language that predates its separation from other Semitic languages. Job also makes no reference to Israel, Moses, or Abraham, providing further evidence that its writing predates Moses by as many as three to five centuries. The author of Job is unknown.
The largest book of the Bible, Psalms, is a collection of 150 songs and poems, written from the time of Moses through the return of the Jews from Babylonian exile.
The most recognized psalmist is King David, to whom almost half (73) of the Psalms are attributed, and the Greek Septuagint attributes an additional 12 Psalms to David as well. Other identified authors are the worship leader Asaph, the sons of the Levite Korah, Moses (Psalm 90), and Solomon (Psalms 72 and 127). Approximately 50 additional Psalms are recorded without a named author.
Two of the three remaining wisdom books (Proverbs, and Song of Songs) are attributed directly to Solomon, David’s son, in their respective opening verses. Ecclesiastes is also traditionally attributed to Solomon, despite the first verse of the book naming only “the teacher, a son of David” as its author.
The Major Prophets
The next section of the Old Testament is known as the Major Prophets, owing not to its importance relative to the Minor Prophets, but to its size. Grouped in chronological order, the Major Prophets were written by four authors over a span of 200 years, from the reign of Uzziah around 740 BC to the Babylonian exile in the mid-sixth century BC.
The largest and earliest book in this section, Isaiah is a first-person account of visions and prophecies consisting of words of warning and judgment (chapter 1-39) and a foretelling of the fall of Jerusalem, Judah’s exile, and the coming Messiah (chapters 40-66). Isaiah’s prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah, beginning at the end of King Uzziah’s (c 740 BC) reign and continuing through the reign of King Hezekiah (c 680 BC). The book of Isaiah testifies to its authorship in verses 1:1 and 6:1. 2 Chronicles 26:22 also states that Isaiah recorded certain events of King Uzziah’s reign.
Also prophesying in the southern kingdom of Judah, Jeremiah wrote his namesake book beginning during the reign of King Josiah (c 626 BC) and continued through the conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, and the exile of the Jews from the promised land(c 580 BC). Like Isaiah, Jeremiah wrote a first-person account and directly attests to his authorship in verses 1:1-3. Additionally, the prophet Daniel testifies to the authorship of Jeremiah’s prophecy (Daniel 9:2)
The next book in the Major Prophets is Lamentations. Despite being written as a poetic dirge in only five chapters, Lamentations is included in this section because it is understood as an epilogue to the book of Jeremiah.
The book of Lamentations does not name an author but is attributed to Jeremiah for both historical and textual reasons. Written in the early 6th century BC, Lamentations describes the events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem and the captivity of Judah by the Babylonians, contemporaneous with Jeremiah’s life and prophesy.
The author of Lamentations frequently describes himself as weeping over Jerusalem’s fate (Lamentations 1:16, 2:11, and 3:48). These passages are to similar the language used in Jeremiah (verses 9:1, 13:17, 14:17, and 48:31-32), further substantiating their composition by a single author.
The final two writers, Ezekiel and Daniel, wrote in Babylon during Judah’s captivity. Ezekiel’s account is written in the first person and attests directly to his authorship (Ezekiel 1:1-3). Writing across a span of about 20 years (c 587 BC to 565 BC), Ezekiel’s prophesy is divided into two major sections; a pronouncement of judgment on Juda and the surrounding nations (chapters 1-32) and a message of hope and coming restoration (chapters 3-48).
The book of Daniel is written in two distinct sections. The first six chapters are written in the third person and describe, in narrative form, events in Daniel’s life, beginning from the time that he was taken into exile as a young man (Daniel 1:1-7), through his rescue from the lion’s den (Daniel 6). From the beginning of chapter 7 through the end of the book, Daniel wrote a first-person account of apocalyptic visions, which are understood to foretell future earthly empires, as well as end-times events.
Daniel is the only book in Old Testament that is written in two different languages. The largely narrative chapters 2 through 7 are preserved in Aramaic, while the introduction (chapter 1) and most of the apocalyptic text (chapters 8 through 12) are written in Hebrew. This has caused some scholars to question whether Daniel was written by a single author, much less Daniel himself. However, Jesus’ words provide evidence to substantiate Daniel’s authorship of his namesake book. Jesus uses imagery and phrasing from Daniel in his teachings, referring to the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:6, Matthew 13:50), and to the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13, Mark 14:62). And Jesus makes a direct attribution to Daniel by name in Matthew 24:15, validating his authorship.
The 12 books that comprise the Minor Prophets are ordered chronologically in the Bible, though they span a longer period of history and a larger geographic area. The Minor Prophets were written across a span of about 350 years during the period of the divided kingdom (Israel and Judah), from Hosea’s book around 750 BC, continuing through Malachai’s book at the end of the 5th century BC.
There are insufficient markers to accurately place Joel and Obadiah at particular points within this timeframe, as they could have been written at any point during the time of the divided kingdom.
Each book in this section is named for its author and attributes its author in its opening verses. Several of the prophets are also referenced by name elsewhere in the Bible. For example, Jonah (2 Kings 14:25) and Micah (Jeremiah 26:18) are referenced by name, and Haggai and Zechariah are also mentioned together in Ezra 5:1.
While the name Obadiah is also referenced throughout the Old Testament, it was a common name shared by no fewer than twelve men – so we cannot accurately say whether or not these mentions are linked to the prophet. This is one of very few uncertainties as to who wrote the Bible.
The Compilation of the Old Testament
Throughout the Old Testament, references to earlier authors are made by later writers, which helps us to accurately decipher who wrote the Bible. For example, as mentioned above, Daniel had access to the book of Jeremiah (among others). The “book of the kings of Israel” is referenced in 2 Chronicles 20:34. In 2 Kings 22:8, the Book of the Law, forgotten under the reign of recent unfaithful kings, was rediscovered in the Temple. And multiple Old Testament authors, from as early as Joshua to as late as Ezra make specific references to the book of Moses.
From scripture itself, we see that the ancient Israelites made an effort to preserve and circulate the sacred texts that we now know as the Old Testament. And the writers of the New Testament directly cite all but three books of the Old Testament: Ezra/Nehemiah, Song of Solomon, and Esther, substantiating, that the canonical list of Old Testament texts was recognized by the Jews of Jesus time.
Though compilation and preservation of scripture were taking place as it was being written throughout Israel’s history, rabbinic tradition credits Ezra with the final canonization of the Old Testament. The Talmud, a collection of Rabbinic traditions and religious texts compiled in the 3rd through 5th centuries AD, describes Ezra and a Great Assembly (or Great Synagogue) of 120 priests who completed this task, having been motivated to do so by 70 years of exile in a foreign land, and by differing worship practices emerging in nearby Samaria.
The New Testament
The New Testament is comprised of 27 books which are organized into three categories; the Gospels and Acts, the epistles, and one apocalyptic book. Written entirely in Greek, the common trade language of its day, this latter portion of the Bible records the life and ministry of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the story of the inception and growth of the church, and the teachings of Jesus’ apostles. Writing of the New Testament began with Paul around 50 AD and continued until John’s completion of Revelation around 100 AD.
The Gospels and Acts
The first five books of the New Testament describe the life of Jesus Christ and the beginnings of Christianity, which is why it’s so important to discuss these when exploring who wrote the Bible. The four Gospels have been attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John since they began circulating in the late first century AD, though none contain an internal authorship attribution.
The book of Acts, which documents the establishment and spread of the early church, has also been historically attributed to Luke. The relationship between Acts and Luke is evidenced by their opening verses, indicating that these are related documents provided by the author to a recipient named Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4, Acts 1:1-2).
Despite the lack of internal attributions, church leaders from the late first to the early third centuries attest to the authorship of the gospels. For example, Papias of Hierapolis, a student of the apostle John, wrote about the origins of both Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels in the second century AD. Papias writes of Matthew offering an ordered account of the gospel story, written for Hebrews in their language, and subsequently translated to Greek. Papias also describes Mark as Peter’s interpreter, and credits him with recording and preserving all the Pater taught about the life of Jesus.
The attribution of both Luke and Acts to Luke the physician is evidenced by several indicators within the Biblical text. In Luke 1:3, the author states that he is recording the findings of his investigation and not his own eyewitness account.
The narrative of Acts shifts from third-person to first-person after Paul’s vision of the man from Macedonia (Acts 16:10), indicating that Luke had joined Paul’s missionary travels at this point. We learn from Paul’s letters that Luke is a physician, (Colossian 4:14), and Luke’s gospel is written using medical terminology not found in the other gospels (Luke 13:11-13, Luke 14:1-4).
John’s gospel is the one that comes closest to offering an internal attribution. Referring throughout his gospel to a “disciple whom Jesus loved”, the author identifies himself as this beloved disciple at the end of the gospel (John 21:20-24). Earlier mentions of the beloved disciple in John’s gospel establish his closeness to Peter (John 13:24, 21:2), indicating that he is one of Jesus’ innermost circle (Peter, James, or John). A second-century church leader, Irenaeus of Lyon, who was a student of John’s disciple, Polycarp, wrote that John published a gospel while residing in Ephesus.
21 of the 27 books of the New Testament are epistles, or letters, written by ten different authors to individuals and churches around the eastern Mediterranean world. The epistles can be further divided into two sets.
The first thirteen letters are the Pauline epistles, written by the apostle Paul during his missionary journeys between the years 50 AD and 67 AD. The Pauline epistles are named for the churches or individuals to whom each is addressed, and each is internally attributed to Paul. In addition, Irenaeus and other Christian writers of the second century recognized all thirteen Pauline epistles as authentic, as fabricated writings began to circulate even before the Bible had been completed (2 Thessalonians 2:2).
The remaining eight letters are the general epistles, which are written as open letters to the church at large between 50 AD and 95 AD, and are named for their authors, with one exception. The exception is the epistle to the Hebrews, which is the only epistle to not include an internal attribution. For the first few centuries, attributions included Hebrews among the Pauline epistles, but that view is no longer widely held. Others have suggested Apollos or Barnabas as the author of Hebrews, but no firm consensus has been reached. The remaining general epistles were all written by disciples (Peter, John), or brothers of Jesus (James, Jude).
The final book of the Bible, the Revelation of John, written around 95-100 AD, is unique among New Testament books. Revelation records a series of visions, many supernatural in nature, which were shown to the author, who identifies himself as John (Revelation 1:1-2). Scholars have debated whether John the Apostle is the John of Revelation, or if a different John is the author. Traditionally, authorship has been attributed to the Apostle John, based on evidence established in scripture and tradition.
John was one of the witnesses to the Transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 9:2-4), indicating that God had given him glimpses into the spiritual world consistent with the visions described in Revelation. Late in the first century, Ignatius wrote that John had spent a period of time in exile on the island of Patmos off of the southwest coast of Asia Minor, which is further testified to by Polycarp, a student of John, who records John as having lived out his days in Ephesus after having endured exile. The book of Revelation, meanwhile, is centered geographically on the Ephesus and six other cities in western Asia Minor.
The Compilation of the New Testament
As outlined above, as Christianity spread throughout the ancient world, church leaders began circulating and defending the gospels and epistles even while they were still being written, and scripture itself warns against the acceptance of falsely attributed writings. Several church fathers provide evidence of which texts were deemed authoritative.
Irenaeus identifies each of the four gospels by name, and Origen, also a second-century writer, indicates reliance on each of the gospels and Acts, and the epistles of Paul, Peter, James, Jude, and John. In all, 21 of the 27 New Testament books are identified in the works of Irenaeus, and Origen is believed to have quoted or referenced all 27 of the canonical books.
Church leaders convened a series of councils over the next two centuries, further debating the canonicity of the gospels, the epistles, and Revelation, and establishing criteria for inclusion such as apostolic origin and doctrinal consistency with the gospels. However, the first list of the 27 canonical texts that we know today as the New Testament is credited to Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria in 337 AD. Athanasius’ list was first ratified at the Council of Hippo in 393 AD and reaffirmed four years later at the Council of Carthage.
Post-enlightenment scholarship has challenged the authorship claims of much of the canon of scripture, which have been held since the earliest days of Christianity. Though it is beyond the scope of this article to provide an exhaustive analysis of the debate over Biblical origins, the most commonly touted objections are addressed below.
Moses and the Pentateuch
No contributor who wrote the Bible is challenged more strongly than Moses, as some modern scholars suggest that the first five books of the Bible were written as late as the fifth century BC. Within the Biblical text, scholars cite passages such as Deuteronomy 34:5-10, which describe the death of Moses, and numerous references to events that took place later in Israel’s history (ex. Genesis 12:6, 36:3). One can reason that such interpolations are editorial embellishments added by a later scribe (perhaps Ezra) aiming to clarify the text. However, such interpolations do not alter the substance or the meaning of the text.
Another common origin theory put forth by scholars relates to the book of Deuteronomy. Some scholars have suggested that Deuteronomy originated, at least in part, in the seventh century BC, during the reign of King Josiah, and may have been completed as late as the Persian period in the sixth century BC. As recorded in 2 Kings 22-23, Hilkiah the high priest found the Book of the Law during the renovation of the temple in Jerusalem. This discovery led Josiah to renew the people’s covenant with God and institute reforms throughout Judah.
Proponents of this idea suggest that Josiah’s priests wrote the Deuteronomic code during this period in order to compel their youthful king to make their desired reforms. However, having substantiated that Moses wrote all of the Pentateuch (with the exception of minor edits), there is no basis for believing an account that differs from the one recorded in 2 Kings.
Some scholars, using a mix of the above textual clues and linguistic analysis, suggest that much of the Pentateuch was written either during the period of exile in Babylon or shortly afterward. Again, one can reason that the work of Ezra and his Great Synagogue of scribes produced readable versions of earlier manuscripts in the prevailing linguistic style of the time.
The Synoptic Gospels
The first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which provide substantially similar accounts of the events of Jesus’ life, are collectively known as the Synoptic Gospels. Examination of similarities among the three has led scholars to conclude that Mark wrote his gospel first (traditionally, scholars believed that Matthew wrote his book first) and that Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis for their later, longer accounts.
Matthew and Luke have also been shown to share a substantial amount of material that is not included in Mark’s narrative. This has led scholars to conclude that a second source document (called “Q” or “Quelle”) was used in the composition of Matthew and Luke.
The similarities in Matthew, Mark, and Luke are indeed unmistakable and well evidenced. However, they do not diminish the gospels or the genuineness of their authors, as the writers were contemporaries who were personally known to each other. Furthermore, Luke identifies his gospel as a culmination of his research, so he necessarily would have relied on the eyewitness testimonies preserved by other authors in the construction of his gospel.
So, who wrote the Bible? While the Bible was written across multiple centuries and continents, and reflects the culture, education, and perspective of each of its human authors, one God oversaw the whole process. Christianity has long taught that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. As Paul writes, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching…” (2 Timothy 3:16), we are reminded that the Bible is ultimately God’s revelation to us, brought about by the people called, directed, and inspired by Him to write it, for His purposes and His glory.