Biblical Authors

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: New Testament, Old Testament


After reading about the Apocryphal books, whose authors are, for the most part, anonymous, I'm wondering if we know more about the authors of the books that did make it into the canon? Do we know who wrote the books of the Bible?


If the question is whether or not scholars are confident about the authorship of each particular book, the answer has to be "no." Scholars believe that many people had a hand in writing the Bible. The Old Testament accounts circulated as oral stories long before they were written down. Scholars have used the "documentary theory" to help explain how the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) came to be. Though attributed to Moses, the books were compiled as late as 600-500 BCE. Some argue that Moses might have written the core of these books, but the fact is that they went through many redactions before being recorded in their final form.

Another case in point is the book of Psalms. It helps to remember that, first and foremost, the psalms were liturgical compositions. Though attributed to David, they also have many authors. A few explicitly state that this was a prayer of Moses (Psalm 90), who preceded David by 400-500 years. Others were written about events (such as the destruction of the Temple and the exile) that happened hundreds of years after David's time (Psalm 137). Obviously, David did write some of them, but so did Solomon, the sons of Korah, and countless other unnamed people.

The same is true for the historical books (Joshua through Kings). Their purpose was to record the story of Israel not to be historically accurate. The timeline stretches over hundreds of years. These histories were handed down from generation to generation through oral tradition for centuries,. Most scholars believe they were compiled and given their final form during the time of the exile. Yet, some of the books are obviously post-exilic (Ezra, Nehemiah, etc.). These authors faced a new situation. Then the need was to strengthen the people, renew their spirits, and centralize the Israelite story. The Old Testament ended with the book of Malachi, dating anywhere from 500-433 BCE.

This should not suggest that scholarship was silent until the time of Christ. Indeed, the Apocryphal books of the Old Testament were written between 200 BCE-100 CE. They also cover a wide range of subjects. Some are historical or prophetic; others are made of legends; still others cover ethical concerns. Roman Catholics consider at least twelve of these books to be canonical.

And that brings us to the New Testament. Thirteen books are purported to have been written by Paul as letters to various congregations. Scholars can now agree on seven of those. The remaining six are believed to have been written by followers who just used his name, which was a common practice in the ancient world. Sometimes this was done out of respect for Paul; other times it may have been done to usurp his name to validate false teachings.

Most scholars believe the authors of the Gospels are all anonymous, despite their headings of "The Gospel according to" Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. It is possible that Matthew and John were Jesus' disciples and that their gospels were based on their testimony. But that is not the same as saying they wrote them. Mark was supposedly written on the basis of Peter's testimony, but which Mark wrote it remains speculative. Luke is probably the author of both the gospel and Acts, but that's all that scholars can know for sure.

That leaves the remaining epistles, Hebrews, and Revelation. Guesses on the book of Hebrew are simply that. Speculation runs from Barnabas or Apollos to Mary Magdalene. Most agree it was included in the canon due to its popularity. The Letter of James is purportedly from James, the brother of Jesus. Just as the Letters of Peter were thought to have been written by Peter. Scholars question both these assumptions, but have not offered other suggestions. The Book of Revelation was written by "St. John." Tradition had it that this was the same John who wrote the letters and the Gospel of the same name. Again, scholars doubt that now. The author of Revelation was probably a learned Jew writing in Greek. Beyond that, he will remain anonymous.

All of these assumptions might make readers nervous. Yet, one must ask if questions of authorship are really that important? Perhaps it is less important to know exactly who wrote the various books than to think about whether the Bible is accurate in its teachings. Does factual accuracy determine the truth found within its message? Does this truth rise or fall with every new discovery that "proves" or "disproves" a long-held fact? These authors were not interested in verifiable facts but in a larger truth that provided meaning and purpose in their lives. They sought to understand how God worked in their world and how to understand Jesus' message of salvation. And it is these facts that transform lives.

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