Who Wrote What?

Many Bible scholars and commentators spend endless amounts of energy trying to figure out who wrote what parts of the Bible. They argue about whether Paul wrote all of the Pauline epistles, whether John wrote John, whether Matthew wrote Matthew, etc. Sometimes it seems like they’re chasing after questions that cannot be answered.

So my question arises: Is it really important to know who wrote what? I mean, the Bible is the Bible. We’re supposed to read it, believe it and obey it. So why bother about who wrote what?

The Vatican II fathers state their position on the Bible’s inspiration with these words: “In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.” (Dei Verbum 11) They subsequently lay out their position on how important it is to know who wrote what. The bishops teach that Bible scholars are to figure out what the “sacred writers really intended, and what God wanted to manifest by means of their words.” (12) They go on to say that we should look for literary forms including “prophecy, poetry or some other type of speech.” (12) Also, we should be attentive to “customary and characteristic styles of perceiving, speaking, and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the customs men normally followed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.” (12)

Ok, so the Council fathers don’t say we should know exactly who wrote what all the time. But they do emphasize the importance of knowing the historical context in which the writer lived. Bible scholars should be familiar with the customs and traditions of the cultures of the sacred authors. This becomes a BIG issue. For example, some scholars think Moses himself wrote the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) c. 1200 BC. But other scholars think these books were pieced together from older materials, edited many times and finally came to their full form during the Exile, c. 500-600 BC. That’s a difference of 600 years! How are we supposed to discover the customs, traditions and characteristic writing styles of the author(s) of the Pentateuch when scholars can’t even put together which millenium it was written in?

So, from my perspective, it is important to know who wrote what and when he wrote it. But that’s only important for the sake of discovering what the text means. Regardless of who wrote what parts of the Bible, it’s still the Bible. And it is meant to be heard, read, believed and obeyed. It is good to know who wrote it only so we can more fully believe it and obey it. But even if we have no idea who wrote it, when it was written or where it was written–we are still called to obey it and dedicate our whole lives to living out its message.

This is where a lot of Bible scholars fall off the cart. They think they’ve figured out that so-and-so didn’t write such-and-such and their immediate conclusion is then, “Wow. Now that piece of the Bible doesn’t have as much authority.” But this is a logical error. The Bible’s authority is not bestowed by the human author, but the Divine Author. God’s authorship is the one that really counts. When we do research and reach conclusions about the historical circumstances surrounding the Bible, that’s great. But when we let our research change our morals, that’s a tragedy. The Bible is a gift from God, but it is not to be abused by our study of it. Studying the Bible ought to lead us to deeper prayer, more profound faith and a fuller Christian life.

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