Who wrote the largest part of the New Testament?

Q. I have a question that I thought was straightforward but seems to be a point of discussion even among bible scholars. Who was the most prolific writer in the New Testament?  I always thought it was Paul, but I heard a well-respected pastor say it was Luke.  When I researched the answer online, there seemed to be some debate.  How can this be? It seems to me that a person could count the words, chapters, or books written by each and come up with a definitive answer.   Why the confusion?  Who does deserve the credit?

As I understand it, Luke is the writer responsible for the largest part of the New Testament.  This is if we go by word count, i.e. “by volume.”  I think that’s more accurate than by book, chapter, or verse, as these can vary greatly in length.  (This is true even if Paul wrote Hebrews, which I think is doubtful, but which many believe on the basis of tradition.)

In other words, Luke-Acts (originally written as a single work, though divided and separated in most Bibles) is by itself longer than all thirteen of Paul’s letters combined.  You can get a rough idea of this by counting the pages, especially in an edition that has no headings or chapter numbers, like The Books of the Bible (in which Luke-Acts is also restored to unity as a single work).  In that edition, Luke-Acts is 99 pages while Paul’s letters are 97 pages–and that number is inflated by the blank space frequently left on the last pages of his many letters.  Luke-Acts only has one “last page,” and its page count suffers accordingly.  But once again, if we go by words, we discover that Luke actually wrote the largest part of the New Testament.

“St. Luke the Evangelist” (Kazan Cathedral, St. Petersburg), with his traditional symbol, the ox.

Do the “records of Samuel, Nathan, and Gad” still exist?

Q. I was reading in Chronicles today and it references “the records of Samuel the seer,” “the records of Nathan the prophet,” and “the records of Gad the seer.”  Are these books in evidence in the historical record anywhere? And what is a “seer,” from a biblical perspective?

There are no surviving copies of the actual books listed there in Chronicles.  Nor do we have copies of other books mentioned as sources in the Bible, for example, “the book of Jashar” that is referenced in Joshua and Samuel-Kings.  It’s clear, however, that these books once were available to the believing community and that they were among the sources that went into writing the long history of the monarchy in Samuel-Kings as well as the parallel history you’re reading now in Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah.

While we don’t have these books, the references to them within the Bible do show that the biblical authors used available written sources as they composed their own works.  (To give another example, Luke explains in the dedication to his gospel that he has examined the “accounts” that others have undertaken to “draw up” about the life of Jesus and the early growth of the community of his followers.)

In other words, the biblical books didn’t just drop fully formed out of heaven.  They are in many cases the product of the same kind of research that goes into scholarly historical works today.  The statement you’re asking about, in fact, is the ancient equivalent of a footnote, acknowledging the sources that were used for a certain part of the history and referring readers to them for further information.

As for the meaning of the term “seer,” it is an older term that, as the narrative in Samuel-Kings explains, means the same thing as “prophet”: “Formerly in Israel, if someone went to inquire of God, they would say, ‘Come, let us go to the seer,’ because the prophet of today used to be called a seer.”  So the titles in Chronicles actually mean, for example, ”the records of Samuel the prophet,” etc. The use of the archaic term “seer,” which has to be explained to later readers, suggests that the source books themselves are significantly older than the final products–more evidence that biblical books like these are the result of careful historical research.  Here we see the human side of the Bible’s composition.

Why do some scholars say that Peter didn’t write Second Peter?

Q.  The authorship of 1st and 2nd Peter has been a long debated question.  Who do you think was the author? More importantly, the bigger question is, why do these conundrums exist? I would like to think I can trust every jot and tittle in God’s Holy Word, but many people, much smarter than me, have debated over inconsistencies in the Bible ad nauseam. My faith rests on Jesus Christ and the Word of God! Why isn’t it crystal clear?

To answer the authorship question first, my personal belief is that the apostle Peter wrote both of the New Testament epistles that bear his name.

Some people dispute that he wrote Second Peter because, in marked contrast with the simpler Greek of First Peter, the Greek language in that epistle is highly refined and complex.  (For that reason, Second Peter is a favorite text for seminary courses in intermediate Greek.)  The argument goes that Peter, whose first language was Aramaic, would have been capable of writing only simpler Greek at best (as First Peter supposedly demonstrates), and so someone else must have written Second Peter.

I believe that the solution to this problem, however, can be found within Peter’s letters themselves.  Near the end of his first letter, he acknowledges that “with the help of Silas, whom I regard as a faithful brother, I have written to you.”  In the ancient world, someone who wanted to “write” a letter would typically speak it out loud and engage someone else to write it down.  (The person who served in this role for Paul’s letter to the Romans actually includes his own greetings at the end of that epistle:  “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.”)

We need to appreciate that the services these scribes performed could range from simply writing down the words that were actually spoken aloud to “putting into words” what the sender wanted to say—something like the “ghostwriter” of a speech or article today.  Peter acknowledges that Silas helped him write his first letter, likely by putting his thoughts into words in simple but articulate Greek, which was probably even better Greek than he was capable of composing himself.  While Peter doesn’t similarly name or acknowledge the person who helped him write his second letter (perhaps because this person would not be known to the recipients the way Silas was), we can deduce that this was an accomplished writer with an even stronger command of the language.

We should not see this as “plagiarism” or the use of a “paper mill,” as we might think of it today.  Rather, it was an established and assumed practice in the ancient world where only limited numbers of people were capable of reading and writing, and even fewer had a stylistic command of the language suitable for composing letters with as wide an intended audience as Second Peter.

As for why these conundrums exist in the Bible in the first place, I believe it’s because the biblical books were composed within the flux of human history and culture, not dropped out of heaven inscribed on golden tablets.  Because cultural practices, such as the use of scribes, change over time, people in later cultures like ours can become confused by them—as when we see letters written at two very different levels of a language attributed to the same author.

But this just provides an occasion for us to dig deeper into the background of the Bible.  When we do, not only do we resolve the so-called “inconsistencies,” we get a better window into the biblical world and appreciate more about how the Bible was created for us.  We can even admire, in a way we could not before, the contributions of unnamed people like the scribe behind Second Peter who also used their gifts to help bring us the word of God.

Second Peter in the Bodmer Papyrus (Vatican Library), the oldest known manuscript of the letter. Its elegant Greek has raised questions about whether the apostle Peter could have written it, but a scribe likely helped to compose it, in keeping with ancient practices.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 4)

Title page of Genesis from the King James Bible, clearly expressing the traditional authorship assumption. Compare this with your Bible–does it just say “Genesis”?

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

In my first post in response to this question, I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses.  In the next post, I explained that many scholars believe the Pentateuch was instead woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places later in Israel’s history.  Last time I discussed the biblical evidence these scholars offer in support of that view.  Now in this final post in the series I’d like to offer some reflections on how the belief that the Pentateuch has been woven together from a variety of different documents can be put in a positive and constructive dialogue with the traditional view that Moses wrote these books instead.

Let me frame the dialogue this way:  What might a proponent of the so-called Documentary Hypothesis have to say positively about the traditional view?  And what might someone who believed that Moses wrote the Pentateuch have to say positively about the other view?

I think someone who held to the Documentary Hypothesis would start by observing that the believing community has had a tendency down through the centuries to attribute anonymous works to known leading figures.  The book of Hebrews, for example, was for a long time attributed to the apostle Paul.  (In the King James Bible it’s actually entitled “The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews”–just as Genesis is called “The First Book of Moses,” as shown above.)  But most scholars today, including those who hold dearly to the inspiration and authority of the Bible, acknowledge that this letter was almost certainly not written by Paul.  Most scholars also acknowledge that the anonymous biblical book that has come to be known as the Gospel According to Matthew was similarly not written by the figure it has traditionally been attributed to.  And so forth, in several cases.

However, when we recognize these authorship claims for what they really are–authority claims–we can see how they have abiding validity.  The believing community has attributed these works not just to well-known figures, but to leaders who were first-hand participants in the epochal redemptive-historical events they record.  In other words, through these authorship claims, the community is saying, “We recognize and accept these works as trustworthy accounts of God’s key saving interventions in human history and in the life of our ongoing community.”  And in that assessment of the works, someone who held to a Documentary theory of the Pentateuch’s composition could be in full agreement with someone who believed that Moses was its author.

We can take this even further than that.  The Documentary theorist could also acknowledge that these works have such authority precisely because their contents, the building blocks of material that later writers assembled, go back ultimately to a collection that Moses himself created of the earliest Israelite traditions and to records that he kept of God’s communications during his lifetime.  These building blocks would have been transmitted both orally and in written form down through the centuries until they were worked into written documents by later figures.

Of course it cannot be proved that this happened.  But the strong and enduring tradition associating these works with Moses provides a very strong suggestion that he is the ultimate source of the material.  In the same way, we have confidence that the gospels present the authentic deeds and teaching of Jesus, even though the material in them was transmitted orally (and perhaps also in writing) for a generation before the four evangelists collected and arranged it to create their different works.  I think a proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis could affirm all of these things.

For their part, people who believe that Moses wrote the Pentateuch should have no trouble acknowledging that the materials in it had to be adapted so that later generations could understand and appreciate them.  We see this kind of “updating” throughout the Bible, for example, when the current name of a place is added by way of explanation after it is called by its former name, or when an archaic term is explained so that the audience will understand its use, as in this classic case from the life of Saul:  “Formerly in Israel, if someone went to inquire of God, they would say, ‘Come, let us go to the seer,’ because the prophet of today used to be called a seer.”  (Right after this explanation is offered, Saul and his servant ask a passer-by, “Is the seer here?”–and the audience, used to hearing such figures called “prophets,” understands.)

A person who held to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch might not be prepared to allow that it has been “updated” to the extent that Documentary theorists describe, with separate Judean and Israelite “epics” being composed by the 8th century B.C. to express the national identity and aspirations of those two kingdoms, a “Deuteronomonic history” being added in the time of Josiah, and a rival “Priestly” account composed before the Babylonian exile, with everything woven together upon the return from exile.  But if a person who held the traditional view could agree that the discussion was really about a difference in degree (how much “updating,” to what extent), rather than in kind (one view treating any hand other than Moses’s as negligible, and other other view considering the contributions of other hands to be significant), there might well be room for fruitful and constructive dialogue between these positions.

That, at least, is how I see it.  Thank you again for your question, and I hope I have done some justice to it even in the brief space allowed by the blog format.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 3)

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

In my first post in response to this question, I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses.  In my next post, I explained that many scholars believe that the Pentateuch was instead woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places at later times in Israel’s history.  I’d now like to discuss the biblical evidence these scholars offer in support of this belief.

First, throughout the Pentateuch, the God of Israel is referred to by different names, two in particular: Yahweh, translated in most English Bibles as “the Lord” (in small caps), and Elohim, commonly translated “God.”  The original arguments behind the so-called Documentary Hypothesis held that these different names signaled the work of different authors.  One was the “Yahwist” (abbreviated J from the German version of that name), working in the southern kingdom of Judah where the covenant name Yahweh was in common use. The other was the “Elohist” (E), working in the northern kingdom of Israel where the worship of Yahweh was in decline.

We have at least one strong suggestion elsewhere in the Bible that these two different names were preferred in the two separate kingdoms.  Psalm 14, a “psalm of David” according to its superscription, and thus likely of Judean origin, primarily uses the divine name Yahweh.  Psalm 53 is a near-verbatim version of the same psalm that was apparently adapted for use in the northern kingdom because it consistently replaces the name Yahweh with Elohim (as shown in red):

Graphic C
Click to enlarge

We can tell that the Elohistic version of the psalm is a later rewrite because, as shown in blue above, the stanzas in Psalm 14 that have two lines in exception to its overall three-line pattern (perhaps originally a musical “bridge”) have been recast into a single stanza of three lines, no doubt to fit the new tune “mahalath.”  And this has been done by creating a new line out of the consonants of the second two-line stanza, using them to make new words with different meanings!  The consonants are shown in blue below, with the rewrite placed on the line above the original (the different divine names are in purple):

Graphic D

However, we shouldn’t push the idea too far that different divine names indicate different authors in different kingdoms, because as Psalm 14 itself shows, a single author can use both names for poetic variety; to speak of God either more generally (Elohim) or more specifically in covenant terms (Yahweh); and even for purposes of characterization:  note that it is the “fools” who say there is no Elohim, while Yahweh is the refuge of the poor.

For these reasons, proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis have moved away from reliance on divine names, to the extent that they now sometimes call the J document the “Judean” source and the E document the “Ephraimistic” source (using a popular biblical name for the northern kingdom).  To support their view they rely far more on the phenomenon of “doublets” in the Pentateuch, that is, places where the same incident seems to be related twice, from slightly different perspectives.  This phenomenon is illustrated most vividly in cases of doubled accounts of where the name of a person or place came from.

For example, when Abraham entertains the three visitors, one of them tells him that his wife Sarah will bear a son.  She laughs incredulously, and Yahweh (in the person of this visitor) responds, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for Yahweh?”  This story explains the derivation of the son’s name, Isaac, which means “laughter.”  But later on, after the child is born, a different explanation for his name is offered:  Sarah exclaims joyfully, Elohim has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”  Not only do we have two different accounts of how Isaac got his name, the key phrases in these accounts use different divine names, leading Friedman, whose work I discussed last time, to assign them to J and E, respectively.  They also represent different perspectives on Sarah–one less favorable, the other more favorable.

The Pentateuch also offers two different explanations of what happened at the place named Meribah, where, after a quarrel (hence the name), God brought water out of a rock for the Israelites in the wilderness.  In the account in Exodus, Moses strikes the rock at God’s command, and his leadership is vindicated.  But in the account in Numbers, Moses strikes the rock in anger and desperation, and Yahweh interprets this as an act of mistrust and tells Moses as punishment that he will not enter the promised land.  Friedman attributes the former account to E, and the latter to P, who, he says, belonged to a rival priestly order and was not hesitant to diminish Moses.  There are many similar “doublets” in the Pentateuch.

However, one could just as easily argue that cases like these are not actually doubled accounts of the same incidents, but instead accounts of separate incidents that followed one another in Israelite history.  For that matter, one could also warn of the danger of circular reasoning if certain parts of the Pentateuch are first assigned to separate sources, and then the particular emphases found in those parts are argued to be characteristic of those sources and proof that they originated there!

But in any event, these are the kinds of evidences that are typically advanced to support the belief that the Pentateuch has been woven together from a variety of different documents.  Does a person have to choose definitively between this belief and the traditional view that Moses wrote the Pentateuch?  Or is a way that the two positions can be put in a positive and constructive dialogue?  I’ll explore that question in my final post in this series.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 2)

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

In my first post in response to this question–which is really about the authorship of the whole Pentateuch, not just the creation accounts–I showed that at least some parts of the Pentateuch were almost certainly not written by Moses, such as the account of his death and the various explanations that his contemporaries would not have required.  Recognizing this helps us not to have to ground our confidence in the inspiration and authority of these writings on the belief that Moses wrote every single word of them.

It’s one thing, however, to acknowledge a few likely additions to a body of material that we still consider to have been written almost entirely by Moses; it’s another thing to argue, in keeping with the so-called Documentary Hypothesis, that the Pentateuch was actually woven together from several different documents that were composed in various places at later times in Israel’s history.  In this post I will summarize the basic claims of that position.  In my next post, I will discuss some of the biblical evidence that is offered in support for it.  And in my final post in this series, I will then try to show how the traditional belief in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch can be put in positive and constructive dialogue with the Documentary Hypothesis.

The best popular description I know of that position is found in the book Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman.  He argues that some time before the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C., two complementary accounts of Israelite history from the patriarchs up to the time of Moses, “J” or Yahwist and “E” or Elohist, were composed in the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel, respectively.  When refugees from the northern kingdom of Israel escaped from the Assyrians into the southern kingdom of Judah, they brought their historical epic with them, and the two versions were woven together to form the historical portion of the books we know know as Genesis through Numbers.

During the reign of Josiah, Friedman continues, someone else picked up the story starting in the time of Moses and carried it up through the time of that king, finishing the work “around the year 622 B.C.”  This document, “D” or Deuteronomist, eventually comprised the books from Deuteronomy through Kings.

Then, Friedman says, “someone who was alive and writing before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 B.C.” and who “knew the JE text, in its combined form, intimately” composed or assembled a “collection of Priestly laws and stories . . . as an alternative to JE,” to bring out different themes and emphases as lessons from Israel’s history.  But finally, in what Friedman calls a “great irony,” someone (he believes it was Ezra, upon the return from the Babylonian exile) combined this work, the “P” or Priestly account, with JE and D to produce the continuous work, Genesis through Kings, with which the Old Testament as we know it now opens.

Is there any biblical evidence for this version of the way the Pentateuch (and the next several books of the Bible) were put together?  I’ll look at that question next time.

Did Moses really write the “books of Moses”? (Part 1)

Rembrandt, “Moses With the Ten Commandments.” Did Moses write out the whole body of law known as the Pentateuch?

Q. In an article published by the National Center for Science Education, Conrad Hyers argues that the accounts in Genesis of the Days of Creation and the Garden of Eden were written at two different times, with two different purposes in mind. Hyers claims that the former is a “Priestly” account written around the time of the Babylonian captivity, and that the latter is a “Yahwist” account written around the time of Solomon. I’ve always believed that Moses wrote Genesis, around the time of the Exodus.  How do you understand this interpretation of it?

While your question has to do with the Genesis creation account specifically, it raises an issue that applies to the entire Pentateuch.  Did Moses really write the so-called “books of Moses,” or were they instead put together over later centuries from different works by various authors?

This is an involved and complicated topic that has generated a vast body of literature, both scholarly and popular, over the centuries, and it will be difficult to do justice to it in the context of a blog.  But I will devote my next few posts to this question and try to explain things as I understand them as best I can.

Let me begin in this post with the observation that the “books of Moses” (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as we know them today could not have been written entirely by Moses.  He obviously did not write the account of his own death at the end of Deuteronomy, for example.  But there are other things in the Pentateuch that seem very unlikely to have been written by Moses as well.

For example, when Abram first arrives in the land of Canaan, the narrative in Genesis observes, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.”  Abram (later known as Abraham) and his descendants will have various dealings with the Canaanites, and the narrative is preparing the reader for this.  But why would this have to be explained to an original audience living in the time of Moses, when the Canaanites were still in the land?  It only makes sense that this this notation was added for a later audience, living at a time when the Canaanites were no longer there.

Similarly, when Moses is describing at the beginning of Deuteronomy the conquests he has just led on the east side of the Jordan, as he explains how half the tribe of Manasseh occupied the former territory of Og the king of Bashan, he specifies that “Jair, a descendant of Manasseh, took the whole region of Argob.”  The text then notes that this region “was named after him, so that to this day Bashan is called Havvoth Jair.”  There would be no reason for Moses to tell his contemporaries that a name a region had just been given was still in use.  Rather, this explanation, too, must have been added for the benefit of a later audience.

Places like these help us recognize that as the material in the Pentateuch was transmitted by the Israelites down through the generations, it was edited and supplemented for the benefit of later readers.  And so, whatever way we understand the nature of biblical inspiration, we need to accept that not every word of the Pentateuch was written by Moses.  Somehow the Bible can be the inspired word of God even if it includes later editorial emendations to the works originally created by the prophets and apostles.

This opens the door for us to consider objectively, without our confidence in the Bible as the word of God being at stake, the possibility that the Pentateuch may actually have been assembled from layers of tradition that go back ultimately to Moses, but which also include the contributions of later editors and custodians.  I’ll summarize the arguments to this effect represented by Hyers’ article, which follows a prevailing view in Old Testament studies, in my next post.