Pastor's Blog


May 7: The Bible and Wikipedia

The Bible is more like Wikipedia than you might think. Wikipedia is a surprisingly helpful analogy for understanding what the Bible is: a living, dynamic tradition.

Modern ideas about authorship value individual ideas and talent. The ancient world of the Hebrew authors of the Bible, however, had very different notions about authorship. Authors were valued not for their individuality but for their contributions to a greater tradition.

Peter Enns writes, “If you know how Wikipedia works, you have a good idea of how the authorship of biblical books went down: an anonymous text is added to over time, but none of the additions are screaming for individual recognition.”

The original authors and editors of biblical books were not concerned about who wrote what when. Modern individuals, however, have pressed hard to identify single authors of texts, like David for the Psalms, Solomon for Proverbs, Moses for the Pentatuech, and Isaiah for the whole book of Isaiah. Critical scholarship shows this is not the case, but those traditional attributions remain prevalent among Christians.

Over time, David became associated with the book of Psalms, which included “authoring” psalms that were clearly written long after his death. Later authors weren’t concerned with the credit because they valued themselves not as individual authors but as purveyors of a tradition. They were carrying on the style and philosophy of King David so they wanted his name associated with their work. Similarly, Proverbs is associated with Solomon, but the book as a whole is a compilation of sayings that span a great length of time.

Most scholars agree that the book of Isaiah was added to two different times in the span of about three hundred years after the original Isaiah wrote. Scholars divide the book into three “Isaiahs,” but later authors continued to write under the name “Isaiah”, because their notion of authorship demanded it. They didn’t do this to fool people but to honor the prophet Isaiah.

The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, is traditionally attributed to Moses, but it is more like Wikipedia than anything else. Several sources spanning hundreds of years were compiled and organized by an editor hundreds of years after Moses’ death.

These notions of authorship also apply to the New Testament. Most scholars agree the disciple John did not author all the New Testament books attributed to him, nor did Paul. Instead, disciples of these Christian leaders continued their teaching and work by attributing their later work to their mentors.

This does not diminish the Bible in any way. These later authors and editors aren’t “lying” or “showing disrespect for God’s word.” They are respecting history and tradition because that is how ancient authorship works. Ideas about authorship and copyright are different now, but in the ancient world this was how authors showed respect for their traditions.

The Bible is complex and dynamic, a back-and-forth between respect for tradition and the need to continue transforming it. That sounds a lot like the church.

In common calling,

Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker