The Bible is a mysterious work. Spanning thousands of years of theology, history, and culture, the Bible tells a colossal story of God’s intentions for humanity. The Bible was written by many authors, but all inspired by God. It is neither a simple collection of books written by human authors, nor is it the literal words of God dictated to human scribes. It is a source of religious truth, presented in a diversity of styles, genres, and languages. Despite how long it has been studied, there are many things we don’t know about it. As the Bible itself proclaims, “we see in a mirror dimly.” Here’s how our understanding of biblical authorship has developed over the years.
According to Tradition
In Christian tradition, there are long-held beliefs about who wrote the Bible. Among them is the theory that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament (perhaps with his successor, Joshua, filling in some verses after Moses’ death). Books of the Bible are often attributed to those mentioned in the text or named in the titles. The Gospels, for instance—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are believed to have been written by each titular disciple, respectively.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul is credited with 13 of its 27 books. Other books, including some Epistles, or letters, were penned by other leaders of the early Christian church.
As time passed, many biblical scholars began to doubt that those particular, relatively few authors had written the whole of the Bible. In addition to the wide and nebulous timeline of the Bible’s writing, there are hints in the language itself that speak to multiple authors of the Bible. These linguistic tells include different writing styles and contradicting details.
It’s more likely that Bible stories were passed down as oral tradition long before being recorded. And rather than large sections being written by a few (or even single) authors, biblical authorship was probably “a much more gradual process, in which material from numerous smaller sources was layered together over a longer period of time.”
One Book, Many Voices
The Bible is a story told by many different people over many different times. It’s been influenced not only by its authors, but by others involved in its creation and development. This includes translators who crafted the original works into English, and editors who defined its structure.
Yet the Bible remains a unified story—one book, many voices. As we say in our Statement on Scripture, this breadth and plurality are what keep the Bible alive through the ages and enhance its ongoing, transformative power.
If you’d like to know more about the power of the Bible, we at the Massachusetts Bible Society are dedicated to helping you learn. We believe that everyone should know the Bible, whether they accept it as their sacred text or not. To that end, we have created accessible and comprehensive resources for all who are curious. Check out our Exploring the Bible courses and claim your free sample chapters, or explore our website for more!
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