Monday, July 30, 2012

who really wrote the Bible?

Recently a friend asked me a good question.

She had been reading a book by an Old Testament scholar and was surprised when he suggested that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. That's how the authorship of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) has traditionally been understood--since before the time of Jesus. Yet today scholars demur. In the last two hundred years, 'historical-critical' studies of scripture have revolutionized our understanding of who wrote different parts of the Bible and when. Now scholars almost universally agree that the Pentateuch was compiled from a number of sources which preserved different traditional stories, about creation, the Exodus from Egypt, the conquest of the Promised Land, and so on, and these different sources were all eventually edited together into the books that we find in the Bible today. The process is supposed to have taken centuries to complete and was the product of numerous authors.
For some people, such a move from the traditional understanding of biblical authorship is pretty unsettling. After all, Jesus talks about these books as if Moses wrote them (e.g. Luke 5:14). At very least, it seems that this kind of claim--'Moses didn't write these books'--raises some serious questions about how you want to understand the Bible.

Now there's a lot that could be said about how reliable different scholarly arguments are or are not, about how much of Moses might be in those books even if they were edited together by someone else later on. But some of the most interesting comments on all of this that I've ever heard are a little different, and they come from, of all places, U2 frontman Bono. Several years ago Bono wrote an introduction to a pocket edition of the book of Psalms. Because many Old Testament scholars maintain that David himself did not write the 'psalms of David', he decided to address the subject in this introduction.
But to get back to David, it is not clear how many, if any, of these psalms David or his son Solomon really wrote. Some scholars suggest the royals never dampened their nibs and that there was a host of Holy Ghost writers ... Who cares? I didn't buy Leiber and Stoller ... they were just his songwriters ... I bought Elvis.

I don't know that I'd say 'who cares?', but I do wonder if the issue is as earth-shaking as some people suggest. If the Psalms were indeed edited together by some person or persons with material from a variety of sources only later attributed to David, I think the traditional attribution would still be absolutely essential. After all, the only Bible we have is this final, edited version. If we want to read this book, we need to take seriously and explore the connections the people responsible for it were trying to forge. Can you really say you've heard "Hound Dog" if you haven't heard Elvis sing it? Regardless of who wrote it, there's something of Elvis inextricably tied to the song, and you have to go through him to get to it. And if you want to get to Psalm 51 or Psalm 3, you have to go through David. The attribution, 'a psalm of David', whatever else it might mean in these cases, is a crucial lens through which you can really behold these texts and encounter them fully.
Whomever wrote them, you're buying David.

2 comments:

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

while it is clear that at least in some cases "A Psalm of David" clearly indicates one that David wrote (some titles even give the circumstances when he wrote the Psalm, i.e. "when he was fleeing Saul," etc.), I've also been told that the Hebrew construction could be taken to mean "A Psalm dedicated to David" or "A Psalm for David/David's family."

Nance said...

According to my Psalms professor, "le’dawid" is really hard to translate--it could mean 'to', 'for', 'about', 'concerning', 'by', or any number of other things. Usually the translation leans heavily on the context, but with the Psalm ascriptions there is no context, they're just appended to the text on their own. She suggested 'to David' would be a more natural translation than 'of David', but given everything else she said, I'm not positive what 'more natural' would really mean.