|How the bible was written|
This guide is intended for visitors who want to learn more about the Bible. Please use the hyperlinks in the table above to navigate the guide. If you have any comments or suggestions to make about this guide, please do so by clicking on this link. This opens a comment form.
The Bible is a strange book. Later you will see some evidence for this claim. It is not a single coherent text in the way a novel from a known author could be said to be an organic work. (Though even here there is less unity than you might suppose the writer draws on other material, rather than creating things out of nothing. And most published texts have been through the hands of one or more editors on several occasions.)
Authors and writers
The oral tradition
In the case of books and other published written texts today, the final or definitive writing occurs at the same time as, or shortly after the time of, composition. This also happens in recording spoken texts. A journalist, say, writes directly onto a page or a secretary transcribes the content of a speech. It is unusual for us to write something down long after it was composed. And if we did, we would have no confidence that the text was as the original author intended.
There are still many societies in the world where the oral tradition is strong. Either because few people have a chance to be literate, or because the tools for writing are not to hand, they will rely on spoken accounts and an exact memory. At various times in history most societies have been like this, more or less. Either a society was wholly illiterate or it was predominantly so, while a small group of people were able to write and read on behalf of others.
For obvious reasons, people who study languages, especially the origins of language, do not have first-hand evidence of exactly how particular people spoke in the past. (Since the late 19th Century we have had the benefit of technologies for recording sound.) For writing we do have some evidence (which is, therefore our best and only evidence for how people spoke). In modern literate societies we have too much evidence almost to make sense of it all. The further we go back in time, the less this is a problem, as the surviving texts become fewer.
Eventually we reach a point where the textual evidence is very slight indeed, perhaps a fragment of pot, a clay tile or maybe a scrap of papyrus or even a stone, on which we see a mark. It may be part of what we would call a language. We might incline to call it a "letter" but even this is misleading, since a letter implies an alphabet and some kind of correspondence between spoken and written forms. But we may lack any clue to its meaning.
Real students of past languages have managed to reconstruct lost language structures by amazing detective work. They look for similarities with other known languages, close in time or place perhaps, or make a guess and see what follows, discarding each, until one guess leads to a consistent pattern of form, and eventually yields the meaning.
Scribes in ancient societies
Some of us are familiar with the idea of the scribe, the paid professional writer. In the New Testament we read a lot about scribes with whom Jesus would argue. Because these were people who could read, and understand meanings in the familiar sense in which any of us reads a text, so they gained authority when it came to interpreting texts, or "reading between the lines" deciding what the text implied beyond its explicit content. Jesus challenges this seeing them as abusing the people's trust to teach them things that the scriptures do not really imply.
How did the scribe work? Did he (always a man in the Biblical and near eastern societies of ancient times) listen while someone spoke an exact form of words, as if taking it down at dictation? Almost certainly not. Perhaps if the client or author were a professional speaker (a Greek rhetor or Roman orator) he could compose a well-organized speech and deliver it exactly in the form that the scribe was to record. But this would rarely have happened.
More often than not, the originator of a text would know what he (or perhaps she) wanted the written text to do. The scribe would expect to supply or suggest the language forms (words and phrases) suitable to the task or purpose of the writer. He would know the conventions for documents with different purposes: recording a legal transaction, a letter of introduction or a permit to give someone safe passage in periods (like those of Persian or Roman rule) where such controls were possible over large areas of land.
In the case of the Bible our problems multiply enormously. Sometimes, we can be fairly sure about who did the writing, and even where and when. But we are much less sure about the way in which a text was composed orally before someone committed it to script. (And please note that nothing in the original documents was ever in print. When Gutenberg invented the printing press, in the 15th century A.D., the Bible had already gone through centuries of copying by hand. Printing would for hundreds of years still be a slow process, as open to error as writing by hand, with the added danger, that one error would be multiplied through many copies in a printing.)
Before we can date particular events, we need to have an agreed system of dating into which to put them. Western historians today take the year once assigned to the birth of Christ (and now known to be several years later than this) as a reference point. Events after this are signified by A.D. (Anno Domini Latin for "year of our Lord") or C.E. (Common Era). Those before are signified by B.C. (Before Christ) or B.C.E. (Before Common Era). Records of events from the ancient world do not contain direct information about dates within this scheme. At best, they will use some other system of dating for example, giving the year of the reign of a particular king. Modern scholars have constructed systems for dating. These yield approximate dates, and two systems have been widely accepted by other experts in this field. These are the schemes of W.F. Albright and E.R. Thiele.
How do we date particular events? Sometimes there are clues. For example, we may read of events that seem to be the same as, or similar to, things to which we can assign a more exact date. Or perhaps a text records details that are supported by archaeological excavations. And we can help ourselves by recognizing different kinds of text distinguishing a creation narrative, from a love poem or from a historical chronicle. For this reason most scholars assume that large parts of the two books of Samuel (almost all of the second book) were written by someone who knew the people in the book and lived in the court circle of David and Solomon. The reasoning is that the writer knows intimate and precise details. If he does not know them, then he must have invented them but there is no known case before or for years after this, of anyone writing prose fiction with this kind of detail (if it were fiction, we would call it naturalistic, but it isn't). On the other hand we have less chance of dating the original spoken narratives recorded in the first chapters of Genesis. We can compare two creation stories and suppose that one, being cruder and more anthropomorphic, is older. But we don't know this. Perhaps both stories were in circulation at the same time. Perhaps there was a time when people knew which was the older and by how much. What is not in doubt is that at some time they were both combined in a single written account, since this is the account that has come down to us.
Elsewhere in this same book of Genesis we find evidence of the writer's explicitly making (or trying to) a single coherent narrative out of two accounts, which modern scholars have, with some confidence, separated into its two original strands or traditions the story of how Jacob preferred Joseph to his jealous brothers, who sold him as a slave. (This is in Chapter 37 of Genesis, especially verses 25-28.)
Modern scholars are prepared to assign dates of writing (as opposed to oral composition) to much of the Bible. You may read, for example, of the Deuteronomic (or Deuteronomistic) History. Martin Noth in 1943 suggested that the books from Deuteronomy through Joshua, Judges and Samuel to Kings show common phrasing and themes, suggesting the hand of a single author. If the theory is right, then (barring miraculous foresight) the author (or authors) cannot have written this series of books earlier than the events with which it concludes. The history ends in 2 Kings, 25.27-30, where Jehoiachin, king of Judah, is released from prison in Babylon (561 B.C.). The Deuteronomic series of books stresses the importance of faithfulness to God's law, and the results of breaking the faith.
Most scholars agree that the sequence of writing is different from the order in which the books of the Bible appear in printed versions today. (If we go further back in time, we find disputes as to which books should be included and in what order. For years different churches or traditions have held differing views about this.) Was Genesis (or does it include) the first Bible text to be written? Was Revelation the last?
Genesis may owe its place at the start of the Bible not to the time of its writing, but to its subject - as it sets out to describe the origins of the world. The oldest writing in the Bible is thought by scholars to lie in fragments of song and poetry that are quoted in historic narratives. As a story was passed down through the oral tradition, perhaps the style of the telling changed. But if the original set out to quote the exact words of historical characters, in a memorable form, such as poetry, then these might be kept, through every re-telling. The storytellers would do this as a way of guaranteeing the truth of their story. We do not expect the hearers to have modern conceptions of history and fiction.
Most of these songs and poems are about battles and victories. One is Miriam's song, which celebrates the deliverance of the Hebrews from the Egyptian army at the Red Sea:
"Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously;
Scholars date this event about 1200 B.C. Other examples are the songs sung by the Hebrews as they carried the Ark of the Covenant into battle and back to their camp (Numbers 10.35-36) and Deborah's song at Megiddo (Judges 5.1-31). The second of these may be from a later period than Miriam's song, but we have a much more complete version.
Modern scholars have reconstructed the history of the Bible lands, so that we now have a more or less continuous narrative, which supplements and qualifies the biblical account. Ordinary readers have a problem here. We can read popular or simplified studies (like this) that take many things on trust, and pass these on. To take a more active part is the work of a lifetime, assuming that we have the aptitude and opportunity.
This guide is written for the ordinary non-expert reader. The views in it are all second-hand, and reflect the consensus of far more expert writers. If you want to know more, then you should go next to these experts, or perhaps even become one.
Scroll, codex, papyrus and parchment
When we think of the Bible today, we probably think of a singe book admittedly a large book. That is, we think of something bound between two covers. This has been the form in which many people have met the Bible over hundreds of years. Nowadays you may think of a CD-ROM that contains the text or even a simple computer file. But the Bible did not start life as a book. And it did not start life written in English. We all really know this, but we are so familiar with the Bible in our own language that we almost imagine that it should have been written in this way.
Writing in the Bible
Some parts of the Bible tell us directly about the process of writing. In the New Testament Paul refers to writing the last part of one of his letters himself:
"I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand."
This tells us several things. First, that Paul could write (at least a few words) but we may be surprised that such an educated person has to draw attention to the fact. It also tells us that he did not write the rest of the letter. We know that the scribe's job was a specialist occupation (Paul also had his own expert occupation he was a tentmaker). In Romans 16.22 the amanuensis or scribe writing the letter includes his own message to the readers he is called Tertius.
In Chapter 36 of the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, we find an account of Jeremiah's writing down his message on a scroll. Evidently he did this, so that it would be more widely available to those able to read. Jeremiah did not do the writing. This task fell to Baruch, a scribe, who wrote down as Jeremiah dictated to him. (Did Jeremiah give Baruch the exact words, or the general outline, leaving Baruch to choose the exact form to use? We will never know.) Baruch later read the text to a group of royal officials, who decided that the king, Jehoiakim of Judah, should hear it. (Perhaps the king was literate but we know that someone else read the book to him. It may have been beneath his dignity to do his own reading in public, when there was an official reader.) Sensing the possibility that the king would not like what he heard, the officials told Baruch and Jeremiah to go into hiding. This happened in the wintertime, and the king sat by a brazier. As an official called Jehudi read the words in the scroll, Jehoiakim would cut off the part Jehudi had read with a penknife and burn this part of the scroll in the brazier. This did not deter Jeremiah. When he heard, in his hiding place what the king had done, he at once dictated the message to Baruch again.
So what were this scroll and this penknife? You will find the answer below. (Click here if you need to know right away.) In the modern world we take for granted the availability of writing materials and implements. But just as writing has a history, so has the material used to transmit it. Some of the most ancient writing in the world that has survived today appears on large blocks of stone. And we are probably familiar with the story of the Ten Commandments, which were apparently written on blocks or tablets of stone. This may be a suitable material for important documents that are meant to be permanent. But fairly early in the history of writing people looked for a way to make texts more portable.
Clay and cuneiform
Around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers smooth river clay abounds. Between 4000 B.C. and 3500 B.C. the Sumerian people who lived in this region found a way to use this clay as a writing material. They would take wet clay, flatten this into smooth flat tablets and while these tablets were still wet, they would make marks on them. To start with, they used picture language, not unlike the writing of Egypt. (Today we sometimes call the Egyptian picture writing engraved on stone hieroglyphics. This is not an Egyptian name, and was given to the writing by Greeks. It comes from Greek hieros ("priest"). In Egypt, as in many ancient civilizations, the art of writing was not widespread, but was part of the special secret knowledge of a priestly caste.) Over time, in an evolution we can trace in surviving evidence, the Sumerians simplified their pictures into basic patterns of a few lines.
The development of this basic writing was also determined by the technology used to make marks in the clay. This was a tool rather like a pencil but without a lead, and not sharpened. The writer would press a corner of the end into the clay, making a wedge-shaped line. The writers soon found that by combining five or six such lines or strokes, in a range of vertical and horizontal positions, they could produce a range of symbols to cover all objects and ideas about which the might want to write.
Over time these symbols ceased to represent single things, but came instead to represent a sound usually the first sound of the word that corresponds to the object in the picture. The English equivalent would be to show, say an apple, to signify the "a" sound at the start of a word. Until comparatively recent times these languages were a mystery to scholars, but gradually we have learned to understand them and turn them into intelligible modern versions. For this reason, our names for them come not from these long-dead languages but from other ancient languages, which we have understood for longer.
Greek, the common or standard language of the empire established by Alexander and the later Roman Empire, was almost lost to western scholarship during the period known as the "Dark Ages", but survived in the Byzantine east and among Islamic scholars. In the late mediaeval and Renaissance periods, knowledge of Greek revived, and it became important as a source of vocabulary for science and learning generally. Latin became the language for official documents in the late Roman Empire, and established itself in the Dark Ages as the common tongue for international scholarship. This, for example, enabled a university teacher to go from Oxford to Paris or the other way, and still be able to teach in the common tongue. Many technical words we use today go back to ancient or classical times, but equally many Greek and Latin terms are in fact modern inventions. As a written language Latin is not dead it is still used for various kinds of scientific classification, and is the official written language for all sorts of documents produced by the Vatican state. (One interesting result is that one of the Latin experts in the Vatican has the great privilege of determining the Latin equivalents for all sorts of modern inventions computers, skateboards, mobile phones and so on!) Many of the words we use to describe other ancient languages come from classical Greek and Latin.
Scholars used the Latin noun for a wedge (cuneus) in calling the Sumerian writing cuneiform. Perhaps the most important development that followed the invention of cuneiform writing was that it became stylized or conventionalised, and thus standardized. What does this mean? As different writers learned from each other, some ways of doing things emerged as more helpful, and gradually became the form more widely used. The language can never have reached the level of stability which is possible in the modern world, but even here languages change. The fundamental underlying grammar and lexicon of English today change little (though even these DO change). But the wider lexicon, the spoken forms, and the popular idiom for writing or speaking in a given context these change daily.
Clay tablets were suitable for relatively short texts. A more permanent record of something important, such as a set of laws, could be engraved on a stone pillar. Around 2100 B.C. the Persian king Hammurabi had a code of 248 laws engraved on a slab of stone over two metres high. Writing on this material has proved durable, and this law code is one of several ancient written records that have survived to the present day.
For many purposes, however, clay and stone are not practical materials. Suppose one wants to be able to write down a long story, and keep it in a portable form how can one do this using stone as a writing material? The solution to this problem came from another part of the ancient world, Egypt. The writing of Egypt, like that of the Sumerians, started as a picture language. Here, too, the pictures became stylized over time, but less so, because the Egyptians had a more flexible means of writing. Their writing material was papyrus. This Greek noun gives us our familiar modern name of "paper". Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) is a kind of reed, which grows in marsh areas. In the Nile Valley of ancient Egypt it was grown commercially. The soft pith from inside the tough stems was cut into long strips. These were laid side by side to form a first layer, after which a second layer was laid on top, at right angles to the first. Both layers were pressed together, releasing a natural gum, which bonded the strips together to form paper sheets. These were glued together to form much longer sheets, which were rolled up for carrying.
The writing implement used by the Egyptians was a reed, frayed at the end, to form a brush. Later, the Greeks would replace this with a split reed, forming a nib. The nib enables the writer to control a flow of ink to a finer point. The ink was a mixture of gum and a colouring agent soot or lampblack. The penknife that Jehoiakim used to cut up Jeremiah's scroll was a tool for trimming the reed pen. (The modern penknife takes its name from the pocket knives used in recent times to trim nibs of quill pens made of birds' feathers. We now apply the term to any small knife, especially one with blades that fold inwards for safety.)
The scroll was to have a long history and spread far beyond Egypt. For the producer, which had a virtual monopoly of the commercial supply it was a valuable product for foreign trade. One product that Egypt lacked was good timber. In what today is Lebanon, they found a ready supply of cedars. In the port of Gebal the Egyptians traded their papyrus for cedars. The Greek name for the port was Byblos and so they coined the name biblion for a book (since this was where paper came from immediately we are familiar today with places being named for their products). Via the Greek neuter plural or Latin form (biblia) this gives us our modern word "Bible".
There are many things we do not know about the remote origins of writing among the Hebrew tribes. One suggestion explains why Exodus records God as writing the Ten Commandments. This was supposed to have happened before any man had learned to write or rather because the people of ancient Israel believed this to be the case. We now have writing from before the time of the Exodus. On the other hand, we know quite a lot (relatively speaking) about how the Jewish people wrote their sacred books. This is partly because it is a tradition that continues to this day, and partly because we have lots of evidence, both in written descriptions and in surviving artefacts. Our evidence for this comes from quite early in the first millennium B.C. but this is significantly later than the times to which the earliest Biblical stories refer, which take us to the fringes of history .
Hieroglyphics and hieratic script
The Egyptians used the well-known hieroglyphics for writing on stone. They soon found that writing on paper could be swifter if they simplified the writing to a script. Carving on stone is easier using straight lines, but with a brush and paper, rounded strokes are possible. Apart from having to dip the pen in ink every so often the scribe could write continuously (rather as we do with modern pens). The writing on papyrus developed into a more rounded script in a style known as cursive (which means "running" in Latin). This form of writing also took its name from the hieros or priest and is called hieratic script. It marks a kind of transition in the development of writing, between hieroglyphic and alphabetic script. The Phoenicians are the people traditionally credited with the move to a system of characters to represent sounds, rather than whole words in effect, an alphabet. This development meant that a fairly small number of symbols could be used, in combinations, to represent all the words in a spoken language. This was a step of genius, which some languages have never taken. From this point, it is possible to trace the evolution of different writing systems that use alphabets (again the name, "alphabet", comes from Greek).
Papyrus is not a durable material, as stone is. And the Jews valued their sacred writings so much that they believed it necessary to replace them, as soon as they showed signs of wear and ageing. Until recent times, the only writings on papyrus that we possessed were of comparatively recent date. But since the late 19th century more and more papyrus manuscripts have come to light some of them with passages from the Jews' sacred writings, many others with writing about everyday subjects. There are fragments of scriptural books from the early years of the church. Papyrus was sometimes used to form a kind of papier mâché to make a cartonnage (a protective casing) for Egyptian mummies. A few pieces from such a mummy have been separated out and dated to the second century B.C. These contain a section of the book of Deuteronomy in the Greek language.
Papyrus was the most common material but from the earliest times when they wrote the books of the Law, the Hebrew scribes would also use leather. From about 200 B.C. onwards another material appeared which was parchment. This was once especially associated with the city of Pergamum in Asia Minor, from which it takes its name. The skins of goats and calves were shaved, split, bleached, hammered and polished to form a smooth writing surface. The finest parchment, made from the skins of newly born animals, was called vellum. This was a more expensive writing material than papyrus, but longer lasting.
The first books were scrolls, up to thirty metres in length, formed by pasting together papyrus sheets. For reading, these were unrolled from one end, and rolled up from the other, to present a manageable portion of text to the reader. The Romans developed a different kind of book type. This was made of wooden tablets, coated with wax, in which the writer cut letters with a stylus. These tablets were bound with leather thongs that passed through holes in the wood. The edges thus bound were thought to look like a section of a tree trunk, or caudex in Latin. This name changed in time to codex (the plural form is codices). When the Christians began to produce books in which papyrus pages were bound together, this name stuck. It is easy to see how this gave us our modern book form. The only big difference was that for many years these books were written entirely by hand which is why they are called manuscripts.
History and geography
In the lands of the Bible, history is bound up with geography. In the modern world, thanks to trade and transport, people may settle in land from which they do not need to wrest a direct living. In the developing world people may live hand to mouth, as we see in much of the Bible. The history of ancient peoples is often a story of the struggle to take possession of resources. The Garden of Eden in Genesis abounds in fruit, but when Adam and Eve are cast out they have to live by their toil. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob measure their wealth in flocks of sheep. Nature is cruel, and a famine drives Jacob's sons into Egypt where the people know how to store grain for lean years. When they leave Egypt, the Hebrews head for a land of promise, flowing with "milk and honey".
A great problem for the reader of any text that refers to real places in past times is that the world changes so much, in terms of political states and national boundaries. In the late 20th Century Yugoslavia broke into many warring territories, and became "the former Yugoslavia". Now this description has given way to names of separate states, which are becoming stable, recognized and familiar.
The lands of the Bible have been subject to changing names and frontiers, empires and times of anarchy. Their names have been changed from local forms to Anglicised or Latinised versions. A good example of this would be the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. This is a naturally occurring division (allowing for some change in the courses of the two rivers over time). Abraham came from the southern end of this region, and at its centre are the great cities of Babylon and (in post-biblical times) Baghdad. The Greeks, who came here under the leadership of Alexander the Great, called the region Mesopotamia (meso=middle, potamos=river) that is, "land between rivers", or, more literally "River Middle Land". This name persisted into modern times. For years it denoted a particular state, which now has the Arabic name of Iraq.
In studying the Bible we will be confused by the frequent occurrence, in many translations, of place names that are the same as those of modern political states or regions, like Palestine or Israel. The Bible also distinguishes an area of land promised to Abraham's descendants from other places where narratives are set. This special land is sometimes known as the Land of Promise or briefly the Promised Land. Alternatively, it is known as Canaan. This is also the name of an ancient people and culture but is not likely to be confused with any modern day political state. Sometimes Canaan is used more locally to identify what would later be Phoenicia. This was to the north of the coastal plain. To the south was the area settled by the Philistines, originally one of the Sea Peoples from the Greek islands. Herodotus, a Greek historian, adapted their name to call the Bible lands Palestine, and this term the Romans also came to use later. The river Jordan still has this name, but today is also the name of a state to the east of the river. Modern Syria is broadly in the same territory as the ancient state of this name, though its area is now more clearly limited.
The Bible names many cities that have been continuously inhabited from ancient times to the present. Among these are Damascus, Jericho and Jerusalem. Many of the places named in the Bible have become special places to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. As a result, they may have been developed so as to be wholly different from how they were in ancient times. Others, such as holy places of Islam, may not be available for archaeological exploration.
When does history start and finish?
This is an impossible question to answer. All the Biblical books have some historic value, but few can be seen as history in anything like the modern sense. The Deuteronomic books, especially Samuel and Kings, however, contain much material that is now regarded as a detailed and accurate period of the early united monarchy and the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The New Revised Standard Version Oxford Annotated Bible in its Survey of the Geography, History and Archaeology of the Bible Lands states that:
"Old Testament history begins with Abraham yet the period in which the patriarchs lived cannot be dated with any certainty The earliest reference to Israel appears in the Merneptah stele, dating from about 1207 B.C. This, then, marks the beginning of the history of Israel, so far as non-biblical sources are concerned."
The latest books of the Bible bring us to the close of the first century A.D. For the subsequent history of the Christian church, we must look at books by such writers as Flavius Josephus (1st century A.D.) and Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (A.D. 263-339).
© Andrew Moore, 2004; Contact me