Spoiler: it might not be who you think it is.
The story of the authors of the Bible, as best we can understand it today, is the story of the Jewish people from their earliest times to their return from the Babylonian exile. Richard Elliott Friedman offers us some answers, along with some beautiful textual analysis and history in his 1987 book Who Wrote the Bible?
Biblical criticism begins formally in the 19th Century, but some of its impulses can be traced back much earlier. Arguably it can be said to begin with the 17th-Century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who dared to suggest that Moses was not the author of the Torah and suffered excommunication for his heretical ideas. The documentary hypothesis, taking shape in the 19th Century and codified by Wellhausen, forms the foundation of Friedman’s analysis. It holds that the Bible, as it came together in its final form, is primarily the work of four separate authors known as J, E, P, D. They are differentiated from one another by a handful of distinctive factors, including style, syntax, and names for God.
J and E are the earliest, perhaps dating from the time of the split of the unified kingdom of Israel into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. J is from the south (Judah); E is from the north (Israel). These sources include the second of the two creation stories (Gen. 2:4-4:26), stories of the patriarchs, and other portions of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers. Wilhelm Vatke, a nineteenth century pioneer of biblical criticism, argued that these sources date from a time when Hebrew religion was concerned primarily with nature and fertility.
D was composed after the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom and during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. The D text includes nearly all of the book of Deuteronomy as well as the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. D represents a spiritual/ethical phase in the evolution of Hebrew religion.
The last major source, itself almost as long as the other three sources combined, is the P text. The first creation story in Genesis (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”) comes from the P source, as well as the entire book of Leviticus, and numerous other stories from the Torah dealing with covenants and ritual sacrifice. The P source represents a priestly stage of Hebrew religion.
Friedman devotes a good amount of space to discussion of when the P source was most likely to have been composed, and he presents evidence suggesting it was probably written much earlier than had at one time been thought. He references passages from the books of the prophets suggesting that they were familiar with the P text and that it therefore, too, must have been pre-exilic in its formation. He places its creation during the reign of Josiah’s grandfather, Hezekiah.
Friedman also devotes some time to a discussing of the fifth author of the Bible: the redactor. It seems there was another separate individual who took the four sources and skillfully and artfully combined them into the unified text as we know it today. This text is not without its own internal contradictions and inconsistencies, but it is one which has nonetheless occupied a place of central importance in world culture for thousands of years.
Friedman concludes by asserting that the Bible is “more than simply the sum of its parts” and issues a charge to different kinds of readers:
For those of us who read the Bible as literature, this new knowledge should bring a new acquaintance with the individuals who wrote it, a new path to evaluating their artistry, and a new admiration for the book’s final beauty and complexity.
For those of us who read it in search of history, this enterprise continually opens new channels to uncovering what was happening in various historical moments, and new sensitivity to how individuals in biblical society responded to those moments.
For those who hold the Bible as sacred, it can mean new possibilities of interpretation; and it can mean a new awe before the great chain of events, person, and centuries that came together so intricately to produce an incomparable book of teachings.
And for all of us who live in this civilization that the Bible played so central a part in shaping, it can be a channel to put us more in touch with people and forces that affected our world.