A Brief History of the Bible (Part 1) – by Dean Anderson


This is part 1 of a series of articles is intended to give an overview of the Bible for people who know little about it.

Many people take the Bible for granted. Obviously, this is something that many non-theists do – seeing the Bible as something totally irrelevant – but it is something that the majority of believers do as well. It is taken for granted that the Bible is “a book” and a unified whole. It is also taken for granted that the English text that most of us have encountered is somehow “the” Bible. Both of these impressions are, of course, erroneous. The Bible is a collection of works written over a large period of time and in a variety of contexts. Similarly, the modern English translations have come a long way from what was originally written.

Part 1: The Writing of the Bible – The Hebrew Bible

This first instalment aims to give an overview of when the Bible was written. Naturally, given the huge scope of the topic – entire books have been written on just the writing of individual Epistles – such an overview is going to be superficial. Hopefully it will serve as a starting point for further reading, though.

I should also point out that given the nature of textual research, nothing here should be taken as being set in stone. The dates and processes that I am giving here are all supported by modern scholarship but few if any would be considered “settled” and almost all are under active debate within academic circles. This is not to say, however, that the claims of evangelists and apologists are equally valid. There may, for example, be debate about whether the Gospel of John was written at the end of the first century CE or the first quarter of the second century CE; but no serious scholar maintains that it was written by “John, the beloved disciple” as tradition maintains. However, to go into such debate and to go into the arguments for individual dates is far beyond the scope of a simple overview like this one.

1,000 – 900 BCE: A founding document

Although the earliest parts of the Bible may be copied from sources older than this, it was in the 9th and 10th centuries BCE that the works that we now know as the Bible started to be formed.

At this stage in history, the Hebrews were in the process of developing as a national group out of the various Canaanite tribes. Contrary to the Bible stories, the archaeological evidence clearly shows that far from being conquering invaders who had been enslaved in Egypt and had crossed the desert and arrived at the “Promised Land” of Canaan; they were actually indigenous Canaanites who were developing a growing national identity.

As part of this national identity, the Hebrews shared a variety of legendary “founders” with the other Canaanite tribes. Some of these founders had stories common to most tribes, but others were specific to individual tribes. It was at this time that the first works of the Bible were written in Judah (the southern – and most prosperous and urbanised – portion of the land). This work – which does not form an individual “book” of the Bible, but is spread throughout the first five books – was a “history” of the Hebrews who lived in Judah, and is usually called “J”. It began with the “Eden” story about how their particular tribal deity created the first man, and then gave a legendary “history” of events from then onwards, culminating in the hero Moses leading their recent ancestors to their current home. This work weaves together stories about the founding heroes of both the Hebrew tribes living in Judah and the other tribes that lived in the area. Most of the stories and legends in it are “just so” stories attempting to either explain the perceived character of other tribes as being based on the character of their leaders, or being propaganda denigrating these other leaders (and by extension the other peoples). There is also much nationalistic propaganda (for example the whole “Conquest” story) which tries to persuade the Hebrew people that the whole of the land is theirs – given by their god – and that they are wholly different people from the other tribes that live around them, rather than just being one of many local tribes.

This is – from a historical point of view – a remarkable piece of work, which clearly had the desired effect and helped to forge the tribes into a nation with a clear identity; an identity that is still felt by some Jews and Christians thousands of years later.

Circa 850 BCE: Rival heroes

The J document was not the only document of its kind. Within a century or so, and possibly as a direct response to this Judahite document, a second history was written in the northern country of Israel. This response (usually called “E”) tells much the same stories as the J document, but with different emphases. The founders of the northern Hebrew tribes are shown as the heroes more often, and the document generally favours the north over the south.

There are other differences too in terms of both the theology and “history” that this work presents. For example this work contains the famous story of Abraham taking his son Isaac up to the mountain to sacrifice him. Interestingly, in this version of the story, there is no mention of Isaac being saved or of any kind of scapegoat being provided by God and Isaac is never mentioned again. The earlier southern work, however, makes many mentions of Isaac yet makes no mention of this potential sacrifice.

Again, this document does not form an individual “book” of the Bible, but is spread throughout the first five books.

750 -700 BCE: Two histories become one

The northern country of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians (under the leadership of Sargon II) and this led to a flood of refugees fleeing south into Judah bringing with them their scriptures (the E document).

The presence of the two versions of the legends, similar yet subtly different, led to them being combined into a single document (often called – naturally enough – JE) by an editor. The editor seems to have favoured the local J stories, for example no E story about anything before Abraham is included, but interleaves both texts switching from one to the other to form a single narrative. In some places (such as the above mentioned story of Isaac’s sacrifice) this editor had to insert extra text in order to harmonise the two accounts. In this particular case, the scapegoat is added to the E story so that the sacrifice of Isaac becomes an almost-sacrifice and he is therefore still alive to take part in the J stories about him. Of course, pragmatic changes to the text like this have huge implications to later theology – just think of all the text that has been written over the centuries analysing the deep theological meaning of Isaac’s almost-sacrifice…

Circa 610 BCE: The inventing of a messiah

By this point in time, the northern kingdom of Israel is a patchy mess of small tribes with no real unity, but the southern kingdom of Judah is prospering and strong. A strong king – King Josiah – has been on the throne for 18 years and things are looking good. What the country really needs now is a unifying purpose to galvanise it behind Josiah’s expansionist dreams.

And then suddenly Hilkiah, one of the chief priests “finds” an “old” document allegedly written by Moses – the great founding hero of their people – which contains his dying speech to his people no less.

Rather conveniently, this document (which comprises most of the book of Deuteronomy) puts words in Moses’s mouth and makes him critical of the sort of religious practices that had been recently going on in Judah (under Assyrian influence) and make him announce rather different religious rules, and announce that if the people live by these rules then they will prosper and succeed.

Of course, these rules greatly favour both the priesthood who “found” them and Josiah’s own (under their influence) religious reforms.

Not only that, but along with the “found” speech of Moses, the priests produced a new history of “Israel” which stretched from the time of Moses to the present. This history (called the Deuteronomic History) comprises of the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings.

This history is a masterpiece of revisionism. It takes existing legends about an ancient leader called “David” and expands them into stories of the founding of a great kingdom of “Israel” encompassing not only the land of Judah but also the land of Israel to the north. It is now clear from the archaeology that this “Greater Israel” or “Unified Israel” never existed, but for the people at the time this would have been quite believable. The “history” then goes through the reigns and actions of the various kings of Israel and Judah since then. Every time either country has been invaded or suffered setbacks, the history claims it to have been because the people (and the king) were not following the “proper” religious practices (i.e. the ones in the document they “found” and which increased their power). Every time the countries had recovered, the history claims it to have been because the people and the king had been returning to “proper” practices.

This history culminates with Josiah himself. He is portrayed as the saviour (the Messiah) of the people whose religious reforms will please God and will allow the people to become truly great and “retake” the northern country to “recreate” Greater Israel. No other king is described in such glowing terms as Josiah, and Josiah is even compared with Moses himself.

Once again, we see how text written for pragmatic reasons – to rally the people behind Josiah and strengthen the position of the priesthood – has wide later theological implications. Such political propaganda led in a large part to the whole later Messianic movement.

With this propaganda behind him and the priesthood, Josiah could hardly fail. He amassed a large army and confidently began a campaign to expand Judah northwards.

597 BCE: It all comes crashing down

Judah’s hopes for Josiah were great, but short lived. In 597 BCE, at the Battle of Megiddo, he was killed by Pharaoh Necho II of Egypt. All the propaganda in the world couldn’t save him, or the Hebrews.

His death sent them into a state of shock from which they never recovered. Their dreams of reconquering Israel shattered, the country collapsed as Egypt and Babylon both took advantage and pillaged the country – Babylon completely capturing southern Judah under Nebuchadnezzar II.

It is difficult to imagine how great an impact this had on the Hebrews, but some idea can be got from the fact that we still use the word Armageddon (which means “Mount of Megiddo”) to refer to an apocalyptic and world-ending final battle.

Within a year, they had gone through four more kings – some little more than puppets for their Babylonian conquerors – and much of the population (including the priesthood) either being sent into exile to Babylon or fleeing as refugees into Egypt. This culminated in the sacking of Jerusalem and the king being replaced by a governor.

Of course, these events made a mockery of the promises in the Deuteronomic History which said that Israel/Judah would always be ruled by someone from the line of David and that Israel would be reunited and prosper under Josiah’s rule.

So – ever the pragmatists – the priests-in-exile made further additions to their holy works to suit the current situation. Both Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic History had extra text added turning the unconditional promises of prosperity into conditional promises, with warnings that if the people were not strict enough then God would allow the country to be temporarily conquered as punishment, but eventually the people would be allowed to return and Israel would be rebuilt.

600 BCE – 400 BCE: Prophets

Although there were individual “prophets” writing before and after this time, the majority of the prophets wrote during the Babylonian exile and the aftermath, adding such works as Ezekiel, Zechariah, Malachi and others. These books lament (as indeed does the book of Lamentations, written at around the same time) the sorry state of the Hebrews-in-exile, and show a developing theology where foreign elements such as dualism (i.e. the struggle between God and Satan) slowly start to be introduced into the theology.

Circa 450? – 400? BCE: Compilation of the Torah

At around this time the combined JE document and the book of Deuteronomy are combined with a different text that covers roughly the same stories but with a spin favouring the priests specifically claiming to be descendents of Aaron rather than the normal priests of the Levi tribe. This new (although it may have been written rather earlier than when they were combined, and may even be pre-Exile) document – usually called the Priestly or “P” document) is far less literary than the earlier documents, and is much more concerned with the minutiae of ritual and law than about legends and stories. It portrays God as being much more remote and aloof (and vengeful) than the previous versions of the history.

The combined Torah which comprises of the existing JE text along with the P text and the D text interleaved together is usually written onto a series of five scrolls, since it is too long for a single scroll. These five scrolls would later be considered to be five “books” – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – each of which can be treated as an individual work, although in fact they are each compilations of the same sources and splitting them by book (and assuming each book had a single author) is misleading.

400 BCE – 100 BCE: Theological Tweaking

By now, the ancient Hebrew religion of Yahwism has become what would be recognisable as Judaism, and the beliefs have become more settled. The body of scripture continues to be added to – both in minor ways with new Psalms and so on being added and also via a few theological revisions.

A new history of Israel is written, which goes into more detail (although not necessarily more accurate detail) about the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and which is known to us as the books of 1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles, and new books of “prophecy” (which are set in the past – and therefore able to “predict the future” by referring to events which occurred after the setting of the text but before the writing of it) are written, such as Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah. By this time, a new Temple has been built to replace the old one destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II, and these new books tend to retroject Jewish theological developments back in time to give the appearance that this was always the “correct” theology of the Hebrews.

Next Month:

Next month, I will continue with the writing of the New Testament.

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