The Bible is a unique book. Well, more accurately, the Bible is a unique collection of books. For some, the sixty-six books of the Bible are Holy Scripture. Others see these writings as merely fanciful tales or historical curiosities.
Christians consider the Bible to be the Word of God. Though they recognize that God used various people to pen each part of the biblical canon, Christians view God as the ultimate Author of the Bible. They believe that God reveals himself and his purposes for us through that text.
But no matter their faith background, most people agree that the Bible is a magnificent, somewhat daunting work of literature. And all who read it eventually ask an important question: Who wrote the Bible? Who were the people who first penned the words of the most popular book of all time?
To begin, we must recognize that the writings of the Bible come from dozens of different authors, and space does not permit an exhaustive treatment of each here. Plus we’re just not sure who wrote most of the books of the Bible. No book, in its original form, came with a title page, and few provide details on authorship. In essence, most of the books of the Bible are simply anonymous, a common feature of ancient literature.
Another feature that complicates this discussion is the role of other people in the whole process. Many ancient authors used secretaries to transcribe their works; sometimes they even gave these secretaries freedom to paraphrase. Other works were edited and compiled from numerous sources. For instance, some Old Testament historical works were put together from court records, royal documents, and several different existing accounts.1
We should also remember that the message of these books was invariably more important than the authorship. For example, few cared who actually documented the law codes that became large portions of several Old Testament books. What was important was the legislation itself. The same was true of historical accounts and the messages that prophets preached.
There are exceptions. Of course, a letter from one person to another had a personal element that made authorship relevant. But on the whole, the writings of the Bible are not typically concerned with identifying their authors.
With these features in mind, let’s take a closer look at five biblical books and their authors.
The book of Exodus is famous for its stories of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses by God. Tradition assigned authorship to Moses. Jews and early Christians believed he was the most likely person to record these stories and laws for posterity. However, there are very few indications in the book itself or historical evidence that Moses was the author. It’s possible, but we do not know with certainty.
The book of Amos is a prophetic book. We know very little about this man named Amos except what we learn from the first line of the book: he was a shepherd who lived during Jeroboam II’s reign in Israel. The rest of the book is a collection of his messages. In a way, we can say that this man named Amos is therefore the author. However, our knowledge of him is extremely limited. We should remember that someone else likely collected, edited, and published these messages at a later time.
Luke and Acts
The book of Luke is one of the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. Strictly speaking, the book is anonymous; Luke’s name is not mentioned within the text. But the book is addressed to a man named Theophilus,2 and the book of Acts is addressed to Theophilus as well.3 Moreover, writing style and emphases are similar in the two books—so much so that most scholars see them as two volumes by the same author.4
According to evidence from the book of Acts and early church tradition, Luke—a traveling companion of Paul—was the author of both books. Some scholars have offered alternative options, but the evidence for Luke’s authorship is quite compelling.
The short book of Philemon is a letter that opens with these words: “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker—also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home.”5 Paul also later writes: “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand.”6 This is one instance in the Bible where authorship is obvious in the text itself.
Old Testament Authorship
Given the above examples, here are some suggestions regarding authorship for each major section of the Bible.
The Old Testament, also called the Hebrew Bible, describes events that took place between roughly 2000–400 BCE. The final process of editing and compiling the books happened between 400–100 BCE. Given how genuinely old these documents are, historians have less confidence about their original authorship. The same is true of other ancient literature from this time period.
“Pentateuch” means “five volumes” and refers to the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Traditionally, Jews and Christians believed that Moses wrote them. He most certainly had a role in shaping the books’ content given his leadership of the tribes of Israel and his mediation of their law codes during that time. But scholars now recognize that these five books were compiled from many ancient sources.7 We simply cannot name a sole or primary author.
The books of the Old Testament from Joshua through Esther follow the history of the nation of Israel after their settlement in what they called the Promised Land. These books, too, were compiled from many ancient sources. It’s possible that some of their narratives come from their namesakes—such as Joshua, Samuel, and Ezra—and an unknown author designated by scholars as “the Chronicler.”
Poetry and Wisdom Literature
The books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs include poems, prayers, songs, proverbs, and wisdom literature. Some portions are attested to David, others to Solomon, still others to lesser-known figures. But given how old these works are (especially Job), we cannot be certain of their authors.
The prophetic books of the Old Testament stretch from Isaiah to Malachi. Each is named after its presumed author. (The lone exception is Lamentations, a book of poetic laments about the destruction of Jerusalem, traditionally ascribed to Jeremiah). We have background information about some prophets, but we know very little about others. For many of them, it is likely that their messages were later compiled, edited, and published by others.
New Testament Authorship
The whole of the New Testament was likely written sometime between 40–100 CE. It contains historical accounts, letters, and an apocalyptic book. Given the claims these books make about Jesus and the wealth of manuscript evidence to study, scholars have debated their authorship more rigorously in recent years.
Gospels and Acts
The four accounts of Jesus’ life are named after their presumed authors: Matthew and John (each one of the twelve disciples), and Mark and Luke (companions of Paul). As previously discussed, Acts describes the early church movement and is Luke’s second volume.
The gospel accounts do not self-identify their authors; they are only called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John because early Christian leaders believed these men were the authors. Some modern scholars have questioned this authorship. They suggest that the accounts were written much later than first thought. Other scholars believe the books were written earlier and that there is good reason to trust the original titles and authorship claims.
There are twenty-three letters included in the New Testament. Thirteen are attributed to the Apostle Paul. Most of those, like Philemon, are fairly undisputed. Some, like 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, have been challenged. The other ten letters in the New Testament, from Hebrews to Jude, are attributed to other authors. Hebrews is the only book without any claim to authorship; suggestions have been offered, but no one can be certain.
Revelation is unlike all the other books of the New Testament. A letter typically described as apocalyptic literature, it was likely written by the Apostle John (the same John purported to have written the Gospel of John and the letters of 1, 2, and 3 John).8
Authors and Author
Questions about who wrote the Bible are important. Sometimes Christians get so caught up in the religious aspect of the Bible that they forget its very human quality.
These were real people: shepherds, soldiers, fishermen, and at least one tentmaker.9 Some were elite: Solomon was a king. Some were outcasts: Jeremiah was imprisoned by the king. All lived in a world very different from ours. But all answered the calling they believed they had been given to communicate what was true, important, and worth recording for future generations.
Yet we should not discount the possibility of a behind-the-scenes Author. For centuries, people of faith have believed that God himself brought together the stories of the Bible for a greater purpose. Perhaps he inspired men and women to put doubts and prayers, hopes and dreams into writing. Using ordinary people, he gave us an extraordinary message.
- For example, see The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, 1 Kings 11:41; 14:19, 29.
- The Holy Bible, Luke 1:1–4.
- Ibid., Acts 1:1.
- As a result, most scholars refer to these two works collectively as Luke–Acts.
- The Holy Bible, Philemon 1–2.
- Ibid., Philemon 19a.
- For example, the end of Deuteronomy describes Moses’s death, an account he certainly could not have written himself.
- For a more comprehensive exploration of the authors of every book in the Bible, consider consulting the book introductions in the NIV Study Bible © 2002, Zondervan. They can be found at: http://www.biblica.com/en-us/bible/online-bible/scholar-notes/niv-study-bible/.
- See The Holy Bible, Acts 18:3.
- Photo Credit: Pearl / Lightstock.com.