Origins of the Old Testament

Accept the truth from whatever source it comes.

The Hebrew scriptures tell the epic story of the ancient Israelite people. Many of the tales are already familiar to us, having been imprinted on Western culture over the centuries. There is the garden of Eden, with the first man and woman, the forbidden fruit, and the infamous snake. The burning bush from whence God spoke to Moses, instructing him to lead his people out of Egypt. Then there is, of course, the exodus from Egypt, following the dreaded ten plagues, the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, and many other larger-than-life stories too numerous to mention here. Even if you have never cracked open a Bible, odds are fairly good that you have heard at least one or more of these tales from movies, books, music, or countless other media.

Today, due to the influence of Christianity, the scriptures of the Jewish people are primarily known as the Old Testament, to be distinguished from the New Testament in Christian Bibles. Historically, different Christians have adopted very different views of the Hebrew Bible and its relationship to the Christian faith. In the Book of Galatians, the apostle Paul reports that there were Christians in his time who were so committed to the Hebrew Bible that they still practiced a number of its laws. On the other end of things, the second century bishop Marcion, responsible for the first Christian canon of scripture, omitted the Old Testament from his canon on the belief that the Jewish god was a false demigod, inferior to the god of Jesus. Modern Christianity tends to fall somewhere in between on the matter, recognizing the Jewish scriptures as important and yet superseded by the New Testament in some ways.

Jews have also held different positions on their scriptures throughout history. In fact, there is a long tradition of debate over the interpretation of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) within Judaism, going back to before the time of Jesus. Especially in the rabbinic schools, reason became a key to unlocking the scriptures, reflected in the emergence of literature like the midrash, which was a genre of exegetical commentary on the Tanakh. Maimonides, who is quoted above, was a medieval Jewish philosopher who became a major figure in Judaism for his writings on Jewish law and ethics. Some modern Jewish philosophers, like Howard Wettstein, even argue that a Jew need not believe in God to be a practicing Jew.

Despite the long history of divergent views and theological treatises on a variety of biblical subjects, the idea of biblical criticism as a scholarly endeavor began relatively late, around the 17th and 18th centuries, with men like Richard Simon and Hermann Samuel Reimarus. Simon published two writings in 17th century France, one critiquing the Hebrew Bible, and the other critiquing the New Testament. However, the works were quickly suppressed, and a good deal of them destroyed, at the behest of Jacques Bossuet, a French bishop and preacher to Louis XIV. Reimarus is one of the earliest critics to apply the methodology of textual analysis of Greek and Latin documents to the Christian Bible – efforts that were very influential on later important scholars like Albert Schweitzer and D.F. Strauss. Both Jewish and Christian scholars have helped pave the way to current theories about the origins of the Hebrew Bible.

Of course, there are also those who disapprove of the historical-critical method in analysis of the Bible. Christian apologists and scholars of a more conservative stripe often outspokenly condemn these practices because they challenge the view that the Bible is the inerrant and literal word of God. For every book written on the dubious origins of the Judeo-Christian texts, there are still plenty of dissenting opinions that tow the line of religious tradition. However, through years of study and research, scholarly consensus has formed around several theories about the origins of the Bible, and many of these theories have a wealth of evidence supporting them that is not found behind alternative theories. As Maimonides advises us, we should accept the truth from whatever source it comes, even if it’s at the cost of some of our most cherished beliefs. Understanding the origins of the Hebrew Bible is important because it will not only tell us about the ancient world it was written in, but it will also tell us about the reliability of the Bible, both of which will help to shape the picture we create of the relevance of the Old Testament for today.

I. Authorship

The Old Testament we find in Protestant Bibles is made up of 39 books,1 most of which never disclose their author. Tradition has assigned authorship based on content and context. The first five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) are referred to as the Pentateuch (Greek for “five scrolls”) or the Torah, and are believed to have been written by Moses. The theory of Mosaic authorship is found first expressed in the Jewish Talmud, but is also hinted at in the writings of the first century historian Flavius Josephus, as well as in some of the New Testament canon. At the very least, this idea is already not entirely accurate because of the death of Moses described in Deuteronomy 34.

Academic scholarship has proposed a different idea of authorship known as the Documentary Hypothesis, which identifies four primary sources involved in composition of the Torah.2 These four sources are commonly referred to as J, E, D, and P. The J or Jahwist source is noted for its frequent use of the tetragrammaton in the text. The tetragrammaton is the four letter name of God, YHWH, interpreted as Yahweh (or Jahweh in German) by most Jews, Christians, and scholars. By the 9th century B.C.E., the united monarchy of ancient Israel had split into two kingdoms: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The Jahwist source is considered to be the work of the southern kingdom, while E, or the Elohist source, is considered to be the work of the northern kingdom. The Elohist source is identified by its use of the word Elohim, which is a general Hebrew name for any god or deity. The D or Deuteronomist source is dated to the time of King Josiah of Judah and applies to the books of Deuteronomy through II Kings. P, the Priestly source, is noted for its focus on Levitical laws and the position of the Aaronite priesthood in Judaism. P also seems to be an extensive revision of the other sources rather than an original composition. In the order just described, these sources are thought to have contributed to the Bible as early as the 10th century B.C.E. and as late as the 5th century.

The next part of the Hebrew Bible is known as the Nevi’im, or Prophets, and includes Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea through Malachi. Although today prophets are often considered synonymous with fortune-tellers, it is important to understand that this is not how prophets were understood in ancient times. A prophet was simply a person who delivered a message from God, usually drawing attention to some perceived problem, whether political, social, or spiritual in nature. Occasionally a prophet’s message would take the form of an omen, but even then it is not so certain how such things were meant to be interpreted. Was a prediction of the future just that, or was it a more complex way of communicating these political, social, and spiritual messages? You may also notice that Daniel and Lamentations are not among the books of prophecy, unlike what you will find in the order of Old Testament books in Christian Bibles. At least in the case of Daniel, this seems to be for theological reasons that will be discussed in a moment.

The question of who wrote the books of the prophets is a complicated subject that is beyond the scope of this article, but for the sake of illustration, we will take a look at one particular example. Scholarship divides the Book of Isaiah into three different periods of authorship, based on changes in style and theology, the historical context of events described in the text, and the sudden cessation of Isaiah’s name after chapter 40.3 The first 39 chapters are referred to as 1st Isaiah and are thought to date from around the time the prophet Isaiah was supposed to have lived. Chapters 40-55 are called 2nd Isaiah, but are placed during the Babylonian exile, many years later. Finally, chapters 56-66, attributed to 3rd Isaiah, are associated with a time after the exile, when the Jews had returned to Israel. The other prophetic texts don’t deviate much from this, with multiple authorship and later redaction being fairly common claims in scholarly studies.

The remaining books of the Hebrew scriptures compose the Ketuvim, or Writings. This includes the poetic books of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, the five scrolls of Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Esther, as well as the books of Daniel, Chronicles, and Ezra (with Nehemiah as part of the text). Several of the Ketuvim texts are anonymous, while others are once more attributed authorship by tradition. For example, I and II Kings do not name their author, but Jewish tradition has claimed that Jeremiah penned the texts. However, views that rely on religious traditions are often at odds with scholarship. Take the example of the Pentateuch. Since the figure of Moses is so distant in history – if he existed to begin with – it is practically impossible to prove that he was the author of the Pentateuch. Tradition may say he was, but there is no good evidence to confirm it, and the mention of Moses’ death in Deuteronomy works against the claim. In many cases, traditional views on authorship seem to revolve around faith rather than evidence.

Why is Daniel not among the books of prophecy, where Christian Bibles place it? The narrative of Daniel describes events that occurred late in Jewish history, and the Talmud gives support to this by providing a late date of authorship for the book. Additionally, several anomalies exist that can only be explained by a later dating, like the presence of passages written in Aramaic instead of Hebrew, the absence of any reference to Daniel among lists of the great Hebrew prophets prior to the 2nd century B.C.E., and the fact that the text did not make it into the division for the Nevi’im, which had been ‘closed’ by around 200 B.C.E.4

In short, precise authorship of the Old Testament is highly speculative. Copies of copies are all that we have for manuscripts, and each one typically shows evidence of multiple authors and redactors, working over extended time spans. Even if the traditional attributions are assumed accurate, the picture of the reliability and integrity of the authors would still be open to debate. Most of what we think we know of the characters of Moses, Isaiah, David, and the other alleged biblical authors, comes from writings that are supposed to be their own work, and yet these are the very writings that are in dispute. The question of who wrote the Old Testament may have some answers that are more plausible than others, but it is by no means a settled issue that corroborates religious traditions.

II. Evidence of Change

The Documentary Hypothesis helps explain some of the stranger and intriguing details of the Old Testament. Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman has examined the two creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2, attributing the first to the Priestly source and the second to the Jahwist source.5 Others have observed that the different sources are also distinguished by the name they use for the mountain of God (Sinai in J and P, Horeb in E and D), the emphasis on prophets (predominantly in E and D), and ritual objects like the ark of the covenant, which makes frequent appearances in J, yet is never mentioned in E. According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the J, E, D, and P sources were arranged and edited into the Pentateuch by a number of redactors who also added in some of their own material at various points.

This means that just within the first five books of the Bible, there is evidence of change. It’s very unlikely that the redactors have given us the full content of each of the sources they meshed together, since bits and pieces have been cut and pasted elsewhere like in some anonymous message written with letters cut from magazine pages. To illustrate the reality of this, let’s look at an overview of the first sixteen verses of Genesis chapter seven, separated by the different sources identified by Professor Friedman.

gen7-analysisAs we can see from this small sample to the left, the biblical text is quite a mix of material in some places.

An additional strength of the Documentary Hypothesis is its ability to account for some of the apparent contradictions in the Pentateuch. Did Noah take two of every clean animal onto the ark (Genesis 6:19, 7:8,9,15) or did he take seven of every clean animal (Genesis 7:2-3)? Try as they may to harmonize this glaring discrepancy, apologists have been unable to sufficiently resolve it. This example is great evidence of change in the Bible, however, because it shows that there were simply two different stories of Noah’s ark that were later integrated into one narrative. Professor Friedman and others have linked the verses mentioning two of every clean species to the Priestly source, and those mentioning seven of every clean species are identified as the Jahwist source. When we look at the text in Hebrew, we find that the ‘twos’ verses are accompanied by the name Elohim, while the ‘sevens’ verse is accompanied by the tetragrammaton.

Of course, we don’t only find evidence of change in the Pentateuch, but in other portions of Hebrew scripture too. The Book of Job shows numerous signs of alterations to the original text. Many scholars have noted that Elihu’s speeches in chapters 32-37 seem very out of place, breaking the flow between Job’s plea to God and God’s answer. Randel McCraw Helms has pointed out that several of the reprimands in Elihu’s speech to Job are without purpose.6 “God is greater than any mortal,” Elihu claims (33:12), which is something that Job had previously admitted with no reservations in chapters 9 and 12. Elihu is not counted among Job’s friends in chapter 2, and he first arrives upon the scene suddenly in chapter 32 to deliver his speech. When God finally appears (chapter 42) and addresses Job’s friends who had previously advised him, Elihu is once again nowhere to be found. From the 3rd to the 32nd chapter, the text follows a cycle of speeches, starting with Job, then Eliphaz, Job again, Bildad, Job once more, and then ending with Zophar. The third cycle is interestingly different, however, as Zophar gives no speech and we hear quite a bit less from Bildad. Thus, it looks as if editing has taken place, as well as the insertion of new material with Elihu’s speech. There are many other noteworthy issues with the Book of Job too, such as the bet between Satan and God that is left unresolved in the epilogue.

We can find further evidence of biblical change from learning about the textual history of the Hebrew scriptures. Between 1947 and 1956, nearly 900 documents were found in eleven caves at the ruins of Qumran, near the Dead Sea. The documents, some written on parchment and some on papyrus, comprise the oldest surviving collection of Hebrew scriptures, with various texts dated as early as 150 B.C.E. and as late as 70 C.E. Known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, they contain passages from the Hebrew canon and from apocryphal (non-canonical) works, transcribed in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. The Dead Sea Scrolls are important because they can help us to understand the history of Hebrew scripture, along with its nuances and variations.

Today there are two main variations of the Hebrew Bible: the Septuagint and the Masoretic text. The Septuagint is the Greek translation composed between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C.E. According to the Jewish Talmud, King Ptolemy summoned 72 Hebrew translators, assigned each one to a separate chamber and commissioned them to produce a Greek translation of the Torah.7 The word Septuagint means seventy in Latin, and the text is sometimes abbreviated as “LXX” (70) in commemoration of the 72 translators who produced it. The Septuagint is especially significant because most of the quotations of the Hebrew Bible that we find in the New Testament correspond with it, indicating that the Septuagint was probably the version of the Hebrew scriptures that was most familiar to the New Testament authors.

The Masoretic text was compiled between the 7th and 10th centuries C.E., and distributed by a group of Jews known as the Masoretes. Working out of schools in Palestine, the Masoretes achieved a reputation of accuracy, error-correction, and skillful care in their copying techniques that set the standard for the Jewish world for a time.8 The Masoretic text is what will be found in most Hebrew Bibles today, in contrast to the preference for the Septuagint that’s shown in Christian Bibles. Although the differences between the two translations are typically minor, some verses of important theological content are interpreted very differently between the variant texts. According to The Oxford Companion to Archeology:

About 35% of the Qumran biblical manuscripts are nearly identical to the Masoretic, or traditional, Hebrew text of the Old Testament and 10% to the Greek and Samaritan traditions, with the remainder exhibiting sometimes dramatic differences in both language and content.9

What this means is that the majority of the biblical manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls are at odds with both the Masoretic and Septuagint texts. Put simply, the Old Testament was certainly not a static and unchanging document! Further evidence of this is also found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, among which are non-canonical writings, as already mentioned. Some of these texts, like the Book of Tobit and the Book of Sirach, have been dated to the 2nd century B.C.E., and are included in the Greek Septuagint, but are omitted from Protestant Bibles. Additionally, there are many extended, shortened, edited, and revised versions of canonical books and stories found in both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint. A longer version of Daniel includes a story referred to as “Bel and the Dragon,” and an additional six chapters exist in the LXX version of Esther. The Dead Sea Scrolls document known as the Genesis Apocryphon gives a re-imagined tale of the birth of Lamech’s son, as the father expresses concern that the child is the offspring of one of the Nephilim (see Genesis 6:1-4).

As historians and archaeologists uncover more and more of our distant past, it becomes increasingly clear that much of the Bible is legendized, including the authorship attributed to its numerous books. Some scholars like Israel Finkelstein have even argued that a great deal of the Old Testament is anachronistic – stories written at a later date that pretend to tell of events from far more ancient times.10 For more on the Bible’s relationship to history, see my other article, The Historical Errancy of the Bible.

III. Sumerian Influence

A few iconic stories of the Hebrew Bible appear to stem from ancient Sumerian myths. The tale of Adam and Eve bears striking resemblance to the tale of Enkidu and Shamat in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, a text which dates between the 13th and 10th centuries B.C.E., though derives from even older source material.11 In the epic, a man named Enkidu is fashioned from the clay of the earth by the goddess Aruru, who intends for him to defeat the demigod king Gilgamesh. Enkidu is raised by wild animals and turns out to be a rather uncivilized brute until Gilgamesh has the idea to send a temple prostitute to him, as a means of taming and civilizing the threat. Shamhat seduces Enkidu and takes the wild out of the wild man by having repeated sexual intercourse with him. Afterwards, she convinces him to leave nature behind and live with her in the city ruled by Gilgamesh.

In both this story and the story of Adam and Eve, we have a man formed out of the clay, or mud, of the earth. This man is all alone in a natural setting until a woman comes and tempts him. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Shamhat tempts the man with her beauty, and in Genesis, Eve tempts Adam with forbidden fruit. Although the biblical text doesn’t draw any explicit connection to sex, the fruit has long been interpreted as a symbol of sex, and there is also the reaction of embarrassment to the discovery that both are naked, which may hint at some sexual undertones. Again, in both stories, after the two have done the deed, they are compelled to leave with no hope for return. Like Enkidu can no longer go back to his life among nature and the animals, Adam and Eve can no longer go back to their life in the garden.

Apologists will often note the differences among the two stories, and there are indeed a number of differences. However, some of the differences might be intentional rather than serving as evidence that there is no connection between the tales. Adam was not raised among the beasts like Enkidu, but he, in a sense, raised them, as we find him naming all the animals in Genesis 2:19-20. In the final departure from wildlife, the myth in the Gilgamesh epic does seem to emphasize the need for transcending our primal state, but beyond this, the Adam and Eve story may be advocating a stricter separation of man from animal in order to give special status to human beings. Adam is not a wild man of any sort, but is made in “the image of God,” and the Hebrew god does not create anything less than perfect.

The difference in temptation might also be explained as intentional. The Israelites certainly regarded the Babylonians as cruel and immoral heathen monsters (Psalm 137:8-9, Isaiah 14:1-27, Jeremiah 50), especially during the 6th century B.C.E., when Babylon conquered the kingdoms of Israel and took many of the people into captivity. It would not be at all surprising to find that the ancient Israelites sought to distinguish themselves from their captors and preserve their traditions during exile. Part of this would include the kind of supremacist “my-god-can-beat-up-your-god” sentiments that we find all throughout the Jewish scriptures. Sexual impropriety is a frequently noted offense in the Hebrew Bible as well, and even if we concede that sex is not implied by the forbidden fruit in the Genesis account, we still have the absence of sex in Eden to contend with. Comparing a story where sex is what civilizes man and woman to a story where disobedience to God is what causes the fall of man and woman, it is not so difficult to imagine how the latter could have been written as a condemnatory response to the former.

Co-opting pagan legends was not an unusual practice for the ancient Israelites, and we find other examples from Hebrew scripture. The story of Noah’s flood is often said to also have its origins in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but the Babylonian myth owes its story to a still earlier Akkadian myth about a king named Atrahasis, and this in turn may be traced back to a Sumerian myth in the Epic of Ziusudra, dated to the 17th century B.C.E.12 In the epic, we learn that the gods have decided to cause a flood that will wipe out all humanity, but the god Enki takes pity on King Ziusudra – an upstanding, humble, and god-fearing man – and warns him of the danger, suggesting that he build a great boat to save himself. Ziusudra obeys and survives in the boat while the flood rages on for seven days. Afterwards, he sees the sun, opens a window, and prostrates himself before offering the sacrifice of an ox and a sheep.

Like Ziusudra, Noah is said to be a righteous and god-fearing man, and because of this, he is warned of the impending storm and told he must build a great boat to survive. The flood comes after seven days, although it lasts for 40 days and 40 nights (or 150 days, in Gen. 7:24). Once things clear up and Noah comes out of the ark, he offers a sacrifice to God. The Epic of Gilgamesh has additional details not in the Ziusudra epic, but shared with the Genesis story. Like Gilgamesh, Noah releases a raven and a dove in the hopes of finding dry land. The Babylonian gods smell the “sweet odor” of Gilgamesh’s sacrifice, as the Jewish god smells the “pleasing aroma” of Noah’s sacrifice (Gen. 8:21).

Many of the differences between these accounts may again be chalked up to intent. The flood lasts longer in the biblical story because the author could have wanted to emphasize that the Jewish god is more powerful than the gods of the Sumerians, and thus his wrath is greater, just as his protection is greater for those who follow him. This point about greater protection – and by extent, greater mercy and compassion – could also serve to explain the rainbow sign at the end of Noah’s flood that is missing from the ancient Sumerian flood myths. As one last difference, some might call attention to the focus on the animals that we find in the Genesis story. Although the epics of Ziusudra, Atrahasis, and Gilgamesh, all report animals being on the boat (later used in the sacrifices, if nothing else), the Noah myth mentions a concerted effort to gather several of every kind of animal onto the ark. Why is this? It could be further indication of the superiority of the Israelite god, but it could also stem from the implications of Adam’s relationship with the animals in the garden of Eden. If man was granted responsibility for the beasts, then man would have to shelter them during the flood, just as God would shelter Noah’s family.

A third and last example I will provide for Sumerian influence on the Israelite scriptures can be found in the ancient Babylonian creation epic called the Enuma Elish.13 The name of the epic means “when on high,” in reference to the first line: “When on high the heaven had not been named…” The story tells of how Apsu, representing fresh water, and Tiamat, representing salt water and the primeval chaos, mingle together and give birth to the first two gods, Lahmu and Lahamu. These new deities then give birth to Ansar and Kishar, who wind up birthing the god Anu. Next, Anu has the god Ea, or Nudimmud, who finally gives birth to Marduk. After these six generations, the gods begin fighting amongst each other, climaxing in Marduk coming to power by slaying Tiamat and forming the earth and sky out of her corpse. Lastly, Marduk creates human beings from the blood of Kingu (Tiamat’s second husband), so that they might serve the gods and allow them to rest.

The similarities to Genesis are not apparent until one understands what each of these Babylonian gods represents. Tiamat and Apsu represent the fresh waters and the salt waters, as already stated. Lahmu and Lahamu are identified with silt. Ansar is called the sky father, while Kishar is known as the earth mother. Anu is another sky god, but is more specifically the “lord of constellations.” Ea, also known as Enki and Nudimmud, is associated with water, but is also “lord of the earth,” as the name Enki is often translated. Lastly, there is Marduk, who becomes king of the gods after defeating Tiamat, and is also the creator of humanity. In the Enuma Elish, Marduk is given fifty names that exalt his status as bel belim, or “lord of lords.”

To demonstrate how the Enuma Elish relates to the Genesis creation myth, I provide the chart below, which shows parallels between each generation of gods in the Babylonian tale and each day of creation in the Israelite tale.


Most of these parallels are self-explanatory. On the first day, the earth is formless and empty (other translations say “void”), as God hovers over the waters, recalling the waters of Tiamat and Apsu, as well as the primeval chaos. For the second day, God creates a vault between the waters, which he calls sky. Although this may not seem to have much of a relation to silt, the sky described here in the Bible is not what we think of today. In ancient times, the sky was believed to be a solid dome covering the earth known as the firmament.14 Silt, of course, is a hard material substance often found in large deposits in bodies of water. In Genesis 1:7, it is said that God separates the water under the vault from the water above it, and during the flood story several chapters later, the vault of heaven is opened, along with the depths of the seas, to bring about the flood.

On the third day, God distinguishes the sky from the earth, in contrast to the third generation of Babylonian deities, known as the sky father and the earth mother. During the fourth day, the Hebrew god forms the stars in the vault of the sky, paralleled by the birth of Anu, a sky god and lord of constellations. Genesis 1:14 tells us that the lights in the vault serve as “signs to mark sacred times, and days and years.” On day five, God makes the creatures of the sea and the beasts of the land, which are both associated with Ea, the lord of all the earth and waters. Finally, for the sixth day, God creates man in his image, as compared to Marduk creating man from the blood of Kingu, to serve as slaves to the gods.

Differences between these two creation accounts are very apparent, but might some of them also be intentional? Consider that on day one, Yahweh moves over the cosmic waters. This could again emphasize the superiority of the Jewish god, who has authority even over the domain of deities like Tiamat and Apsu. Then there is the creation of man in the image of the true reigning God, instead of from the blood of a defeated god. While Yahweh makes humans in his likeness and commands them to rest as he rested on the seventh day, Marduk creates humans to be slaves, in order that the gods (and only the gods) can rest on the seventh day.

One especially intriguing difference that seems to have telling significance to it is the difference in how each story begins. The Enuma Elish starts off, “When on high,” with focus on the heavenly realm, which was literally above the sky, in outer space, in the ancient cosmology. The Book of Genesis takes another approach, stating matter-of-factly, “In the beginning, God”. Space is the first concern of the Babylonian myth: the sacred is a place above the sky. There is also the mysterious comment in the Enuma Elish that none of the gods had been called into being prior to the intermingling of Tiamat and Apsu. In the Hebrew scriptures, on the other hand, we find time as the first concern: the sacred is not a single place, but can encompass many places, because the god of the Israelites has been around since the very beginning. The sacredness of time seems to be further evident in the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest.

The emphasis on sacred time over sacred space becomes understandable when we recognize Genesis 1 as the product of the Priestly source, composed during the 6th/5th century B.C.E., around the time of the Babylonian exile. Living in a foreign nation, trying to retain their identity and faith, the Israelites would likely have conceptualized the sacred in a manner that did not revolve around space, having recently been removed from their homeland after witnessing its destruction. Putting the emphasis on time would allow them to worship their god in the absence of a temple, while in enemy territory, and could also give them some semblance of hope for the future. Thus, the Genesis 1 creation myth can be thought of as an anti-Babylonian polemic of sorts, written to help the Israelites retain their identity and faith during the exile. It forms one piece in a bigger picture of the clever and critical co-option of Sumerian legends by the ancient Hebrews.

IV. Considering the Evidence

Now that we have briefly surveyed some of the evidence and scholarly ideas about the Jewish scriptures, we can consider their interpretation and intent from a more informed position. Are these texts the unchanging word of God? Have they been handed down to us from reliable sources? Do they accurately relay historical events?

Change undoubtedly occurred at several points in the composition of the Hebrew Bible, as evidenced by the differences in writing style, language, diction, and content, which I have already mentioned. I have provided only a few select examples, and many more can be found in the scholarly literature, but these are sufficient enough to demonstrate that the Bible is not a collection of specially and perfectly preserved documents. Why would Moses have written two conflicting accounts of the creation and Noah’s flood? Why would he have used different names for God in different parts of the text, and why would he have used different names for the same mountain in different parts of the text? These facts only make sense if other authors, each with their own unique voice, had composed their own documents that were later compiled into one narrative. These textual variations are quite simply inexplicable under the faith-driven assumption that the Old Testament is the unaltered product of the traditionally attributed authors.

Consequently, this also means that we have no way of knowing if the Tanakh has been handed down to us from reliable sources. If we do not know the identity or integrity of the multiple authors and redactors who composed the Hebrew texts, then the sole means for assessing the reliability of their claims is to consider each claim itself, by way of reason and evidence. Yet a good number of the claims made in the Bible turn out to be scientifically and historically unreliable [see The Historical Errancy of the Bible].

The Old Testament shows no difference from other ancient documents in the details of its origins. It is the product of numerous writers, many anonymous, and contains various additions, redactions, and edits that have shaped the scriptures over time into the form that we have them today. Even if one were to argue that a god had protected and guided such a haphazard and inefficient method of composition, it still has all the characteristics of non-divinely inspired human composition that are found in antiquity, and none of the characteristics we might expect for a miraculously preserved collection of writings.

Of course, this conclusion will find agreement with many Jews and Christians today. The notion that the Hebrew Bible is the work of human authors who used fallible human methods in its composition is not a revolutionary thought. Even so, the evidence is certainly worth citing for those who are unaware, and the first step in deciphering a text and ascertaining its value always involves a look at its origins. What we learn about the people who produced the Old Testament is that they were trying to understand the world they lived in, and trying to find their own place within it. Naturally, this meant building on, and revising, some of the ideas of other ancient peoples.


1. Hebrew Bibles count 24 books, though they feature the same books as Protestant Bibles, simply reordered. For example, the books of the minor prophets are included as one book in Hebrew Bibles, named “The Twelve”. Other Christian Bibles, like those of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, include additional books such as I and II Maccabees and Tobit.
2. Gordon Wenham, “Pentateuchal Studies Today,” Themelios 22.1, p. 3-13.
3. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Isaiah – Introduction, Retrieved Dec. 15, 2013.
4. David Syme Russell, Between the Testaments, p. 60.
5. Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (1997), p. 246-247.
6. Randel McCraw Helms, The Bible Against Itself (2006), p. 55.
7. Babylonian Talmud. Tractate Megillah, 9a-9b.
8. Menachem Cohen, The Idea of the Sanctity of the Biblical Text and the Science of Textual Criticism (1979). Retrieved Dec. 15, 2013.
9. Fagan and Beck, “Dead Sea Scrolls,” The Oxford Companion to Archeology (1996).
10. Israel Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed (2001, Simon & Schuster).
11. Luke Mastin, Other Ancient Civilizations – Epic of Gilgamesh, Classical Literature (2009). Retrieved Dec. 15, 2013.
12. Jona Lendering, The great Flood: the Sumerian story, (2007). Retrieved Dec. 15, 2013.
13. Joshua J. Mark, Enuma Elish – The Babylonian Epic of Creation, Ancient History Encyclopedia (2011). Retrieved Dec. 15, 2013.
14. James F. Driscoll, Firmament, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 6 (1909). Retrieved Dec. 15, 2013.

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