Who Wrote the Bible

I wrote two posts this week about the dating of the books of the bible. Sabio in the comments asked me to give a handy reference for who wrote each book. Here is a table showing the book, who was traditionally claimed to be the author, notes about the origin and status of that claim and a summary of how reliable the authorship is. In the claims column “In text” means that the author is explicitly named in the text.

I’ve gone here for the most aggressive culling of books. The conclusions are all mainstream: I’m not out on a limb here. But there are a couple of books here that might be authentic. I’m thinking 2 Tim and to a lesser extent 2 Thess, here. It is also possible that Jude just happens to have been written by the correct Jude, but this is a crap-shoot, there’s no reason to think it was.

It was traditionally taught that works clearly forged in the name of a prominent Christian figure were written as a mark of respect, or with community knowledge of the forgery. There is little evidence for this, though. It now seems clear that forged documents were forged for the reason all forgeries were created: to intentionally deceive people for advantage — in this case to put your favorite theology on the lips of someone with agreed authority.

Many of the books are mistakenly attributed. As the debates raged about which books should be included in the NT, it became crucially important that books be seen to have some direct connection with apostolic authority. So a book that merely claimed to be by, say, “John”, was ascribed to the Apostle John.

Book Traditional Author Claim Status
Matthew Matthew the Disciple Text anonymous. Claim first seen in C2 Papias (though ambiguous). MISTAKE
Mark John Mark, Disciple of Peter Text anonymous. Claim first seen in C2 Papias via Iraneus. MISTAKE
Luke Luke, Companion of Paul Text anonymous. Claim first seen in C2 Iraneus. MISTAKE
John John the Disciple Text claims it is by the “beloved disciple”. Scholars date it far too late*. FORGERY
Acts Luke, Companion of Paul Text anonymous. Claim first seen in C2 Iraneus. MISTAKE
Romans Paul In text. CORRECT
1 Cor Paul In text. CORRECT
2 Cor Paul In text. CORRECT
Galatians Paul In text. CORRECT
Ephesians Paul In text. Style and content is not consistent with Paul. FORGERY
Philippians Paul In text. CORRECT
Colossians Paul In text. Style and content is not consistent with Paul. FORGERY
1 Thess Paul In text. CORRECT
2 Thess Paul In text. Too close to 1 Thess in words, too distant in theology. FORGERY
1 Timothy Paul In text. Rather different greek to Paul’s style. FORGERY
2 Timothy Paul In text. More similar to Paul than 1 Tim, but topic odd. Not by whoever wrote 1 Tim. FORGERY
Titus Paul In text. Very similar to 1 Tim, unlike Paul. FORGERY
Philemon Paul In text. CORRECT
Hebrews Paul Text anonymous. Claim first seen in C4 by Augustine and Jerome. Included in canon on that basis. MISTAKE
James James the Brother of Jesus Text just says “James”. Claim arose gradually amidst continual debate about which James was which. MISTAKE
1 Peter Peter In text. Concerns and style are nowhere near Peter’s time. FORGERY
2 Peter Peter In text. Concerns and style are nowhere near Peter’s time. FORGERY
1 John John the Disciple Text anonymous, but probably by the same author as 2 and 3 John. MISTAKE
2 John John the Disciple Text by “The Elder”, but probably by the same author as 1 and 3 John. MISTAKE
3 John John the Disciple Text by “The Elder”, but probably by the same author as 1 and 2 John. MISTAKE
Jude Jude, brother of James, brother of Jesus Text claims to be by “Jude”, and there are very many of these mentioned in the NT and other texts. MISTAKE
Revelation John the Disciple Text claims to be by “John”. Style is nothing like John’s gospel or the epistles of John. MISTAKE

* In many works, John’s gospel is identified as being anonymous, and therefore would be a MISTAKE in my categories. I don’t buy that, however. The author stops short of claiming the book is by any specific disciple, but I can’t see any way to read where it isn’t obvious that he means us to understand it is by one of them, most likely John. And it isn’t. Just because he doesn’t name a name, doesn’t mean it isn’t intentional deceit. Feel free to push back on this, and if anyone wants to call me out on it, I could write another post.

As always, suggestions, corrections and arguments welcome!

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Who Wrote the Bible

  1. Very nice! Now, you can build an Index post for the right column (or another tab like your “Biblical Index”.) called “Bible Study Tools”. This would be a very nice edition to that list. Then you could direct folks saying: “Go to my site’s “Bible Study Tool” index”, I have dates and stuff there.”

  2. I’m really not comfortable with your approach.

    “It is also possible that Jude just happens to have been written by the correct Jude, but this is a crap-shoot, there’s no reason to think it was.”

    Sure there is. The ancient tradition that attributes the book to Jude is a reason. It may be a mistaken idea, but that there is such a tradition should be addressed and accounted for.

    Maybe what makes me uncomfortable is the idea that scholars so many centuries removed can state their opinions with such authority in the face of the more traditonalist scholars who lived much closer to the events.

  3. Ian

    Doug, I understand what you’re saying, but Jude is a bad example. Jude says it was written by Jude the brother of James, but the early church couldn’t agree who “James” was – there are several of those. It would be odd if it were a brother or half-brother of Jesus not to say so. Jude’s identity was doubted widely in antiquity, including by Eusebius and Origen. Although considered canonical, it wasn’t clear whether its apostolic link was through James, or by identifying it with Judas the apostle. So I think we’re in good company with ancient scholarship in saying its a crap shoot whether this was Jesus’s brother or not, even if we think there is any good reason to suppose it is apostolic at all.

    Your approach seems to have more weight with something like Mark, say, and there conservative scholars would agree with you. Mark is early, John Mark is a later character. The attribution to Mark happens early, and there is no dissent from it. Unfortunately, John Mark doesn’t make a lot of sense as an author. Our critical tools are sharper these days, we have no ideological need to connect to an apostolic line, we can statistically and linguistically differentiate between different written sources on which a document is based. So I’d say we are better placed to make a calm and objective judgement than Papias was, on the basis of the text. What we do lack is any oral tradition around authorship that might have been around then. We can say, for example, that there is no record before Iraneus of anyone thinking the gospel was other than anonymous.

  4. Thanx for the question, Doug, it was fun to listen to Ian’s rich reply.

  5. Ian, if we are going to revise history and overthrow literally centuries of tradition, shouldn’t we have rather compelling reasons for doing this?

    There is an ancient tradition attributing Jude’s epistle to Jude, brother of James, who was Bishop of the Jerusalem church. Upon what grounds shall we overthrow that?

    You write: “It would be odd if it were a brother or half-brother of Jesus not to say so.” But that is an assumption which may be either right or wrong, but certainly it isn’t a persuasive argument. That omission can be explained by a rival assumption, that the original recipients of this epistle would naturally have understood who the Jude who wrote it actually was and who the connection he mentioned referred to.

    Again, when you mention the early doubts about the epistle’s authenticity and write “Jude’s identity was doubted widely in antiquity, including by Eusebius and Origen,” I’m not impressed. First, “widely” is a relative word, don’t you think? It is just as true that what we call the traditional view obviously was widely held in antiquity because Jude’s epistle was accepted into the Christian Canon. To my thinking, then, the traditional view was more widespread.

    Obviously early Christian scholars had an ax to grind. But I think their straightforwardness in facing these kinds of disputes (rather than pretending they didn’t exist) lends some measure of credibility to their work. They might have been sloppy historians or willing promoters of pious frauds. But isn’t it possible they thoughtfully and faithfully recorded the traditions they received?

    I find lots of assuming and circular arguing by the revisionists. That isn’t to say I’m closed minded or unimpressed with some of their findings. And I’m not sure I fully agree with you that “Our critical tools are sharper these days.” If any of us argue from a bias or prejudice, we aren’t being critical (except with regard to those with whom we disagree). The “argument from silence” is sometimes made too much of. That can be more or less imposing, but not totally overwhelming. (I’m moved, for example, by the silence in most of the early NT-era writings about the destruction of Jerusalem.)

    I’m sorry. I’ve taken up way too much of your blog space. As I said, I’m enjoying this series of posts and enjoy reading your take on this. I just think there are still many loose ends and open questions.

  6. Fun questions, Doug — I look forward to Ian’s reply — since he is a Bible scholar raised in the orthodox tradition.

  7. Ian

    Doug, sure. Good points all. Some comments…

    ““widely” is a relative word” – it is, but bear in mind back this far we’re only talking about a very small number of key figures anyway. Two out of thousands is not widely, two out of a dozen is more so. And it is also important not to homogenize writers at this early stage. We know what their concerns were largely (they tell us explicitly). We know, for example, that this was never a debate about authenticity, but about canon.

    “Jude’s epistle to Jude, brother of James, who was Bishop of the Jerusalem church” – except those who attributed it to Jude the apostle, of course!

    “arguments from silence” — agreed, there’s not much to hang your hat on there. They don’t establish much, but I think they can be used to cast doubt on conclusions. In particular we use silence a lot to determine when ideas came to light. This is always at the mercy of another discovery, but still, is important.

    “They might have been sloppy historians or willing promoters of pious frauds. But isn’t it possible they thoughtfully and faithfully recorded the traditions they received?”

    The two aren’t mutually exclusive. There is no reason to believe that the folks first writing down these attributions were willingly promoting frauds. But we do know they had excellent theological and power motives for accepting certain claims: there were power struggles and theological arguments aplenty that we can trace very well, and a judicious apostolic writing could very much help your cause.

    Plenty of people at the time accepted claims that were extraordinarily far fetched.

    Once we get out of the NT, there seems to be no great need to claim authenticity on the basis of traditional attribution. Rufinus attributes the Didache to Peter, but because that didn’t make the canon, nobody feels the need to defend that attribution. If it had, I suspect we would. Masses and masses of early Christian literature were attributed to apostles. Some of it even several centuries too late. It is clear there was a widespread practice of forging texts in apostles’ names and some texts get attributed to different people at different times (the Shepherd for example), showing there was a practice of (re)attributing texts after they were in circulation. Could it be the NT texts just happen to be accurate? Its beyond my faith to think the NT is so unique among ancient literature.

    “I’m sorry. I’ve taken up way too much of your blog space. As I said, I’m enjoying this series of posts and enjoy reading your take on this. ”

    Never…. discussions are why I blog. The posts themselves are merely lures in the water 😉

  8. Thanks for the cordial response. Your lure definitely “hooked” me. Not only that but it has kindled a desire to look through my library and see if I saved any of the notes I made around three decades ago when I was examining NT origins while going through my “deconversion” process. (I don’t think I saved much, including many books which I think I sold when I was in financial straights.)

    You know, I used to own a set of the writings of the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers. A good portion of one year’s income tax refund went for that. I was impressed with the depth of knowledge and sophistication some of these fellows possessed. Then on occasion I was embarrassed by their lack of criticial thinking. As a teenager I checked out from our public library Augustine’s massive City of God. I was raised to be suspicious of Catholics but again I found myself amazed at the intellectual depth of some of what I was reading. I’m saying all this because I would like to think that the early scholars of the Christian religion were careful to try to sift the chaff from the wheat of their traditions, both oral and written. It’s too much to assume they were perfectly successful. But I think it suggests that they had a vested interest in “getting it right.” I still can’t help but feel that they were in a much better position to detect what you call “forgeries” and “mistakes” than we are today. Of course I’m not arguing that Christianity was “homogeneous” from the beginning. That is how and why “orthodoxy” came to be established in the first place.

  9. Ian

    I agree that several of the Church fathers had dazzling intellects To Augustine I’d ad Tertullian and Origen as absolute forces of nature.

    But even so I don’t get the sense that they cared about the same kinds of things we do. They often do argue about authenticity and authorship, but not in nearly the same ways, or with the same criteria as we do.

    I think you’re right, they privilege the authority of claims in a way that a modern historian couldn’t. They could, therefore, be right. But I think we can see obviously they were wrong in so many cases (indisputably for books that didn’t make the canon), that is wise to be skeptical. That is not a reflection on them at all.

    A similar criticism could be made from their point of view to ours. I’d imagine Augustine listening to this debate and getting gradually redder. “You’re missing the point” he’d say “you’re so concerned about who put pen to paper, that you’re ignoring whether the content has apostolic authority.” And he’d be right. This post, and modern analysis is about authorship. It is not about the source of the ideas. Because to a historian text is all we have, we don’t have and can’t easily reconstruct the history of the ideas, outside of the moments they appear out of the fog of history in textual form.

  10. I think you’re being too kind on James. The way I read that attribution is that it’s a very self-conscious forgery. The real Paul argued against justification by the works of the Law (Galatians 2:16, 3:10ff, Romans 3:20 etc). The author of Ephesians is at least open to a very different understanding of the word “works” (2:9), and it is against such a misunderstanding that James seems to have been written (much to the chagrin of Martin Luther and his totally depraved votaries). What better character could there be invented to rebut a Pseudo-Paul than a Pseudo-James? Although there’s nothing stopping the author of that work from actually being another James, the whole “twelve tribes in dispersion” (1:1) bit is laying it on with a shovel to make readers assume he is the James of the Jerusalem Church.

  11. Ian

    I totally agree that, if this is an author claiming to be James the brother of Jesus, then it is a forgery. But given that there was some disagreement over which James it was, I was being at least a little gracious! Thanks for the comment, James :), and welcome to the blog.

  12. Thanks for the welcome, Ian! I stumbled on your blog through that rather nice pretty visualization of the Synoptics and then read through some of your more recent stuff.

    I very much agree that we’re playing a game of percentages here and that one could jump either way without being the sort of person who edits Wikipedia to support a particular view of Biblical inerrancy in terms that are not obvious to normal people. 😉 At least the authorship question is slightly less like nailing jelly to the wall than the date one (so obviously I’ll have a comment on the way on that one too, once I’ve finished writing it!).

  13. Ian

    Nailing jelly to the wall, love it. It also appears we live about 30 miles away from each other…. In the land of Sabio (prolific blogger and commenter here)’s forefathers.

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