Frank Answers About Who Wrote the Bible

From the archives of “Frank Answers” previously posted on the Immanuel Lutheran Church web site. It seems appropriate for the Second Sunday in Advent.

Question: In the Bible we have books named after the people who allegedly wrote them: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, etc. Is it always or even generally true that the person named in the title of a book was the real author?

Frank Answers: Concern about authorship seems to be related to modern historicism and individualism. Apart from some letters in the New Testament, especially those of Paul, names of authors do not appear in the biblical texts. In part this is because biblical books were written on scrolls. Only with the invention of bound books (codices) would it be possible to write titles and authors on the spine, cover, and even provide a title page.

The titles of scrolls were usually the first few words of the document. In the modern Hebrew Bible used in Jewish synagogues, the books are named after the first words in the text (the “incipit”):
Bereshit, Beginning – “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”
Shemot, Names – “These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob”
Vayikra, And He Called – “And the LORD called to Moses”
Bamidbar, In the Desert – “The LORD spoke to Moses in the tent of meeting in the desert of Sinai”
Devarim, Words – “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel”

We would probably give titles to the books that indicate what’s in the book. In a sense, that’s what the Greek translation of the Old Testament did. This version, known as the Septuagint, names each book of the Penteteuch according to the main element in each book: Genesis – Beginnings; Exodos – Going Out;  Levitikon – Concerning the Levites; Arithmoi – Census of the Israelites; Deuteronomion – Second Law. The English-language Bible use these Greek-derived names. In other languages they are called the Five Books of Moses. Hence, I Moses, II Moses, etc. But Moses’s name doesn’t appear on the scrolls either. And, in any event, Moses couldn’t possibly have described his own death at the end of V Moses (Deuteronomy).

The critical consensus is that the Books of Moses were edited during the Babylonian Exile from pre-existent materials. In fact, many of the Old Testament books (the Hebrew Bible) came together during in this time, including the historical books from Joshua through Chronicles.   We don’t know the authors of these books.

It is also a misconception that in antiquity authors sat down and wrote what they had to say. Scribes trained in script did the writing. Those whom we would call authors dictated what they had to say. Paul, for example, dictated his letters and in one place (Galatians 6:11) indicated that he was signing off in his own hand and apologized because his letters were so large. (Maybe that’s what the image above this post is showing the Apostle Paul doing.) Scribes were trained to write small in order to get more words onto the scroll or the codex.

So the answer to the question is that even the persons who “allegedly” wrote the books didn’t literally write the books. Scribes wrote the books, and that inevitably involved an editorial process. Sometimes a number of sources (both oral and written) were redacted into a final text. This is true of most of the books in the Old Testament and even of the gospels. There’s a whole category of biblical study known as redaction criticism. It answers the question: how did the biblical books receive their final form from supposedly previous sources?

Also, before Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, books had to be copied by hand. Scribes were highly skilled, but various manuscripts of the Bible have variant readings, which are sometimes noted in footnotes in modern study Bibles.  We have no extant original autograph of any biblical book. The oldest scroll is of the Book of Isaiah found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, probably written during or before the first century C.E. The historical Isaiah lived 800 years previously, and there is the issue of whether the long Book of Isaiah represents two or three different sets of prophetic oracles from different time periods (before, during, and after the Babylonian exile).

Some books which bear the names of historical figures, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, were written down by disciples of those figures. In the case of the Gospels the names of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, appear nowhere in the text. Tradition assigned the four gospels to those names, and when the Gospels were transcribed in codices the names appeared on the binding, the cover, and the title page. Even so, note that the gospels are entitled “According to Matthew”, not by Matthew. Just like the chapter and verse numbers that were added later on for ease of reference, the names associated with the biblical books are not part of the actual biblical text, unless the name is actually in the text (like the letters of Paul, or John of Patmos writing his Revelation).

The oral word is more important for the Bible than the literal word. Books were dictated. The prophets spoke and what they said was written down by their disciples (perhaps using a kind of shorthand) and transcribed onto parchment or papyrus or paper by scribes. The inspiration was not in the writing but in the speaking. This was the practice up until the dawn of modern times in the West. The church fathers and the Protestant reforms, for example, didn’t write out all their sermons and commentaries. They were written down by stenographers. People in ancient times (especially public people) weren’t trained in writing; they were trained in rhetoric. In other words, they were taught to speak, not to write. For example, the great Latin church father Augustine of Hippo was a professor of rhetoric before he was baptized and became bishop of Hippo. He preached sermons that were written down by stenographers. His great books were undoubtedly also dictated.

The word was oral speech before it became literal text. That’s the way it was “in the beginning.” God created by speaking the creation into being. “God said, and it was so.” The Law was dictated by God on Mt. Sinai to Moses, who served as a stenographer. But ever thereafter the sages debated the meanings of those words using oral arguments, and stenographers wrote down what they said. (That’s what you find in Jewish literature such as the Mishnah and the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds.) The prophets proclaimed, “Thus says the Lord,” and spoke oracles. Jesus preached and taught orally. His disciples and apostles remembered what he had said and told stories about Jesus. Those who heard the apostles wrote down what they heard and then edited their books into tightly organized proclamations, such as “the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).

Paul said that “faith comes from what is heard” (Romans 10:17), which is why there are preachers, not from what is read. The primary means of communication in the church continues to be speaking and hearing the word, not reading it. Reading calls for consideration; hearing elicits a response. Reading involves the head; hearing goes to the heart. The literal text is good for study, and in my opinion books (codices) still have an advantage over scrolls (including scrolling on the computer screen). But the “inspired” Word of God is still the word breathed into and exhaled out of the mouth of the speaker. This is the living word, the word of the Spirit who is the breath (ruach, pneuma) of God. And what Christian speakers of the word of God point to and proclaim is the “the Word made flesh,” the communication of God embodied in a human being, Jesus the Christ. As the great fourth century church father, Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote in his treatise On the Incarnation (ca. 420),

“…through the incarnation of the Word the Mind whence all things proceed has been declared, and its Agent and Ordainer the Word of God Himself. He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father.”

Who wrote the books of the Bible, which were canonized by the Church in ecumenical councils as authentic witnesses to Christ and whose coming was foretold in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New, is irrelevant. What is relevant to us human beings and to our salvation is who they wrote about. The words point to the Word that is not a product but a person. Nevertheless, we have the scriptures that point to that person, and so we study them. The collect for the Second Sunday in Advent in the English Book of Common Prayer prays:

Blessed Lord, which hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them; that by patience, and comfort of thy holy word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our savior Jesus Christ.”

It’s a good prayer to use before any Bible study.

Pastor Frank Senn


Luther’s German translation of the Bible


  1. Eugene A. Koene

    Excellent, Fr. Frank, but just one small correction. It’s not only English Bibles that have the Greek titles of the books of the Pentateuch. It’s true that Luther’s German Bible had just I Mose, II Mose, etc. (My edition from CPH ca. 1900 does include them however in the “Inhaltsverzeichnis.”) Other Bibles in my possession — Dutch (1875), Swedish (1981) [‘Forsta Moseboken – Genesis’, etc.) — Spanish (Reina de Valera, and modern Catholic versions) all have their titles — I suspect this would be true of most RC editions in any major language.

    • Frank Senn

      Thank you for the correction. If I had checked my French Bible I would have seen Geneve, Exode, etc. I believe the Scandinavian languages followed Luther’s German Bible, but in recent times because of the prevalence of English speaking the Swedish Bible gives both names.

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