The Problem When We Talk About Biblical Authorship

Biblical Studies

 

The post-mortem details about Moses in Deuteronomy, the superscripts that begin most of the Psalms, the ending of the Gospel of Mark, the story of the women caught in adultery in John 8, or even the process by which each of the books and letters gained entrance into the Bible itself…all of these examples of editorializing in the Bible can be shocking—even troubling—when single divine authorship of the Bible is taught and assumed. The Bible did not come to humanity as golden tablets sent from heaven, nor was the product of a few singular holy men. The Bible is unashamedly a unit of documents created through and knit together by communal authorship, editorializing, and Spirit-led discernment. This is why I really appreciate Paul’s words about the text being “God-breathed”(2 Timothy 3:16-17). Paul’s  statement is not about authors, it a statement about the cannon (i.e. complete list) of Hebrew Scriptures (and specifically it’s purpose in character formation).

** A few other examples of the compiled and editorialized nature of the Scripture: Proverbs 1:1, 25:1, 31:1; Jeremiah 36:32; Luke 1:1-4

However, the issue of authorship can not only cause a crisis of faith when the when the truth of how the Bible was patched and quilted together is discovered, I believe it also causes problems for the practice of biblical interpretation and communal discernment.

BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION

If the Bible is not being spoken of as the dictated words of God, then the weight of the conversation of authorship is being placed upon the shoulders of a few singular holy (male) authors. Yet, because the focus is placed on these original human authors, the conversation concerning interpretation is bound to their authorial intent. Thus, great effort and resources are given to trying to uncover and recreate these authors, their thoughts, attitudes, feelings, and the situations which may have given rise to texts. In similar fashion, the conversation of original authorship and textual criticism occurs in large part as a way to delegitimize and remove problem texts created by the attempt to recreate the original the text, authors, and their intent.

Textual criticism is not without value, nor are the resources that help us better understand the authors and the cultures and setting of the text. However, textual criticism and a pure historical-grammatical approach to the text are far from complete in helping us make sense of the text entrusted to us in light of the revealed Son of God, Jesus Christ (the very thing modeled by Apostles, the early church, and the New Testament text itself).

COMMUNAL DISCERNMENT

“God told me …” is often an unsettling declaration, not only because of what may follow but because it is understood an autonomous declaration of authority. I believe this form of spiritual malpractice is rooted in the focus on single biblical authors rather than the community that received, discerned, and complied the text. No one may be suggesting that they are speaking with the same authority as the Biblical authors. Yet, the way we imagine and prioritize the role of the individual over the role of community in regards to the Biblical text has implications on how we act; none greater than the church’s practice and ability to discernment the will of God together.