The Bible claims to be both the word of God, yet at the same time written by man. How? The answer is through a process called inspiration by which God revealed His words and His purpose through human authors. One of the amazing features of the Bible is that despite the fact that it was written by so many different human authors over such a long period of history, it has a consistency of message and purpose which is quite unique. Some have referred to this as a 'golden thread' which runs through the whole book.
There are two answers to the question 'Who wrote the Bible?'. The first candidate (‘God’) is obviously extremely controversial. The second answer (‘humans’) appears not to be controversial – yet it can become so once we start to ask ‘which humans?’ (for instance, ‘Was the Law of Moses really written by Moses?’ Here are some comments on each of the potential answers in turn.
Let’s start with thinking about the divine authorship of the Bible. Some of the evidence for this view is discussed on the page Is the Bible God’s Word?, so we won’t be going through those arguments again here. Instead, let’s ask the question How could the Bible be written by God, and at the same time by humans? The answer is through a process called ‘inspiration’.
The English word inspiration has the word ‘spirit’ in the middle of it, and this provides a useful starting point. By God’s spirit or power, humans were moved to write down and record the words that God wanted to be preserved for posterity as His message to us. This likely doesn’t mean that they gave no thought to their words or that they were mere automatons (God chose to use living people rather than robots, after all, and the different styles of the Bible authors suggest that there personality is to some extent present in the text, even though the words are divinely inspired). Sometimes the human authors record their own responses to the things that God has said to them – a concept which only means something if their own thought goes into what they are writing. But through it all God is active, directing and controlling the whole process. All the words thus meet His divine seal of approval.
Here’s a Bible passage that talks about this. The apostle Peter, one of Jesus’ most famous disciples, said:
“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1v21) (ESV)
Men didn’t just write whatever they felt like when they were making prophecies recorded in the Bible. God ‘carried them along’ and inspired them to write what they wrote. They couldn’t have written these things of themselves because they were not able, of themselves, to predict the future or understand the depths of God’s purpose. It was only because He revealed it to them and inspired them that they were able to record His message. The Bible itself does not tolerate the view that its writers were just ‘wise men’ putting down the results of their own reflections. The Bible is the word of God, fully inspired by Him.
Here’s another passage, this time from Paul:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God (= ‘God-breathed’ or ‘inspired’) and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3v16-17) (ESV)
The idea of God ‘breathing’ the words of Scripture (through the bodies of the human writers) is quite a powerful metaphor. Without that inspiration of God, the Biblical authors would just have been lifeless bodies – corpses, as it were! They could not have written the Bible themselves. But God ‘breathed’ His words into them so that they could record His truth for posterity. The notion of the Bible as being ‘God-breathed’ is doubly powerful because it also suggests its life-giving potential.
More than merely reporting the words of God, the Bible claims to be the word of God, living and powerful, and able to save people. It’s not that the Bible merely contains the word of God (as though some parts are optional or sub-standard); it is the word of God – in all its parts. (The alternative to this view is that we pick and choose ourselves which parts to accept and which to reject – you can imagine how arbitrary and subject to personal opinion and foible such a process would be!)
There are no prizes for the answer that the Bible was written by humans (whether or not it was written by God), but it’s worth exploring who those human writers were in a little more detail.
The Bible was probably written by over forty different authors, in fact, over a vast period of history extending over two millennia, thus forming a unique library. But who were these human authors, and what do we know about them?
There is certainly controversy about this. Were Paul’s letters really written by Paul, for instance (some scholars distinguish between a group of letters that they accept as Pauline and others that they do not – though there no unanimity about their conclusions). Some scholars also argue that much of the material in the books of Moses was written in much later times than the days of Moses. These views do deserve a response, and hopefully this site will grow to include that over time. The views of these scholars do have evidence to support them, it’s just a question of whether that evidence is being interpreted in the right way – whether the conclusion drawn from the evidence is either necessary or wise,
For present purposes, the question can be viewed (a little simplistically) as revolving again around the ‘Is the Bible the Word of God?’ question. If it is (see the other pages on the site), then we can take the Bible’s internal claims more seriously. That means that if a letter (inspired by God) says it was written by Paul, then it was! The rest of this section is written from that perspective.
Diversity – the Old Testament
Let’s take a brief look at who some of those authors were.
Much of the first five books (sometimes called the Torah or the Pentateuch) were written by Moses, one of the most famous characters in the Old Testament. Brought up in Pharaoh’s household in Egypt, he would have had the best possible education available at the time – yet he received training of a very different kind when he was forced to leave Egypt at the age of forty and spend forty years in hiding as a shepherd in the land of Midian! He returned to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, and was the one God chose to transmit His unique laws (‘The Law of Moses’) to the Israelites.
We do not know the identities of the individual authors of many of the historical books, and some of them may have been compiled and edited from earlier sources. But if we look broadly across the landscape of the Old Testament, there are parts written by kings (David, Solomon), priests (Jeremiah), cattle herds (Amos), government officials (Daniel, Nehemiah), scribes (Ezra), prophets (more than a dozen of them) – and even a small part by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon (have a look at Daniel chapter 4)! The diversity is staggering.
Diversity – the New Testament
Turning to the New Testament, there are the four gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. There is a tradition that John came from a priestly family, while Matthew was a despised tax collector (despised because, though a Jew, he collected taxes on behalf of the Romans – tax collectors were also famed for extortion). Luke, by contrast, was a Gentile doctor, highly educated, and the author not just of the gospel of Luke, but also the book of Acts.
While there are other New Testament writers like Peter, John and Jude (some of whom were among the closest disciples of Jesus), most of the New Testament was in fact written by the apostle Paul. His background is fascinating. He was taught by Gamaliel, the most famous rabbi of the day, and became a leading member of the Jewish political and religious elite, the Pharisees, at a very young age. He was a man of extraordinary energy and passion, and spent years bending his energies towards exterminating the early Christian movement. But after an incredible conversion experience on the road to Damascus he beyond perhaps the most prolific missionary and preacher of Jesus who has ever lived.
Despite all that diversity which can be seen in both the Old and New Testaments, there is a unity – a golden thread that holds the Bible together. Why would that be? For many Bible readers the answer to that brings us back full circle to the most important and controversial answer to the question: ‘Who wrote the Bible?’ There is a common thread and an intricate interweaving of themes and ideas through the books of the Bible precisely because it was not only written by men, but because it is also the Word of God.
Note: You’ll find further information about the writing of the Bible in the ‘From Scroll to eBook’ tab, in particular on the page How was it written?