Are There Human Authors of the Bible?
What if I told you that you were missing out? That there might be something about the Bible that you don’t know? Something that, if you knew, would radically change the way you read God’s Word? Would you be interested?
Human Authorship: Are There Human Authors of the Bible?
If you find yourself interested, you’ll likely need a little bit of background information first. Every single text in the Bible has two (and possibly more) simultaneous authors. That is to say that every book, every letter, every piece of literature in the Bible both comes from God and is composed by man. Admittedly, this is a point of tension—a point of tension that the Church has grappled with for millennia.
Historically, the Church has been rather articulate when it comes to outlining what it means for God to be the author of the texts in the Bible. Doctrines like inerrancy, infallibility, sufficiency, and necessity all stem from a healthy and robust acknowledgment of the Bible as a book that comes from God. However, the role of human authors in the composition of the Bible is largely overlooked.
Human Authors of the Bible: A Touchy Subject
So, what about the human author? I’ve found that while most congregants can articulate how God’s authorship fits into the character of the Bible, they are much less prepared for a conversation about how human authorship fits together with God’s activity. This is, perhaps, because conversations about human authorship trend toward topics of biblical scholarship that most people are unfamiliar with: manuscript tradition, potential errors in the transmitted text, and questions surrounding the historicity of the Bible.
While these topics are loaded with significance, they can breed faith-shaking conversations that might be scary to someone who is unfamiliar with the composition and historical development of the Bible.
So, what ends up happening to the discussion of human authorship? The baby gets thrown out with the bathwater and the conversation never happens. This unintentional neglect, in turn, leads to a deficit in congregants’ ability to read their Bibles confidently and prayerfully. The solution, then, is a new conversation. Below, I hope to provide just that—a primer for those in the church to grapple afresh with an age-old conundrum: the role of human authorship.
4 Things About the Human Authors of the Bible
There are four facts about the human authors of the Bible that, if the congregants of your church knew, would radically change the way they read their Bibles. What’s more, it would provide them with the confidence that understanding the Bible is possible.
1. Biblical authors are researchers
Biblical authors are researchers. In other words, the authors of the Bible weren’t writing their texts out of thin air. They had sources! For example, when John gives the purpose of his book in John 20:30-31, he says,
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
Betrayed in these verses is John’s writing strategy. In verse 30, he makes it clear that he is pulling certain stories about Jesus out from a larger collection of stories (his sources). And, if you keep reading to verse 31, you would see that John’s selection of his sources is oriented around a purpose: that the reader might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing all of this, the reader might have life. Identifying an author’s use of his sources and his purpose for using them is a crucial step in biblical interpretation.
2. The biblical authors are Bible readers
The human authors of the Bible are not just writing the Bible; they are also reading it. As they read the Bible and write the Bible, they utilize the Bible by linking to or alluding to other biblical texts. In doing so, they build bridges between their books and other books. This sort of linking can happen within a book (inner-textuality) or between different books (inter-textuality). A good example of inter-textuality is how John uses Genesis 28:10-17 in John 1:51 to build on the reality that Jesus is the presence of God embodied on earth.
3. The biblical authors are interpretive guides
Biblical authors are interpretive guides. That is to say that they are sympathetic to the reader. In a normal conversation, the person speaking pays attention to listener feedback. A good speaker will adjust his or her information, words, sentences, and content to fit the audience. In the same way, if the human authors of the Bible are good writers, they must anticipate the responses of readers and satisfy those responses throughout the flow of their text. And, let me tell you, the biblical authors are good writers.
The main way that biblical authors act as interpretive guides for their readers is through the rhetorical device of repetition. For example, there is a reason why Isaiah described the salvation that comes from the Branch by using language from the Exodus story (Ex. 14-15); he wants to paint a picture of the coming salvation of the Lord using the colors of God’s salvation in the past. It is from this repetitive framework that understanding is borne.
4. Biblical authors are history makers
Now, at first blush, the idea that biblical authors are history makers might sound confusing. Let me explain. There are two types of history: (1) a series of events, and (2) narrative. A series of events is akin to a timeline. It simply details what happened and when. A narrative tells you what happened and why it happened. In other words, a narrative is a perspective on an event, not simply a retelling of an event.
When the biblical authors were writing, their goal was not to describe an event in its various facets. Instead, the biblical authors were giving an interpretation of an event—they were making history. They were making an interpretation that 2 Timothy 3:16 calls “God-breathed” or “inspired.” This means that the goal of interpreting the Bible is to find the author’s meaning in the flow of the text, not to reconstruct the event behind the text in hopes of finding the meaning of the text there. For the reader, then, literary context is more important than historical context.
What About You?
So, what does this mean for you? Good news. The human authors of the Bible have written with a human hand in a way that is understandable. Look for the sources used by biblical authors; pay attention to inner- and inter-textuality; observe when and where the biblical authors are repeating things; and carefully heed the biblical authors’ interpretation of reality. If you approach the text of the Bible with these four things in mind, you will find it easier to notice the human hand behind the message of the Bible. In doing so, you will hear the divine voice of God in the text with more clarity and with greater confidence.