Who Wrote the Bible? This UVA Professor Goes on a Passion Quest for Answers

Holy Bible

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor has a true genesis story for her love affair with the Bible.

Now an associate professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Religious Studies, Halvorson-Taylor was first invited to think deeply about the revered publication as a high school student in New York City. Her then-English teacher presented to Halvorson-Taylor’s classmates the variety of perspectives found in the Bible’s first book.

“I was captivated by the idea that there were multiple authors in Genesis,” Halvorson-Taylor said. “You only have to read three chapters to become aware of the fact there are two different stories of creation in the Bible.”

Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor
Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor has been studying the Bible since her high school days in New York City. (Photo by Ézé Amos)

First, Genesis chronicles the classic creation narrative, with God making light on the first day and resting on the seventh. But in the next chapter, creation happens through Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

“In Genesis (chapter 1), creation begins when God contains the water so that dry land can emerge,” Halvorson-Taylor said. “In the Garden of Eden story, creation begins again in arid conditions when God irrigates the garden. One story seems to have arisen in the context of people who contended with dangerous floods, and the other in a context where people were desperate for water. 

“I mean, those are basic clues that show us the different contexts of the authors of each story – what they imagined their primordial world looked like, and also their differing understandings of the role of human beings and God. God as one who rescues from too much water, or God as a gardener who irrigates dry land.

“What is creation? That question plays out very differently in those two stories.”

This critical attention to biblical detail has stuck with Halvorson-Taylor from high school through her time at Harvard University Divinity School and beyond. In 2006, she received her doctorate from Harvard in Near Eastern languages and civilizations. Her dissertation was titled, “The Development of Exile as Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible.”

“I took Hebrew while I was at Harvard Divinity School, and I just completely fell in love with the language,” she said. “I knew at that time this was going to be the collection of stories that I wanted to live with for the rest of my life.

“I mean, it really was like falling in love.”

Such affection led Halvorson-Taylor to create “Writing the Bible: Origins of the Old Testament,” an Audible audiobook of lectures, based on her course at UVA. The audiobook was released in December and explores authorship of the Bible.   

UVA Today caught up with Halvorson-Taylor to learn more about her passion project.

Q. At what point in your career or life did answering the question of “Who wrote the Bible?” become something you wanted to pursue? 

A. It’s always been of interest to me because knowing when a text was written, and why and by whom, helps you to understand what it means.

It helps to understand the Bible in its fullest dimensions if you know that this (chapter) was written by a group of exiles who were living in Babylon or that (chapter) was written by people who were under threat of the Assyrians. Context matters.  

And then, when I began to teach, I realized there were many assumptions out there about what the Bible is, and how it works, that don’t line up with what the Bible actually is and how it was written. Once, I taught a seminar and my students and I sort of teased each other and said that the tagline for the course should be “The Bible – it’s not what you think it is.”

In a way, that is the starting point for “Writing the Bible,” because to ask the question, “Who wrote the Bible” is to actually challenge the assumptions behind every part of that question. “Who” – in the sense that it was not one writer, but many. It challenges our Western modern assumptions about what writing is. We think of writers as the lonely creative genius in a garret somewhere, writing things in one sitting. When in fact, the Bible is the accumulation of writing over centuries. And that involves scribes copying, interpreting, recontextualizing and filling in gaps over time.

Q. It’s safe to assume the question of “Who wrote the Bible?” has been tackled before. What was your approach to this project?

A. My approach was largely historical. I tried, at every point, to give the context for when we think these things were written. And, too, I tried as much as possible to take advantage of the fact that we have multiple translations and editions of the Bible out there. We have the Hebrew Old Testament, but we also have a Greek translation that was translated by Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria, Egypt.

We also have this treasure trove of documents in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are fascinating for changing, all over again, our notions of what the Bible is. Certain books in the Dead Sea Scrolls are heavily represented and certain books that we think of as biblical are not there at all. The way each community arranges their Bible and what they include in their Bible, and even the shape of certain biblical books, tells us a lot about the sort of shifting notions about what was and was not regarded as Scripture.

So I tried to marshal all of the textual evidence that I could to show people how we might reconstruct the question of “Who wrote the Bible?”

Q. Any myths out there on the Bible’s authorship that you were able to bust?

A. For a long time, I don’t think people really cared about who wrote the Bible. That really is a modern question. But when they did start to care, they attributed it to Moses. This is improbable, since the text he was supposed to have written actually describes his own death.

But what’s more interesting, is to think about why ancient scholars thought of Moses as the author of the Bible.

Why did they think of Moses as the author? Well, because they defined what an author was differently than we do. For them, an author was an authority figure, an authorizing figure, and even if they were aware that scribes were recopying materials, they attributed it to Moses, as an authority figure.

To explore shifting notions of authorship between ancients and moderns is important for the question of who wrote the Bible. What we understand as an author is different from what an ancient scholar would understand as an author.

Most of all, I want people to hear the many voices that make up the Bible, which give the Bible additional resonances and a depth of dimension that make it timeless.

Q. You’ve written a number of academic publications. What was it like putting together an audio lecture book for a public audience? 

A. I like teaching to urgent public questions, and that really drove me. But also, I couldn’t assign homework. So there were no reading assignments for each lecture. If I want to talk about Genesis (chapter) 1, I’m going to have to explain what Genesis 1 says.

In a way, I was culling the best, most cutting-edge research and delivering it in a form that could be heard, that could all go in through the ear. I had to rely on the years of feedback that UVA undergrads have given me!

Q. One glowing Audible.com review of your project ended with “I hope she does a sequel on the New Testament.” What intrigues you about the New Testament’s authorship?

A. The story of the authorship of the New Testament is another story all over again, because it accelerates exactly at the point at which my story begins to wind down. And New Testament authors may use different technologies than the ancient authors of the Hebrew Bible had. For example, the codex, which is the precursor to the modern book, was fundamentally important to the development of the New Testament. Writers of the Hebrew Bible likely wrote on scroll. Those two forms – scroll and codex –work differently and influence how people read differently.

Though I’m no expert on the New Testament, what interests me as a Hebrew Bible scholar is the way the New Testament comfortably lays alternate accounts alongside each other. We have four gospels, four different stories about Jesus’s life, and when people tell the story of Jesus’s life, they freely borrow elements from various gospels and weave them into a unified whole. The human mind already starts collating those different stories. One gospel has an extensive story about Jesus’s childhood; another gospel doesn’t. It’s helpful for me when I talk to my students about the multiple voices in the Hebrew Bible. I can tell them to look at the New Testament as an example of openly acknowledging that there are different sources.

Q. For a book that’s more than 2,000 years old, the Bible remains the best-selling book of all time, according to Guinness World Records. What are a few themes or stories from it that are relevant in today’s society?

A. I think that the Book of Job is timeless for the way that it wrestles with the question of humanity’s rights and responsibilities to one another. And in the chapters that talk about humanity’s place in creation, I think there’s a lot for us to think about in terms of climate change and the responsibilities of humans in the natural world.

There are portions of the Prophets that deal with social justice. They have a lot to tell us about how things can appear to be fine, but there’s actually great suffering in our midst. I have no doubt that those texts have things to say to us today.