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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Writing the Hebrew Scriptures.

1.

People often think of the books of the Bible as each having an author. This was normal in ancient times, too: Jews and Christians thought that the ‘books of Moses’ were written by Moses, the ‘books of Samuel’ by Samuel, the Psalms by David, the Proverbs by Solomon, and each of the prophetic books by the prophet whose name the book bears. This raises obvious historical problems—for example, Moses and Samuel then have to be seen as having recorded the details of their own deaths! But modern study has made it clear that many of the books of the OT are the product not of a single author but of several generations of writers, each reworking the text produced by his predecessors. Furthermore, some material in the biblical books may not have originated in written form at all, but may derive from oral tradition. In their finished form most of the books are the product of redactors—editors who (more or less successfully) smoothed out the texts that had reached them to make the books as we now have them.

2.

Modern scholarship recognizes important collections of material in the OT that are not coterminous with the books in their present form. In the Pentateuch, for example, it is widely believed that earlier sources can be distinguished. These sources ran in parallel throughout what are now the five books, in particular an early (pre-exilic) strand called ‘J’ which is to be found throughout Genesis-Numbers, and ‘P’, a product of priestly writers after the Exile, which is now interwoven with J to form the present form of these books (see INTROD. PENT.). Scholarship has also pointed to the existence of originally longer works which have been broken up to make the books as they now stand. An example is the so-called Deuteronomistic History, supposed by many to have been compiled during the Exile and to have comprised what are now the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, with points of division falling elsewhere than at the present limits of the books. The Psalter has clear evidence of the existence of earlier, shorter collections, such as the Psalms of Asaph and the Psalms of the sons of Korah, which were partly broken up to make the book of Psalms as we now have it. The book of Isaiah seems likely to have consisted originally of at least three lengthy blocks of material, chs. 1–39, 40–55, and 56–66 , which have been brought together under the name of the great prophet.

3.

Underlying these longer works there were legends, tales, prophetic oracles, wise sayings, and other traditions which may once have existed without any larger context, and circulated orally in particular areas of Israel. The stories of the patriarchs in Genesis, for instance, may go back to individual hero-tales which originally had only a local importance, but which later writers have incorporated into cycles of stories purporting to give information about the ancestors of the whole Israelite people. Individual proverbs may have originated in the life of this or that Israelite village, only much later collected together to form the book of Proverbs. Prophets taught small groups of disciples about matters of immediate concern, but later their words were grouped together by theme and applied to the history of the whole nation and its future.

4.

Thus the process which gave us the OT is almost infinitely complicated. Recently, however, literary critics have begun to argue that alongside much anonymous, reworked material, there are also books and sections of books which do betray the presence of genuinely creative writers: the popular idea of biblical ‘authors’, that is, is not always wide of the mark. The story of David's court in 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, for example, is now widely regarded as the work of a literary genius, and similar claims have been made for other narrative parts of the OT, including segments of the Pentateuch. This Commentary tries to maintain a balance between continuing to hold that most OT books came about as the result of a process stretching over several generations, and a willingness to recognize literary artistry and skilful writing where it can be found. The general trend in OT study at present is towards a greater interest in the present form of the text and away from an exclusive concentration on the raw materials from which it may have been assembled. This present form is often more coherent than an older generation of critics was willing to accept, even though evidence of reworked older material often remains apparent. (See Rendtorff 1985; Smend 1981 .)

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