Better Bible Study Tip #69: Don’t Judge a Book’s Author by It’s Title

My “Better Bible Study Tip #68” was to try to determine the setting of the book. In short, it can be really helpful to try to determine who wrote the book, historical details about the situation in which it was written, and what the author’s purpose was for writing the book. But one particular challenge in doing this is that most of the books of the Bible are anonymous.

This is particularly true with much of the Old Testament. For instance, we don’t have a clue who wrote books like Judges, 1-2 Kings, and 1-2 Chronicles. Even several of the books that are named for a person are actually anonymous, such as Joshua, Ruth, and 1-2 Samuel. There’s even some uncertainty about some of the books that are attributed to someone. For example, several of the Psalms contain a superscription which reads “A Psalm of David.” The problem is, there’s a good bit of debate about whether these superscriptions were part of the original inspired text, or if they were added later. Even if they are original, the phrase “Of David” could possibly mean “by David” or “for David” or “about David.”

The New Testament is less anonymous. Most of the books include the name of the author. But even in the New Testament, there’s still a good deal of uncertainty. For example, we don’t know who wrote Hebrews. The gospel of John has a very old tradition linking it to the disciple John, but is technically anonymous. All we know from the text itself is that is was written by “the disciple whom Jesus loved(John 21:20, 24). Since there are multiple people named “James” and “John” who are named among Jesus’s followers, we’re not 100% certain who wrote the books that contain their names either.

Yes, it is important to try to determine the setting in which a book was written. But at the same time, we must remain humble, and admit what we don’t know. Be careful not to base your interpretation of a book based upon a presumption about the book’s authorship. Guessing at a book’s author, and then basing your interpretation based on that guess, is very shaky ground upon which to base your conclusions.

The good news is, we can still learn a good deal about a book’s setting, even when we’re not certain who wrote the book. If you pay close attention to the content of the book, you can often find several clues to help you understand it’s historical setting and the author’s objective, even without knowing who the author is. But be careful not to judge a book’s authorship based on the title alone.