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How the Bible Came to Be: Part 1, A Testament Is Established

TitleHow the Bible Came to Be: Part 1, A Testament Is Established
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1982
AuthorsRead, Lenet Hadley
Issue Number1
Date PublishedJanuary 1982
KeywordsBabylonian Captivity; Covenant; Jeremiah (Prophet); Law of Moses; Moses (Prophet); Recordkeeping; Writing System

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How the Bible Came to Be: Part 1, A Testament Is Established

By Lenet H. Read

A certain Christian man laboring in India offered to give interested natives a copy of the Bible. After hearing of its message, many eagerly responded. One old man, looking upon the Bible with reverence, asked, “How long has this book been in the world?” When he learned it had existed for centuries, he sorrowfully shook his head. “I am an old man. All my friends have died hopeless. … And all this time the book was here and nobody brought it to me.”1 How quickly he sensed the worth of his new possession: a record of God’s dealings with man from the time of the Creation.

The Bible is indeed a book of immense consequence. Book of Mormon prophets who in visions saw it come forth testified of its great value. For Lehi, the word of God was the physical reality behind the iron rod that led unwaveringly to the tree of life. (See 1 Ne. 15:23–24.) For Nephi, the Jewish record was the “book of the Lamb of God” (1 Ne. 13:28), not fully whole nor pure, but nevertheless of great worth. Indeed, the record was so vital that Lehi was commanded to take a copy of one record as then compiled—the brass plates—with him to the promised land, in spite of jeopardy to his sons’ lives and the ultimate cost of Laban’s.

But we also learn from the Book of Mormon how generally unappreciated the biblical record is. In his prophecies about the future, Nephi speaks of lack of gratitude to the Jews for their great sacrifices in bringing forth their books: “What thank they the Jews for the Bible which they receive from them? … Do they remember the travails, and the labors, and the pains of the Jews, and their diligence unto me, in bringing forth salvation unto the Gentiles? … Have ye obtained a Bible save it were by the Jews?” (2 Ne. 29:4, 6.)

Surely the sacrifices the Jews have made in bringing forth and preserving precious records through many centuries of trials and tribulations are immense. Yet that is only a part of the story. The whole history of the formation of the Bible, Old Testament and New, and of the efforts to preserve it and to place it in the tongues of common men is a fascinating story both of special blessing by God and of utmost sacrifice by man.

We begin here several articles about the formation, step by step, of the Bible. The stories to be told contain the best elements of storytelling: conflict, pathos, tragedy, irony, humor, awe—even intrigue. We should learn much. But hopefully we will gain most of all a deep appreciation for the heavy cost—in self-denial and in lives—by which we have obtained these holy messages.

Precisely how and when did the “record of the Jews” begin? Most scholars say we don’t know, that the stories were passed down orally, that “other than oral” communication began with hieroglyphics and evolved into writing. They say that the records we have of the Creation and the first patriarch came from several unknown sources at much later dates and were somehow untidily interwoven into the Genesis account.

But Latter-day Saints have a different understanding. By revealing to the Prophet Joseph Smith the writings of Moses, the Lord revealed anew to mankind when and how the record began.

“And a book of remembrance was kept … in the language of Adam, for it was given unto as many as called upon God to write by the spirit of inspiration.”

“And by them their children were taught to read and write, having a language which was pure and undefiled. …

“And this was the book of the generations of Adam, saying: In the day that God created man, in the likeness of God made he him.” (Moses 6:5, 6, 8.)

Thus we learn through revelation that after man’s creation, he was not left ignorant of his origins. From the beginning he was given a knowledge of writing and thereafter recorded his origins and all things that happened to him. (See Moses 6:5–6.) The “record of the Jews,” then, has it roots not in an accident or an afterthought, but in a gift of love from a wise and loving Creator.

In view of current scholarly opinions, these are bold assertations. Nevertheless, with the uncovering today of more and more ancient writings, there is a small but growing list of external evidences that the book of Moses’ account of the beginning of written history is correct. Dr. Hugh Nibley has detailed the kinds of findings now uncovered. Of particular interest because it highlights the value of the ancient texts is a statement found in the writing of a pharaoh who lived long before Christ in the Thirteenth Dynasty: “My heart yearned to behold the most ancient books of Atum [Adam]. Open them before me for diligent searching, that I may know god as he really is!”2 Early Jewish apocryphal texts also equate Adam with writing, and ancient cultures have left evidence of a belief that writing came not through man, but was a gift handed down from heaven.3

In addition, a leather scroll which may be the oldest book yet found has surprised scholars with its remarkably well-developed teachings of a “council in heaven, the creation of the world, the fall of man, and the means by which he may achieve resurrection and be reinstated in his primal glory.”4

But the most important aspect of all this evidence is the excitement it should give us to recognize anew what a treasure we have. Dr. Nibley builds upon a suggestion that the semitic alphabet almost seems to have been devised for the very purpose of recording scriptures: “Whoever reads the standard works today has before him the words of God to men from the beginning, in witness of which the very letters on the page are but slightly conventionalized forms of the original symbols in which the message was conveyed. … As members of the human race we are bound to approach the scriptures with new feelings of reverence and respect.”5 What a difference it makes to know that the Bible did not begin in uncertain origin or with uncertain authority, but was given to man from the beginning as an essential tool to prepare him for salvation!

Latter-day revelation has also shown that the pattern of record-keeping established by Adam was continued by succeeding patriarchs who added accounts of their own days. Enoch speaks of the record of his fathers:

“And death hath come upon our fathers; nevertheless we know them, and cannot deny, and even the first of all we know, even Adam.

“For a book of remembrance we have written among us.” (Moses 6:45, 46.)

Abraham testified that the process of adding to the record continued after the flood and included his own additions:

“But the records of the fathers, even the patriarchs … the Lord my God preserved in mine own hands; therefore a knowledge of the beginning of the creation, and also of the planets, and of the stars, as they were made known unto the fathers, have I kept even unto this day, and I shall endeavor to write some of these things upon this record, for the benefit of my posterity that shall come after me.” (Abr. 1:31.)

Part of the calling of the patriarch/prophet was to make a record of his days. Thus, in relay form records from earlier patriarchs were handed down, and later prophets synthesized them, incorporated their own records, and passed them on again to yet future generations.

Although Latter-day Saint scriptures for over a hundred and fifty years have described this process, non-LDS clues are only now being found by scholars of the world. Among some of the most interesting manuscript finds of recent years are works bearing the names of ancient patriarchs. We must remember that these manuscripts are generally not the original writings, but they form a tradition that witnesses that original documents once existed.

These recent finds are of keen interest to Latter-day Saints because in spite of their corruptions they all contain a basic pattern which coincides with the experiences of the prophets whose records came into the hands of Joseph Smith. To summarize this pattern, each prophet separately testifies that he, deeply distressed by the sinfulness of his day, and desiring to serve God, was moved to seek the Lord earnestly. Each was subsequently given a vision in which he beheld God and portions of His glory. As part of this vision, he is taught a plan of salvation, beholds many worlds besides this one, and is shown the history of the earth. Then he is authorized and admonished to preach repentance unto his people. Sometimes there is a brief interlude between a first and second vision in which the prophet is confronted by Satan, who seeks to thwart God’s work through temptation and fear.6

The repetitiveness of this basic pattern can add much to our understanding of the fuller record upon which the biblical account draws. The Pearl of Great Price tells us why the Bible is missing the fuller story: “And now of this thing Moses bore record; but because of wickedness [lack of belief?] it is not had among the children of men.” (Moses 1:23.)

Man’s scientific pursuit of knowledge of his origins surely will eventually lead him to some truths. But in the meantime, he is susceptible to many false conclusions. For example, discovered in ruins of Israel’s neighboring cultures are stories similar to those in Genesis—such as the Creation and the Flood. Their discovery made it popular for a time to suggest that Israel had borrowed its “history” from myths of surrounding cultures. However, as time has brought new discoveries, the older, clearer, and much more believable records fall back into Israel’s line.7 And it is now more accepted among scholars that it was Israel’s history which gave rise to or was borrowed by others. With the fragments of truth which they borrowed or inherited, other ancient cultures built wild fantasies as they separated themselves further from the doctrines sustaining the stories. In the case of the Egyptians, their records became a grab bag full of unsorted and unclear beliefs and ideas. While their collection contained fragments of truth, those fragments were lost in a maze of confusion.

Another striking distinction separating Israel’s earliest records from those of her neighbors is the hope underlying Israel’s record. The prophets showed that meaning, purpose, and order control man’s existence; if to Israel God did not always appear merciful, he at least operated with reasoned justice, and there was always the promise of God’s prophesied redemption.

Thus while neighboring cultures had bits and pieces of truth, their records and therefore their understanding were corrupted. On the other hand, fuller records of truth were meticulously kept, and the patriarchs took pains to see that the truths were passed on to other generations in as uncorrupted a form as possible. Thus, in spite of errors that have crept into them over the centuries, these records have come to us as an essential part of our true and priceless heritage.

Moses’ Hand upon the Record

Although Adam and succeeding patriarchs left records, the first five books of the Old Testament are identified as “the writings of Moses.” How did Moses come to receive credit for these essential books?

One theory holds that such credit is misleading. A number of Christian scholars point to evidence suggesting that several persons, probably none of them Moses, wrote these books. They point out that Moses’ death is a part of the record and show how the books are written in differing styles and points of view.

Without further elaboration upon this theory, which has become widely accepted in scholarship, let’s examine what the Pearl of Great Price tells us: “The Lord spake unto Moses, saying: Behold, I reveal unto you concerning this heaven, and this earth; write the words which I speak. … In the beginning I created the heaven.” (Moses 2:1; italics added.)

We see that Moses did make a record and that he was instructed to begin with the Creation.

But what about the changes in writing style? The continuing discovery of ancient records contradicts the theory that style changes in the Pentateuch (Moses’ five books) indicate multiple authorship. As other manuscripts of that general age and area are carefully studied, it is seen that ancient peoples commonly used a variety of styles in one composition. Therefore some scholars think now that archaeological discoveries have rendered unsound the trend to find many unknown sources behind each book of the Bible.

Still, it is not necessary to argue that Moses’ hand was the only one that touched the papyrus. Joseph Smith and other prophets used scribes to assist them, and we know that Moses understood the principle of delegation. With the major responsibilities that were his, it is likely that he assigned scribes to carry out, under his direction, part of the actual work of record-keeping, including the scribe who completed the record after Moses’ death.

Furthermore, as we learn from the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price, some prophets were instructed to edit and abridge the records as they passed them along. So in addition to writing down his own revelations, Moses may have edited previous writings. And his writings may have been edited later by others. The point remains that as long as Moses was the motivating force behind the compilation of the Pentateuch and was its principal author or reviewer, it justifiably bears his name.

The Book—Lost and Found

The law given through Moses differs from written law possessed by other ancient cultures during the same time period: instead of dealing with possessions only, Israel’s law reflected the value of importance of the people. These important laws, covenants, and commandments came with a built-in warning:

“And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:

“And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. …

“And they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.” (Deut. 6:6–8.)

The purpose of this warning? That they might never be forgotten.

And yet, they were forgotten.

Much of Israel’s story revolves around the people’s failure to remember their beginnings and the message of the Law and to adhere to its recorded covenants—even though the Law had been written and placed in the most sacred of all places, the ark of the covenant. There were a few faithful who remembered: Samuel “let none of [God’s] words fall to the ground.” (1 Sam. 3:19.) But the obedience of the people generally was not nearly so great. Not only did they forget the words of the book, but they also forgot the book itself, which had been transferred to the temple along with the ark of the covenant.

The Babylonian captivity cut the Israelites off even further from the book by cutting them off from their temple and its sacred instruments. When some of them returned many years later, among the foremost happenings associated with their freedom was the reading of the sacred words. Ezra, the scribe, was asked to read to them again that which had become only dim memory. The story is very touching: the people gathered “as one man” to hear; the reading was “from the morning until midday,” and “the ears of all the people were attentive.” They wept, they worshipped, and they rejoiced. (See Neh. 8:1–12.)

So significant was this rereading of the Law that Israel’s faith became known thereafter as “the religion of the Book.”

These stories of books lost then found probably have symbolic significance. Dr. Nibley asserts:

“The idea of the holy book that is taken away from the earth and restored from time to time, or is handed down secretly from father to son for generations, or hidden up in the earth, preserved by ingenious methods of storage with precious imperishable materials to be brought forth in a later and more righteous generation (e.g., Moses 1:41) is becoming increasingly familiar with the discovery and publication of ever more ancient apocryphal works.”8

In other words, the lost-then-found status of the Israelites’ ancient records is part of a historical pattern and has a close relationship to the righteousness of the generations to which the records are given.

The Completion of the Old Testament Records

Ezra’s reading is believed to have been the first time interpreters were needed to turn the writings into the spoken language of the people: the book was written in Hebrew, but after the captivity the people spoke Aramaic. Some also believed it was Ezra who began a collection of official Hebrew scriptures after the Babylonian captivity and during the time of Nehemiah. (Latter-day Saints know there was at least one such collection—the brass plates—which Lehi took with him prior to the captivity). Evidently Ezra’s work was to begin to gather some of the records of his people. It was an extremely important and demanding task to collect, sort, rewrite, and finally compile many records into one.

The exact procedure by which some of the many Israelite writings became scripture is too uncertain and too complex to cover here, but scholars agree upon three basic steps. The foundation, of course, was the Pentateuch, historically first and always considered the first in importance. Its words were the first to be read in the synagogues. Next to be added, and therefore next in importance, were works and stories of the prophets, including the historical books written by prophets and books considered prophetic.

But it would be a great mistake to think it was easy for the works of all the prophets to win a place in the Hebrew’s hearts as scriptures. One scholar claims, “At first the validity of the teaching of prophets like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel was recognized only by the faithful disciples who learned from them and transmitted the traditions of what they had said and done.”9 These writings did not receive wide public acknowledgement until during and after the exile. What caused this change in status? Very simply, these prophets had prophesied of the fall of Jerusalem and of the Babylonian captivity. After the fact, when the people had seen that their words had come to pass, they accepted them in remorse and repentance as true prophets whose words were worthy to be placed among the sacred scriptures.

An example of the rejection the prophets and their writings experienced before the captivity is seen in the life of Jeremiah. In the year before the coming of Babylon, the Lord commanded Jeremiah to write the prophecies he had been speaking. So Jeremiah dictated to his scribe, Baruch, his witness “against Israel, and against Judah.” Because Jeremiah had been forbidden to preach any more at the temple, Baruch took the roll and read it at the temple on a special day when many were assembled. News of the scroll reached King Jehoiakim, who asked for a reading—but not with willing ears. As the words were read, he cut the scroll with a knife and disdainfully cast it into the fire.

Although the king also sought to harm Jeremiah and Baruch, they escaped and were commanded by God to write a second roll containing all the words of the first and more. It is believed that we have obtained our Book of Jeremiah from this writing. (See Jer. 36.)

Behind the writings of all the prophets were similar trials, sufferings, and accusations. Most were rejected, mocked, scorned. Jeremiah was for a time cast into a deep dungeon where he lay in mire and was given only bread to eat.

For the most part, those who forewarned the people of impending captivity and exile did not escape that fate themselves but experienced the same sufferings as their people. But out of that suffering they prophesied and wrote of the days when God’s people would again be released and redeemed.

Just as the prophetic utterances of these prophets were only belatedly recognized, by 200 B.C. the people began to believe that all prophecy had ceased. Consequently, there was little “prophecy” added to the sacred collection. There is now evidence that there continued to be prophets, but most of the people, never comprehending their true needs, believed they had all of the scriptures they needed, and rejected the thought of more.

Last to win a place among the sacred collection were the “Writings,” works such as Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Esther. Although accepted into the collection, the “writings” never equalled the first two sections in importance in the eyes of Jewish leaders. Of this group, only the Psalms were used in worship, although many of the “Writings” came to be traditionally read at various religious festivals.

The order in which the books appear in our present Old Testament is not the order in which they were written, nor the exact order in which they were accepted as canon. The current arrangement follows that of the Septuagint (which we’ll speak of later), which uses a pattern based on subject matter: Law, History, Poetry, Prophecy. This system is claimed to be educational, since it traces the progress of revelation. First it relates events of the past (Law and History); then the poetic books speak of things pertaining to their own time; finally the books of prophecy, although delivering a contemporary message, are perceived as speaking to the future.

Of course there were many writings that for some reason did not make it at all into the completed canon. We know there were others because the writers of our books refer as resources to the books of Jasher, of Samuel the Seer, of Nathan the prophet, of Jehu, and of the Kings of Israel. The reasons each was excluded are unknown.

Thus, the works and words of Israel’s prophets gradually were shaped into a record. But the birth process was scarcely painless. Jeremiah most poignantly recorded the great burden of being mouthpiece for the Lord. “Oh Lord, … I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me. For since I spake, I cried out, I cried violence and spoil: … the word of the Lord was made a reproach unto me, and a derision, daily. Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay.” (Jer. 20:7–9.)

End of Part 1. To be continued next month.

Lenet Hadley Read, mother of five, is a Sunday School teacher in her Gainesville, Florida, ward.


  1. Millicent J. Taylor, Treasure of Free Men, New York: Harper & Bros. Publishers, 1953, p. 4.
  2. Hugh W. Nibley, “Genesis of the Written Word,” Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless, Provo: Brigham Young University, 1978, p. 104. According to Nibley’s footnotes, leading Egyptologists identify “Atum” as Adam.
  3. Ibid., pp. 104, 119, 122.
  4. Ibid., p. 112.
  5. Ibid., p. 122.
  6. See Nibley, “To Open the Last Dispensation: Moses Chapter 1,” Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless, pp. 2–19.
  7. See Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967, p. 58, and The Making of the Old Testament, ed., Enid B. Mellor, Cambridge: At the University Press, 1972, pp. 5–8.
  8. Nibley, “Genesis of the Written Word,” p. 112.
  9. P. R. Ackroyd and C. F. Evans, eds., The Cambridge History of the Bible, 3 vols.: Cambridge: At the University Press, 1970, 1:126.