Why Do We Have a Bible?

Emory University’s Jacob L. Wright examines the Bible as “road map to a brighter future”

A new phenomenon is changing the face of education, making first-rate courses from the world’s best universities available to all, wherever they live. The phenomenon is often subsumed under the umbrella term “Massive Open Online Course” (MOOC). Emory University professor Jacob L. Wright will be teaching the free seven-week Coursera course “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future” beginning May 26. More information is provided at the bottom of this page.

Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls of Qumran

Discovered in the caves above Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided scholars with important information about the Bible in the first century. How was the Bible formed, and why did a text from a defeated people blossom into the Bible?

Last fall I was selected to teach one of Coursera’s first course offerings on religion—and its very first on the Hebrew Bible as a whole. Entitled “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future,” the course will expose students, whether they’re beginners or experts, to an abundance of new research on the history of Israel and on the formation of the Bible. But this is no typical introductory course. My objective is not simply to present various theories for the origins of Israel and the Bible, beginning with Genesis and continuing through various parts of the canon. Instead, my lectures focus on the most basic—and I think most important—question that students often ask, yet instructors rarely address: Why?

Why do we have a Bible from ancient Israel and Judah? Could something like it have existed among the Philistines, the Moabites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians or the Persians? If so, why haven’t they been transmitted throughout the ages and been translated into thousands of languages, as the Hebrew Scriptures have been? And why would such a sophisticated corpus of literature as the Bible have its origins in a remote region of the world (the southern Levantine hill country), rather than at the centers of ancient civilization (Mesopotamia and Egypt)? After all, these civilization centers boasted technological supremacy and military superiority. They were the ones who invented writing and easily conquered the population that produced the Bible. Finally, why has the Bible had such a huge impact on world history, shaping the identities of a very wide array of societies across the globe?

The course takes on this paramount question of the Bible’s raison d’être: its why and wherefore. The first two weeks of the class treat the history and archaeology of ancient Israel, and the subsequent weeks examine how the Biblical authors tell their history and interpret their past.

In the free eBook Exploring Genesis: The Bible’s Ancient Traditions in Context, discover the cultural contexts for many of Israel’s latest traditions. Explore Mesopotamian creation myths, Joseph’s relationship with Egyptian temple practices and three different takes on the location of Ur of the Chaldeans, the birthplace of Abraham.

I’m not going to reveal the way I answer the why-question. In order to find out how I think about it, you’ll have to enroll in the course. But I will give you a clue as to where I’m headed. (And two follow-up pieces exclusively on Bible History Daily will offer you a glimpse of some of the course’s content.)

The Bible emerged in response to disaster and devastation. If it were not for cataclysmic loss—if the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had continued to flourish—there would be no Bible. I’m not claiming that many of the Bible’s sources did not already exist long before the Babylonians razed Jerusalem to the ground. But there is a significant gap between the original contours of these sources and the shape they are given by the Biblical authors.

According to the Book of Daniel, Babylonian king Belshazzar ordered the gold and silver vessels from the Temple to be brought to his famous feast, where Daniel interpreted the writing on the wall. The authors of the Hebrew Bible fashioned an elaborate and enduring monument to this conquest. Picture: National Gallery, London

According to the Book of Daniel, Babylonian king Belshazzar ordered the gold and silver vessels from the Temple to be brought to his famous feast, where Daniel interpreted the writing on the wall. The authors of the Hebrew Bible fashioned an elaborate and enduring monument to this conquest. Picture: National Gallery, London.

With its walls razed to the ground by Babylon’s armies, Jerusalem joined a long line of ancient vanquished cities—from Ur and Nineveh and Persepolis to Babylon itself. While some recovered from the destruction, others did not. But none responded to political catastrophe by fashioning the kind of elaborate and enduring monument to their own downfall that we find in the Bible. Most conquered populations viewed their subjugation as a source of shame. They consigned it to oblivion, opting instead to extol the golden ages of the past. The Biblical authors in contrast reacted to loss by composing extensive writings that acknowledge collective failure, reflect deeply upon its causes and discover thereby a ground for collective hope.

For subjugated populations, the destructive force of armies posed the most fundamental question: Who are we? In response to this question, the Biblical architects of Israel’s national identity did not look to their kings to define their destiny. Instead, they gathered the fragments of their diverse pasts and wove from them a single narrative that told the story of one nation. The resulting tapestry we know as the Hebrew Bible.

The DVD Bible Stories: How Narratives Work and What They Reveal is a fascinating look at some of the most famous stories of the Hebrew Bible. Professor Ziony Zevit’s engaging lectures examine the art of storytelling and will have you reading the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, the Book of Ruth and so much more in a whole new way.

Defeat may have destroyed a state, but thanks to the vision of the Biblical authors, it recreated a people. The Biblical project is truly remarkable. Nowhere else in the ancient world do we witness such an elaborate effort first to portray the history of one’s own defeat and then to use this history as a means of envisioning a new political order. This course takes students through the bold moves, as well as the intricate steps, with which the Bible achieves its goals.

The efforts of the Biblical authors were not in vain. The “people of the book” they conceived has endured for more than two-and-a-half tumultuous millennia. But the impact of these creative labors extends far beyond the community for whom it was written. Either directly or indirectly, the Bible informs the way many populations of the world today imagine themselves as peoples. Thus we as Americans, despite significant social and ethnic diversity, have long claimed to be one united nation, and our self-understanding borrows explicitly from the legacy that the Biblical authors inherited from ancient Israel.

In keeping with its hope-filled perspective, the Bible lays out a road map to a brighter future in which corporate concerns and the common good determine daily practices and public policies: transparency and open access to information; division of powers; written law codes; environmental sustainability; universal education; justice for the orphan, widow and alien; protection of the one from the many; long life rather than heroic martyrdom; and many other enduring “covenantal” values that grow out of a sense of fraternity and a consciousness of being one people. Many of these moral principles have been deeply absorbed into our identities. In my course I reveal how they were decisively shaped by societal collapse. If I am right, they demand our renewed attention in this time of global instability and great uncertainty about our future.


The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future

A new phenomenon is changing the public face of university education, making first-rate courses from the world’s best universities available to all, wherever they live. The phenomenon is often subsumed under the umbrella term “Massive Open Online Course” (MOOC). One of the leaders in the new realm of MOOC courses is Coursera, which reaches millions of students of all ages across the globe. Last fall Dr. Jacob Wright was selected to teach for Coursera one of its first courses on religion—and its very first on the Hebrew Bible as a whole. Titled “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future,” the course is offered through the prestigious Emory University, which is world-renowned for its graduate programs in Biblical Studies (the largest in the USA).

This new course on the Bible is free, and enrollment is open to everyone. Beginning May 26, it runs for seven weeks—a fitting duration for a course on the Bible. You can take it for credit and a diploma, or you can just watch the lectures at leisure and take the quizzes for fun, without anyone knowing how well you did—or didn’t do.

Click here to learn more about the course.

WrightJacob L. Wright is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at the Candler School of Theology of Emory University. He is author of Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and Its Earliest Readers (De Gruyter) and two related works on the Bible’s most celebrated ruler: King David’s Reign Revisited (Aldina/Apple iBooks) and David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory (Cambridge University Press). He is currently at work on an exciting new book on the Bible to be published by Simon & Schuster—Atria.

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25 Responses

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  1. tad says

    Some good questions indeed. If more Christians were aware of how we got the bible and who exactly formed it as it is today, i’m convinced there would be far more unity of the faith. It also reveals much wisdom in the faith of our Jewish brothers and sisters and what we can learn from our very Jewish roots.

  2. DavidC says

    More pseudo Biblical “truth” from those folks at Emory who gave us “God is dead” in the 60’s. I can’t think of any reason to listen to another sociology guess about ‘what the Bible can do for you’ . The Bible is important to us for how we can be saved from God’s judgment. And,the Bible says man’s condition is only going to get worse. The Bible’s truth is true truth (Francis Schaeffer} – everything ELSE is relative. BTW, I’ve always enjoyed BAR for the numerous stories each year which prove the truth of the Bible’s historical accounts. Soli Deo Gloria.

  3. Robin says

    I like some of his approach. The history of the Bible — like all history — is filled with alternate views and generally when someone teaches or expounds upon the subject — as a whole or in part — their ideas are built on personal presuppositions. While it is true that the Bible developed (or emerged) in the midst of disaster and devastation, as Wright puts it, it seems to be that and more. From the opening pages of Genesis — where it may be a rebuttal to Babylonian and/or other Near Eastern accounts of a polytheistic and chaotic creation — to the book of Revelation (New Testament), this book also claims to contain — and to BE — revelation from God that pertains not just to one group of people (the people of Israel, ancient and modern), but to the whole world. This revelation MAY, as Wright asserts, give hope for a future of economic justice — and peace for all. But it does not provide that hope, ultimately, within the framework of human-operated government. Indeed, the Bible is very negative on the subject of human ability to overcome — “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” …. “man’s thoughts are only evil from his youth” … “all your righteousnesses are as filthy rags” (ouch!!) … and more. The goal of the Bible is, ultimately, to point us to the reality that there will be a reckoning one day, and that God (Jesus) will return — at a time unknown to us and unexpected by us — and initiate his kingdom on earth. Won’t happen until then, my friends. But — an interesting article, nonetheless. And if I had time, I might see if his course is online.

  4. DR says


  5. Mike says

    Just another distraction of the truth (purpose of Bible) from a supposed Biblical scholar. Don’t miss Gods purpose of Hebrew Bible 1. (Salvation II Timothy 3:15; II Peter 1:19) 2. (Then able to establish Romans 15:25-27) 3. (All God’s plan, didn’t just happen Romans 1:1; Titus 1:2) 3. ( All about Jesus, Luke 24:44; Hebrews 10:7; Revelation 19:10) Some like to twist the scripture to there own destruction. No I will not be Mr. Wright.

  6. Kurt says

    The Bible’s Message


    1 Jehovah creates Adam and Eve with the prospect of eternal life in Paradise. Satan slanders God’s name and questions His right to rule. Adam and Eve join Satan in rebellion, bringing sin and death upon themselves and their offspring
    2 Jehovah sentences the rebels and promises that a Deliverer, or Seed, will arise who will crush Satan, undoing all the results of rebellion and sin
    3 Jehovah promises Abraham and David that they will be forefathers of the Seed, or Messiah, who will rule as King forever
    4 Jehovah inspires prophets to foretell that the Messiah will provide a cure for sin and death. With corulers, he will reign as King of God’s Kingdom, which will end wars, sickness, even death
    5 Jehovah sends his Son to the earth and identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus preaches about God’s Kingdom and offers up his life as a sacrifice. Jehovah then resurrects him as a spirit
    6 Jehovah enthrones his Son as King in heaven, signaling the beginning of the last days of this system of things. Jesus guides his earthly followers as they preach God’s Kingdom earth wide
    7 Jehovah directs his Son to bring Kingdom rule to the earth. The Kingdom crushes all wicked governments, establishes Paradise, and brings faithful humans to perfection. Jehovah’s right to rule is vindicated, and his name is sanctified forever.
    Read more:
    How the Bible Came to Us:

  7. Michael says

    I look forward to this approach to seeking answers to some vital questions. I do wonder why the reviewers above have taken the trouble to discuss the faults of such a course, when they haven’t bothered to enroll and take it. Perhaps they should keep their minds open, and then, if they disagree with something presented, they can make their evaluations from a more intelligent point of view. I saw nothing in what has been presented so far that should prompt a negative pre-judgment.

  8. Eugene says

    I look forward to learning as much as I can and this course should be a great opportunity to continue my exploration. Thanks to all who are making this course available.
    Dr. Eugene Baker

  9. Mike says

    My response was because of his statement “If it were not for cataclysmic loss—if the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had continued to flourish—there would be no Bible”. There would be no Bible! As stated my last reply. (All God’s plan, didn’t just happen Romans 1:1; Titus 1:2). So it was an evaluation based on what he stated. Mike

  10. Arthur says

    Prof. Wright omits that Hilkiah, the High Priest during King Hezekiah’s reign, found the “book of Moses”while the Temple in Jerusalem was being repaired. This was prior to the Chaldean/Babylonian invasion and Israel’s forced exile. The Biblical sections on King Josiah, successor to Hezekiah, show that this book’s ordinances were given importance and put into practice.

  11. Ric says

    Why do we have a Bible? Because the Jewish people have been faithful witnesses to the covenant between their ancestor and his God. God is pretty faithful too.

  12. Ric says

    Addendum: They were also literate at a very early point in their history.

  13. Anita says

    Dr. Sam The videos will have subtitles.

  14. paul says

    The ancient nation of Israel became the anchor for Christianity. If that nations’ people & their history had become lost, no one would ever have known about the Christ that nation produced or the written record testified to by documents that nation produced in the form of the Dead Sea Scrolls, these of course being evidence in the modern era of the religious origins of the Jews.

    Sadly, even a lot of Christians demean the present day existence of a Jewish Israel, not to speak of a 1 1/2 others of another religion whose sole desire is to expunge every memory of their existence……but we have undeniable Biblical history, we have ancient parchments & scrolls older than Christendom itself. I give thanks to God everyday that I can point to these things to rationalize my abiding faith in my Lord & Savior.

  15. jacob says

    DR SAM R ADKISSON: As Anita points out, the videos will have subtitles.

    In regard to the other criticisms of the course, I do NOT argue that the entire Bible emerged in response to defeat. As I state in the article, many of the sources are much older.

    Finally, I would ask those who dismiss my approach to take the course. How can one love the Bible and not want to take a course that explores its history. By no means is my intention to undermine anyone’s faith.

    Best wishes,

  16. Shirley says

    When will the subsequent posts that were promised be available?

  17. ARNOLD F says

    The scientific study of the bible brings one to a closer understanding of how our ancestors communed with their God. The mythological stories seen to the literalists as truth has been the cause for intolorance and worse throughout the ages. If one fears their faith would be shaken because they discover the authors of the bible never meant for their writings to be taken as fact, then that person’s faith is as solid as quick sand.

  18. William says

    It is interesting that people can decide what Dr. Wright will or won’t say in the course without taking the course. It is evidence of a closed mind. Take the course, then make a critique.

    Recently an article was commented on in one of the online chat rooms I visit. Titled “Oldest human footprints found on volcano,” it appeared in the New Scientist published March 12, 2003. This brought an immediate reaction from folk who had not read the article. The defenders of God and a literal reading of Genesis immediately took offense. Why do we get knee-jerk reactions to anything dealing with science? How can anyone make a judgment on what is in the article or in a course without becoming involved in the content that is presented?

    I invite you to read my blog “Been Thinking About” at bhooper2014.wordpress.com. The current blog is titled: “Knee Jerk Reactions Against Science from the Uninformed.” Your comments are certainly welcome.

  19. Bill says

    Jacob, your gracious response to a couple of critical remarks says a lot about your character, and I suspect your teaching ability. Rigid judgmental remarks are always annoying, and you rose above them. I am relatively conservative in my theology and position on biblical history, but love to be challenged by edgy and controversial perspectives when backed up by scholarship. Looking forward to your course.

  20. David says

    So, this course starts on Memorial Day? I had planned to listen to it at work. Can I log in on Tuesday and hear the lecture, or is this strictly for when the lecture is being delivered?

  21. Scott says


  22. Janet says

    The writer says that no other culture chronicled its failures. That should get you thinking. Why did Israel chronicle its failures? It isn’t human nature to do so. This article nowhere mentions God, yet God is why Israel chronicled its failures. Their entire identity as a people centered around God, the Law of Moses, and their Book. They were frequently unfaithful to God in worshiping the multiple gods of neighboring peoples. The Bible is clear that is why they met with devastation. But back to the original question. If Israel is the only nation that produced a book of this nature, a book which has clearly changed the world and continues to affect the world thousands of years later, maybe we should ask some deeper questions about its origin. As for me personally, I continue to wonder why people who do not believe the Bible has any divine origin, and that it contains only myths, nevertheless are fascinated by it, teach courses on it, write books about it, and some of them even attend church services. Why? Sincere question.

  23. JANA says

    An interesting point to make that the Hebrew/Jewish people were literate at a very early time in their history. While other peoples were carving their languages on stone tablets, the Hebrews wrote their language on scrolls, a more evolved technology which later became codices or books as we know them today, no less time consuming than cuniform writing, but less likely to be lost in translation. The ancient Israelites were smart people. They created an accessible library which had never been done before. Why shouldn’t we treasure the corpus of literatue they left behind for us to find. We have to work harder to understand their ancient writings, but then we might learn something valuable to us in the process.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Why Do We Have a Bible? - Creation RevolutionCreation Revolution linked to this post on April 1, 2014

    […] A new phenomenon is changing the face of education, making first-rate courses from the world’s best universities available to all, wherever they live. The phenomenon is often subsumed under the umbrella term “Massive Open Online Course” (MOOC). Emory University professor Jacob L. Wright will be teaching the free seven-week Coursera course “The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future” beginning May 26. More information is provided at the bottom of this page. […]

  2. Why Do We Have a Bible? – Biblical Archaeology Society | THE GINGER JAR linked to this post on April 4, 2014

    […] Why Do We Have a Bible? […]

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