Why were bible stories sometimes attributed to famous people, if those people didn’t actually write them?

The question of why these books were named after people who didn’t write them is, to me, a matter of authority and sometimes a matter of survival. Attributing a book to a famous author might have also ensured that it got read.

Authority is probably the most common reason.

  • For example, the best way to claim that Deuteronomy is true, especially if you are using it to argue for reforms in worship (like the centralization of temple sacrifice and the execution of priests of Baal and Asherah), is to attribute it to Moses. (The question of whether Moses actually wrote it is matter of faith, of course).
  • It was very common, especially in the period from about 300 BCE to 100 CE, to attribute books to famous individuals of the past. The book of Enoch, which existed in several editions, probably would have seemed crazy in the same way that some think QAnon is crazy now. So attributing it to a patriarch gave it authority.
  • In the same way, at a time when  lots and LOTs of gospels were floating around, attributing them to apostles helped give them authority. Unfortunately, almost all the gospels and apocalypses eventually got attributed to apostles, so sorting through them took a lot of debate and research. For example, the infancy gospel of Thomas claimed Jesus was a rotten child before he became the savior. He once cursed a boy to death and then blinded his parents when they complained. That story got excluded from the final collection.

Another issue is safety.

  • For example, the author of Daniel lived in very dangerous times, so he set Daniel in the ancient past to disguise its critique of the Seleucid dynasty. In the same way, Revelation couched its criticism of Nero in vague, prophetic terms.
  • The author of Ruth made an argument that was controversial: That a foreign wife could make an important contribution to her Jewish family. To make that claim might have been dangerous, especially when Ezra ordered all foreign wives to be sent away, possibly to die. To argue with priests about foreign wives could have been dangerous. So the end of Ruth has a post script claiming this same foreign wife was an ancestor of David. That made Ruth safe, even necessary, to include in the bible.
  • In a time when many Jews hated the Greeks and wanted to reject all of their cultural contributions outright, The Wisdom of Solomon espoused several Platonic ideas. To disguise its Greek influence, someone decided to attribute the text to Solomon, a legendary Jewish king. I’m not completely sure anyone was expected to believe Solomon wrote that text, but centuries later, it’s easier to believe, especially when we read the text in English.

A related issue was canonization. When it came time to decide what works to include, attributing them to famous past figures helped. For example, Ecclesiastes is about a person called Qoheleth. We don’t know what that means (teacher? preacher? questor?) but it was depressing and controversial. The end even has a warning not to read it: “Much study is a weariness of the flesh.” But someone eventually inserted, “son of David, who was king in Jerusalem,” inviting us to believe Solomon wrote it. True or not, that got it into the bible.

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