Who Really Wrote the Biblical Books of Kings and the Prophets?

The paean to King Josiah and exalted descriptions of the ancient Israelite empires beg the thought that he and his scribes lie behind the Deuteronomistic History.

Olivier Fitoussi

The only historic source we have about Judah and Israel during the First Temple period is the Bible, particularly the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. This is where we learn of the exploits of the famous prophets, kings and judges who played such a prominent role in shaping Western civilization as we know it.

But who actually wrote these books?

The traditional view is laid out in the Talmud (Baba Bathra 14b-15a): Joshua wrote the Book of Joshua, until his death, at which point the high priests Eleazar and Phinehas picked up the narrative. Samuel, the Talmud says, wrote the Book of Judges and the Book of Samuel, until his death, at which point the prophets Nathan and Gad picked up the story. And the Book of Kings, according to tradition, was written by the prophet Jeremiah.

While this account of the authorship of these books is widely accepted by Christian and Jewish religious authorities, modern-day biblical scholars overwhelmingly reject it. Most biblical scholars believe in some form of the theory that Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings are part of a single historical opus written in the late First Temple period, roughly 600 BCE. In a paper written during World War II, the German biblical scholar Martin Noth called this work “The Deuteronomistic History,” and this is the term used to this day. 

The omnipresent narrator

Scholars have long rejected the idea that the Deuteronomistic History was written by the characters depicted in the story. Firstly, none were written in the first person, which is how witness accounts are generally written. If anything, they are written from the perspective of an all-knowing narrator writing from a vantage point well into the future.

In addition, had these books been written by different people over hundreds of years, we would expect quite a bit of variation in language and style from part to part (note the differences between Middle English and modern!).

Yet the bulk of these books are written in a uniform manner. That indicates they were written at about the same time, if not by the same person.

Take for example the phrase “to this day.” It is rare in the rest of the Bible, appearing only 13 times outside the Deuteronomistic History. But within, the phrase abounds (multiple times in each of Deuteronomy 6; Joshua 13; Samuel 11; Kings 13). This first of all suggests single authorship. It also attests that the author was not writing about contemporary events but events in the distant past.

The frequent use of this phrase also teaches us something of the writer’s objectives - he was writing not in order to accurately describe the past as a historian would (which is a modern concept) - rather he is telling the story of the past in order to illuminate the present day in which he lived.

One example of this will suffice. The story of Joshua’s conquest of the Land of Israel is interrupted by an account of Joshua’s spies and Rahab the harlot. Were we to cut this story out, the overall story would not be affected at all. Why then was it put there? The last verse, which contains the phrase “to this day,” holds the answer: “And Joshua spared Rahab the harlot, her father’s household, and all that she had. So she dwells in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho” (6:25).

Rahab, The Harlot of Jericho and the Two Spies, by James Tissot (1836-1902) or one of his followers

Clearly, the story serves to explain why Canaanites remained living in Jericho after Joshua vanquished them long ago.

Similarly, we can look at the entire narrative arc of the Deuteronomistic History in order to deduce its purpose and perhaps who wrote it.

King Josiah tries to unite the Hebrews

The Deuteronomistic story starts with a covenant between God and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, followed by the conquest of the land. After a period of charismatic leaders (the judges), God and the people of Israel decide they need a king. God enters into a second covenant, this time with the line of King David.

The narrative repeatedly tells how the people of Israel defied the divine will, were punished, and submitted to a forgiving God.

This all leads up to the reign of King Josiah.

It is during his reign (641–609 BCE) that an early form of the Book of Deuteronomy, with the long-lost covenant made between God and Israel, was supposedly discovered lying around in the Temple.

This Book became the basis of a series of reforms, which made Josiah, according to his own scribes, the best king ever: “Now before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; nor after him did any arise like him” (2 Kings 23:25).

It starts to seem that the Deuteronomistic History was written during the reign of King Josiah. The whole story seems to lead up to his reign, and he is portrayed very favorably in it.

If this is indeed true, and most scholars think it is, Josiah's kingdom was actually rather puny, and his purpose in having the Deuteronomistic History written was to unite the various warring Israelite tribes into a single powerful empire under his rule.

That would be why the king's scribes write that Israel and Judah were once united under David and Solomon (Josiah’s ancestors – thereby establishing precedent); that is why the people of Israel are said to have been once united as one during the time of Joshua; that is why the covenant says that all should worship in one temple, conveniently located in Josiah’s capital (Jerusalem – again, giving him control); and that is why they took the trouble to stitch together the different stories, legends and myths of the different people of the land (sometimes conflicting stories) into one great story.

All this was an attempt to bolster a new imperial ideology - one people worshiping one God in one temple under one king.

But this would fail miserably.

King Josiah is killed

In 609 BCE, Pharaoh Necho II of Egypt led his army to aid his allies, the Assyrians, in battle against the Babylonians. Josiah, an ally of the Babylonians, led his forces to check the Egyptian army at Megiddo.

What have we to do with each other, O King of Judah? I am not coming against you today but against the house with which I am at war, and God has ordered me to hurry. Stop for your own sake from interfering with God who is with me, so that He will not destroy you” 2 Chronicles (35:21) has Nacho's messenger telling Josiah in the Jezreel Valley.

Lion from original Babylonian Ishtar Gate (Dreamstime.com)

But he didn’t listen. Possibly believing his own propaganda, Josiah expected God to be on his side. But, the Egyptians crushed the Judean army and Josiah was killed in battle.

This is where, scholars believe, the original Deuteronomistic History ended, with Josiah’s death (2 Kings 23:25).

The years that followed did not do well by Judah, and eventually the little kingdom was destroyed by Josiah’s own allies - the Babylonians. The Judean elite was exiled to Babylon. But they took along their ancient texts, including the Deuteronomistic History.

It was there in Babylon that another scribe wrote a brief account of the events after Josiah’s death, and tacked it to the end of the book. He ends with a glimmer of hope: Josiah’s grandson Jehoiachin was released from prison and treated nicely by the Babylonian king. This happened in roughly 561 BCE. That part of the book was, we can infer, written that year or shortly after.

While most scholars tend to agree to a version of this, there is still much room for academics to squabble. The least of the disputes concerns later editing: scholars think some parts of these books were later additions or even copying mistakes. But keeping these caveats in mind, this is still the best theory we’ve got: that the Deuteronomistic History was mostly written in the court of King Josiah, who hoped to forge a great Israelite empire under his command, but who died before it could come to be.