I’ve been reading through the book of Proverbs with my wife. I’ve noticed something in the text that clues me into the history of the book, and poses interesting questions for the doctrine of Biblical inspiration.
The book opens with the words, “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” (Proverbs 1:1, ESV). These words read like the words of an editor, not Solomon himself. They were added by the individual(s) who compiled Solomon’s proverbs and edited them into the form and order we see in our Bibles. There is reason to believe, however, that this collection of Solomonic proverbs consisted only of the first nine chapters. Proverbs 10:1 reads, “The proverbs of Solomon.” If the introduction to the book of Proverbs tells us these are the proverbs of Solomon, why mention this again unless (1) there had been a shift in authors from Solomon to someone else somewhere between chapter one and chapter nine, or (2) if the proverbs beginning with chapter 10 were not part of the original collection of proverbs. There is no indication of a change in authorship between chapter one and chapter nine, so it follows that chapter 10 begins a new collection of Solomonic proverbs that was not part of the original collection. How long did the first collection circulate before this second collection was added? We do not know, but clearly enough time elapsed that when the new collection was added to the first, it was important to preface the collection by noting that these, too, were the proverbs of Solomon.
The history of the book gets even more interesting. In Proverbs 25:1 we are told, “These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied.” This editorial comment indicates that Proverbs 25 begins a new collection of Solomonic proverbs (meaning the second collection consisted of chapters 10 through 24). In addition to being informed that these are Solomonic proverbs, we are also told who was responsible for compiling this collection (King Hezekiah’s scribes), and thus are given some indication as to when this collection of proverbs was added to the previous two collections. While we cannot be certain if King Hezekiah’s scribes annexed this third collection of Solomonic proverbs to the other two collections in circulation, or if a later editor did so, this collection was not added for at least 250 years after Solomon penned them. Given the lapse in time, you can see why such an explanatory introduction to this third collection of proverbs was so essential. If you had been used to reading only two collections of Solomonic proverbs, and your parents and grandparents only knew of two collections, it would be difficult to accept a third installment without good justification. It would be similar to someone in our day adding additional “lost” chapters to Huckleberry Finn. The editor wanted to assure the readers of Proverbs that these proverbs not only derive from Solomon’s mind, but King Hezekiah’s men compiled them. This provided people with a reason to accept this new collection of proverbs as equal to the other two.
The historical development of the canonical form of Proverbs doesn’t stop here. Proverbs 30:1 provides us with another editorial introduction, informing us that the words which follow are from Agur son of Jakeh, the oracle (which delimits the third collection of Solomonic proverbs to chapters 25 through 29). This is a small collection of proverbs, consisting of one chapter. Proverbs 31:1 is the final editorial introduction, informing us that the proverbs that follow are from King Lemuel.
This means there were no fewer than three authors, five collections of proverbs, and five editors (possibly six if the person who added Proverbs 25:1 is not of the number who created the collection) that make up the history of the book of Proverbs as it exists in the canon today. Not only were the proverbs were written at different times, but they were collected, edited, and distributed at different times. This presents an interesting question about inspiration and canonicity. If you lived in 880 B.C., your book of Proverbs may have only been nine chapters long. And perhaps, 10 years later, the second collection of proverbs was annexed to the first. How should you receive this second collection? Do you view it as equally as inspired as the first and accept it into the canonical book of Proverbs? What about the person living in 700 BC who knows of only two collections of Solomonic proverbs, only to have someone add a third collection in 680 BC? Should he view this third collection as equally inspired to the first two? And what of those who lived to see the addition of non-Solomonic proverbs? Should they view the two collections of non-Solomonic proverbs as equally inspired and canonical as the Solomonic proverbs? It’s easy to answer these questions when you are living at a time after the historical development and canonical form of a book has been long settled, but it’s a different matter when you are living through the developments.
We might also ask, when these proverbs become inspired? Was it when Solomon and the other two chaps wrote them, or was it when they were compiled into a collection? After all, it is possible that not all of Solomon’s proverbs were included in the various collections. Let’s say that Solomon sat down and wrote 10 proverbs in a single day, but when the first editor was creating his collection of Solomonic proverbs, he only included proverbs 1-3, 6, and 9-10. Let’s say that subsequent editors also picked up proverbs 4 and 7, leaving proverbs 5 and 8 out of the book of Proverbs. If we think these proverbs were inspired when written by Solomon, are we to believe that God inspired Solomon to write proverbs 1-4, but then stopped the inspiration process as Solomon penned proverb 5, started inspiring him again for proverbs 6 and 7, stopped inspiring him as Solomon penned proverb 8, and then started inspiring him again for proverbs 9 and 10? Or do we say they became inspired when they were included in the collection? In that case, we would have to say the editor was inspired to choose the right proverbs.
It’s also possible that the editor did more than compile and arrange Solomon’s proverbs. Perhaps he edited the proverbs as well. If so, who was inspired? If Solomon was inspired when he wrote them, then the editor changed the word of God and we would have a mix of the words of God and the words of man (since the editor could not have been inspired to make the change, otherwise, it would imply that God did not inspire it correctly the first time). If the editor’s changes were inspired, it would seem to rule out the possibility that Solomon was inspired when he wrote them. But if he wasn’t inspired when he wrote them, then what about all of the proverbs that the editor did not edit? Are those not inspired? Are we forced to say that Solomon was inspired to write all of the proverbs that the editor did not edit, but any proverbs that would be edited in the future were not inspired when Solomon wrote them, but became inspired when the editor edited them? That sounds a little far-fetched.
Also, what should we make of these editorial comments in Proverbs (and other OT books – which may be the topic of a future post)? Should we view them as inspired by God just as the proverbs themselves, or as mere explanatory notes scribes added to the inspired text for the sake of the reader similar to a study note?
Our view of Biblical inspiration has to account for the activity and influence of editors on the original material, as well as the evolution of certain books over time. Does yours?
For further reading on Biblical inspiration, see my article The Nature of Inspiration.