on December 2, 1999
I had read several books that purported to explain the origins of the Old Testament, but they tended to make assertions without explanations. Perhaps they were too advanced for me. This book, however, explains in great detail how it arrives at its conclusions.
It is great fun to read parts of the book and ask yourself: Whodunit? For example, there's one place where you are compelled to predict who wrote about the Golden Calf incident. I picked J, but the author picked E. After he explained his decision, I had to admit that he was probably right and I was probably wrong. Not so good for my ego, but an enjoyable puzzle nonetheless.
The author is careful not to overstate his case. In situations where he lacks sufficient evidence, he points this out. This level of caution makes the whole work much more credible.
I greatly enjoyed the way he explained how the political reality of the ancient Near East created pressures to write (or compile) a particular KIND of book. Prior to this, I knew that many Bible stories contained contradictions, but I didn't know why.
What is interesting about this -- though this may be lost on literalists -- is that the analysis of the Bible in no way diminishes it. Indeed, by explaining the reasons for the contradictions (rather than simply explaining-away), this book greatly increases my respect for the Bible.
I think everybody who claims to know the Bible should read this book. It's all very well to memorize chapter and verse, but if you don't know of the Bible's origins, you can hardly claim to understand all its implications.
Friedman keeps to a very narrow, but clearly defined, path in assessing biblical origins. He goes to some effort to restrict his thesis to identifying authors and their likely locations. The validity of events nor theology never enter the picture. Contention over inconsistencies in what has come down to us as "the" bible have raged for centuries. Scholars in the Middle Ages, he reminds us, readily noted how styles varied, accounts were duplicated and traditions conflicted. With a keen analytical eye enhanced by long experience and good scholarship, he teases a coherent picture from this confusing collection of tales. Although not all the material here is original - and how could it be? - Friedman's assemblage is soundly researched, very ably organised and presented.
The fundamental issue rests on the division of the Hebrew-speaking peoples into the "dual kingdoms" of Israel and Judah. The result was the compilation of two "histories" with different styles and priorities. Each had a different focus and approach to what was meaningful. The later confusion resulted when this pair of accounts was amalgamated into a single document and promulgated as "the" book. Friedman strongly points out that this didn't invalidate the histories, it simply meant readers of it need to understand they are reading a parallel set of accounts.
From the outset, Friedman dismisses the traditional view of Moses' authorship. There are too many implausibilities for that to have occurred - not the least of which is the description of Moses' death. Friedman contends the books are historical accounts recorded by scribes, probably court priests, of their respective kingdoms. Their style differences allow him to pin letter designations for identification - the now well-known E, J, D and P. The first two refer to how the deity was identified. The "D" is for "Deuteronomist", identified by stylistic traits, while the "P" relates to priestly genealogies. Friedman uses various highlighting techniques to demonstrate variances in the text style or content. This rather hotch-potch arrangement was later organised into the single volume by the "Redactor" [the "E" for "Editor" having already been assigned.
Setting his thesis within a well-defined chronology, Friedman shows how the various authors had previously material to draw on producing their own accounts. With no possibility of retrieving the sequence, we have only the results passed down to us. This situation explains many of the inconsistencies, since Judaic scribes had different sources than those in Israel. They also, apparently, had different agendas to follow. Almost from the beginning, for example, there are differences in the roles of Moses and Aaron. Friedman lists other variations with their probable origins.
Friedman's book is the best current example of what has become known as the "Documentary Hypothesis". This phrase stands in contrast with the idea of "divine origins" of the collection. As examples of historical literature, the books of the Hebrew Bible merit serious investigation and analysis. Friedman, picking up from French and German studies of the past two centuries, has performed a significant task. He writes well, doesn't engage in idle speculation, and, perhaps most important, condemns none. The authors he discusses were products of their time. He recognises that, keeping the authors clearly within their contemporary context. An excellent book, worthy of anybody's attention. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on March 22, 1999
Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible has a lot going for it. It is probably the clearest guide for the lay reader to the "Documentary Hypothesis" -- the notion that the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, were not written all at one time but assembled from at least four major sources composed at different times and under different circumstances. This idea, which was first proposed in late eighteenth century France and developed by Julius Wellhausen in the nineteenth century, allows one to see the religious traditions of ancient Israel as historically evolving from a nature cult, through centralized worship and sacrifice, to a text-based ethical religion. Friedman tells the story of the composition of the Torah with great clarity and verve, in a way that a reader lacking Hebrew can understand. Occasionally I find Friedman's exposition to be marred by what might be called "special pleading." Friedman will have a novel idea and will present it in a way that seems quite convincing, but since he doesn't really present the alternatives other scholars have considered, I sometimes feel he is pulling a fast one on the less learned reader. He has a theory, for example, that the E document (composed in the Northern Kingdom around the 9th century BC) was written by a priest at the old site of Shiloh, in the tribal area of Ephraim. He supports this by the Golden Calf episode in Exodus 32-34. This text attacks Aaron, and so, he argues, it couldn't have been written in the southern kingdom of Judah, where the priesthood was descended from Aaron. But it also presents idolatry in terms of a Golden Calf, and the Calf was the symbol Jeroboam used in place of the Cherub in the alternative temples he set up in the North at Dan and Bethel. Friedman argues that a priest of Shiloh would have no ties to Aaron, and would be jealous of the successful priesthood in Bethel, and so would have precisely the ideology required to write the story that way. That works, though, ONLY if the story is all of one piece written by a single narrator. But many scholars think (on the basis of linguistic evidence) that this part of Exodus was put together by an editor who was combining the narratives from the J (southern) and E (northern) traditions after the destruction of the northern kingdom by Assyria. If that is the case, you don't have to imagine an alienated priest from Shiloh at all. The connivance of Aaron in rebellion and idolatry could be from the E (northern) document, and the Golden Calf symbol could be from the J (southern) document, skillfully edited together by the JE editor. Hypotheses should be as simple and plausible as they can be. I'm from New York, and when I hear hoofbeats outside my window, I think "horses" (there's a riding stable down the block). I don't think "buffalo." Sometimes I think Friedman hears too many buffalo.
on April 4, 2007
If you have any interest in the history of the near east, or the content of Old Testament's Pentateuch you owe it to yourself to read Richard Friedman's "Who Wrote the Bible". This book is a bit of a miracle in that it 1) grounds the reader in the history and scope of biblical scholarship, 2) logically builds the arguments for the documentary hypothesis from source material in a logically transparent way, 3) achieves the first two while being incredibly brief and compulsively easy to read. I'd venture to say that this book is a page turner. I had trouble putting it down (and no troubles picking it back up again). Lovers of the Bible will literally gasp as revelations of the text's origins are revealed and troublesome passages explained historically.
You'll want to take a Bible and a fist full of different colored highlighters and then code the text for the different narrative voices (a handy appendix shows you exactly which passages are in which narrative). Then you'll want read the Bible again in a whole new way, with the originally compound confusing Biblical texts deconstructed and made clear by reading each narrative voice separately. Not only does Friedman's text tell you how to decode the Bible, but it also explains the historical context for each narrative voice - the motivations for their approach - and ideas about how, why, and by whom, the different voices were so artfully assembled into the Bible we know today.
Whether you end up buying Friedman's hypotheses or not - this book will stimulate you and transform your understanding of the world of the Old Testament and the nature of the Bible itself. This is on my short list of books I'd consider "mandatory reading" for any educated person. The import of the Bible is so pervasive (not only to followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam) - but also - culturally to places that are affected by followers of those faiths (i.e. the entire planet, except for certain interior areas of Asia). This book shines a big old searchlight down into the murky depths of the Torah.
Holy Writ and Oral Lit:
In the last two centuries, archeological discoveries and recovery of ancient Middle Eastern writings, exposed astounding biblical parallels with some of those ancient texts. Hebrew/Aramaic language scholarship, digging their roots in Proto-Sinaitic and Proto-Canaanite, developing alphabetic inscriptions, which changed in letter shape from Paleo-Hebrew to Aramaic script, proposed a far more extended oral transmission period of scripture than was presumed earlier. Because of the continued hot debate on 'who wrote the Hebrew Bible,' and redefining revelation in light of above discoveries, millions of Jews and Christians have questioned their faith.
Questions about the books of Moses started in the 18th century by German Protestant scholars. This hypothesis proposed by Wellhausen, has developed to gradually become an established theory among Bible experts, including Catholics. It postulates, basically, that redactors recomposed the Torah by combining at least two earlier source texts (J, E) which were then edited and/or revised at least partly by later editors (P and/or D).
The hypothesis argues that the collections of memorized traditions took written form both in biblical Israel (E: the Elohist, describes a human-like God El) and in Judah (J:Jahwist, a human-like God Yahweh), shortly after their separation into two kingdoms. Rival priestly allegedly wrote these collections: the priests of Shiloh (in Israel) wrote E; while the Aaron priesthood (in Judah) wrote J. Many have proposed a female author for J, and some have thus argued the case for seeing her as a mere member of the tribe of Judah; various details in the J source allegedly convey typical ancient feminine perspectives. The king of Israel had removed the priests of Shiloh (Levite like the Aaron clan) from power and set up an alternate new religion version, instead. E allegedly reflects these circumstances by describing stories appearing to condemn the changes.
After the fall of Israel to the Assyrians, the refugees from Israel brought E to Judah, and to assimilate those refugees into the Jewish population, a scribe combined the text with J, producing JE, in preference to keeping both texts separate. Scholars speculate that the writer of JE may have found it vital to retain most of both J and E, to avoid that listeners (or readers) complain about missing or different texts, thus avoiding schisms.
A few generations later, scholars believe the Shiloh priesthood wrote a more favorable law/code to their reform (P) and conspired with King Josiah to reveal it discovered in the temple. The scribe who composed D (Deuteronomic text) made minor additions to it to reflect the extended history, and to iron out the flaws in the original presentation of Josiah and the permanence of Judah.
A Devoted Scholarship:
Friedman continues his search in 'The Hidden Face of God' (1996) attempting to explain why in the Biblical God becomes gradually less encountered; "Gradually through the course of the Hebrew Bible ... the deity appears less and less to humans, speaks less and less. ... all other signs of divine presence become rarer and finally cease," Friedman writes.
He then claims in a later study; The Hidden Book in the Bible, (1999), that one lay author, wrote most of the early stories in the Hebrew Bible (Adam and Eve, Abraham, Moses, ...) as one unified text. He defends this thesis with comparison of the writing patterns, word choice, and allusion composing those stories.
A Fascinating Account:
Richard Friedman's surveyed this debate, carefully sifting through available biblical archaeology and research papers on the original writers of the Five books of Moses, is a fascinating popular account, may be the best ever written, about this subject. Friedman describes the history of Biblical textual criticism, on which he has contributed voluminously. He writes with clarity and authority, his engaging style turns the dry inquiry into a lively story, making it an attractive introduction for beginners and lay.
Power, Politics, and the Making of the Bible: An Introduction
The Documentary Hypothesis
on October 6, 2004
Considering the academic nature of the topic, Mr. Friedman does an incredible job at keeping the topic matter approachable and engaging.
As a Christian raised with a conservative protestant background, I found the information Mr. Friedman presents to be both fascinating and very disturbing. Disturbing in the sense that he describes a `story' of the creation of the first 5 books of the old testament in a way that differs markedly from what I have been taught in church about the Bible.
And yet, I am finding that there is freedom in this new (at least for me) way of seeing the Bible because, frankly, I don't think it held together very well the way it had been presented to me at church. That being said, it also has caused me to really question and search out what the Bible really has to offer. That has led me to reading The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman (Whoa! Not to be read by the faint of heart!) and An Introduction to the Old Testament by Walter Brueggmann (I hope he will help me figure out how to put the pieces of my disintegrated Bible paradigm back together in a new picture that still functions in some spiritual fashion).
A worthwhile read for those exploring the part of the Bible and its origins.
This is the best introduction to the JEPD hypothesis available. So if that's what you're after, this is your book. If you're going to study it thoroughly and carefully, I recommend keeping a good Bible handy, especially the Oxford Bible, which is the best for scholarly (non-denominational, non-devotional, non-theological) study.
If you are reading the Bible simply for scholarly or literary purposes, a book like this is great.
I recommend following this one up with a book like "The Bible Unearthed" by Finkelstein and Silberman, which deals with archaeology rather than textual investigation; and I strongly recommend reading a couple books by Hershel Shanks. After just this short reading list, you'll be able to digest even the most scholarly work on the Hebrew Bible, by folks like Mark Smith.
But if you are looking for help reading the Bible as an element of your religious devotion, this book is probably not what you're looking for. Basically, modern scholars try to discover what the texts meant when they were written, rather than what they might mean to us. That takes a lot of irreverent detective work, and believers are usually uncomfortable, often defensive, when they encounter critical scholarship.
HOWEVER - this is a big one - I honestly believe that the Biblical texts get much richer when critical scholarship is coupled with traditional and modern interpretations. The first chapters of Genesis provide a great example. Modern scholarship offers a lot of insight into what those stories (might have) meant to their original writers and audiences, and what they meant to later editors as well. We discover the spirituality of the ancients that has been hidden beneath more recent interpretations.
Now you don't have to throw out your tradition's more recent interpretations. Although you might choose to do that, most traditions have a lot of other theological options.
So, this is a long way of saying that if you read the Bible devotionally, then sure, modern scholarship will probably be challenging to your faith. But I encourage you not to put your head in the sand: find out what the scholars are saying. If, ultimately, you simply have to disagree and take a defensive stance, at least you'll know what you're up against. But probably, despite some struggles, you'll come to a much greater appreciation for the human authors of your scriptures, and for the depths of meaning hidden in the scriptures themselves. Not only that, but when you learn to see the scriptures from different perspectives, you'll probably learn a lot about your own tradition.
on July 24, 2003
Plot spoiler warning, it was Ezra and Jeremiah.
In reality however the book is not so much about who wrote the bible but the process by which we understand how it was written. Friedman is an academic who has studied the bible for years. This book is a clearly written outline of current thinking about the origin and strucutre of the bible. Probably most of the material in the book is available in dull long academc tones. This book however reduces all that to an easy to understand yet learned exposition in some 240 pages.
Briefly in one examines the first five books of the bible it is possible to note certain duplications of stories. This suggests that two accounts of similiar events has been synthasised together. In addition the two accounts seem to have two different names for God. One uses the term Elohim which simply means God and the other uses Jehovah, something which applies to what became the Jewish God.
Using largely textual and historical anaylsis Friedman suggests that what has happened is that after the splitting of the Davidic kingdom into Israel and Judah two priestly traditions probably oral emerged. These varied slightly as the systems of worship and political strucutre varied somewhat. Moses was a hero to the north, Aaron was the ancesotor of the Judian priestly class.
Deuteronomy appears to have been written in the reign of the King Josiah. This is based on the rather slavish praise given to him despite his mediocraty as a monarch. This would place it around 587 BC.
However rather than there being a bible at this point there would have been two versions of the first four books of the bible and Dueteronomy. Again using a textual anaylsis it would seem that there existed a further book which was of priestly origin. It was concerned largely with rules and laws and a more limited history.
Friedman suggests that these books were edited to form a continous narrative by Ezra the priest who was given power to rule over Judea by Cyrus the great after the conquest of Babylon by the Persians. Historical records suggest that Ezra took with him the Torah from Babylon to Judea. This would place the date of writing as about 539 BCE.
Regardless of whether Friedman is right or wrong the book is a fascinating summary of hundreds of years of textual and historical anaylasis of the bible.
on March 5, 2004
This excellent book focuses exclusively on who wrote the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Pentateuch or Torah. The title is thus unnecessarily misleading and an explanatory subtitle would have been a simple fix. Such a fix would not compromise sales and would nullify any suspicions that the misleading is partially intended for lucrative purposes. The author's aim is to synthesize his and related research, to give an overview for experts, and to make the topic accessible for a wide audience. The aims are amply achieved, the author is clearly competent, and his writing is a pleasure to read. For me as an amateur, it was tantalizing to be lead through some chapters like a whodunit, and surprising to see how advances continue steadily in the field. As a non-expert I got the feeling that the research has matured beyond simply dissecting fragments and has moved towards constructive synthesis. Presumably, this book can be taken more seriously than the many, many books on this or related topics by authors who have no serious credentials. The topic is obviously important for all people of the Western and Middle Eastern world, including agnostics and atheists, because the Bible has defined much of who we are and the first five books are seminal. Yes, most people will say to themselves that only the contents are important, but by understanding the history of how the contents came about, one can get MUCH better understanding of the contents. The second edition includes significant changes and a substantial new preface.
on April 29, 2001
Have you ever noticed that the story of the Creation is told twice in Genesis, in different ways? Or that at one point in Genesis Noah releases a dove from the ark, but just a few verses away, it says he released a raven? Scholars have found dozens of such "doublets," bits of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) that cover the same ground, often differing in the details or the words used.
Richard Friedman, in Who Wrote the Bible?, unravels the major literary strands in the Pentateuch. By sorting out verses according to word usage and other markers in the original Hebrew, Friedman comes to the conclusion that today's Pentateuch was originally four different works. (Not all of this is original with Friedman, but he sums up previous research and advances the theory significantly.) One book originated in Israel before the Babylonian invasion, the other in Judah, the southern and longer surviving part of the Hebrew kingdom. Among the differences between them, God is always called Yahweh (Jehovah) in the book from Israel, and Elohim in the book from Judah.
A third major strand that Friedman unravels is associated with the priestly class. Not surprisingly, it dwells mostly on various ritual requirements. Almost the entire book of Leviticus is from this source. The fourth source is the writer of Deuteronomy. Have you ever noticed how Deuteronomy repeats so much of Genesis and Exodus?
Perhaps the most important insight of the book is how the God of the books from Israel and Judah is essentially forgiving and maintains a personal relationship with the central figures of the narrative - Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph, and Moses, for example. The God of the priestly source is characterized by high standards for human behavior and the imposition of consequences for going astray. Both of these aspects of God's nature are found in the New Testament as well. With ample documentation and convincing logic, Friedman develops the theory that a single editor wove these books together after the Babylonian exile, producing what we now know as the Pentateuch. This was a grand synthesis, in which no one original strand emerged dominant, and in which the several aspects of God are revealed. The result was a sum greater than the component parts (the kind of synergy one would expect from divine inspiration), and which ever since has been a central source for our understanding of God.
Friedman does identify who he thinks wrote and edited most of the Pentateuch - names you will recognize. But I won't ruin the detective-like suspense of the book by telling you. If the book has a shortcoming, it's that it does not deal with the entire Old Testament. Beyond the Pentateuch, Friedman reaches forward briefly as far as Chronicles. I had hoped to read a treatment of Isaiah, with its prophecies of the Messiah, but it's not here.
Altogether, an outstanding, insightful book. Highly recommended.