Book Review by Steve Solomon

Who Wrote the Bible?

by Richard Elliott Friedman

Summit Books ©1987. 299 pages (paper)

BIBLICAL RESEARCH IS OFTEN SEEN AS A THREAT TO BIBLICAL FAITH. Because their work sometimes overturns preconceived or traditional notions about the Bible, scholars investigating the scriptures are perceived as heretical, radical, or even anti-religion. In some cases, this perception may be correct--the odder pronouncements of the famous and infamous Jesus Seminar come to mind--but research need not be the foe of faith. In the opinion of renowned Old Testament scholar Richard Elliott Friedman, research can actually enhance a reader's appreciation of the Bible as history, as literature, and yes, even as sacred scripture.

In Who Wrote the Bible?   Friedman attempts to explain for the lay reader what current scholarship says about the authorship of the Torah or Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). In my opinion, he succeeds admirably. Friedman has a real gift for writing. His treatment of difficult topics is simple without ever being simplistic. Is it possible for a book to be too   readable? I doubt it, but if so, this book falls into that category. Friedman's prose is so effortless and accessible that I found myself forgetting just how difficult and technical the subject matter really is. I was tempted to rush through the book, only to realize later that I had read too fast to absorb all the material properly. In order to do Who Wrote the Bible? justice, I re-read most of it and took notes before writing this review. When I was done I marvelled anew at the huge volume of material Friedman packs into this relatively small volume.

Friedman's scholarship is truly top notch. That is evident from his own writings, and it becomes even more evident when his work is compared with that of other researchers in related fields. I recall some media hoopla surrounding The Book of J, by Yale literary critic Harold Bloom. It seems that Bloom generated considerable interest in his book by boldly asserting that the author of J, one of the source texts of the Old Testament, was a woman, and that she actually dared to chide God for His actions, much as a Jewish mother would chide her son. Friedman, looking at the same evidence, avoids jumping to the politically-correct conclusions Bloom draws, saying only that it is possible, though not highly likely, that the author of J was female. The quality of Friedman's work becomes even more apparent when it is compared with the efforts of an amateur like Graham Hancock, author of The Sign and the Seal, whom I have increasingly come to regard as a crackpot. Hancock wrote some 600 pages about the Ark of the Covenant, much of it groundless New Age prattle, and has gone on to author several thick tomes of occult speculation on topics such as the pyramids. Friedman, by contrast, while admitting that the disappearance of the Ark is one of the great mysteries of ancient history, shows almost no interest in the artifact, except when references to it help in some way to determine when and by whom parts of the Old Testament were written. Friedman's approach is careful and conservative. He may not sell as many books as Bloom or Hancock, but he certainly inspires more confidence as a guide to the intricacies of the Old Testament.

That said, I must admit Who Wrote the Bible?   still makes for sometimes disconcerting reading for a person accustomed to seeing the scriptures as nothing less than the immutable, infallible, revealed Word of God. It is disconcerting, for example, to see how large a role human emotions and motivations--and not always the noblest ones--had on the writing of the Bible. Much of the Old Testament is best seen through the lens of two related rivalries, one between Israel and Judah and the other between two circles of priests. Scholars discovered the existence of two separate, competing texts within the Old Testament. These were called J and E for their respective names for God--J (pronounced as Y by the researchers, who were Germans) stands for Yahweh and E for Elohim. J consistently exalts Judah at the expense of Israel; E consistently does just the opposite. In other words, in the days of the divided kingdom, two competing Torahs existed, each claiming the status of the Word of God. To put it even more bluntly, partisan politics intruded on the writing of sacred scripture. Ironically, J and E were later combined into one text, called JE, sometime after 722 B.C., when refugees from the Assyrian conquest of Israel fled to Judah, bringing E with them. Why were the two conflicting scriptures merged? According to Friedman, because the Israelite contingent was too large and influential to be ignored.

If the influence of partisan politics on the Bible is disconcerting, then the effect of the squabbles between priestly circles is even more troubling. In the pursuit of advantage, power, and income, these two schools of clerics were ready to put words into the very mouth of God. The fall of Israel and the union of J and E did nothing to quell this competition. The Aaronids, so called because they were believed descended from Aaron, were firmly in power at the court in Jerusalem, but they still had competition in the form of the priesthood of Shiloh. The Shiloh priests, called Mushites   because of their presumed descent from Moses, had been out of power at court ever since the death of David (the Mushite chief priest had supported a rival of Solomon's as David's successor, and had been banished for his lack of political acumen), but they still wielded considerable influence. An Aaronid priest composed the source text we now call P ("Priestly," because of its emphasis on law, sacrifices, and other topics of clerical interest) as an answer to JE. Why did JE need answering? Because JE elevated Moses and denigrated Aaron, the ancestor of the Jerusalem priesthood. P undertook to reverse that situation, and to further improve the lot of the Aaronids by restricting the priesthood to descendants of Aaron (relegating all other Levites, including their Mushite rivals, to a secondary role) and centralizing sacrifice in Jerusalem (where the Aaronids were in power). Someone from the Mushite circle--in Friedman's opinion, probably the prophet Jeremiah or his scribe, Baruch--fired a return salvo at P called D (for "Deuteronomist," because D includes Deuteronomy). D elevates Moses and other Mushite heroes, commands the people to take care of impoverished Levites (such as the Shiloh priesthood), and even goes so far as to call P's emphasis on sacrifices a lie!

I am reminded of a conversation about the Bible I had several years ago with a skeptical friend. When he asserted that the Bible contained contradictions, I hastened to correct him--there are no contradictions in the Bible, I said, only apparent contradictions. In retrospect, I see that he was right; there are contradictions, and they aren't hard to find. There are two creation stories, two flood stories, and two instances of Moses bringing water from a rock, to cite just a few well-known examples. And as if to top all the contradictions off, D calls P a lie, using the startling wording, "the lying pen of scribes." Finally, in what must be one of the most astounding ironies of all time, someone known as R (the Redactor) combined all these disparate sources into one document, which forms the core of the Old Testament we have today.

What is the believer to make of this convoluted history? Skeptics will probably scoff, saying that the supposedly divine document has very human origins. However, Friedman points out that the research was never intended to prove or disprove the divine inspiration of the Bible, but only to establish which human beings wrote it. "Whether they did so at divine direction, dictation, or inspiration was always a matter of faith," he says (p. 243). Moreover, the juxtaposition of the sources has led to greater literary and theological depth than any of the sources had alone. For example, God in P is generally depicted as transcendent and just, whereas in JE, God is usually seen as personal and merciful. The tension between these two images has been the source of some of the deepest theological thought in the Western tradition. Another juxtaposition of sources caused the story of Abraham's purchase of a burial site for Sarah to follow the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, giving the impression that Sarah died of grief at the thought of her son's death. Did the Redactor intend this conclusion? We don't know, but the mixing of the sources led to it. Even P's attempts to "diminish Moses," as Friedman puts it, had the paradoxical effect of making Moses more human and more interesting. In Friedman's opinion, whether one sees the Bible as literature, history, or sacred scripture, knowledge of its composition should lead to increased rather than decreased respect and wonder at the history that caused the Book of Books to turn out as it did. In light of the Judeo-Christian understanding of God as active in history, that strikes me as a very good way to look at things. We can read the history of the Bible and say, "God really does work in mysterious ways."

Edited March 24, 1997.

Copyright ©1997-2000 by Steven R. Solomon. All rights reserved.
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