"In the traditional interpretation of the Bible, the five books of
Moses are exactly that: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and
Deuteronomy, written by Moses at God's command.
What may not be as well known is that during the last two centuries,
many Biblical scholars have offered a different type of analysis,
concluding that those Biblical books, also known as the Pentateuch, are
a compilation of four separate narratives, woven together by ancient editors, or redactors, to create a single text.
J, E, P, D. Sources
"In unscrambling this puzzle, scholars have identified the four
narratives by letters–J, E, P, D–each of which represents a key
word in the text. (J, for example, is the first letter of the German
spelling for the name Yahweh; E comes from Elohim, the Hebrew word for
God; P stands for the priestly source, referring to passages concerned
with religious law, while D signifies Deuteronomy.)
Now, after a dozen years of research, Richard Elliott Friedman, a
professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of
California at San Diego, has tantalizingly argued that the J narrative
is far longer than the three others, and actually extends considerably
beyond the five Mosaic books.
The J source, he says, comprises a "hidden book" that is nearly 3,000
years old and that runs from Genesis to the First Book of Kings.
And that makes it, he declares, the world's first book-length prose
Reaction of other scholars to Mr. Friedman's theory has been mixed,
ranging from praise for his boldness and extensive research to critical
doubt that the idea will be widely accepted.
In recent years, the J source alone, which scholars have
traditionally viewed as the oldest, has received far more public
attention than the E, P or D sources. J has been the subject of several
recent popular books, best-known among them "The Book of J," in which
the Yale literary scholar Harold Bloom argued that J's author was a
woman. One reason, at least, for J's popularity may be that as scholars
have broken it out of the overall biblical text it includes some of the
most vivid passages of familiar stories, like that of Noah, and it
includes material, like the Tower of Babel story, that is not placed by
scholars in the other sources.
By linking J with subsequent sections of the Bible, particularly what
scholars call the Court History, which tells the story of King David,
Mr. Friedman has theorized that the Bible was constructed around an
original long narrative, about 3,000 sentences altogether, which runs
from the creation of humanity to David's death.
"We know of poetry that is earlier, but this is the oldest prose
literature: a long, beautiful, exciting story," he writes in his book,
"The Hidden Book in the Bible," recently published by HarperCollins.
Mr. Friedman says the "hidden book" has a theme, if not a single
plot. Beginning with Adam and Eve's eating of the fruit in the Garden of
Eden, it tells the story of how human beings gain the ability to tell
good from bad, and then what they do with it over many generations.
"So you see people making choices of good and bad, and making choices
and paying prices and learning from that," he said.
Mr. Friedman's theory is in some sense as much literary detective
work as an example of biblical scholarship. In a telephone interview,
Mr. Friedman said recurrent words and phrases that appear nowhere else
in these sections of the Bible first led him to believe that J extended
further than all but a few scholars had previously thought. He titles his 200-page translation of this narrative "In the Day," a phrase
taken from the first three words with which the J source begins (in
"I think that's just where the evidence goes," Mr. Friedman said. "I
didn't set out looking for common themes. When I first started looking
at J and the Court History, it started with language, because that's
still the most common thing. It was the language that first sort of
mapped where I should be looking."
He said that certain references to deception, phrases like "kindness
and faithfulness," references to Sheol, a place of the dead, as well as
some other words and phrases occurred only in this text. He also found
cases in which words and phrases were repeated sequentially in separate
stories in J and the Court History, which he took as another link.
In addition, he said he had found numerous recurring images within
the two sections, among them no fewer than seven stories of brothers
warring against brothers, with the action taking place in a field,
beginning with Cain and Abel.
Mr. Friedman is the author and editor of other books written for a
literate lay audience, among them "Who Wrote the Bible?," which
describes the process by which J and the other narratives were
identified. That book is used as a text in some biblical studies courses.
In his latest book, he said, he implies no criticism of the religious
belief of Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians that Moses wrote the
five books attributed to him.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, a strictly
Orthodox organization, said that academic "higher criticism" of the
Bible was predicated on a different set of assumptions about the text
than those held by people who believe the text was divinely given to
Moses. "We're talking from totally different premises, so it's not
really an argument," he said.
Other scholars offered mixed assessments of the Friedman theory.
Alan Cooper, professor of Bible who holds a joint appointment at
Jewish Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary in New York,
said he doubted whether many experts would accept Mr. Friedman's theory
that there is a single, long-running narrative in the Bible. "But I do
think people will have to take his evidence very seriously," Mr. Cooper
added, saying that biblical scholars would have to study the data Mr.
Friedman had assembled.
Ziony Zevit, professor of Bible at the University of Judaism in Los
Angeles, said he did not think the similarities that Mr. Friedman found
pointed to a single narrative. Still, he called Mr. Friedman's
translation of the biblical books that make up his proposed narrative "a
tour de force."
Mr. Friedman attributes the single narrative to a "literary artist,"
probably a lay person (possibly female), writing about 28 centuries ago.
"Maybe this was the person who came along with the instincts of the
historian, to tell a long saga, to tell it all," he said in the
interview. He added that the cultural conditions made a historical
narrative possible because the ancient Israelites, with their belief
that God existed outside nature, possessed a linear view of history.
"God meets Moses at the bush and says, 'I'm the God of your father,'
" he said. "It's only in a model like that you'd start writing history.
The pagan world didn't write like that."
In ''Surpassing Wonder,'' Donald Harman Akenson, a professor of Irish
history, makes a stunning case that the first nine books of the Bible
should be seen as a unit and the work of an ancient historian compiler.
...the great inventor was an historian, and
how else do historians work, but by being the magpies of the
intellectual world? Yet, the minute one mentions "sources," a great
buzzing occurs, as if a nest of wasps were about to swarm. One has to
ignore part of this swarm, the group with which there is no negotiation
whatsoever: the Ultra-Orthodox Jews and their Christian counterparts,
the more extreme evangelicals and their phalanx of Berserker Right
outriders, the Christian fundamentalists, and especially the cadre known
as "Dispensationalists." If one takes the view of various Haredi sects,
the question of sources is irrelevant as they believe that the first
five books of the Bible are not merely named the Books of Moses, but
were actually written by his hand. That does away with any problem of
sources, although it does leave the inconvenient issue of how, at the
end of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses was accurately able to report in
the past tense the details of his own death. The other books of the
Bible are held each to be a composition of a single person, their
integrity being a function, in part, of each book's being integral to
itself. No source problems, therefore. When one turns to the Christian
equivalent of these beliefs, those of the keener evangelicals and
fundamentalists, one finds that the source issue also disappears in this
instance because of the belief in the "verbal inerrancy" of the
scriptures. The Almighty dictated them to "holy men of old." (That this
is roughly the same method of composition postulated for the Koran is
not a point the Christian Right is disposed to dwell on.) Within the
belief systems of many Orthodox and most evangelicals (and of all of the
Ultra-Orthodox and a lot of the Christian Fundamentalists), to suggest,
however tactfully one might do so, that the scriptures are a collection
of pieces that originally were not found in their present packaging, is
to invite instant denunciation. This is particularly difficult to deal
with because the evangelicals, and most especially the
"Dispensationalists," rearrange the Bible pretty much according to their
own whim. The situation is well summarized by Jon Butler:
Then came the twin disasters of
fundamentalism and dispensationalism. Fundamentalism heightened the
developing anti-intellectualism of evangelicalism by disguising
complex, crude and controversial theological statements as literal
interpretations of the Scriptures, a trend capped by the influential
Scoffield Reference Bible (1909). Dispensationalism completed this
canonization of Biblical mechanics by manipulating the arbitrary
versification of the scriptures completed in the sixteenth century
and turning the Old and New Testament into a kind of gigantic
Christian puzzle, all parts interchangeable. Now, words and
sentences could be manoeuvred to create and defend simplistic
interpretative schemes from any angle, brushing aside the verses'
original context while also rigidly classifying modern events with a
few simple-minded categories.
This sort of thing cannot be fought, so it
is best ignored.