Book Review: Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Friedman
Believe every word it says, or dismiss it all as bunk, there is no question that the Judeo-Christian Bible is one of the most controversial and perplexing books ever compiled. Conservative Christians commonly claim that all events mentioned in it are factual, yet any attempt to study the true historicity of the text is met with suspicion and cries of persecution by the True Believer. Their position is a truly unfortunate one, because critical analysis of the Bible is when it becomes truly interesting. It allows us to unravel the mystery of who the Hebrews were and what goals they were attempting to achieve when writing their scriptures.
For the last hundred years, Biblical analysis has been the exclusive domain of scholars. Investigation into the stories take years to do and require a complex understanding of the Hebrew language and culture. Richard Friedman, Professor of Jewish Civilization at the University of California San Diego, ignored the sneers of his academic brethren and wrote Who Wrote the Bible for a general audience, a feet that is sadly looked down upon in scholarly circles. Accessible non-theologically based Bible study is a resource that is badly needed in today’s world.
The book describes in detail the Documentary Hypothesis, which is the leading theory about the construction of the Old Testament. An early version of the Documentary Hypothesis was first proposed by Richard Simons in 1688 when he noticed the presence of “doublets”, stories that would be repeated in different areas of the Bible, often with variations of names and little else. This discovery caused him to doubt the traditional view that Moses wrote the fist five books of the Bible. His theory got him expelled from the Catholic Church and his book placed on the infamous “Index of Prohibited Books”. The theory was rediscovered and expanded upon in the 19th century when the German Biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen formulated the modern version of the theory. Who Wrote the Bible explains Wellhuasen’s theory and clearly shows that the Bible is not the work of a single mind, but rather a patchwork quilt that was edited together into a single tome in order to preserve all of a nation’s available religious documents.
For ease of reference, the different source material for the Bible is usually referred to by letters. The J source originated in the southern kingdom of Judah and features an anthropomorphic God that can walk on Earth and talks face to face with Moses and Abraham. The E source is from the northern kingdom of Israel. God is referred to as El, El Shadai, or Elohim and is closely tied to nature. The D source, or the Deuteronomist, is concerned more with sociological concerns than outright theology. And the P, or Priestly source, features a God of justice, and places a lot of attention on adherence to tradition. These works were sewn together by a final editor, most likely the prophet Ezra.
Friedman does disagree somewhat with Wellhausen’s accepted theory. He believes he has evidence to show that the P source was composed during the reign of King Hezekiah (715-687BC) rather than the traditional date of 400BC, after the Babylonian exile. His argument does seem to make sense to me and I believe he may be correct. The last original source, the Deuteronomist (Deuteronomy through 2 Kings), is agreed upon as being composed under King Josiah, 640-609BC.
Friedman’s book itself reads very much like a mystery novel. He lets the identities of the authors unfold as he paints us a vivid picture of the theological battles that shaped the scriptures. The priests of ancient Israel: the Levites, the Priests of Shilo, Jeremiah (high priest under King Josiah): they all had agendas to push and these ideologies were more akin to political propaganda than any sort of divination.
The only criticism I can give is that Friedman may be giving a bit too much credence to the early history of Israel and the Exodus. This is would be because of the year the book was written, 1987. Since then there has been extensive archaeological exploration in the region between Egypt and Israel with zero evidence to support the historicity of the event. This doesn’t damage Friedman’s hypothesis, though, but it would be great to see a revision of the book that accounts for this.
Who Wrote the Bible is very smartly written, but still very accessible to a general audience. An hour reading Friedman will automatically elevate any lay person’s knowledge of the the Bible way past the knowledge of a lifetime church goer.
Review also posted on the Minnesota Atheist web site.