"He who acknowledges the imperfections of his intrument, and makes allowance for it, is in a much better position for gaining truth than if he claimed his instrument to be infallible."
-William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
Essentially, Friedman is presenting the arguments, evidence, and history of scholarship regarding the Bible's authorship, focusing on the core Bible works in the Torah.
The Documentary Hypothesis:
The almost universally respected theory among scholars for the Bible's authorship is known as the Documentary Hypothesis, which holds that underlying the books of the Bible as we know them are a number of previously unidentified sources. Within the framework of this hypothesis, as Friedman shows, scholars debate and refine their knowledge about time and place and people from whence these sources come. While scholars may differ on the details, the Documentary Hypothesis is widely regarded as the most legitimate framework for investigating and understanding “Who Wrote the Bible?”
The first five books of the Bible, commonly known as the five books of Moses or the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), were traditionally believed to be authored by Moses himself. The Documentary Hypothesis instead argues that there are several underlying sources for these books, which scholars call J, E, P, and D, as well as a final redactor (R) who compiled and edited the five books of the Torah as we know them today. Furthermore, it appears that the authors of these main written sources had some oral or written sources of their own. Exploring the evidence and arguments regarding these sources as they have surfaced over time is the main focus of Friedman's book. Again, I intend to give only the most basic breakdown of some of Friedman’s evidence and arguments for each source.
J and E (For Yahweh and Elohim):
The J source is named for the German translation of the proper name of God in the Bible (in modern English its "Yahweh"). The E source is named for the word "Elohim," which, rather than a more personal name (like Yahweh), is simply the generic word "God" in Hebrew.
The sources J and E are so named because early investigators noticed doublets (repetitions of stories and phrases) in the Bible, as well as duplicate versions which sometimes contradicted one another. The investigators found that one version of events tended to refer to God as Elohim while the other version of events tended to refer to God as Yahweh. As they investigated further, they found that the various stories which used the word Elohim appeared to have a lot in common culturally and theologically, in addition to the way they referred to God. The same was true of the stories which used the name Yahweh. It seemed that two distinct voices were emerging, each with a distinct set of beliefs and interests.
For the sake of time I won’t be able to get into too much detail, but what Friedman and other investigators have found is that the E source seems to represent the beliefs and interests of a group of disenfranchised Levite priests from Shiloh (probably Mushite – that is, associating themselves with Moses) in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The J source on the other hand seems to represent the interests of Aaronid Priests in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The J stories say little about Moses and give Aaron a more central position in the Exodus narrative. The stories in E glorify Moses but reflect badly on Aaron. Each version exalts their patron founder above the other.
Another major piece of the puzzle is the patriarch Jacob’s blessing of his sons. For this to make sense I should note that God renamed Jacob, calling him Israel, and the tribes of Israel are named after his sons. In J's version of Jacob's blessing Judah clearly has the birthright. And as you may recalled, Judah is the tribe of David and Solomon and the Southern Kingdom. On the contrary, E’s account of Jacob’s blessings to his sons makes Ephraim the heir apparent. Ephraim was the tribe of Jeroboam, the King of Israel after the North and South split. Ephraim was even used as a synonym for the Kingdom of Israel. Again, it can be argued that the E narrative favors the Northern Kingdom of Israel while J favors the Southern Kingdom of Judah (p. 63-65).
However one important detail needs to be clarified. The priests of Shiloh were not in power in the North after the Israelites split into two kingdoms. Jeroboam appointed a group of non-Levites to serve as priests. He also built two religious centers, one at either end of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in Dan and Beth El. Here’s the kicker, each religious center was adorned with a giant golden calf at the place of worship. It is not surprising then, that we would find a story of the golden calf in the Israelite epic which blames Aaron for the ordeal. With such a story, the priests of Shiloh (the likely authors of E) were able to kill two birds with one stone. By blaiming Aaron, the story takes a direct shot at the Aaronid priests in Jerusalem. And by making the golden calf a symbol of Idolatry, they are undermining the authority of the non-Levite priests who officiated at Dan and Beth El. Nevertheless, by giving Ephraim the birthright in E’s version, they are aligning their religious cause with the Ephraimite King of Israel. Why would they do this after he betrayed them by disenfranchising them? Because with the Aaronid priests more firmly established in the South, the Ephraimite monarchy was still their best hope at being reestablished to power in the North (70-74).
The apparent division of the text along these religio-political lines dates both J and E, the earliest known written source material of the Old Testament, to a period after the tribes in the Northern portion of Israel had seceded from Judah’s rule under Jeroboam (922 B.C.) but before the northern Kingdom was overtaken by the Assyrians (722 B.C.). Friedman further narrows the time frame of the J source down to between 848 and 722 B.C. (p. 72, 87) Sometime after the fall of the Northern Kingdom, refugees from the North probably brought E with them to the Southern Kingdom, and so they were combined to form JE (as a way of uniting the people who had divergent interests under one hybrid version of their common religion). The hybrid generally places the stories in chronological order, but does not necessarily attempt to reconcile contradictions between the adjoining texts. Friedman claims this is likely because the audience, including priests from North and South, would remember the way stories were originally told and protest any major changes to the stories they knew and held sacred (p. 88).
P is for Priestly:
Next, we turn to a discussion of the P source. It is named for the “Priestly” interests that apparently dominate its pages. Which priests? The Aaronids. The Book of Leviticus, which is almost entirely a P document, reminds us again and again that “the sons of Aaron” are to officiate in the rites at the Tabernacle. It is their birthright, their inheritance, forever. What it doesn’t necessarily spell out, but what any contemporary readers would have understood is that it intends to disenfranchise other Levites and centralize power in a single religious location under an exclusive priestly order.
When? “P appeared not long after (the combination of) JE,” says Friedman (215). Recall that J and E were written separately before the Northern Kingdom of Israel was overtaken by the Assyrians. Then, after the fall of Israel, due to the presence of people from the Northern Kingdom in Judah, these separate sacred texts were combined to form a single text – JE (213). “Now,” Friedman says, noting the P sources apparent familiarity with JE, “we know that the collection of Priestly laws and stories was conceived and written as an alternative to JE. JE’s stories offended the Priestly writer’s ancestor Aaron. They contained elements that the Priestly writer rejected: angels and anthropomorphisms, dreams and talking animals. The Priestly writer was not happy with JE – to put it mildly” (207). The P author’s familiarity with JE places P’s composition no sooner than 722 B.C. In a similar vein, because Jeremiah and the author of Deuteronomy were familiar with P, we can place P’s writing no later than 609 B.C. (p. 209-210). But Friedman believes we can narrow our time frame even further, to the reign of King Hezekiah.
Hezekiah reigned around the time when the Northern kingdom was overtaken – when immigration from the North would have brought E and a competing order of priests to go with it. Hezekiah gave the Aaronid priests their victory over these relatively new challengers. “He established priestly divisions in which they were favored, he destroyed the bronze ensign of their rivals, and he destroyed all places of worship outside the Temple at which (these rivals) officiated” (213). Hezekiah organized the centralization of religion around the Aaronid priesthood (210). The Aaronid priests, for their part, produced the very scriptural justification on which Hezekiah’s religious reforms would be based (214).
As with J and E, we don’t know the exact name of the author of P. But we can say there is a high probability that the author of P was an Aaronid priest in the Kingdom of Judah during the reign of Hezekiah. From there, Friedman also points to a connection between P and Chronicles. “Like P, (Chronicles) distinguishes between priests and Levites. Like P, it recognizes only descendants of Aaron as legitimate priests. Like P, it is concerned with the priestly duties, with the sacred places and objects, sacrifices, worship, and so on. We are not certain of the exact relationship between the books of Chronicles and P, but we can be certain that both are inextricably tied to the Aaronid priesthood. And the Chronicles history makes a hero of Hezekiah.” Chronicles is the Priestly tale of Israelite history from the perspective of Aaronid priests, whereas the Deuteronomistic History tells Israel’s history from the perspective of a circle of priests from Shiloh – more about the Deuteronomistic History next (p. 211).
D, for Deuteronomy (and the Whole Deuteronomistic History):
Friedman credits a mid-20th century German scholar named Martin Noth for the key breakthrough in discovering the author of D. Noth noticed “a special relationship between Deuteronomy and the next six books of the Bible: Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings.” Their language “was too similar for coincidence. Noth showed that this was not a loose collection of writings, but rather a thoughtfully arranged work. It told a continuous story, a flowing account of the history of the people of Israel in their land. It was not by one author. It contained various sections, written by various people (such as the Court History of David, and the stories of Samuel). The finished product, nevertheless, was the work of one person.” (p. 103). Noth called this seven volume work the Deuteronomistic History. In addition, these seven books of the Bible also bear a striking resemblance to parts of the Book of Jeremiah, and, as Friedman shows, for good reason (p. 127). Thus, to discover the author of Deuteronomy was possibly to discovery the author of 8 books of the Bible in total.
After discussing several important clues at some length, Friedman summarizes them: “The place to look for the author of Deuteronomy (or “at least the Law Code of Deuteronomy”), therefore, was in a group (1) that wanted centralization of religion, but not tied to the ark or to the Jerusalem priesthood; (2) that cared about all Levites’ livelihood, but would enfranchise only a group of central Levites; (3) that accepted having a king, but wanted limitations on his rule; (4) that had a pre-monarchy approach to matters of war. That sounds like the priests of Shiloh – the same group that produced E.” (p. 122).
Friedman describes the Deuteronomistic historian as making the Law Code of Deuteronomy the foundation of his work. The Deuteronomistic historian writes an introduction which pictures Moses delivering a farewell speech in chapters 1-11, issuing the law code in chapters 12-26, and then writes a conclusion promising blessings for obedience to the Deuteronomic Law Code, and cursings for disobedience to it (p. 123). The rest of the Deuteronomistic History interprets Israelite history as a story of cosmic justice, a fulfillment of these promises according to Israel’s level of obedience or disobedience.
I should at least make mention here of one more puzzle piece. Frank Moore Cross observed in 1973 that Deuteronomy repeatedly predicts Israel’s eternal success in many places, and then repeatedly second-guesses these optimistic predictions. Cross reasoned that a first edition of Deuteronomy (Dtr1) must have been written during a golden age for the Shilonic priests – during the reign of King Josiah, while a second edition (Dtr2) was completed after the fall of the Kingdom (pg. 107-110). The second edition would have added the promised cursings as the Deuteronomistic author wrestled with the unexpected fall of his kingdom. Thus, Friedman theorizes that the author of the first and second editions is the same person, grappling with very different realities at different times in his life.
Friedman is bold enough to name that man. As hinted earlier, the prophet Jeremiah is a likely candidate for authorship. The language of the book of Jeremiah is strikingly similar with that of the Deuteronomistic History in several places. Jeremiah, like the Deuteronomistic History, praises King Josiah. Jeremiah’s mother’s name, Nehushta, bears a striking resemblance to the name of a Shilonite relic, Nehushtan (which could mean that Jeremiah had Shilonic ancestry). Jeremiah was a priest, but didn’t sacrifice (which behavior would have been consistent with that of a disenfranchised priest of Shiloh). Jeremiah was hated in his hometown of Anathoth, an Aaronid city, which would make sense if he was a Shilonite priest. Perhaps most interestingly, Jeremiah’s father may have been the same Hilkiah credited with finding the scroll of the Torah on which Josiah based his religious reforms (p. 125-126). Jeremiah was in the right place at the right time, and his personality and voice seems consistent with that of the Deuteronomist in many places. For these reasons, Friedman concludes that Jeremiah or perhaps his scribe Baruch (or both) have given us the Deuteronomistic History.
I should note that in one other significant area, Jeremiah and the Deuteronomist seem to agree (again, possibly because they are the same person). Both the Deuteronomist and Jeremiah were familiar with P, a point made clear by the fact that both quoted from it. Like the Deuteronomist, says Friedman, “Jeremiah knew the Priestly laws and stories. He did not like them, but he knew them.” This says something interesting about the Bible sources relationship with one another. Friedman elaborates, “How hostile he was to them can be seen in an extraordinary passage in the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah says to the people: “How do you say ‘We are wise, and Yahweh’s torah is with us’? In fact, here it was made for a lie, the lying pen of scribes.”” Friedman believes that the “torah” which Jeremiah here calls, “the lying pen of scribes” was actually P, the Priestly source (p. 209).
Let's Recap, and Consider Some Important Implications:
So, hopefully you can see a very complicated relationship developing between the various source texts that are now intertwined in our modern Bibles. J and E were written independently from one another, representing the competing interests of their authors. Then they were combined to form a single hybrid book of early Hebrew scripture - JE. Next, P was written in part as a critical alternative to JE (p.190-191). Later, D would be written in defiance of P (p. 216). Finally, D would be edited together with P and JE to basically create the Torah as we know it today - including Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy (as well as the next 6 books of the Bible). I can’t help but to reflect that ultimately, this process – of living out the scriptural tradition, reinterpreting it, re-evaluating it, of new authorities responding to old authorities, and later peoples combining the old with the new – this process continued for Christians until about the 4th century when the Bible was basically canonized and bound into the single book that we know (or perhaps don’t know very well) and hold sacred today.
I wonder… why did this process stop? Why did we forget about the process that created our Bible? And what are the consequences of losing touch with this tradition of ours – for better or worse? What relationship will we have with our scriptural tradition from now on? Will we continue in ignorance of the processes that created and sanctified our holy books for a third millennium? Is it possible to revive that older tradition of appreciating the human and divine influences within our holy books, and of conscientiously reinterpreting and re-evaluating them according to the spirit of compassion that seems to have guided Jesus’ and many of the prophets’ interpretations of their scriptures? Do we see a need for this? If so, do we have the courage to do this? In the age of information, perhaps the better question is, will it even be possible for Christians to avoid a greater awareness of their Bible’s origins? And will our faith be able to bear the scandal of the Bible’s humanness? And do we have the moral integrity to reimagine this cultural icon in a way that is not completely beholden to our own cultural biases and personal whims or opinions? I’ll leave it there for now – in shambles – except to give some assurance that I believe there is a faithful and responsible way to handle these difficult realities regarding our sacred traditions. As Jesus shows us, the way is love – God’s love for us, and our love for one another. This love can take us much farther than you might imagine, that is all I will say about that for now.
Next, we will delve very briefly into the last subject of Friedman’s book – the Redactor.
R, the Redactor or Final Editor of the Torah:
When was the full Torah completed? “That moment had to be in the days of the second temple. The sources J, E, P, and D (Dtr1 and Dtr2) were not all completed until shortly before that time,” says Friedman. He also refers to clues in the text that point specifically to the second temple period, in Numbers 15 and Leviticus 23 for example (see p. 221-222).
Equally important is the fact that biblical books first begin citing the complete Torah (including references to each of the four documentary sources) during this period . Friedman elaborates:
Ezra came from Babylon to Judah eighty years after the first group of exiles returned, in 458 B.C. He was a priest and a scribe. … Ezra arrived in Jerusalem with two important documents in his hand. One was this “torah of Moses,” and the other was a letter from the Persian emperor, Artaxerxes, giving him authority … to teach and to enforce “the law of your God which is in your hand.” The enforcement powers included fines, imprisonments, and the death penalty.
What was this “torah of Moses”? … References to it in the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah include material from J, E, D, and P. It is therefore likely that the book that Ezra brought from Babylon to Judah was the full Torah – the Five Books of Moses – as we know it. (p.159)
Who was the Redactor? Friedman argues that he was an Aaronid priest for three major reasons: 1) “he began the major sections of his work with P stories or laws, never with J or E.” 2) “he used priestly documents as the framework for the work.” 3) “he added texts of his own, and these new texts were in the typical language and interests of P.” Of course Friedman gives examples of each point (see p. 218-219). Finally, Friedman points to one individual who more than fits the profile – Ezra:
The first time that we find the full Torah of Moses in Judah, it is in Ezra’s possession. He sought it out, he was a scribe who worked with it, he personally carried it to Jerusalem, and he personally gave it its first public reading. And when he read it to the people, they heard things that they had never heard before.
This does not prove that it absolutely had to be Ezra who fashioned the Five Books of Moses. But he was in the right priestly family, in the right profession, in the right place, in the right time, with the authority, and with the first known copy of the book in his hand. If it was not Ezra himself who composed the work, then it was someone close to him… (p. 224)
From there Friedman goes on to describe the apparent process of combining these four documentary sources (along with additional priestly documents - like the Book of Generations) into one relatively coherent “Torah.” The method would have been different depending on the material he is working with. For example, he could place the J creation story (chapter 2 of Genesis) right alongside the P creation story (in Genesis 1) without the contradictions posing too much of a problem for readers. The two flood stories, on the other hand, had to be woven together alternating on a verse by verse basis (see p. 225-231). He saved Deuteronomy for last, which meant that:
Deuteronomy was now the last book of the Torah and the first book of the Deuteronomistic history. There was now a natural continuity from Genesis to the end of 2 Kings. The American biblical scholar has called this eleven-book continuous story the Primary History (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings). He also referred to it as “The First Bible.”
So, in this relatively brief (245 pages) and highly readable little book Friedman has unraveled many of the important clues regarding the authorship of a major portion of the Bible. Not only the complete Torah, but the whole Primary History which helps us makes sense of the rest of the writings of the prophets, the collections of poetry, and so on. “The Primary History formed the core around which the rest of the Bible was built.” (p.232). While this is quite an achievement, Friedman is still aware of the challenges these clues pose for many people of faith.
Definitely Not Moses… But Still An Inspired Text?
I often find myself wondering why we Christians can’t be more open to the information scholars have uncovered about the origins of the Bible. What’s worse, we don’t even think to ask these important questions most of the time! This reticence (and sometimes hostility) seems to come from a place of insecurity rather than faith. If we really have faith, there is no need to be afraid of revelations which challenge what we thought we knew. Faith means having confidence that whatever you find out, your relationship with God will endure, or even grow stronger (independent of whatever golden calf we might be clinging to). Faith does not mean insisting that you have a perfect understanding and spitefully rejecting every perspective that differs from your own.
But Friedman is sympathetic to the reluctant faithful. He says that part of the problem is that Bible scholarship “has often been about tearing down without putting back together” (p. 241). For this reason, Friedman assures his readers:
The seeds of that reconciliation were present from the days of the earliest investigators. Simply put, the question all along was not “Who inspired the Bible?” or “Who revealed the Bible?” The question was only which human beings actually composed it. Whether they did so at divine direction, dictation, or inspiration was always a matter of faith. (p. 243)
In other words, whether Moses wrote it, or Jeremiah, or Baruch, or Ezra, or a group of Mushitic or Aaronid priests, or other unknown authors, or a combination of all of these; this does not necessarily change whether God provided the inspiration behind the words.
The challenge that this investigation presents is not to the belief in the revealed or inspired character of the Bible, but to traditions about which humans actually wrote it on the parchment.
A Healthy, Informed Approach:
With this in mind, I hope my fellow Christians will be more open to the knowledge and added appreciation of the Bible that comes with learning about these fascinating discoveries. It does not require you to give up your faith in the inspired character of the Bible, or in God or Jesus. Far from it!
For me, it has meant a maturing and deepening of my faith. It has meant confronting and overcoming many of my insecurities. Although the adjustments have been challenging at times, the truth has been enlightening and liberating. If it were possible, I would not unlearn it. In addition to Friedman’s point that these investigations don’t have to threaten our faith, I would add that scholarly investigations can also go a long way in freeing us from uninspired and burdensome interpretations of scripture.
When we see more clearly that both God and humans are at work in that text, there is room for conscientious disagreement with passages that are cruel, uncharitable, prejudicial, or unbelievable.
This deeper analysis of the Bible does not require you to give up your faith; but it doesn’t require you to keep it either. It leaves your ultimate conclusions about such things in the realm of prayer, meditation, personal judgment, and affirming religious experience.
At worst, it requires us to be a little more humble in our judgments about those whose interpretations differ from our own. At best, it requires us to be a little more humble in our judgments about those whose interpretations differ from our own; and it pushes us to develop a more personally inspired, more compassionate brand of faith.