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 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 21 June 2005
I was very impressed with this work. I was expecting quite a dry, academic read and was pleasantly suprised to find that it actually tells a fascinating story about how the Pentateuch came to be. It has more than enough detail to give it authority, without alienating the casual reader like myself. Friedman puts forward a well researched and quite convincing case for the identities (both general and specific) of the Biblical authors, and tells a gripping story in the process.
I'm not a religious person and I certainly wasn't looking for something to bash believers over the head with, just something that would explain the human rather than divine construction of part of the Bible. This book did it for me. The insight into the political influences and agendas of the era was quite illuminating.
on 25 October 2005
What a marvellous book. I was vaguely interested in the history of the Bible, after seeing a TV documentary touching on the subject.
I mean - there it is, a perennial bestseller - but someone had to have actually written it down at some point, in fact probably more than one person.
This book takes you through the life and times of the early biblical history setting the scene, showing the concerns and the point of view of some of the people associated with it. Then takes you on to suggest who might have been responsible for what parts and why. What axe they had to grind, what their reasons were and the clues used. Its like digging an archeological site. Uncovering layers within layers.
One slight criticism I have of it is the title. Its really only concerned with the first 5 books of the Bible, which is quite a small percentage. Certainly nothing on the new testament, which you might not realise from the title.
However - that said, once I picked it up I found it hard to put down again! I since gone on to purchase several other of his books.
on 25 March 2009
Friedman is a notable scholar in Biblical studies. With this book he set himself the task of explaining what progress has been made in answering the question: who wrote the Bible? When we say bible, primarily we are talking here about the five books of Moses. Though, there is also a discussion of the books succeeding the Pentateuch too.
With such a vast and complex subject, Friedman has done an excellent job in creating a book the general reader could understand and enjoy. The book has the feel of a mystery adventure. You feel as if Friedman has let you into his world, and what an exciting world it is.
Friedman introduces the reader to the different hypotheses that have arisen ever since it was found that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch, due to some major inconsistencies. Who led the way in this study? Which theories have been discounted? Friedman has consolidated the work of these previous scholars, as well as his own, and is now giving us his view of who wrote the Bible.
The way he has structured the book shows great skill. He imparts his wisdom gradually. This means the reader isn't overwhelmed with information and can follow the story more easily. You fell as if you are getting closer and closer to the answer as you read on. This makes the book exciting and hard to put down.
Even if you don't know it inside out, it would enhance your enjoyment of the book if you are familiar with the Old Testament, or at least have an idea of the events it is describing. If you don't then I'd recommend The Holman Bible Atlas (Broadman & Holman Reference) It contains an explanation of the Bible narrative, alongside maps and tables, which could help a lot in visualising everything. However, even if you don't know the Old Testament very well, it doesn't matter too much as Friedman presumes you don't know and tends to give a basic outline wherever appropriate.
on 10 January 2010
To understand what the scholarly take on the bible is this is a must read. I shan't explain again what he says (other reviewers have already done a very good job doing that) but I felt I must add..
Firstly repeating what one reviewer said, it is not the Bible, it really is just mostly the Torah, or Pentateuch. Other OT scriptures are included as asides, but certainly no New Testament. I have to say this just in case the buyer is as surprised as I was when I came to the end of the book and felt it wasn't finished.
Secondly, it is now slightly out of date. I'm quite sure that Mr Friedman is friends with Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman , and in their more recent books The Bible Unearthed, and David And Solomon they moslty corrospond to this book's theories, except one big factor- the united Israel under David and Solomon did not happen.
It is an important point and seems central to WWTB, yet with new research in the Holy Land, I think this book could do with an updated edition that accounts for this major twist.
on 23 March 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 25 July 2009
Who Wrote the Bible?
The only thing that stops this having 5 stars is that the title is very misleading. It is a book on JEDP, the widely accepted theory that the "law and the prophets" part of the Old Testament, a dozen books in all, is an almagam of four sources redacted by Ezra to form the scriptures from the view of the post exilic authorities in the 5th century BCE. The other 54 books are not considered.
That apart it is excellent Friedman is adventurous in his conclusions but I welcome this because too much bible scholarship can leave us wandering in a fog of maybes. His research is thorough and his logic is persuasive. Above all I emerged from the book feeling that I knew the legendary folk of Old Testament times rather better and that they had something to say to me.
A good read for those of all the Jerusalem religions.
on 21 January 2012
This is not really controversial matter - that the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, has been compiled from multiple sources has been well-understood for a very long time, but Friedman does a good job of going through how the so-called Documentary Hypothesis was gradually developed and what the current consensus among Bible scholars is. To this he adds his own analysis which pushes the writing of the so-called Priestly source a couple of centuries earlier in time. He also speculates in identifying by name the possible authors of the Priestly and the Deuteronomistic sources. While doing this he gives a useful summary of what the first dozen books of the Bible contain and how they relate to each other.
For each time period when bits of the Bible were originally written he gives a background to the contemporary political and religious events of the Middle East, so as to give an understanding of under what circumstances the books were written. However, while saying that he relies on evidence from archaeology and other contemporary sources, Friedman very rarely mentions these in the text - the in-text references are almost exclusively to verses in the Bible. One is thus left with the impression that he uses the Bible itself as source to the background information. In order to do this, he has to treat all the texts as if they were, or could be, true, and applies very little explicit source criticism. At one point Friedman *does* compare a section of the Bible with a contemporary Assyrian source, so as to identify what events are attested to by both sources. I would have much appreciated if this had been done consistently, but perhaps there in fact is very little in the way of other source material of the time. That however also means that the historical exposes have to be treated as tentative.
So in the end this becomes an exercise in finding internal consistencies and inconsistencies in a text, but we are left with few ideas about if the text ever related to anything in the real world.
on 15 June 2015
It has been said about the book's subject matter, that this is the bit where students in seminaries and rabbinical schools literally lose their faith!!! Much is at stake here for all Abrahamic religions whose believers would (or wouldn't they?) expect independently verifiable evidence for the truthfulness of facts -both from Sriptures and academic research. Friedman delivers tradition-bursting critical scholarship scrutinizing the background, relative chronology of and polemical intent behind portions of the Five Books of Moses -that is the Pentateuch, only (the Torah that is, non-Jews might feel a bit short-changed/misled by the title). So who wrote the Torah then? Spoiler alert: Not who Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition made it to be, multiple author-editors instead. Stunning and almost criminal how rabbis, Christian commentators and Islamic scholars could overlook or selectively blank out (genea)logical impossibilities, hair-raising howlers and absurdly simplistic saint/sinner dichotomies (the saints obviously being the Jewish rulers of the day) which haunt this narrative (infidels.org makes for a good starting point for this sort of scrutiny).
That *Moses* (the semantic construct that is, NOT the or one man of flesh and blood) was able to describe his own death should have startled more readers/believers. Over a process of approx. 1,000 years sources and heterogeneous material (miracles, prophesies, genealogies, laws, tales, poems et al) were selected; events were often narrated centuries after they allegedly happened, and re-and re-edited so that the first 5 books of the Bible achieved their relatively fixed, `canonical' form only during the 5th century B.E. David's story, e.g., is again and again reinterpreted to `sell' him as the prototype of the ideal king and, eventually, to stylize him as a Messiah. None of the stories/events (starting from borrowed topoi of Adam and Eve, the Deluge -itself of Mesopotamian origin-, embellished folk tale motives and impossible legendary uber-father figures like *Abraham* or *Moses* (let's not forget that no non-biblical source ever mentioned him) are historically true in the modern sense of the word. Similar archaic prototypes exist in many cultural circles. Nor do often incest- and child-sacrifice-heavy practices (the latter still frequent in the Southern and Northern Kingdom of Israel up until the 7th century BE), problematic morality and jingoist agenda seem to have much to offer in terms of positive social outlook (actually, the beliefs about the origin, nature, and purpose of the world and humanity that were held in the ancient society that held those beliefs seem fundamentally opposed to the views of modern society and thus largely irrelevant to the needs and concerns of contemporary human beings).
Scholars have tried over the millennia to reconcile the contradictions with inherited traditionalist beliefs and Friedman sets out successfully to improve and fine-tune Wellhausen's Documentary Hypothesis (google it -competing one exist too). There are brief sociological overviews of the relevant tribal and sectarian world of the day and the shrine-priest-prophet-judge competition that produced the Hebrew Bible. His very clear, entry-level analysis of authorship applies the principles of historical and textual criticism that were so long subject to suspicion by rabbinic Protestant and Catholic exegetes alike. One marvels at a brain's computational power to piece together splinters of buried evidence amongst layers of scripts and meaning to such a brilliant, convincing and thrilling whodunit study.
In his conclusions Friedman is apologetic to the true believers, trying to restore admiration for the Old Testament as a remarkable piece of literature and unique testimony of artful censorship and religious discourse. As unintended as the disillusioning results of his wrecking job are, the harm has been done as the millennia-old lies, manipulations, blinkered ideologies of the forefathers become all-too obvious. They betray the limited knowledge and consciousness (driven by their existential though ultimately petty clannish squabbles), trying to pass their perceived chosenness off as a divinely *revealed truth* (obviously written in a divinely sanctioned `primordial' language, Hebrew). Upon hearing the Mediterranean Sea being referred to as the `Great Sea' someone left the Synagoge and never believed in the words of the Torah again.
Newer research (Mark S Smith: God in translation, 2008 - worth reading anyway- or the very informative T&T Clark Handbook of the Old Testament, 2012), holds more shocking news: In the sophisticated hermeneutics and ideological contorsions the censor-scribes engaged in, the early patriarchs' recognition of, well, let's call it multiple, subordinate gods (Baals)/(their own and other states' politically powerful/nature divinities (Elohim -the plural!) was not completely successfully censored away (Friedman might have been aware of this in 1987, and it probably makes no difference to the accuracy of the chronology and authorship-claims Friedman establishes. But it will matter to the truth-seeker and interested public that it is rather likely that neither *Abraham* nor *Moses* (or to whichever real-life prophet-kings theses names might have approximated to) were NOT monotheists. The evidence is only fragmentary but Israel's resistance to foreign gods (and herein lies the recognition of other divinities) grew only firm ca 750 B.E. and only found determined, pure expression after ca 540 B.C.E with Deutero-Isaiah's assertions on behalf of Yahweh.
In the Muslim world, the dismantling of the `corrupted' Old and New Testaments' myths was initially -and not without glee- seen as a strengthening justification of Islam ...-but only initially! The Torah is after all considered to be one of the true revealed scriptures in Muslim theology (the Torah was revealed to the prophet *Moses* and he is mentioned more often in the Qur'an than any other individual, and his life is narrated and recounted more than that of any other prophet), and Muslims generally hold that much of the Torah is confirmed and repeated in the Qur'an. However, Critical Bible studies are being extended into the realm of the untouchable Koran (which subscribes to the contradictions-riddled and science-defying 6000 years chronology with legendary Abraham/Ibrihim as the first Muslim and the first monotheist (though, as stated above, it is very likely that early Hebrew prophets and patriarchs paid their homage to a pagan god too -henotheism-, admitting the existence of subordinate divinities). Touching to see the three Abrahamic sister religions' foundation myths being deconstructed one after the other to the secular status of pre-modern, unscientific, allegorical, superstitious, easily dismissible hubristic assertions. How little they really know about their own origins and about the others. But frankly, once you start applying the principles of historical and textual criticism to `sacred' texts, you do not expect to encounter divine manifestations anymore. Conclusion: If you are looking for God's revealed word you can just as well look somewhere else. Great book though!
on 22 November 2011
I was aware of the near-repetitions and discrepancies in the Adam and Eve and Noah stories, but hadn't thought much about them and I wasn't aware that religious scholars had found plenty more dotted around the first four books of the Bible. So I was very surprised to discover that there is a broadly accepted hypothesis to explain all this, the Documentary Hypothesis, which proposes three intertwined writers for these four books, plus another for Deuteronomy and at least one redactor for the whole Pentateuch, who did the intertwining and who also added a few lines. Furthermore, this hypothesis is widely taught in Jewish, Catholic and Protestant seminaries. Why then isn't it taught in confirmation classes? It makes the Old Testament far easier to understand. I suppose it is because it is only a hypothesis. Friedman seems to suggest that it is the only idea in town, but the Wikipedia entry on the Documentary Hypothesis makes it clear that there are various other models. Nevertheless, Friedman presents the hypothesis, and his variant of it, pretty convincingly. An important read for believers and interested sceptics alike.