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Customer Review

28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Eloquent popularization marred by some special pleading, 23 Mar. 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Who Wrote the Bible? (Paperback)
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.
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Initial post: 24 Feb 2013 12:29:55 GMT
Nice review, carefully argued. I suspect that Friedman is a bit of an over-simplifier, if only because I find his account so thrilling and convincing that it can't really be as good as I think! However, I do think your particular critique of his reasoning is perhaps a bit harsh given that he provides a number of reasons for the origins of the E text, not just the particular episode you pick out.
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