Is it possible to figure out how the Hebrew Bible was written, by whom, and when? Those who study the text for a living would say “yes”. Among them is Richard Elliot Friedman, in his 1987 book “Who Wrote the Bible?”[i] (updated in 2019). In it, Friedman makes an absolutely fascinating and substantially believable case for the origins and authorship of the Hebrew Bible. In this note, we’ll try to outline his major findings and summarize some of the textual data and analytical reasoning he uses to come to his conclusions. And, as we have done previously, we will ask how his findings should be received by people of faith.
Biblical Textual Criticism Background
Friedman comes from the genre of biblical scholars known as text (or source) critics. Their stock–in–trade is analyzing the biblical text itself – the words it features (and their spellings), key phrases that occur (perhaps in completely separate books of the Bible), and what we know of the historical context of the text, and little else.
The book opens by recounting the history of biblical textual criticism, extending back to the 11th century, gaining legitimacy during the Enlightenment, and gaining broad acceptance (at least among scholars and theologians[ii]) in the 19th century when Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) published “Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels” (i.e. A Critical Introduction on the History of Israel).
In his book, Wellhausen presented several controversial positions. But the one of interest to Friedman is what came to be called the “Documentary Hypothesis” – the idea that there can be seen four different authors (or “schools” of authors) when examining the Pentateuch (the Bible’s first five books) that Wellhausen labeled “J” (for the Jahwehist), “E” (for Elohist), “D” (for the Deuteronomist) and “P” (for the Priestly author), based on the language each used and the subject matter they each addressed. This conclusion emerged as the one that best explained the textual data.
It is interesting that, while the Documentary Hypothesis was nearly universally accepted throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, it has come under recent criticism from yet another group of European biblical critics[iii], to the extent that it is common today to find articles online proclaiming its demise (as well as its defense). Friedman’s principal objective in his book is the identification of the authorship and timing of the various sources found in the Pentateuch. Nevertheless, he has of late found it necessary to come to the defense of the Documentary Hypothesis itself, as in this piece. (If you want to see a short example of pulling the different sources apart in what amounts to an otherwise unified narrative, have a look at Dennis Brutcher’s article from the Christian Research Institute.)
The Jahwehist and the Elohist
Friedman contends that the Pentateuch started its development as two different narratives of Israel’s history written by two different authors (or authorship schools). Wellhausen documented each authors’ contribution by noting how they referred to God – either YHWH in the case of “J” (rendered LORD or “the LORD” in English bibles) or as Elohim (singular Eloah) (rendered “God” in English bibles). The graphic in Figure 2 depicts the passages of the first four Pentateuchal books that are identified with each of J, E, P, and R (a later redactor/editor).
The signatures of these authors aren’t limited to the name they use for God (even “E” occasionally uses YHWH, and “P” also uses Elohim). They are self-consistent in style, vocabulary, and importantly, the distinctive viewpoints of their stories.
As Friedman makes clear through the use of countless examples of textual data, it is quite clear that the J author was a southerner, one from the kingdom of Judea, and one less impressed than his “E” counterpart with Moses. J writes about Hebron, David’s initial capital, and Jerusalem.
The E author (actually there are at least two) was a northerner, from the kingdom of Israel (and likely the tribe of Ephraim), one with ties back to Shiloh and its priests of the Tabernacle, and one committed to the preeminence of Moses in his history. E writes about places in the north – Shechem, Penuel, and particularly Beth-El, all northern towns, with Shechem being its capital.
E writes about the tribes of the north. J writes about Judah. E has Jacob’s birthright being conveyed to Joseph’s sons (whom Jacob had adopted) Ephraim and Manasseh (northern tribes). J has Jacob’s birthright being given to Judah (after dispensing with his brothers that preceded him in birth order; Reuben, Simion, and Levi).
The Politics of North and South
Remember, before the united monarchy, the tribes were governed by tribal judges. The people demanded of Samuel that they be given a king. The result was that Saul, of Gibeah in the (southern) tribe of Benjamin, was appointed. When Saul is killed, his son Ish-bosheth gets the throne for two years before David takes over and establishes his capital at Hebron in the south of Judah. Upon his death, he bequeaths the throne to his son Solomon.
Now Solomon didn’t make any friends among the northern tribes as he taxed them and required a month of their labor per year to support his building projects in Jerusalem (1 Ki 5:13), amassing huge sums of gold and silver [Dt 17:17]. Nor did his polygamy and provision for the worship of the foreign gods of his wives endear him to the peoples’ Levitical priests of the old Shiloh branch (“E’s” ancestors). And finally, Solomon forced out the co-high priest, Abiathar (of the Shiloh branch – [1 Kings 2:26 – 27]), in favor of Zadok, a descendant of Aaron. (This will be important later.)
This political unrest precipitates the split between the northern and southern tribes. Following Solomon, Rehoboam, his son, becomes king in the south (Judah), while Jeroboam becomes king of the north (Israel).
On paper, this split should have enabled the displaced Levitical line of Shiloh priests to regain their status and role within the northern kingdom of Israel. Unfortunately for them, Jeroboam appoints new priests to administer his various worship sites at Dan, Beth-El (homes of his molten calves), and other high-place altars (e.g. Mt Gerizim, etc.)
According to Friedman, while “E” favored Jeroboam as his tribe’s ruler, over the southern king, his inclusion in Ex 32 of the molten calf story is his attempt to denigrate and tie Jeroboam’s calves in the north to the ancient apostasy of the Israelites fleeing Egypt. It’s a kind of pious painting of Israel’s history that explains what’s going on in “E”’s day in the northern kingdom – i.e. “they’ve always rejected Moses and his Torah”. And in telling his version of the story, “E” takes the opportunity to note the founder of the Judahite Aaronid priesthood himself, Aaron’s, complicity in the incident as another textual protest[iv] against the Aaronid priesthood’s control.
“E”’s priestly line is out of luck. And while we find him writing in some cases favorably of Jeroboam (in part, perhaps, because he too is an Ephraimite), we also see him attack the idea of molten calves, both in the Sinai story (and Aaron’s role in it), and God’s flat out prohibition of it in Ex 34:17.
Later, of course, one or more truly brilliant redactors (“R”) took the histories written by J and E, cut them into sections having to do with the same historical events (down to the verse/statement level), and masterfully spliced them together with transitional phrases where necessary into a merged history, “JE”.
This is precisely the reason, Friedman makes clear, that we read multiple versions of a given story. For example, Genesis 6:5-8:22 describes the Flood story. But it is actually two separate, comingled stories (one in which the flood lasts 40 days and one lasting 150). There are two versions of God’s covenant with Abraham, two names for Moses’ holy mountain, two versions of who physically produced the tablets containing the “Ten Words”, etc., etc.
Why did the redactor retain these competing versions of the historical narratives (“doublets”) rather than pick one? Because his job wasn’t to “pick” a version of Israel’s history. His job was to faithfully portray both/all of them to take maximum advantage of their value in explaining the reality the author experienced at the time he wrote. Thank God that’s the way he did his job. But, this wasn’t to be the only source of “doublets” and contractions, as we will see.
To Friedman, the Deuteronomist is at least two authors. The product of the first author (that he designates DTR1) is not the Deuteronomic history, per se. Rather the editor of DTR1 is a priest with a particular reverence for King Josiah of Judah. What? How does he get that? To see, we’ll have to unpack his argument in a series of (admittedly oversimplified) bullet points.
The Pentateuch in conjunction with the books of the Deuteronomic History contains a subtle back story exposed by Friedman that is crucially important to understanding the Hebrew Bible, if true.
As Friedman explains (which we can only briefly summarize here), the “E” record of Israel’s early history, as noted above, reflects the viewpoint of its school’s background as priests whose heritage traces back to their role in the tabernacle at Shiloh (e.g. 1 Sam 1:3) in early, pre-monarchic Israel. The Deuteronomist (“D”) shared this heritage.
The key traits and history of this school, according to Friedman, include the following:
- These Shiloh priests were devoted to Moses and his “book of the law”.
- They may, in fact, have considered themselves descendants of Moses (so-called “Mushites”).
- The destination of Abiathar’s banishment by Solomon was Anatoth, interestingly just marginally within the southern kingdom, in the “land of Benjamin”.
- Later, we find the prophet Jeremiah (in the time of king Josiah – 622 BC) proclaiming his prophecy (Je 1:1)
“The words of Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, one of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin,”
So here is established the connection between Jeremiah and the priests of Anatoth, those descended from Abiathar, who himself came from the Levitical sect at Shiloh. Note that for whatever reason, at this point in Israel’s history near the end of the monarchy, a descendant of the Shiloh priests, Hilkiah, is the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem! How Hilkiah attained his position and status over the Aaronid priests in Jerusalem the Bible doesn’t tell us.
- Jeremiah was a prophet (and a priest) in Jerusalem during the reign of king Josiah, and of Josiah’s sons (626 – 587 BC). The book of Kings tells us that it was Hilkiah who “finds” Moses’ book of the Torah in the Temple and subsequently presented it, via Shapan, to Josiah (2 Ki 22:8).
- “D”’s telling of Israel’s history venerates Moses. He echoes Moses’ distinctive phrase “You shall love the LORD your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your everything” throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and 1 Samuel. (Interestingly, we also hear this phrase echoed in the book of Jeremiah, as well as concern for “the sojourner, the fatherless and the widow”, a thoroughly Mosaic/Deuteronomic phrase.)
- The DTR1 author clearly portrays King Josiah as the pinnacle of the Kings of Israel/Judah. Of Josiah, he writes: 2 Kings 22:2
 And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.
In other words, everything he did was good. Josiah’s reign ended with his death at Meggido in 610/609 BC.
Friedman explains an interesting feature of the DTR1 material concerning its conflicting references to God’s promise of an “everlasting” throne of David – the so-called Davidic Covenant. In some, the promise seems unconditional (e.g. 2 Sam 7:14) in that even if the Davidic king sins, God will sustain him. In others (e.g. 1 Ki 8:25) they explicitly make the covenant contingent: “to walk before me as you (David) have walked before me”. Solomon didn’t toe that line, and the result was his loss of the northern kingdom. So yes, he still had a “throne” (which might turn out to be everlasting), it just wasn’t (as the conditional verses all reference) the “throne of Israel”. He and all of his successors in the Davidic line only had Judah. Friedman sees this textual distinction as the author’s way of fitting the monarchy’s actual history to that point (following the north-south split) into the text.
Friedman sums up the thinking and work of the DTR1 author this way:
The Deuteronomic historian developed other matters in the books of Kings besides the Davidic covenant. At several junctures he identified Jerusalem and its Temple as the “place where Yahweh causes his name to dwell” – which is to say, he used the language of Deuteronomy’s law code. In the law code the expression “the place where Yahweh causes his name to dwell” refers to one central place where all sacrifice is supposed to take place. The Deuteronomistic historian made it clear that the Temple in Jerusalem had become that place. He also added more references to the torah.
And so he shaped his history of his people around the themes of (1) fidelity to Yahweh, (2) the Davidic covenant, (3) the centralization of religion at the Temple in Jerusalem, and (4) the torah. And then he interpreted the major events of history in light of these factors. Why did the kingdom split? Because Solomon had forsaken Yahweh and his torah. Why did David’s descendants retain Jerusalem and Judah? Because God had made an unconditional covenant promise to David. Why did the northern kingdom of Israel fall? Because the people and their kings did not follow the torah. Why was there hope for the future? Because the torah had been rediscovered under Josiah and now it would be fulfilled as never before. All of the Deuteronomist’s major themes – fidelity, torah, centralization, Davidic covenant – culminated in Josiah.
And then Josiah died from an Egyptian arrow.”
Twenty-two or –three years later, Judah is exiled and destroyed. This cataclysm put some of the Deuteronomic History (DH) at risk of misrepresenting Israel’s history and destiny. So by the time of the exile, two editorial tasks were needed on the DH:
- Complete the pre-exile Judahite history (DTR2), and
- Explain why Israel, the enterprise sponsored by YHWH, had failed.
Friedman explains in generality what his method was for finding the DTR2 edits to the DTR1 historical narrative, noting:
“In order to identify a line as a DTR2 insertion, it was necessary to find converging lines of evidence, such as grammar, theme, and terminology, all pointing in the same direction. Just because a passage predicted an exile, that did not mean that one could conclude that it had been inserted by the exiled writer to explain his current situation…But if a passage that predicted exile also broke the context in which it appeared, and there was a shift in grammar, and it used phrases that only appeared in other suspected passages, then the converging evidence was strong.”
He then goes on to identify some of the textual cases (“insertions”) this method found. Friedman says the author had first to introduce the prospect of exile itself, identifying Dt 4:26, Josh 23:16, Dt 4:27, Dt 28:36,63-64, Dt 30:18, and 1 Ki 9:7 as verses establishing the concept of exile as a conditional outcome for Israel.
Next, the author had to explain what behaviors by Israel might result in God’s judgment of exile from the land. Paramount among these was the violation of God’s first (no matter which version of the Ten) commandment that “You shall have no other gods before me”. A key passage Friedman concludes is a DTR2 insertion is Dt 31:16-18, God’s last prophecy to Moses. Of course, there are other warnings from God about the penalties for apostasy in the DTR1 history. Dt 27, for example, contains a list of cursed behaviors God (through the author of DTR1) warned Israel to avoid. But, according to Friedman, until the amendments made in DTR2, the complete eradication of Israel from its promised land wasn’t one of them.
Then, says Friedman, the exilic author needed to explain why it was that even after all of the reforms that Josiah carried out; destroying all the high places of pagan worship, public reading of Moses’ torah, removing and destroying all of the pagan images and artifacts from the Temple, reinstating central worship/sacrifice at the Temple, etc., that nevertheless Judah was destroyed and exiled.
He finds evidence that the exile author pointed his quill at Manasseh, claiming that his atrocities were so evil that even Josiah’s reformation couldn’t redeem Israel from them.
And so we have several instances of insertions singling out Manasseh in this way, for example, in 2 Ki 23:25-16 (speaking initially of Josiah):
 Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him.  Still the LORD did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him.
He also had to explain how it was that the seemingly unconditional Davidic covenant had been broken. The way the exile author framed the issue was as an outcome that was collateral damage resulting from Israel’s failure to uphold the Mosaic covenant. The people were the cause. No one would judge Israel’s God and His promise as failed if they could see it was they that failed, bringing the entire arrangement to an end.
There were other details to amend, things such as referring to the Temple without claiming its “forever” quality, etc. It’s again fascinating to me that the exilic author didn’t delete statements in DTR1 making such claims. He simply inserted other sentences where the Temple lacked this attribute, perhaps wrapped in some conditionality. And, importantly, he wrote of the mercy of their compassionate and forgiving LORD, leaving open the hope of a future return and restoration (a kind of future Creation event).
Who Wrote the Deuteronomic History?
So who did all of this masterful work of crafting this narration of Israel’s history? Friedman concludes that, because of the extreme skill demonstrated by the exilic author of DTR2 in integrating his material within DTR1, making it nearly indiscernible from the original, it was extremely unlikely that an editor different than the author of the original material could have done it. So he concludes the same person(s) wrote both pre- and post-exilic contributions to the history. And, he speculates (because of stylistic, grammatical, and thematic similarities, some of which we noted above), it was the author of the book of Jeremiah – specifically the team of Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch[v].
Jeremiah and Baruch both emigrated to Egypt following the Judean destruction, which is where they would have created the final version incorporating the DTR2 material, and very likely the book of Jeremiah as well.
The Priestly Writings — “P”.
Friedman’s exploration into the author of the “P” writings is a bit more involved than his previous analyses. He starts with the question of when “P” was written, noting that much conventional early scholarship concluded that it was post-exilic, i.e. the second Temple period. The post-exilic “P” scholars came to their conclusion in part by noting that the Prophets never quote “P” material. To them, this meant it wasn’t available to them, i.e. it hadn’t been written when the Prophets were writing.
Friedman, who once thought the same, now thinks they’re wrong.
His case centers on the Tabernacle and the descriptions of it in the “P” material.
The case for the Priestly descriptions of the Tabernacle, this theory goes, is that the proposed late, second Temple “P” author(s) had a problem. They wanted a law code that enshrined the priesthood concerning Temple sacrifice (following Judah’s return), but that law would need some basis for its authority. So they invented the Tabernacle as God’s implementation of a Temple and its priestly sacrificial cult under Moses and Aaron. Instant credibility, and authority.
But Friedman doesn’t think “P” invented the Tabernacle. Through an elaborate reassessment of its dimensions, and extensive textual evidence, some of it in very early Psalms, he develops his position that “P” is “early”, meaning pre-exile – the first Temple period. He gives examples that the prophets (particularly Jeremiah and Ezekiel) do refer to the “P” material, implying it had to pre-date their writings. He also cites recent linguistics studies that conclude that “P”’s text was written in a style characteristic of Hebrew before the exile (so-called “Standard Biblical Hebrew”, or SBH, as opposed to LBH — Late Biblical Hebrew). And, he finds, “P” doesn’t take central worship for granted (as was alleged by earlier scholars who dated it post-exile, and partly for this very reason.)
We have in Leviticus, for example, Lev 1:3, 10-11, 15, 2:2, 8, 3:2, etc., etc. all of which command sacrifices to be brought to or offered up by the Priests. Perhaps the most significant of these admonitions to restrict sacrifices to the Tabernacle/Temple is Leviticus 17:1-4
[17:1] And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,  “Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them, This is the thing that the LORD has commanded.  If any one of the house of Israel kills an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or kills it outside the camp,  and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it as a gift to the LORD in front of the tabernacle of the LORD, bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man. He has shed blood, and that man shall be cut off from among his people.
Leviticus 17:8-9 follows, saying:
 “And you shall say to them, Any one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who sojourn among them, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice  and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting to offer it to the LORD, that man shall be cut off from his people.
The author(s) of these words aren’t assuming everybody knows to bring their offerings to the Temple. In fact, it threatens expulsion from Israel for not doing so. So Friedman’s case of an early (pre-second Temple) “P” seems sound (despite the fact that the Deuteronomic History conclusively documents its ineffectiveness, starting with Solomon).
Who Wrote “P”?
After concluding the pre- Vs post-exilic timing for the core of the “P” corpus in favor of “pre-“, Friedman next takes up the question: ‘who was the “P” author or authors?’. Of course, since the Bible doesn’t tell us, the question he’s actually asking is: “ Who does the evidence point to, and why do I think that’s him?”
To find the author of “P”, Friedman examines his themes and worldview, noting he is preeminently concerned with centralizing all sacrificial worship, ostensibly at the Temple in Jerusalem. Who else in history shared this goal? King Hezekiah, who instituted reforms following the profaning of the Temple by his father, King Ahaz. Hezekiah reigned before the 722 BC Assyrian destruction of Israel. And the priests that served in the Temple under Hezekiah were Aaronids. In 2 Kings 18:4, speaking of Hezekiah, we read:
 He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).
Other concerns of “P” included preserving in his story the covenants made with the fathers, particularly Abraham. They were unsurprisingly interested in promoting the laws they administered, and featuring in their narrative the Fathers’ offerings of sacrifice to YHWH (Cain, Noah, Abraham). He was uninterested/averse to JE’s ideas of angels, dreams (like Joseph’s that they omit in their narrative), talking animals, and the use of anthropomorphisms to describe God as in JE.
But he championed the role of Aaron in the narrative. Where JE had “And God said to Moses” “P” writes “And God said to Moses and Aaron”, nearly universally. And he was partial to stories involving Hebron, such as that of Abraham buying a cave there (not found in JE), that had become the home base of the Aaronid priesthood, further tieing them to “Father Abraham”. And, perhaps most controversially, he was not a big fan of Moses. Why? We may suppose because Moses in the JE and D material didn’t single out or promote Aaron, the “P” author’s ancestor. Moses in D says all Levites are priests. He doesn’t distinguish. In “P” the author clearly and repeatedly claims priests can only be sons of Aaron, and they are the supervisors of the non-Aaronid Levites.
The “P” author’s Sinai history (in Numbers 16) includes his version of the “rebellion” which he links to a Levite named Korah, who complains that Moses and Aaron are usurping the authority given to the Levites by God (see Num 8:18). The JE history doesn’t mention a Korah here. The “P” history has a challenge involving 250 members of the supposedly rebelling Levites to light incense burners, along with Aaron (who is absent from the JE story) in the Tent of Meeting to prove who is holy and who isn’t. The basis here was that it was ritually forbidden for anyone other than a true priest to light an incense burner, an offense punishable by death.
So in “P” the 250 Levites of Korah’s camp are consumed by Yahweh’s fire, while in JE the earth swallows the two who grumbled against Moses, Dathan, and Abiram who weren’t even Levites but Rubenites according to the JE story.
Friedman draws out many other details of things added in “P” and omitted from “P” in addition to identifying points where the stories are essentially the same all of which help us “get inside the head” of its author. But the examples listed above hit the highlights: “P” was; committed to all sacrificial worship only at the Temple; a Judahite, likely from Hebron; cautious of any promotion of Moses (despite his position as something like Israel’s George Washington) because the entirety of the Levites are identified as priests under Moses’ leadership in JE & D.
The last observation I’ll echo on “P”’s viewpoint is one Friedman brings out: the kind of God the author of “P” presents is focused on His holiness, purity, and righteousness such that only holy Priests can mediate between the unholy people and their Holy God. While JE emphasizes God’s mercy, faithfulness, justice, and forgiveness, “P” doesn’t mention the words “mercy”, “grace”, “faithfulness” or “repent” once. Why? Seemingly because “P”’s point of view is that only select, holy priests can administer the Temple’s offerings to mediate between the people and YHWH to preserve the people’s right-standing – their ability to stay “in the camp” with their God and to keep the presence of the people’s potential impurity away from God.
The character of these two conceptions of God couldn’t be more different; one far more personal, approachable, and forgiving; the other separated from His children who, as a result, required intermediaries to act on their behalf. “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your ‘everything’” seems a long way off in “P”.
Friedman concludes “P” was written in the time of Hezekiah. In addition to his reasoning already cited, he notes that Hezekiah and the Aaronid priesthood were “tight”. Friedman notes that, according to the Aaronids, Aaron was married to the sister of the prince of Judah, David’s ancestor, thereby establishing a familial connection between the priesthood and the royal house and its son, Hezekiah. The priestly author was, in Friedman’s thinking, an Aaronid priest during Hezekiah’s reign. But he finds it impossible to name him specifically.
Putting the Pentateuch Together
The last portion of Friedman’s book speculates on how, by whom, and why the Pentateuch took its final form. We won’t spend much time here. But some of his insights are profound.
First, who put the individual histories together to form the five books of the Pentateuch? Friedman says the textual evidence is that it was a priest in the time of the second Temple, all of whom by then were Aaronid, who had the status to allow him to do that work.
Friedman speculates that it was Ezra, who was not only an Aaronid Priest but had attained the status of “lawgiver” (Ezra 7:25), the same as Moses. The answers to “How” and “Why” are related.
By Ezra’s time, the people were familiar with the stories from each of the JEPD contributors. They were distinct histories. So despite his “P” pedigree, he could hardly leave out one of these other now-well-known sources in favor of “P”. Plus at Ezra’s time, the popular conception of the “Torah” is that it was written – all of it – by Moses. So he had to come up with an integration of the four sources that read as if they were from a single author, rather than present four different but parallel narratives.
Friedman then goes on to identify what this redactor’s methods were in producing his integrated whole, and comments regarding him (assumedly Ezra):
“The redactor was as much an artist, in his own way, as the authors of J, E, P, and D were in theirs. His contribution was certainly as significant as theirs. His task was not merely difficult, it was creative. It called for wisdom and literary sensitivity at each step, as well as skill that is no less an art than storytelling. In the end, he was the one who created the work that we have read all these years. He assembled the final form of the stories and laws that, in thousands of ways, have influenced millions.”
The fact that these millions can simply hold it in their hands today may be evidence of God’s sponsorship of the enterprise. Think, for a moment. How many 2,500-year-old scrolls are sitting on virtually everyone’s bookshelf? It’s honestly quite miraculous.
Reflections on All This: How Should We Think About the Hebrew Bible?
I recently wrote a piece, Wrestling With the Origins of the Pentateuch, in which I merely observed several then-puzzling issues for me in interpreting the sometimes duplicated, sometimes conflicting narratives in the Pentateuch. Turns out they’re there in the broader Hebrew Bible as well, as can be seen in the overlapping stories of Kings (“D”) and Chronicles (by an author in the same camp as “P”’s).
I was particularly troubled by the following issues:
- Who decided that only descendants of Aaron could serve as priests after God set apart the whole tribe of Levi to serve Him? It didn’t appear that God did, as the Bible didn’t say.
- Who told Cain what a burnt offering was 4,000 years before it was defined? Who told Noah which animals were clean and which weren’t 1,000 years before they were defined? Again, it didn’t appear from the text that God did.
- Where did the ancients get the idea that God wanted to live in a cubic room in the back of a tent, and later a Cedar house? Apparently, not from God (2 Sam 7:4-7).
- How was it possible that the Israelites so thoroughly ignored God’s commands to them for how to live – particularly to love and worship Him alone?
Through the insights in this book, some of those issues have been cleared up.
Also, as a Christian, after writing the former piece, I felt more than a little discomfort at having those questions. After all, I’m one of those people that believes that God saw to the writing of “His Word”.
This book has helped relieve that discomfort. You see, once you see the construction of the Hebrew Bible, in my case at least, you are even more in awe of God’s hand in producing it.
I now have a view of the process of the writing of the Bible as one founded on a history passed down initially orally from generation to generation. Perhaps there were some stories written very early on once Israel left Egypt. But whether oral or written, they weren’t written as a complete history until Israel was in the land.
And then different authors, with different viewpoints, at somewhat different times, began writing down that history from their perspective up to their point in time.
Finally, well into their post-exilic phase, someone decided to integrate them into one overarching story – the five books and the DH, by including substantially all of what each of the JEPD authors thought was simply their version of the history from their viewpoint – a freestanding anthology. The redactors who combined these separate histories into one amalgam were geniuses in their own right, no doubt intensively guided in their work by God.
So where was God in this overall process? As far as I can tell, He was there every step of the way, from ensuring that the oral history was transmitted, to the last redaction. The story he wanted to tell got told. The apostasy and waywardness of the people, His mercy and forgiveness, His desire for their exclusive love and faithfulness, their rejection of Him and His commandments, His discipline of them through exile, and His mercy again in restoring the remnant to the land to await their Messiah, of whom they had only the dimmest view.
Once you have seen the different threads within the overarching narrative, you can’t unsee them. You know what you’re reading and why it’s there and from whom it came – the world he lived in, the worldview he held, his view of his LORD. And just to ensure total transparency, you’ve then got the Prophets toward the end of the JEPD production excoriating some of the branches of that history where it deviated from God’s will for His children.
Perhaps, if you’re a die-hard traditionalist and simply refuse to accept that the Bible is anything other than God’s unilaterally directed, and faithfully transcribed words, an analogy will help.
In bringing about His plan for the blessing of the nations God elected to use Israel, an unruly, noisy, unfaithful, and apostate people — for 1400 years. Did He succeed? Yes, He did, with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In bringing about His plan for recording the history of these unruly people such that His desires for humanity would be captured for the humanity yet to come, He elected to use different authors who unashamedly disagreed with one another on many points of Israel’s history, and sought to promote their own view of that history. Did He succeed? Yes, He did. There is probably more than one copy on your own bookshelf that tells the story (and its sub-stories) perfectly.
In its beauty, it makes perfect sense. It is exactly the record of God’s interaction with His flawed people that one would expect in order to perceive how to love and serve Him, and how not to.
[i] Friedman, Richard. Who wrote the Bible?. Simon and Schuster, 2019.
[ii] It should be noted that the vast majority of rank-and-file Christians and their pastors remain resistant to the conclusions of Biblical textual critics to this day as critics’ conclusions violate the deeply held, but unexamined, convictions of these Christians. The same is true of Orthodox Jews.
[iii] European scholars date the authorship of the Pentateuch as post-exilic, and don’t find the same authorial continuity as the Documentary Hypothesis proponents.
[iv] I’ve written a bit more on this Aaronid priesthood “controversy” here.
[v] Friedman notes that a bulla containing the inscription “(Belonging to) Berakhyau son of Neriyahu the scribe” was found in Jerusalem that in all probability served as Baruch’s signature on the scrolls he produced. (Actually two now have been found).