Several weeks ago, future_geek left a comment recommending the book "Who Wrote the Bible" by Richard Friedman. I had heard of the book several times, but never read it. Unlike two other books that I would like to read, this one was in our local public library. I actually finished on Tuesday, but in the flurry of posts exchanged with Ernie and other things I had been putting off, I (obviously) have not gotten around to mentioning it here until now.
Despite the title, the book does not deal with the authorship of the entire Bible, or even the entire Old Testament. It deals almost entirely with Genesis through II Chronicles. Specifically, it describes what is known as the "documentary hypothesis" (DH), which has its roots in the eighteenth century and which has progressed substantially since then. Initially, the DH proposed that two different authors were responsible for the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch) that were traditionally ascribed to Moses. These authors were labeled J and E for reasons that I will mention shortly. Later, three additional authors and editors have been identified: P, D and R. None of these are thought to be Moses or even any near contemporary.
How were these individuals identified (if not by name, then by letter)? Why should this hypothesis be preferred over the traditional ascription to Moses? Some of the evidence is not entirely direct, and some of the details are still contraversial, but on the whole I think the case for the major points is very strong.
Mosaic authorship was being questioned by the third century CE. Through the centuries, a number of factors inconsistent with Mosaic authorship were identified. The most obvious is that the Pentateuch contains the account of Moses' death. That of course could be presumed to have been added by someone else, while the bulk was still written by Moses. But there are several anachronisms, like the list of Edomite kings in Genesis 36 that contains people who lived long after Moses, cities in Canaan identified by names that were not given until they were conquered by the Israelites, and more. Again, one can postulate that these were added by later scribes.
The major impetus for the initial J and E identifications was the large number of "doublets" in the Pentateuch. A doublet occurs when the same story is told twice, or two very similar stories are present. Friedman gives these examples:
There are two different stories of the creation of the world. There are two stories of the covenant between God and the patriarch Abraham, two stories of the naming of Abraham's son Isaac, two stories of Abraham's claiming to a foreign king that his wife Sara is his sister, two stories of Isaac's son Jacob making a journey to Mesopotamia, two stories of a reveloation to Jacob at Beth-El, two stories of God's changing Jacob's name to Israel two stories ofMoses' getting from a rock at a place called Meribah, and more.
So what? Well, as it turns out, in each doublet one of the versions refers to God as Yahweh and in the other he is referred to as Elohim (at least up to the point where Elohim reveals his name to Moses as being Yahweh). Thus the two authors were labeled J (from the German spelling of Yahweh) and E. That was about the extent of my knowledge of the documentary hypothesis prior to reading this book. But the story is far richer than that.
J and E have very different pictures of God: Yahweh is more personal, more anthropomorphic, while Elohim is more distant, more "cosmic". Beyond the name of God, they have other consistent differences in terminology. J appears to be from Judah (the southern kingdom), builds up Aaron and diminishes Moses. E appears to be from Israel (the northern kingdom), builds up Moses and diminishes Aaron. E likes Joshua; J hardly mentions him. J mentions Edom, which bordered Judah, but not Israel; E does not. E is critical of Solomon; Solomon favored the southern priests because they helped him secure the throne. These are just some examples of themes that are consistently found together.
Apparently, J and E were combined into one text (JE), probably after Israel fell to the Assyrians and refugees fled south to Judah. Chronologically, P would come next, then D. P is for Priest, and he would have written most of Leviticus and much of Numbers, as well as I and II Chronicles. D is the Deuteronomist, and as you might therefore guess, he is thought to have written Deuteronomy, as well as Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel and I and II Kings, seven books in all. (Genesis and Exodus are hodgepodges of E, J, P and D.) D saw Josiah as the best king since David; P favors Hezekiah. D's lineage was from the north (like E); P's from the south (like J). P stresses the importance of the Tabernacle; E barely mentions it, J and D not at all. Again, those are just some of the themes that run through the separated pieces.
Finally, proponents of the documentary hypothesis propose someone called R, the "redactor", the man who combined JE, P and D into one semi-coherent text.
Clearly I have skipped over a vast amount of detail from the book, and the book is itself only a moderately detailed elaboration of the background and argument for the documentary hypothesis. I highly recommend the book, which is quite readable and not really that long.
J, E, P and D (and even R) bring unique points of view to their writings, but they share some common characteristics as well. In particular, each appears to be promoting the interests of one group of priests or another, operating within the constraints of tradition and the socio-political environment where each lived. While not at all conclusive, this is at least highly consistent with the idea that these parts of the Bible are human constructions and not inspired. Liberal Christians would not have a problem with this state of affairs, I imagine, but for those of a more conservative bent, it might be more difficult to accomodate.