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From the NEW YORK TIMES, January 23, 1999
Four Proposed Sources for the Pentateuch
by Gustav Niebuhr
"In the traditional interpretation of the Bible, the five books of Moses are exactly that: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, written by Moses at God's command.
What may not be as well known is that during the last two centuries, many Biblical scholars have offered a different type of analysis, concluding that those Biblical books, also known as the Pentateuch, are a compilation of four separate narratives, woven together by ancient editors, or redactors, to create a single text.
"In unscrambling this puzzle, scholars have identified the four narratives by letters−J, E, P, D−each of which represents a key word in the text. (J, for example, is the first letter of the German spelling for the name Yahweh; E comes from Elohim, the Hebrew word for God; P stands for the priestly source, referring to passages concerned with religious law, while D signifies Deuteronomy.)
Now, after a dozen years of research, Richard Elliott Friedman, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at San Diego, has tantalizingly argued that the J narrative is far longer than the three others, and actually extends considerably beyond the five Mosaic books.
The J source, he says, comprises a "hidden book" that is nearly 3,000 years old and that runs from Genesis to the First Book of Kings.
And that makes it, he declares, the world's first book-length prose work.
Reaction of other scholars to Mr. Friedman's theory has been mixed, ranging from praise for his boldness and extensive research to critical doubt that the idea will be widely accepted.
In recent years, the J source alone, which scholars have traditionally viewed as the oldest, has received far more public attention than the E, P or D sources. J has been the subject of several recent popular books, best-known among them "The Book of J," in which the Yale literary scholar Harold Bloom argued that J's author was a woman. One reason, at least, for J's popularity may be that as scholars have broken it out of the overall biblical text it includes some of the most vivid passages of familiar stories, like that of Noah, and it includes material, like the Tower of Babel story, that is not placed by scholars in the other sources.
By linking J with subsequent sections of the Bible, particularly what scholars call the Court History, which tells the story of King David, Mr. Friedman has theorized that the Bible was constructed around an original long narrative, about 3,000 sentences altogether, which runs from the creation of humanity to David's death.
"We know of poetry that is earlier, but this is the oldest prose literature: a long, beautiful, exciting story," he writes in his book, "The Hidden Book in the Bible," recently published by HarperCollins.
Mr. Friedman says the "hidden book" has a theme, if not a single plot. Beginning with Adam and Eve's eating of the fruit in the Garden of Eden, it tells the story of how human beings gain the ability to tell good from bad, and then what they do with it over many generations.
"So you see people making choices of good and bad, and making choices and paying prices and learning from that," he said.
Mr. Friedman's theory is in some sense as much literary detective work as an example of biblical scholarship. In a telephone interview, Mr. Friedman said recurrent words and phrases that appear nowhere else in these sections of the Bible first led him to believe that J extended further than all but a few scholars had previously thought. He titles his 200-page translation of this narrative "In the Day," a phrase taken from the first three words with which the J source begins (in Genesis 2:4).
"I think that's just where the evidence goes," Mr. Friedman said. "I didn't set out looking for common themes. When I first started looking at J and the Court History, it started with language, because that's still the most common thing. It was the language that first sort of mapped where I should be looking."
He said that certain references to deception, phrases like "kindness and faithfulness," references to Sheol, a place of the dead, as well as some other words and phrases occurred only in this text. He also found cases in which words and phrases were repeated sequentially in separate stories in J and the Court History, which he took as another link.
In addition, he said he had found numerous recurring images within the two sections, among them no fewer than seven stories of brothers warring against brothers, with the action taking place in a field, beginning with Cain and Abel.
Mr. Friedman is the author and editor of other books written for a literate lay audience, among them "Who Wrote the Bible?," which describes the process by which J and the other narratives were identified. That book is used as a text in some biblical studies courses.
In his latest book, he said, he implies no criticism of the religious belief of Orthodox Jews and conservative Christians that Moses wrote the five books attributed to him.
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel, a strictly Orthodox organization, said that academic "higher criticism" of the Bible was predicated on a different set of assumptions about the text than those held by people who believe the text was divinely given to Moses. "We're talking from totally different premises, so it's not really an argument," he said.
Other scholars offered mixed assessments of the Friedman theory.
Alan Cooper, professor of Bible who holds a joint appointment at Jewish Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary in New York, said he doubted whether many experts would accept Mr. Friedman's theory that there is a single, long-running narrative in the Bible. "But I do think people will have to take his evidence very seriously," Mr. Cooper added, saying that biblical scholars would have to study the data Mr. Friedman had assembled.
Ziony Zevit, professor of Bible at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, said he did not think the similarities that Mr. Friedman found pointed to a single narrative. Still, he called Mr. Friedman's translation of the biblical books that make up his proposed narrative "a tour de force."
Mr. Friedman attributes the single narrative to a "literary artist," probably a lay person (possibly female), writing about 28 centuries ago.
"Maybe this was the person who came along with the instincts of the historian, to tell a long saga, to tell it all," he said in the interview. He added that the cultural conditions made a historical narrative possible because the ancient Israelites, with their belief that God existed outside nature, possessed a linear view of history.
"God meets Moses at the bush and says, 'I'm the God of your father,' " he said. "It's only in a model like that you'd start writing history. The pagan world didn't write like that."
In ''Surpassing Wonder,'' Donald Harman Akenson, a professor of Irish history, makes a stunning case that the first nine books of the Bible should be seen as a unit and the work of an ancient historian compiler.
...the great inventor was an historian, and how else do historians work, but by being the magpies of the intellectual world? Yet, the minute one mentions "sources," a great buzzing occurs, as if a nest of wasps were about to swarm. One has to ignore part of this swarm, the group with which there is no negotiation whatsoever: the Ultra-Orthodox Jews and their Christian counterparts, the more extreme evangelicals and their phalanx of Berserker Right outriders, the Christian fundamentalists, and especially the cadre known as "Dispensationalists." If one takes the view of various Haredi sects, the question of sources is irrelevant as they believe that the first five books of the Bible are not merely named the Books of Moses, but were actually written by his hand. That does away with any problem of sources, although it does leave the inconvenient issue of how, at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses was accurately able to report in the past tense the details of his own death. The other books of the Bible are held each to be a composition of a single person, their integrity being a function, in part, of each book's being integral to itself. No source problems, therefore. When one turns to the Christian equivalent of these beliefs, those of the keener evangelicals and fundamentalists, one finds that the source issue also disappears in this instance because of the belief in the "verbal inerrancy" of the scriptures. The Almighty dictated them to "holy men of old." (That this is roughly the same method of composition postulated for the Koran is not a point the Christian Right is disposed to dwell on.) Within the belief systems of many Orthodox and most evangelicals (and of all of the Ultra-Orthodox and a lot of the Christian Fundamentalists), to suggest, however tactfully one might do so, that the scriptures are a collection of pieces that originally were not found in their present packaging, is to invite instant denunciation. This is particularly difficult to deal with because the evangelicals, and most especially the "Dispensationalists," rearrange the Bible pretty much according to their own whim. The situation is well summarized by Jon Butler:
This sort of thing cannot be fought, so it is best ignored.