2016-06-30
Richard Elliott Friedman is a leading proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis, which maintains that the the biblical texts traditionally known as the Five Books of Moses are actually the synthesis of many different sources from different time periods. The conclusions drawn in his earlier bestseller "Who Wrote the Bible?" are the basis for his new work, a translation of the Bible's first five books which uses color coding to separate different sources.

In your introduction, you say your work--identifying and separating the different authors of the first five books of the Bible--is not meant to produce faith crises. Obviously, there are people out there with a strong belief about the author of the Bible. What's the role of divine inspiration here?

Some of the earliest Bible scholars who questioned who the authors were said, "Well, it wasn't all one person, it wasn't Moses who wrote the first five books"-even they were pious rabbis, priests, or ministers. Their answer was, "OK, it wasn't Moses who wrote it down, it was other people, but it still came from God." Today, there are religious Jews and Christians who take that same view: it could still be of a divine origin. But for others, this is a troubling and unacceptable point of view. They stand by the tradition that it was dictated to Moses by God at Sinai. So, yes, for them this is difficult. My purpose is to put the evidence in front of everyone so they can argue for it or against it. The purpose is not to hurt. People imagine I'm attacked all the time by fundamentalist Christians and orthodox Jews, but in fact I'm not. We disagree respectfully. Your new book, The Bible with Sources Revealed, talks about the different authors of the first five books of the Bible. Who are these authors?

The largest main sources are the J and E texts, called that because among the many differences between them, each one has a different idea about when the name of God, Yahweh, became known to humankind. One of them has the idea that the name "Yahweh" was known from earliest times, and is called J because of the German spelling Jahwe (German scholars played a prominent role in working J out). The other source understands that the name of God was not revealed until very late, at the time of Moses, so God until that time is referred to as God, which in Hebrew is Elohim. That's why it's called E. Those two sources come from a very early period of Israelite history. We know this for a variety of reasons, especially since they use a very early level of Hebrew than the other parts of the five books.

Like American English today vs. Shakespearian or Chaucerian English?

Exactly. They are that far apart from some of the later parts of the Torah. Every now and then we hear some biblical scholar suggest that those texts are late, but that's like if you and I were talking now and I started saying "forsooth!" and "whither?" and pulled out a bodkin. In the book, we used different colors and fonts, italics, bold [read an excerpt]--whatever would make it easier for people to read any given sentence of the first five books of the Bible and know which source they're reading.

J and E contain most of the Genesis stories we're familiar with-the Creation, the Flood, and so on, right? Yes, a lot of the most famous stories first appear in J and E. J has the flood story, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel. E has the sacrifice of Isaac. So the two of them together form a great collection of stories. The hypothesis is that the Holy Land was split in half from 922 to 722 BCE, with Israel in north and Judah in south. The E version of the stories came from the northern kingdom, and the J version from the southern kingdom.

Would writers from those kingdoms have different agendas? Oh yes. The author of J was a layperson. The author of E was a priest, but from a priesthood group of Levites who traced their descent from Moses. In the E source, the Golden Calf is made by Aaron. Aaron is the ancestor of the other prominent priesthood in Judah, which had excluded the other Levites from the priesthood. Whereas the J source does not tell the story of the Golden Calf. With destruction of northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, there were no longer two countries, there was one. Soon after those events, the two texts, J and E, came to be merged by a redactor who we call RJE. If you read J and E together as put together by RJE, and take out everything else from the Bible, they read almost as a continuous source. There's not too much overlap or contradiction?


There are some really interesting doublets between the two-for example, in both, Abraham tells a foreign king his wife Sarah is his sister. Then the deception comes out, and the king sends Abraham away with compensation for the insult done to him. Sometimes they duplicate, but with differences. Sometimes they're completely different. E has the sacrifice of Isaac and the Golden Calf, but J doesn't. But J has the story of the three visitors to Abraham, which E doesn't. When they're all put together, they read as a continuous story, which means this editor cut parts of J and parts of E but created something that would work as a continuous story for everyone. It was the second most brilliant editing job in the Torah. But imagine now you're a priest in Jerusalem, and you trace your ancestry to Aaron, the first high priest. And here's this proto-Bible going around saying your ancestor made the Golden Calf, and the main man was Moses. So a third source, a third version of the stories, was composed at this point by a priest to...

Support that priesthood? Right. It duplicates a lot of the stories, but tells them from a different point of view. And it most certainly does not duplicate the Golden Calf story.

Because it has this priestly perspective, this source is called P. It's written intentionally as an alternative to the JE version. On the JE side, it often says "And the Lord spoke unto Moses." On the P side, it says "And the Lord spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron." Sometimes it's called pious fraud, but I don't think this person was a fraud at all. He was trying to tell history as he understood it, in a way that wouldn't be hurtful to his group.

How are these sources related to the different creation stories in Genesis? J's creation story is focused very much in the earth and begins in Gen 2:4 with "the day that Yahweh made earth and skies." But P's version, which now is Gen 1, is "in the beginning God created the skies and earth." It's more like from the sky looking down. The older creation story is from the earth looking up. In the J creation story, there's no mention of the sun, the moon, the stars being created. Whereas the priestly P version begins with the creation of light, the firmament, setting the sun and moon in the sky, the seas-it's more of a universal picture.

What are other differences between the older and newer sources?

Exodus 17, Moses hitting rock at Meribah. In E's version of that story, the people are thirsty, so God tells Moses to stand on a crag at Horeb, the foot of Mt. Sinai, and strike it and water will come out. He does, and it says God is standing on the crag at the time. The water flows out, and Moses has done a good thing. In the priestly (P) version of it, which is more favorable to Aaron and less favorable to Moses, it's in Numbers 20. There, God tells Moses 'speak to the rock.' Moses strikes the rock instead. Moses says to the people "shall we bring you water out of the rock," where presumably he should have said "should God bring you water," and it's considered the great sin of Moses' life.

The sin that keeps Moses out of the Promised Land.

Yes. And Aaron, who suffers for the sin of Moses in the priestly version. It's telling the stories but from a different perspective.

You mentioned God standing on crag. Your book says that anthropomorphisms are one way to differentiate between the sources-some sources don't use them.

J and E have much more of that sort of thing-God is standing on the rock, God walks in the garden of Eden and makes Adam and Eve's clothes in J, God personally closes the ark in J. There are angels in J and E, but no angels in P.

Why no angels? For P, there mustn't be any intermediaries between God and humans except priests. The word prophet never appears in P, except once where it refers figuratively to Aaron himself. No prophets, judges, no angels, talking animals, or dreams. Whereas in J and E there's the famous story of Jacob dreaming of the ladder, and Joseph interpreting the dreams of the Pharaoh and his own dreams. So there's a different feel to the priestly source. In the priestly source, the path to God is, bring a sacrifice to the priest.

You translated the sources in the order they were written. What was that like? I get a sense of these authors as persons, the way you do when you have a favorite author. When you read each one in order, you get a feel for the beauty of each one. It's like watching one of those slow films of a flower opening up. You see the Bible becoming the Bible.

What's the strongest evidence for your multiple-source hypothesis?

For me, it's a tie between two things: the linguistic evidence--Hebrew of different periods differentiates the sources. It fits with the idea we have about when the different sources were written. It's almost like math: the personal prejudices of the Bible scholar can't enter in as much. It's cleaner evidence than most.

The other big thing is the convergence of so many different lines of evidence. It's not that there are double stories, because we could explain that as the author's intention. And it's not that God is referred to as "God" in some chapters or "Yahweh" in others, because obviously we could refer to people sometimes by their name and sometimes by their profession, for example. It's that when you separate the different sources, the other [word for] God always comes out in the right place. The different words for God occur in the five books of Moses about 2000 times, and the number of exceptions where you get "Yahweh" where you should have gotten "God" are 3.

You said earlier that the editor of J and E did the "second greatest editing job" in the history of the Torah. What's the greatest? You have J and E, and P written as an alternative, and another source, D (virtually the whole book of Deuteronomy)-that's by someone else. But then someone came along around 450 BCE, the redactor of the whole thing, who's probably Ezra, as I've argued in the past. He-"R"--comes along and puts it all together. When you read J or E individually, they read as a continuous story. If you read P all by itself, it also reads almost as a continuous story, with hardly a gap. Which means this last person, this redactor we call R... ...Had to splice together three things that already worked well on their own? Right. He put it together with hardly cutting a word. It's one of the great achievements of editing of any literature in history, by anyone, ever. He put it together so well that it's been not only satisfactory, but beloved: The most successful, powerful book in the world fro 2500 years since he did it. The irony is that he took the combined JE, and then P, which was written deliberately as an alternative to JE, and puts them together and makes them work so well together. Outside of its being the Bible, it's a great human achievement by any standard.

You say the Bible is more than the sum of its parts. When you see it come together like this, it adds a layer of depth to your appreciation of the book. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Let's take an example: In Genesis 1, God creates humans in the divine image. At minimum, that means humans participate in the divine in a way that a cat does not. Then in Genesis 3, when the snake is trying to get the humans to eat from the tree, [the snake] uses that. His line is "if you eat from the tree, you will be like God," which presumably is a line that wouldn't work on a cat, because a cat doesn't aspire to be like God. Then you say, "wait, Genesis chapter 1--the creation in the divine image--is P, and the snake talking to Adam and Eve is J." So neither author meant this to happen, and you can't say the redactor even meant this to happen, because he's including both J and P complete, putting it together as best he can. So in a very real sense, the Bible becomes greater not only than each of its authors, but than all of them put together.

That's kind of divine inspiration right there, in a way. A fundamentalist might look at that and say, yeah, there, you see. And some of my more religious students have said that.

When you read the Bible this way, you see it not just as the genius of any one person at one time, but the genius of a whole community over almost 1000 years.