Friday, March 07, 2008

'who wrote the bible?'

I'm about halfway through the book "Who Wrote the Bible?" and am finding it to be a rather fascinating exploration of textual criticism.

Probably everyone here knows the JEDP hypothesis; if not, allow me to summarize. Bible scholars commonly accept that there are four main voices in the Tanakh, known eponymously as J (the Yahwist), E (the Elohist), D (the Deuteronomist) and P (the Priest).

J and E commonly are accepted as the authors of most of the Torah. The passages where God is called Yahweh are credited to the Yahwist, and where is referred to as Elohim, to the Elohist. As I'm sure everyone is aware, Genesis in particular is full of doublets: a story where Elohim creates the world in six days, and one where Yahweh plants a garden and places humanity there; two stories where God establishes a covenant with Abraham, two stories where they receive the promise of Isaac, and on and on. About a hundred-some years ago, someone realized that you could separate the Elohim verses from the Yahweh verses, and have two independent stories that each made complete sense on their own.

The Deuteronomist repeats most of the law from Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, brings the story of Moses to a close, and lays out the rest of the nation's history, from Joshua down to King Josiah, giving comments on which kings pleased God and which didn't, and why, and on and on. (The author makes the claim that the Deuteronomist originally ended the story with King Josiah -- it was during his reign that the book of the Law "was found after having been lost" -- and a later editor followed through all the way to the bitter end of the southern kingdom.)

The priestly writer gives us all the details of how priests are supposed to dress and act, and lays out the ceremonial law.

None of this is particularly new or ground-breaking. What is pleasant about the book is how READABLE it is. The author is treating it sensibly enough like a mystery, and explaining how and why scholars have sought to learn as much as possible about the biblical authors. Just as it helps to know when you're reading "Twice Told Tales" that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrestled with his Puritan heritage his whole life, it's good to know the background, standing and views of the people who first put Holy Writ to parchment.

Toward the end of the book -- and I admit, I've sneaked a peak -- the author makes the contention that Jeremiah is the Deuteronomost, and that Ezra is the redactor who put a lot of the Tanakh into its final form. In which case, I guess I may owe Ezra something of an apology. He may have been a lout in a lot of ways, but I have to say I'm a big fan of this book he may have had a major editorial hand in.

As luck would have it, I recently started a book club. We just read the novelization of the "Beowulf" movie -- surprisingly good for a movie novelization, actually -- and we're supposed to read a certain spiritual thriller for this month's meeting. I'm waiting for the guy who picked the book to lend it to me, though, so I can continue to undermine the U.S. economy. "Who Wrote the Bible?" is an excellent book to read in its own right, though; if this were a church-based book club, it'd be my pick, hands down.

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