The Shakespeare behind the Bible

Sun Journal

Author: Nine books of the Bible contain the single work of one great prose writer, argues a California expert, who says this prototypical masterpiece was later broken into pieces and embellished upon by others.

January 06, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

It is fairly common knowledge that the Bible is not itself a book, but rather is a collection of books written by various authors at various times.

Among biblical scholars, it has become common practice to further break down individual books, attempting to discern multiple sources and editors who may have shaped what we now know as works like Genesis, Exodus or Kings.

But Richard Elliott Friedman, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California at San Diego, is swimming against that scholarly tide. In his recently published "The Hidden Book in the Bible," he says that embedded in the individual books of the Hebrew Scriptures is a cohesive literary masterpiece, written by one author about 3,000 years ago, that he calls the earliest known prose composition.

The composition, which Friedman says you can call the earliest novel or earliest history -- depending on whether you believe it's fact or fiction -- is spread out through nine books of the Bible, from Genesis to the first two chapters of Kings. It covers the creation of the world, to the sagas of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to Moses and the Exodus to the court history of kings Saul, David and Solomon.

Originally a cohesive work, it was cut up by subsequent editors, and other stories, poetry and laws were spliced into it and around it.

"I'm not just tossing it around to make points when I say this is a great author like Shakespeare," Friedman says. "This is a great author like Shakespeare. This is in a class with Homer. This is in a class with Dostoevski. It's as good as any 20th-century novelist. Better! This is greatness."

Friedman works in a field where the "documentary hypothesis" holds sway. It holds that Moses did not write the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Rather, they were written by four different authors: J, for the Jahwist, who uses the word Jahweh for God; E for the Elohist, who uses the word Elohim for God; D, for the Deuteronomist, who is believed to be responsible for much of the book of Deuteronomy; and P for the Priestly author, who focuses on ritual and God's transcendence.

The Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly accounts are woven throughout the books of the Torah, according to the Documentary Hypothesis. Of course, Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians reject this view, believing in the traditional Mosaic authorship.

But Friedman, instead of breaking the Bible down into fragments, has always preferred to see it as a literary whole. "Maybe it's the influence of literary studies," he says -- he teaches in the university's literature department, not in Biblical studies or theology. "In most universities, professors aren't interested in authors. It's deconstruction: There is no Dostoevski, there's only the text that calls itself Dostoevski I still care about authors."

The idea for the "Hidden Book in the Bible" first occurred to Friedman about 12 years ago. A colleague told him that based on similarities of style, language and interest, he thought that the author of the court history of David, the story of King David and his family that is mostly found in 2 Samuel, also wrote the J portions of the Torah. Friedman decided to look into it.

"People had said this before," he says. "Some of the great 19th-century Bible scholars were often onto things and then they got lost. Nobody had quite put it together right, and one of the reasons it got lost was that they didn't make the case so well, so nobody bought it. And it was just forgotten."

Friedman began a systematic study that he believes has turned up some fairly conclusive evidence.

"I started finding patterns of things that would only occur in very specific groups of texts," he says. Word, phrases and themes in certain texts appear nowhere else in the Bible.

Five words and two phrases relate to "deception" in the Bible, and all are in this group of texts.

References to "coat of many colors," to washing feet or shearing sheep, to "sheol" as the abode of the dead and to foolish people are in these texts only. The biblical euphemism for sexual intercourse, "to lie with," occurs 32 times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and 30 of them are in the texts Friedman identified as authored by J.

He further found that when one story finishes, a new text with common wording, suggesting common authorship, picks up the account seamlessly. To Friedman, that suggested a continuous account.

He found numerous parallel stories in the J texts. Certain common themes are found here and nowhere else in biblical texts. For example, someone gets drunk and is the victim of deception. Spies and espionage feature in nine stories spread out through six books. And nearly all the sex in the Hebrew Scriptures is found in these texts.

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