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The Shakespeare behind the Bible; 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.


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.

"You see things that occur 32 times in the Bible and 30 of them are in this group of texts and two in the rest of the Bible put together. Or a dozen times in the Bible and all dozen are in these texts," Friedman says. "That means something is going on."

When Friedman put all the texts together, he found a work that had a developed plot and used literary devices like foreshadowing.

"This is the person who set the tone of how you write a book," he says. "What happens in the creation story is crucial to when God meets Abraham. And what happens with Jacob deceiving his brother Esau is going to play out in the family in the next couple of generations, with his sons playing the same tricks on him that he pulled on his father Isaac.

"And it's going to play out 10 generations later, when you get to King David, who is his descendant, who does the same thing. He does a deception and it plays out with all of his children, one of his sons killing another of his sons."

Friedman first presented his theory several years ago to the Biblical Colloquium, a distinguished scholarly society nearly 50 years old that was considering him for membership. He received some criticism, which he says helped him to refine his theory. "Still, they voted me in," he says.

He is not without critics. Most vocal has been John Van Seters, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with whom Friedman has been engaged in a sort of scholarly feud for several years.

They faced off in the pages of Bible Review magazine in August 1994, when Friedman wrote a critical review of Van Seters' book, "Prologue to History: the Yahwist as Historian in Genesis," and Van Seters responded.

Van Seters returned the favor in the October issue of Religious Studies News, arguing that Friedman's theories are not original, and that they don't hold up to scrutiny.

"David, his sons, and the monarchy in the court history," Van Seters writes, "could not possibly be understood as the culmination of the divine promise to Abraham (contra Friedman). All the sordid stories about David and his family are meant to discredit the institution of the monarchy and the Davidic dynasty, and nothing could be a stronger contrast to J's presentation of Abraham."

Friedman is undeterred. "If it's right, it matters. And it is," he says. "I keep saying 'if' because I'm trying to be fair and I know that there will be people who will challenge it. But I'm convinced. And many of my colleagues are convinced. This is really something."

The Hidden Book in the Bible

Richard Elliott Friedman, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at San Diego State University, argues that a coherent narrative was sliced up by ancient editors and interlaced with other stories, legal codes and poetry. The work, as he has reconstructed it, is "in a class with Homer," he says. "This is in a class with Dostoevski. It's as good as any 20th-century novelist. Better! This is greatness."

Pub Date: 1/06/99

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