Richard Elliott Friedman, who teaches at UC San Diego, has provided the interested lay reader of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) with two basic stories about it: a history of the formation of the Pentateuch (Torah, or Five Books of Moses) and of the Early Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuels, Kings) and Chronicles; and a history of critical scholarship since the Renaissance which has provided the data for the former.
There is no other book quite like this one. It may well be unique. Earlier scholars have set their hand to write one or the other of those histories, but there is no other that combines the two, or at least combines them so engagingly. Friedman sets the two histories on a grid of his own personal story, since his graduate student days, of wanting to know for himself whether the documentary hypothesis of the formation of Genesis to Kings, which began to be formulated in the 18th Century, was valid.
Engaging in his own independent study under the direction of Harvard's F. M. Cross, Friedman rightly went about his work like a Sherlock Holmes, as if it had never been done before. Reading and re-reading the Hebrew text, he found himself asking the same honest questions about who wrote it that brave people had been asking since the 11th Century. True piety and love of the Bible, combined with honesty and careful, scrupulous reading, led to questions such as how Moses could have written in the past tense, in Genesis 36, about Edomite kings who lived after him, or how Moses could have written about his own death (Deuteronomy 34), or why there are two stories of creation (Genesis 1 and 2) with clear contradictions between them, etc.
The questions began to accumulate until theses about the formation of these texts had to be put forward. The most brilliant aspect of Friedman's book is the questions his own honest reading of the Bible engendered; he not only poses most of the questions that this reviewer has asked or seen, he includes some I had not thought of. They are included in this narrative report of his independent journey at just the crucial junctures to make the book read like a detective story. Friedman's questions are worth the price of the book.
Friedman's answers are another matter. While inductively and seductively presented and sometimes novel, they represent the best of biblical scholarship that flourished up to about 30 years ago.
They are, in fact, the answers of a particular school of thought brought to full fruition. This is a book about source criticism, how it began, how it developed and where it went or would go if pursued to its ultimate, logical conclusions. For most scholars, the sort of document-source hypothesis Friedman espouses is very nearly moribund. But not only does Friedman defend and refine the hypothesis, he presents no other. From this book, one would hardly have an inkling that anything else in biblical studies is going on, in terms of Bible or canon formation, in answer to his brilliant questions.
When Friedman asks who wrote the Bible, he means just that. He goes questing for actual historical individuals. The four "documents," out of which Ezra wrought the final form of the Pentateuch, had been penned by discreet persons in antiquity, one possibly a woman. Jeremiah, or his secretary, Baruch, wrote Deuteronomy and perhaps an early form of Joshua to Kings. This is scholarship focused with panache on the ancient individual at his or her desk (obviously worthy predecessors of modern scholars).
The so-called Priestly source or document was written in the court of King Hezekiah a century and a half before the date most scholars assign such a source, and Jeremiah did not like it at all. That's why he wrote Deuteronomy and a revision of history up to his day. One could go on with Friedman's simple answers to quite complex questions. Indeed, for all the brilliance in Friedman's sleuthing questions, there are a number he omits. Here is economy of explanation in historical reconstruction at its best; rarely is there a hint of the ambiguity of reality or of the historiography that should reflect it.
Community needs are rarely addressed, only the genius of a series of persons with their particular points of view. Friedman assumes that knowledge of an individual biblical author's life and politics is important for understanding his or her work. Such an assumption presupposes a view of authority (even for historiography) which Friedman does not address.