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BOOK REVIEW

Scholar Makes Case for 1 Author of Core of Bible

THE HIDDEN BOOK IN THE BIBLE: The Discovery of the First Prose Masterpiece By Richard Elliott Friedman; Harper; San Francisco; $25, 402 pages

November 21, 1998|JOHN DART | Times staff writer John Dart is co-author of "Unearthing the Lost Words of Jesus, the Discovery and Text of the Gospel of Thomas." (Seastone/Ulysses)

The ancient narrative contains not only favorite tales from Sunday school but also adult-themed stories of lies, drunkenness, illicit sex, espionage and raw power that inspire novelists and filmmakers to this day.

Besides being peopled by such memorable figures as Adam and Eve, Samson and Delilah, and David and Goliath, the long account has recurring themes that weave together the struggles of 12 generations of the ancient Israelites to please their God.

We're talking about the Bible, right?

Yes. More precisely, however, UC San Diego scholar Richard Elliott Friedman argues that woven through nine of the first 11 books of the Hebrew Bible, known by Christians as the Old Testament, is a continuous work by a single author. This influential core of the biblical narrative is nearly 3,000 years old, making it history's first work of prose, Friedman writes.

Outside of theologically conservative circles, most biblical scholars have long accepted the so-called "documentary hypothesis," which holds that the first five books of the Bible were derived from several written sources blended expertly by ancient editors.

One of those sources, which scholars refer to as J, contains many of the Bible's best-known stories and reflects the perspective of a lay person, Friedman says.

"The stories in J are disproportionately among the Bible tales most enjoyed and remembered by children" and esteemed for artistry by literary critics, Friedman said. In a 1987 book, "Who Wrote the Bible?" Friedman broached the possibility that the author of J was female because of many of the biblical passages identified as part of the J source offer a sympathetic treatment of women.

In his latest book, Friedman takes the standard documentary hypothesis a step further. Parts of the J document appear not only in four of the Bible's first five books--Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy--but also in five of the next six that trace the history of ancient Israel from Joshua's conquest of Canaan on through the reigns of Kings David and Solomon.

Whether Friedman's piece of textual archeology becomes as securely accepted as the presence of J in the Bible's initial books will await an often contentious jury of his peers.

But if he's right, Friedman has made a discovery that dramatically demonstrates, among other things, how many biblical books revered by Jews and Christians evolved through additions and editing.

Despite amounting to only one-fourth of the Hebrew Bible's prose, Friedman says the J author's epic story "set the theology that informed all the works of the Bible." J's God is not a uniformly angry one, but a deity with alternating sides--"angry and loving, just and merciful, punishing and forgiving," Friedman writes.

Friedman worked out his reconstruction over 12 years in academic settings and had the counsel of a respected senior colleague at UC San Diego, David Noel Freedman. Friedman began the pursuit on a suggestion by another UC San Diego faculty member and literary critic, Eric Auerbach, who said that the literary style of J seems to be present in the later accounts of King David as well. Some linguistic research indicated that the Hebrew employed in J and some of the David stories could be dated to the same period.

"J is disproportionately about Judah, which is King David's tribe," he writes. The divine promise made to Abraham in J's part of the Pentateuch is fulfilled in David.

Friedman offers numerous examples of recurring plot developments, dialogue and favored expressions.

The word Sheol, a mysterious place of the dead, occurs nine times in the writing of this ancient author, and only there, Friedman said. The term "to lie with," meaning sex, occurs 32 times in biblical prose and 30 of them are in these texts.

Both J of the first five biblical books and the David story are about families, complete with intrigue and similar women figures. "Both have wise, controlling females acting within a patriarchal structure. Both have wronged women. Both have a woman named Tamar. Both have a woman named Bathsheba (or Bath-shua)."

The proto-Bible that Friedman patches together begins with Paradise lost and ends happily with King David succeeded by his son Solomon--after the latter kills off his main potential threats. "And the kingdom was secure in Solomon's hand." (I Kings 2:46)

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