Who wrote the bible? (Friedman)

In spite of their reputation as great literature, the Hebrew scriptures sometimes make joltingly uneven reading. Why is this? Other ancient texts, such as Gilgamesh, which would be expected to suffer from equal distortions due to translation from a long vanished cultural framework, show much better consistency of narrative. The flood/ark story, which was promulgated as part of the Epic of Gilgamesh long before being incorporated into Genesis, is a good example (details below).

Friedman's great achievement in "Who wrote the bible?" is to give an understandable and readable account of the editorial history of the Hebrew scripture. He traces the differing sources from which it was composed, and shows how their often incompatible writings were later combined into a single text. He starts with the story of the Flood, and shows how it can be separated into two different narrative voices, producing two stylistically and factually consistent stories.

Friedman goes on to give a fascinating account of the composition of the the first half of the Hebrew scripture, from Genesis to Ezra. He describes the groups that contributed, and how their particular aspirations and resentments are reflected in their contributions to the bible.

His account makes sense of the abrupt changes of style that often occur in the bible, and of some of the weird details and blatant factual contradictions. For example, the question of the number of clean animals on the ark is related to the importance of priests and sacrifice. The flood story is a composite from two sources, "J" and "P". J wrote the first version, in which there were seven of every clean animal and only two of the others, so that Noah could make a grateful sacrifice to God when he landed. P's version, coming later, was written by an Aaronid priest, who wanted to emphasize that sacrifice had only begun when God made Aaron high priest (and hence could only be legitimately performed by his descendents). In P's account, therefore, Noah did not perform a sacrifice, and only two of each animal were required.

The only problem I had in reading the book was that it was sometimes hard to keep track of the global picture of who wrote what and when. What it really needs is a roadmap: small diagram,link to big one

Confusion in Genesis

In Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim loads his boat with animals and posessions.

Gilgamesh XI, col ii, ll 80-85:

All I had I loaded into the boat

all I had of silver I loaded

all I had of gold I loaded

all I had of the seed of all living creatures I loaded

I made all my kin and family go onto the boat

The animals of the fields, wild beasts of the fields,

the children of all the craftsmen I drove aboard.

In Genesis, the narrative is disjointed and repeatedly contradicts itself on the number of animals brought aboard:

6:19: And of all the living, of all flesh, you shall bring two to the ark to keep alive with you, and they shall be male and female.

6:20: Of the birds according to their kind, and of the beasts according to their kind, and of all the creeping things of the earth according to their kind, two of each will come to you to keep alive.


7:2: Of all the clean beasts take yourself seven pairs, man and his woman; and of the beasts which are not clean, two; man and his woman.


7:8: Of the clean beasts and of the beasts which were not clean, and of the birds and of all those which creep upon the earth,

7:9: Two of each came to Noah to the ark, male and female, as God had commanded Noah.

Genesis shows equal confusion over the length of the flood.

Gilgamesh XI, col iii, ll 127-135:

Six days and seven nights the wind shrieked, the stormflood rolled through the land. On the seventh day of its coming the stormflood broke from the battle which had labored like a woman giving birth. (...) I looked out at the day. Stillness had settled in. All of humanity was turned to clay. The ground was like a great, flat, roof. I opened the window, and light fell on my face.


7:12: And there was rain on the earth, forty days and forty nights.


7:17: And the flood was on the earth for forty days and forty nights...


7:24: And the waters grew strong on the earth a hundred and fifty days.


8:3: And the waters receded from the earth continually, and the waters were abated at the end of a hundred and fifty days.

8:4: And the ark rested in the seventh month, in the seventeenth day of the month, on the mountains of Ararat.

8:5: And the waters continued receding until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains appeared.

8:6: And it was at the end of forty days, And Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made.

Copyright © Mark Alford (1997)


Valid XHTML 1.0!