Books of J

 

 

I. Richard Elliott Friedman: The Hidden Book in the Bible 

 

Long accepted by Bible scholars, the Documentary Hypothesis states that many of the books of the Old Testament are not the product of single writers working on their own, but rather came about through the efforts of editors who compiled previously written documents into the final "books" as we have them.  Thus the book of Genesis as we have it was not written by one writer, but is instead a compilation of the work of different writers writing at different times and with somewhat different concerns.  These earlier texts were later stitched together by editors to make up one more or less consistent text: the book of Genesis in its current form. 

    

Of the various writers edited together to make up Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, the most vibrant and interesting is also one of the earliest: the J writer.

 

In The Hidden Book in the Bible, Richard Elliott Friedman proposes a radical revision of our notion of the J writer's work.  Friedman suggests a bold revision of the Documentary Hypothesis, a boldness that in part lies in his mode of presentation.  Rather than a scholarly work written for peers, in which arguments are laid out in rigorous detail, The Hidden Book in the Bible is more a summary of Friedman's case prepared for the general reader.  Friedman has opted for a directness of argument rare in a field as burdened by history as biblical studies.

     

Writing sometime between the eighth and tenth centuries BCE, the J writer produced the foundational strand of the Bible: the strong narrative text onto which other texts were subsequently grafted by editors.  The fateful importance of the J writer's work cannot be overstated.  The books that brought forth the three great "religions of the Book"--i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam--may never have been written were it not for the uncanny power of J.  Many of the best-known stories from the Old Testament come from J: Adam and Eve in the Garden, the Tower of Babel, the tale of Jacob and Esau, the tale of Joseph and his brothers.  It was most likely J who set the biblical ball rolling, editors later splicing and cutting and adding things around J in order to fill in, mute or channel this brilliant writer's power.

    

Over centuries of editorial cutting and stitching, J's original work came to be broken up and spread across three biblical books: Genesis, Exodus and Numbers.  This at least is the traditional understanding.  But have we really seen J clearly?  Or is it possibly the case that our perceptions have been trammeled by the work of the German scholars that discovered J?

    

Given the ingenuity of the editors that finally stitched together what came to be the initial books of the Bible, it is sometimes difficult to identify which textual strands belong to J and which do not.  Certainly large sections of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers are part of J: this has been scholarly consensus from the beginning.  But is any of Deuteronomy by the J writer?  Does J extend beyond Numbers?  These questions continue to be debated.

    

Friedman's radical proposal in The Hidden Book in the Bible is that J's work extends much further than previously thought.  Friedman claims to have discerned the outline of a lengthy prose work that begins in Genesis and ends in 1 Kings. If Friedman is right, it would be a discovery indeed.  His tone throughout suggests the elation of one who has made a major breakthrough.  In his first sentences he throws down the gauntlet as follows:

 

A great work lies embedded in the Bible, a creation that we can trace to a single author.  And I believe that we can establish that it is of great antiquity: it was composed nearly three thousand years ago--so it is indeed nothing less than the first work of prose.  Call it the first novel if you think it is fiction, or the first history if you think it is factual.  Actually, it is a merger of both.  But, either way, it is the first.  There is no long work of prose before this anywhere on earth, East or West, so far as I know.  We know of poetry that is earlier, but this is the oldest prose literature: a long, beautiful, exciting story.  And the astonishing thing is that, even though it is the earliest lengthy prose composition known to us, it is far from a rudimentary, primitive first attempt at writing.  It has the qualities we find in the greatest literature the world has produced.  Indeed, scholars of the Bible and of comparative literature have compared individual parts of it to Shakespeare and to Homer.  Those scholars were right, but they were barely at the threshold of the full work, a composition whose unity and brilliant connections have been hidden by the editorial and canonical process that produced the Bible.

 

Friedman gives this newly discerned work the title In the Day, following the ancient Semitic practice of titling works according to their first words.  (The text opens: "In the day that YHWH made earth and skies. . .")  In doing so he is clearly trying to underscore both his perception of the literary unity of the work and his confidence at having radically modified the earlier vision of the J text.  Otherwise he might have simply continued to call this work "J," for it is in the main an emended edition of J that he is offering.

    

Along with a clear explanation of the reasons for his beliefs about In the Day, Friedman's book contains a complete translation of the text as he identifies it, as well as notes and appendices giving some of the philological grounds for his thesis.  The book also contains a list of all the biblical passages Friedman judges to be part of In the Day.  (I have used Friedman's list of passages to compile an edition of In the Day in the King James translation: see below.)

    

An internet search should reveal something of the state of debate on Friedman's thesis.  As of this writing I note that many Bible scholars respectfully disagree that J extends all the way into 1 Kings. 

    

In my own view, Friedman's contribution does not necessarily stand or fall on the complete acceptance of all aspects of his thesis.  Whether or not Friedman is right that In the Day represents a single, unified work by one author, he has accomplished much by localizing what at the very least must be considered a tradition of writing "in the J manner."  Even skeptics will acknowledge, given the linguistic and other evidence, that we are dealing with a group of texts that are connected by style and language.  Friedman offers us a new and more complete outline of these texts.

    

One possibility that has not been adequately addressed here is that the texts Friedman has gathered might be the work of one writer, but may belong to distinct works by that writer, perhaps written at different periods of his or her life: perhaps several different works.  Friedman briefly raises the possibility that In the Day might originally have been two distinct works by the J writer, but how can we be sure this division into two is going far enough?

    

What, after all, was the idea of the work--specifically of the work's unity--according to the writers who composed the texts that make up the Pentateuch?  We can develop our notions of what the editors thought about literary unity because we have their productions intact in Genesis, Exodus, and so on.  But how can we know what the J writer thought of literary unity at the level of the work?  The J text has been broken up, perhaps greatly expurgated, and spread across a handful of biblical books.  Was this J text initially a unified work, as Friedman suggests, or various distinct prose works written on different themes?  How can we know one way or another?

    

Friedman himself points out how modern novelists (his examples are Hesse and Kundera) will often return to the same themes and motifs in novel after novel.  Is it not possible that many of the narrative parallels Friedman finds across In the Day are examples of the J writer trying, say, in a later work something that had worked well in an earlier one?  And isn't it possible that this later work was written a dozen or more years later?  And that these were not the only "works" by the writer in question that were finally used in the compilation of our current Bible?

    

Friedman points out that the J text as it has traditionally been understood already has cases of narrative parallels within it (thus Jacob meets Rachel at a well and Moses meets Zipporah at a well).  But this perhaps simply suggests that the J text as it was traditionally understood is already made up of pieces taken from distinct works.

     

To summarize: How can we be sure that In the Day is not a kind of anthology of some of the best writing taken from a handful of works by the J writer?  It's obvious that the editors did not respect the J writer's sense of literary unity.  They had their own notions of unity as they put together what came to be the first books of the Bible.  But where did the editors respect J's unity and where did they ignore it?  Or rather: To what extent did they respect it?  How much of the total of what the J writer wrote was retained by the editors?  These questions seem unanswerable, and thus the question of the literary unity of In the Day must remain equally open.

 

 

II. Harold Bloom: The Book of J

    

For those interested in J, another book well worth reading is Harold Bloom's The Book of J.  Bloom's work presents a more traditionally delineated J, but his ideas regarding J are anything but traditional.  Bloom is not a Bible scholar, but a literary critic. His skills as a reader and critic bring out many aspects of J that might otherwise have gone unremarked.

    

Bloom doesn't see the J writer intending to write "scripture" as most would understand that term.  Instead he reads J as a writer out to portray the inevitable perils of man's relations with a deity both unpredictable and impish.  This impish god, in Bloom's reading, is to a great degree J's creation.  Yahweh is thus understood here as a literary character in a masterful literary text, and the J writer (a point on which Friedman and others agree) is a master prose stylist.

    

Many have resisted Bloom's reading, often on grounds that it dares to find irony and humor in some of the most important stories of the Bible.  But such resistance ignores the irony of our position here beneath the gods, or God.  The irony that Bloom finds in J is the irony of incommensurability, the strong irony that arises when characters of immensely different stature must negotiate with each other, must find their way in the face of the other's difference.  There is no possibility of doubting that this is a fruitful way of approaching the stories of the first books of the Bible.

 

According to Bloom, the J writer did not treat Yahweh strictly as a being to be held in awe and worshipped.  J's Yahweh is certainly not the transcendent God later worshipped by Christians and Jews.  Rather, Bloom finds in J's Yahweh a sublime trickster: a God characterized by unwieldy power and an inconsistent temper.  Yahweh is more like Zeus, Hermes and Poseidon (or all three combined) than he is like the later God the monotheistic religions made him into. 

    

Many of Bloom's readings are compelling; certain of them are overstated, or repeatedly stated, as is often the case with this writer's work.  But Bloom's book is everywhere worth reading, and contains a new translation of J by David Rosenberg. 

    

(Incidentally one of Bloom's more striking theses is that the J writer was most likely a woman.  In The Hidden Book in the Bible Friedman chides Bloom for stealing this idea from an earlier work of his, Who Wrote the Bible?, where Friedman himself suggested the possibility that a woman wrote the J text.)

 

 

III. A King James version of In the Day

 

The following text represents all the verses identified by Friedman as part of In the Day.  Though I originally compiled it mainly in order to read a King James version of the "work" myself, I've decided to make it available online to others.  As stated above, Friedman's book contains a complete translation of In the Day into modern English.  My own concern, however, was to see how the text read in my favorite translation: the King James. 

    

This King James version is certainly not meant to replace Friedman's book, and could not in any case.  Friedman's book offers an explanation and defense of his discovery and a reading of the unity of In the Day as he sees it.  Only around half of his book is taken up by the text of In the Day itself.

   

On this King James version:

 

1) The text is divided into two files: file A contains roughly the J text as it has been understood traditionally; file B contains the additional material that Friedman suggests is also part of the text.

 

2) I have occasionally allowed pieces of non-J material into the text.  These are always surrounded by brackets: [ ].  The non-J material is kept to an absolute minimum (certainly less than three percent of the text).  I've only allowed them in when I felt they were necessary to provide some explanation.

 

3) I have divided the text into numbered "paragraphs" or blocks that correspond to my sense of the movement of the narrative.

 

4) Breaks in the standard biblical text are indicated by an asterisk: * .  For example, Friedman judges Exodus 3:5 to be part of J as well as Exodus 3:7-8.  But Exodus 3:6 is not part of J and thus is not included: its absence is indicated by an asterisk.

 

5) My parentheses occasionally indicate brief commentary (as in Friedman) and very occasionally indicate an editorial clarification.   

 

(Note: I've noticed that Friedman's modern English translation doesn't include Genesis 36: 31-39, although he lists these verses as part of In the Day in his table of verses.  Does he leave these verses out because they are in the form of a genealogical list?)

 

Eric Mader

 

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In the Day / The J Text (A)

In the Day / The J Text (B)

 

 

 

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Check Friedman's book at Amazon.com

Check Bloom's book at Amazon.com

 

 

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