A Biblical page-turner
February 05, 2008
If we think of it as a great work of literature, then who were the artists? If we think of it as a source to be examined in the study of history, then whose reports are we examining? Who wrote its laws? Who fashioned the book out of a diverse collection of stories, poetry, and laws into a single work? If we encounter an author when we read a work, to whatever degree and be it fiction or nonfiction, then whom do we encounter when we read the Bible?
For most readers, it makes a difference, whether their interest in the book is religious, moral, literary, or historical... In the case of fiction, most would find it relevant that Dostoyevsky was Russian, was of the nineteenth century, was an Orthodox Christian of originally revolutionary opinions, and was epileptic and that epilepsy figures in important ways in The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov; or that Dashiell Hammett was a detective; or that George Eliot was a woman.
...The more obvious this seems, the more striking is the fact that this information has largely been lacking in the case of the Bible. Often the text cannot be understood without it.
That's from the introduction to Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible?, which I'm reading for my Biblical History & Civilization class. This statement may betray my total geekery (if it weren't obvious already!) but I found this book to be a total page-turner.
Friedman does a fine job of exploring different ways the Bible has been understood. His introduction of the documentary hypothesis is clear and solid -- and also not news to me; I've been familiar with the documentary hypothesis since my freshman year of college. (Thanks to my alma mater's religion department.) But Friedman untangles and teases out the various strands of the story -- both the internal stories contained in the Bible, and the meta-story of how we came to understand what we understand about the text's creation -- like a writer of fine detective fiction, and he kept me on the edge of my seat.
Some of the examples he draws on are familiar to me. (Two creation stories, two versions of the Flood, yadda yadda.) But others are new to me, and left me exclaiming out loud with glee. Ever wonder why the story of the Golden Calf appears in the text where it does, and what the calf represented within the context of its time, anyway? How do these stories align with political upheavals in antiquity, and what were the agendas and priorities of the various factions whose voices the Bible encapsulates? If we accept the multiple-source understanding of the text's authorship, who exactly wrote the various sources, and who redacted them into the whole we know today? Friedman has answers for all of these.
There's an interview with Friedman at Beliefnet that's worth reading, if you're into this kind of thing. I'm particularly struck by his point that "When you see it come together like this, it adds a layer of depth to your appreciation of the book. The whole is more than the sum of its parts."
Friedman's book is also just plain fun. I don't think I recognized what a rarity that is until I started doing some of the other reading we were assigned for this class this week. I remember reading some Norman Gottwald when I was an undergrad (the name Tribes of Yahweh springs to mind.) His book The Hebrew Bible: A Socio-Literary Introduction is readable, but it's hardly captivating. Makes sense; Gottwald's books are academic tomes, Friedman's is a popular history. But I'll take nonfiction that's simple, readable, and clear over academic prose any day...and I'm glad that the syllabus parcels out limited doses of Gottwald, versus the two whole books of Friedman's we'll be reading over the course of the term.
Obviously Friedman's line of thinking isn't going to work for everyone. There are folks for whom the documentary hypothesis is a no-go. But for my part, I find that the more I understand about the human origins of our sacred text, the more awed I am by the ways God has worked in and through the text and its readers over time. Approaching the text as a scholar helps me approach it devotionally with even more appreciation of its quirks, its roots, and its power.