I have been reading Richard Elliott Friedman’s just published book, The Exodus: How it Happened and Why it Matters.
In it Friedman takes a position in regard to the often-heard claim that the Exodus from Egypt never happened. What that claim often means is that stuff like two million people following Moses out of Egypt, a staff turning into a snake, or Cecil B. DeMille’s version of some of the miracles and plagues never happened. That is an easy case to make.
But Friedman takes the position that once you take into account source criticism–which helps explain some of these exaggerated images of the Exodus–and archeology, you can still say about the Exodus that “something happened”.
Before I write a few posts about the book, let me give you some background about what Friedman means by source criticism.
He has been researching this for over 40 years. He has concluded that there is more to the so-called Documentary Theory than its recent critics admit. The Documentary Theory claims that there are at least four written sources that underlie the Pentateuch, the five books of the Torah. Usually these are designated J (the Yahwist), E (the Elohist), D (the Deuteronomist) and P (the Priestly Source).
This scheme has been under fire in recent decades. Scholars have proposed several alternative views of how the five books were composed. But none of these alternatives is much agreed upon. Scholars haven’t come close to reaching a consensus.
Friedman thinks the reason for this is that they have dismissed the evidence for the Documentary Theory too readily. He too doubts some features of the older consensus. For instance, he does not think that J was written during Solomon’s reign and he does not think that P is the last document, written after the time of Ezekiel and the Babylonian Exile.
However, he brings together an impressive amount of evidence that there were four documents that someone edited and sort of spliced to produce the Pentateuch as we have it. If you have access to the Anchor Bible Dictionary, you can read a concise, scholarly version of his case in his article, “Torah”. His more popular and speculative case is in his 1989 book, Who Wrote the Bible?.
He also has published his own translation of the Pentateuch with the various sources color-coded and in different fonts. Footnotes explain why he has assigned passages to different sources. This book is The Bible with Sources Revealed.
In 1999 he published another book, The Hidden Book in the Bible. In it he speculated that the J source and the court history of David were once one book.
This does not convince me. However, his date range for J (848-722) would fit my own speculation (see here) that the aftermath of Jehoida’s coup and the reign of the first king Joash (c. 798-782) provided the occasion for writing the court history. This is right in the middle of his range. There may have been some relationship, such as the same scribe or scribal school, between J and the court history.
My interest in The Exodus is not just to rehash arguments about historicity. I have recently become more and more interested in the origins of the priesthood. One of Friedman’s results is that all the sources of the Torah, except J, were produced by Levites. In The Exodus, he tries to trace the Levites back behind these works to the Exodus event itself.