The Patchwork of Scripture

I’ve discussed the tale of Joshua and its possible connection to an eclipse in 1207 BC. But who wrote the tale of Joshua? The sequence in the current book of Joshua quotes the “Book of Jasher”. Do we have any hint of a Sepher Yashar as it would be called in Hebrew? I suspect we might, though perhaps not where people expect to find it.

Let’s step back a bit. Before Joshua’s tale, we have the story of Moses – the Five Books aka the Pentateuch. The authorship of this foundational part of the Hebrew Bible, was historically attributed to their main protagonist, the one-time Prince of Egypt, Moses himself. Though Moses is described as writing parts of the Pentateuch, there’s no hint that he wrote the parts he wasn’t a witness to, like his own death and burial. Anachronisms and editorial highlights suggest a more complicated origin.

Baruch Spinoza started asking difficult questions about the Pentateuch’s authorship in the 1600s, which led to the development of the so-called “Documentary Hypothesis” – the scholarly hypothesis that the Pentateuch is a composite work, once several texts produced over several centuries, that were interwoven by an Editor, or “Redactor”.

The Redactor was the easiest author to identify, since the first use of a text something like the Pentateuch is in the Biblical book of “Ezra”. As a powerful Scribe, tasked with restoring Jewish religion by the Persian rulership in the 5th Century BCE, Ezra is the logical candidate for the role of Redactor. There’s even a tradition, recorded in ‘prophetic’ form, in “2 Esdras” (aka “4th Ezra”) that Ezra was tasked by God with the ‘restoration’ of Scripture after the Babylonian invasion and destruction of Jerusalem.

R – Redactor: Torah as a Whole – Ezra, c. 470-450 BCE

The next, quite obvious part, was the “Second Law” (“Deutero – Nomy”) which shares much in common with the preserved writings of Jeremiah and the history of King Josiah (c.640-c.609 BCE). In the account of Josiah a “Book of Law” is found in the Temple and this launches a sweeping reform of religious practice that echoes the “Second Law” version of the Law. Thus Jeremiah seems chief suspect as ‘author’ or redactor, though the Second Law in unedited form might go back much further.

D – Deuteronomist: Deuteronomy, Deuteronomistic History, two editions – Jeremiah, Edition 1 c.620. Edition 2 c.570.

The other authors have no named suspects, but do have fairly clear religio-political contexts:

J – “Jahwist” document, in Southern, Judean Courtly circles, time-range c.948 – c.719

E – “Elohist” document, in Northern, Levitical priestly circles, centred on Shiloh shrine c.948 – c.719

“J-E document”: After the fall of Samaria, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel, in 719 BCE the two documents were fused into a common narrative. Interestingly the confession “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord Your God is One” uses ‘one’ in the sense of ‘a union’, not a singular unity. Perhaps a hint as to how the two versions of God were unified.

P – “Priestly” document, product of Southern Aaronide priests, was written in reaction to the combined J-E document, in days of Hezekiah c.700 BCE.

The main arguments are summarised in Richard Elliott Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?” and his more recent “The Bible – With Sources Revealed”. The latter’s introduction and first chapter are available here: The Bible – With Sources Revealed

Friedman has dug deeper into the current Hebrew Bible and has argued for a common narrative that stretches from the Beginning (with ‘J’) all the way into the days of King Solomon. This Hidden Book in the Bible (also the title of Friedman’s book unveiling his work on it) would thus be a good candidate for the mysterious Sepher Yashar. If so, then this source, perhaps from the days of Solomon (c.975 BCE) is a couple of centuries after the events it narrates. Maybe its author had documents from further back, even the writings of Moses, Joshua and their successors.

Friedman himself, mentions possible evidence for authorship of the core Book in about the mid 9th Century BCE, due to its ‘prophecy’ after the fact of the land of Edom’s independence from the kingdom of Judah. It’s not solid evidence, but there’s not much else to go on. In context, to me, it seems more likely to be from the days of Solomon, but hard evidence will be hard to find after almost 3,000 years.

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