A photo showcasing a worn-out ancient manuscript of the Bible, surrounded by stacks of books and a pair of spectacles, symbolizing the scholarly pursuit of understanding its origins and authorship.

Who Wrote The Bible According To Friedman?

The question of who wrote the Bible has fascinated scholars and readers for centuries. While tradition attributes the authorship of the Bible to divine inspiration, modern biblical scholarship takes a more critical look at how the texts that make up the Bible came to be written.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: According to biblical scholar Richard Friedman, the Bible was not written by a single author but is a compilation of sources from different eras written by multiple authors.

Friedman argues that the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah or Pentateuch, represent four distinct narrative sources that were later combined into a single text.

In this comprehensive article, we will examine Friedman’s theory in depth, looking at the evidence he presents from the Bible itself to support his conclusions about its authorship and composition. We will outline Friedman’s identification of the four hypothesized sources that make up the Torah, summarize the key points of his argument, and consider critiques and responses to his work from other scholars.

Overview of Friedman’s Theories

The Documentary Hypothesis

The biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman is best known for his work on the Documentary Hypothesis, which aims to determine the sources and authorship of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible).

Friedman argues that the Torah is a composite work containing four main literary strands or sources – the Yahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D), and Priestly (P). These sources reflect different language styles, theological emphases, and historical settings, and were composed independently before being combined into the Torah by a series of redactors (editors).

This theory sees the Torah not as the unified work of a single author (traditionally Moses), but rather as a patchwork of earlier texts from different eras and communities within ancient Israel. Friedman’s model builds on over two centuries of biblical scholarship and provides a powerful framework for understanding the complex literary history of the Torah.

J, E, P, and D Sources

According to Friedman, the four main sources of the Torah are:

  • J source – composed c. 950-850 BCE in the southern kingdom of Judah. Emphasizes anthropomorphic portraits of God and human-focused stories.
  • E source – composed c. 850-750 BCE in the northern kingdom of Israel. Less anthopomorphic view of God than J.
  • P source – composed c. 600-400 BCE by Priestly circles after Babylonian exile. Focuses on ritualistic legal texts and genealogies.
  • D source – composed c. 600 BCE and later. Strong focus on Moses and centralized worship in Jerusalem.

These sources can be identified by distinct vocabulary, theological concepts, and narratives, which Friedman argues were merged together into the Torah by a series of redactors. The J source provides vivid stories with a human orientation, E offers alternative versions of stories, P supplies legal and ritual texts, and D contributes sermons and laws that emphasize obedience to God.

Redaction into a Single Text

Friedman argues that the four major sources were redacted (edited) into a single, composite Torah text by a process that occurred between about 600-400 BCE. According to his chronology:

  • J and E were combined c. 750 BCE to form a JE text.
  • D was added to JE c. 600 BCE to form a JED text.
  • P was added to JED c. 450 BCE to complete the Torah.

This redactory process joined the sources together into a complex document reflecting diverse traditions. Friedman sees several motivations behind the redaction, including combining northern and southern traditions after the fall of Israel, and priestly interests in incorporating legal materials.

His research undertaken with computers in the 1970s bolstered the Documentary Hypothesis by using word variation analysis and stylometry to empirically demonstrate differences between text sections.

While modifications have been proposed, Friedman’s essential model of the four main sources and a multi-stage redaction remains the standard version of the Documentary Hypothesis today. His detailed historical and literary analysis continues to shed light on the origins and composition of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

Friedman’s work represents a landmark application of source criticism to disentangling the tangled strands within the Five Books of Moses.

Evidence for the J Source

Distinctive Name for God

According to Friedman, one of the key pieces of evidence for the J source is the distinctive name used for God. The J source consistently refers to God as “Yahweh” (YHWH in Hebrew), which sets it apart from the later P and D sources that prefer the term “Elohim.”

This suggests the J source comes from an earlier oral tradition that was comfortable using the personal name Yahweh to refer to Israel’s God.

Focus on Judah

The J source also stands out for its focus on stories relating to the kingdom of Judah and ancestors of its ruling dynasty like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For example, Friedman points out that the J version of the Joseph story is told from the perspective of Judah.

This aligns with the idea that the J source was first developed in the southern kingdom of Judah as an origin story for its people and rulers.

Themes and Literary Style

In terms of style, the J source has a lively and imaginative tone filled with vivid anthropomorphisms and stories meant to explain natural phenomena. For instance, the J flood story describes God personally “shutting the door” of Noah’s ark.

Themes found in the J source also point to an early oral tradition, emphasizing the personal relationships between God and humans rather than later theological ideas. Overall, Friedman argues these details fit the profile of some of the earliest storytelling traditions in ancient Israel that were brought together to form the written J source.

To learn more, check out this article summarizing Friedman’s theory of the J source and the others who contributed to the Bible’s authorship.

Evidence for the E Source

Distinctive Name for God

According to Friedman, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the E source is its preferred use of the term Elohim to refer to God. This contrasts with the Yahwist source’s use of the tetragrammaton YHWH.

The E source utilizes Elohim even in passages where YHWH might be expected, pointing to a separate tradition and authorship.

Focus on Northern Kingdom of Israel

The E source also betrays a particular interest in events pertaining to the northern kingdom of Israel and important cultic sites located there. Key stories that feature northern prophets like Elijah and Elisha or northern rulers like Jeroboam seem to originate from this northern source.

According to Friedman, this geographical focus reflects the provenance of the E author in the northern kingdom.

Themes and Literary Style

In terms of style and themes, the E source displays a more abstract and reflective posture towards God and religious practices. There is an emphasis on dreams, angels, and indirect communication from God in E source stories.

Some scholars also identify a more skeptical attitude towards supernatural events and miracles when comparing E to the more credulous J source. The distinctive vocabulary, concerns, and worldview of the E source point to a separate author from the other Pentateuchal strands.

To learn more about Friedman’s theory and research methods, see his seminal book Who Wrote the Bible? available at this HarperCollins website. His analysis of the northern E source and its distinguishing characteristics continues to influence contemporary scholarship on the authorship of the Torah.

Evidence for the P Source

Focus on Priests

According to Friedman’s analysis, one of the sources that makes up the first five books of the Bible, commonly referred to as the Torah or Pentateuch, demonstrates a strong focus on priests and temple rituals.

This hypothesized source, labeled the Priestly source or simply “P”, contains extended passages relating to priests’ clothing, the layout and vessels of the tabernacle, sacrifices, ritual purity laws, and priestly genealogies (https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-documentary-hypothesis/).

For example, Leviticus 1-7 consists of over 90 verses detailing procedures for various sacrifices. Such attention to priestly details suggests this source originated from priestly circles or scribes working with priests.

Legalistic Concerns

In addition to the focus on priests and rituals, the Priestly source also stands out for its legalistic composition. Nearly half of the hundreds of laws and commandments in the Torah come from this source.

These laws cover matters such as permitted and forbidden foods, issues of ritual purity, specifications for the construction of the tabernacle, guidance on the priesthood, and detailed prescriptions for conducting sacrifices and offerings correctly.

Theabundance of such legalistic material again indicates the P source likely emerged from priestly scribes seeking to establish clear laws and expectations around ritual practices. Some scholars hypothesize these writings formed an early law code used for instructing new priests on proper protocols and behavior.

Consistent Writing Style

In identifying this hypothesized Priestly source, Friedman points to consistency in writing style as further corroborating evidence. The passages attributed to P demonstrate linguistic patterns, terminology, and phrasing distinct from the other hypothesized sources. Examples include:

  • Referring to God as Elohim instead of the Tetragrammaton YHWH
  • Using the full phrase “the Lord spoke to Moses” instead of just “the Lord said”
  • Describing the Promised Land as flowing with “milk and honey”
  • Framing history through genealogies and chronological structure

Such examples indicate the hypothesized P material likely originated from a specific school or guild of writers who shared common language and stylistic conventions. This supports Friedman’s proposal that it emerged from priestly circles seeking to record, teach, and standardize rituals and practice.

Evidence for the D Source

Single Author

Many scholars believe the D source demonstrates evidence of a single author. The writing style and themes are remarkably consistent throughout the material identified as the D source. There are unique phrases and expressions found nowhere else in the Pentateuch that reinforce the theory of sole authorship.

For example, the common introductory phrase “the Lord said to Moses” appears over 300 times. The distinct writing fingerprints point to the careful work of an individual writer rather than a haphazard compilation of multiple sources.

Themes of Covenant and Law

Central themes of covenant and law permeate the D source material. There is a strong focus on Israel’s special relationship with God, marked by obedience to divine law. The author portrays a conditional covenant in which blessings are conferred for adherence to God’s statutes and curses for disobedience.

For instance, in Deuteronomy 28, the author details an extensive list of blessings and curses contingent upon following or flouting the laws. The covenant focus sets D apart from the other sources and reflects the outlook of a single writer.

Literary Style

The D source exhibits unique literary qualities that distinguish it from the other Pentateuch sources. The emotional rhetorical style aims to motivate the audience through an appeal to the heart rather than just the mind.

For example, the passage in Deuteronomy 32, where Moses recounts the blessing and protection of God despite Israel’s faithlessness, contains passionate poetic language. The use of repetition, metaphor, and wordplay points to the identifiable literary hand of one individual.

The hortatory tone that encourages obedience to the law fits the D source’s specific themes and purposes.

Critiques and Responses

Arguments Against Multiple Authorship

Some scholars have challenged Friedman’s theory of multiple authorship of the Torah. They argue that the unity of style, theology, and purpose found throughout the first five books of the Bible point to a single author.

These critics claim the repetitions and differences in vocabulary cited by Friedman as evidence of multiple authors are simply literary techniques or reflect later editing.

Challenges to Source Division

Other experts question Friedman’s division of the Torah into four main narrative strands or sources. They contend there is insufficient evidence to break up the text into a Yahwist source, an Elohist source, a Deuteronomist source, and a Priestly source as Friedman has proposed.

Some critics argue the text should be taken as a unified whole rather than an amalgam of disparate sources.

Defenses of Friedman’s Approach

However, many biblical scholars have found Friedman’s source criticism persuasive and insightful. They point to the linguistic evidence, varying names used for God, redundancies, contradictions, and differing moral assumptions as compelling support for multiple authorship.

While specifics around the number or nature of sources may be open to debate, defenders argue Friedman’s basic thesis of composite authorship has strong grounding.


While debates continue, Friedman’s hypotheses about the multiple authorship of the Torah have gained wide acceptance among biblical scholars.

By carefully analyzing the texts, Friedman built a compelling case that the first five books of the Bible represent the combined work of several different writers over an extended period of time. While challenging traditional notions of single authorship, Friedman’s scholarship provides insight into the historical development of these foundational religious texts.

The complex picture of the Torah’s origins uncovered by Friedman raises profound questions, both for scholars seeking to reconstruct biblical history and for communities of faith who look to these ancient words for guidance and inspiration.

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