Commentary Magazine

Harold Bloom's

The well-known literary critic Harold Bloom will no doubt provoke, as he clearly intends, a storm of excitement, consternation, and ire by proposing that the so-called J writer, usually thought to be responsible for the earliest strand of the Pentateuch, was a woman. The project of The Book of J,1 a work undertaken in collaboration with the poet David Rosenberg, who has done the translations of the biblical texts, bears a curious relation to that of Samuel Butler’s quirky book published in 1897, The Authoress of the Odyssey. Bloom makes no mention of Butler, but there is some kinship between the lines of argumentation of the two books. Bloom, however, is after bigger game than the mere discovery of the gender of a revered ancient writer masked in anonymity.

There is no reason to be startled at the possibility that J was a woman, a possibility also put forth—tentatively and cautiously—by Richard Elliott Friedman in Who Wrote the Bible?2 One might suppose that such an idea would be inspired by contemporary feminism, though Bloom actually positions himself as virtually an adversary of that movement, at least in its academic variant. As he spins out the hypothesis with his characteristic verve, wit, and flair for the unexpected, the hypothesis at moments becomes a beguiling one. We know very little about the education given the two sexes in ancient Israel, but both archeological evidence and certain indications in the biblical texts themselves suggest that literacy was quite widespread, and there are certainly no grounds for excluding altogether the idea that one or more of the biblical authors may have been female. What Samuel Butler roundly declared of the Odyssey is equally apt for the writings designated by scholarship as J: “It may be urged that it is extremely improbable that any woman in any age should write such a masterpiece as the Odyssey. But so it also is that any man should do so.” Thus, I do not think the claim that J was a woman is susceptible of refutation—a statement that can be made, incidentally, of many a latter-day theory about the Bible. However, what motivates Bloom to make the claim and what evidence he offers to support it (two rather different considerations) are questions worth pursuing.



But before confronting these compelling issues of how we are to conceive of authorship in the Bible, I am obliged to raise the painful question of the relation of The Book of J to the Hebrew text of the Bible. Bloom has made a catastrophic decision in tying his project to the translation of David Rosenberg. (The book as a whole comprises about 110 pages in large type of the Rosenberg translation and double that number of closely printed pages devoted to Bloom’s introductions and commentaries.) There is abundant evidence that when Bloom talks about J he is actually referring to Rosenberg’s English version of J, and the distance between the two is very considerable.

The first, and lesser, problem is an aesthetic one. J—who as Richard Friedman properly notes, is not really distinguishable from the Pentateuchal source E stylistically—writes wonderfully compact, beautifully cadenced Hebrew, using a supple, predominantly paratactic syntax, and adhering, it is safe to assume, with nice precision to the idiomatic norms of the ancient language. Rosenberg’s English is often syntactically choppy and elliptic and rhythmically bumpy, making abundant use of dashes, sometimes sounding like a weak imitation of Leopold Bloom’s telegraphic style in Ulysses, and shuttling between past and present tenses in inscrutable ways for which the Hebrew offers scant justification. As for idiomatic usage, here are a few characteristic instances of Rosenberg’s ear for English: Genesis 18:11, “Sarah no longer had her woman’s flow” (literally, “the way of women”) is conveyed as “The periods of women ceased to exist.” The oracle about Jacob and Esau, “the elder will serve the younger,” is represented as “youth grows senior over age.” The biblical idiom of polite deference or subservience, “if I have found favor in your eyes,” is rendered as “if your heart be warmed,” which not only fails as English usage but also introduces an element of emotionality quite alien to the Hebrew expression of ancient politesse in a hierarchical social order.

More gravely, Rosenberg repeatedly misconstrues biblical terms or attaches arbitrary meanings to them. The “taskmasters” of the Exodus story incongruously turn into “policemen” in his version—the meaning the word has been assigned in modern Hebrew. The “city square” (rehov) in which the angels visiting Sodom offer to spend the night is converted into a “broad road,” something for which, given the ground plan of Canaanite cities, there could be no conceivable place in a built-up town. Without any philological warrant, the Hebrew for “evil,” ra’ah, is repeatedly rendered as “contempt,” a choice that Bloom somehow fancies as a great discovery of Rosenberg’s pointing to J’s artistic aims. The Hebrew tsedeq, “justice,” “righteousness,” and in some poetic texts, “victory,” is unaccountably translated as “tolerance.” And the list could go on and on of instances in which Rosenberg’s English equivalents of the Hebrew are freewheeling inventions or downright misprisions.

His truly lethal tactic as a translator, however, and the one on which Bloom builds most, is his decision to make his version a loose—poetic?—variation on the original or an interpretive paraphrase of it. J (like E) is one of the most chastely concise, brilliantly understated writers in the whole Western tradition. He, or she, steadily resists the emotive term, the explicit judgment, the self-explication, the effusive lyric gesture. Alas, these are all traits that Rosenberg promiscuously embraces. In his version, Cain is not “a wanderer and a fugitive in the earth” but “homeless as the blowing wind”—another phrase Bloom cites with relish as though it were in the Hebrew, as though J might really have some stylistic affinity with Bob Dylan. God in Genesis 12 does not just “afflict Pharaoh with great afflictions” but does it “as if with lightning.” The maiden Rebekah, “very fair in appearance,” is turned into a heroine of romance fiction when she is represented as “lovely as an apparition, as fresh.” The burning bush is not simply “this great sight” but “this luminous thing.” The enemies of the Lord in the incantation for the transportation of the ark in Numbers do not merely “scatter” but “disappear like stars.” Thus, the spareness in the use of metaphor that is a hallmark of J’s genius is sunk in a poetaster’s fondness for metaphorical clichés.



It is baffling that a man of Harold Bloom’s intelligence should be guilty of so extreme a lapse in taste, even without the ability to judge the philological issues, as to endorse this translation. What is disturbing is that his construction of J is far too often based on things in Rosenberg undreamt of in J’s philosophy. Let me cite an extended example, one that Bloom himself remarks on in detail at the end of his introduction. He quotes in entirety four English versions of the Tower of Babel story—Tyndale, the King James Version, E. A. Speiser’s 1964 translation, and Rosenberg, in order to explain to the reader Rosenberg’s superiority in conveying the subtle literary art of J. Here is the Rosenberg version:

Now listen: all the earth uses one tongue, one and the same words. Watch: they journey from the east, arrive at a valley in the land of Sumer, settle there.

“We can bring ourselves together,” they said, “like stone on stone, use brick for stone: bake it until hard.” For mortar they heated bitumen.

“If we bring ourselves together,” they said, “we can build a city and tower; its top touching the sky—to arrive at fame. Without a name we’re unbound, scattered over the face of the earth.”

Yahweh came down to watch the city and the tower the sons of man were bound to build. “They are one people with the same tongue,” said Yahweh. “They conceive this between them, and it leads up until no boundary exists to what they will touch. Between us, let’s descend, baffle their tongue until each is scatterbrain to his friend.”

From there Yahweh scattered them over the whole face of the earth; the city there came unbound.

That is why they named the place Bavel; their tongues were baffled there by Yahweh. Scattered by Yahweh, from there, they arrived at the ends of the earth.

Aesthetic considerations aside, this is less an English version of the original than a prefabricated interpretation masquerading as a translation. The bringing ourselves together, with the stones and bricks as a simile for the act of unification, is nowhere to be seen in the Hebrew, and no Hebrew stones clutter this Mesopotamian plain. Bloom speaks of the “dramatic irony” in J’s use of the phrase “between us,” though that phrase does not exist in the Hebrew text, which has only a first-person plural, “let us go down.” Most grievously, Bloom waxes enthusiastic over “Rosenberg’s care in repeating the subtle J’s play upon ‘bound,’ ‘boundary,’ ‘unbound.’” The fact of the matter is that there is not a single word in the nine verses of the Hebrew original that suggests either bound or boundary. Although most of the biblical writers were indeed virtuosos in word-play, as recent literary analysis has repeatedly shown, the only word-play here that has a basis in J is baffle/Bavel (the rather feeble scatterbrain/scatter is still another interpolation of Rosenberg’s). The translator, in other words, has decided that the theme of the story is the violation of boundaries, and through his own heavy-handed puns he has “thematized” this perception in the text—the very last thing that would be done by so magisterially laconic a writer as J.

Such comments as these by Bloom on Rosenberg lead me to the reluctant conclusion that Bloom could not possibly be reading the Bible in the original. He does appear to have enough Hebrew to consult lexicons, not always with great profit, and at one point he provides a translation of his own, which I assume he must have done by looking at existing English versions with some inspection of the Hebrew. But since he does repeatedly refer to Hebrew terms, I am compelled to say that his allusions to Hebrew often betray an ignorance of the language—something that sets his project off from that of Samuel Butler, whose classical Greek was evidently quite sound. J is several times called by Bloom a gevurah in Rehoboam’s royal court, a term he thinks has the meaning “grand lady.” But gevirah is the word for “grand lady,” whereas gevurah can only be an abstract noun, meaning “power” or “bravery.” The effect is like having a French writer tell us that Sir Philip Sidney was a “mastery,” or grand seigneur, in the court of Elizabeth. Bloom follows Rosenberg in imagining that nefesh—“life force,” “vital spirit,” “essential self,” and occasionally “gullet”—can also mean “flesh,” something that would make gibberish of the declaration in Genesis that “the blood is the nefesh.” He is similarly led astray by his translator in claiming that the root ‘rr, a clear Hebrew term for “curse” and repeatedly used as a flat antithesis to “bless,” really means “to bind” (apparently a confusion with the root ‘sr). He informs us that in the phrase “like smoke from the kiln” after the incineration of Sodom, “We are intended to remember the fiery kiln of the covenant vision” in Genesis 15, though in fact entirely unrelated Hebrew terms are used in the two texts. Above all, he repeatedly insists on the aptness of phrases that incorporate Rosenberg’s adjectival and adverbial ornamentation, and on word-play that is all Rosenberg’s—conservatively, 80 percent of Rosenberg’s puns have no basis in the original.



All this does not entirely invalidate Bloom’s bold attempt to rescue the original J from 2,500 years of overlaid editing and institutional interpretation, but it surely casts a large shadow of doubt over his undertaking. Bloom is an intuitive critic, something I happen to admire, but when he says that his “ear” tells him that this or that is J, that such was J’s real intention, or that thus and so must have the original J version displaced by those later dowdy establishment figures, E and P, one is entitled to be skeptical. How can even the most brilliantly intuitive critic “hear” the nice inflections of an author’s voice except in the author’s own language? How seriously would we take someone who claimed that Shakespeare’s sonnets were really written by a contemporary countess if we knew that the critic had read the sonnets mainly in a highly eccentric Italian translation, with intermittent references to the original aided by an Italian-English dictionary?

Bloom’s attitude toward the idea that J was a woman is a little slippery, perhaps appropriately so. He begins by announcing, quite sensibly, that “all our accounts of the Bible are scholarly fictions or religious fantasies, and generally serve rather tendentious purposes.” His own undertaking then is presented as just such a fiction, one for which he offers an excellent justification. “When script becomes Scripture,” he notes, “reading is numbed by taboo and inhibition. Even if imagining an author and calling her J is an arbitrary and personal fiction, something like that imagining is necessary if we are to be stirred out of our numbness.” Fair enough, and the salutary effect of The Book of J, whatever its faults, is precisely that it has the power to stir us from the numbness of automatic response to a sacred text. Not surprisingly, however, as Bloom continues to expatiate on J, “she” more and more becomes a definite historical figure, not an arbritary fiction, assigned a definite location in time, place, and social standing, which in turn is used to explain the intentions of her writing.

The decision about her gender, of which Bloom says he is intuitively convinced, is a fine way to épater les fidèles; every time the pronoun “she” occurs, readers are likely to find themselves shaken out of their preconceptions about the Bible, and that is all to the good. But the argument assumes a high degree of historical specificity (very much like that of Samuel Butler, who was persuaded, quite wrongly, that he had figured out precisely when and in what town of Sicily the authoress of the Odyssey lived, and what were her age and personal condition when she did the writing). J, then, was an aristocratic lady in the court of Rehoboam, a friendly competitor of the author of the David story, with whom she exchanged notes and rough drafts, and a passionate admirer of the figure of David, whom she represented obliquely in her Joseph.

Bloom may have taken heart in his project from Richard Friedman, whose Who Wrote the Bible?, though more circumspect, seeks to pinpoint the temporal, geographic, and social location of each of the major biblical writers. One can admire the intellectual detective work of such undertakings, but given the paucity of reliable historical data we have, especially when anonymous authors who have been edited and combined with each other are involved, historical scholarship is bound to be more than halfway to historical fiction, as Bloom concedes at the beginning but almost forgets thereafter. The difficulties of the task are twofold: dating texts that provide the scantest grounds for fixing them at any point in a span of two or three, sometimes four or more, centuries; teasing out the original separate strands from the received text—the cunningly intertwined work of that genius or villain R, the Redactor (Friedman thinks he was Ezra the Scribe or someone close to Ezra). Perhaps the latter difficulty has been largely overcome by two centuries of text-critical scholarship, though I remain an agnostic about the certitude of identified textual components at a good many specific points. In this connection, every serious student of the Bible should look at Robert Polzin’s Samuel and the Deuteronomist.3 With a massive apparatus of notes and the most detailed reference to previous scholarship, Polzin contends that the neat divisions of the text of Samuel into Deuteronomistic Framework, Ark Narrative, Succession History, and so forth, become unconvincing in the face of the architectonic literary character of the text. Some of Polzin’s arguments for artful unity by way of foreshadowing and allegorization within the narrative of subsequent themes may be too ingenious, but he does put forth a powerful, meticulously documented reading that makes one think twice about the atomistic conclusions of modern biblical scholarship.



But even if we assume that we know confidently in all significant instances what is J, E, and P, there remains the intractable problem of what Sir Edmund Leach has called “unscrambling the omelette.” Perhaps there once was a splendid J narrative from Adam to Moses, but all that is left of it is what R decided to splice with E and P. The J texts that have come down to us, even if they had a much better translator than David Rosenberg, are an intermittent, inadequate story, a poor thing compared to the wonderful orchestration R has made of all his sources and which we are accustomed to read. Richard Friedman aptly concludes his excavative quest for individual authors with a chapter devoted to the splendid complexities and play of tensions of the final synthesis, a whole which he readily declares is greater than the sum of its parts. Bloom, by contrast, is mesmerized by the idea of the individual author of genius, and so for him whatever subsequent tradition did with J emasculates, or rather, defeminizes her unique imaginative authority.

In any case, unscrambling the omelette is actually less insuperable a difficulty than figuring out when the original eggs were laid, and by which hens. Bloom invests more than is prudent in the idea that J flourished in the court of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, in the latter part of the 10th century B.C.E. The evidence that the Pentateuch addresses the politics of the Davidic dynasty right after the split of the monarchy into two kingdoms is, to put it mildly, highly inferential. Bloom latches onto a suggestion of Richard Friedman’s that J refers in code several times to Rehoboam by using the word rahav, “broad,” from which that king’s name is derived. (The word does not occur in E.) But since this is a perfectly common Hebrew adjective, the line of reasoning resembles that of an analyst in some remote future who, looking at English texts of our own period, would locate them in England between 1939 and 1945 because several occurrences of “church” were seized on as veiled allusions to Churchill. Bloom repeatedly relies on the notion that J and the author of the David narrative knew each other personally and undertook parallel literary enterprises focusing on different historical settings. It is a reasonable enough guess that the David author (I happen to think there was one, not several) lived in Jerusalem two or three generations after David, so the proposed location in the court of Rehoboam may not be far from the mark. But was J his contemporary? There is actually a good deal of evidence in 1 and 2 Samuel, as there is in Joshua and Judges, that J’s writing was already a publicly known text, familiar in minute detail, which could be mined for literary allusions. This would obviously not be the case if the narrative of J existed for the David author merely as a friend’s work in progress, according to Bloom’s own fiction.



Let me rapidly review one example I have discussed at length elsewhere in print, in a volume of rather restricted distribution.4 When David’s son Amnon is about to rape his half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13), he clears the room with the words, hotsi’u khol ‘ish me’alai, literally, “Take everyone out from before me,” the selfsame words Joseph uses before he reveals his identity to his brothers. Then he has only the most brutally abrupt words of dialogue to pronounce to Tamar, “Lie with me, my sister,” the very same words, with a shift from masculine imperative to feminine imperative, and the addition of the marker of incest, “my sister,” that Potiphar’s wife uses as she prepares to lay lustful hands on Joseph. In each case, the verbal response of the intended victim of sexual assault is a breathless verbosity that stands in dramatic contrast to the blunt conciseness of the assailant. Finally, after the rape, we are told that Tamar has been wearing a ketonet pasim, an ornamented tunic or “coat of many colors.” Joseph is the only other figure in the whole Bible who is said to wear that garment. Her tunic, like his, may well be bloodied after an act of fraternal violence, since she is a virgin rape-victim.

What we have, then, in 2 Samuel 13, is a brilliantly interwoven thread of allusions to the Joseph story in J’s textual version, shrewdly set in reverse chronological order. The climax of the Joseph story, the self-revelation and the reconciliation with the brothers—“take everyone out from before me”—is here the starting point, a prelude to an act of violence of brother against sister, which will entail fatal consequences. Then the echo of the failed sexual attempt on Joseph in the successful sexual assault on Tamar pointedly stresses the crucial difference in physical vulnerability between male and female: Joseph is able to break away and run outside; Tamar is overpowered, a fact the narrator underscores by choosing three verbs indicating superior strength to represent Amnon’s act. Finally, the ornamented tunic that is the beginning of Joseph’s disaster at the hands of his brothers and a key element in his whole plot, the token of his seeming death, is introduced at the end of Tamar’s story as an emblem of the personal catastrophe and social disgrace she has suffered.

Even in this quick summary of the evidence, it should be apparent that the author of 2 Samuel 13 could have cast such a cunning network of significant allusions only if both he and his audience were quite familiar with J’s Joseph story in a version verbally very close to the one that has come down to us. This would place J at the very least a couple of generations before the David writer.



It is certainly to Bloom’s credit as a literary theorist that through two decades during which Roland Barthes’s idea of the “death of the author” has reigned supreme, when critics became accustomed to speak of “the text” doing things rather than the writer, he has remained resolutely attached to the idea of individual personalities willfully asserting themselves in the act of writing, struggling with other personalities who are their predecessors. J, along with Shakespeare, to whom he often compares her, is his parade example of the “strong writer,” one of the two strongest in our whole tradition; after her, all subsequent writers find themselves “belated,” wrestling in vain to match her achievement. Since, as we have seen, the fixing of temporal priority among biblical writers is by no means simple, it is instructive to note that a new book, working on avowedly Bloomian assumptions, by Leslie Brisman, a Yale colleague and friend of Bloom, uses those assumptions to arrive at precisely the opposite conclusion.5 In Brisman’s ingenious, resourceful reading, J is a belated writer confronted by the deft but orthodox version of the great story of origins already established by E. In this view, J is also seen as a canny, daring, surprising writer, but he (not she here) repeatedly uses those resources to put a new spin on E, to introduce ironies and ambiguities into E’s received version. Perhaps this is a little improbable, but then again, why not? Or why not J and E as contemporaries, as Richard Friedman suggests, the former working in the Southern Kingdom, the latter in the Northern one?

The issue of gender, though constantly flaunted by Bloom, is in the end much less important for him than the notion of J as the ultimate “strong writer.” It must be said that the evidence offered for J’s female identity is rather tenuous. We are repeatedly told, often with engaging wit, that J in Genesis exercises an extraordinary degree of imaginative sympathy for the plight of women and the viewpoint of the female characters. But this is also true of the authors of Judges and Samuel—note the instance of the rape of Tamar—not to speak of later books like Ruth and Esther. By the same reasoning, which Samuel Butler similarly invokes for the Odyssey, one could easily conclude that Anna Karenina, with its splendidly realized if doomed heroine and its large gallery of repulsive, feckless, or clumsy men, must have been written by a woman. The evidence of literary history suggests that there is no reason at all to assume that literary imaginations of the first order are trapped in this fashion within the walls of gender. Bloom goes further in his feminizing view of J, contending that she “had no heroes, only heroines.” I am not sure one should so readily dismiss Jacob as a hero simply because, like Odysseus, he is wily and works himself into ambiguous situations, and Bloom is compelled to exclude the major example of Joseph by claiming that J’s only ideal male figure was David, and Joseph was put forth as a “surrogate” for David. In point of fact, the earliest stratum of literary narrative drawn on by J may have been prior to David. What is clear is that the author of the David story in our received text made explicit verbal allusions to J’s version of both Joseph and Jacob.

The ultimate problem about Bloom’s effort “to seek a reversal of twenty-five hundred years of institutionalized misreading” is not just the paucity and the elusiveness of the literary-historical data but the discrepancy between his Milton-to-Blake conception of authorship and the nature of the ancient texts. For all its startling originality, the Bible as the work of anonymous writers is a strongly traditional form of literary expression in which, for example, even the keenest analysts have difficulty in distinguishing between the style of J and E except on limited terminological grounds. (Samuel Butler made a fundamental mistake analogous to Bloom’s in assuming a definite biography for his authoress, not guessing the Greek epic’s oral-formulaic composition with traditional materials that would be discovered several decades later.) The Documentary Hypothesis is quite properly designated as such, and not as an Authorial Hypothesis. It is generally thought that the Priestly Document, P, is the product of a school of writers, or perhaps the accretion of successive generations of writers. There is no compelling reason to assume that J or E is the unitary work of a single man or woman.

To cite one small instance, Bloom has a good deal to say about J’s cryptic Bridegroom of Blood story in Exodus 4 as a characteristic expression of her imaginative daring. For him, the strange tale of God’s attempt on Moses’ life is of a piece with J’s sophisticated feminine attitude toward the Deity in general, which he describes as “a mother’s somewhat wary but still proudly amused stance toward a favorite son who has grown up to be benignly powerful but also eccentrically irascible.” What this ignores, in regard to both the style and the substance of the episode, is its manifestly archaic character. The consensus of biblical scholarship, with which for once I emphatically concur, sees the Bridegroom of Blood as very old, mythic material, embedded, for reasons we cannot know, in the literary tradition that eventuated in J. It strains credence to imagine that the writer responsible for the psychological probing, the rich comedy, and the stylistic elegance of J’s Joseph was also the “sensibility” that produced the Bridegroom of Blood. For the fundamentalism of revealed faith Bloom substitutes a fundamentalism of authorial personality, and I cannot believe that brings us closer to the distinctive literary nature of the ancient Hebrew texts.



In regard, then, to the character of the writer, his or her gender and historical setting, The Book of J is indeed a fiction or fantasy, and not necessarily a helpful one. There remains to be said a final word or two about Bloom’s larger project. As I have already indicated, by dint of sheer imaginative energy, a willingness to look at the antithetical hidden side of things, he does succeed in opening up a new vista on this text that has determined so much of our culture. His chief contribution is to peel back the thick, multilayered film of religious interpretation and allow us to contemplate the possibility that the earliest major author of the Bible was not really a religious writer, at least not in any sense assimilable to our concepts of religion. “The distinction between sacred and secular texts,” he says at the outset, “results from social and political decisions, and thus is not a literary distinction at all.” He encourages us to see J as a writer continuously delighting in the very possibilities of representing human and divine realities, “uncanny, tricky, sublime, ironic, a visionary of in-commensurates, and so the direct ancestor of Kafka.” J “overwhelms” us, in the Bloomian terminology of strong writing, by determining the very conditions through which the psychology of men and women might be represented in literature. After J, it was only Shakespeare who again “changed us by changing representation itself.” In one respect, even Shakespeare does not match J, for she had the imaginative boldness to conceive God Himself as a complex literary character—a conception that even recent literary analysis has rarely been able to assimilate because we remain in thrall to later, theological imaginings of a transcendent God Who exists beyond the realm of mere literature. Such notions of what Bloom wrily calls a “divine bureaucrat” have little to do with the boldness of J’s imaginative world. Commenting on ancient Hebrew anthropomorphism, Bloom observes that “the normative and the scholarly are crude, while J is sophisticated. Her idea of Yahweh is imaginative, even Shakespearian, while the normative reductions of her Yahweh are quite primitive.”

Looking back over Bloom’s many books, one detects in him a hidden aspiration to move from critic to heresiarch, to become the pathfinder of a Jewish way—alternately literary and Gnostic—antithetical to received religion. In his attempted recovery of J, he has found at the very source of Jewish tradition a figure who articulates a “monistic vitalism” beyond all institutional categories, beyond the neat division of the world into banned and blessed. There are gaping holes in the fabric of his argument, but that does not necessarily mean we should decline his invitation to look at the ancient writings with fresh eyes.


1 Translated from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg, interpreted by Harold Bloom, Grove Weidenfeld, 352 pp., $21.95. The term “J” is an element of the Documentary Hypothesis, initially articulated by German Bible scholars in the 19th century. According to that theory, the first four books of the Pentateuch were woven together by a redactor (R) out of three distinct literary strands which in effect represent different and in many respects competing versions of the traditional history and laws. What are assumed to be the two oldest strands (10th and 9th centuries B.C.E.) are designated J and E after the characteristic names for the Deity each uses—Yahweh (in German spelled with a J) and Elohim. The third strand is thought to stem from priestly circles and hence is called P. Scholarly consensus, not without some vehement dissent, views P as late, perhaps post-Exilic (5th century B.C.E.), possibly just before the final redaction or actually blurring into R. (The Book of Deuteronomy is considered to be an entirely different strand, D, later than either E or J but earlier than P.)

2 Prentice Hall (1988).

3 Harper & Row, 296 pp., $38.95.

4 “Putting Together Biblical Narrative,” in Cabinet of the Muses, edited by Mark Griffith and Donald Mastronarde, Scholars Press, 129 pp. $39.95.

5 The Voice of Jacob: On the Composition of Genesis, Indiana University Press, 144 pp., $22.50.

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