The Public Choice of the Ancient Hebrews
By Bryan Caplan
I just finished Richard Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? It’s a classic popularization of the Documentary Hypothesis, which claims that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) is actually a medley of four earlier sources called J (the Yahwist), E (the Elohist), D (the Deuteronomist), and P (the Priestly source). Friedman’s survey of two centuries of Biblical detective work is quite fascinating. What truly shocked me, however, was learning that a bunch of liberal theologians converged on a vulgar Public Choice theory of the evolution of their most sacred book.
Friedman begins by explaining that J and E are the earliest sources. The most obvious difference between the two is that J always calls God “Yahweh,” while E initially calls him “Elohim.” But it’s the non-obvious differences that are telling. He presents strong evidence that the author of J came from Judah, the southern Jewish kingdom, while the author of E came from Israel, the northern Jewish kingdom. J elevates Aaron and slights Moses; E does the opposite.
What’s going on? Friedman explains that these two countries had conflicting religious establishments. Those in the north – or at least a major faction – were Mushite (claiming descent from Moses); those in the south were Aaronite (claiming descent from Aaron). Through this lens, J and E turn out to be thinly-veiled bids for money and power. Here’s one example of how E tries to push Mushite interests:
Recall that the [Mushite] priests of Shiloh suffered the loss of their place in the priestly hierarchy under King Solomon. Their chief… was expelled from Jerusalem. The other chief priest… who was regarded as a descendant of Aaron, meanwhile remained in power… The Shiloh prophet Ahijah instigated the northern tribes’ secession, and he designated Jeroboam as the northern king. The Shiloh priests’ hopes for the new kingdom, however, were frustrated when Jeroboam established the golden calf religious centers at Dan and Beth-El, and he did not appoint them as priests there. For this old family of priests, what should have been a time of liberation had been turned into a religious betrayal. The symbol of their exclusion in Israel was the golden calves. The symbol of their exclusion in Judah was Aaron. Someone from that family, the author of E, wrote a story that said that soon after the Israelites’ liberation from slavery, they committed heresy. What was the heresy? They worshipped a golden calf! Who made the golden calf? Aaron! [emphasis original]
When the Assyrians conquered Israel, the Mushites came south as refugees, leading to an eventual merger of their two texts. The next major source, D, reflects subsequent conflicts over the centralization of ritual sacrifices – and associated income:
The author of the Deuteronomic law code did not come from the rural Levites either. The first and perhaps foremost law of the code is the centralization of the religion, the requirement that all sacrifices be brought to one central altar. This was the law that put the rural Levites out of business. It meant the destruction of the high places at which they functioned.
The last source, the Priestly, is the most blatant in its special pleading. It’s all about protecting Aaronid priest’s sacrificial commissions:
The centralization of religion meant that if you wanted to eat lamb you could not sacrifice your sheep at home or at a local sanctuary. You had to bring the sheep to the priest at the Temple altar in Jerusalem. This also would mean a sizable gathering of Levite priests at Jerusalem, which was now the only sanctioned location where they could conduct the sacrifices and receive their tithes. It also meant considerable distinction and power for the High Priest in Jerusalem and for the priestly family from which he came.
In P, there are no sacrifices in any of the stories until the last chapter of Exodus. There, the first sacrifice in P is the story of the sacrifice on the day that Aaron is consecrated as High Priest. After all, all sacrifices in P are performed by Aaron or by his sons. The author of P, it seems, did not want to promote the idea that there was a precedent for anyone besides an Aaronid priest to offer a sacrifice.
Finally, after the end of the Babylonian captivity, there was one last great textual merger. It’s probable motive:
By this time, all of his source texts were famous… Besides, there were groups who supported these various texts. The Shiloh Levite priests who had produced E and D may not have been in priestly power in the second Temple days, but that did not mean that they did not exist. They could still raise their voices and protest the authenticity of a Torah that did not include their texts.
I’ll admit that I take a perverse pleasure in all this economic reductionism. But I am only a messenger. If Friedman is fairly representing the academic consensus in his field, even thinkers ordinarily hostile to Public Choice explanations have to take it seriously. After all, if anyone would want to avoid such cynical conclusions, wouldn’t it be theologians?