Last week I posted on Josiah's religious reforms, which were apparently motivated by the discovery of an early version of what we now have as the book of Deuteronomy. I also suggested that the second half of 2 Kings (recounting Josiah's reign as king) was a good place to start reading the Old Testament. To complement 2 Kings (the last book in the Deuteronomistic History or "DH"), I'll next read Deuteronomy (the first book in DH) and Jeremiah (which shows marked stylistic similarities to DH). And just what is this Deuteronomistic History?
The Deuteronomistic History
My Oxford Guide to the Bible defines the Deuteronomistic History as "a term used by biblical scholars for a hypothetical work composed in ancient times that consisted of the books of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings." It explains that in 1943 Martin Noth proposed single authorship (or editorship, really) by a writer living during the Exile for the long narrative arc of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. Later, Frank Moore Cross extended this view, positing a first edition of DH written in the time of Josiah and culminating in his kingship and religious reforms, followed a generation later, in exile, with a revised second edition of DH explaining why everything fell apart and why the leading Judeans, covenant worshippers of the all-powerful God of Israel, were now living in exile in Babylon.
A very readable presentation of this and later scholarship is found in chapter 5, 6, and 7 of Richard Eliot Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? I'll pull some useful quotations. First, Friedman's summary. The aforementioned Martin Noth
showed that there was a strong unity between Deuteronomy and these six books of the Early Prophets. The language of Deuteronomy and parts of these other books was too similar for coincidence. Noth showed that this was not a loose collection of writings, but rather a thoughtfully arranged work. It told a continuous story, a flowing account of the history of the people of Israel in their land. It was not by one author. It contained various sections, written by various people .... The finished product, nonetheless, was the work of one person. That person was both a writer and an editor. (p. 103.)
This writer and editor is named "the Deuteronomist," an English word, fashioned from a Greek word, that designates a Hebrew narrative. Who was he? Friedman thinks it was Jeremiah, based in part on linguistic and thematic similarities that the book of Jeremiah shares with DH. He notes that Jeremiah was "in the right places at the right times" to author both the first and revised version of DH, and that he "possessed the literary skill needed for this achievement." Friedman notes that Jeremiah's scribe, Baruch, is another candidate for the Deuteronomist. Or it could have been "a collaboration, with Jeremiah, the poet and prophet, as the inspiration, and Baruch, the scribe, as the writer who intepreted history through Jeremiah's conceptions" (p. 147).
A last point (and this was raised in the comments to my prior post) is whether Jermiah's purported authorship of DH makes him or the resulting work a fraud. Friedman thinks not.
[H]e was no fraud, pious or otherwise. He built his history around the Deuteronomic law code, which was an authentically old document, and which he may well have believed to be by Moses himself. He used other old documents as well, and he fashioned a continuous history out of them. His own additions to that history gave it structure, continuity, and meaning. His last chapters told events that he had witnessed personally. There need not be anything fraudulent in any of this. Quite the contrary. It rather apears to be a sincere attempt, by a sensitive and skillful man, to tell his people's history — and to understand it. As a historian, he painted his people's heritage. As a prophet, he conceived of their destiny. (p. 149.)
Is It Helpful?
I think so. The idea that Jeremiah had a hand in creating the final narrative of the book of Deuteronomy as we have received it (as Friedman notes, editing and expanding the earlier Deuteronomic law code) makes the book more interesting to me. The high hopes that the narrative in 2 Kings plainly displays for Josiah and his reforms, followed so abruptly by his death and the destruction of the Judean state, make more sense in light of the two editions theory. Even the explicit mention of Baruch the scribe at a few spots in the book of Jeremiah seems to take on new significance, sort of a scribal cameo.
Other DMI posts on the Old Testament