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For amateurs, scholar says, Bible's a Rorschach test.

SAN DIEGO -- Practically everybody thinks he or she is an expert on the Bible, according to biblical scholar Richard E. Friedman.

Friedman, a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, San Diego, who addressed a recent Council for the Advancement of Science on "|Sciene' and the Bible," admitted to having a chip on his shoulder.

"My field more than any other, I think, is done by people who aren't in the field," he told the science writers. For example, he said, in most American universities the Bible is taught by professors of English who cannot read the book in the original.

"I don't do A.D.," said Friedman, who has his doctorate in theology from Harvard, but he then proceeded to do a job on scientists and others who venture into the biblical field with strong opinions, little knowledge, no biblical training and no relevant languages.

He derided a scientist who said the river turning to red was the earth passing through the tail of a red comet and an applied nuclear physicist who wrote that the implications of general relativity and Doppler shifts in light are an essential part in understanding the opening chapters of Genesis, "which," said Friedman, "will come as a surprise to Moses."

Friedman also joked about novelist P.D. James' referral at a BBC symposium to the Bible as the greatest work of English literature. "You must admit," said Friedman, "that our Hebrew and Greek translations did a marvelous job of capturing the spirit of the original."

Playwright Peter Shaffer (Equus, Amadeus), who was also at the BBC symposium, commented on "the wrathful, angry God of the Old Testament," which could perhaps explain the modern Israelis, Friedman said. "Until that night, he was my favorite living playwright," he said.

Friedman, a keen biblical archaeologist, admitted that people are free to pursue subjects they are not specialists in. "But there's something about the Bible," he said. "People come in to show us what the professionals have been missing," people such as the fundamentalist group from Wichita who said they had found the lost ark of the covenant and had photographs they would produce -- later.

Another group found the other ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey, Friedman said. "They saw a wooden-boat shape up there," he said. "As soon as they say |boat' you know that they're faking. Ark is an old English word for box; the measurements in the Bible are rectangular.... The wood was carbon-dated to 200-400 A-D."

"My life's work has been uncovering various authors of the Bible," said a cheery Friedman, a man apparently not given to false modesty. Author of Who Wrote the Bible, Friedman spoke, too, of Isaac B. Singer, who wrote on Genesis and stated that Genesis "is all by one author -- I can feel it."

Then, said Friedman, there is the new book on the unknown biblical author "J." Friedman in his earlier book had suggested that possibly "J" was a woman.

The new book, he said, uses a translator not trained in Biblical Hebrew -- "you don't let little stuff like that stop you" -- and the free-form translator spoke of the tenses being indistinct, moving back and forth between past, present and future. "There are no tenses in Biblical Hebrew," said Friedman in an aside.

He explained that, in The Book of J, which includes the Adam and Eve story, the literal translation of one segment is, "Your longing will be to your man and he will rule over you."

The Bible is "the ultimate Rorschach" test, said Friedman, for in the free form it was translated: "To your man's body your belly will rise for he will be eager above you,' which," said Friedman, "at least is an explanation of the origin of the missionary pose."

People focus on the Bible as literature because they know it is something else, said Friedman. "It is a sacred book. . . whoever controls it has power."

But historians, "even respectable ones, get utterly lost" in it, he said. Among the nonspecialists, Friedman said, psychologists seemed to do best with Bible commentary; he spoke warmly of Sigmund Freud, who approached the topic "humbly," and acknowledged Erich Fromm.

As a speaker, Friedman did best when he did not venture beyond B.C. In A.D. he told the hoary, old story about Mary throwing the stone (because she was without sin) and put a rather tasteless postscript on a question about Jesus' followers. Other than that, he was incisive and witty, as he would himself admit.

Perhaps his best salvo was aimed at the group of four researchers who put biblical texts -- unwittingly attributing the wrong authors to 29 of the texts -- through the computer looking for authorship clues from style.

Friedman simply quoted their summary: "Genesis will continue to be a rich field for research, and all the four of us researchers can look forward to is having supplied it with some new fertilizer."
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Title Annotation:Richard Friedman
Author:Jones, Arthur
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Dec 4, 1992
Words:825
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