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Documentary hypothesis

The documentary hypothesis is a theory held by many historians that the five books of Moses (the Torah) are a combination of documents from different sources.

In general, the authorship of all the books of the Bible is still an open topic of research. Historians are interested in learning about who wrote the books of the Bible and when they were written. Modern studies on this subject began in the 1800s, and they constitute a lively field of activity even now. Assigning solid dates to any books of the Bible is difficult. This subject is covered in Dating the Bible.

Table of contents
1 Early Biblical criticism
2 The modern documentary hypothesis
3 Traditional Jewish beliefs
4 Traditional Christian beliefs
5 References
6 External Links
7 See also

Early Biblical criticism

A French physician by the name of Jean Astruc (1684—1766) first introduced the terms Elohist and Jehovist or Elohistic and Jehovistic, applying them to portions of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Noting that the first chapter of Genesis uses only the word "Elohim" for God, while in other sections the word Jehovah is used. In the second and third chapters, the title and name are combined, giving rise to a new conception of the Deity as Jehovah Elohim ("Lord—God" as commonly translated in many English Bibles today). He speculated that Moses may have had compiled the Genesis account from earlier documents, some perhaps dating back to Abraham, and that these had been combined into a single account. So, he began to explore the possibility of detecting and separating these documents and assigning them to their original sources. He did this in the assumption that the varying use of terms indicated different writers.

Using "Elohim" and "Yahweh" as a criterion, Astruc used columns titled respectively "A" and "B", and also set other pieces apart. The A and B narratives he regarded as originally complete and independent narratives. From this was born the practice of Biblical textual criticism that came to be known as higher criticism.

J. G. Eichhorn brought Astruc's book to Germany and further differentiated the two chief documents through their linguistic peculiarities in 1787. However, neither he nor Astruc denied Mosaic authorship, nor analyzed beyond the book of Exodus.

H. Ewald recognized that the documents that later came to be known as "P" and "J" could be seen in other books. F. Tuch showed that they were also recognizable in Joshua.

W. M. L. de Wette (1780—1849) joined the theory to that asserted by 17th century commentators by stating that the Book of Deuteronomy was not written by the author(s) of the first four books of the Pentateuch. In 1805 he attributed Deuteronomy to the time of Josiah (post Moses period). Soon other writers also began considering the idea. By 1823 Eichhorn abandoned claiming Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch.

About 1822, F. Bleek commented about the original relationship of Joshua to the Pentateuch in its continuation of the narrative in Deuteronomy, of which it formed the conclusion. The letters "J" for Jahwist and "E" Elohist were then designated for the documents.

H. Hupfeld followed K. D. Ilgen in identifying two separate documents that used "Elohim". In 1853, Hupfeld set forth Genesis chapters 1-19 and 20 - 50 as being the two separate Elohistic source documents . He also emphasized the importance of the redactor of these documents. The arrangement of the documents that he followed was: First Elohist, Second Elohist, Jehovist, Deuteronomist: J, E, and D.

K. H. Graf showed that Leviticus chapters 17 to 26 were to be discriminated by many individualities from the priestly document, and suggested a fifth document (to which the name "Holiness Code" was attached by A. Klostermann because this body of laws was marked by the declaration of God's holiness, and Israel's duty to be holy as his people.

Julius Wellhausen

In 1886 the German historian Julius Wellhausen published Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (Prolegomena to the History of Israel). In this book he stated: "according to the historical and prophetical books of the Old Testament the priestly legislation of the middle books of the Pentateuch was unknown in pre-exilic time, and that this legislation must therefore be a late development."(2) The letter "P", for priestly, became associated with this view.

Wellhausen argued that the Bible is an important source for historians, but cannot be taken literally. He argued that the "hexateuch," (including the Torah or Pentateuch, and the book of Joshua) was written by a number of people over a long period. Specifically, he narrowed the field to four distinct narratives, which he identified by the aforementioned Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly accounts. He also recognized a Redactor, who edited the four accounts into one text. (Some argue the redactor was Ezra the scribe). Using earlier propositions he argued that each of these sources has its own vocabulary, its own approach and concerns, and that the passages originally belonging to each account can be distinguished by differences in style (especially the name used for God, the grammar and word usage, the political assumptions implicit in the text, and the interests of the author).

Wellhausen argued that from the style and point of view of each source, one could draw inferences about the times in which the source was written (in other words, the historical value of the Bible is not that it reveals things about the events it describes, but rather that it reveals things about the people who wrote it). He argued that the progression evident in these four sources, from a relatively informal and decentralized relationship between people and God in the J account, to the relatively formal and centralized practices of the P account, one could see the development of institutionalized Israelite religion.

A number of Wellhausen's specific interpretations, including his reconstruction of the order of the accounts as J-E-D-P has been questioned, and to a large degree rejected. Biblical scholars today suggest that he organized the narrative to culminate with P because he believed that the New Testament followed logically in this progression. In the 1950s the Israeli historian, Yehezkel Kaufmann, published The Religion of Israel, from Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, in which he argued that the order of the sources would be J, E, P, and D.

The modern documentary hypothesis

The documentary understanding of the origin of the five books of Moses was immediately seized upon by other scholars, and within a few years became the predominant theory. While many of Wellhausen's specific claims have since been dismissed, the general idea that the five books of Moses had a composite origin is now fully accepted by historians.

Note that the documentary hypothesis is not one specific theory. Rather, this name is given to any understanding of the origin of the Torah that recognizes that there are basically four sources that were somehow redacted together into a final version. One could claim that one redactor wove together four specific texts, or one could hold that entire nation of Israel slowly created a consensus work based on various strands of the Israelite tradition, or anything in between. Gerald A. Larue writes "Back of each of the four sources lie traditions that may have been both oral and written. Some may have been preserved in the songs, ballads, and folktales of different tribal groups, some in written form in sanctuaries. The so-called 'documents' should not be considered as mutually exclusive writings, completely independent of one another, but rather as a continual stream of literature representing a pattern of progressive interpretation of traditions and history." (Old Testament Life and Literature 1968)

Fundamentalist Jews and Christians reject the documentary theory entirely, and accept the traditional view that the whole Torah is the work of Moses. For most Orthodox Jews and most traditional Christians, the divine origins of the five books of Moses in its entirety is accepted as a given. Some Christians, such as the translators of the New International Version of the Bible believe that Moses was the author of much of the text, and was the editor and compiler of the rest of the text. Over the last century an entire literature has developed within these religous communities, dedicated to the refutation of higher biblical criticism in general, and the documentary hypothesis in particular. They have had a tendency to focus on the extra-literary analysis of Pentateuchal scholars such as the oral traditionalists.

Richard Elliot Freidman

In recent years attempts have been made to separate the J, E, D, and P portions. Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote The Bible? is a very reader-friendly and yet comprehensive argument explaining Friedman's opinions as to the possible identity of each of those authors, and, more important, why they wrote what they wrote. Harold Bloom then wrote "The Book of J", in which he claims to have reconstructed the book that J wrote (though, certainly, much of J's original contribution must have been lost in the consolidation, if one believes the four-author theory). Bloom (picking up on Friedman's earlier speculation) also indicates that he believes that J was a woman, but this is not accepted by other scholars.

More recently, Friedman came out with The Hidden Book in the Bible, in which he makes a comprehensive argument for his theory that J wrote not only the portions of the Torah commonly attributed to J, but also sections of Judges, Joshua and 1&2 Samuel (which Bloom attributed to another author, whom he called the Court Historian), most notably the bulk of the accounts of the life of King David, with a close thematic interrelationship between the earlier and later portions of what Friedman argues is a single united work by one author of Shakespearean literary ability.

Some scholars assert that the Documentary Hypothesis does make testable predictions that have been verified, such as Professor Jeffrey H. Togay.

One interesting comment about the redaction of the Hebrew Bible can be found in Blenkinsopp (pages 239-243), who notes the following:

After the capture of Babylon by Cyrus II in 539 B.C., Jews living in the province of Judah and the Babylonian diaspora came under Iranian rule which lasted for about two centuries, until the conquest of Alexander. During the two centuries the policy of the Achemenids was to respect the very diverse political and social systems obtaining throughout their vast empire, so long as edicts were obeyed and tribute paid....One aspect of this imperial policy was the insistence on local self-definition inscribed primarily in a codified and standardized corpus of traditional law backed by the central government and its regional representatives. The Persians, it seems, had no unified legal code of their own.

Blenkinsopp then goes on to suggest that redaction may have served a political purpose for the Persians, to provide for the regional law that Judah would have needed.

Hans Heinrich Schmid

Critical analysis that rejects the partitioning scheme of Wellhausen includes Hans Heinrich Schmid, whose 1976 work, Der sogenannie Jahwist or translated, The So-called Yahwist, almost completely eliminates the J document and, according to Blenkinsopp, if taken to its logical extreme, eliminates all narrative sources other than the Deuteronomic author.

The oral traditionalists

There is also the viewpoint of the oral traditionalists. The first of these was Hermann Gunkel, who viewed the Torah originally as a kind of saga, much like the Iliad or Odyssey, passed down by word of mouth by an illiterate people. More recently, this point of view has been represented by Scandanavian scholar Ivan Engnell, who believes the whole of the Torah was transmitted orally to the post-exilic period, at which point it was written down in a single document by the author normally recognized as P.

The view of Heidelberg professor Rolf Rendtorff is that larger chunks of narrative within J and E evolved independently of one another (hence no J and E authors) and that these narrative episodes were combined editorially at a later stage, by a Deuteronomic redactor. In this synthesis, he allows for a post-exilic P source, but far reduced from the notions of Wellhausen.

Internal textual evidence

The main areas considered by these critics when supporting the Documentary Hypothesis are:

  1. The Variations in the Divine Names in Genesis;
  2. The Secondary Variations in Diction and Style;
  3. The parallel or Duplicate Accounts (Doublets);
  4. The Continuity of the Various Sources.
  5. The political assumptions implicit in the text;
  6. The interests of the author.

Doublets and triplets are stories that are repeated with different points of view. Famous doublets include Genesis's creation accounts; the stories of the covenant between God and Abraham; the naming of Isaac; the two stories in which Abraham claims to a King that his wife is really his sister; the two stories of the revelation to Jacob at Bet-El. A famed triplet is the three different versions of how the town of Be'ersheba got its name.

There are many portions of the Torah which seem to imply more than one author. Some examples include:

Traditional Jewish beliefs

The traditional Jewish view is that God revealed his will to Moses at Mount Sinai in a verbal fashion. This dictation is said to have been exactly transcribed by Moses. The Torah was then exactly copied by scribes, from one generation to the next. Based on the Talmud (Tractate Gittin 60a) some believe that the Torah may have been given piece-by-piece, over the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert. In either case, the Torah is considered a direct quote from God.

However, classical Judaism notes a number of exceptions: Over the millennia scribal errors have crept into the text of the Torah. The Masoretes (7th to 10th centuries CE) compared all extant variations and attempted to create a definitive text. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra and Joseph Bonfils observed that some phrases in the Torah present information that should only have been known after the time of Moses. Some classical rabbis drew on their obervations to postulate that these sections of the Torah were written by Joshua or perhaps some later prophet. Other rabbis would not accept this view.

The Talmud (tractate Shabbat 115b) states that a peculiar section in the book of Numbers 10:35-36, surrounded by inverted Hebrew letter nuns, in fact is a separate book. On this verse a Midrash on the book of Mishle states that "These two verses stem from an independent book which existed, but was suppressed!" Another, possibly earlier midrash, Ta'ame Haserot Viyterot, states that this section actually comes from the book of prophecy of Eldad and Medad. The Talmud says that four books of the Torah were dictated by God, but Deuteronomy was written by Moses in his own words (Talmud Bavli, Megillah 31b). For more information on these issues from an Orthodox Jewish perspective, see Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, edited by Shalom Carmy (Jason Aronson, Inc.) and Handbook of Jewish Thought, Volume I, by Aryeh Kaplan (Moznaim Pub.)

Individual rabbis and scholars have on occasion pointed out that the Torah showed signs of not being written entirely by Moses.

Traditional Christian beliefs

The traditional view among Christians was that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, apart from a number of passages, such as the death of Moses, written by his successor Joshua. However, a number of Enlightenment Christian writers expressed doubts about this traditional view. For example, in the 16th century, Carlstadt noticed that the style of the account of the death of Moses was the same as that of the preceding portions of Deuteronomy, suggesting that whoever wrote about the death of Moses also wrote larger portions of the Torah.

By the 17th century, some commentators argued outright that Moses did not write most of the Pentateuch. For instance, in 1651, Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, ch. 33, argued that the Pentateuch was written after Moses's day on account of Deut. 34:6 ("no man knoweth of his sepulchre to this day"), Gen. 12:6 ("and the Canaanite was then in the land"), and Num. 21:12 (referring to a previous book of Moses's deeds). Others include Isaac de la Peyrère, Spinoza, Richard Simon, and John Hampden. Nevertheless, these people found their works condemned and even banned, and de la Peyrère and Hampden were forced to recant.


Allis, Oswald T. The Five Books of Moses, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Phillipsburg, New Jersey, USA, 1949, pages 17 and 22.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph The Pentateuch, Doubleday, NY, USA 1992.

Bloom, Harold and Rosenberg, David The Book of J, Random House, NY, USA 1990.

Campbell, Joseph "Gods and Heroes of the Levant:1500-500 B.C." The Masks of God 3: Occidental Mythology, Penguin Books, NY, USA, 1964.

Dever, William G. What Did The Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It? William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, USA, 2001.

Finklestein, I. and Silberman, N. A. The Bible Unearthed, Simon and Schuster, NY, USA, 2001.

Friedman, Richard E. Who Wrote The Bible?, Harper and Row, NY, USA, 1987.

Friedman, Richard E. The Hidden Book in the Bible, HarperSan Francisco, NY, USA, 1998.

Kaufmann, Yehezkel, Greenberg, Moishe (translator) The Religion of Israel, from Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Larue, Gerald A. Old Testament Life and Literature, Allyn & Bacon, Inc, Boston, MA, USA 1968

McDowell, Josh More Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Historical Evidences for the Christian Scriptures, Here's Life Publishers, Inc. 1981, p. 45.

Nicholson, E. The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen Oxford University Press, 2003.

Spinoza, Benedict de A Theologico-Political Treatise Dover, NY, USA, 1951, Chapter 8.

Tigay, Jeffrey H. "An Empirical Basis for the Documentary Hypothesis" Journal of Biblical Literature Vol.94, No.3 Sept. 1975, pages 329-342.

Tigay, Jeffrey, Ed. Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, USA 1986

Wiseman, P. J. Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, TN, USA 1985

External Links

See also