Documentary Hypothesis

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The Documentary Hypothesis, in its broadest sense, is an attempt to identify various source documents from which the present text of the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the historical books of Genesis through Joshua, is derived. In a more restricted sense, it is applied to a line of reasoning that found its full expression in the work of the German theologian Julius Wellhausen, with subsequent developments by many other scholars, and which has as a central tenet the idea that different names of God in the Pentateuch (or Pentateuch plus Joshua) indicate different authors or editors, and these authors/editors lived long after the events they were describing.

The great majority of liberal Bible experts accept one or another version of the Documentary Hypothesis. However it is rejected by Fundamentalists, including the 4,000 or more members of the Evangelical Theological Society, most of whom have advanced degrees and hold various teaching positions in religious and secular academic institutions.

Documentary sources indicated in the Scripture

The idea that there were source documents behind much of the original text of Scripture is encouraged by the Bible itself, since there are numerous references to pre-existing materials that were drawn from when the text was written, and which are either recommended for further reference or are cited as the source from which the text was summarized. In Joshua 10:13, the Book of Jasher (sefer ha-yasher, Book of the Upright) is cited as the source of the poetic fragment regarding the sun and moon standing still during Joshua's war against the Canaanites. In 2 Samuel 1:18, David's dirge at the death of Saul was recorded in this same book, indicating it was being maintained as a long-term record of certain aspects of Israel's history. In Numbers 21:14,15, the "Book of the Wars of the Lord" is cited for a description of the extent of Moabite territory. In the books of Kings and Chronicles, the reader is frequently reminded that more complete histories relating the events that happened during the reign of the mentioned king can be found in the official chronicles of the kings of Judah or the chronicles of the kings of Israel. Because these are explicitly named as sources from which the present text was extracted, or which could be cited to corroborate that text, it would also be reasonable to assume that there were other literary works which were not named but which also figured in the creation of the existing (canonical) text.

Early critical developments: Astruc through Wellhausen

In a more restricted sense, the "Documentary Hypothesis" refers not just to any attempt to identify the precursors to the existing text of the historical books of the Hebrew Bible, but to a particular line of reasoning and development that started with a French physician named Jean Astruc (1684-1786).[1] Astruc noticed that the only name for God in the first chapter of Genesis was Elohim, but in Genesis 2:4b a new name (Yahweh) is introduced, and he took this as an indication that the text of 2:4b and following was by a different author than the author of the first chapter of Genesis. Since two names or titles of God are often found together and even adjacent in the same verse, as is the case in Genesis 2:4, he further surmised that there was some mixing of sources, in keeping with his basic assumption that one author could only use one name for God. A further assumption was that the existence of two similar stories, such as the trouble over Sarah and the Egyptians in Genesis 12 and a comparable conflict regarding Sarah and the Philistines in Genesis 20, implied different source documents or authors.

Astruc's writing was not intended to cast doubt on the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. It was, instead, intended to show that Moses would have used sources from different authors in his compilation of its first book, Genesis. His goal was to counter the criticisms of 17th century skeptics such as Spinoza who had argued against the Mosaic authorship, and indeed the basic integrity, of the Torah. Astruc's idea was generally consistent with a high view of the divine origin and inspiration of Scripture. In particular, it is consistent with the later development of the so-called "Tablet Theory" of P. J. Wiseman, a theory which also postulates separate authors in the book of Genesis, but which, unlike subsequent theories of the classical Documentary Hypothesis, was based on a study of ancient literary conventions in Mesopotamia in the second millennium BC and earlier. The Tablet Theory is usually not considered in discussions of the Documentary Hypothesis, however, because its basic tenets are consistent with the a viewpoint that says that the early chapters of Genesis were generally recorded by eyewitnesses of the events recorded, and are thus historical, whereas the developers of the Documentary Hypothesis followed presuppositions that ruled out such a possibility.

Although the finding that there was only one name used for God in the first chapter of Genesis was a valid and potentially meaningful observation, there was a certain amount of subjectivity in other aspects of Astruc's approach. This might be excused when it is considered that the basic writings styles of the ancient Near East were not known in the 18th century, and the great decipherments of these scripts and languages were still in the future. However, it was this subjectivity, or the imposition of modern western cultural ideas based on the scholars' presuppositions, that was to become the hallmark of later developments in the literary criticism of the Pentateuch. Various scholars set out to identify the "sources" of not only the Pentateuch, but of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, using very precise philological techniques. However, the "precision" of those techniques was such that there has been one scholar's "precise" technique contradicted another scholar's precise technique, as is know to all who have studied the developments of the Documentary Hypothesis, and is shown in part by the confusing and mutually contradictive theories explained below as further developments after Wellhausen.

Significant developments in this regard were the following.

  • In 1780-1783, Gottfried Eichorn divided the book of Genesis plus the first two chapters of Exodus into two source, J (for Jahwist or Yahwist) and E (source that used Elohim for name of God). In his later writing he assumed these sources were by someone other than Moses, at a later date than the historical Moses.
  • In 1805, Wilhelm De Wette published his idea that the book of Deuteronomy was not from the pen of Moses, but instead was a creation from the days of Josiah, with the purpose of centralizing control under the Jerusalem priesthood. This conjectured document was labeled 'D', for 'Deuteronomic.' It consisted of most of the book of Deuteronomy plus whatever texts elsewhere might seem to support the centralization of worship. De Wette's theory offered an alternative to the repeated Biblical statements ("The Lord said to Moses . . .") that the main contents of Deuteronomy were given by revelation to Moses during Israel's time in the wilderness; the Bible only says the Ten Commandments were given to Moses.
  • Various other authors contributed their ideas about the way the sources of the Pentateuch should be divided. Important in this regard was Herman Hupfield's 1853 work, Die Quellen der Genesis (The Sources of Genesis), in which he divided the hypothesized "E" document into two parts, E1 and E2. Hupfield's E1 document was classified as the 'P' or Priestly document by later writers. Hupfield placed E1 (or P) as the earliest of these sources, so that his sequence of development was P, E, J, D.
  • In 1866, Carl Heinrich Graf advocated that the priestly and legal portions of the Pentateuch were a later development than the 7th century 'D' document.
  • This idea was seized on by Julius Wellhausen, who saw that it showed an evolutionary development of the religion of Israel, in which the 'P' or priestly phase was the last phase of that development before the closure of the Old Testament canon. These ideas were developed in Wellhausen's influential books, notably Die Komposition des Hexateuchs (The Composition of the Hexateuch, 1876) and Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (Prolegomena [Introduction] to the History of Israel, 1878).

Developments after Wellhausen

Wellhausen's writing proved very influential for subsequent scholarship and for popularization of the idea that the majority of Old Testament scriptures were written, not by historians who were contemporaneous with the events described, but by unknown personalities, generally from a much later date, who fabricated stories about Israel's history in order to advance their own theological, social, or personal agenda. Wellhausen wrote well, and his ideas were in keeping with the anti-supernatural outlook fostered by Darwin's evolutionary ideas. Consequently, many other scholars, first in Germany and then elsewhere, devoted their efforts to refining or expanding the central tenets of the Documentary Hypothesis. The sheer number of scholarly publications that resulted led many who had not examined the issues closely to conclude that the scholarly world by and large had abandoned any belief that the "books of Moses" could have been written by Moses, and also any belief that the books of the Old Testament were inspired in any meaningful sense. Even in his own time, Wellhausen could relegate those who disagreed with his opinions as belonging to a pre-scientific or unscientific mindset, with such generalizations as, "About the origin of Deuteronomy there is still less dispute; in all circles where appreciation of scientific results can be looked for at all, it is recognised that it was composed in the same age as that in which it was discovered, and that it was made the rule of Josiah's reformation."[2] Similar statements are made to this day about those who challenge the JEDP and its later developments, even though, from the very first, various Fundamentalist scholars have issued warnings that something was drastically wrong with the underlying presuppositions of the theory. Among scholars who try to refute some of the basic tenets of this kind of scholarship were Ernst Hengstenberg, who defended the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch in The Genuineness of the Pentateuch (1847), Wilhelm Moeller, an original supporter of the JEDP theory, in Against the Curse of Source Division (1912), in which he showed that the multiple references to Genesis through Numbers in Deuteronomy contradicted that Deuteronomy (D) was written before the supposed 'J' and 'E' texts of those books.

Further developments of the JEDP theory, and ramifications of it, are complex and are perhaps best explained by understanding the two basic principles that (1) The theory, ever since the days of Astruc, but more particularly since the time of De Wette, was based on subjective presuppositions whereby the modern western scholar thought that he could properly read his ideas into ancient Near Eastern texts, and, associated with this, (2) The ancient methods of writing were generally not known, and even when they were known they were not consulted, in developing the scholar's theory. These two principles explain the great diversity of opinions into which liberal scholarship has fallen in post-Wellhausen developments. When theories are based on presuppositions, not evidence, a necessary consequence is that different sets of presuppositions will produce different results. Thus Otto Eisfeldt could see an "L" source within "J"; Julius Morgenstern thought he could carefully discern a "K" source, Pfeiffer an "S" source, Mowinckel taught that J and E should probably be combined, and Gunkel's form-critical approach basically eliminated the distinctions between J, E, and P. Martin Noth theorized that Deuteronomy through 2 Kings was the work of an author ("the Deuteronomist") who lived in the exilic period, with additions made by others after the exile.[3] Subsequent scholars have shown their erudition by dviding Noth's Deuteronomist into Dtr1, Dtr2, etc. Divergent opinions like this, based on each scholar's "insights" into how he or she think the text could have been formed, continue unto the present.

The Documentary Hypothesis and the findings of archaeology

In addition to this fundamentally unscientific method of developing theories based on presuppositions, so that there is such a divergence of opinions, the other factor that has caused dramatic changes to the Documentary Hypothesis has been the decipherment of ancient inscriptions that shed light on the literary conventions of the first millennium BC and earlier. One such finding was that more than one name of a god was used in the same original document. This has been firmly established by original writings from Egypt, Ugarit, and elsewhere in the Near East. This should have been taken into account earlier, since it the Qur'an, which is manifestly by only one author, has many names for Allah. Nevertheless, the division of sources according to the name of God that is used has always been a central tenet of the Documentary Hypothesis, as even indicated by its alternate name, the "JEDP" theory. It is therefore somewhat curious that some scholars still write of the "E" document vs. the "J" document, or similar distinctions as if there remains any valid historical support for their analysis. Another finding was that doublets (repeated accounts of the same event) were also a literary device in antiquity, so that, for instance, the "Song of Deborah" in Judges ch. 5 was not necessarily written by a different author, in a different timeframe, than the narrative description of the same victory over Hazor in the preceding chapter. Ancient authors were perfectly capable of writing both poetry and prose and combining them in this fashion in the same document. The ancient device of the Chiasmus, unknown to Wellhausen, when rediscovered by modern scholars, demonstrates that the Flood account (probably the most elegant example of a chiasm in the whole Bible) is an artistic unity, contrary to critics who, even to the present time, are confident that this account must be divided between the imaginary J,E, or P editors/compilers. Noth sees 15 fragments of the Flood account as belonging to P and 17 fragments as belonging to J or JE. He has no discussion of the chiasm of the account.[4]

The Ketef Hinnom amulets

It was remarked above that the distinguishing mark of the classical Documentary Hypothesis was the thesis that Israel's religion followed an evolutionary course of development, with the P or Priestly phase being the last phase, and the P document, constructed by the priests in the post-exilic period, was the last part of the Pentateuch to be written. It is of some interest to note, therefore, that an inscription that Wellhausen attributed to the so-called 'P' source has been found at Ketef Hinnom, just outside the city area of Jerusalem. The inscription was on one of two tiny silver scrolls that were apparently used as amulets. It contained a shortened form of the "priestly blessing" of Numbers 6:24-26, a passage that is assigned by the Documentary Hypothesis to 'P'. Scholars who examined the writing determined that the scrolls were created during the last days of the Judean monarchy, before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC.[5] This dating contradicts the idea that 'P' was a post-exilic invention. The usual response from those who are committed to a late-date theory of composition of the Bible has been to say that some portions of 'P' or other documents in the JEDP theory may come from an earlier time, while still maintaining that the main elements of the document are late—always later than the time that a straightforward reading of the text would indicate. By following this procedure, scholars who advocate some form of the Documentary Hypothesis can dispose of any evidence from archaeology that would threaten the hypothesis and their scholarly presuppositions.

Other scholars have explained the Ketef Hinnom finding by just moving pack the time of the Priestly writings to a date early enough to accommodate the date of the scrolls, always being cautious to make sure that it is not too early (time of Moses). Frequent adjustments in dates like this have not been necessary for Fundamentalist Biblical scholars. The Ketef Hinnom finding is compatible with the traditional idea that Deuteronomy and the 'P' texts are all from the time of Moses. At the same time, it must be realized even if a similar inscription was found from a context several hundred years earlier, that still would not be a proof of Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy. It would, however, require another adjustment of the "assured results" of liberal, anti-supernatural scholarship.

Other findings from archaeology

Findings like these have meant that even many of those within the scholarly community who share the anti-supernatural bias of De Wette and Wellhausen have had to abandon the basic tenets of their theories because of the knowledge that has been gained from archaeology about the writing methods of antiquity. But archaeology has contributed other information that has caused a new appreciation and understanding of the historical background of, for instance, the time of the patriarchs. The eminent Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen has contributed many articles[6][7][8] showing that the literary background of the first books of the Bible reflects the second millennium BC, not the exilic or post-exilic time that is still advocated, and written about as if it is a proven fact, by those who share the results of Wellhausen's analysis even after its basic underpinnings have been falsified.

Cyrus Gordon (1908-2001) was undoubtedly one of the greatest experts in the languages of the ancient Near East. In a 1949 article, Gordon publicly rejected the Documentary Hypothesis as an unscientific theory, saying it was based on presuppositions rather than archaeological facts. Gordon knew about 30 languages, exceeding in this regard, and in his knowledge of ancient writing practices, the majority if not all the scholars who continued to uphold the Documentary Hypothesis in the 20th and 21st centuries.

From his studies of Ugaritic material Gordon became aware of the high degree of culture in Canaan prior to the emergence of the Hebrews as a sedentary people, and as a result he was able to reject quite readily the notion advanced by earlier literary critics that the formative stages of Israelite religion and society were essentially primitive. Gordon suggested as a conclusion to his article that subsequent Old Testament studies could only be based most satisfactorily upon an exacting and accredited scientific methodology in which the spurious and imaginary would be rejected in favor of the genuine and factual, and the a priori deductive system of classical liberalism replaced by an inductive approach that would pursue with resolution any specific direction indicated by the facts of the situation.[9]

Perhaps the only other person in recent times who had such a command of ancient languages and of ancient literary techniques was Fundamentalist Gleason Archer Jr. (1916-2004). Archer, like Gordon, also knew about 30 languages, and he wrote extensively on textual issues and the literary sources of the Old Testament. Archer had a law degree from Suffolk University in Boston. Based on this legal training he was able to make the following comments about the circular reasoning followed by advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis when they assigned any Scriptural texts that disagreed with their ideas to the interpolations of a late-date editor, and then made such statements as "J knows nothing of the Levitical priesthood":

To sum up, it is very doubtful whether the Wellhausen hypothesis is entitled to the status of scientific respectability. There is so much of special pleading, circular reasoning, questionable deductions from unsubstantiated premises that it is absolutely certain that its methodology would never stand up in a court of law. Scarcely any of the laws of evidence respected in legal proceedings are honored by the architects of this Documentary Theory. Any attorney who attempted to interpret a will or statute or deed of conveyance in the bizarre and irresponsible fashion of the source-critics of the Pentateuch would find his case thrown out of court without delay.[10]

The Documentary Hypothesis is taught in at most universities and seminaries.

See also

External links


  1. Jean Astruc, Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux dont il paroit que Moyse s'est servi pour composer le livre de la Génèse. Avec des remarques qui appuient ou qui éclaircissent ces conjectures ("Conjectures on the original memoranda that it appears Moses used in composing the Book of Genesis. With remarks that support or clarify these conjectures"). Brussels, 1753.
  2. Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel (New York: World, 1961), p. 9. Originally published as Prolegomena zur geschichte Israels (Berlin: 1882).
  3. Martin Noth, The Deuteronomic History (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1981).
  4. Martin Noth, A History of Pentateuchal Traditions, tr. Bernhard Anderson (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1972) p. 17.
  5. Barkay, G., A.G. Vaughn, M.J. Lundberg & B. Zuckerman, "The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom: A New Edition and Evaluation," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 334 (2004) pp. 41-71.
  6. Kenneth A. Kitchen, "The Factual Reliability of the Old Testament in the 21st Century"
  7. Kitchen, "The Patriarchal Age: Myth or History?" Biblical Archaeology Review 21 (1995) pp. 48-57, 92-95.
  8. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003).
  9. R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1969) p. 516, summarizing Cyrus Gordon, Ugartic Literature (Rome: Pontificum Institutum Biblicum, 1949) pp. 6f.
  10. Gleason L. Archer, Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1964) p. 99.