Documentary Hypothesis

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Old Testament


I know some people dispute Moses' authorship of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible), and instead talk about the Documentary Hypothesis. What is that, and how did they arrive at that notion?


The Documentary Hypothesis is just that – a hypothesis. And most recently, scholars aren't too enamored with it. The idea came about in the late 1800s by a man named Wellhausen. He was trying to harmonize some of the inconsistencies, as well as the many repetitions, in the first five books of the Bible. He theorized that at least four strands could be identified as independent documents. He built his premise upon the earlier work of other scholars, so it is typically called the Graf-Wellhausen theory. By studying these strands, Wellhausen believed that scholars could infer much about the times in which they were written. He noted an unmistakable progression from an informal to a more formalized and centralized religion.

Among the strands, he named the first one J (Yahwist or Jahwist source), and posited that it was the first to be written (around 950 BCE) and probably originated in the southern kingdom of Judah. "J" always referred to the deity as Yahweh and used very anthropomorphic terms to describe encounters with him. God is very active in the lives of his people and many of the familiar stories involving the patriarchs in Genesis have been attributed to J.

The next one was called E (Elohist source), which supposedly came from the northern kingdom of Israel and was written around 850 BCE. The distinguishing characteristic name for God was Elohim. Considered to be more spiritually minded, the Elohist focused on prophetic revelation and the covenant. He built his stories around Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. To him belongs the test of Abraham over the binding of Isaac and most of Exodus and Numbers. In this strand, religion pervades every aspect of Israelite life.

The third source was D, or the Deuteronomist. This comprises most of the book of Deuteronomy, though it extends into the historical books of Joshua through Kings. This document dates back to around 600 BCE, when the book of Deuteronomy was "found" during the time of King Josiah's temple reforms. The purpose of the book was to emphasize the responsibilities of the covenant and the consequences that would occur if the obligations were not met. Both the exile and its sufferings were seen as judgment for centuries of ignoring Yahweh and disobeying the law and the covenant. Yet, against all conventional wisdom, Deuteronomy maintained that God would not destroy them completely. This was a message of restraint and grace for those who would repent and turn back to God.

The fourth source was P, named for the Priests who were in exile, around 500-600 BCE, and who wrote of God as the creator of the whole world. Not surprisingly, P also stressed various aspects of the priesthood. Almost of all Leviticus has been attributed to P. The God of P is very interested in rituals, the dietary laws, the making of the tabernacle, and circumcision. Centermost to P is the sanctuary, Temple, or tabernacle. It is only here that Yahweh is available to the people. P's writings are orderly and precise. They are, undoubtedly, the authors of the first chapter in Genesis.

This theory was very popular throughout the 20th century. Indeed, some Bibles were color-coded to highlight one source from another. At times, various scholars introduced slight modifications, but the main theory remained intact. Things began to fall apart in 1987, when Whybray introduced several other models for how the Pentateuch was composed. In his opinion, the documentary hypothesis was the least credible. Whether scholars agreed with him or not, Whybray opened the floodgates for serious study on this issue, which has now led to the rise of numerous theories. But it is truly a case of the more scholars know, the more they realize how little they know. They can agree that many hands were involved in the composition of the Pentateuch, but beyond that, the theories are many, complex, and undetermined. It is a study that is not for the faint of heart.

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