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What’s Documentary Hypothesis; OR who wrote the Pentateuch

Not that kind of documentary. This is about biblical sources. There are a lot of theories and debates on who wrote what parts of the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) and when. Documentary Hypothesis is one of them and seeks to explain the composition of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) known as the Pentateuch or Torah. In tradition, the author is Moses. The theory disputes that and suggests that these books are not from a single author but rather a compilation, or, really, an amalgamation, of multiple sources written over different periods of time.

Rendtorff gives a pretty good summary of the main idea:

“The main element of this frame, as mentioned above, was the conviction that the Pentateuch was not a literary unity, but was composed of a number of ‘sources’ that originally existed independently of each other in written form and were later brought together by one or more ‘redactors(s)'(Rendtorff 45)

A main proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis and the one who started it in the first place is  Julius Wellhausen in the 19th century. According to this hypothesis, four main sources, denoted by the letters J, E, D, and P, were woven together by later editors to create the final version of the Pentateuch. We should really note that these are largely hypothetical, except maybe D. 

Table of Contents

The Sources

J (Yahwist)- This source is characterized by its use of the divine name Yahweh, and by anthropomorphism, such as walking in Eden or forming Adam like a potter.  Because it so mentions southern locations, it is thought to have originated in the southern territory of Judah. Coogan states that “The J Source is the fullest of the four sources; when isolated from the others, it can be read as a fairly continuous narrative”(52).

E (Elohist)- This source uses the term Elohim for God and is associated with the northern part of Israel. Here the deity is more remote, acting indirectly instead of directly, through dreams or messengers.

D (Deuteronomist)- Like the name suggests, this source is closely connected with the Book of Deuteronomy. It is often considered to have been composed during the reign of King Josiah in the late 7th century BCE.

P (Priestly)- This source is characterized by its interest in priestly matters, rituals, and genealogies. Additionally, the deity here is even more remote, never appearing directly or indirectly.

Here’s a TL;DR table comparing them

SourceAttributesSupposed OriginsExample Sections
JYahwistic, uses the name “Yahweh” for God10th century BCE (approx.) – Southern Kingdom (Judah)Genesis 15:1-21 (God’s Covenant with Abraham)
EElohist, uses the generic term “Elohim” for God8th century BCE (approx.) – Northern Kingdom (Israel)Genesis 21:17 (divine messenger)
DDeuteronomic, associated with the Book of Deuteronomy7th century BCE – Josiah’s ReformDeuteronomy 5:6-21 (Ten Commandments)
PPriestly, focuses on rituals, genealogies, and legal matters6th-5th century BCE (Post-Exilic)Genesis 9:4-6 (dietary law)

The Documentary Hypothesis attempts to explain the presence of duplicate accounts (see below for example), differing styles, and apparent contradictions within the Pentateuch. Scholars argue that by identifying these distinct sources, it is possible to better understand the historical and theological development of the text.

To illustrate how these sources are woven together, consider the flood narrative(s) in Genesis. There are two different ones. The J source might emphasize certain aspects of the story, such as the covenant with Noah (Genesis 8:20-22), while the P source may contribute details about the dimensions and construction of the ark and the inclusion of animals (Genesis 6:9-22). The presence of different styles, terminology, and theological emphases in various parts of the Pentateuch is what scholars use to identify and differentiate these source documents within the overall framework of the Documentary Hypothesis.

Not Universally Accepted

This isn’t like the theory of evolution. It’s not just a given that a scholar will accept it.  There are alternative theories and perspectives on the authorship and composition of the Pentateuch. (Along with literally everything else…) Some scholars propose variations or modifications to the hypothesis, while others defend a more traditional view of Mosaic authorship, attributing the entire Pentateuch to Moses. And even within the theory itself there are Neo Documentarians with slightly different views. See: The Neo-Documentarian Manifesto: A Critical Reading, Schmid, for more details on that. Others reject it outright, as Greifenhagen notes: 

“As historical-critical scholarship has shown, the Pentateuch incorporates various earlier traditions. However, the exact nature of the composition of the Pentateuch, and the sources and traditions upon which is draws, are today hotly debated, disrupting the earlier virtual scholarly consensus around the documentary hypothesis associated with Wellhausen” (207)

Is it real? Is it accurate? Who knows. And I’d argue that it doesn’t matter. But it’s important to know about because it was influential in biblical scholarship for some time and it thus shapes interpretations and scholarship from that time.

Bibliography

Coogan, Michael (2011), The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures.. Oxford University Press

Greifenhagen, Franz (2003),  Egypt on the Pentateuch’s Ideological Map: Constructing Biblical Israel’s Identity, Bloomsbury Publishing

Rendtorff, Rolf (1997), Directions in Pentateuchal Studies, Currents in Research: Biblical Studies, (5)

Schmid, Konrad (2021) The Neo-Documentarian Manifesto: A Critical Reading, Journal of Biblical Literature 140, no. 3 (2021):461-479

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