Documentary Hypothesis

The documentary hypothesis (DH) is a model used by biblical scholars to explain the origins and composition of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Others are the supplementary hypothesis and the fragmentary hypothesis; all agree that the Torah is not a unified work from a single author, but is made up of sources combined over many centuries by many hands. They differ on the nature of these sources and how they were combined. According to the documentary hypothesis there were four sources, each originally a separate and independent book (a “document”), joined together at various points in time by a series of editors (“redactors”). Fragmentary hypotheses see the Torah as a collection of small fragments, and supplementary hypotheses as a single core document supplemented by fragments taken from many sources.

A version of the documentary hypothesis, frequently identified with the German scholar Julius Wellhausen, was almost universally accepted for most of the 20th century, but the consensus has now collapsed. As a result, there has been a revival of interest in fragmentary and supplementary approaches, frequently in combination with each other and with a documentary model, making it difficult to classify contemporary theories as strictly one or another.

Diagram of the generally-accepted documentary hypothesis.

Diagram of the generally-accepted documentary hypothesis.
J: Jahwist source (7th century BCE or later)
E: Elohist source (late 9th century BCE)
Dtr1: early (7th century BCE) Deuteronomist historian
Dtr2: later (6th century BCE) Deuteronomist historian
P*: Priestly source (6th/5th century BCE; includes most of Leviticus)
D†: Deuteronomist source (includes most of Deuteronomy)
R: redactor
DH: Deuteronomistic history (books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings)

Modern scholars increasingly see the completed Torah as a product of the time of the Achaemenid Empire (probably 450–350 BCE), although some would place its production in the Hellenistic period (333–164 BCE) or even the Hasmonean dynasty (140–37 BCE). Of its constituent sources, Deuteronomy is generally dated between the 7th and 5th centuries; there is much discussion of the unity, extent, nature, and date of the Priestly material. Deuteronomy continues to be seen as having had a history separate from the first four books, and that this historigraphic tradition is continued with the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings as Deuteronomistic history. There is a growing recognition that Genesis developed apart from the Exodus stories until joined to it by the Priestly writer.

Basic approaches: documentary, fragmentary and supplementary hypotheses

11th century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible.

11th-century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible with Targum

The Torah (or Pentateuch) is collectively the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. According to tradition they were dictated by God to Moses, but when modern critical scholarship began to be applied to the Bible it was discovered that the Pentateuch was not the unified text one would expect from a single author. As a result, the Mosaic authorship of the Torah had been largely rejected by leading scholars by the 17th century, and the modern consensus is that it is the product of a long evolutionary process.

In the mid-18th century, some scholars started a critical study of doublets (parallel accounts of the same incidents), inconsistencies, and changes in style and vocabulary in the Torah. In 1780 Johann Eichhorn, building on the work of the French doctor and exegete Jean Astruc’s “Conjectures” and others, formulated the “older documentary hypothesis”: the idea that Genesis was composed by combining two identifiable sources, the Jehovist (“J”; also called the Yahwist) and the Elohist (“E”). These sources were subsequently found to run through the first four books of the Torah, and the number was later expanded to three when Wilhelm de Wette identified the Deuteronomistas an additional source found only in Deuteronomy (“D”). Later still the Elohist was split into Elohist and Priestly (“P”) sources, increasing the number to four.

These documentary approaches were in competition with two other models, the fragmentary and the supplementary. The fragmentary hypothesis argued that fragments of varying lengths, rather than continuous documents, lay behind the Torah; this approach accounted for the Torah’s diversity but could not account for its structural consistency, particularly regarding chronology. The supplementary hypothesis was better able to explain this unity: it maintained that the Torah was made up of a central core document, the Elohist, supplemented by fragments taken from many sources. The supplementary approach was dominant by the early 1860s, but it was challenged by an important book published by Hermann Hupfeld in 1853, who argued that the Pentateuch was made up of four documentary sources, the Priestly, Yahwist, and Elohist intertwined in Genesis-Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers, and the stand-alone source of Deuteronomy. At around the same period Karl Heinrich Graf argued that the Yahwist and Elohist were the earliest sources and the Priestly source the latest, while Wilhelm Vatke linked the four to an evolutionary framework, the Yahwist and Elohist to a time of primitive nature and fertility cults, the Deuteronomist to the ethical religion of the Hebrew prophets, and the Priestly source to a form of religion dominated by ritual, sacrifice and law.

Table: documentary, fragmentary and supplementary hypotheses

The table is based on that in Walter Houston’s “The Pentateuch”, with expansions as indicated. Note that the three hypotheses are not mutually exclusive.

Hypothesis Method of composition Agency (redactor/collector/author) Mode of analysis Strengths and weaknesses
Documentary A small number of continuous documents (traditionally four) combined to form one continuous final text. Combined by editors who altered as little as possible of the texts available to them. Source criticism Explains both the unity of the Torah (due to the unity of the constituent documents) and its diversity (due to disagreements/repetitions between them). Difficulty distinguishing J from E outside Genesis. Greatest weakness is the role of the redactors (editors), who seem to function as a deus ex machina to explain away difficulties.
Supplementary Produced by the successive addition of layers of supplementary material to a core text or group of texts. Editors are also authors, creating original narrative and interpretation. Redaction criticism Accounts for the structural consistency of the Pentateuch better than the fragmentary approach, the central core explaining its unity of theme and structure, the fragments embedded in this its diversity of language and style.
Fragmentary The combination of a large number of short texts. Editors also create linking narrative. Form criticism Has difficulty accounting for the structural consistency of the Pentateuch, especially its chronology.

Julius Wellhausen and the new documentary hypothesis

Julius Wellhausen, one of the originators of the documentary hypothesis

Julius Wellhausen, one of the originators of the documentary hypothesis

In 1878 Julius Wellhausen published Geschichte Israels, Bd 1 (“History of Israel, Vol 1”); the second edition he printed as Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (“Prolegomena to the History of Israel”), in 1883, and the work is better known under that name. (The second volume, a synthetic history titled Israelitische und jüdische Geschichte [“Israelite and Jewish History”], did not appear until 1894 and remains untranslated.) Crucially, this historical portrait was based upon two earlier works of his technical analysis: “Die Composition des Hexateuchs” (“The Composition of the Hexateuch”) of 1876/77 and sections on the “historical books” (Judges–Kings) in his 1878 edition of Friedrich Bleek’s Einleitung in das Alte Testament (“Introduction to the Old Testament”).

Wellhausen’s documentary hypothesis owed little to Wellhausen himself but was mainly the work of Hupfeld, Eduard Eugène Reuss, Graf, and others, who in turn had built on earlier scholarship. He accepted Hupfeld’s four sources and, in agreement with Graf, placed the Priestly work last. J was the earliest document, a product of the 900s and the court of Solomon; E was from the 8th century BCE in the northern Kingdom of Israel, and had been combined by a redactor (editor) with J to form a document JE; D, the third source, was a product of the 7th century BC, by 620 BCE, during the reign of King Josiah; P (what Wellhausen first named “Q”) was a product of the priest-and-temple dominated world of the 6th century; and the final redaction, when P was combined with JED to produce the Torah as we now know it.

Wellhausen’s explanation of the formation of the Torah was also an explanation of the religious history of Israel. The Yahwist and Elohist described a primitive, spontaneous and personal world, in keeping with the earliest stage of Israel’s history; in Deuteronomy he saw the influence of the prophets and the development of an ethical outlook, which he felt represented the pinnacle of Jewish religion; and the Priestly source reflected the rigid, ritualistic world of the priest-dominated post-exilic period. His work, notable for its detailed and wide-ranging scholarship and close argument, entrenched the “new documentary hypothesis” as the dominant explanation of Pentateuchal origins from the late 19th to the late 20th centuries.

Collapse of the documentary consensus

A torah (Hebrew scripture) reading. The "yod" - a hand-shaped silver pointer - is used by the reader to mark his or her place in the text.

A torah (Hebrew scripture) reading. The “yod” – a hand-shaped silver pointer – is used by the reader to mark his or her place in the text.

The consensus around the documentary hypothesis collapsed in the last decades of the 20th century. The groundwork was laid with the investigation of the origins of the written sources in oral compositions, implying that the creators of J and E were collectors and editors and not authors and historians. Rolf Rendtorff (1925–2014), building on this insight, argued that the basis of the Pentateuch lay in short, independent narratives, gradually formed into larger units and brought together in two editorial phases, the first Deuteronomic, the second Priestly. This led to the current position which sees only two major sources in the Pentateuch, the Deuteronomist (confined to the Book of Deuteronomy) and the Priestly (confined to the books Genesis-Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers).

The majority of scholars today continue to recognise Deuteronomy as a source, with its origin in the law-code produced at the court of Josiah as described by De Wette, subsequently given a frame during the exile (the speeches and descriptions at the front and back of the code) to identify it as the words of Moses. Most scholars also agree that some form of Priestly source existed, although its extent, especially its end-point, is uncertain. The remainder is called collectively non-Priestly, a grouping which includes both pre-Priestly and post-Priestly material. The final Torah is increasingly seen as a product of the Persian period (539–333 BCE, probably 450–350 BCE), possibly as a product of the Persian imperial practice of authorizing local, autonomous law codes for conquered populations. Some scholars would place the final formation of the Pentateuch somewhat later, in the Hellenistic (333–164 BCE) or even Hasmonean (140–37 BCE) periods. This latter dating remains a minority view, but the Elephantine papyri, the records of a Jewish colony in Egypt dating from the last quarter of the 5th century BCE, show no knowledge of a Torah or of an exodus. There is also a growing recognition that Genesis developed separately from Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers, and was joined to the story of Moses by the Priestly writer.

A revised neo-documentary hypothesis still has adherents, especially in North America and Israel. This distinguishes sources by means of plot and continuity rather than stylistic and linguistic concerns, and does not tie them to stages in the evolution of Israel’s religious history. Its resurrection of an E source is probably the element most often criticised by other scholars, as it is rarely distinguishable from the classical J source and European scholars have largely rejected it as fragmentary or non-existent.

The Torah and the history of Israel’s religion

See also: History of ancient Israel and Judah and Origins of Judaism

Wellhausen used the sources of the Torah as evidence of changes in the history of Israelite religion as it moved (in his opinion) from free, simple and natural to fixed, formal and institutional. Modern scholars of Israel’s religion have become much more circumspect in how they use the Old Testament, not least because many have concluded that the Bible is not a reliable witness to the religion of ancient Israel and Judah, representing instead the beliefs of only a small segment of the ancient Israelite community centred in Jerusalem and devoted to the exclusive worship of the god Yahweh.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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