Documentary hypothesis

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The documentary hypothesis (DH) is a theory explaining the origins of the first five books of the Bible, called collectively the Torah.[1][Note 1] Its essence is that the single text we have today represents the combination of four originally independent documents, or sources.[2] The four are called J (the Yahwist, because it consistently refers to God as Yahweh), E (for Elohist, because it generally calls God Elohim), P (the Priestly source, which reflects the interests of the priesthood) and D (for Deuteronomist, because it is found only in the Book of Deuteronomy).[3] They were combined by editors who placed them one after another or intertwined them, thus producing repetitions, inconsistencies and contradictions which scholars can trace through the tools of source criticism.[4]

Pentateuchal scholarship from Astruc to Wellhausen[edit]

Early scholarship[edit]

The Torah (or Pentateuch, as biblical scholars sometimes call it) is the collective name for the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy;[5] according to tradition they were dictated by God to Moses,[6] but by the 17th century Mosaic authorship had been largely rejected by leading scholars.[7][Note 2] The modern consensus is that the Torah is the product of a long evolutionary process, and one of the main means for investigating its history is source criticism, the critical investigation of doublets (parallel accounts of the same incidents) and inconsistencies in the narrative, and changes in style and vocabulary.[4] The application of source criticism to the Bible began with Jean Astruc in the mid 18th century, and in 1780 Johann Eichhorn, building on the work of Astruc and others, formulated the "older documentary hypothesis," which held that Genesis was composed by combining two continuous sources, the Jehovist (today called the Yahwist) and the Elohist.[8] 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 Deuteronomist as an additional source found only in Deuteronomy.[9] Later still the Elohist was split into Elohist and Priestly sources, increasing the number to four.[10]

These documentary approaches were in competition with two other models, the fragmentary and the supplementary.[11] 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.[12] 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.[12] 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, plus the stand-alone source of Deuteronomy.[13] At around the same period Karl Heinrich Graf argued that the Yahwist and Elohist were the earliest sources and the Priestly source the latest, and 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.[14]

Wellhausen and the newer documentary hypothesis[edit]

11th-century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible with Targum

In 1878 Julius Wellhausen published Geschichte Israels, Bd 1 ("History of Israel, Vol 1"), whose second edition he printed as Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels ("Prolegomena to the History of Israel") in 1883, having issued several shorter historical accounts in between these editions.[15][16] (The second volume, a synthetic history titled Israelitische und jüdische Geschichte ["Israelite and Jewish History"], did not appear until 1894 and remains untranslated.) Crucially, Wellhausen's historical portrait was based upon two earlier works of 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"). The hypothesis owes little to Wellhausen himself but was mainly the work of Hupfeld, Eduard Reuss, Graf, and others, who in turn had built on earlier scholarship.[17] It may be summarised as follows:[18]

  • Yahwist (J): 9th century BCE, Judah;
  • Elohist (E): 8th century, northern kingdom of Israel;
  • Deuteronomist (D): 7th century, Jerusalem (De Wette dated Deuteronomy to the year 621 BCE, a conclusion still accepted by a large majority of scholars[19]);
  • Priestly (P): 6th century, Babylon (a product of the Babylonian exile).

Wellhausen accepted Hupfield's four sources and, in agreement with Graf, placed the Priestly work last.[10] J and E, which he identified as the first and second sources (Hupfeld had placed them in reverse order), had been combined to form a document JE, JE with D to form JED, and finally JED with P to form JEDP, which was the final form of the Torah.[20] He did this in keeping with the theory of history developed by the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, according to which "history" – as a metaphysical force – pushes developments in time and space along a teleological path: Wellhausen placed the Yahwist and Elohist first because the religion he saw described in them was primitive, spontaneous and personal; 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.[21] His work, notable for its detailed and wide-ranging scholarship and close argument, entrenched the newer documentary hypothesis as the dominant account of Pentateuchal origins, a position it retained until very recently.[10][Note 3]

Current approaches to the origins of the Pentateuch[edit]

Distribution of Jahwist, Elohist and Priestly sources, as well as Redactor's contribution.

End of the documentary consensus[edit]

The consensus around Wellhausen's version of the documentary hypothesis collapsed in the last decades of the 20th century.[22] This consensus had never been complete, but isolated doubts failed to find significant numbers of followers.[23] Instead, by mid-century American and European scholars continued to advance variations of the basic documentary hypothesis, while Jewish scholars either placed P, which promoted the idea of monotheism, first, or else rejected the hypothesis entirely.[24] Then in the 1970s works by John Van Seters, H.H.Schmid, and Rolf Rendtorff questioned whether the Elohist constituted an independent document, how Genesis had been added to the other books, and the role and origins of both P and J.[25] All these matters had been raised before; that they only now had an impact was probably due to the break-down of the Hegelian idea of history and its progress, and to a growing dissatisfaction with the way source criticism fragments the text and ignores narrative unity.[26]

Current approaches to composition[edit]

The majority of modern scholars, especially in Europe, look at how the Pentateuch was built up from small units rather than from documents.[27] They dismiss the existence of J and E, agree on the importance of D in some form, and see the origins of the Torah in separate stories (the Patriarchs, the childhood of Moses, the exodus, etc) and various bodies of laws, joined together by post-Priestly editing.[28] The existence of the priestly source itself remains secure, although there is much discussion of its unity, extent, nature, date, and relationship to the non-Priestly material.[29]

A reformulation of the documentary approach continues to have supporters, but the neo-documentary hypothesis (so called to distinguish it from the newer documentary hypothesis as formulated by Wellhausen) prioritises plot and narrative continuity over language and style in distinguishing sources and separates the combination of the sources from Israel's history (a prime concern for Wellhausen) and from questions of dates.[30] Unlike modern non-documentary approaches, the neo-documentarians concern themselves with the source texts immediately prior to their supposed combination into the final Torah text, and not with earlier stages in their growth or with subsequent modifications.[31]

Date of the Torah and the history of Israelite religion[edit]

The collapse of the consensus on the newer documentary hypothesis has also seen the collapse of Wellhausen's chronology for the formation of the Pentateuch: a 10th century Yahwist, 8th century Elohist, 7th century Deuteronomist and 6th century Priestly source, combined in stages culminating in a final Torah under the aegis of Ezra in the 5th century.[22] While many modern scholars continue to see the Persian period (late 6th to late 4th centuries BCE) as the most probable period during which the Torah reached its final form, this view is not universally held, and minority opinions argue for both earlier and later periods.[32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The five books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
  2. ^ The reasons behind this rejection are covered in more detail in the article on Mosaic authorship.
  3. ^ The two-source hypothesis of Eichorn was the "older" documentary hypothesis, and the four-source hypothesis adopted by Wellhausen was the "newer".


  1. ^ Patzia & Petrotta 2010, p. 37.
  2. ^ Baden 2012, p. 246.
  3. ^ Kawashima 2010, p. 52.
  4. ^ a b Berlin 1994, p. 113.
  5. ^ McDermott 2002, p. 1.
  6. ^ Kugel 2008, p. 6.
  7. ^ Baden 2012, p. 13.
  8. ^ Ruddick 1990, p. 246.
  9. ^ Patrick 2013, p. 31.
  10. ^ a b c Barton & Muddiman 2010, p. 19.
  11. ^ Viviano 1999, p. 38-39.
  12. ^ a b Viviano 1999, p. 38.
  13. ^ Barton & Muddiman 2010, p. 18-19.
  14. ^ Friedman 1997, p. 24-25.
  15. ^ Kurtz, Paul Michael (2015-03-20). "The Way of War: Wellhausen, Israel, and Bellicose Reiche". Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft. 127 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1515/zaw-2015-0002. ISSN 1613-0103. 
  16. ^ Kugel 2008, p. 41.
  17. ^ Barton & Muddiman 2010, p. 20.
  18. ^ Barton & Muddiman 2010, p. 26-27.
  19. ^ Patrick 2013, p. 69.
  20. ^ Viviano 1999, p. 40-41.
  21. ^ Viviano 1999, p. 51.
  22. ^ a b Carr 2014, p. 434.
  23. ^ Carr 2014, p. 435.
  24. ^ Carr 2014, p. 436.
  25. ^ Van Seters 2015, p. 41-42.
  26. ^ Berlin 1994, p. 122.
  27. ^ Carr 2014, p. 466.
  28. ^ Carr 2014, p. 465-466.
  29. ^ Gaines & 2015 273.
  30. ^ Gaines 2015, p. 271.
  31. ^ Gaines 2015, p. 272.
  32. ^ Ska 2014, p. 430-431.


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