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]

Early scholarship: documentary, fragmentary and supplementary hypotheses[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 revealed by God to Moses on Sinai,[6] but this was questioned from the earliest times and by the 17th century had been largely rejected by leading scholars.[7][Note 2] In 1755 Jean Astruc, the first to discover the existence of biblical sources, introduced the terms "Jehovist" and "Elohist", in 1780 Johann Eichhorn set out what is now known as the "older documentary hypothesis" describing two continuous sources, J and E, in Genesis, and in 1853 Hermann Hupfeld put forward the "newer documentary hypothesis" with four source-documents.[8]

These hypotheses were in competition with two other models, the fragmentary (the Torah as the work of a single author combining short fragments drawn from many sources), and the supplementary (a core narrative to which fragments were added over many centuries by many authors and editors).[9] The supplementary approach was dominant by the 1860s, but it was increasingly challenged by the documentary hypothesis.[10][11]

The newer documentary hypothesis[edit]

11th-century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible with Targum

In 1878 Julius Wellhausen published Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels ("Prolegomena to the History of Israel").[12] This work, drawing together decades of previous scholarship, entrenched the newer documentary hypothesis as the dominant account of Pentateuchal origins, a position it retained until until very recently.[13] The hypothesis as set out by Wellhausen may be summarised as follows:[14]

  • Yahwist (J): 9th century BCE, Judah;
  • Elohist (E): 8th century, northern kingdom of Israel;
  • Deuteronomist (D): 7th century, Jerusalem;
  • Priestly (P): 6th century, Babylon (a product of the Babylonian exile).

Wellhausen accepted Hupfield's four sources but proposed that the Priestly work was the last to be written, not the first.[13] 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.[15] He did this in keeping with the theory of history developed by the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, according to which history follows an evolutionary path: he 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.[16] (In 1805 W.M.L De Wette had dated Deuteronomy to the year 621 BCE on the basis of its stress on the crucial importance of centralised worship in Jerusalem; J and E which showed no sign of knowing this and so must be earlier than D, and P, which accepts centralised worship, must be later: while much of Wellhausen's Hegelian approach is now rejected, De Wette's dating of Deuteronomy is still accepted by a large majority of scholars).[17]

Current approaches to the origins of the Pentateuch[edit]

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

Collapse of the documentary consensus[edit]

The consensus around Wellhausen's version of the documentary hypothesis collapsed in the last decades of the 20th century.[18] Questions had already been raised about specific aspects of the hypothesis, but these concerns did not end up being shared by the majority of scholars.[19]

The weakness of the documentary hypothesis is its lack of clarity on the role of the "redactors" (the editors who supposedly combined the sources) and how to identify their work.[20]

Current approaches to the Pentateuch[edit]

Scholars are still in agreement on the existence of the Priestly and Deuteronomistic sources, but not on the Yahwist and Elohist.[21]

Priestly and non-Priestly sources[edit]

The 1970s saw the beginning of a major re-evaluation of scholarship on the Penthe connection between the stories of Genesis and those of Moses and the exodus date from the Exilic period (6th century BCE) at the earliest.[22] Two major literary strands are now commonly identified in the Pentateuch, the Priestly and non-Priestly material.[23]

Neo-documentary hypothesis[edit]

The neo-documentary hypothesis (so called to to distinguish it from that 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.[24]

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.


  1. ^ Patzia & Petrotta 2010, p. 37.
  2. ^ Baden 2012, p. 246.
  3. ^ Kawashima 2010, p. 52.
  4. ^ 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. ^ Viviano 1999, p. 38-39.
  10. ^ Viviano 1999, p. 38.
  11. ^ Barton & Muddiman 2010, p. 18.
  12. ^ Kugel 2008, p. 41.
  13. ^ a b Barton & Muddiman 2010, p. 19.
  14. ^ Barton & Muddiman 2010, p. 26-27.
  15. ^ Viviano 1999, p. 40-41.
  16. ^ Viviano 1999, p. 51.
  17. ^ Patrick 2013, p. 69.
  18. ^ Carr 2014, p. 434.
  19. ^ Carr 2014, p. 435.
  20. ^ Van Seters 2015, p. 23.
  21. ^ Van Seters 1998, p. 13.
  22. ^ Carr 2014, p. 463.
  23. ^ Van Seters 2015, p. 9.
  24. ^ Gaines 2015, p. 271.


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