The documentary hypothesis (DH) is a theory explaining the origins and composition of the first five books of the Bible, called collectively the Torah. It proposes that these books, Genesis to Deuteronomy, were composed by combining four separate traditions (more often called "sources") originating from various times in Israel's history, the four sources being the Jahwist (today more often spelled Yahwist), the Elohist, the Priestly, and the Deuteronomist, or J,E,P and D.
As a form of historical criticism, the hypothesis was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries from the attempt to understand inconsistencies in the biblical text. By the end of the 19th century, it was generally agreed there were four main sources, combined into their final form by a series of redactors, R. These four sources came to be known as the Yahwist, or Jahwist, J (J being the German equivalent of the English letter Y); the Elohist, E; the Deuteronomist, D (the name comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, D's contribution to the Torah); and the Priestly Writer, P.
Furthering insights on the Pentateuch's composition history already made by others in the course of the 19th century—namely, Wilhelm Vatke, Eduard Reuss, Karl Heinrich Graf, and Abraham Kuenen—the German biblical scholar and orientalist Julius Wellhausen gave the chronological sequence JEDP a coherent setting in a notional evolving religious history of Israel, which he saw as one of ever-increasing priestly power. Wellhausen's formulation was:
- the Jahwist source (J) : written c. 950 BCE in the southern Kingdom of Judah.
- the Elohist source (E) : written c. 850 BCE in the northern Kingdom of Israel.
- the Deuteronomist (D) : written c. 600 BCE in Jerusalem during a period of religious reform.
- the Priestly source (P) : written c. 500 BCE by Kohanim (Jewish priests) in exile in Babylon.
While the hypothesis has been critiqued and challenged by other models, especially in the last part of the 20th century, its terminology and insights continue to provide the framework for modern theories on the composite nature and origins of the Torah and its premise is still widely accepted by contemporary biblical scholars.
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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. They are anonymous, but according to tradition they were revealed by God to Moses. In the 17th century this idea came under increasing scrutiny from scholars, and 1753 Jean Astruc, a French priest, used the newly developed tool of source criticism to identify what he took to be two original documents used by Moses to write the Torah. Subsequent scholars identified further sources and proposed models by which they could have been combined, broadly defined as fragmentary, supplementary, and documentary. By the 1860s the supplementary hypothesis was dominant: according to this, the core of the Torah was the collection of laws now found in Deuteronomy and extended to reach its final form by the addition of numerous fragments over many centuries. This theory, however, was increasingly challenged by the documentary hypothesis, which saw the origins of the Pentateuch in the combination of a number of pre-existing narrative sources.
Julius Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis
In 1878 Julius Wellhausen published Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels ("Prolegomena to the History of Israel"). In it he proposed that the documents had been composed in the order Yahwist-Elohist-Deuteronomist-Priestly (or JEPD for short - J is used for the Yahwist because this is the initial letter for the word in German). Each source, he said, was the product of a particular phase in the religious history of Israel, J, which depicts a corporeal God capable of walking in the Garden of Eden, from the most primitive period, E from a time when priests were yet to become important, D from a more legalistic, priest-bound time (the days of King Josiah), and P from a still later time when the priests had established their dominance over Judaism and the people of Israel.
Wellhausen's criteria for distinguishing between sources were those developed by his predecessors over the previous century: style (including but not exclusively the choice of vocabulary); divine names; doublets and occasionally triplets. J was identified with a rich narrative style, E was somewhat less eloquent, P's language was dry and legalistic. Vocabulary items such as the names of God, or the use of Horeb (E and D) or Sinai (J and P) for God's mountain; ritual objects such as the ark, mentioned frequently in J but never in E; the status of judges (never mentioned in P) and prophets (mentioned only in E and D); the means of communication between God and humanity (J's God meets in person with Adam and Abraham, E's God communicates through dreams, P's can only be approached through the priesthood): all these and more formed the toolkit for discriminating between sources and allocating verses to them.
His starting point for dating the sources was the event described in 2 Kings 22:8–20: a "scroll of Torah" is discovered in the Temple in Jerusalem by the High Priest Hilkiah in the eighteenth year of king Josiah. He shows it to the king, and what Josiah reads causes him to embark on a campaign of religious reform, destroying all altars except that in the Temple, prohibiting all sacrifice except at the Temple, and insisting on the exclusive worship of Yahweh. In the 4th century Jerome had speculated that the scroll may have been Deuteronomy, and in 1805 Wilhelm de Wette suggested that it might have been only the law-code at Deuteronomy 12–26 that Hilkiah found, and that he might have written it himself or in collaboration with Josiah. 
Wellhausen proceeded to place the remaining sources around the Deuteronomist, accepting Karl Heinrich Graf's conclusion that the sources were written in the order J-E-D-P. This was contrary to the general opinion of scholars at the time, who saw P as the earliest of the sources, "the official guide to approved divine worship", and Wellhausen's sustained argument for a late P was the great innovation of the Prolegomena. J and E he ascribed to the early monarchy, approximately 950 BCE for J and 850 BCE for E; P he placed in the early Persian post-Exilic period, around 500 BCE. His argument for these dates was based on what was seen in his day as the natural evolution of religious practice: in the pre and early monarchic society described in Genesis and Judges and Samuel, altars were erected wherever the Patriarchs or heroes chose, anyone could offer the sacrifice, and the portion offered to priests was not fixed; by the late monarchy sacrifice was beginning to be centralized and controlled by the priesthood, while pan-Israelite festivals such as Passover were instituted to tie the people to the monarch in a joint celebration of national history; in post-Exilic times the temple in Jerusalem was firmly established as the only sanctuary, only the Aaronite priests could offer sacrifices, festivals were linked to the calendar instead of to the seasons, and the schedule of priestly entitlements was strictly mandated.
The four sources were combined by a series of Redactors (editors), first J and E to form a combined JE, then JE with D to form a JED text, and finally JED with P to form JEDP, the final Torah. Wellhausen named Ezra, the post-Exilic leader who re-established the Jewish community in Jerusalem at the behest of the Persian emperor Artaxerxes I in 458 BCE, as the final redactor.
For most of the 20th century Wellhausen's hypothesis formed the framework within which the origins of the Pentateuch were discussed. Some important modifications were introduced, notably by Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth, who argued for the oral transmission of ancient core beliefs—guidance out of Egypt, conquest of the Promised Land, covenants, revelation at Sinai/Horeb, etc. Simultaneously, the work of the American Biblical archaeology school under William F. Albright seemed to confirm that even if Genesis and Exodus were only given their final form in the first millennium BCE, they were still firmly grounded in the material reality of the second millennium.
The documentary hypothesis still has supporters. This approach, called the neo-documentary hypothesis 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.
Opposition and alternative theories
Opposition to the documentary hypothesis increased when R. N. Whybray in 1987 renewed some traditional arguments with far greater consequences in his book The Making of the Pentateuch. By that time three separate models for the composition of the Pentateuch had been proposed: the documentary (the Torah as a compilation of originally separate but complete books), the supplementary hypothesis (a single original book, supplemented with later additions/deletions), and the fragmentary (many fragmentary works and editions).
Whybray argued that, of the three possible models, the documentary was the most difficult to demonstrate, for while the supplemental and fragmentary models proposed relatively simple, logical processes and could account for the unevenness of the final text, the process envisaged by the documentary hypothesis was both complex and extremely specific in its assumptions about ancient Israel and the development of its religion. Whybray went on to assert that these assumptions were illogical and contradictory, and did not offer real explanatory power: why, for example, should the authors of the separate sources avoid duplication, while the final redactor accepted it? "Thus the hypothesis can only be maintained on the assumption that, while consistency was the hallmark of the various [source] documents, inconsistency was the hallmark of the redactors!"
Since Whybray there has been a proliferation of theories and models regarding the origins of the Torah, many of them radically different from Wellhausen's model. Thus, to mention some of the major figures from the last decades of the 20th century, Hans Heinrich Schmid almost completely eliminated J, allowing only a late Deuteronomical redactor. With the idea of identifiable sources disappearing, the question of dating also changes its terms.
Additionally, some scholars have abandoned the documentary hypothesis entirely in favour of alternative models. Rolf Rendtorff and Erhard Blum saw the Pentateuch developing from the gradual accretion of small units into larger and larger works, a process which removes both J and E, and, significantly, implied a fragmentary rather than a documentary model for Old Testament origins. John Van Seters, using a different model, envisaged an ongoing process of supplementation in which later authors modified earlier compositions and changed the focus of the narratives. The most radical contemporary proposal has come from Thomas L. Thompson, who suggests that the final redaction of the Torah occurred as late as the early Hasmonean monarchy (c. 140-116 BCE).
While the terminology and insights of the documentary hypothesis, notably its claim that the Pentateuch is the work of many hands and many centuries and that its final form belongs to the middle of the 1st millennium BCE, continue to inform scholarly debate about the origins of the Pentateuch, it no longer dominates that debate as it did for the first two-thirds of the 20th century. "The verities enshrined in older introductions [to the subject of the origins of the Pentateuch] have disappeared, and in their place scholars are confronted by competing theories which are discouragingly numerous, exceedingly complex, and often couched in an expository style that is (to quote John van Seter's description of one seminal work) 'not for the faint-hearted.'"
- Authorship of the Bible
- Biblical criticism
- The Bible and history
- Books of the Bible
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