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The documentary hypothesis (DH), sometimes called the Wellhausen hypothesis, proposes that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) was derived from originally independent, parallel and complete narratives, which were subsequently combined into the current form by a series of redactors (editors). The number of these narratives is usually set at four, but this is not an essential part of the hypothesis.
The hypothesis was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries from the attempt to reconcile inconsistencies in the biblical text. By the end of the 19th century it was generally agreed that 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.
The contribution of Julius Wellhausen, a Christian theologian and Christian biblical scholar, was to order these sources chronologically as JEDP, giving them 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:
While the hypothesis has been increasingly 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 Bible compilation in general.
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The traditional view that Moses was the author of the Torah came under increasing and detailed scrutiny in the 17th century. In 1651 Thomas Hobbes, in chapter 33 of Leviathan, cited several passages, such as Deuteronomy 34:6 ("no man knoweth of his sepulchre to this day", implying an author living long after Moses' death); Numbers 21:14 (referring to a previous book of Moses' deeds) and Genesis 12:6 ("and the Canaanite was then in the land", implying an author living in a time when the Canaanite was no longer in the land); and concluded that none of these could be by Moses. Others, including Isaac de la Peyrère, Baruch Spinoza, Richard Simon, and John Hampden came to the same conclusion, but their works were condemned, several of them were imprisoned and forced to recant, and an attempt was made on Spinoza's life.
In 1753 Jean Astruc printed (anonymously) Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux, dont il paraît que Moïse s'est servi pour composer le livre de la Genèse ("Conjectures on the original accounts of which it appears Moses availed himself in composing the Book of Genesis"). Astruc's motive was to refute Hobbes and Spinoza – "the sickness of the last century", as he called their work. To do this, he applied to Genesis the tools of literary analysis which scholars were already using with Classical texts such as the Iliad to sift variant traditions and arrive at the most authentic text. He began by identifying two markers which seemed to identify consistent variations, the use of "Elohim" or "YHWH" (Yahweh) as the name for God, and the appearance of duplicated stories, or doublets, such as the two accounts of the creation in the first and second chapters of Genesis and the two accounts of Sarah and a foreign king (Gen. 12 and Gen. 20). He assigned verses to ruled columns, the "Elohim" verses in one column, the "YHWH" verses in another, and the members of the doublets in their own columns beside these. The parallel columns thus constructed contained two long narratives, each dealing with the same incidents. Astruc suggested that these were the original documents used by Moses, and that Genesis as written by Moses had looked just like this, parallel accounts meant to be read separately. According to Astruc, a later editor had combined the columns into a single narrative, creating the confusions and repetitions noted by Hobbes and Spinoza.
The tools adapted by Astruc for biblical source criticism were developed much further by subsequent scholars, most of them German. From 1780 onwards Johann Gottfried Eichhorn extended Astruc's analysis beyond Genesis to the entire Pentateuch, and by 1823 he had concluded that Moses had had no part in writing any of it. In 1805 Wilhelm de Wette concluded that Deuteronomy represented a third independent source. About 1822 Friedrich Bleek identified Joshua as a continuation of the Pentateuch via Deuteronomy, while others identified signs of the Deuteronomist in Judges, Samuel, and Kings. In 1853 Hermann Hupfeld suggested that the Elohist was really two sources and should be split, thus isolating the Priestly source; Hupfeld also emphasized the importance of the Redactor, or final editor, in producing the Torah from the four sources. Not all the Pentateuch was traced to these four sources: numerous smaller sections were identified, such as the Holiness Code contained in Leviticus 17 to 26.
Scholars also attempted to identify the sequence and dates of the four sources and to propose who might have produced them and why. De Wette had concluded in 1805 that none of the Pentateuch was composed before the time of David; since Spinoza, D was connected with the priests of the Temple in Jerusalem during the reign of Josiah in 621 BC; beyond this, scholars argued variously for composition in the order PEJD, or EJDP, or JEDP: the subject was far from settled.
Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis proposes that the Torah was originally four distinct narratives, each complete in itself, each dealing with the same incidents and characters, but with distinctive "messages". The four were combined twice by editors ("redactors") who strove to keep as much as possible of the original documents.
Scholars estimate the date of composition as c. 950 BCE, not long before the split of the united Kingdom of Israel into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah in 922 BC, making it the oldest source.
The documentary hypothesis attributes anthropomorphic descriptions of Yahweh, personal visits from Yahweh, and use of the personal name prior to Exodus 3 to the Jahwist source. It is a misunderstanding of the documentary hypothesis to attribute all use of the personal name Yahweh to the hypothetical Jahwist source; the hypothetical Deuteronomist, Elohist, and Priestly source documents all contain numerous uses of the personal name Yahweh, but the Jahwist source document is the only one to use the personal name Yahweh prior to Exodus 3.
Concerned with narratives, making up half of Genesis and half of Exodus, plus fragments of Numbers, J has a special interest in the territory of the Kingdom of Judah and individuals connected with its history. J has an eloquent style.
The Jahwist presents a theology of history, rather than timeless philosophical theology. Yahweh’s character is known by his actions. The Jahwist picture of Yahweh begins with the creation of human beings and the early history of mankind in general (Genesis 2-11). The Jahwist contributions in this material do not intend to present an exhaustive history, but rather certain episodes with particular importance to later generations. These episodes explain human mortality, the need to work for a living, the existence of many languages, rivalry among brothers, and man’s attempt to break through God’s limits. The family is often in view in theological contexts, and the sequence of sin-punishment-mercy appears several times.
The Jahwist picture of a theology of history continues with the call of Abraham and the subsequent history of Israel and their ancestors. The Jahwist presents the nation of Israel as Yahweh’s own people, which he brought into being, protected, and settled in the land of Canaan, in fulfillment of promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Jahwist source presents a history of Israel that also illustrates themes of sin-punishment-grace, but more especially one that portrays Yahweh as a powerful deliverer and provider of his people’s needs. Faith in Yahweh alone is the primary virtue. The Jahwist also emphasizes Israel’s destiny to be a great nation who will rule over her neighbors and have a king from the tribe of Judah. The theology of the Jahwist extends beyond Israel and includes notice that all nations will be blessed through Abraham (or bless themselves through Abraham). Furthermore, the report of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is attributed to the Jahwist.
Use of the generic word for deity, Elohim, rather than the more personal name, YHWH, prior to Exodus 3, and descriptions of Yahweh of a more impersonal nature (for example, speaking through dreams, prophets, and angels rather than personal appearances) indicate the Elohist source, according to the documentary hypothesis. The Elohist’s narrative does not begin with a depiction of Yahweh’s creation of humankind, but with the divine address to Abraham, the ancestor of Israel. Because both the Jahwist source and the Elohist source use "Yahweh" for God after Exodus 3, it is more difficult to discern Elohist from Jahwist source material from that point onward. E parallels J, often duplicating the narratives. E makes up a third of Genesis and half of Exodus, plus fragments of Numbers. E describes a human-like God initially called Elohim, and Yahweh subsequent to the incident of the burning bush, at which Elohim reveals himself as Yahweh. E focuses on the Kingdom of Israel and on the Shiloh priesthood, and has a moderately eloquent style. Scholars suggest the Elohist source was composed c. 850 BCE.
The theology of the Elohist focuses on four key elements: 1) prophetic leadership, 2) the fear of God, 3) covenant, and 4) the theology of history. Prophetic leadership is emphasized by building the narrative on four key ancestors (Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses) who are presented as prophets who receive revelations from God in visions and dreams. The Elohist’s concept of the fear of God goes beyond reverent awe and is the root of Abraham’s obedience to the command to slay his son. Covenant is emphasized by the Elohist on a number of occasions, notably the covenant ceremony of Exodus 24, establishment of the tent of meeting, and Israel’s rebellion at Sinai with worship of the golden calf which presents the Elohist’s gloomy view of Israel’s propensity to violate her covenant with God. The Elohist theology of history is focused on the nation of Israel and more inclined than the Jahwist to focus on the specifically religious aspects of prayer, sacrifice, and prophetic revelations. The goal of history for Israel is explicitly religious: to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
According to M. Noth, the Deuteronomist wrote in the middle of the 6th century BCE with the purpose of addressing contemporaries in the Babylonian exile to show them that “their sufferings were fully deserved consequences of centuries of decline in Israel’s loyalty to Yahweh.” Loyalty to Yahweh was measured in terms of obedience to the Deuteronomic law. Since Israel and Judah had failed to follow that law, their histories had ended in complete destruction in accordance with the divine judgment envisaged by Deuteronomy. “But it shall come to pass, if you will not listen to the voice of Yahweh your God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you this day, that all these curses shall come on you, and overtake you.” D in the Pentateuch is restricted to the book of Deuteronomy, although it continues into the subsequent books of Joshua, Judges and Kings. It takes the form of a series of sermons about the Law, as well as recapitulating the narrative of Exodus and Numbers. Its distinctive term for God is YHWH Eloheinu, traditionally translated in English as "The Lord our God." Scholars estimate this source may have been composed c. 650–621 BCE, which would have been prior to the Babylonian Exile (587-539 BCE).
According to Gerhard von Rad, Noth’s view of the purpose of the Deuteronomist emphasized the theme of judgment and missed the theme of Yahweh’s grace in the Deuteronomistic History. The Deuteronomist reported repeated instances of Yahweh’s word at work in describing previously reported oracles of Yahweh’s prophets being precisely fulfilled in events described later. On the one hand, destruction of Israel and Judah was portrayed as according to the prophetic pronouncement of doom in retaliation for disobedience. On the other hand, the final destruction was restrained by Yahweh’s promise to David found in Nathan’s oracle in 2 Samuel 7 and reiterated throughout 1-2 Kings.
H.W. Wolff describes the purpose of the Deuteronomist in the pattern of apostasy, punishment, repentance, and deliverance common in the Deuteronomistic History. According to Wolff, the Deuteronomist’s intent was to show the exiles that they were in the second stage of the pattern and therefore needed to “cry out to Yahweh in repentance.” According to the pattern of Yahweh’s previous dealings with Israel, the imperative for the exiles was simply to turn back to God.
The documentary hypothesis describes the Priestly source as using the title Elohim as the general name for God in the primeval period (Genesis 1-11). El Shaddai is the first special name for God and it is revealed to the patriarchs and reserved for that era. Yahweh is the personal name for God that is revealed to Moses and never set in the mouth of any speaker by the Priestly source prior to Moses. The Priestly source portrays God/Yahweh as the creator of the whole world, which he declared to be good, and on which he has bestowed his blessing. Humanity is created in God’s image (or as God’s image) implying dominion over the whole earth. P includes many lists (especially genealogies), dates, numbers and laws. Portrayals of God viewed as distant and unmerciful are ascribed to P. P partly duplicates J and E, but alters details to stress the importance of the priesthood. P consists of about a fifth of Genesis (including its famous first chapter), substantial portions of Exodus and Numbers, and almost all of Leviticus. According to Wellhausen, [clarify] Scholars estimate its composition c. 600–400 BCE.
The Priestly source portrays Yahweh as a God who is interested in ritual. The covenant of circumcision, the dietary laws, and the emphasis on making a tabernacle according to a divinely revealed plan are all ascribed to the Priestly source. Yahweh’s presence and Yahweh’s blessings are described in the Priestly source not to be mediated by the king, but by the high priest mediating at the central place of worship.
The Priestly source depicts a formal structure in terms of space, time, and social structure. The spatial center of the universe is the sanctuary which is first modeled in the tabernacle and later in the temple modeled after the pattern revealed to Moses. It is at this specific location that Yahweh wanted to make himself present to his people. Yahweh has arranged the temporal order around progressive layers of Sabbaths: seven days, seven months, seven years, seven times seven years. In terms of social structure, the Priestly source portrays Yahweh as granting his presence to the particular people “who know his name.” The priesthood, the ritual system, and the law represent the cosmic order in a priestly garment.
In 1876/77 Julius Wellhausen published Die Composition des Hexateuch und der historischen Bücher des Alten Testaments ("The Composition of the Hexateuch and the historical books of the Old Testament", i.e. the Pentateuch plus the book of Joshua), in which he set out the four-source hypothesis of Pentateuchal origins; this was followed in 1878 by Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels ("Prolegomena to the History of Israel"), a work which traced the development of the religion of the ancient Israelites from an entirely secular, non-supernatural standpoint. Wellhausen contributed little that was new, but sifted and combined the previous century of scholarship into a coherent, comprehensive theory on the origins of the Torah and of Judaism, one so persuasive that it dominated scholarly debate on the subject for the next hundred years.
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.
Wellhausen's starting point for dating the sources was the event described in 2 Kings 22:8–20: a "scroll of Torah" (which can be translated "instruction" or "law") is discovered in the Temple in Jerusalem by the High Priest Hilkiah in the eighteenth year of king Josiah, who had ascended the throne as a child of eight. What Josiah reads there 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; de Wette in 1805 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, alone or in collaboration with Josiah. The Deuteronomistic historian certainly held Josiah in high regard: 1 Kings 13 names him as one who will be sent by Yahweh to slaughter the apostate priests of Beth-el, in a prophecy allegedly made 300 years before his birth.
With D anchored in history, Wellhausen proceeded to place the remaining sources around it. He accepted 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 BC for E; P he placed in the early Persian post-Exilic period, around 500 BC. 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 such as Joshua chose, anyone could offer the sacrifice, and portions were offered to priests as the one offering the sacrifice chose; 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 descendants of Aaron 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), firstly by combining J and E to form a combined JE. Since the majority of each text was composed of traditions about events and people associated only with one or other part of the nation (Israel or Judah), combining them would not cause conflict. However, where they differ, (for example one refers to the holy mountain as Sinai, and the other as Horeb), neither text could be suppressed, and the differences had to be kept in order that the resulting text was generally acceptable to an audience of both groups.
It is considered unknown how much of the two texts was cut to produce JE. J is the only source used in JE for the stories of the creation, flood, and genealogies. E starts abruptly with the appearance of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 20, which makes it appear that some of it was left out.
The Redactor of JE is believed to have added very little to the two sources. Only a few phrases to remove serious contradictions and continue the flow of the story in Genesis and Exodus appear to be from the JE redactor. The primary exception is the story of Abraham binding Isaac for sacrifice in Genesis 22 (from E), where the JE redactor is believed to have added an angel stopping Abraham from sacrificing Isaac and replacing the boy with a ram. If this is the case, the original E source had Abraham carry through with the sacrifice of Isaac.
During the Babylonian exile, JE was unified with P and D by a different redactor (R), probably Ezra, with the encouragement of Cyrus the Great, who was interested in unifying the Jewish exiles by redacting the holy texts.
JE was then combined with D to form a JED text, and finally JED with P to form JEDP, the final Torah. Taking up a scholarly tradition stretching back to Spinoza and Hobbes, 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 BC, 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, and even the Vatican came to urge that the "light derived from recent research" not be neglected by Catholic scholars, urging them especially to pay attention to "the sources written or oral" and "the forms of expression" used by the "sacred writer".
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 overall effect of such refinements was to aid the wider acceptance of the basic hypothesis by reassuring believers that even if the final form of the Pentateuch was late and not due to Moses himself, it was nevertheless possible to recover a credible picture of the period of Moses and of the patriarchal age. Hence, although challenged by scholars such as Umberto Cassuto, opposition to the documentary hypothesis gradually waned, and until the 1970s it was almost universally accepted.
This changed when R. N. Whybray in 1987 restated almost identical arguments with far greater consequences. 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 (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, H. H. 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 which see the Pentateuch as the product of a single author, or as the end-point of a process of creation by the entire community. 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.
The documentary hypothesis still has many supporters, especially in the United States, where William H. Propp has completed a two-volume translation and commentary on Exodus for the Anchor Bible Series from within a DH framework. Antony F. Campbell and Mark A. O’Brien have published a "Sources of the Pentateuch" presenting the Torah sorted into continuous sources following the divisions of Martin Noth.
Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible? (1987) and The Bible with Sources Revealed (2003) were in essence an extended response to Whybray, explaining, in terms based on the history of ancient Israel, how the redactors could have tolerated inconsistency, contradiction and repetition, indeed had it forced upon them by the historical setting in which they worked. Friedman's classic four-source division differed from Wellhausen in accepting Yehezkel Kaufmann's dating of P to the reign of Hezekiah. This in itself is no small modification of Wellhausen, for whom a late dating of P was essential to his model of the historical development of Israelite religion. Friedman argued that J appeared a little before 722 BCE, followed by E, and a combined JE soon after that. P was written as a rebuttal of JE (c. 715–687 BCE), and D was the last to appear, at the time of Josiah (c. 622 BCE), before the Redactor, whom Friedman identifies as Ezra, collated the final Torah.
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.'"
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