What is your evaluation of the Documentary Hypothesis?

The Documentary Hypothesis is a theory about the hypothetical documents that served as the literary sources for the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, also known as the Books of Moses or the Pentateuch). This theory originated with 19th-Century German source critics Graf and Wellhausen and is often called the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. Many scholars since their time up to the present have assumed that their hypothesis is valid and approach the Pentateuch not as a unity, but as an edited compilation of prior documents. They have extended this cutting up of the text beyond the Pentateuch to include other book of the Old Testament. The Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis is also called the J-E-D-P theory because the four supposed sources are designated by these initials:

  • J: The Jahwist (or Yahwist) and Elohist documents – Scholars noticed that in some sections of Genesis, the Hebrew word for God is “Yahweh,” while in other sections it is Elohim, translated “LORD” and “God,” respectively. For example, in Genesis 1:1 through 2:4 the word used repeatedly and exclusively is Elohim (“God”). In the rest of chapter 2, however, He is called “LORD God” (Yahweh Elohim) over and over, and never just God. This led these scholars to divide Genesis into “J” sections and “E” sections, attributing the “J” sections to the “Yahwist” source and the “E” sections to the “Elohist” source.Once Genesis was cut up into these sections, the source critics started looking at the distinguishing characteristics of the respective parts. They then applied these characteristics to identify J and E sections of the other books of the Pentateuch and elsewhere in the Old Testament, based on which characteristics each section had.
  • D: The Deuteronomic document – The book of Deuteronomy did not seem to fit either category, so the source critics theorized that it was based on a document they called, for lack of a better term, “Deuteronomist.” Source critics say Deuteronomist characteristics in other Old Testament books as indications that these were written or edited by either the Deuteronomist himself or by members of a Deuteronomist school of editors.
  • P: The Priestly document – In a similar way, the book of Leviticus, with its unique emphasis on the priesthood and priestly duties was dubbed the “Priestly” document. Source critics then looked at other sections with a similar emphasis as derived from priestly sources.

The process of fragmenting the text into more and more sources continued for decades throughout the 20th century. More recently, however, some biblical scholars are questioning the validity or at least the relevance of source criticism, especially since the source critics themselves cannot reach a consensus regarding which passages should be attributed to which sources. Recent study of the Pentateuch has focused, not on the sources, but on the unity and artistry of the books as they now stand. The same variety in the use of the divine names, for example, is often now explained in terms of either the literary style of the author (or the final editor) or his theological emphases, or both.

In other words, some scholars have begun to appreciate the sophistication of the biblical authors as writers and their profundity as theologians. This is a much better explanation and yields more understanding of the text than the J-E-D-P theory ever offered.

If you run across a commentary on the Old Testament that discusses the text in terms of Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomic, and Priestly sections, I would recommend that you set such a commentary aside and search for one that focuses on God, righteousness, atonement, covenant, law, sin, and holiness rather than unfounded speculations.

Want to go deeper?

The following are recommended to help you look deeper into whether the documentary hypothesis is valid.

Recommended for purchase:

T. Desmond Alexander & David W. Baker, eds. Dictionary of the Old Testament – Pentateuch: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (2002) – provides short summary of each named person in the Old and New Testaments.

Duane Garrett. Rethinking Genesis: The Sources and Authorship of the First Book of the Pentateuch (2000)

Online resources:

James P. Holding. “Debunking the Documentary Hypothesis”

Curt Sewell. “The Tablet Theory of Genesis Authorship.”