OT and History: Part IIa The Documentary Hypothesis (JEDP)

OT and History: Part IIa The Moderate-to-Liberal View of the Text, The Documentary Hypothesis

Continuing the series of the Old Testament and History (see, Part I), we will be covering the moderate-to-liberal view of the Old Testament’s history and text.  It should be stated that the Old Testament field is home to a wide range of views.  However, some theories and facts have shaped the landscape of Old Testament studies so greatly that they must be addressed.  And in doing so, a large portion–perhaps well above the majority–can be characterized.

In this post, and in posts that follow, I will summarize theories and beliefs that I do not personally hold.  Aristotle is quoted as saying, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it,” and that is what we must do if we are to take Biblical studies seriously.  Only after giving full weight to the positions held in scholarship, will I describe and defend my position, which is typically referred to (pejoratively) as fundamentalist.  That being said, I hope to summarize these theories and the reasons for their success, and I hope to do so in such a way that a proponent of that theory would sign off on it.  Without further ado, the Documentary Hypothesis.

Source Criticism and Documentary Hypothesis

Source Criticism is the scientific study of the text in such a way to determine whether there are multiple, originally independent, sources that make up various books of the Old Testament, and, if so, what these sources are or may have looked like.  Jean Astruc, though not the first, popularized it in the scholarly community of France in 1753 and Germany (when Eichhorn took it up and elaborated, 1780-3).  This source criticism reached its height under Julius Wellhausen, a brilliant German scholar, and the resulting theory has become known as the Documentary Hypothesis.

The theory had its beginning when Astruc and others met with confusion the first two chapters of Genesis.  In Genesis 1, the name of the deity is Elohim, but in Genesis 2:4ff, the deity is Yahweh Elohim.  Second, the story in Genesis 2:4ff seems to be in conflict with Genesis 1.  First, Genesis 1 has Elohim creating the heavens and the earth, and all that is in them, in six days.  But in Genesis 2:4, it is stated, “…in the day that Yahweh Elohim made the earth and heaven.”  Some scholars, certainly not all, see this as a slight contradiction, because 2:4 sees creation as taking a single day whereas chapter 1 recounts it as taking six.  Secondly, in Genesis 1  vegetation is created on the third day in verse 11, and this takes place before man is made in in the sixth day (v. 26).  Well, in Genesis chapter 2, man is created before the vegetation.

Genesis 5: Now no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted, for the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was no man to cultivate the ground.
6  But a mist used to rise from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground.
7  Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
8  The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed.
9  Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for foodNew (American Standard Bible)

So, in this account, Yahweh Elohim formed man, and then caused trees to grow and vegetation to grow up (because, as it says, man hadn’t been formed to work the ground and it hadn’t rained).

This, and other factors to be discussed below, led to conclusion that there are two separate creation accounts.  What appears to have happened, they argue, is that the final editor of  the Pentateuch had two hopelessly contradictory creation accounts, and either 1. attempted to merge them and failed or 2.  embraced the differences and included them both.  In the final analysis, Genesis 1 is ascribed to source P, and Genesis 2:4ff is ascribe to source J.

The sources of the modern Documentary Hypothesis are named J(Y)ahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly (JEDP), and it is believed that their originally separate documents were edited, merged, rearranged, and finalized into our current Pentateuch.  Hence the name, Documentary Hypothesis.  According to Umberto Cassuto, there are five pillars to the Documentary Hypothesis that show our current Genesis-Deuteronomy books were created from individual source documents that were compiled at a much later date than 1400 B.C. which would be date given if we take the biblical chronology and count backwards to the time of Moses.1 Typically, the date for the composition of the Pentateuch rests somewhere after the exile from 536-400 B.C.

The five pillars of are:

(1) Thedifferent terms used for the Divine Name (Either Elohim/El/El shaddai, etc or Yahweh)
(2) variations of language and style (i.e. terms used for covenant making Haqim berit/Karat berit)
(3) Contradictions & Divergent viewpoints
(4) duplications and repetitions (think of Abraham lying to a king about Sarah being his wife (twice), and Isaac doing the same to rebekah)
(5) signs of composite structure (signs of merging two different types of documents)2

We can see from this list that Genesis 1-2:3 and Genesis 2:4ff fit nicely into the Documentary Hypothesis’ system.  We have different uses for the name of God in these two sections.  We have alleged contradictions and/or divergent viewpoints (Yahweh is much more personal than Elohim… see how Yahweh forms man by hand, but Elohim creates man by fiat).  The creation of man is repeated in both sections, and this duplication is what aroused suspicions in the first place.  With all of these factors combined, the conclusion that there are two creation accounts was accepted.

This process is just repeated throughout the Pentateuch, and although scholars differ, they have concluded that there were presumably many transmitted traditions (many orally) about creation, the patriarchal “myths”, the exodus, and the conquest.

The narrative that many scholars would give the Pentateuch is that some group (authors/narrators) or a single person in the southern kingdom of Judah received some traditions–probably mostly oral–and put them to writing.  This document became J.  This tradition is characterized by the name of Yahweh as the deity, and typically reveals God as more personal and nearer than Elohim.  Martin Noth also delineated the central themes of this source.  They are: leading out of Egypt, leading into Canaan, the promise to the fathers (Abraham, et. al), leading in the desert, and the revelation at Sinai.3  This tradition is normally considered to have been written down earliest.

The northern kingdom of Israel–probably prophetic circles–held a different tradition, E, in which God was referred to as Elohim.  Elohim is normally represented as being more distant.  This makes sense, these scholars say, because the prophets always reminded Israel (who was more prone to idolatry) of their sin, and so their tradition leaned more towards a separation from sinners.  It is alleged that most of the stories attributed to E take place in the north (where the prophets spent most of their time), and the stories in J took place mostly in the south.  E has a tendency to focus on these themes: prophetic leadership, the fear of God, Sinai Covenant (don’t approach the mountain!).  At least in some point in history, if not still today, many scholars held that sources J and E came from the same oral tradition.4  This oral tradition is named G, and since this oral tradition was received by the southern kingdom, Judah, differently than the more northern Israel, the contents of and E differed in their emphases.

The D source came later, and it consists in the book of Deuteronomy.  This is primarily because the content of Deuteronomy differs in genre compared to the narratives of Genesis and Exodus, and it also differs from the more Priestly (P) documents found in Leviticus.  The D source is typically considered to have more than one editor.  According to Anderson, even though D was written before P, it was only later that D was added to JEP, and the Pentateuch as know it came into existence.5.

P can be described as the residue of what’s left one JEP is taken out: some large narratives (like Gen. 1), genealogies, laws concerning sacrifices, temples, etc.  E were around during the time of the monarchy, 1000 B.C., but finally were combined by an editor.  D comes after 700 B.C.  The Priestly document, P, was once considered the oldest document, is now considered the latest source that was merged with and gave structure to the Pentateuch.6  P is now generally dated to after the exile.  This is not to say that everything in our current Pentateuch that is attributed to P is as late as the post-exilic period.  Many scholars would hold that P retains very ancient priestly rites and beliefs that possibly stem from the Mosaic period (but NOT that Moses originated these practices).  P is responsible for the holiness code, Lev. 17-26, the latter part of Exodus 25-31 (for example).  The P material presumably took the older materials (JE), and used it as a supplement.  The covenant with Abraham in Gen. 17, which contains blood, ritual, and other priestly material, was supplemented by other Abrahamic narratives (like Gen. 15).

So, there is no single Mosaic tradition unless one is going to say that the oral tradition postulated, G, is Mosaic.  I don’t know any that would claim it is Mosaic, however.  Rather, there were primarily two (JE) different and sometimes contradictory epics concerning Israel’s history.  The Priests of the post-exilic period, in order to justify their current practices, sought to tie their laws and rituals to that of Israel’s ancient ancestors, and then modified the epics E which may have already been combined.  Last, the Deuteronomistc Historian, the person or people responsible for editing and redacting the D source, and who ultimately was believed to have written Israel’s history (1 Samuel-2nd Kings) added Deuteronomy to the sources.

Let’s take a second and think about the implications. Many moderate-to-liberal scholars put the beginnings of the composition of JE in the time of the monarchy (c.a. 950 for J, and c.a. 850 for E).  P, remember, is even later.  This removes Moses as the author.  Moses can’t be considered the author of three different sources composed at different times because, if Moses is historical, he lived 400 years before the monarchy.  Some of these scholars will say that the oral prehistory may go back to someone like Moses, but  most prefer to say that they are just tribal legends, rituals, myths, and folklore that were passed down orally through the ages.

Reasons for a Late Date

Anachronisms and Post-Mosaica

An anachronism is a piece of a story that doesn’t fit within the time-frame it represents.  For example, in Genesis 14:14 it is recorded that Abram went to war with four kings and pursued them as far as Dan.  The issue is that Dan didn’t exist by the name Dan, yet.  Dan is the great-great-grandson of Abraham, and Abraham died before Dan was born.  That area in the north was named Dan after Joshua led the conquest of Canaan nearly 600 years later.  Therefore, the naming of that place as “Dan” is an anachronism.7 Technically, it is not only an anachronism, but is considered Post-Mosaica.

Post-Mosaica are anachronisms in the text that Moses couldn’t have written.  One other example is in Genesis 11:31, Abraham is called out from Ur of the Chaldees.  Much ink has been spilt on this subject.  Suffice it to say that Moses was long, long dead before the Chaldu came and conquered that region.  It would be something like someone saying John was called from the from Boston, Massachusetts, United States before America was even “discovered.”  The Chaldu didn’t exist during the period of Abraham, and hte conquered the region nearly 400 years after Moses died.  Evangelical scholars will say that this was a minor update to the text so that Ur made sense to the readers in the monarchy or exile.  A skeptic will say this is evidence of the traditions being written and composed in the monarchy.

One other Post-Mosaica is the fact that Moses’ own death is recounted in Deuteronomy:

5 So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD, 6 and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day. 7 Moses was 120 years old when he died. His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated. 8 And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days. Then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended.

ESV,  Dt 34:4–8.

It is unlikely that Moses wrote this.  It can either be said that what we mean by authorship is that the pentateuch is basically Mosaic with some updating of language, grammar, and place names or that the composition of the Pentateuch isn’t Mosaic at all, but is the product of numerous, disparate sources.

Concluding Remarks

I gave evidence at the beginning for the and sources so that the casual reader could see why scholars might consider Genesis 1-2 as two separate and conflicting creation accounts.  I didn’t do such a thing for P and D.  It could come off, then, to the casual reader as if there are no reasons for postulating two more sources to the Pentateuch except for the wild fancies of scholars.  Well, that’s not true.  The primary reason for this is that the genres across the Pentateuch are wildly different.  From vivid stories about Jacob trying to marry Rachel to so-and-so begot so-and-so to how to purify oneself if he or she were to touch a cadaver.  It is primarily this difference of content that leads to the scholars’ postulation of different sources, and that, with some anachronisms has lead to the status of the Pentateuch we have today.  Finally, Martin Noth noted that 1 Samuel-II Kings shares very similar language to Deuteronomy.  This has lead him and many others to suppose that Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel-II Kings, at least, are the work of one author.  This also is another reason why D has been considered a separate source.


  • The OT was not written by Moses.
  • The OT is a composite work of many different sources
  • These sources contradict each other
  • When these sources were merged, not all of the contradictions were taken out
  • The final composition took place after the exile,536-400 B.C., almost 1000 years before most evangelical believers thought it was composed (1400 B.C. with Moses).
  • The content was transferred orally and may not be accurate as actual history.

This can be a lot to take in.  The OT is one of the most studied books in history, and we have had to cover a lot of ground quickly.  I hope one can see, after reading this, the reasonableness of this position.  If the position were not reasonable then no one would believe it.  Now, I reject this JEDP theory, but knowledge of this theory is needed in order to understand almost any modern research and writing on the Old Testament.  The next post will look at the manuscript history of the OT, and how that plays a role in how moderate-to-liberal scholars treat and interpret the Old Testament.  But this Documentary Hypothesis is foundational to the next post as well.  After the next post, I will finally attempt to offer a critique of the moderate-to-liberal positions as well as give my own position on the subject.  If you made it through this, then good work and thanks for reading!


1. See Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests for a timeline.

2. Umberto Cassuto is not a proponent for the Documentary Hypothesis, but his description of the pillars is excellent.
Umberto Cassuto, The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch, (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1961), 14.

3. de Pury, Albert. “Yahwist (‘J’) Source.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary.  New York: Doubleday, 1992.  Vol. VI, 1012-20.

4.  Jenks, Alan W. “Elohist.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary.  New York:  Doubleday, 1992.  Vol. II, 478-82.

5.  Anderson, Bernhard W.  “The Priestly Tradition.” In Understanding the Old Testament. 4th ed.  Englewood Cliffs:  Prentice-Hall. 1986. Pp. 449-66.

6. Ibid.

7. Many scholars who are already skeptical of the Bible will say that thisevidence that this story was composed after the monarchy began and the tribe of Dan conquered this northern region.  I would simply say that it is more likely that the original name of the city that Abraham pursued the four kings to no longer made sense after Dan conquered it.  Therefore, to keep the text accurate, the name of that city in the original text that was already written was edited to Dan (by some prophet or priest guided by the Spirit).  The difference is that I still hold that the original composition is historical and by Moses.

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