The Study of the Composition of the Pentateuch Part 1: The Documentary Hypothesis

1. Introduction. The composition of the Pentateuch is not my main area of study, nor is it the usual subject of this blog. However, it is relevant to the issues of typology and chronology of Biblical Hebrew, and I am interested more generally in how “authorship” worked in the ancient world, how scribes worked with texts, etc. Most importantly though, the topic is on my Hebrew Bible comp. So here is a summary of some of my notes. It is a little long, but perhaps it will help you brush up on your own studies. And please, this being a weaker area of mine, if you feel I have misrepresented a scholar’s view or left a very important scholar out, please add a comment.  

2. Pre-critical Views. The traditional view of Jews and Christians has been that Moses, the prophet par excellence, was the author of the Pentateuch. However, already in the Middle Ages, Abraham ibn Ezra (c. 1092-1167) had delicately asked whether some portions of the Pentateuch were perhaps not authored by Moses. For instance, Genesis 12:6 reads: 

“Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time, the Canaanites were in the land.”

The gloss mentioning that the Canaanites were in the land seems to imply that at the time this phrase was added, the Canaanites were no longer in the land, and thus Moses was unlikely to be the author of these words. During the period of the Reformation, Andreas Carlstadt (1486-1541) noted that it was unlikely that Moses authored the postscript to Deuteronomy narrating his death and burial in the third person, and therefore also unlikely that he actually compiled the five books named after him (De canonicis scripturis, 1520).   

3. The Rise of Science and the Enlightenment. With the advance of scientific enquiry in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, accompanied by the radical skepticism most closely associated with Descartes (1596-1650), these questions were asked anew and pushed farther. Scholars noted a variety of repetitions, apparent contradictions, and general “defects” which suggested that the books as a whole did not come from the hand of Moses, but perhaps some later author had made use of notes from Moses along with other sources. Thus Hobbes (1588-1679) in his Leviathan (1651) suggested that the Pentateuch as a whole is post-Mosaic, except for the portions which are specifically ascribed to him. Spinoza (1632-1677) also held that the Pentateuch was written by someone other than Moses, generations after his death (Theological-Political Treatise, 1670). Spinoza’s view of the Bible as a natural work which should be studied empirically and rationally would become programatic for scholars after him.

4. Source criticism. Spinoza had suggested that understanding the meaning of the Bible included understanding both its historical context and the nature of its transmission. Source criticism arose as a discipline to attempt to establish the sources of the Pentateuch (and other biblical texts). In its early days three main theories arose regarding the nature of the sources: the Fragmentary Hypothesis, the Supplementary Hypothesis, and the Documentary Hypothesis.

4.1. The Documentary Hypothesis. The idea was first proposed by Henning Bernhard Witter in 1711, and then independently and more thoroughly by Jean Astruc in 1753, that the two names used for God, the “generic” Elohim and the proper name YHWH, may be a key to distinguishing the two main sources used by Moses in the book of Genesis (note that Astruc was interested in demonstrating Mosaic authorship). Witter had noticed that Gen 1-2:3 exclusively refers to God as Elohim, while Gen 2:4-3:24 consistently uses YHWH Elohim, and that these two passages appear to be parallel accounts of the creation. Astruc concluded that Moses had two sources of Genesis, one that used the name Elohim and one that used YHWH, along with further fragmentary sources. He imagined that these were originally laid out in four parallel columns, but were later combined into one book producing the uneveness of the text. This laid the foundations for the Documentary Hypothesis, the idea that the Pentateuch was composed by combining and editing several narrative strands, each of which were complete and independent.

Witter and Astruc had only considered the book of Genesis in their studies, but Johann G. Eichhorn (1752-1827) applied their method through Leviticus in his introduction to the Old Testament (Einleitung in das Alte Testament, 1780-83). Then, W. M. L. de Wette (1780-1849) suggested that the writer of Deuteronomy was different from the rest of the Pentateuch based on both style and content. He further suggested, based on 2 Kings 22, that Deuteronomy dated to the days of King Josiah at the end of the seventh century BCE, an important conclusion because it finally anchored one of the sources in Israel’s history. This also expanded the Pentateuchal sources to three: E (for the source that used the name Elohim), J (for the source that used the name YHWH, Y being J in German), and D (for Deuteronomy). Lastly, Hermann Hupfeld (1796-1866) concluded that there were actually two sources that used the name Elohim, dividing them into E1 and E2. The new source would later be named P (for a Priestly writer) and was originally seen as the earliest source.

The standard version of the Documentary Hypothesis is most commonly associated with Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) and his Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (1883, the updated 2nd Edition, published originally as Geschichte Israels, 1 in 1878). Wellhausen drew heavily upon his predecessors, while adding to their evidence.

Wellhausen also more explicitly connected the composition of the Pentateuch to the development of Israel’s religion. Following K.H. Graf, he suggested that P is actually the last source rather than the first. His argument assumed that the Pentateuch had been composed in a sequence which reflected the evolution of the Israelite religion from primitive beginnings to sophisticated and elaborate central cult, an idea introduced by Wilhelm Vatke (1806-1882). As mentioned earlier, D was connected to the discovery of the law book by Josiah which provided a historical reference point. He argued that P reflected a more developed cultic setting than J and E, which represent a religion similar to the stories found in Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Thus the legislation of P could not have been in effect until after the exile, while J and E were situated in the early monarchy. J was seen as the earliest source, reflecting a southern provenance from the time of David and Solomon (c. 950), which provided the basic story line for Genesis and Exodus. In contrast, E was a northern work from the height of the Northern Kingdom (c. 850). This sequence yields the familiar JEDP. As the P source is last, Wellhausen assumed that the Priestly author or someone from his circle served as final redactor.

4.2. The Fragment Hypothesis. While the Documentary Hypothesis became the standard theory, it was not the only theory of source criticism. The Fragment Hypothesis originated with Alexander Geddes (1737-1802) and was adopted by J. S. Vater (1771-1826). This approach suggested that the Pentateuch was composed from many fragments of varying lengths, rather than whole documents. Rather than begin with Genesis, these scholars began with the law codes. Vater suggested that the process of formation began with the law codes in Deuteronomy which dated to the time of David and Solomon, but were rediscovered in the time of Josiah.

4.3. Supplementary Hypothesis. Heinrich Ewald (1803-1875) was the main critic of the Fragment Hypothesis, arguing that it failed to account for the great unity of Genesis. Ewald is attributed with the origin of the Supplementary Hypothesis. He argued that the core of the Pentateuch is Elohistic, which gives it unity of theme and structure. This was supplemented by material from numerous other sources, which are responsible for the diversity of vocabulary and style.

5. Conclusions. Wellhausen’s presentation of the Documentary Hypothesis became the consensus position at the turn of the century. However, the methodology of source criticism tended to highlight differences over unity. As the sources were themselves subjected to scrutiny they began to multiply (ie E1, E2, E3…), basically devolving into a new Fragmentary Hypothesis. Thus, while there was agreement on the basics of the theory, there was less consensus on the details, leading to the dissatisfaction of some with the usefulness of the method.

Explore posts in the same categories: Text Criticism

12 Comments on “The Study of the Composition of the Pentateuch Part 1: The Documentary Hypothesis”

  1. Richard Says:

    What, no mention of Gunkel!!

  2. Peter Bekins Says:

    Richard, I’m getting there! Part 1 was just the Documentary Hypothesis. Gunkel comes next.

  3. Charles Says:

    Sorry Pete, but you slighted Gunkel. I’m deleting you from my RSS reader. ;)

  4. Charles Says:

    I think the very fact that you are discussing the documentary hypothesis reveals that this blog is not “fairly conservative” but “very liberal.”

  5. Peter Bekins Says:

    You’re lucky I even accept comments from a liberal like you…

  6. […] 1) The Study of the Composition of the Pentateuch – Part 1: The Documentary Hypothesis […]

  7. ntwrong Says:

    Do I detect the strong influence of the Ska-source behind your summary?

    Yours very liberally, etc

  8. Peter Bekins Says:


    No, actually I didn’t use Ska, but you reminded me that I forgot to post my bibliography. I’ll try to get to that tomorrow.

  9. ntwrong Says:

    So much for source criticism, then. …although, could Ska and Bekins go back to a Common Source?

  10. […] 1: The Documentary Hypothesis Part 2: Challenges to the […]

  11. thankyou for this information, but how about Kal David Ilgen (1763-1834). About E1+E2+J ?

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