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Documentary hypothesis

Originally set forth by Julius Wellhausen in the late 19th century, the Documentary Hypothesis (also known as the JEPD Theory), holds that the five books of Moses (or Torah) are a combination of four older, distinct documents, conventionally labeled J, E, P, and D.

The Documentary Hypothesis is a specific model proposed to account for the what its proponents consider evidence of multiple authorship in the Torah.

Table of contents
1 History

Jewish tradition on the origin of the Torah

The Orthodox Jewish view holds that God revealed his will to Moses at Mount Sinai in a verbal fashion.

According to Jewish tradition, this dictation is said to have been exactly transcribed by Moses. The Torah was then exactly copied by scribes, from one generation to the next. Based on the Talmud (Tractate Gittin 60a) some believe that the Torah may have been given piece-by-piece, over the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert. In either case, the Torah is considered a direct quote from God. However, there are a number of exceptions to this belief within classical Judaism.

  • Over the millennia scribal errors have crept into the text of the Torah. The Masoretes (7th to 10th centuries CE) compared all extant variations and attempted to create a definitive text. Also, there are a number of places in the Torah where it appears that there are gaps and it has been postulated that part of the text has been edited out.

  • Abraham ibn Ezra and Joseph Bonfils observed that some phrases in the Torah present information that should only have been known after the time of Moses. Some classical rabbis drew on their obervations to postulate that these sections of the Torah were written by Joshua or perhaps some later prophet. Other rabbis would not accept this view.

  • The Talmud, in tractate Shabbat 115b, states that a peculiar section in the book of Numbers 10:35-36, surrounded by inverted Hebrew letter nuns, in fact is a separate book. On this verse a Midrash on the book of Mishle states that "These two verses stem from an independent book which existed, but was suppressed!" Another, possibly earlier midrash, Ta'ame Haserot Viyterot, states that this section actually comes from the book of prophecy of Eldad and Medad.

  • Deuteronomy is quite different in many ways from the previous four books. Commenting on this, the Talmud says that the other four books of the Torah were dictated by God, but Deuteronomy was written by Moses in his own words (Talmud Bavli, Megillah 31b). Some rabbis have noted that some other parts of the Torah may also have been composed this way as well.

  • For more information on these issues from an Orthodox Jewish perspective, see Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, edited by Shalom Carmy (Jason Aronson, Inc.) and Handbook of Jewish Thought, Volume I, by Aryeh Kaplan (Moznaim Pub.)

Classical rabbinical views that suggest multiple origins

The modern, critical view of the origin of the Torah was anticipated by earlier scholars. Within Jewish tradition, individual rabbis and scholars have on occasion pointed out that the Torah showed signs of not being written entirely by Moses.

  • Rabbi Judah ben Ilai held that the final verses of the Torah must have been written by Joshua. (This is discussed in the Talmud, Bava Batra 15a and Menachot 30a, and in Midrash Sifrei 357.], however Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai disagrees.
  • Parts of the Midrash retain evidence of the redactional[?] period during which Ezra redacted and canonized the text of the Torah as we know it today. A rabbinic tradition states that at this time (440 B.C.E.) the text of the Torah was edited by Ezra, and there were ten places in the Torah where he was uncertain as to how to fix the text; these passages were marked with special punctuation marks called the eser nekudot.
  • In the middle ages, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra and others noted that there were several places in the Torah that apparently could not have been written in Moses's lifetime. For example, see Ibn Ezra's comments on Genesis 12:6, 22;14, Deuteronomy 1:2, 3:11 and 34:1,6. Ibn Ezra's comments were elucidated by Rabbi Joseph Bonfils in his commentary on Ibn Ezra's work.
  • In the twelfth century, the commentator R. Joseph ben Isaac, known as the Bekhor Shor, noted that a number of wilderness narratives in Exodus and Numbers are very similar, in particular, the incidents of water from the rock, and the stories about manna and the quail. He theorized that both of these incidents actually happened once, but that parallel traditions about these events eventually developed, both of which made their way into the Torah.
  • In the thirteenth century, R. Hezekiah ben Manoah (known as the Hizkuni) noticed the same textual anomalies that Ibn Ezra noted; thus R. Hezekiah's commentary on Genesis 12:6 notes that this section "is written from the perspective of the future.".
  • In the fifteenth century, Rabbi Yosef Bonfils while discussing the comments of Ibn Ezra, noted: "Thus it would seem that Moses did not write this word here, but Joshua or some other prophet wrote it. Since we believe in the prophetic tradition, what possible difference can it make whether Moses wrote this or some other prophet did, since the words of all of them are true and prophetic?"

Classical Christian views that suggest multiple origins

The traditional view among Christians was that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, apart from a number of passages, such as the death of Moses, written by his successor Joshua. However, a number of Enlightenment Christian writers expressed doubts about this traditional view. For example, in the 16th century, Carlstadt noticed that the style of the account of the death of Moses was the same as that of the preceding portions of Deuteronomy, suggesting that whoever wrote about the death of Moses also wrote larger portions of the Torah.

By the 17th century, some commentators argued outright that Moses did not write most of the Pentateuch. For instance, in 1651, Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, ch. 33, argued that the Pentateuch was written after Moses's day on account of Deut. 34:6 ("no man knoweth of his sepulchre to this day"), Gen. 12:6 ("and the Canaanite was then in the land"), and Num. 21:12 (referring to a previous book of Moses's deeds). Others include Isaac de la Peyrère, Spinoza, Richard Simon, and John Hampden. Nevertheless, these people found their works condemned and even banned, and de la Peyrère and Hampden were forced to recant.

Internal textual evidence

Doublets and triplets are stories that are repeated with different points of view. Famous doublets include Genesis's creation accounts; the stories of the covenant between God and Abraham; the naming of Isaac; the two stories in which Abraham claims to a King that his wife is really his sister; the two stories of the revelation to Jacob at Bet-El. A famed triplet is the three different versions of how the town of Be'ersheba got its name.

There are many portions of the Torah which seem to imply more than one author. Some examples include:

  • Genesis 11:31 describes Abraham as living in the Ur of the Chaldeans. But the Chaldeans did not exist at the time of Abraham.
  • Numbers 25 describes the rebellion at Peor, and refers to Moabite women; the next sentence says the women were Midianites.
  • Deuteronomy 34 describes the death of Moses.
  • The list of Edomite kings included Kings who were not born until after Moses' death.
  • Some locations are identified by names which did not exist until long after the time of Moses.
  • The Torah often says that something has lasted "to this day," which seems to imply that the words were written at a later date. Classical commentaries usually interpret such verses to mean until the day they are read, in other words forever.
  • Deuteronomy 34:10 states "There never again arose a prophet in Israel like Moses..." which seems to imply that the verse was written long after. However, this can be understood as "There would never again arise.."


In 1886 the German historian Julius Wellhausen published Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (Prolegomena to the History of Israel). Wellhausen argued that the Bible is an important source for historians, but cannot be taken literally. He argued that the "hexateuch," (including the Torah or Pentateuch, and the book of Joshua) was written by a number of people over a long period. Specifically, he identified four distinct narratives, which he identified as Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly accounts. He also identified a Redactor, who edited the four accounts into one text. (Some argue the redactor was Ezra the scribe). He argued that each of these sources has its own vocabulary, its own approach and concerns, and that the passages originally belonging to each account can be distinguished by differences in style (especially the name used for God, the grammar and word usage, the political assumptions implicit in the text, and the interests of the author).

  • The "J" source: In this source God's name is always presented as YHVH, which German scholars transliterated as Jahweh (the equivalent of the English transliteration Jehovah).
  • The "E" source: In this source God's name is always presented as Elohim (Hebrew for God, or Power) until the revelation of God's name to Moses, after which God is referred to as YHVH.
  • The "D" or "Dtr" source: The source that wrote the book of Deuteronomy, and the books of Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel and I and II Kings.
  • The "P" source: The priestly material. Uses Elohim and El Shaddai as names of God.

Wellhausen argued that from the style and point of view of each source, one could draw inferences about the times in which the source was written (in other words, the historical value of the Bible is not that it reveals things about the events it describes, but rather that it reveals things about the people who wrote it). Moreover, Wellhausen argued that the progression evident in these four sources, from a relatively informal and decentralized relationship between people and God in the J account, to the relatively formal and centralized practices of the P account, one could see the development of institutionalized Israelite religion.

The documentary understanding of the origin of the five books of Moses was immediately seized upon by other scholars, and within a few years became the predominant theory. While many of Wellhausen's specific claims have since been dismissed, we must note that the documentary hypothesis is not one specific theory. Rather, this name is given to any understanding of the origin of the Torah that recognizes that there are basically four sources that were somehow redacted together into a final version. One could claim that one redactor wove together four specific texts, or one could hold that entire nation of Israel slowly created a consensus work based on various strands of the Israelite tradition, or anything in between. Gerald A. Larue writes "Back of each of the four sources lie traditions that may have been both oral and written. Some may have been preserved in the songs, ballads, and folktales of different tribal groups, some in written form in sanctuaries. The so-called 'documents' should not be considered as mutually exclusive writings, completely independent of one another, but rather as a continual stream of literature representing a pattern of progressive interpretation of traditions and history." ("Old Testament Life and Literature" 1968)

Acceptance of the documentary hypothesis

Some Jews and Christians reject the documentary theory entirely, and accept the traditional view that the whole Torah is the work of Moses. For most Orthodox Jews and traditional Christians, the divine origins of the five books of Moses in its entirety is accepted as a given. Other Christians, such as the translators of the New International Version of the Bible, take what they see as a middle ground, believing that Moses was the author of much of the text, and editor and compiler of the majority of the rest.

By contrast, today mostly all historians and critical Bible scholars accept the principle of multiple authorship in the Torah, and many also accept Wellhausen's identification of four basic accounts, although some do not believe that E was ever a distinct document. On the other hand, some scholars disagree with the Documentary hypothesis from another angle, arguing that the Torah is a composite of many different oral and written traditions composed in the post-Exilic period.

Furthermore, many have questioned his interpretation of Israelite religion, including his reconstruction of the order of the accounts as J-E-D-P. Many scholars have questioned Wellhausen's assumption that history follows a linear progression. They suggest that he organized the narrative to culminate with P because he believed that the New Testament followed logically in this progression. In the 1950s the Israeli historian, Yehezkel Kaufmann, published The Religion of Israel, from Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, in which he argued that the order of the sources would be J, E, P, and D.

In recent years attempts have been made to separate the J, E, D, and P portions. Harold Bloom wrote "The Book of J", in which he claims to have reconstructed the book that J wrote (though, certainly, much of J's original contribution must have been lost in the consolidation, if one believes the four-author theory). Bloom also indicates that he believes that J was a woman, but this is not accepted by other scholars.

Regardless of the different understandings of the composition of the Torah by modern, critical scholars, a return to the pre-critical understanding that the Torah was composed by or dictated to Moses is unlikely. Some scholars assert that the Documentary Hypothesis does make testable predictions that have been verified. For an illustration of this, please see the following:

"An Empirical Basis for the Documentary Hypothesis" Jeffrey H. Tigay Journal of Biblical Literature Vol.94, No.3 Sept. 1975, pages 329-342.

Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism Ed. Jeffrey Tigay. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986

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