The Documentary Hypothesis: How Scholars Discovered J, E, D, and P (3)

This posts is part 3 of the ‘Did Moses Write the Torah?’ series. It too has been excerpted from my writing.

Nineteenth century scholarship: post-Mosaic by centuries

The observable textual data collected over the centuries leading up to and including the nineteenth century no longer supported the long-standing traditional and pre-critical claim that the Pentateuch was written by Moses—a traditional view, moreover, that the text never claimed to begin with and which only came into existence through culturally conditioned theological and ideological interpretive agendas of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. By the nineteenth century the large majority of biblical scholars realized that the Pentateuch was composed out of a variety of sources, all of which postdate Moses by centuries. It was the work of Wilhelm de Wette (1780-1849) that ushered in this new paradigm.

Previously commentators had claimed that the textual data suggested that much of the Pentateuch’s narrative displayed knowledge of later time periods and thus the hypothesis drawn was that Moses must have nevertheless penned the laws, while later writers added narratives to this. De Wette’s work on the book of Chronicles and the books of Samuel-Kings was to change all this. He noticed that while the author of Chronicles, which chronicles the history of the Judean monarchy, placed a huge emphasis on ritual law, the legal system, and the importance of the Levites throughout the history of the monarchy, the author of the books of Samuel and Kings, which is an earlier narrative work of the same historical period, never mentions ritual law, the legal system, nor the importance of the priestly class. In other words, the books of Samuel and Kings display no knowledge of the giving of the law at Sinai, no knowledge of the systematic ritual law outlined in the book of Leviticus, and no knowledge of the law code in the book of Deuteronomy—that is, the whole matrix of ritual and ethical law that Moses was to have apparently promulgated from Sinai in the remote archaic past! This complete absence of Pentateuchal material in the books of Samuel and Kings led de Wette to conclude that the Sinai event, Levitical law, and the Deuteronomic law code were actually compositions of the late monarchic and exilic periods. In other words, the emphasis on ritual law in the books of Chronicles represents the religious institutions of that author’s own time period, the 4th century bc. The chronicler’s primary aim was to legitimate and authenticate these 4th century bc religious institutions by retrojecting them back into the pre-exilic era in his reshaping of Judah’s monarchal history. However, according to the earlier composition, the books of Samuel and Kings, these very religious institutions were not present. The ritual and legalistic material in the Pentateuch, therefore, does not detail the historical events of an archaic past, but rather the reality of a much later Israel which then pictured its own historical past in the terms that would eventually authenticate and legitimate its present ritual and legal institutions. This also explains why the ritual law code so present in the books of Chronicles was completely absent from the earlier narrative of the same historical period in the books of Samuel and Kings. It had not yet been written.

De Wette furthermore argued that the law code in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut 12-27) was a product of Josiah’s religious reforms of the early 7th century BC. Thus de Wette is responsible for the identification of yet another source in the Pentateuch’s complex compositional history: D or the Deuteronomic source. The identification of D—largely based on its very different theological tone, message, and unique style and vocabulary—with its date of composition in the late monarchal period complemented de Wette’s claim that the Deuteronomic law code was not know in the pre- and early monarchal periods of Israel’s history. This too was rather a late creation, perhaps indeed drawing on earlier traditions. Thus de Wette convincingly demonstrated that not only were the sources from which the Pentateuch was composed post-Mosaic, but they were also post-monarchal, that is, compositions of the late monarchal and (post-)exilic periods!

De Wette’s thesis was verified and supported by the research of later scholars. Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, Hermann Hupfeld, for example, observed that none of the pre-exilic prophets display a familiarity with the Mosaic ritual and legal code neither, and moreover, familiarity with stories of the patriarchs and the garden of Eden were also lacking in pre-exilic texts. In other words, mention of Abraham, Jacob, and the garden of Eden narratives only resurface outside of the Pentateuch in texts composed during or after the exile! This implies that these Pentateuchal passages were also of an exilic origin. Thus, not only did it appear that the Mosaic ritual and legal system as presented in the book of Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and parts of Exodus, were exilic or post-exilic creations, but now it appeared that the stories of the patriarchs and the garden of Eden so central to the book of Genesis were also exilic creations!

Hupfeld was to contribute another significant discovery which furthered the understanding of the Pentateuch’s composite nature: what had been labeled as the Elohist (E) source in the previous century was actually a composite of two sources, both of which had a preference for the use of elohim to designate Israel’s deity. Hupfeld was thus able to distinguish the Priestly (P) source from the Elohist on account of its inexorable emphasis on cult, ritual law, and genealogies. It was Karl Heinrich Graf, however, who provided the proof that P’s sacrificial legislation was unknown to the book of Deuteronomy, the Prophets, and Joshua to 2 Kings. In other words, the cultic legislation which encompasses the book of Leviticus was written after the law code of Deuteronomy and the narratives in the books of Joshua to 2 Kings. In this manner, nineteenth century biblical scholarship revealed that upon close examination the Pentateuch was not only not composed by Moses or any single author for that matter, but was composed of sources that most likely had their origins in the late monarchal and exilic/post-exilic periods. All of these discoveries were still leading up to the work of the most influential biblical scholar of the nineteenth century, Julius Wellhausen.

The Pentateuch: a product of the late monarchal and (post-)exilic periods

The German scholar and professor Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918) was primarily interested in what the Pentateuchal sources told us about the history of Israelite religion. Wellhausen’s task of reconstructing the historical development of Israel’s religious ideas and institutions was accomplished by arranging the biblical sources in chronological order. Following on the work of de Wette, Hupfeld, and Graf, Wellhausen claimed that the Mosaic ritual and legal institutions stood not at the beginning of Israel’s historical development in some remote archaic past, but at its end, that is in the exilic and post-exilic periods. To a large extent this was merely a rearticulation of the observations made by his predecessors. However, Wellhausen pushed further. Since Deuteronomy (D) and the Priestly source (P) were already claimed to be products of the late monarchal and exilic periods respectively—based on the textual evidence that the ritual, ethical, and cultic laws and practices proclaimed in P, and secondarily in D, were not present in the pre-monarchal and monarchal periods per our biblical sources, the books Joshua to 2 Kings—Wellhausen further concluded on thematic and theological grounds that the Priestly source was composed after Deuteronomy. This he based on the observations that D (Deuteronomy) displays no familiarity with the ritual system of P (Leviticus), and secondly, while P assumes that centralization of the cult of Yahweh at Jerusalem is a given, D has to argue for such centralization. Thus Deuteronomy’s argument that the cult of Yahweh must only be practiced at Jerusalem predates P’s ritual law code which already acknowledged the cult’s centralization at Jerusalem. This, along with the fact that neither Joshua through 2 Kings nor the pre-exilic prophets display any knowledge of the laws of P (the book of Leviticus), led Wellhausen to argue for a late date of composition for P, most probably of a post-exilic origin. In other words, the ritual law and the cult surrounding the tabernacle which the biblical narrative presents as part of the wilderness experience in the books of Exodus and Leviticus is actually a later post-exilic composition that reflected the cultic and ritual concerns of the community of exiles who, returning from their Babylonian captivity, resettled in Palestine in the Persian period and rebuilt Yahweh’s temple and cult. Accordingly, Wellhausen hypothesized that the sources that now make up the Pentateuch were composed in a series of successive stages and redacted together at a later date. From oldest to youngest the sources run: J-E-D-P.

The Documentary Hypothesis: J, E, D, P

Wellhausen’s hypothesis came to be known as the Documentary Hypothesis and quickly established itself as the orthodoxy in critical scholarship. All introductions to the Old Testament published throughout the twentieth century contained in some form or another the Documentary Hypothesis, which in short, stated that the Pentateuch was a composite of (at least) four sources that could be identified and arranged in chronological order according to their theological, linguistic, and historical emphases, and whose final form came about through a series of redactional stages that dovetailed these sources together. The Yahwist source or J was dated to the Solomonic era (9th c. BC), or a century afterwards, and seems to have been a product of the Judean scribes of the southern kingdom. The Elohist source or E was seen as a literary product of the northern kingdom and therefore must have been composed prior to its fall in 722 BC. J and E were redacted together probably not much later than the fall of Israel. To the composite JE text, the Deuteronomic source or D was combined, which most probably occurred sometime in the 5th century BC. A further redactional process probably occurring in the 5th or early 4th century BC added the post-exilic Priestly composition or P to this JED document. These 4 once independent sources will be the focus of this book. Who wrote them, why were they written, and to whom will be some of the questions we will entertain. But even more so we will be interested in how these 4 sources interact with one another in the composite text that was formed centuries after their individual compositions.

It must be borne in mind that the Documentary Hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis. And as such there is a scientific rigor to it. As one critic writes: “A hypothesis is a conceptual structure which serves to organize and render intelligible a mass of otherwise disparate and disordered observations.” Like the model of an atom, which also is a hypothesis constructed out of what is observable from data collected from photon accelerators, so too the Documentary Hypothesis. It is still the best and most reconfirmed hypothesis that explains the textual data observed in the Hebrew text: duplicate stories, competing theologies and ritual systems, contradictions, differences in style and vocabulary, etc. More than a century after Wellhausen no alternative model explains the observable textual data as well as the Documentary Hypothesis. Certainly the Documentary Hypothesis as Wellhausen conceived is reproduced with considerable variation, and has had, and continues to have, its critics. It would be beneficial to quickly look at how the Documentary Hypothesis has been re-envisioned by successive generations, and additionally what have been its challenges.

Modern challenges to the Documentary hypothesis

The challenges brought to bear on the Documentary Hypothesis by Hermann Gunkel (1852-1932) are perhaps the most significant. Hermann Gunkel’s interests lie in the pre-literary culture of Israelite religion, in other words, the oral traditions and cultural contexts that stood behind the literary sources proposed by the Documentary Hypothesis. The challenge was formulated in such a way as to ask whether or not our sources, J and E in particular, can be spoken of as whole independent literary documents. Or are they rather a collection of oral traditions, whose settings were liturgical and cultic in nature? Gunkel postulated that it was more likely that these documents emerged gradually from prior oral recitations within a variety of cultural settings: the family gathering around the hearth, public festivals, and local shrines and cultic sites. It was these settings that produced the first narratives. Gunkel’s work also brought to the fore questions not only pertaining to the function of these traditions in their cultural settings, but also those relating to the audience for whom such traditions existed and to whom they were eventually written. Thus one of the main challenges to the Documentary Hypothesis was the question of whether we can accurately speak of separate literary compositions—whole documents—that were then redacted together at a later date. In other words, Gunkel’s work has forced us to examine the oral traditions and the cultic/liturgic settings lying behind the texts, moving the discussion from documents to oral traditions, from authors to products of specific cultural events. This has had its greatest effect on J and E, especially the latter. No longer is E unanimously seen as an individual literary unit prior to its redaction with J. A number of scholars are now willing to assert that the so-called E document never existed; it is rather a collection of diverse cultural and cultic traditions from the north that were later supplemented to J. Additionally, J and E were not conceived of as authors for Gunkel, but rather interpreters of oral traditions who modified such traditions when they were put into writing. In sum, Gunkel’s work has affected the field of study in that there is no longer a consensus on the existence of independent and continuous literary documents prior to their being combined together. This is especially pertinent to E, and to a lesser extent J. D and P, however—the two youngest sources—were clearly literary compositions, even to Gunkel.

Another challenge to the Documentary Hypothesis has been the growing proliferation in the number of sources within sources proposed by critics. In an ever-growing desire to peel away redacted layers, biblical scholars have subjected many of the sources to an increasing subdivision of its editorial layers. Wellhausen had himself proposed a J1, J2, and J3—each representing a revisional layer in the source itself. Obviously the problem presented here is one that again attacks the hypothesis of whole individual literary documents. If a supposed literary document can be dissected into various redactional layers, then can we properly understand the source as a whole literary unit? The Priestly source (P) has been especially susceptible to this endeavor, in an attempt to see compositional layers between its ritual legislation and its narrative components. On the other hand, this enterprise has produced positive results. For example, many scholars now agree that whole sections of P can be distinguished mainly on account of its linguistic differences and ritual reemphasis. Within P we find another source, the Holiness Code or H (Leviticus 17-26), which was redacted into P. Scholars have additionally asked wether P can be confidently seen as a separate individual source, or should it be envisioned as a redaction and reinterpretation of the JE document. In other words, did a later redactor stitch together the JE and P documents? Or, was P himself the redactor who composed his document around the JE narrative, and more importantly, as a means to modify and reorient the JE document toward the beliefs and concerns of the author and community of P? As a growing number of scholars assert, P texts seem to be inserted at important places in the JE document with the goal of reinterpreting, and even replacing, the emphasis or theological point of the earlier JE narrative.

Another challenge to Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis revolves around the issue of the dates of the sources and their order of composition. Since Wellhausen’s work, the date of composition for J especially has moved more and more into later time periods, with a growing number of scholars now assigning its date of composition to the exilic period. The reason for this is the recognition of reoccurring exilic themes that make more sense seen as addressing the concerns and hopes of the exilic community in Babylon. Certainly J contains material, oral or written, that dates back to the monarchy, but in its present form it displays the hand of an exilic author these critics assert. There has equally been some debate over the date of composition for the Priestly source as well, with arguments on both sides of the debate: pre-exilic or post-exilic.

Distinguishing between pre-exilic and post-exilic themes—before and after 587 bc—within a source, in an attempt to better understand its compositional history, is especially important. In this respect, the work of Martin Noth on D should not go unmentioned. Noth was the first one to notice that the stark theological emphasis and tone of the book of Deuteronomy was in fact not present in the other four books of the Pentateuch but rather in the books that followed. Thus Noth surmised that whoever penned the book of Deuteronomy also penned the books of Joshua through Kings. Although Noth proposed a single exilic author for this work, scholars now unanimously agree that D went through two primary editions, a pre-exilic edition celebrating and culminating in king Josiah’s great levitical religious reforms and an exilic edition that now had to account for the demise and fall of Jerusalem, its temple, and the Davidic line. Thus many scholars recognize a Dtr1 and Dtr2—the latter reflective of the new historical situation prompted by Jerusalem’s fall in 587 BC which now necessitated a reinterpretation of Israel’s history as depicted in Dtr1. Thus, the exilic Dtr2 paints a history ominously marching toward its destruction by inserting passages of prophetic doom and catastrophe into the optimistic Josianic Dtr1 that fueled the Deuteronomist scribes under Josiah 20 years earlier. We must keep in mind that like D, other sources that were composed in the pre-exilic period also went through revisionary stages during the exilic/post-exilic periods, and the form in which we now have them represents this fact.

Finally, there has been a trend in recent scholarship to revisit other hypotheses advanced in the earlier stages of this discovery. In addition to the Documentary Hypothesis, which asserts that our sources were documents prior to their being redacted together, the Supplementary hypothesis asserts that one document, such as P, served as the base text to which other sources, whether fragmentary or whole, were added. It was Noth, for example, who first suggested that P provided the structural frame of the book of Genesis, to which J was appended. The other is the Fragmentary hypothesis, which states that prior to their being combined together these sources existed in fragmentary form. This hypothesis is the most amiable toward Gunkel’s work on the pre-literate oral traditions of sources. In many regards the fragmentary hypothesis might even explain the composite nature of the book of Genesis with its seemingly separate segments of J material.

In conclusion, we should note that the disagreements among scholars concerning whether or not we can confidently speak of literary sources, does not invalidate the view shared by all these scholars: the Pentateuch’s complex compositional history involved the combination and use of post-Mosaic sources, whether oral or written, fragmentary or supplementary.

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