Did Moses write the Torah?
The traditional view held in both Jewish and Christian circles was that the Pentateuch, the Torah, was penned by Moses under divine inspiration. This traditional claim, however, should be tempered by a couple of initial observations. First, the Torah makes no such claim. Nowhere does the Pentateuch claim to have been written by Moses, or anyone else for that matter. In fact, the sparse references to Moses writing in the Pentateuch are rather specific in nature. For example, it is claimed that Moses writes a memorial reminding later generations that the Amalekites must be exterminated (Ex 17:14); Moses writes “the words of Yahweh” (Ex 24:4) which contextually most likely refer to the Covenant Code of Exodus 21-23; in Ex 34:27 Moses is instructed to write “these words” which again are contextually the ten commandments (Ex 34: 14-26); and finally in Deut 27:8 and 31:9 we are informed that Moses wrote “this torah” (i.e., this teaching or instruction), which again most likely refers to specific instructions within its context, possibly even the core of the book of Deuteronomy. It should furthermore be mentioned that just because the text claims particular words, commandments, or even sections were penned by Moses does not mean that this was actually the case. Ancient Near Eastern literature—not to mention the ancient literature of Greece, China, and India as well—is full of these sorts of practices. Authorizing a politically or religiously oriented text by assigning its authorship to an ancestral hero, or even a god, is common practice in the ancient Near Eastern world. Second, Israelite writing, or writing in antiquity in general, required large economic and political institutions that would have necessarily been absent in the context of the wilderness narratives of the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy—institutions that would have been quite present in the late 8th century BC and onwards however.1 Third, there is strong evidence from the biblical texts themselves for a post-Mosaic, late monarchal, and even exilic date for the composition of much of the Pentateuchal narrative, especially the book of Deuteronomy whose date of composition has unanimously been shown to be the 7th century BC, under king Josiah’s reign (see here). Furthermore, as we shall see, the actual 8th through 6th century BC authors of the Pentateuch’s texts and traditions had specific theological and ideological agendas in claiming that Moses wrote such and such part of the text, many of which were used to legitimate and authenticate political and/or religious claims of the factual author’s time period, and often against other and earlier authors who had also employed the same literary technique. As a final note, the process of collecting and canonizing the various texts and traditions that now make up the Pentateuch was a lengthy one that culminated in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. Due to specific social, religious, and even pedagogical needs of this period, Israel’s ancient writings were not only collected and read as instruction (torah) to the public, but they were authenticated, that is hailed as authoritative, by appealing to, and even creating, Mosaic authorship.
It may more appropriately be asked, then, how and why did the traditional belief of Mosaic and/or divine authorship arise in the first place. The view that the text was somehow divinely inspired is itself an interpretive stance that gets formed from the specific theological, ideological, and even polemical concerns of late antiquity. In fact, it is already an interpretive claim that rests on another a priori assumption, namely that we are speaking about a canonical text, “the Book.” In other words, not until after these diverse texts came to be canonical scripture, a long process itself which started in the 5th century BC and culminated in the 3rd century AD, did one then claim divinely inspired authorship for “the Book.” Consequently, from late antiquity through the Dark Ages and into the Middle Ages, the biblical text was received, understood, and read by means of this prevailing, and rarely questioned, theological interpretive framework. Against this traditional view, however, it should be recalled that the biblical texts make no such claim. The scholastic endeavor, therefore, might be seen as one that pushes back beyond this traditional and theological understanding, which in the end is not founded on any textual data but carved out of theological conviction, to get at the texts before they came under the scrutiny of this theological postulate.
The traditional claim of Mosaic authorship for the Pentateuch first emerges in, and thus seems to have been fabricated for, a specific time—the 5th century BC religious reforms and scriptural canonization of the Torah under Ezra in the Persian period. This canonical view soon became authoritative and through subsequent centuries more books were added to this growing canon. Finally, this canonical and authoritative interpretive framework extended itself into the late Judaism and early Christianity of the 1st century AD. Both Jewish writers, such as Philo of Alexandria and the historian Josephus, and the writers of the Gospels acknowledged the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, or Torah. Just a couple hundred years later, however, the authors of the Talmud advocated a position that saw Joshua, Moses’ military successor, as the author of the last verses of the Pentateuch, those which described Moses’ death in other words. How could Moses have written about his own death? was the guiding exegetical query in this early stage of examining the Bible’s composite nature.
The problem of the authorship of Moses’ death did not subside throughout antiquity; in fact, more vexing questions emerged, those that not only questioned the Mosaic authorship of an ever increasing number of Pentateuchal passages, but also those that questioned whether the Pentateuch—the first five books of the Bible—was even authored by a single individual. Not only were educated and informed readers of the Bible observing anachronisms, geographical anomalies, phrases that suggested a later post-Mosaic audience, and events that happened long after Moses died—all of which presented problems to the traditional claim of Mosaic authorship—but they were also observing textual duplicates and contradictions throughout the Pentateuchal narrative, which in general questioned the authorial integrity of the text as a cohesive unity penned by a single author, or inspired by a single god for that matter. The staunch response to these claims by the Christian apologists and church Fathers of the 2nd to the 5th centuries AD was a massive re-interpretive program that sought to harmonize such contradictions, inconsistencies, and anachronisms through an elaborate process of figurative reinterpretation, which, obviously, never addressed the compositional nature of the biblical sources nor their origins, and moreover proceeded from a theological base that already presumed what the Bible was. In fact, much of the biblical commentaries written by the church Fathers were an attempt to ward off three distinct groups of opposition (the literalists, the Jews, and the gnostics) and at the same time apologetically defend their orthodoxy. This was done to support a canonical and theological reading across the Testaments. Little if any knowledge of the origins and compositional nature of the biblical texts were known then. Rather, the Christian interpretive tradition, prompted by ever-changing religious and social circumstances, as well as the transition from the designation “books” to “Book” for this collection of diverse texts, became the authoritative spokesperson for the various biblical texts themselves. Nevertheless, this was to change in the early beginnings of pre-modern scholarship, when learned and invested individuals sought to read and understand the texts on their own merits, beyond what the authoritative interpretive tradition maintained.
Early evidence of post-Mosaic authorship: anachronisms
Not only was the account of Moses’ death to continuously resurface, implying, as the text itself does, that it was written by a later author—”no man has knowledge of his burial place to this day” (Deut 34:6)—but as early as the eleventh century, educated readers of the Bible, Jewish rabbis, and Christian clergy alike, began to notice and comment upon other textual peculiarities and anomalies which the Pentateuch revealed when one assumed the traditional, and then authoritative, designation of its authorship as Moses. The Jewish court physician Isaac ibn Yashush, for example, observed in the later half of the eleventh century that the Edomite kings list in Genesis 36:31-39 could not possibly have been written by Moses; the list recalls names of Edomite kings who were active in the times of David and Solomon. Furthermore, Gen 36:31 strongly implies that its author was writing after the monarchy was established in Israel, since he possesses knowledge of a monarchal period in Israelite history: “These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom before any king reigned over the Israelites.” This passage must have been written by someone living in the 9th century BC at the earliest.
The particular textual anomaly here is what is commonly referred to as an anachronism: something in the time-frame of the narrative actually occurs or transpires much later, outside the time-frame implied by the narrative, and in fact this something often belongs to the historical time-frame of the actual author of the text. This is one means by which scholars are able to date a text. If, for example, a narrative which presents itself in the historical context of the 1920s has its characters use cell phones we would be skeptical about the narrative’s historical veracity. Rather, this would be an anachronism, revealing the narrative’s late twentieth century date of composition and its historical environment. Centuries after Isaac ibn Yashush’s find, biblical scholars will add to Genesis 36’s anachronism by pointing out several other anachronism in the Pentateuchal narratives, such as the mention of the Philistines in the time of the patriarchs (Gen 26), who, we know from archaeological and extra-biblical records, did not actually occupy the land prior to the 12th century BC; thus, their mention in the time of Abraham is an anachronism and most likely represents the geo-political world of the 10th and 9th centuries BC when the Philistines played a major role in the politics of Israel. Another commonly mentioned anachronism in Genesis are references to domesticated camels (e.g., Gen 24). Camels were not domesticated until much later and, therefore, reflect the historical reality of a later author’s time period. Indeed, the mention of the caravan of camels in the Joseph story carrying “gum, balm, and myrrh” (Gen 37:25) highlights products that were part of the Arabian trade that flourished in the 8th and 7th centuries BC. There are additionally numerous political and religious institutions, and even city names throughout the Hexateuch (the books of Genesis through Joshua) which did not exist in the time of the patriarchs, the wilderness narratives, or the conquest narratives. They are anachronisms and reflect the geo-political world of a much later time period. The 9th-8th century BC border between the Israelites and the Philistines, for example, is anachronistically portrayed as a treaty made between Abraham/Isaac and the Philistine king Abimelek in Genesis 21:30-32 and 26:32-33 (#28). Likewise Israel and Aram’s 9th-8th century BC political border is portrayed through the covenant made between Jacob and Laban. As is visible from these two examples, tribal or kin relationships depicted in the book of Genesis often recall the political realities of a much later time period, that is of the author of the text’s own time period. The relationship between Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25 and 27, which our narrative informs us are eponyms for Israel and Edom respectively, reflects the political relationship between Israel and Edom in the 9th and 8th centuries BC—the time in which this narrative was most likely written, and thus it aims at explaining the origins of its own historico-political circumstances. There are many more anachronisms throughout the Hexateuch and they have served later generations of biblical scholars and readers as clues to the dates of composition of the texts and traditions that make up its books.2
An early hypothesis: Moses’ text supplemented by later writers
We should additionally note that Isaac ibn Yashush’s anachronism was never intended to dispute Mosaic authorship, nor to bring it into question. As we shall see throughout the early stages of this brief survey, Mosaic authorship was the traditional given; the textual data observed at this early stage were explained through hypotheses that attempted to preserve Mosaic authorship. Thus, the textual anomalies observed by the twelfth century Spanish rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra—namely that the Pentateuchal phrase “beyond the Jordan” (e.g., Deut 1:1), verses which spoke of Moses in the third person, and descriptions of places where Moses never visited—reflected, he silently acknowledged, the knowledge of a writer of another time and locale. He argued that passages which speak of Moses delivering the covenantal law “beyond the Jordan” is irrevocably penned by someone who lived on the other side of the Jordan, that is by a writer who lived in Israel, west of the Jordan, speaking about Moses giving the law “beyond the Jordan.”
Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah of the thirteenth century additionally observed that whoever penned Genesis 12:6, for example—”at that time the Canaanites were in the land”—must have done so from the perspective of a later time period, that is from the perspective of someone looking back to the era when the Canaanites were indeed in the land. The accumulating evidence led Joseph Bonfils to suggest in the fourteenth century that clearly there were verses and passages in the Pentateuch which were written by later prophets. None of these observations threatened Mosaic authorship per se. In fact, the conclusion drawn from these textual data was that the original Mosaic document must have been supplemented with additional texts by subsequent authors at later periods. One of the last proponents of this thesis was Richard Simon, who, in the seventeenth century claimed that at its core, the laws were derived and penned by Moses; however, much of the remainder of the Pentateuch was added by a later scribe, Ezra. Thus the reigning paradigm, with exceptions, until the beginning of the nineteenth century was the assertion that Moses wrote the laws, and later prophets and writers added material to this.
This paradigm more or less governed the religious thinkers of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, with, however, some significant alternatives in the work of Hobbes and Spinoza. The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes was the first to suggest that Moses did not write the vast majority of the Pentateuch. In book 33 of his Leviathan, published in 1651, Hobbes not only lists many of the textual anomalies already assembled in the centuries leading up to the seventeenth century, but added to these many others. Frequent references by the author(s) of Pentateuchal passages to the political or religious institutions of his day via the expression “to this day,” accruing anachronisms, and the mention of a source by the author of Num 21:14, namely “the scroll of the wars of Yahweh,” are just some of the data that led Hobbes to conclude that Moses did not write the Pentateuch at large. Accordingly, Hobbes asserted that Moses only penned the law code in Deuteronomy 12-26, which he also identified as the “scroll of the torah” found under Josiah’s reign as described in 2 Kings 22:8. The Jewish philosopher Spinoza was less bashful than Hobbes. Contributing to the ever growing list of textual oddities and anomalies which reveled themselves when the Pentateuch was approached from the traditional interpretive belief of Mosaic authorship—frequent references to Moses in the third person, the phrase “to this day,” place names that did not exist at the time of Moses, political events that happened centuries after the time of Moses, etc.—Spinoza, in his 1670 publication Tractatus Theologico-politicus, came right out and boldly asserted that the textual data clearly indicate that Moses did not author the Pentateuch.
Another attempted hypothesis: pre- and post-Mosaic sources
Two other events in the seventeenth century worth mentioning. Both the French Calvinist Isaac de la Peyrère and Richard Simon, a French Catholic priest, published works, which in the light of Hobbes and Spinoza were mild in their claims. Nonetheless, both their books were banned and burned. In his 1655 publication Systema theologicum et praeadamitarum hypothesi, Isaac de la Peyrère suggested, from the growing list of passages that required knowledge of historical circumstances centuries after Moses, that the Pentateuch in its present form is actually a copy of Mosaic material mixed with pre- and post-Mosaic material. De la Peyrère was arrested and forced to recant his position. Richard Simon, likewise, who in his 1678 publication Histoire Critique du Vieux Testament posited that the laws were authored by Moses but the Pentateuchal narratives were penned later by Ezra, was expelled from the clergy. Simon’s appeal to potential sources that Moses used, and conversely those of later writers supplementing Moses’ work, was drawn from accumulating textual data: political and historical anachronisms that were clearly written centuries after Moses, duplicate narratives that often contradicted one another, narratives that often presented poor arrangement and order, and most significantly the observation of different styles, vocabulary, and theological emphases throughout the many Pentateuchal passages—all of which indicated a plurality of authors. For Simon, these differences were explained by postulating the use of variant sources, those used by Moses himself and those added centuries later by Ezra. Although Simon never refuted Mosaic authorship, one-thousand three hundred copies of his book were nevertheless destroyed, and Protestants quickly armed themselves with lengthy refutations of his claims.
Simon’s claim that sources were used in the composition of the Pentateuchal narratives fueled the next century’s biblical discoveries. Three intellectuals of the eighteenth century each independently drew similar conclusions in their assessment of the Pentateuchal text—namely, that it was composed of (at least) two distinct sources.
The two-source hypothesis: the ‘Yawhist’ and the ‘Elohist’
The German Lutheran minister Henning Bernhard Witter, the French physician for Louis vx, Jean Astruc, and a professor of Göttingen University by the name of Johann Gottfried Eichhorn each separately came to the conclusion that the Pentatuech must be a composite of, primarily, two sources. It was Witter, who in the early century (1711) postulated a two-source hypothesis based on the distinction of two different appellations for Israel’s god in the opening creation accounts of the book of Genesis. Witter observed that Genesis 1:1-2:3 consistently and exclusively used the Hebrew word elohim (“god(s)”), while Genesis 2:4-3:24 consistently and exclusively used the Hebrew name Yahweh when referring to the deity.3 It should also be mentioned that Witter was still working within the paradigm handed down to him by the previous century’s critics—namely that Moses used sources in his composition of Genesis. Thus for Witter, these two sources distinguished themselves from each other not only by the difference in portrait and appellation of Israel’s god, but also in terms of doublets and differing styles.
It was not, however, until the 1753 study by Astruc, Conjectures sur les mémoires originauz dont il paroit que Moyse s’est servi pour composer le livre de la Génèse (Conjectures on the original sources which Moses apparently used in composing the book of Genesis), that the impact of this discovery was felt. Astruc not only labeled these two sources the Elohistic (from the Hebrew elohim) and the Jehovistic (from the mistaken medieval pronunciation of the tetragrammaton, yhwh), but he also noticed that these two sources exhibited other differences besides the two distinct appellations of Israel’s deity, and furthermore that these differences extended throughout the book of Genesis. For example, these two sources also displayed differences in style, vocabulary, and even theological emphasis. Most impressively, this two source hypothesis was able to explain successfully the book of Genesis’ duplicate narratives, discordant chronologies, and even contradictions. Astruc claimed that these discrepancies were the result of the combination of these two sources by Moses. The work of Eichorn follows more or less that of Astruc: Moses used two identifiable and independent sources, whose separate identities are discernable from the difference in their appellation of Israel’s deity—Yahweh and elohim—as well as differences in style, and narrative repetitions of the same event.
It should be stressed that Witter, Astruc, and Eichorn were not arguing against Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Rather, the critical discussion revolved around the potential sources that Moses used in composing the Pentateuch, and the post-Mosaic sources used by later writers who appended material to the core Mosaic text. In fact Astruc was a stanch defender of Mosaic authorship: Moses had allegedly used antiquarian sources for his composition was the claim.
The beginning of the nineteenth century, however, was marked by a radical shift in the understanding of the compositional history of the Pentateuch. Noting the Pentateuch’s anachronisms, numerous contradictions, duplicate stories, and stark differences in style and vocabulary was just the tip of the iceberg in unraveling the Pentateuch’s complex compositional history. All indicators suggested that the text could not possibly have been penned by Moses, let alone any single author. By the beginning of the nineteenth century nearly all critical scholars of the Old Testament rejected the idea of Mosaic authorship.
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.4 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, those 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!5 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.6 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.7 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.8
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. 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. 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, 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 composition P to this JED document.
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.”9 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.10 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.11 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.12 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.
Enough with these preliminaries, now it’s time we actually took a look at the points of convergences between these sources, that is their contradictions. We will try to keep in mind that our goal is to understand these contradictory texts, their authors, audiences, and historical circumstances, on their own terms.
- For a more extensive treatment of this topic see: See W. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel (Eerdmans 2001); I. Finkelstein and N. Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (Touchstone 2001); and W. Schniedewind, How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (Cambridge 2004).↵
- For a larger list of anachronisms revealed through modern archaeology see Finkelstein & Dever…↵
- The divine name for Israel’s god, Yahweh (transliterated as yhwh), is rendered in the majority of English translations as LORD. This practice, which is misleading as well as misrepresentative of the Hebrew original, follows a late Judaic oral practice of substituting the Hebrew adonai (lord) for yhwh in the reading of the Torah, since later Judaism—well after these texts were actually composed—conceived the name as sacred and unspeakable. Modern translation practices have regrettably chosen to follow this later oral tradition rather than the actual Hebrew text! Thus everywhere your English translation has LORD in small caps, the Hebrew manuscript has Yahweh, or more precisely yhwh.↵
- De Wette’s main contributions to biblical criticism can be found in his Latin dissertation on the book of Deuteronomy (1805) and his 2 volume work, Beiträge zur Einleitung in das Alte Testament (1806-1807).↵
- The one exception is Hosea 12, which knows of traditions surrounding the patriarch Jacob.↵
- Graf, Die geschichtlichen Bücher des Alten Testaments, 1866.↵
- The German original, Prolegomena zu Geschichte Israels, was published in 1883 and republished in 1885 in an English translation, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel.↵
- In all fairness this chronology was already postulated by Karl Heinrich Graf in his 1866 publication Die geschichtlichen Bücher des Alten Testaments.↵
- Campbell & O’Brien, Sources of the Pentateuch, 3.↵
- Particularly his Genesis, originally published in 1901.↵
- Noth, Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien, 1943.↵
- The most thorough presentation of the compositional layers of the Deuteronomistic History (D) can be found in: Anthony Campbell and Mark O’Brien, Unfolding the Deuteronomistic History: Origins, Upgrades, Present Text (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2000).↵