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The time has long passed for scholars of every theological persuasion to recognize that the Graf-Wellhausen theory, as a starting point for continued research, is dead. The Documentary Hypothesis and the arguments that support it have been effectively demolished by scholars from many different theological perspectives and areas of expertise. Even so, the ghost of Wellhausen hovers over Old Testament studies and symposiums like a thick fog, adding nothing of substance but effectively obscuring vision. Although actually incompatible with form-critical and archaeology-based studies, the Documentary Hypothesis has managed to remain the mainstay of critical orthodoxy. One wonders if we will ever return to the day when discussions of Genesis will not be stilted by interminable references to P and J. There are indications that such a day is coming. Many scholars are exploring the inadequacies of the Documentary Hypothesis and looking toward new models for explaining the Pentateuch. 

This article was published in the Spring 1993 issue of Bible and Spade.

The History and Salient Points of the Documentary Hypothesis

The Documentary Hypothesis began when Jean Astruc (1684–1766) came to believe that he could uncover the sources of the Pentateuch by using the divine names Yahweh and Elohim as a guide. He placed passages that use the name Elohim in one column (A), those that use Yahweh in another (B), and passages with “repetitions” (C) and interpolations (D) in a third and a fourth column. From this simple, if not facile, beginning originated the road to the Documentary Hypothesis. Along the way came a “fragmentary hypothesis” (which asserts that the Pentateuch was compiled from a mass of fragmentary sources) and a “supplemental hypothesis” (which asserts that a single, unified document lies at the core of the Pentateuch, but that many fragmentary sources have been added to it). But the triumphant theory of Pentateuchal origins was the Documentary Hypothesis, often called the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis after the two men, K.H. Graf and Julius Wellhausen, who gave it its classic expression.

The theory, in its most basic form, is easy enough to grasp: Behind the Pentateuch are four source documents, called J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly Code).

J, the oldest, begins at Genesis 2:4b and includes large portions of Genesis as well as portions of Exodus and Numbers and a few short texts in Deuteronomy. It may be dated to the early monarchy (Solomonic?) period. In Genesis, J refers to God as Yahweh, for, according to the hypothesis, people began using the name Yahweh early in the antediluvian period (Gn 4:26, a J text). As a theological statement, J is often regarded as the work of a great, original thinker who gave shape to the Old Testament idea of the history of salvation.

E is somewhat later than J but follows the same basic story line. Genesis 15 is the earliest extant E text. E’s provenance is the northern kingdom. In Genesis, E refers to God as Elohim rather than Yahweh, for, according to E, the name Yahweh was not revealed until the exodus period (Ex 3:15, an E text). E is more sensitive to moral issues than J, but it views God as somewhat more distant from man. J and E were subsequently redacted (edited) into a single document by RJE (R=redactor). In the course of redaction, much of the E material was edited out and thus lost to posterity.

D was produced at the time of the Josianic reformation (2 Kgs 22) and is essentially the Book of Deuteronomy. D does not have a characteristic divine name since it has little if any representation in Genesis. RD subsequently combined the texts JE and D.

P was produced last, in the exilic period. It begins at Genesis 1:1 and includes large portions of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers and all of Leviticus. In Genesis, P refers to God as Elohim since, like E, it assumes that the divine name Yahweh was first revealed at the exodus (Ex 6:3, a P text). It is dominated by genealogies, priestly regulations, and a highly stylized manner of narration. P was soon redacted into JED by RP. The Pentateuch was thus formed.

A few fragments not related to any of the four source documents (e.g., Gn 14) are also to be found in the Pentateuch.

Presuppositions of the Documentary Hypothesis

R.N. Whybray (and before him other scholars as well) has pointed out that the Documentary Hypothesis is founded on four presuppositions (1987:43–55):

An evolutionary, unilinear approach to Israelite history. It has long been recognized that Wellhausen built his theory on a now-discredited evolutionary philosophy with its roots in the thought of G.W.F. Hegel. Of course, it is not enough to say that Hegelianism is discredited and therefore Wellhausen is wrong. On the other hand, it is certain that the history of Israelite religion cannot be portrayed in the simple, highly evolutionary manner that Wellhausen thought possible.

The possibility of dividing the Pentateuchal texts on the basis of stylistic criteria. Early advocates of the Documentary Hypothesis felt they could easily separate one text from another on the basis of style. In fact, the whole Pentateuch is in standard Biblical Hebrew. The only way a single style could be found for each document would be if each monotonously and rigorously maintained a highly idiosyncratic style.

A simple conflation of documents by redactors. According to the theory, the redactors simply conflated the texts at hand by the “scissors-and-paste” method of cutting up each document and then joining the whole into a continuous narrative. No true analogy to this somewhat bizarre editorial procedure is available.

Easy determination of the purposes and methods behind the documents and redactions. The early framers of the Documentary Hypothesis thought they could deduce the purposes and methods of the redactors, despite the fact that enormous cultural differences existed between the scholars who studied Genesis and the men who wrote it. More than that, scholars came to have strange perceptions of the writers of the documents over against the redactors. In particular, it was assumed that each writer aimed to produce a single, continuous history but would tolerate no inconsistency, repetition, or narrative digressions. The redactors, on the other hand, were said to be utterly oblivious to every kind of contradiction and repetition.

7 Arguments for the Documentary Hypothesis

It is critical to recognize that according to this theory the four documents were first composed as continuous, single narratives and only later were brought together and edited into the present work. As scholars continued to study the hypothesis, many modifications were proposed. Some scholars tended to make the theory more complex by dividing the four sources into even smaller sources e.g., J1 and J2), whereas others reduced the number of sources, questioning the existence of E altogether. Further developments came out of the application of form-criticism to the documents. Nevertheless, the basic Documentary Hypothesis from which all refinements come is the simplest place at which the theory can be analyzed.

The central arguments for the hypothesis are as follows:

1. Some texts in Genesis refer to God as Yahweh, whereas others call him Elohim. Those texts that call him Yahweh may be assigned to J, who thought the name Yahweh was revealed to humanity well before the patriarchal age began. Those texts that refer to God as Elohim may be assigned to E or P, both of whom thought the name Yahweh was not revealed until the Exodus.

2. Genesis contains some duplicate stories and repetitions. This is because each of the two source documents contained its own version of a single tradition. Thus 12:10–20 (J) and 20:1–18 (E) are variants of a single tradition. Sometimes the two variant versions were redacted into a single narrative, yet the documents behind the single redaction are still apparent. J and P each had a version of the Flood story, for example, but these have been combined in the present text.

3. Contradictions within Genesis indicate the existence of the separate documents. The implication is that one document had one tradition, but a second had another.

4. The language and style of the documents vary. J is said to have been a masterful storyteller, but P is prosaic and wordy. Each document also has its own preferred vocabulary. For the English “begot.” J prefers the G stem yld, but P uses the H stem hôîid.

5. Each document, when extracted from the present text of Genesis, shows itself to have been a continuous, meaningful piece of literature. In particular, it is possible to see a specific literary and theological purpose behind each. This validates the method.

6. Even on a superficial reading, some texts obviously involve more than one source. The best example is Genesis 1–2, which can hardly come from a single source. Instead, 1:1 and Genesis 2:4ff. must be regarded as separate works. The presence of obvious examples of separate sources in a text validates the principles of the Documentary Hypothesis, which may then be applied to texts where the source division is not obvious.

7. The confused history of the Israelite priesthood found in the Pentateuch is best explained by the Documentary Hypothesis. In some texts (e.g. Deuteronomy), all Levites are priests. In other texts, (the P portions of Exodus and Leviticus), only the Aaronites are priests and the rest of the Levites are mere hierodules-workers in the temple without priestly privileges. The Pentateuch, therefore, cannot be a unified work from a single hand. Rather, documents D and P come from different perspectives and different ages.

Analysis of the 7 Arguments for the Documentary Hypothesis

1. The Names of God

The criterion of the divine names for source analysis has been challenged from several directions. First, the criterion cannot be applied consistently. For example, Genesis 22:11, an E text, uses the name Yahweh. Indeed, at the very beginning of the Pentateuch we read not simply Yahweh in the J source (Gn 2–4) but the unusual Yahweh Elohim. In adition, M.H. Segal notes that the divine names are used interchangeably in texts that cannot have different sources, which begs the question of why Genesis should be treated exceptionally (1967:11–14).

Second, the editorial rationale for the avoidance of Yahweh in E and P sources in Genesis is specious. Even if the E and P writers thought that the Israelites did not know of the divine name Yahweh until the time of Moses, there is no reason for them to avoid using the name in patriarchal stories unless they are directly quoting a character. For that matter, there is absolutely no reason that J should avoid Elohim.

Third, the phenomenon of the interchange of Yahweh and Elohim can be explained far more satisfactorily and simply without resort to source criticism. Umberto Cassuto makes the point that the two names bring out different aspects of the character of God. Yahweh is the covenant name of God, which emphasizes his special relationship to Israel. Elohim speaks of God’s universality as God of all earth (1941:15–41). To put it simply, Elohim is what God is and Yahweh is who He is. It is true that Cassuto exploits this distinction too rigorously and goes beyond what the text intends at some points, but the distinction is valid.

In addition, Segal points out that the interchange of the divine names is often for the sake of variety or reflects popular usage (1967:13–14). Whybray adds to this that the alternation of names may be unconscious because of the identity of the two names (1987:72).

Perhaps it is best to speak of Yahweh and Elohim having semantic overlap. In a context that emphasizes God as universal deity (e.g., Gn 1), Elohim is used. In a text that speaks more of God as covenant savior (Ex 6), Yahweh is more likely to be utilized. In other cases, in which neither aspect is particularly stressed, the names may be alternated for variety or indeed for no specific reason.

Fourth, the assumption that the J text thought the patriarchs knew the name Yahweh but the E and P texts claim they did not is based on faulty exegesis. Genesis 4:26, “Then people began to call on the name of Yahweh,” is often taken as an assertion by J that the name Yahweh was revealed at this moment in history. Thus, it is claimed that J believed the patriarchs knew their God as Yahweh. E and P, on the other hand, are said to have believed, that the name Yahweh was first revealed in the period of the Exodus. The relevant texts are Exodus 3:13–15 (E) and 6:2 (P).

Genesis 4:26 has nothing to do with the question of when Yahwism began. Even Claus Westermann, who considers this a J text, notes that it has been misunderstood. He comments:

When he (J) uses ‘Yahweh’ here, he is only saying that, despite the variety of religions, the creator of humankind can only be one. He could not say Elohim, which would be clearer for the modern reader, because he is speaking of the very same God who already has been mentioned in 4:1, 6. (1984:340)

The author thus gives an optimistic closure to the sad history of Genesis 3–4 and says that the God his readers know as Yahweh is the one true God whom people have worshiped from earliest times.

In Exodus 3:13–15, Moses asks God His name, and is told first that God is the “I am,” and then that he should tell the Israelites that Yahweh, the God of their fathers, sent Moses to them. God adds that Yahweh is the name by which He is to be worshiped forever.

The text hardly says that no one had ever heard the name Yahweh before this time. If that were the intention, one would find something like, “No longer will you call Me the God of your fathers; from now on My name is Yahweh,” similar to Genesis 17:5, 15. Rather, the text asserts that the name Yahweh will have new significance because of the mighty act of the Exodus. The people will now see that Yahweh is present with them.

Exodus 6:2c–3 appears to be a straightforward assertion that the patriarchs did not know the name Yahweh. Most translations are similar to the following:

“I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, and to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by My name Yahweh I did not make Myself known to them.”

But the Hebrew text, as Francis I. Andersen points out, contains a case of noncontiguous parallelism that translators have not recognized: “I am Yahweh...and my name is Yahweh.” The “not” is therefore assertative in a rhetorical question rather than a simple negative, and it should not be connected to what precedes it (1974:102). In fact, the whole text is set in a poetic, parallel structure beyond what Andersen notes (see fig. 1).

The text does not assert that the patriarchs had never heard of Yahweh or only knew of El Shaddai, although it does say that God showed them the meaning of his name El Shaddai. El Shaddai is preceded by the b essentiae, which implies that God filled the name with special significance for them when He made a covenant with them and promised the land of Canaan as their inheritance (v. 4). Now He is going to fill the name Yahweh with significance (“And My name is Yahweh”) in the even greater deliverance of the Exodus (v. 5). Even so, the text stresses the continuity between the revelation to the patriarchs and the revelation of the Exodus rather than any discontinuity (“Did I not make Myself known to them?”). Andersen’s comments are to the point:

“There is no hint in Exodus that Yahweh was a new name revealed first to Moses. On the contrary, the success of his mission depended on the use of the familiar name for validation by the Israelites” (1974:102).

Figure 1

The Structure of Exodus 6:2c–3

A I am Yahweh.

B And I made myself known to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai.

A’ And My name is Yahweh;

B’ Did I not make Myself known to them?

Fifth, use of the divine names as a source criterion is contrary to all ancient Near Eastern analogies. K.A. Kitchen documents many examples from Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources of a single god being called by several names in a single text. He adds that no Egyptologist would ever use divine names for source criticism (1966:121–23).

In short, the criterion of divine names, the historical and evidential starting point for the Documentary Hypothesis, is without foundation. It is based on misinterpretation, mistranslation, and lack of attention to extrabiblical sources.

2. Repetition, Parallel Accounts (Doublets), and Redundancy

The use of doublets and repetition as evidence for multiple documents in Genesis is perhaps of all the arguments the most persuasive for the modern student, while in fact being the most spurious and abused piece of evidence. Thus it seems to the modern reader that Genesis 12:10–20 and 20:1–18 must be variants of a single tradition. How else could one explain the presence of two stories that seem so remarkably similar? Surely, the modern reader thinks, the variants (e.g., Pharaoh’s house in Genesis 12, Abimelech’s house in Genesis 20) are simply examples of how a single tradition has been handed down in different forms in different communities.

The assumption appears reasonable, but it is altogether a fallacy. It is an entirely modern reading of the text and ignores ancient rhetorical concepts. In an ancient text, there is no stronger indication that only a single document is present than parallel accounts. Doublets, that is, two separate stories that closely parallel one another, are the very stuff of ancient narrative. They are what the discriminating audience sought in a story.

Simple repetition, first of all, is common in ancient Near Eastern literature. In the Ugaritic Epic of Keret, for example, King Keret is in distress because his entire family has been killed in a series of disasters. In a dream, he receives instruction from El concerning what he should do. El’s instructions, which occupy lines 60–153, say that he should make a sacrifice, muster his people for a military campaign, and go to the land of Udum, ruled by King Pabil. There he is to demand the daughter of Pabil, Hurriya, for his wife. Keret awakens and carries out the instructions. In describing how Keret obeyed El’s command, lines 156ff. are for the most part a verbatim repetition of lines 60–153 (albeit from a different perspective).

This narrative technique is employed in the Bible as well. In Genesis 24, the text tells how Abraham’s servant, after a prayer for divine guidance, meets the future wife of Isaac at a well (vv. 12–27). Then it gives the servant’s account of all this to Laban, but again quotes almost verbatim the previous material (vv. 34–48; with adjustments for the difference of perspective). Acts, similarly, gives three complete accounts of Paul’s vision on the way to Damascus (9:1–19; 22:3–16; 26:9–18).

In an analogous manner, if two or more separate events were perceived to be similar to one another, ancient writers tend to give accounts of the events in parallel fashion. In the course of doing this, the narrator might put all the accounts in the same form. As he tells his story, he will specially select material that fits the formal, parallel pattern. For this reason the author of the Book of Kings, in summarizing the reigns of each king of Israel and Judah, tends to employ a number of formulas. He gives the date a king came into power, the length of his reign, an evaluation (“he did evil/good in the sight of the Lord”), a reference indicating where the reader can find more information, and a statement of the king’s death and burial. By employing this technique, he emphasizes the evil done by the kings by the frequent repetition of “and he did evil in the sight of the Lord.” A modern writer, even one with the same theological point to make, would never employ this technique. He would instead say, “The vast majority of the kings of Israel and Judah were evil,” and proceed to give specific examples.

Employment of the technique of parallel accounts survived even into the Greco-Roman period, albeit in a less stylized format. Plutarch’s Lives sets the biographies of famous Greeks alongside those of famous Romans (for example, the life of Demosthenes is set in parallel to that of Cicero). Luke’s account of the ministry of Peter to some degree parallels his account of the life of Paul. The interest in parallel events and lives still continued, but in the earlier literature the technique is far more deliberate and formulaic (and thus more obvious). Simply put, the parallels between Genesis 12 and 20:1–18, when analyzed by ancient rather than modern literary standards, strongly indicate that the two accounts are from the same source.

In light of the love for repetition and parallelism in Hebrew narrative and poetry, it is not surprising that Hebrew narrative is sometimes redundant even within a single story. To be sure, this “redundancy” is never pointless repetition. At times a summary statement is followed by a more detailed account. This is in fact the case in Genesis 1:1ff., where 1:1 is a summary statement and 1:2–2:3 is a more detailed description. Other ancient literature employs this technique as well. At other times, the redundant style is for dramatic effect, as in 1 Samuel 3:4–10.

The flood narrative, according to the Documentary Hypothesis, is a classic example of two accounts having been conflated. As evidence for the conflation, advocates of the hypothesis cite the redundancies and argue that a single author would not have repeated himself so much. Thus, for example, Genesis 6:9–22 is P but 7:1–5 is J.

As the text reads, however, the two passages are not redundant but consecutive. The P material is prior to the building of the ark and the J material is a speech of God after its completion but just prior to the beginning of the flood. The repetition heightens the dramatic anticipation of the deluge to follow.

Careful examination of a “redundance” in the flood narrative often shows it to be a carefully constructed single unit. Genesis 7:21–22 is such an example. The Documentary Hypothesis assigns verse 21 to P and verse 22 to J, but Andersen has shown that the two verses are chiastic (fig. 2). This text is in fact the fulfillment report of a similar chiasmus in 6:17 (1975:39–40).

Andersen himself is not hesitant to point out the implications of this for documentary analysis. He concludes that when the text is left as it stands rather than arbitrarily divided into sources and doublets, the artistic unity and solemnity of the whole, from the standpoint of discourse grammar, gives the impression of having been formed as a single, unified narration (1974:40).

Figure 2

The Structure of Genesis 7:21–22

A They perished

B Every living thing that moves on earth. . .

B’ Everything that has the breath of the living spirit. . .

A’ They died

Another significant issue that relates to the story of the flood is the matter of contradictions in the text, a problem to which we now turn.

3. Contradictions in the Text

Apparent contradictions in Genesis are often cited as markers of the different documents behind the text. In the flood account, the two most frequently cited contradictions are in regard to the number of animals to be brought on board the ark (6:2 says to bring one pair of every kind of animal, but 7:2 says to bring seven pairs of clean animals) and the flood chronology.

With regard to the number of clean animals, the explanation is simply that it is a precise figure given immediately before the flood (7:1–2) instead of the general figure given before the ark was built (6:20). Provision had to be made to ensure that there would be sufficient livestock after the flood.

The matter of chronology is more complex, and it involves the structure of the whole narrative. Many scholars have pointed out the difficulty of reconstructing a chronology of the flood from the figures given and have concluded that the confusion is the result of RP having conflated the two different chronologies of J and P without resolving the chronological inconsistencies. But recent research has demonstrated the whole narrative to be far more coherent than was once recognized.

Wenham has shown the whole flood story (6:10–9:19) to be chiastic in structure (1978:338; see fig. 3). The mere presence of a chiasmus is not proof that there can be no sources behind it. Indeed, as shall be argued subsequently, the genealogical material in particular appears to be from another source. Yet there comes a point at which a given source hypothesis is simply no longer reasonable. It stretches the imagination to suppose that the structure of the flood story is the result of a patchwork of two complete, contradictory documents.

The chiastic structure not only renders the documentary approach unlikely, but also helps to resolve the issue of the chronology of the narrative. In particular, Gordon J. Wenham points out, the chronological data have been reported somewhat artificially in order to maintain the narrative structure. Thus the seven-day waiting period is reported twice (7:4–10) in order to balance the 14 days of waiting in 8:1 (1978:339).

Figure 3

image.axd 2754 2328

The Structure of the Flood Story (6:10–9:19)

Even so, the present chronology in the text is not the confusion it is sometimes implied to be. On the basis of his calculations, Wenham concludes that the only significant problem is fitting both the 40 days of 7:12 and the 150 days of 7:2 into the five months between 7:11 and 8:4. This can be resolved if it is assumed that the 40 days are part of the 150, and not a separate period of time (1987:180).

This alone should be sufficient to indicate the fruitlessness of the documentary position here, but evidence for the coherence of the flood narrative is more significant yet. When compared form-critically to the other major ancient Near Eastern flood accounts (especially the account in Gilgamesh, but also the Atrahasis, Ras Shamra, and Sumerian versions), the Genesis narrative is found to have a remarkably high number of formal parallels to those versions. Wenham has isolated 17 features the Genesis and Gilgamesh accounts have in common, and these usually occur in the same sequence. There are, to be sure, significant theological differences between Genesis and the other versions, but formally they are of the same category. Wenham points out that of the 17 common formal elements, J has only 12 and P has only ten. Wenham comments that:

it is strange that two accounts of the flood so different as J and P, circulating in ancient Israel, should have been combined to give our present story which has many more resemblances to the Gilgamesh version than the postulated sources (1978:347).

Against Wenham and other scholars, J.A. Emerton attempts to resuscitate the traditional source division of the flood narrative (1987; 1988). For our purposes, there are three significant points in the case he makes.

First, Emerton argues against Wenham’s chiastic reading of the text on the grounds that there are imperfections in the chiasmus. He notes, for example, that 7:11 is parallel to 8:2 and that 8:21 echoes 6:5, but that neither is part of the chiasmus. But Emerton’s objections are based on a stilted understanding of how a chiasmus functions. It is not a mathematical equation; there is no reason a section of a chiasmus cannot parallel a portion of the text not in the chiastic structure. Regarding 7:11 and 8:2, which record the beginning and end of the rain, it is not reasonable to expect these to be coordinated in a chiasmus. The chiasmus goes from the beginning to the end of the flood, but the rains obviously began at the beginning of the flood and ended well before the end of the flood. In addition, the fundamental validity of the chiastic structure of the narrative is confirmed in two independent studies by Bernhard W. Anderson (1978) and Yehuda T. Radday (1981). Both scholars see chiastic structure in the flood narrative and both analyses, though neither is identical to Wenham’s, have God’s remembrance of Noah as the center.

Second, Emerton has no real answer for Wenham’s formal comparison of Genesis to Gilgamesh and other ancient flood narratives. He can only hypothesize to account for the lack of formal elements in the J and P narratives. He contends that we do not know how much of J the redactor failed to preserve and that P may have suppressed some material as theologically offensive. He argues, for example, that the closing of the ark door “may have been regarded by P as unnecessary, or even as anthropomorphic” (1988:15). It is curious that RP did not share this concern and suppress this detail from J. At any rate, between Wenham and Emerton, it is clear which scholar is working with ancient texts and which is working with his imagination.

Third, Emerton continues to urge that the chronology of the narrative is impossible. He writes,

According to vii 4, 12, it rained for 40 days...whereas vii 24 and viii 3 speak of 150 days” (1987:402–3)...there is thus a strong case for the view that the 150 days are the period between the beginning of the flood and viii 2 when the rain stopped. There is a discrepancy between the 150 days of rain and the 40 days of rain (1987:405).

In fact, the text nowhere implies that the rain lasted 150 days. 7:24 and 8:3 refer to the time from the beginning of the flood until the water had abated enough for the ark to ground (8:3–4). Otherwise, one narrator is a complete fool, since he believed that the water abated enough for the ark to ground on the very day the rain ceased after a 150 day deluge! Emerton attempts to justify his interpretation with an ingressive translation of 8:3, that the water began to abate at the end of the 150 days. He asks,

Are we to suppose that 110 days elapsed between viii 2 and the beginning of the process of decreasing in viii 3? (1987:403–4).

The answer, of course, is no. But Emerton has only saddled the text with a translation contrary to context and then criticized it for not making sense.

The Genesis account is thus structurally unified and formally of a type of literature (flood narrative) that is far older than the alleged RP. It employs ancient narrative technique, as evidenced in its profound concern for narrative structure, but even so cannot be said to be chronologically confused. The “contradictions” are more imaginary than real. It is difficult to see why the documentary approach should be considered to have any validity here.

4. The Criterion of Style

The notion that J and P have radically different styles is a result of artificially dividing the text. The “arid” style of the genealogies of P is simply a by-product of the fact that they are genealogies - it has nothing to do with their being in P. Whybray points out that the geneaologies ascribed to J “have precisely the same ‘arid’ character as those attributed to P” (1987:60). He also observes that "there is no real uniformity of style within a single document source” (1987:59).

One rarely sees in modern works on the Documentary Hypothesis the kind of elaborate lists of “characteristic vocabulary” of the documents that were common in the older critical works. The criterion is itself quite artificial; as Whybray notes, we know nothing of the common speech of the people of ancient Israel, and we cannot be sure that the words cited as synonymous pairs are in fact synonymous. One may have been chosen over the other for the sake of a special nuance in a given circumstance, or indeed for the sake of variety (1987:56–57). Regarding the case of y l d/hô lî d, see the discussion by Cassuto (1941:43ff.).

A recent development in this area is in computer-aided analysis of the text. Because this is a new field, models for analysis are still in development. Nevertheless, among the more sophisticated and linguistically sensitive works in this field is the analysis of Genesis done by Radday and Haim Shore. Their work, Genesis: An Authorship Study, is an exhaustive linguistic analysis which takes into account as many variables and factors as possible, and they are particularly interested in checking their results against the Documentary Hypothesis. They conclude,

All these reservations notwithstanding, and with all due respect to the illustrious Documentarians past and present, there is massive evidence that the pre-Biblical triplicity [i.e., of J, E, and P] of Genesis, which their line of thought postulates to have been worked over by a late and gifted editor into a trinity, is actually a unity (1985:190).

5. The Theological Unity of Each Document

Of all the arguments for the Documentary Hypothesis, this is the least significant because it is based on the assumption that the hypothesis is true rather than being an independent argument for the theory. Opponents of the theory have often observed that many of the source narratives are incomplete and that in any case it is not difficult to separate a single Biblical narrative into two artificially complete “documents.” This makes theological analysis all the more tenuous.

One has the sense that, even among scholars trained in the Documentary Hypothesis, an increasing number have difficulty taking analyses like those by Walter Brueggemann and Hans Walter Wolff (1975) seriously as presentations of the theological background of Genesis. Even scholars with both feet firmly planted in the critical tradition make little use of the classic documentary criteria in tradition-historical analyses of theological strata. Thomas L. Thompson notes that, under continued scholarly scrutiny, the Elohist has disappeared from view entirely and the Yahwist is fast fading from existence, even as P grows beyond all reasonable bounds. The hypothesis has no value as a guide for continued research (1987:49). Whybray, too, in outlining especially the recent contributions by Rolf Rendtorff and H.H. Schmid, demonstrates how the consensus for a “theology of the Yahwist” among critical scholars is collapsing (1987:93–108).

6. The Hypothesis Proven in Some Specific Texts

The preceding arguments are the classic arguments given in defense of the Documentary Hypothesis. I suspect, however, that many scholars continue to be converted to the hypothesis not because of the force of those arguments, the weaknesses of which are well known, but because of one or two specific test cases. Westermann’s discussion of the evidence tends to confirm this.

At the end of the first volume of his commentary on Genesis, Westermann reviews the classic arguments for the Documentary Hypothesis. He deals with language and style, the divine names, contradictions, doublets, and theological viewpoint. Although (in contrast to the objections of scholars like Cassuto) he generally supports the arguments, in every case he carefully qualifies the value of these criteria. He frequently notes that a given criterion cannot be used “mechanically,” or must be used “with particular caution.” The use of “caution” is of course not an admission that the arguments are exploded, but it does suggest that confidence in the criteria has eroded considerably (1984:576–84).

At several points, however, Westermann leans on specific texts as justification for continued adherence to the hypothesis. He insists that Genesis 4:26 and Exodus 6:3 continue to have full force in regard to the question of the divine names (1984:579), that the flood narrative must be a composite of two sources (1984:582), and that Genesis 1–2 is a classic example of a doublet (1984:582–83).

The first two arguments here have already been discussed. I want to make a single point here. It is possible that 1:1 and Genesis 2:4ff. do in fact spring from separate sources, but that these sources have nothing to do with the four documents of the Documentary Hypothesis. I suggest that although they represent different sources, the application of the wrong criteria to Genesis 1–2 has sent scholars off on a wild goose chase. In short, there is no text in Genesis which is best explained by the Documentary Hypothesis.

7. The Hypothesis Verified by the History of the Priesthood

It appears that many scholars continue to support the hypothesis because of questions regarding the history of Israel. In particular, the hypothesis seems to offer the best explanation of why the term Levite is used inconsistently in the Old Testament. Suffice it to say that the traditional solution offered in conjunction with the Documentary Hypothesis is historically anomalous. A far better solution can be obtained by reading the Pentateuch as a work that was substantially produced, as the text affirms, during the period of the Exodus.


The Documentary Hypothesis must be abandoned. Regardless of the theological presuppositions with which one approaches the text, and regardless of whether one wishes to affirm the tradition of Mosaic authorship or move in new directions, one must recognize the hypothesis to be methodologically unsound.

In the last century, Homeric scholars thought they had discovered sources behind the Iliad and the Odyssey. The concept is comparable to the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch (Wolf 1795). Walter Leaf and M.A. Bayfield thought they saw several works, including the “Wrath of Achilles” and the “Aristeia of Diomedes” as “strata” behind the Iliad (1898:2, xv-xxiii). Other scholars, such as Adolf Kirchhoff (1859) and P.D.C. Hennings (1903) similarly divided the Odyssey (Sanford 1959:1, xxx-xxxi). Such hypotheses are now antiquarian scholarly curiosities. One can only hope that the same fate awaits their sister theory, the Documentary Hypothesis.


Anderson, Bernhard W. 1978 From Analysis to Synthesis: The Interpretation of Genesis 1–11. Journal of Biblical Literature 97:23–39.

Andersen, Francis I. 1974 The Sentence in Biblical Hebrew (The Hague: Mouton).

Brueggemann, Walter and Wolff, Hans Walter. 1975 The Vitality of Old Testament Traditions (Atlanta: John Knox).

Cassuto, Umberto. 1941 The Documentary Hypothesis and Composition of the Pentateuch, translated from Hebrew by Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: Magnes).

Emerton, J.A. 1987 The Unity of the Flood Narrative in Genesis, Part I. Vetus Testamentum 37:401–20.

Emerton, J.A. 1988 The Unity of the Flood Narrative in Genesis, Part II. Vetus Testamentum 38:1–22.

Kitchen, Kenneth A. 1966 Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Chicago: Inter-Varsity). 

Leaf, Walter and Bayfield, M.A. 1898 The Iliad of Homer, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, reprinted 1968).

Radday, Yehuda T. 1981 Chiasmus in Hebrew Biblical Narrative. Pp.50–117 in Chiasmus in Antiquity, ed. John W. Welch (Hildesheim, Germany: Gerstenberg).

Radday, Yehuda T. and Shore, Haim.1985 Genesis: An Authorship Study (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute).

Rendtorff, Rolf. 1990 The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch, translated by John J. Scullion, JSOTSS 89 (Sheffield: JSOT).

Scott, John A. 1965 The Unity of Homer (New York: Biblo and Tannen).

Segal, M.H. 1967 The Pentateuch: Its Composition and Authorship (Jerusalem: Magnes).

Stanford, W.B. 1959 The Odyssey of Homer, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (New York: St. Martins).

Thompson, Thomas L. 1987 The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel, JSOTSS 55 (Sheffield: JSOT). 

Wenham, Gordon J. 1987 The Coherence of the Flood Narrative. Vetus Testamentum 28:336–48.

Wenham, Gordon J. 1987 Genesis 1–15 (Waco: Word).

Westermann, Claus. 1984 Genesis 1–11, translated by John J. Scullion (Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress).

Whybray, R.N. 1987 The Making of the Pentateuch (Sheffield: JSOT).

Wolf, F.A. 1975 Prolegomena to Homer, translated by Anthony Oration (Princeton: Princeton University Press, reprinted 1985).


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