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The Great Utility of the Documentary Hypothesis

May 24, 2010

Someone asked me about the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) yesterday. In the course of explaining the hypothesis, I realized, yet again for the thousandth time, how useful and important the DH really is. During my undergrad there was hardly a course in which the DH did not come up. Three hundred level Dead Sea Scrolls course? Check, DH. Hundred level OT class? Check, DH. Israelite religion? Check, DH. Hermeneutics? Check, DH.

Again, and again, and again, the DH is  a necessary concept to make sense of the textual development of the Torah, and the internal evidence of the Torah.

I thought perhaps modifying a quote from a post last week might be in order today:

The Documentary Hypothesis is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for the DH , gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of historical and textual research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of Mosaic authorship. There has really been no failure of the DH as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well.

Of course, Wellhausen’s original hypothesis has been modified and added to. This does not demonstrate its weakness, but rather its explanatory strength: he was on the right path! Adding an H source or splitting J into J1 and J2 does not in any way strengthen a single argument against JEDP as opposed to single authorship. One might as well suggest that the colour blue proves Moses wrote the Torah.

This is the strength of the scientific process: it modifies in light of new evidence and seeks to work better! You love this when it comes to your computer, technology, and especially medicine. You love the fact the scientific process works better when you go to a hospital and get a pill, and do not have to go to an apothecary and have to eat goat penis ground into a delicious powder while sacrificing a dove during full moonlight!

Simply put: The DH. It is a productive framework for lots of historical and textual research, and it has amazing explanatory power.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. JeremiahBailey permalink
    May 24, 2010 4:44 pm

    Meh, it is a useful tool, but failure to take the text as a whole leads to nothing more than the creation of rubble, as Bonhoeffer put it.

  2. May 24, 2010 5:54 pm

    I once believed the DH was the greatest thing since sliced bread.

    But it does not take into account the probability that scribal schools capable of producing literature did not exist until the Persian or Hellenistic periods, which means that J and E could not have been written around the time of the Hezekiah or earlier.

    It also does not take into account the tendency of the Hasmoneans to create foundation myths that retrojected issues and concerns of their day back into a mythical past.

    So I have to agree that the DH has been consigned to the dustbin of history, at least as a total explanation.

    • May 24, 2010 10:05 pm

      “I have to agree that the DH has been consigned to the dustbin of history” might be a *tad* excessive. That there were sources in the Pentateuch has hardly been consigned in such a manner.

      There is no single “total explanation” because what we are actually discussing is a compiled body of literature containing different books, so some different tools of evaluation must be used in some different cases. As usual with scholarly investigation which tool to use is judged on a base by base case.

      However, while I wouldn’t say the DH is the “greatest since sliced bread,” ( 😉 ) I would suggest that for certain understandings of the Torah, multiple sources–even redacted ones in the second century–make more sense than a single author (Moses).

  3. EricW permalink
    May 24, 2010 9:20 pm

    What do you think of Richard Elliott Friedman’s book The Bible With Sources Revealed in which he color-codes the Torah as:
    RJE (redactor of JE)
    D = Dtn (law code Deut 12-26) + Dtr Deuteronomic History (= Josianic Dtr1 and exilic Dtr2)
    R (final redactor)
    Other independent texts
    Genesis 14 as its own text

    • May 24, 2010 10:11 pm

      Friedman makes some good arguments. I’m not sure I would go so far as he does in the multiplicity of sources, I do use “R” in some of my work to refer to final redactor. Some of it I don’t find intriguing, Deuteronomic studies are not my thing (boring!).

      I would date P later that he does, but then I could be wrong!

    • May 25, 2010 4:51 am

      I like Friedman’s books very much. There is no question in my mind about the different sources. My problem is that Friedman’s dating for these sources is problematic, given (for me) that the scribal schools probably did not produce literature as early as the assumed dates for J and E, and his approach does not take into account the tendency for much of the HB to be retrojected foundation myth. Still, there is no question that different voices can be found, it’s just a question of when these voices actually “spoke”.

      • May 25, 2010 7:59 am

        Enuma Elish and Atrhasis and other texts are earlier than the schools you speak of and demonstrate some relation to Gen 1-9. There has also been found Semitic writing earlier as well. So some small stories are possible without “schools.” Also, orality studies have shown that sources like these could have existed before scribes. It is our typographic assumptions that make it hard to believe a source could have existed before writing.

  4. EricW permalink
    May 25, 2010 6:49 am

    But I thought that Josh McDowell had demonstrated the falsity of the Documentary Hypothesis in the 2nd volume of his Evidence That Demands A Verdict?

  5. May 25, 2010 9:06 am

    I also have frequently compared the DH to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as an explanation for the fact of evolution.

    In both cases, there are effectively *no* modern “adherents” to the original theory, because that’s not how it works. In both cases, much new evidence has come to light, supporting the basic framework and insights of the original theory, while challenging its details and calling for revision (sometimes substantial revision). In both cases, continuing debate over the details (is there a J? if so, when is he and how do we know and how does the evidence circumscribe candidate dates?) is a sign, not of the theory’s ill health, but of its robust good health.

  6. Jake permalink
    May 25, 2010 2:02 pm

    Seriously though, when you sit down and really think about it and contemplate it as far as you are able to contemplate…

    Is anything really better than sliced bread? I mean, come on.

  7. May 25, 2010 4:47 pm

    Yes, my wife’s gluten-free and dairy-free muffins? (

    And yes, I get to try all the test batches. Sorry, Jake, I couldn’t resist an opening like that.

  8. May 25, 2010 5:12 pm

    Back on subject, I loved Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible. I thought it was a fabulous modern re-statement of the DH. But then I started reading about the history of scribal schools and the development of literary traditions. I have no doubt that scribes during the “divided monarchy” maintained regnal lists (Annals of the Kings of Judah, for example) and pieces of other materials. But creating literature typically doesn’t happen until there is enough prosperity to maintain a leisure class, which I don’t think happened until the Hellenistic Period. In the intervening years, scribal contributions toward the transition from oral to written culture would probably have been more on the order of crib notes to assist in oral performance. So for me, the revised DH has much the same feel as the Hebrew Bible as a whole – a foundation myth which creates a story out of bits and pieces of history.

  9. Jake permalink
    May 26, 2010 12:13 pm

    Gluten free? Hippy…

    My two cents: in light of the issues here, does anyone think it’s possible to present the current literary model in a way that’s positively regarded by most Christians who may not have the sort of historical or critical framework by those who hold to the assumptions made by the DH?

    By “positively regarded” I don’t necessarily mean “accepted as truth” (obviously that’s not the point) but rather how can it be presented in a way that sparks meaningful dialogue between people that is beneficial to all parties involved?


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