What happens to the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) if, as outlined in recent posts, the Pentateuch was first written in the third century BCE? That’s the first question that comes to most of us when first hearing a thesis like this. This post outlines Russell Gmirkin’s chapter on the DH, and is thus a continuation of my summary of the early sections of his book, Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch.
(Other posts where I have discussed the DH, including other criticisms of it, are archived in the Documentary Hypothesis Category.
See Who Wrote the Bible? The Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis for the history of the DH’s origins.
For Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, the sacred-texts site contains one of the easiest-to-read online versions.
Another modern book worth reading in defence of the DH is Friedman’s The Bible With Sources Revealed.)
The different sources identified in the DH are not in dispute in Gmirkin’s thesis:
This book does not take issue with the Higher Criticism’s identification of different sources in the Pentateuch, each with its own consistent vocabulary, interests and theological outlook. (p. 22)
Gmirkin describes the DH as presented by Wellhausen. Its primary fault, he argues, is that it dates the hypothetical sources by means of what is in reality an unsupported construct of Israel’s history.
The entangling of dating issues with subjective historical constructs was a major flaw in Wellhausen’s approach. The Documentary Hypothesis as developed by Wellhausen illustrates the grave danger of circular reasoning inherent in dating texts by means of a historical construct to facilitate the dating of these same texts. (p. 5)
Gmirkin’s method of dating is, as explained in previous posts in this series, a separate and independent process.
In chapter 2 Gmirkin discusses the DH in some detail. He examines its function and development as a literary and as a historical theory, then considers the historical assumptions underpinning the thesis and finally looks at the external evidence impinging upon the validity of the DH.
The Documentary Hypothesis was both a literary theory (regarding identification and dating of Pentateuchal sources) and a historical theory (regarding the evolution of Jewish religion). The authors of the DH based its history of the Jewish religion directly on the biblical account, accepting that the cultic practices successively described in Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings reflected sequential historical periods in Jewish history. (p. 24)
Step One: identifying the sources
The four principle sources, most of us know, are:
- the Deuteronomist (D) — roughly equivalent to the book of Deuteronomy
- the Priestly Code (P) — mostly about priestly and legal matters
- the Yahwist (J) — narrative material with no interest in legislation
- Called J because it refers to God by his name YHWH = Jahwe in German, the language of the DH pioneers.
- Stories of Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah’s Flood, Tower of Babel, the Patriarchs, Moses, Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings
- the Elohist (E) — typically referred to God as Elohim [that is, “god”, until the time of Moses when he revealed his name as Yahweh – Exodus 3:14]
- Unlike J, includes stories of near sacrifice of Isaac, Sodom and Gomorrah; also includes stories of Patriarchs, Exodus, Wilderness.
[Throughout post, bracketed and italicized notes are my own additions to Gmirkin’s account in this chapter, here mostly taken from Friedman’s The Bible With Sources Revealed.]
Step Two: determining the relative chronology of the sources
The E stories were grafted onto the J stories;
D used JE as its historical framework
Hence the chronology: J –E — D.
Where to place P was a more contentious process. [Wellhausen spoke of the traditionalists of his day who had long held to P being the earliest document :
It was asserted, and almost with violence, that the Priestly Code could not be later than Deuteronomy, and that the Deuteronomist actually had it before him. (Prolegomena, p. 11) ]
Since Wellhausen and others it has been generally accepted that P was the latest of the sources.
Final Step: explaining the historical provenances of the sources
The four sources, J E D P, were explained as representing the successive stages of Jewish history and religious evolution.
J was from the most primitive stage: dates ca 850-800 BCE
- decentralized worship
- cult sites and altars throughout Canaan
- time of the Patriarchs and Judges
- also embraced time of Solomon
- Solomon’s temple was one of many legitimate places for sacrifice
- religious laws were not written — only an “Oral Torah”
- this Torah of the Priests was entrusted to the priests of Yahweh.
E was slightly later, generally dated 850-750 BCE
- little new theological development
- some have suggested E only consisted of minor additions to J
- the JE combination is related to a “golden age of Hebrew literature”.
D dated 621 BCE
- the first authoritative Written Torah
- “discovered” in the Temple in 18th year of Josiah
- purpose was to reform the cult so that Jerusalem became the sole centre of worship
- written by priests and certain prophets
P was the final stage, dated ca 444 BCE
- this reflected the priestly legal code of the Babylonian exiles
- “Ezra the priest” was said to have brought the books of Moses’ laws (P) from Babylon in 458 BCE
- but the scroll was only publicly produced, at the earliest, 444 BCE.
R (a Redactor, said to be Ezra?) wove J, E and P together
The Documentary Hypothesis was in many respects a brilliant scholarly construct, correlating biblical history, the evolution of the Jewish religion, and the multiplicity of sources behind the Pentateuch. . . . Nevertheless, in recent years it has become increasingly recognized that the Documentary Hypothesis has serious, even fatal defects, especially in its approach to Jewish history, which was based on an often pre-critical view of the historiographical documents of the Hebrew Bible. (p. 24)
Historical Premises of the Documentary Hypothesis
So the historical framework of the DH is dependent on the biblical accounts of Josiah’s reforms — 2 Kings 22-23 — and the religious efforts of Ezra and Nehemiah — Neh 8-10. Gmirkin quotes Wellhausen:
As we are accustomed to infer the date of the composition of Deuteronomy from its publication and introduction by Josiah, so we must infer the date of the composition of the Priestly Code from its publication and introduction by Ezra and Nehemiah. . . . The origin of the canon thus lies, thanks to the two narratives 2 Kings xxii. xxiii., Neh. viii.-x. in the full light of history. (pp. 408-9 of Prolegomena)
[Richard Friedman’s 2003 publication defending the DH, The Bible With Sources Revealed, continues the same message. Page 3: “The basic hypothesis is: These biblical books were assembled from sources. The historical context in which these sources were written and then edited together was as follows: . . . .”]
The historicity of these events was never questioned.
|To see why Nehemiah and the events associated with him should be questioned see a series of five articles I posted in 2010. To see why Josiah’s reforms should be considered fiction see another 2010 article, Josiah’s reforms: Where is the archaeological evidence?|
There is a curious twist to this uncritical acceptance of the historicity of these events. Those parts of the stories that say the respective written laws were made public for the first time in the days of Josiah and Ezra are accepted as historical; but those parts of the stories that claim those written documents were actually the ancient writings of Moses were declared fiction. That is, the stories had to be re-written to support the DH’s argument that Deuteronomy was composed (not “discovered”) in the time of Josiah and the Priestly Code likewise was a recent composition of Babylonian priests and not the ancient writing of Moses.
The Documentary Hypothesis thus both required the acceptance of 2 Kgs 22-23 and Neh 8-10 as containing a kernel of historicity, yet also required a rejection of the actual content of these two stories, namely the discovery of old, authentic texts of the laws of Moses. (p. 25)
Why presume the historicity of 2 Kings and Ezra-Nehemiah? Or at least, how to justify this presumption? [The texts are read naively and are taken to be what they appear to be on the surface, that is, as narratives composed to record the recent events of their times.] That is, the writings are taken to be written soon after the events they narrated.
Ezra-Nehemiah contained a list of high priests down to ca. 400 BCE, and it was believed that Ezra-Nehemiah was written very shortly after that date. The reforms of Josiah were thus thought to have occurred within the living memory of the author of 1 and 2 Kings; Ezra’s reading of the law was thought to have been recorded by one present at that event.
Both datings are extremely dubious. In each case, the earliest possible date was subjectively interpreted to be the actual date of composition. (p. 25, my formatting and bolding)
Russell Gmirkin then turns to a theme I have addressed many times on this blog: the need to establish the provenance (specifically in this case the date) of a document before knowing how to use it as historical evidence. [I have also said a bit more is also involved, such as the need for external controls (these can take a variety of forms) to independently confirm the historicity of a written narrative and some clarity of genre of the document.]
In practice, that’s how history is generally done, as I’ve demonstrated often enough. Biblical studies has been the principle exception.
Yet no external evidence exists to establish an early date for either Kings or Ezra-Nehemiah.
The first externally datable reference to material from Kings occurs in the book On the Kings of Judea by Demetrius the Chronographer (ca. 221-204 BCE). The assertion that Kings was written ca. 550 BCE, within living memory of Josiah’s reforms of 621 BCE, is little more than an assumption.
Similarly, no external evidence exists that Ezra-Nehemiah was composed in the Persian period.
The first external reference to Nehemiah occurs in the writings of Sirach (ca. 180 BCE); to Ezra even later.
Given the lack of objective external evidence for the antiquity of either Kings or Ezra-Nehemiah, the heavy reliance on these books in constructing the history of the development of the Pentateuch appears methodologically unsound. (p. 25, my formatting and bolding)
Gmirkin then quotes Philip R. Davies’ 1992 words casting doubt upon the historicity of Josiah’s reforms.
According to 2 Kings 22-23 a “book of the covenant” was discovered in the Temple, leading to royal reforms. The details of the reform suggest that the king was following the requirements of the book of Deuteronomy or some form of it.
The reform has long been a linchpin of Biblical history, for upon it much of the scholarly reconstruction of the history of “Israelite” literature depends.
Let us first remind ourselves that the only evidence for such a reform is the Biblical story itself.
Let us then recall where the story occurs, namely in a book whose ideology seems to be influenced by, or at least lie very close to, that of the book of Deuteronomy. The argument of this book (2 Kings) is that if the principles of Deuteronomy (for so they are) had been observed by “Israel” then the kingdom of Judah would not, like its counterpart over a century earlier, have come to an end.
Thus, a piece of writing which is ideologically, and in some places linguistically, close to the book of Deuteronomy claims that a law book, which it describes in a way which makes it look very much like Deuteronomy, was once upon a time discovered by a king and implemented (although the king was conveniently killed and the reform overturned).
Here we have before us an unverified attempt to give Deuteronomy some antique authority and to argue that its contents are appropriate for implementation in a political body.
How much credence shall we Biblical critics give to such a story?… Hardly reliable testimony; at least it needs some support before we can base any conclusions upon it. But scarcely a Biblical scholar has ever entertained the thought (at least in print) that this story might just be a convenient legend, that maybe no such reform took place. (Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, 40-41, my formatting and bolding)
|I summed up Davies’ argument in my vridar.info webpage at Did These Two Key Events Really Happen? (Also copied in the earlier blogpost on the lack of archaeological evidence for Josiah’s reforms.)|
Gmirkin asks if the story of Ezra’s revival of the Mosaic law might similarly be a “late legend whose purpose was to provide a hoary antiquity to the books of Moses?”
It is significant that 2 Macc 3:12 gave Nehemiah the credit for searching out and collecting together the Jewish scrolls of antiquity (obviously including the books of Moses). 2 Maccabees, written in the early first century BCE, knew nothing of Ezra’s return of the books of the Law from Babylon in 458 BCE or indeed of the figure of Ezra. Given the Ezra tradition’s possible late date (J. Goldstein, 1976, argued a date between 103 and 63 BCE) and limited acceptance, its reliability as a witness to the history of the Pentateuch in recent years has come increasingly under question. (p. 26)
The historical framework of the DH was based squarely “on the untested premise that the literary accounts of 2 Kgs 22-23 and Neh 8-10 represented actual and accurate historical data.”
What is the evidence supporting the historicity of these accounts?
Archaeological Evidence for Josiah’s Reforms and D
Gmirkin cites several archaeological publications, in particular N. Na’aman’s “The Debated Historicity of Hezekiah’s Reform in the Light of Historical and Archaeological Research” (ZAW 107 (1995)), an article that also address in depth the evidence bearing on Josiah’s reforms, to show that expected evidence of destruction of cult sites in that time period is not there.
There is no archaeological evidence of a drastic change in cult practices in the late eighth or late seventh centuries BCE.
Two silver amulets bearing priestly benedictions from the late seventh or early sixth century BCE have, however, been found at Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem.
Three of the lines of this priestly blessing read:
May YHVH bless and protect you; may YHVH look favorably upon you and grant you well being.
- The Numbers blessing contains other words that make it appear it is an expansion of a simpler, earlier benediction such as the one on the amulet;
- In both amulets, the text either side of the blessing does not come from the Pentateuch, thus suggesting no relationship to that source;
- The Numbers 6 passage comes from P, which is generally dated much later than the amulets.
- It has long been recognized that the benedictions in Num 6:22-26 derive from oral sources, even containing five different expressions referring to oral speech.
The Elephantine Papyri
Here Gmirkin addresses the second of the fundamental principles for historical inquiry that I have stressed here so often: the need for independent controls or external witness to corroborate a written narrative. He speaks of “a fundamental difficulty in the [DH] theory” being “the lack of independent evidence for the sources and the stages of development that the theory postulated.” (p. 29)
Arguments for the Documentary Hypothesis have therefore tended to assume the absence of relevant external sources is complete and that it is therefore permissible to ignore the question of corroboration by external evidence as necessarily irrelevant to the discussion. (p. 29)
But Gmirkin points out that there are two external sources “of great evidentiary value to the question of Pentateuchal origins and development which have previously been overlooked in discussions of the Documentary Hypothesis.”
One is the Ketef Hinnom amulets, — see above.
The other, the Elephantine Papyri.
The Elephantine Papyri consist of approximately 80 papyri in Aramaic discovered at Aswan in Egypt and originating from the Jewish military colony at Yeb (Elephantine), at the second cataract of the Nile, guarding the Egyptian–Ethiopian border. Many of the Elephantine Papyri were dated in terms of the regnal years of the Persian kings who then ruled Egypt. The collection as a whole came from the period 494–ca. 400 BCE.
Most of these were letters, legal documents, supply accounts and the like, but
– one (no. 21) contained an order from Darius II in 419 BCE to the Jews at Elephantine enjoining them to observe the Days of Unleavened Bread,
– while a second series (nos. 27, 30-34) documented the Egyptian destruction of a Jewish temple at Yeb in 411 BCE and the fruitless efforts of the colonists during the years 410-407 BCE to secure permission to have it rebuilt. (p. 29, my formatting and bolding)
These papyri confirm
- the Jewish worship of the god Ya’u alongside the worship of ‘Anath, Bethel, Ishum and Herem;
- the Jewish observance of the Days of Unleavened Bread and probably the Passover;
- the religious authority of the Jewish high priest at Jerusalem: Jews in Egypt could appeal to him to have their temple at Yeb rebuilt.
The papyri are silent concerning
- the existence of the Pentateuch or any part of it;
- the priesthood being related in any way to Aaron or Levites;
- Jewish names found in the Pentateuch (there are over 160 Jews mentioned in the papyri, not one with a “Pentateuchal” name)
- any biblical history of the Jews, such as the Exodus, or of the tribes, or any prophets;
- any knowledge of the Laws of Moses or any other authoritative writing;
The observance of the Days of Unleavened Bread were
- allowed on the authority of Darius II and the Egyptian governor to whom Darius wrote, permitting the Jews to observe the festival,
- and to a Jewish official who added further instructions;
- without any reference to the authority of the Torah;
- and without reference to the Exodus.
The actual practices of this festival
- omitted any instruction to read the Torah;
- were not said to be in accordance with any Jewish law code.
- were governed by direct decree from the Jerusalem temple priests without any reference a written Law.
The temple at Yeb
- possessed altars for sacrifice and incense offerings
- was destroyed by Egyptians in a local uprising in 411 BCE (presumably over sacrifices of animals sacred to Egyptians)
- was clearly in violation of the Deuteronomic code that forbade any temple or sacrifice outside Jerusalem.
Yet the Elephantine Jews had no problem appealing to the Jewish high priest and his colleagues in Jerusalem to help them rebuild their temple. Their relations with Jerusalem priests were evidently cordial and mutually supportive.
The Elephantine papyri demonstrate
- the Jewish colonists in Egypt followed religious practices emanating from Jerusalem;
- the Jewish colonists recognized the authority of the Judean high priest and his colleagues;
- the Jewish colonists remained loyal to Jerusalem’s practices and remained on friendly terms with the Jerusalem Temple hierarchy;
- yet indicate that they and the Jerusalem priesthood had no knowledge of the contents of the Pentateuch, both following practices contrary to its injunctions.
That is, the Papyri show
- no knowledge of a written Torah or Pentateuch
- no knowledge of names of figures in the Pentateuch
- but clear knowledge of a Jerusalem priesthood with religious authority
- and knowledge of a Jerusalem Temple priesthood supporting another temple and altars of sacrifice as well as non-Levitcal priests.
Gmirkin opines that if the Elephantine Papyri had been discovered before the DH was developed it would never have taken off.
[There remains one more angle from which to work with any criticism of the DH. R. E. Friedman in The Bible With Sources Revealed complains that critics of the DH have not addressed the actual evidence presented by proponents for the DH. He writes of seven main arguments:
- Consistent Content
- Continuity of Texts (Narrative Flow)
- Connections with Other Parts of the Bible
- Relationships Among the Sources: To Each Other and To History
That task remains a future series of blog posts.]
Russell Gmirkin has also commented in response to a query about the DH on an earlier post on this topic.