Who wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

This post looks at the rise of the dominant scholarly hypothesis that the Old Testament came together through the efforts of various editors over time collating and editing a range of earlier sources. The structure and bulk of the contents of the post is taken from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s discussion of the Documentary Hypothesis.

The complete set of these posts either outlining or being based on Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, are archived here.

Before the Documentary Hypothesis there was Spinoza.



Let us conclude, therefore, that all the books which we have just passed under review are apographs — works written ages after the things they relate had passed away. And when we regard the argument and connection of these books severally, we readily gather that they were all written by one and the same person, who had the purpose of compiling a system of Jewish antiquities, from the origin of the nation to the first destruction of the city of Jerusalem. The several books are so connected one with another, that from this alone we discover that they comprise the continuous narrative of a single historian. . . . .

The whole of these books, therefore, lead to one end, viz. to enforce the sayings and edicts of Moses, and, from the course of events, to demonstrate their sacredness. From these three points taken together, then, viz. the unity and simplicity of the argument of all the books, their connection or sequence, and their apographic character, they having been written many ages after the events they record, we conclude, as has just been said, that they were all written by one historiographer.

So Spinoza was led to conclude (from the common style, language and purpose) that there was a single author (albeit one who used earlier source documents) and he opted for that author being Ezra.

Debt to Homeric Criticism – and left in the dust of Homeric criticism

Biblical literary criticism has since been based on “the idea that the writers of the Bible ‘edited’ previous documents, compiled” and that these were eventually compiled by a final redactor.

This idea was copied from classical scholarly studies of the Homeric texts. John Van Seters in a 2006 publication, The Edited Bible: The Curious History of the ‘Editor’ in Biblical Criticism (the link is to GoogleBooks where much of it is readable online), shows that the idea of the Bible being the work of an editor was copied from Homeric studies, and that though Classical scholars have since thrown out that idea as completely untenable, Biblical scholars have nonetheless stubbornly continued with it as an explanation for the Bible.

Interested readers may like to start reading Van Seter’s page one (via the above link) and see a certain problem with biblical studies that several scholars have addressed elsewhere is also applicable to scholarly studies of the Old Testament. Biblical scholars have been slow — slow as a full stop — to keep up with critical debates about relevant methodologies in classical studies.

Julius Wellhausen

Wellhausen, a Protestant theologian (the role of theologians as theologians will be shown to be significant), summed up the theories of Bible composition that originated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is thus associated with the Documentary Hypothesis:

  1. Up till the time of Moses passages that use Yahweh as the name of God are assigned to the J or Yahwist source
  2. Up till the time of Moses those passages that use Elohim for god are assigned to the E of Elohist source
  3. Deuteronomy is said to have a different theology from Leviticus so is thought to stem from a different theologian known as the D source
  4. Passages such as Leviticus and others referencing rituals are thought to stem from a Priestly or P source
  5. Finally a late redactor, R, compiled these sources together

Van Seters in the work cited above points out that various scholars use the concept of editor or redactor much like an irregular verb. It is a concept that can be manipulated and varied (now preserving texts intact, now changing them to suit their interests) to make it yield the particular results they desire.

Gerhard von Rad gave the hypothesis personality:

  1. J belonged to the southern kingdom of Judah, was born in the reign of Solomon, and justified the Davidic dynasty
  2. E belonged to the northern kingdom of Israel, was born in the ninth or eighth century, and taught the “fear of God”
  3. D belonged to King Josiah’s time (late seventh century) and taught the centrality of the Temple cult and Jerusalem
  4. P was born during the Exile and was interested in the authority of priests

Note the evolutionary assumption:

This vague chronology of the Bible’s sources supposed an evolution of Jewish theology that could still be seen in the text. In the nineteenth century evolutionism was the dominant theory, both in biology (as seen in Darwinism) and in religious anthropology (Frazer and Tylor created hierarchies in religions according to their tendency toward monotheism). (p. 23 of Argonauts)


Thomas Römer: The subjective basis of Wellhausen’s presentation

Römer observes the way theologian Wellhausen’s Protestantism is guiding his Documentary Hypothesis model. As Protestantism devalues Law so Wellhausen has begun with the assumption that the legalistic portions of the Old Testament must be late additions of a Priestly (P) redactor and by no means original to the faith of Israel.

This assumption, says Römer, lies at the root of Wellhausen’s preference for believing that the “authentic” or earliest sources of Israel’s faith belonged to the period of the monarchy. Further, it cannot be overlooked that Wellhausen, being a man of his time, and his time being the time of the unification of Germany in 1871 under the Hohenzollern dynasty, was eager to propagate monarchy as the ideal form of government:

Wellhausen avait d’ailleurs prononcé un discours devant l’empereur Guillaume à l’occasion de son anniversaire, dans lequel il démontra, à partir des livres de Samuel, que la monarchie était la forme de gouvernement idéale. (Thomas Roemer, L’exégèse et l’air du temps, Theolib)

Moreover Wellhausen had presented before Kaiser Wilhelm, on the celebration of his birthday, a demonstration from the Books of Samuel that that monarchy was the ideal form of government. (My translation)

Wajdenbaum comments:

Wellhausen’s aversion to legalist and religious aspects reflected his liberal Protestantism, and the idea that the ‘decadence’ of the ‘true’ Jewish religion had prepared for the advent of Jesus, prophet and reformer, who would reinstate the ethical principles of ‘true Judaism’. Römer points out how the fundamentals of the documentary hypothesis imply a degeneration of Jewish religion that justifies its replacement by Christianity. (p. 24, Argonauts, my emphasis)

Martin Noth

Noth (another theologian) qualified the Documentary Hypothesis by adding to it a “Deuteronomistic Historian” who wrote Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings during the Exile.

Noth attempted to find a way to explain how supposedly pre-monarchic oral traditions eventually came to be written down by the earliest authors, J and E.

But in the absence of evidence, this reconstruction was quite arbitrary. (p. 24, Argonauts)

F.M. Cross and R.E. Friedman followed Noth and decided that this Deuteronomistic stratum was a collation of two sources: one written during Josiah’s reign and the other during the Babylonian Exile period. (Friedman suggested that the author of both strata was Jeremiah writing at different times of his life.)

Noth argued that the final redactor (R) found a way to combine and harmonize the first four books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) with the Deuteronomistic writings.

This provides him with a theory that allows him to fall back on Spinoza’s initial intuition. (p. 24, Argonauts)

Thomas Römer: The subjective bases of Noth and Cross

Noth conceived of an exiled writer who meditated on the causes of his country’s ruin, which was actually his own situation as he fled from Nazi Germany; a lonely historian writing in his office, hating the totalitarian regime that brought about the downfall of his nation. In the same way, Römer sees a typical American optimism in Cross’ theory of the first Deuteronomist, who know the flourishing kingship of Josiah, whose idealised portrait recalled the founding fathers of the USA. The second Deuteronomist would therefore have written only the pessimistic passages because he had to explain Jerusalem’s fall theologically. (pp. 24-25, Argonauts, my emphasis)

That sort of analysis worries me. It always makes me stop to look around at my own environment and experiences and ask myself what I am projecting.

Next post in this series will the on the collapse of the consensus on the Documentary Hypothesis.

Oh yeh – and merry xmas and all that.

Related articles

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

11 thoughts on “Who wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis”

  1. I’m not sure whether I posted this before, so forgive me if it’s a re-run. Here’s an interview with Richard Elliott Friedman, which was apparently recorded back in November 2002.


    It’s interesting to hear his perspective on minimalism (starting just shy of the 17-minute mark). He doesn’t want to paint minimalist scholars with a broad brush, naturally. Heaven forbid. He just wants us to know that “some” of them are motivated by “their views about the contemporary Middle East and they’re reading it back into [the] Biblical world and saying, basically, the Jews don’t have a historical, Biblical root in the land.”

    I still hold to the Documentary Hypothesis; I still enjoy Friedman’s books and find his arguments generally convincing. However, the way mainstream scholars cavalierly toss out vague accusations of bigotry is troubling.

    I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to work in an environment where it’s so common to impugn the motives of one’s colleagues. I don’t know if I could keep my cool in such circumstances.

    Me: “If we want to get to market on time I think we’re going to have to switch to agile programming.”

    Esteemed Colleague: “Not that I’m accusing you, personally, but a lot of people who think the way you do have come to that conclusion because they’re Anti-Semites.”

    Me: “I’m starting to wonder if string theory is leading us down a blind alley.”

    Esteemed Colleague: “I don’t want to condemn you outright, but you know a lot of people who don’t like string theory feel that way because they hate the Jews.”

    It’s as if they have a license to “Go Godwin” whenever they feel like it.

    1. Accusations of anti-semitism are part and parcel of the ideological mine-field of biblical studies, Old and New Testaments. It has been leveled at mythicism — “of course they want to deny the existence of a great Jew!” To charge “minimalists” with anti-semitism is equally absurd. Those who level the charges are themselves attempting to defend ideology.

      When I was leaving my old cult I felt a longing to convert to Judaism for a time. I was especially moved after attending a local stage musical performance of “Fiddler on the Roof”. Our cult had always been very sympathetic to Judaica (we observed many of the Jewish feasts and food laws) and what the Jewish community would have offered me would have been replacement “home”.

      But those feelings vanished after I eventually came to identify myself as first and foremost a part of the human species with all its weaknesses, longings, needs, sufferings, hopes, joys, community, affections. Once at this point I felt even some embarrassment over the blind love of being “Australian” — and any form of nationalism — that politicians use to manipulate their supporters.

      I look back and see that my longing to become part of the Jewish community was a type of longing to return to a family, a nation, a tribe whose names and words and symbols I could wear as my identity. I am now reading Gilad Atzmon’s The Wandering Who? (http://www.gilad.co.uk/) in which he addresses the particularly acute form of infantile but very dangerous tribalism among his fellow Jews. He shows that this tribalism feeds off — it needs — anti-semitism to sustain itself and it will find and even create it where none exists if it feels it necessary.

      Here is one of the most disturbing videos that highlights this intolerant tribalism that I have seen. It is produced by Zionist tribalists themselves and extols the virtues of tribalism. The idea that a Jew can see him or herself as a fully integrated and accepted part of a non-Jewish society and who just happens to be a Jew, just as I see myself as one who just happens to be of British descent, or my colleague of Chinese origin, etc. is simply foreign to this perspective. Attacks on “wealth” are interpreted as attacks on a racial group if that wealth is said to be in the hands of some Jews. Even the Supreme Court is attacked as anti-semitic if it rules for human rights in a way that denies religious fanatics who would deny those rights to others in the name of God. It also reminds us that even the early secular Zionists themselves shared the racism of the Europeans nations of their birth in the nineteenth century.


      1. I should make clear what I left only implicit above: “Minimalism” and mythicism do indeed undermine the foundational myths of Judaism and Christianity. They really do threaten them in their traditional forms. Schweitzer’s vision for a less earthly form of faith that cannot be threatened by rationalism or historical inquiry has long been lost. But it is nonsense to say that the broader implications of minimalism and mythicism are its motivating drivers any more than scientific advances are motivated by a desire to attack conservative Christian faith.

  2. ‘ “their views about the contemporary Middle East and they’re reading it back into [the] Biblical world and saying, basically, the Jews don’t have a historical, Biblical root in the land.”’


    The idea that separate nations have Biblically mandated lands to live in is a sign of somebody who is not a bigot. Somebody who claims Jews have historical roots in Israel, but not historical roots New York is clear not at all bigoted…..

    People aren’t defined by their history. Why, I know many Australians and you can hardly tell that the country was once a place for Britain to send criminals to. History is not destiny.

    It’s perfectly possible for Jews to live in Tel Aviv, regardless of whether or not David or Solomon ruled a big kingdom.

  3. Gentlemen, I would have thought that one point we would all agree on—even off the cuff—would be that religionists seem to need to be the victim, to be the oppressed, to foster an us vs. them “bad guys” situation, *yadda, yadda, yadda, and that whole nationalism thing is a temporal edifice of that in-group/ out-group mindset. Ah, the propaganda that could be built from such a dichotomy of diametric (simplistic) opposition… Oh, wait: it was.

    In Mr. Widowfield’s video, Dr. Friedman’s false dichotomy with regards to the Tel Dan Stele as either evidence authenticating the biblical narrative about the Davidic line or not, as supported by those claiming, “Jews don’t have a historical, Biblical root in the land,” stems from that mindset. A mindset I personally consider very primitive, almost reptilian in a manner of speaking, but mostly very dangerous as evidenced by the damage it has caused humanity. Might Dr. Friedman considered that the creator of the Tel Dan Stele had been influenced by the same nationalistic narrative as he, he might have seen the many shades of gray in that black or white view.

    In my reserved acceptance of a variance of the Documentary Hypothesis—but only to a point, of course—which was mainly facilitated by a habit of thought which has been the center of my skeptical approach for as long as I can remember, I almost always ask myself why is this person motivated to tell me this, write this or that, preserve this, copy that for posterity, say or, publicize this, record this, that, or the other thing, where, in this case, I seem to come back to a political motivation of the populace through religious separatism, particularly. I think the Documentary Hypothesis displays the best fit, if considering nationalism as the motive. I mean, when was the last time one heard a General cry out, “Charge that wall men! Who cares if God is on their side in this one? See what I mean?

    *At Christmas (I call it Giftmas) dinner last night, as I was carving the ham for our herd (a hat tip to Pixar’s movie, Ice Age) of Jews, reformed Jews, Catholics, Catholic converts, atheists, and mythicists, when my soon-to-be Italian Father-in-law reached over and grabbed a piece of ham, it brought everything into stark relief. Looking at my Jewish soon-to-be Mother-in-law, I, as a descendant of Southern fried Baptists, bellowed Oye! And, then, still looking at my mother-in-law, and over the crowd sitting at the table generally, I barked, “Ha!, now that’s not something one hears exclaimed over a Christmas ham very often.”

    There were laughs all around.

    Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hau’oli Makahiki Hou!

    1. I’m not sure. Will have to take time to refresh my memory and review it all. I may have meant theologians acting with theological biases rather than as historians — but I can’t say off top of my head, sorry. It’s now on my “to do” list to check. 🙂

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading