Collapse of the Documentary Hypothesis (1) & Comparing the Bible with Classical Greek Literature

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by Neil Godfrey

This post recapitulates earlier posts on the Documentary Hypothesis and introduces Philippe Wajdenbaum’s case for comparing the Bible with Classical Greek literature and finding the biblical author’s (sic) sources of inspiration there.

Late last year I wrote Who Wrote the Bible? Rise of the Documentary Hypothesis.

That post outlined the milestones towards the DH as set out by Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert:

  1. Baruch Spinoza‘s views of single authorship behind the historical books of the Bible;
  2. the way biblical studies were influenced by the early Homeric studies evolutionary model that hypothesized disparate oral traditions being stitched together by later editors to create a final canon;
  3. the failure of biblical studies to keep abreast of Homeric studies when they confronted the problems with their evolutionary hypothesis;
  4. the contribution of Julius Wellhausen and the labeling of the J, E, D and P sources and the final redactor R;
  5. Gerhard von Rad‘s fleshing out of these sources into historical provenances: J to the southern Kingdom of Judah, E to the kingdom of Israel, D to the time of Josiah, P to the period of Exile;
  6. Martin Noth‘s qualifications and modifications to the Documentary Hypothesis: a Deuteronomist historian wrote Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings during the Exile, and a Redactor later found a way to harmonize the Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers with these Deuteronomist books;
  7. F. M. Cross and R. E. Friedman who decided Noth’s Deuteronomist historian was rather two historians, one writing in the time of Josiah and the other during the Exile;
  8. Thomas Römer‘s criticism of
    • Wellhausen’s hypothesis for its nineteenth-century German Protestant and royalist assumptions;
    • Noth’s views for their subjective mirroring of his personal situation with Nazi Germany;
    • Cross’s subjective transfer of American optimism and idealism of the founding fathers into the period of King Josiah.


I then wrote Who Wrote the Bible Part 2: Challenging the Documentary Hypothesis.

In this post I turned back to my earlier reading about the history and criticisms of the DH as found in works by Lester Grabbe, Thomas L. Thompson, Philip Davies, Niels Peter Lemche. That post covered:

  1. A synopsis of the four primary sources (composed over a period of centuries) at the heart of the DH;
  2. The significance of the dates of the sources;
  3. Challenges to the DH were being made from the mid-1970s, but 1992 was a pivotal year with three major publications:
      • The Anchor Bible Dictionary‘s article on the history of Israel authored by Lemche, Dever and Carroll;
      • Early History of the Israelite People from the Written and Archaeological Sources by Thomas L. Thompson;
    • In Search of Ancient Israel by Philip R. Davies — thought intended to be an introduction of recent trends for his students, this book had the greatest impact in challenging the standard views of biblical history and the DH.
      • Other works followed:
        • The Tel-Dan ‘Ben-David’ inscription was published (1993) with a great flurry of claims and counterclaims
        • The History of Ancient Palestine from the Palaeolithic Period to Alexander’s Conquest, 1993, by G. Ahlström.
        • The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History, by Keith Whitelam (1996)
        • Several works by Lemche and then Silberman and others.
  4. Central criticisms of most of these publications:
    • The circularity of the consensus arguments for the dating of the biblical works;
    • Rejection of the assumption that the narratives alone of biblical works are prima facie reliable historical sources —
      • archaeology should not be used to confirm the narratives but to understand the primary evidence in its own right;
  5. The archaeological evidence in its own right has led to a reconstruction that:
    • makes a united kingdom of Israel in the tenth century (David and Solomon) an economic, demographic and technological impossibility;
    • dates the rise of the Jerusalem-based kingdom of Judah to a period after the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel.
  6. Criticisms associated with the circularity of dating methods:
    • it is “extremely naive” to think biblical books can be understood without knowledge of their date and setting of composition; we cannot assume a narrative about the time of Josiah was written in the time of Josiah and is a true historical source;
    • the DH, with its different dates for the sources, has resulted in “an enormously complicated structure, sometimes ridiculed because of its seeming absurdity. . .”;
    • Result: scholars no longer read the books as literary wholes, as coherent literature.
  7. Criticisms associated with alternative dating methods:
    • first material evidence for the bible’s books is from the Hellenistic period (the time of Greek expansion throughout the Near East);
    • the date of a text must be determined by the latest material it contains, not its earliest (Lemche); e.g. Numbers 24:24 can only refer to the Greek invasion of the Middle East yet scholars have generally dated this chapter to one of the oldest strata in the Bible.
  8. Criticisms associated with archaeological evidence and more valid dating methods:
    • The Bible’s narrative of the history of Israel appears to be a theological construct that addresses the ideology of a newly established colony from the Persian and Hellenistic eras;
    • Not until the Persian and Hellenistic eras do the requisite cultural, economic and infrastructural conditions to produce the biblical literature appear;
    • The many Hellenistic features in the Bible, hitherto largely overlooked or dismissed, are given appropriate recognition.
  9. The DH is, in effect, a rationalization of the Bible’s historical narrative itself (Wajdenbaum).

Okay, I found it harder to summarize my own contribution to this discussion, so the above is not very succinct.


I finally tried to catch up with this series many months later with Did a Single Author Write Genesis–II Kings? (Demise of the Documentary Hypothesis?)

This post revisited Spinoza’s case for many of the historical books of the Bible having a single author, but especially dwelt upon the Homeric scholarship that at first led biblical studies and then left them way behind in the dust. This was primarily through the lens of John van Seters’ The Edited Bible. The message of that post is that biblical scholars have let themselves and their parishioners down badly by not keeping up with Classical studies.


I then thought it useful to post on the criticisms of the oral-tradition model that underlies major facets of both Old and New Testament studies. These criticisms hit the DH in the jugular, too.

So I posted Oral Tradition Behind Gospels and Old Testament: Unfounded, Unworkable and Unnecessary, and three related posts addressing in turn the “un-foundedness”, the “un-workability” and the “un-necessity” of this model.


That brings us up to the present. And a return to the volume that prompted this discussion in the first place, Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, by Philippe Wajdenbaum.

Some of the following will overlap with what has been covered above. But we need to get back on track somewhere with this book.


Collapsing of the Consensus

When the Documentary Hypothesis first made its mark — with its assertion that the Old Testament Scriptures derived from disparate human sources distinctly composed over centuries — conservative Jewish and Christian scholars immediately cried, “Foul!”

Result? Liberal scholars immediately smelled a friend to help them oppose these religious conservatives. They embraced it.

Very little dispute arose among scholars, to the point that the documentary hypothesis slowly grew into a theological dogma that could not be questioned. (p. 25, Argonauts)

Abram Journeying into the Land of Canaan (engr...
Abram Journeying into the Land of Canaan

Then in the mid-1970s two publications seriously challenged the DH model:

  • 1974, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, Thomas L. Thompson;
    • demonstrated that the patriarchal narratives could not have been invented earlier than the sixth century BCE.
  • 1975, Abraham in History and Tradition, John Van Seters;
    • argued the biblical narratives should be compared with Greek and Roman historiographies, such as those of Herodotus and Livy (the notion of a ‘redactor’ needs to be replaced by that of a real ‘author’).

But here’s another problem:

The dissension among scholars grew more intense as none would agree on the exact attribution of biblical passages to the alleged sources of documentary hypothesis.

Rolf Rendtorff suggested that the focus be on the final form of the text rather than on its sources, proposing to replace these non-existent ‘sources’ with the term ‘fragments’ — big narrative units — like Genesis 1-11, Genesis 12-50, and Exodus 1-15, and so on.

As Römer comments, the aforementioned authors precipitated a ‘crisis of the Pentateuch’ that led to a period of anarchy such that no new consensus has arisen even today. By demolishing the evolutionary model of the documentary hypothesis, biblical studies entered the post-modern era. Römer divides the field into four main streams:

the ‘traditionalists’, who still hold the documentary hypothesis as valid;

the ‘progressives’, who also maintain the model but suggest later dates for the sources;

the ‘post-moderns’, who admit the existence of divergent theologies in the Pentateuch but reject the evolutionist model;

and the ‘pragmatics’, who think that the diachronic reconstruction of the sources is too uncertain, and suggest focusing on the final form, taking their inspiration from structuralist methods.

Pierre Bordreuil and Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet lament that today no one agrees, so that there are as many theories about the origins of the Bible as there are scholars. Flemming A. J. Nielsen argues that since all the variants of the documentary hypothesis are mutually exclusive, none can be verifiable or scientific. (pp. 26-27, my formatting and bolding.)

Well, maybe if they are all mutually exclusive then at most only one of them can be right.

Keith Whitelam

Wajdenbaum then turns to Keith Whitelam’s analysis of the state of Old Testament studies since the 1980s. Whitelam’s The Invention of Ancient Israel: the Silencing of Palestinian History is one of those books that I would like to see read and debated by everyone with an interest in biblical studies. Whitelam exposes the raw ideological (and political) nature of both biblical and archaeological studies of ancient Israel. But here I outline the key points Wajdenbaum draws from Whitelam’s book in relation to the DH:

Keith Whitelam even speaks of a ‘collapsing of the consensus’ in biblical studies since the 1980s. According to him, biblical scholars have invented an ancient Israel by projecting their way of thinking onto the past; the Bible was the work of archivists of the State, who wrote only history. Biblical scholars tend to present themselves as their spiritual heirs, seen as being objective and pious. These scholars can be viewed almost as a new clergy, whose dogma is the documentary hypothesis. Whitelam bases his criticism on Edward Said’s Orientalism, one of the first works of post-colonial studies. Said demonstrated how the ‘Orient’ was a scholarly invention opposed to the Western world and serving a colonial agenda. (p. 26)

I break into Wajdenbaum’s words here and turn to Keith Whitelam’s own text where he pre-empts objections to this claim that biblical studies has served this Orientalist agenda.

It is not easy to make these connections between biblical scholarship and the political context in which it is conducted and by which it is inevitably shaped. The connections will be denied by many decrying any such analysis as politically motivated, as part of the modern fad of deconstruction and revisionism in history, or as an outrageous attack upon the objectivity of biblical scholarship. Biblical studies has remained aloof, a kind of academic ghetto, from many of the contemporary movements which have swept through academia questioning and undermining its claim to disinterested objectivity. The study of the social and political context in which it has been undertaken, which inevitably compromises its critical distance, is in its infancy. . . . (p. 23, The Invention of Ancient Israel, my bolding)

Whitelam explores in depth some of the flaws in the pioneers of the DH that I have briefly mentioned in earlier posts (e.g. Wellhausen’s predisposition to find in the Bible’s Israel the ideal royally led nation-state that was, in reality, his own Germany of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). The DH has served to rationalize the Bible-story with which Western nations have culturally and religiously identified and sought their own roots. That is, the DH has been a tool by which scholars have been able to offer a secular explanation for the story that is assumed to be fundamentally historical and the spiritual foundation of our own culture.

The less religion is seen the more powerful religion becomes

Many scholars thus agree that there is no more agreement, that all previous models have reached their limits. . . . .

We have seen how the great paradigms of Wellhausen and Noth reflected their political situations unintentionally. . . .

Most faculties dealing with biblical scholarship are theology faculties; therefore they seek a rational version of the divine inspiration of the Bible. Even though the documentary hypothesis seemed to shatter the belief in the Bible being inspired by God and even though it was originally decried by the Jewish and Christian faiths, it slowly became acceptable to believers; in fact, Pope Pius XII explicitly promoted it in his encyclical of 1943. (p. 26-28, my bolded text)

By offering a secular rationalization or interpretation of the Bible’s myth, Philippe Wajdenbaum, following Claude Lévi-Strauss, asserts that scholars are in fact writing a new version of that myth.

But has not Western society become increasingly secular? Is not religion less visible as a force in Western society today than it once was? Yes, but Wajdenbaum says it “still remains the major moral reference point.” He continues:

As the philosopher Michel Onfray stated, even if the practising of religion is in constant diminution there exists a Judeo-Christian episteme (as Michel Foucault would call it) that actually reinforces itself as religion becomes less visible. As Onfray explains, the very fact that religion becomes more and more abstract and private — detached from ritual and mythology — is what makes it more powerful that ever. The weight of religion is most likely the prime explanation for understanding why biblical scholarship has long been focused on trying to prove the authenticity of the Bible. Indeed, most biblical scholars come into the field guided by faith. (p. 28)


Comparison with Classical Greek Literature

The DH has thus closed the door to any possibility of comparing the Bible with Greek literature.

Römer could discern the ideologies fueling the hypotheses of Wellhausen, Noth and Cross, but Wajdenbaum asks:

What ideology has prevented biblical scholars from comparing the Bible with a text so obviously similar to it, Plato’s Laws? (p. 27)

Wajdenbaum will argue that there never were any sources that scholars have identified as J, E, D and P. The source texts used by the author of Genesis to Kings were, primarily, the Greek classical texts.

Even though my theory contradicts the documentary hypothesis, it does indicate that there were sources that preceded the Bible, so it could be called, quite ironically, the ‘Hellenic documentary hypothesis’. The main difference with the traditional hypothesis is that with mine I am able to render these sources, which allows me to break the logical circle in which biblical scholarship has been held for centuries, which sought the Bible’s sources only within the Bible itself. Moreover, the sources are not considered to be previous authentic sacred texts that would have been edited by redactors, but simply as sources of inspiration for an original literary work. (p. 27, my bolding)

Römer showed us the way Wellhausen and Noth imputed their own political situations into their paradigms.

By reading the Bible, we can see that it tells the story of political change. First the twelve-tribe Ideal State was founded, governed only by the law (Joshua), but because that organisation was not tenable (Judges) a monarchy was instituted (Samuel), which cause the country to split and eventually fall (Kings). None of these periods is held to be more representative of the ‘true’ Israel than another. The opposition between the ‘nomocratic’ State and monarchic State stands at the core of the narration imagined by the biblical writer; which we will argue is based on Plato’s political dialogues —

  • the Statesman (criticism of tyranny),
  • the Republic (foundation of an imaginary State, being the definition of justice,
  • the Laws (foundation of a more concrete State, as opposed to the abstract Republic)
  • and the Critias (or the Atlantis, the myth of an Ideal State destroyed by Zeus because its kings gave up the divine laws received by their ancestors).

We will find very accurate parallels that make that hypothesis certain. Therefore one must ask why such a comparative study with Plato has not been done before. (pp. 27-28, my formatting)

Wajdenbaum says the answer is simple:

The Bible could not resist such an analysis [comparing the Bible with classical Greek literature] as it demonstrates how almost every biblical narrative finds accurate parallels with Greek myths. If believers of Jewish and Christian faiths were aware of this, then the Bible could lose its credibility. Biblical scholarship has done all it could to maintain the Bible as a sacred text that is still relevant to modern society, as Hector Avalos argues. (p. 29)


To be continued . . .


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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Collapse of the Documentary Hypothesis (1) & Comparing the Bible with Classical Greek Literature”

  1. It does seem ridiculous to break up the finely constructed novel of Joseph and his brothers into sources. The story makes sense as a whole: not as a joining together of fragments, and if the sources are but variant versions of the same novel it takes away the whole point of the source theory anyway.

    The author of Genesis to Kings does seem to have used some slightly earlier sources, as well as the Joseph novel, including stories of the mythical Saul (“called”), sentimental stories about Rachel and Benjamin, and other pro Benjamin stories (perhaps made up in Assyrian times when Benjamin-Judah was ruled from Benjamin) as well as satirical stories about the mythical early kings of Judah and of Jerusalem, even though the surface of the finished story is supposed to look like (but is not) a praise of the David dynasty and includes nasty stories against Saul. the Hebronites, and the children of Benjamin too.The story ends anticlimatically not with a call to loyalty to any particular rulers, but emphasising the necessity of keeping true to the teaching of Yahweh’s Torah.

    I say he SEEMS to have used earlier sources (not histories but earlier stories and two cleverly manipulated king lists added on to made up earlier kings whose names show a source not in history) but we can not really know since we have only the completed post post Persian work.

    1. The classic case presented is usually the story of Noah’s Flood. Trying to imagine how a “redactor” chooses to incorporate a piece of this story and a piece of that one together — a lot of energy would go into working out where to edit and how to join the bits. It is much easier to rely mostly upon one source and only occasionally give a wink to another (as was indeed the case, I believe). The final result does not always read like a clumsily connected quilt. Worse — and this is a serious objection in my view — scholars have not been able to agree on what sections clearly belong to the different sources. Pointing to the Flood story does not fix the bigger problem, as far as I can see. (Though Tim may differ.)

      Ironically, where we do have what look like obvious clumsy seams, as in the Gospel of John, we have a few scholars finding reason to believe that these are literary pointers to a single author and unity of text that seeks to “shock” or “awake” readers to thematic developments within the narrative.

  2. I notice that you or Waj mentioned a lot of books by Plato here, as having an influence on early Christianity. But there’s a lot of different material in these books. While by far, overwhelmingly, the major influence from Plato and Platonism that most scholars traditionally note, is from Plato’s theory of “Forms” specifically. In Philosophy in fact, the word “Platonism” is used as a simple synonym for Plato’s “ideas” or “forms.”

    Is there any particular reason for Waj not stressing what scholars normally stress here? Is it just because “everybody already knows it”?

    1. The author’s name is Wajdenbaum. You failed to notice that the post is about the influence of Greek classical texts on the books of the Old Testament, not early Christianity as you for some strange reason “noticed”. You appear to be concerned that a scholar would research literature through a perspective different from the traditional approach and notice something new. I suggest you don’t bother with this blog if you are not interested in new ideas.

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