A Critique of the Documentary Hypothesis

Even though this theory is considered passé in many critical circles, and postmodernism has largely abandoned the quest for sources as a waste of time because we can’t understand authorial intent anyway, the documentary hypothesis is still widely taught and believed. Basically the theory states that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses (at least not completely) but is instead made up of a number of sources and edited together by at least one person (called a redactor.) Often the sources are termed “J, E, P, and D” and are largely distinguished based on the names of God that each source is held to have used. We will look at some of the evidence for this theory and offer some critiques.

The name criteria

The first person to advance the idea that Moses used different sources for his work, and that the sources could be identified by the names used for God, was Jean Astruc (1684-1766.) Astruc noticed the different names used for God in Genesis and decided Moses must have used various sources. But notice he held to Mosaic authorship and only applied this theory to Genesis. And also notice that Astruc lived before archeologists knew much about the Ancient East. Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), whose name is synonymous with this theory, is the one who really developed the 4 source view. He says the Pentateuch is made up of 4 documents that have been woven together. He identified the 4 sources as J (the Yahwest written around 850 BC), E (the Elohist written around 750 BC), D (the Deuterist written around 621 BC), and P (the Priestly source written around 450 BC.) While Wellhausen sees each source as having its own characteristics and concerns he said that “if the name criteria falls, the whole theory falls with it.” What can we say about the names used for God being evidence of multiple sources?

1. At Ras Shamra in 1929, 1400 Ugaritic stone tablets were found (Ugaritic is very similar to Hebrew.) Ugarit was destroyed in 1200 BC so the tablets of stone (which are pretty near impossible to “redact” by the way — have you ever tried to correct or erase a stone tablet?) were written before then. In these tablets we learned a lot about Baalism and Caananite myths and discovered that these texts use many different names for God. Now remember Astruc said that the names of God were the key to finding different sources, yet he lived before modern archeology proved that using multiple names for God was a common practice in the ancient near east. If one wants to claim these Ugaritic texts were “redacted” then he must show how stone tablets could be edited! It’s impossible. We find multiple names for God used in ancient Greek and Assyrian texts too. The point is that Astruc and Wellhausen both lived before archeologists disproved the name criteria. It has indisputably been disproved, and yet still the theory is taught.

2. The variations in the names for God is not as extreme in most of the Pentateuch as it is in the opening chapters of Genesis. Also the names don’t occur frequently enough to do a reliable statistical analysis. In fact the names Jehovah and Elohim are often joined together (20 times in Gen 2 and 3 alone.) Often short verses use 2 different names and the theory would require us to cut these short verses apart. And variations of other people’s names occur throughout the OT. In fact there are probably better explanations for the different names used for God than the documentary hypothesis. For example the different names could be because of stylistic reasons or to bring out various aspects of who God is. The appeal to a “redactor” who smoothed things out is proof that the documentary hypothesis doesn’t really work. Anytime one raises a point about how the evidence doesn’t fit the theory, the redactor is used to explain why the evidence doesn’t back up the theory. This shows that the theory is based more on presuppositions about the evolution of religion than it is on real evidence.

3. In Deut. 13:1 Moses says not to add to the scriptures or take from them. But this is what the redactor is supposed to have done! Are we supposed to believe that a pious Israelite disobeyed God’s word and that Israel accepted it without question?

Other literary variations

One of the literary variations used to support the theory is the different ways that the OT uses numbers. It is claimed that the P source expresses numbers in ascending order (9 + 50,000) while the other sources number in descending order (50,000 + 9.) But Cassutto (a Jewish scholar) has determined that ascending is always used in statistical lists and descending is used in narratives. The so-called source has nothing to do with it. In fact Gen 17:24 (which is widely regarded as a P source) numbers in descending order! How do documentary hypothesists explain this? The redactor smoothed it out of course!

Duplications and repetitions

Many claim that duplicated stories are evidence of multiple sources that were joined together. Does this hold water? No. There really are 2 types of “duplications.” One type is where you have the same event but with a different subject (like the story of creation) and the other type is where you have the same principal motif but different events and/or characters. In both types there is a purpose to the duplication. For example the 2 versions of the creation story have 2 different intentions. The intention of the 1st account is teach that God made everything, while the 2nd version intends to use Adam and Eve as a source of moral instruction. In stories with a similar motif (like Sarah and Rebekah both ending up in the palaces of foreign kings) they are told in a similar way to teach that the children follow their fathers. Thus we see clear stylistic reasons for “duplications.” The documentary hypothesis is an unnecessary theory for explaining these duplications.

Differences in culture, religion, and theology

The theory believes that the different sources reflect a different stage in Israel’s religious development and thus we can use the level of development to determine the sources.

1. This is way too simplistic and doesn’t reflect the tremendous complexity of the OT documents.

2. This idea is based on naive 19th century Darwinistic (or more properly Hegelian) ideas about cultural and religious development. Who is to say that Israel’s religion “evolved” from paganism to monotheism etc.? This is a presupposition that really distorts our reading of the OT.

3. There is material of all spiritual levels mixed all through the Pentateuch. Thus we can’t use development to identify sources. J, and E (the so-called early sources) have much late material and P, and D have a lot of early material. (Of course the redactor is used to explain this problem with the evidence.)

4. This is circular reasoning. Passages are assigned to a particular source based on certain characteristics. But the characteristics for each source were determined from the passages assigned to these sources! How can we determine the characteristics of a source until we have an independent way of determining what makes up the source? We can’t use the name criteria because it’s been disproved. So what are we left with? An empty theory.

5. The philosophy of Hegel was hugely influential among 19th century scholars. It is the basis for example of both Darwinism and Marxism. The way it influenced OT studies was it taught that we can see an evolution in religion among all peoples. The Bible of course teaches a “de-evolution” of knowledge of God beginning with the Fall. But, mostly German, scholars (who were pretty anti-Semitic by the way) saw Israel as being more primitive and then evolving in her knowledge of God. Wellhausen for instance said that P was written in 450 BC (when most conservative scholars would say the OT was almost finished) and that it was a pious fraud made up by the priests. He says they made up terms like “peace-offering” etc. But with modern archeology we’ve found all these terms in Caananite texts. It has really become impossible to believe the documentary hypothesists’ late dates for the writing of the OT in light of all the modern archeological evidence that shows how historically accurate the little details are. 19th century scholars (based on their Hegelian reconstruction of the history of Israel) would claim certain details must be of a late development. But then over and over we find archeological evidence to prove them wrong.


Unfortunately the theory remains even though the evidence to support it has been disproved. (Much like the theory of evolution is experiencing today.) The problem is that professors who teach in many colleges are teaching what they were taught 30 years ago, even though it has been rejected even by liberal scholars today. It is time to believe what the Bible says about its origin. It is not just a record of Israel’s religion or what they thought of God. It is God’s word, the revelation of the God who acts in real history and who speaks. God doesn’t just act and let us figure out the meanings of His acts, He tells us what His acts mean, and His explanation is authoritative. The OT is about God not about the history of Israel’s religion. To read it as merely a history of religion is to misread it and to impose our presuppositions upon the text rather than allowing it to speak for itself.

For Further Reading:

Oswald Allis, The Five Books of Moses
William Henry Green, The Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch
P.J. Wiseman, Ancient Records And The Structure Of Genesis

January 4, 2002
Kevin Twit, RUF Campus Minister, Belmont College
Abridged from notes by Dr. Robert Vasholz, Covenant Seminary