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Documentary Hypothesis

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Literary analysis shows that the Pentateuch was not written by one person. Multiple strands of tradition were woven together to produce the Torah.
The view that is persuasive to most of the critical scholars of the Pentateuch is called the Documentary Hypothesis, or the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis, after the names of the 19th-century scholars who put it in its classic form.
Briefly stated, the Documentary Hypothesis sees the Torah as having been composed by a series of editors out of four major strands of literary traditions. These traditions are known as J, E, D, and P. We can diagram their relationships as follows.

Jahwist source (J) uses the Tetragrammaton as God's name. This source's interests indicate it was active in the southern Kingdom of Judah in the time of the divided Kingdom. J is responsible for most of Genesis.
Elohist source (E) uses Elohim ("God") for the divine name until Exodus 3-6, where the Tetragrammaton is revealed to Moses and to Israel. This source seems to have lived in the northern Kingdom of Israel during the divided Kingdom. E wrote the Aqedah story and other parts of Genesis, and much of Exodus and Numbers.
J and E were joined fairly early, apparently after the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE. It is often difficult to separate J and E stories that have merged.
Deuteronomist Source (D) wrote almost all of Deuteronomy (and probably also Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings). Scholars often associate Deuteronomy with the book found by King Josiah in 622 BCE (see 2 Kings 22).
Priestly source (P) provided the first chapter of Genesis; the book of Leviticus; and other sections with genealogical information, the priesthood, and worship. According to Wellhausen, P was the latest source and the priestly editors put the Torah in its final form sometime after 539 BCE. Recent scholars (for example, James Milgrom) are more likely to see P as containing pre-exilic material.
Contemporary critical scholars disagree with Wellhausen and with one another on details and on whether D or P was added last. But they agree that the general approach of the Documentary Hypothesis best explains the doublets, contradictions, differences in terminology and theology, and the geographical and historical interests that we find in various parts of the Torah.
Here are some differences between the four strands of tradition.





stress on Judah

stress on northern Israel

stress on Judah

stress on central shrine

stresses leaders

stresses the prophetic

stresses the cultic

stresses fidelity to Jerusalem

anthropomorphic speech about God

refined speech about God

majestic speech about God

speech recalling God's work

God walks and talks with us

God speaks in dreams

cultic approach to God

moralistic approach

God is YHWH

God is Elohim (till Ex 3)

God is Elohim (till Ex 3)

God is YHWH

uses "Sinai"

Sinai is "Horeb"

has genealogies and lists

has long sermons

Here is a concrete example of analysis using the Documentary Hypothesis:

Jahwist Source


Priestly Source

The LORD plans the flood


God plans the flood

The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, "I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created -- people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them." But Noah found favor in the sight of the LORD. [Gen 6:5-8 NRSV]


Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark ... [Gen 6:11-16 NRSV]

Noah's special status


Noah's special status

Then the LORD said to Noah, "Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. [7:1]


"For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you." [6:17-18]

Animals by pairs


Animals by pairs

"Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground." And Noah did all that the LORD had commanded him. [7:2-5]


"And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them." Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him. [6:19-22]

Beginning and duration of flood


Beginning and duration of flood

And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth. [6:10]


The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights. [6:12]


In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. [Gen 6:11]


And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days . [7:24]

End of flood


End of flood

At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. Then he sent out the dove ... He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove... Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more. [8:6-12]


In the six hundred first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying. In the second month, on the twentyseventh day of the month, the earth was dry. Then God said to Noah, "Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you....[8:13-16]

The LORD's promise never to curse the earth


God's promise: the covenant of the rainbow

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease." [8:20-22]


Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, "As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you... I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth." God said, "This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you, for all future generations; I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth... [9:8-17]


For further information about the Documentary Hypothesis and the reasons that scholars accept it, consult the article "Torah (Pentateuch)" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary.
  • Friedman, "Torah (Pentateuch)" in the Anchor Bible Dictionary.
  • W. Gunther Plaut, ed., The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981).
  • Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (New York: Paulist Press, 1984).