I am now nearly finished talking about the “Documentary Hypothesis” devised by scholars of the Hebrew Bible to account for the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. I have already discussed the traditional view developed in the nineteenth century, especially as it was laid out by Julius Wellhausen. All of this was in response to a question I received about what scholars today have to say about it. Here is what I say, briefly, about that in my textbook on the Bible. It’s about as much as most beginning students (and most people in general) need to know.
The Scholarly View Today
It is impossible to speak about a single scholarly opinion about the Documentary Hypothesis today. Some scholars reject the idea that J and E were separate sources; some think that there were far more sources than the four; some propose radically different dates for the various sources (for example, one increasingly popular proposal is that the earliest sources were written in the 7th century; other scholars maintain that none of the sources was produced before the Babylonian exile in the 6th century). A number of scholars have produced mind-numbingly complicated proposals that try to take better into account all of the nuances of the data.
But it is possible to speak about a scholarly consensus on some of the truly critical points. These would include the following:
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- However we account for the final product of the Pentateuch, it was not written in whole or even in part by Moses, or by any one person – certainly no one living as early as the 13th century BCE.
- The Pentateuch as we now have it is composed of a variety of written sources that have been woven together, all of which are themselves based on earlier oral traditions that had been in circulation for a long period of time as story tellers told and retold the stories about much earlier times.
- These various sources were written at different periods of time in the history of ancient Israel.
- Each of these sources embodies a distinctive set of concerns and a variety of views – about God, about Israel, about what is religiously important.
- The sources may not be, and indeed probably are not, reliable for the history that they narrate – that is, they may not, and probably do not, give historically accurate information about the Primeval History, the Ancestral History, or the Exodus and the life of Moses. This makes it very difficult indeed to know what happened in any of the periods discussed in the Pentateuch, from the beginning of time to the point at which Israel was (allegedly) poised to enter into the Promised Land immediately after the death of Moses.
- Each source may, on the other hand, provide useful information concerning the period of time when it was composed.
- Unfortunately, since we don’t know for certain (with the possible exception of the D source) when that was, even this information is not definitively useful for writing an authoritative account of the history of Israel.