The Documentary Hypothesis
2010 S.H. Parker

The Documentary Hypothesis evolved out of over 1000 years of learned people, primarily people of faith (including Rabbis of the Talmudic period), noting aspects of the Biblical text that raised significant questions. As noted below, there are several such references in the Talmud Bavli. We can infer that the Rabbis were very well aware of anomalies in the text before Judah ha'Nasi (or, simply, "Rav") began codifying the Mishnah. For example, R. Isaac ibn Yashush (11th Century CE) argued that the list of the Edomite kings in Bereishit 36 was added by an unknown person after Moshe Rabbenu died. Evidence?-The king list includes kings who lived long after Moshe Rabbenu. ibn Ezra and R. Joseph Bonfils note that some phrases in the Torah contain information that could only have been known after the time of Moshe.

The Documentary Hypothesis is that the Torah, as we know it, is a compendium of four (my friend, Tup, along with some other scholars, say five) prior texts. Some argue that these texts were transmitted orally for the centuries after the Sinatic revelation (the advantage of this point of view is that the exodus is several centuries earlier than the earliest known date for the existence of Hebrew as a distinct and identifiable language -- Albright, following Kaufman, demonstrated that even if the writing didn't occur until centuries after Moshe, the stories of Bereishit and Shmot are firmly anchored in the material reality, language, names, etc., of the 3rd millennium BCE. In other words, the stories of Genesis and Exodus are demonstrably ancient; along with the antiquity of the tales, obviously, the traditions and mitzvot and principles contained in those tales are ancient). Others argue that these oral traditions may have been committed to writing, at least in part or in pieces, during those centuries (thus giving rise to the fragmentary and supplemental hypotheses -- modern competitors to the Documentary Hypothesis).

"J," written in Judah is, possibly, Solomon's (or David's) court history (personally, I lean toward the view that the Judean document is Solomon's court history as there are serious attempts to demonstrate that Solomon is David's legitimate successor -- also see Halpern's David's Secret Demons : Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King). "E," written in the northern kingdom of Israel probably in the late eighth century BCE, may have been committed to parchment to preserve Israel's cultural history in the face (or aftermath) of the Assyrian conquest. J and E were soon combined ("edited" or "redacted") into "JE." "P," the Priestly document, is primarily concerned with matters of ritual, sacrifice and the Sanctuary. P also presents an alternate version of the creation story in Bereishit and probably comes from Judea. "D" is Deuteronomy (and several of the following books of the Bible) and contains much ethical material.

These four documents are combined into a single document some time after the return from the Babylonian exile (some claiming as late as the Hasmonian period), the exact date is a matter of disagreement. The big argument is whether P is early (Kaufman) or late (Wellhausen -- Wellhausen's position is long discredited). provides a "Brief History of how the doc hypo evolved." Friedman (Who Wrote the Bible) presents a very readable and lively summary of how the hypothesis evolved and the evidence for it (this is expanded in The Bible With Sources Revealed, also quite readable). I am particularly impressed by the fact that he explicitly recognizes our inability to prove the hypothesis one way or the other (we are similarly unable to prove or disprove the total revelation of the Torah at Sinai/Horeb or during the 40 years wandering -- two of the "orthodox" theses). Instead, he shows the problems with the text and how the Documentary Hypothesis fully explains them. Further, and this is very important, he shows the how the political and theological differences between Judah and Israel are reflected in the different sources. For this later reason alone, Friedman is very important even for "orthodox" exegesis.

Friedman also argues that many presentations of the Documentary Hypothesis (Wellhausen's and Hertz's, for example) make a serious misrepresentation in distinguishing J and E based on the name by which God is called. The issue is not God's name but when the Name (tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God, viz., יְהוָה) became known. These presentations also fail to mention the theological, philosophical and political differences between J and E.

For example, J only recognizes a single, central sanctuary and only recognizes Aaron's descendents as priest; E recognizes multiple places for kosher sacrifice and recognizes all Levites as priests; J makes no mention of the fact that Shlomo's building projects were conducted primarily using unpaid Israelite labor. 

It is, I have come to think, these political, theological, philosophical differences that are really important. The demanding, pure-justice-no-mercy God Dershowitz talks about in The Genesis of Justice (a really interesting read, by the way) is from P. The God who walks and talks with Adom ha'rishon is from J. The God who talks to Bilaam (talks to man in dreams) is from E -- three entirely different views of God ("Torah" has 70 faces and here are three of them).

A possible fifth source document is "the Holiness code" (Va'yikra 17-26). The Holiness code is strikingly different in style, even in translation (which has an unpleasant tendency to homogenize differences in writing style), and vocabulary from ... well, just about the entire corpus of the Torah. It repeatedly tells us the reason for each mitzvah: "I am the Lord,"  "I am the Lord, your God" and, finally, "I the Lord am holy." These mitzvot are written in a style that reminds me of modern "bullet points" and the only other list of mitzvot I can think of that takes even a vaguely similar form is the 10 Commandments. The Eseret ha'Dbrot, however, do not hammer the theme of "I am the Lord" as the justification for the commandment. So, some scholars argue that the Holiness Code is a separate, earlier text inserted into P at this point.

Marvin Zelkowitz, Ph. D., provides us with another (short) readable account of the Documentary Hypothesis. He shows us that the Rabbis of the Tannaic and Amoraic periods were aware of the "problems" in the Biblical text. "Based on the Talmud (masekhet Gittin 60a) some believe that the Torah may have been given piece-by-piece, over the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert." Dr. Zelkowitz cites several other passages from the Talmud indicating that there is an ancient belief that there was later editing of and additions to the text (despite efforts in many of these passages to explain away the "problem," the fact remains that these saving explanations are simply lame -- witness the attempts to handle the repeated use of the phrase "to this day"). The Masoretes, clearly, knew there were various versions of the torah -- and that is ignoring the Septuagint and the Targumim, which are clearly variants -- and explicitly set about reconciling them and arriving at a single text. In other words, they (too) edited the documents they had in front of them and, in the past few centuries, their emendations have moved from the margins of the text into the body of the text itself.

This raises an important point to consider as you study Torah: pre-Masoretic writers did not have the Masoretic text, the text we have before us today. Their commentaries may well be based on a text quite different from ours. Who could this effect? Rashi, ibn Ezra, ibn Gabirol, in fact all of the Rabbinic literature up until fairly recently (say 7-800 years ago).

Prof. Zelkowitz starts by making a very (very) important point: there was a very different standard of "scholarship" (and, therefore, "intellectual integrity") in ancient times. It was the practice to use previous materials (i.e., plagiarize) and to fail to attribute (cite) sources in ancient times (an issue decisively addressed by the Rabbis, who declared that one who uses the words of another -- i.e., without citation -- has no place in the kingdom to come; this dictum, in itself, tells us how wide-spread and how well known this practice was in ancient times). In fact, it was common practice to attribute a work to a better known figure to help a tradition (work) get accepted. This goes a long way to explaining how various authors could attribute their work to others.

Never heard of one person taking credit for another's work? Do you remember high school English and the continuing claims that Shakespeare didn't write "Shakespeare?" That's 16th-17th century CE! The process of attributing a current work to an earlier, well respected person is well documented in the creation of the Christian bible, starting with its four main gospels and the emendations and editing of Paul's letters ("epistles") is also well documented. Numerous insertions have been discovered in Josephus' works. Much of kabalistic literature, similarly, is attributed to earlier, more accepted scholars in order to borrow respectability from that earlier scholar. No, this phenomenon is well known to all of us.

Prof. Zelkowitz also provides a handy-dandy little chart of the theological and philosophical characteristics of each of the texts.

But, the Documentary Hypothesis, while generally accepted, has its scholarly detractors. In recent years, the Documentary Hypothesis, now the received theory, has developed competing theories. A summary in wikipeida states:

Since Whybray there has been a proliferation of theories and models regarding the origins of the Torah, many of them radically different from Wellhausen's model. Thus, to mention some of the major figures from the last decades of the 20th century, H. H. Schmid almost completely eliminated J, allowing only a late Deuteronomical redactor.[19] With the idea of identifiable sources disappearing, the question of dating alsoa changes its terms. Additionally, some scholars have abandoned the Documentary hypothesis entirely in favour of alternative models which see the Pentateuch as the product of a single author, or as the end-point of a process of creation by the entire community. Rolf Rendtorff and Erhard Blum saw the Pentateuch developing from the gradual accretion of small units into larger and larger works, a process which removes both J and E, and, significantly, implied a fragmentary rather than a documentary model for Old Testament origins;[20] and John Van Seters, using a different model, envisaged an ongoing process of supplementation in which later authors modified earlier compositions and changed the focus of the narratives.[21] The most radical contemporary proposal has come from Thomas L. Thompson, who suggests that the final redaction of the Torah occurred as late as the early Hasmonean monarchy.

I was never offended nor surprised by the notion that Torah may not have been written entirely by Moshe Rabbenu, indeed that it may have been written down centuries later or that our current texts may not be the documents that Moshe did write down or that Moshe may not have written down anything at all. In fact, I've always wondered about those who claim, often shrilly, that Torah must have been given whole at Sinai/Horeb. For, if Torah is true, it is true regardless of when it was physically written down and this is before observing that "torah" means "teaching," "instruction." The import of this observation seems obvious.

As I was taught, the historicity of any given story, especially the creation stories, is immaterial compared to the lesson (lit. "the torah") of the story. Whether or not there was a physical gan Eden is just unimportant. That God is the author of the universe is and is not affected by whether there was a gan Eden or a single first person or any other pecuniary datum. (Least you claim my teachers were flaming reformers, terminally non-orthodox, note that the notorious anti-traditionalist, Rashi, makes the argument quite forcefully in his commentary on the opening words of Bereishit.)

In all my reading, it was constantly emphasized that Hebrew culture was (and remains) oral. That is, its traditions and lessons were/are transmitted orally, in speech (punim el punim -- face to face; which, inter alia, makes this site a bit ironic). I know that many ancient cultures -- including many that had writing -- did the same and many had members of the tribe whose sole purpose in life was to memorize and recite the tribe's history (Alex Haley's Roots comes to mind, if you're looking for a particularly poignant example). I remember learning a mishnah to the effect of "the stupider the rabbi, the better the mishnah." My teacher explained that the "stupider" rabbi was more likely to repeat the mishnah exactly as he had received it and, therefore, was less likely to interpret, inject new material or add comment or interpretation to it.

Both of my teachers taught me that it had been forbidden to write down mishnah (oral culture, after all...). But Rav is not condemned for violating this prohibition because he saw the danger of losing all of it in the face of Roman persecution (more likely, creeping Hellenism and assimilation). Could not Torah have set the precedent for Rav? Israel's wisdom literature was in fairly obvious danger in the late eighth century BCE (the Assyrian incursion) and the scribes of Judah could not have failed to learn the relevant lesson. Judah's traditions came under serious threat in the early sixth century BCE (Babylonian incursion) .... Some years later, we have the Persian incursions. And so it continued.

Bursts of literary activity in each of these crises, preservation of the wisdom and traditions are, I think, precisely what we should expect. And, according to Source critics (note, in this context "criticism" means "analysis" and a "critic" is an analyst), this is exactly what we got (the Qumran documents are presumed to have been hidden away for exactly this reason).

Thus, what I believe or what any other person believes about the writing of Torah is ultimately irrelevant. What is true is true regardless of what any one(s) believes (and this is why I think the mitzvot are so uniformly about how we behave and only two are about what we think or believe and why Biblical Hebrew has no word, hence no concept, of "faith" as we understand that idea today1). Torah, itself, tells us that it is given to us (much to Rav Eleazar's chagrin2) and, therefore, it is our responsibility to learn.

1 I think this also explains my teachers torah that you show your love for God by how you deal with God's creation, i.e., your fellow man and, more generally, everything you find around you. If you deal badly with your fellow, you are (in today's vernacular) dissing the Creator. If you deal honorably with your fellow, you honor the Creator.

In this line, we learn:

A certain heathen came to Shammai and said to him, "Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Thereupon he repulsed him with the rod which was in his hand. When he went to Hillel, he said to him, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; [now] go [forth] and learn."                 Talmud, Shabbat 31a

2 I first met Rav Eleazer (Eleazer ha'Gadol) in a well known from a story in the Talmud known as "the tile in the oven." The tale, as I first learned it, is that the halacha would always be as R. Eleazar said.

In the story of the tile in the oven, R. Eleazar's position is disputed by four of his colleagues. Of course, we know who is in the right. But, they overrule him by their consensus. When R. Eleazar calls on the Heavens themselves (i.e., God) to proclaim the answer, his colleagues respond (to God) that it is written "it [the Torah] is not in heaven," citing Devarim 30:12 -- in other words, "Hey, God, luzem gey!". Hence, his "chagrin" (he knows he's right and yet is overruled).