What is known as the Documentary Hypothesis, though popularly associated mainly with the name of Julius Wellhausen, is not the product of a single individual but of many. The first serious attempts to develop a theory of continuous written sources were made in the first half of the eighteenth century—with regard to the book of Genesis only—by H.B. Witter and Jean Astruc; and from the beginning of the nineteenth a vigorous scholarly discussion took place among scholars who accepted the principle of continuous sources but put forward a variety of alternative schemes. Wellhausen's brilliant classic exposition, from 1876 onwards, which achieved widespread recognition, was constructed on the basis of these earlier discussions. Its success was due to his unrivalled skill in showing more clearly than his predecessors how completely the literary analysis of the sources could be related to the religious history of Israel as reconstructed from other parts of the Old Testament. But the hypothesis in its final, fully developed form also owed much to a succession of Wellhausen's followers who, in a series of commentaries and Introductions to the Old Testament, refined it still further by their analyses of the finer details of the source material.
The history of the undertaking from its origins to Wellhausen and beyond has been sketched many times and can be read in any modern Introduction to the Old Testament. There is no need to repeat it here. Rather an attempt will be made to present the main outlines of the Documentary Hypothesis as a whole and to make some assessment of it.
Stated briefly and in purely literary terms, the Documentary Hypothesis states that the Pentateuch took shape in a series of stages in which, during the space of several centuries, four originally distinct books ('documents'), each written at a different time, were dovetailed together by a series of 'redactors' to form a single work. This was achieved in the following way:
1. The earliest of these works was that of the 'Yahwist' (J). It began with what is now Gen. 2.4b, and its various parts are now found in Genesis, Exodus and Numbers, together with a few short passages in Deuteronomy. Whether it ended at this point or continued into the book of Joshua or beyond was disputed. It is not represented in Leviticus.
2. The 'Elohist' work (E) began with the story of Abraham in Gen. 15 and then followed the same general course as J.
3. J and E were subsequently combined to form 'JE' by a redactor (R^). The process of redaction involved the omission of parts of J and E, especially of the latter.
4. The third 'document', Deuteronomy (D), consists mainly of the book of that name.
5. D was subsequently appended to JE by a second redactor (RD), who also inserted a few passages into JE and incorporated a few passages from JE into D.
6. The final work, the Priestly 'document' (P), began with what is now Gen. 1.1 and followed the same chronological scheme as J. Material from P predominates in Exodus and Numbers, and is the sole source of Exod. 25-31; 35-40 and of Leviticus.
7. P was subsequently combined with JED by a third redactor (Rp) to form the present Pentateuch.
8. A few passages (e.g. Gen. 14) are not derived from any of the main four documents but must be regarded as independent fragments. It is not possible to determine at what point in the above scheme they were inserted, but a late date for this is probable. A few other passages were added after the bulk of the Pentateuch was completed. Both Fragment and Supplement Hypotheses, therefore, retained a minor place in the scheme of the Documentary Hypothesis.It will be obvious from the above that D occupies a position in the scheme which is somewhat different from that of the other documents, in that while J, E and P run concurrently through the books from Genesis to Numbers and are thus, according to the Hypothesis, genuinely dovetailed the one into the others, D does not. It is concerned only with the final part of the history, the period of Moses, and occupies the position of an appendix to the threefold history which precedes it. In terms of purely literary source-analysis, therefore, the Documentary Hypothesis is mainly concerned with the three hypothetical documents in Genesis-Numbers. However, since the Documentary Hypothesis rests on the sequence of the entire process of composition and on the relative dates of the main documents and redactions in relation to the stages of the development of Israelite religious beliefs and practices, the position of D in the scheme is important.
2. Its Basis
The distinctiveness of the Documentary Hypothesis does not lie in the discovery of evidence of disunity and inconsistency in the text of the Pentateuch. Although the first systematic use which was made of this discovery did in fact take the form of an embryonic 'documentary hypothesis' (that of Astruc), the Fragment and Supplement Hypotheses had subsequently suggested that the phenomena in question might be accounted for in quite different ways. The distinctive contribution of the fully developed Documentary Hypothesis of Wellhausen and his school was that it was a systematic attempt to show that the negative evidence—that is, the evidence of disunity—could best be accounted for in a positive and constructive way: that the disjointedness of the Pentateuch was not due to haphazard growth or to random collection of disparate material, but that the material was susceptible of being sorted and classified in such a way as to show that there lay behind it a series of consistent works or 'documents' which had once existed independently but whose integrity had subsequently been destroyed by their being dovetailed together. In other words, the Documentary Hypothesis was concerned with something far more difficult to prove than was the case with the other hypotheses: not simply with destruction but with construction—or rather, with the reconstruction of these supposed literary works.
a. The nature of the material
As has been suggested above, the evidence for the disunity of the Pentateuch was the very same as that which provided the Documentary Hypothesis with its basis for the reconstruction of the documents. The marks which showed that text A could not belong to the same document as text B were also the marks which were held to show that text A did belong to the same document as text C, which manifested the same marks as text A. The first concern of the proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis, therefore, was to develop to its fullest extent the study of these indications. The results of this study may be set out in the form of a table of criteria which may thus be expressed either negatively or positively. Since every Introduction to the Old Testament provides such a table, usually in some detail, it may be presented summarily here, and in the negative form which is that most generally favoured.
Different choice of words and variation of style
The first example of this criterion to be observed was the use of different names for the deity. In Genesis, apart from some passages in which other names are used, God is sometimes referred to by his name yhwh and sometimes by the word Elohim. It was supposed by the proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis (henceforward to be known as the documentary critics) that this variation does not reflect a deliberate choice by a single author between two designations in order to suit the context, but rather that two different authors, whose works were subsequently combined, each consistently used one name or the other. The phenomenon is, however, of limited application as it occurs only in the book of Genesis and the first few chapters of Exodus.
But it was also noted that there are other examples of the use of two words having the same meaning where a single author might be expected to have used only one. Some of these are proper names such as Sinai/Horeb and Canaanite/Amorite; but there are also examples of the alternation of common nouns. Lists of these were compiled and are to be found in the Introductions. This analysis was not confined to single words, but was extended to phrases and to other stylistic phenomena.
Double (or triple) versions of the same stories
A classical example of this phenomenon is the double version of the story of Abraham's pretence, when he went to live in a foreign country (Gen. 12.10-20; 20.1-18), that his wife Sarai/Sarah was in fact his sister, further duplicated in part by a similar story about Isaac (Gen. 26.6-16). These three stories are remarkably similar in detail. In other cases such as the two 'creation stories' (Gen. 1.12.4a; 2.4b-25) there is little similarity of detail, but the event itself is essentially the same. Again, it was supposed that the same author would not have included both accounts in his work.
Repetitions of details within the same passage
Some passages appear to be unnecessarily and improbably repetitious. For example, in the introduction to the account of the Flood, it is twice stated that God decided to destroy mankind on account of its wickedness (Gen. 6.5-7 and 11-12).
Insertions of extraneous material into an otherwise continuous account
An obvious example of this is the intrusion of a narrative about Judah (Gen. 38) into an entirely unrelated story about the adventures of Joseph (Gen. 37-50).
Contradictions concerning matters of fact
These occur both in widely separated passages and within the same passage. Examples of the former phenomenon are the numerous differences in legal requirements in different parts of the Pentateuch, all of which are stated to have been promulgated by Moses. Thus in Exod. 20.24 permission is given for the offering of sacrifice at numerous altars, whereas Deut. 12.13-14 forbids this, restricting it to a single place to be chosen by God. The story of the Flood is a classical example of the latter phenomenon: for example, Gen. 7.17 states that the flood water remained on the earth for forty days, whereas Gen. 7.24 mentions 150 days.
Differences of cultural and religious point of view
It was argued that different passages reflect quite different cultural and historical backgrounds and religious notions and practices, pointing to a variety of authorship and to widely different periods of composition. Thus the collections of laws scattered through the Pentateuch (especially Exod. 20.23-23.19; the book of Leviticus; and Deut. 12-26) show considerable differences in the social and cultic backgrounds which they reflect. The 'law of the king" in Deut. 17.1420 presupposes some experience of monarchy in Israel and a hope that it may be susceptible of reform, while the great prominence given to the priesthood in Leviticus and the absence of any reference to the king there suggest that it was composed in the exilic or postexilic period, when the monarchy no longer existed. The anthropomorphic presentation of God in Gen. 2 was held to reflect an earlier and less developed theology than the more abstract presentation of him in Gen. 1. Differences of ethical principles were also detected in different passages, for example in the two stories of Abraham's periods of foreign residence narrated in Gen. 12.10-20 and 20.1-18.
The above are not isolated examples, but illustrations selected more or less at random from a very large mass of material collected by the documentary critics and by other critics of the unity of the Pentateuch.
b. The reconstruction of the documents
It had already been concluded by the earliest Pentateuchal critics such as Astruc that the supposed discrepancies in the text— specifically, the alternation of the divine names in Genesis—were the result of the conflation of two distinct written documents. This was a plausible solution to the problem when the number of phenomena calling for explanation was small. The discovery of numerous other kinds of discrepancy and inconsistency changed the situation, and at the beginning of the nineteenth century a number of scholars (Geddes, Vater and de Wette) put forward the Fragment Hypothesis as the only explanation which could account for the facts. Later documentary critics, however, sought to account for the new set of problems by postulating the existence of an additional document. In the fully developed hypothesis of Wellhausen, who in this respect followed Hupfeld and Graf, the passages in which God is referred to as Elohim were divided into two documents, designated E and Q (the siglum for the latter being later changed to P). The criterion of divine names was applicable only to Genesis and the first chapters of Exodus; but on the basis of the other indications of multiple authorship it was argued that the three documents J, E and P continued throughout Genesis-Numbers, D (Deuteronomy) forming the fourth.
The hypothesis thus depended on the discovery in each passage assigned to a particular document of a sufficient number of characteristics common to all the passages assigned to that document. Clearly not all passages possessed all those characteristics: for example, none of the material in the chapters from Exod. 6 to the end of Numbers can be analysed on the basis of the use of the divine names, nor can E be distinguished from P on that basis even in Genesis. The same is true of the other criteria. Some passages, indeed, are 'neutral' in the sense that there are no indications in them sufficient by themselves to justify their assignment to one document rather than another.
In such cases, however, a further argument could be adduced. The three documents J, E and P must, by the nature of the hypothesis, be continuous and comprehensive. It was conceded that in the process of their combination by the redactors they had not always been preserved intact, especially in the case of E. Nevertheless it was argued that if a 'neutral' passage appeared plausibly to fill a gap in one of the documents and so to contribute to its continuity as a consistent work, this was sufficient to justify its assignment to that document.
In the further development of the Documentary Hypothesis after Wellhausen the question of the degree of inner consistency required to postulate the existence of a separate document became a crucial and controversial one. Some scholars, in the pursuit of consistency, claimed to have discovered an older document later embedded in J, others similarly divided E into two, while yet others fragmented P into a number of lesser documents. D was also thought to have undergone various revisions and expansions. It has been argued by some critics that such fragmentation of the classical four documents is in reality nothing less than a revival of the Fragment Hypothesis; but this is not really the case, since the methods employed to identify the newly proposed documents and the theory of the gradual growth of the Pentateuch by a process of conflation of independent literary works by a series of redactors remain the same as in the hypothesis in its 'classical' form.
c. The dating of the documents
However ingenious its reconstruction of the documents might be, the Documentary Hypothesis would lack plausibility unless a convincing account could be given of the motives which led to the composition of more than one version of the same history and their conflation, in a series of stages, to form ultimately a single work. It was therefore important for the documentary critics to be able to relate the various stages of the composition of the Pentateuch to events or circumstances in the history of Israel which might account for these specific forms of literary activity: in other words, to make convincing proposals about the dates, both relative and absolute, of the documents and the redactions. This task was carried out mainly by the use of the last of the criteria listed above, that of differences between the viewpoints reflected by the various documents. This method can be seen at its best in Wellhausen's Prolegomena, in which he argued that the legislation of P concerning the cult reflected a stage in cultic history which was much later than that reflected in J and E and in the early stories of Judges, Samuel and Kings, and that these laws could not have been put into effect before the Exile.
Earlier scholars had already connected Deuteronomy with the lawbook discovered in the temple at Jerusalem by Hilkiah in the reign of Josiah (2 Kings 22), and had dated J and E to earlier periods under the monarchy, with J preceding E, on the basis of theological differences due to a progressive development of religious and ethical notions in the pre-exilic age. In this way the chronological order J, E, D, P was established, and approximate absolute dates fixed for the four documents. These results were accepted by the followers of Wellhausen, although differences of opinion were expressed about the precise dating of the documents, especially J and E.
It was one of Wellhausen's main achievements that he was able to achieve a correlation, more complete than had been achieved by his predecessors, between the history of the composition of the Pentateuch and the history of the religion of Israel. In particular, his impressive demonstration that P is not an early source and cannot be pre-exilic may be said to have permanently changed the course of Pentateuchal criticism.
Although there was not complete agreement between the documentary critics about the motives of those who composed or combined the various documents, it was generally accepted that they were all motivated by the desire to preserve the received traditions as far as possible while at the same time reinterpreting them in accordance with the theologies of their times. It was this desire to preserve which was held by the documentary critics to account for the large amount of repetition in the Pentateuch in its final form:
1. J and E are both selections, made in the southern and northern kingdoms respectively, from a stock of common traditions. E, which is shown by its more advanced theology and ethics to have been written later than J, may to some extent have been dependent on it (there was no agreement on this point). But in both cases the motive was to preserve, arrange in chronological sequence, and—to some degreegive a theological interpretation of the national traditions.
2. The motive of RJE was to preserve the northern traditions recorded in E, which were in danger of being lost after the destruction of the northern kingdom, by incorporating them into J.
3. D, which is not primarily a narrative source, expresses, mainly in the form of laws, theological ideas which came to the fore at the time of Josiah's reformation. It was thus not intended to be an alternative to JE, with which its author was, however, familiar.
4. RD was an exilic redactor whose purpose was to provide a 'canonical' account which combined the already familiar JE with a theological interpretation consonant with that of D. He therefore appended the book of Deuteronomy to JE and also made a few 'Deuteronomic' insertions into it.
5. P's motive in composing yet another work running parallel with JE was to express, partly through narrative, but predominantly through a new corpus of legislation, the theology of the post-exilic priesthood.
6. Rp, like the earlier redactors, wished to preserve the older material—in this case the 'official' account in JE (and D)— but to bring it into line with the priestly theology of P, using P as its basic framework.
d. Limitations and unanswered questions
It would be a mistake to suppose that the documentary critics claimed that the hypothesis solved all the problems regarding the composition of the Pentateuch. It has already been noted that they regarded some passages as unattributable to any of the four documents. Further, they were not concerned with the pre-literary stage of the material, which was in any case regarded as of no great antiquity and as having arisen much later than the periods which it describes (e.g. Wellhausen, 1883, p. 316; ET pp. 318-19).
It is also important to note that the original proponents of the hypothesis and some—though not all—of its later adherents (e.g. S.R. Driver) expressed reservations about the sufficiency of the criteria to solve all problems of source analysis. This was particularly true of the document 'E\ Wellhausen himself admitted—though he was in no doubt about the existence of E—that it is not always possible to distinguish it from J, and used the term 'Jehovist', by which he meant the composite JE, in distinguishing the earlier material from P.
It was also generally admitted that E had been preserved only in a fragmentary state: in other words, that the important criterion of continuity in a given document was not wholly applicable in the case of E. Driver in his Introduction—to take a single example—treated the question of the identification of the documents J and E in particular instances with great caution, and was hesitant to make use of the principle applied extensively by some other critics that what does not appear to belong to one document must belong to the other, even if there is no positive indication that it possesses the characteristics of the latter. Indeed, he more than once stressed the uncertainty of the criteria themselves, speaking of 'degrees of probability' and of 'conclusions which, from the nature of the case, are uncertain' (1909, pp. IV, V). The reliability of the criteria was also unwittingly put in doubt by those critics who used them to postulate, by an even more minute analysis, the existence of yet more documents, so demonstrating that the same methods could produce quite different results.
Other important questions remained unanswered or disputed by the documentary critics:
The relationship between the documents
There was no agreement on the question whether the author of £ was familiar with J. This was to become an important issue later because of its implications for an assessment of the extent to which the Israelite traditions had already acquired a fixed form before they were committed to writing. That P was familiar with JE was generally assumed.
Were the writers of the documents primarily authors or collectors?
On this question also there was divergence of opinion. The criteria of vocabulary and style and of difference of point of view had, it was believed, proved that each document clearly reflected the age in which it had been written: in other words, the traditional material which it utilized had been remodelled by one who was fundamentally an historian, interpreting it according to his own lights and restating it in the language of his own day. If this were not so, the analysis of the documents would be illusory. Yet it was at the same time recognized that there was evidence—in particular, the individual flavour which still clung to many of the stories of Genesis, and the remarkable similarity in many cases between two versions of the same story in different documents—that these authors had in fact been remarkably faithful to their traditional sources. Gunkel, in the Introduction to his commentary on Genesis, tried to combine these two facts by picturing the narratives as 'an old richly-coloured painting that has been darkened and heavily re-touched' (1901a, 3rd edn, p. LXXXVI; cf. 1901 b, p. 133); but this attempt to solve the problem is hardly convincing, and it must be admitted that it remains unsolved in terms of the hypothesis.
Were they individuals or 'schools of narrators'?
Wellhausen regarded the documents as the work of individuals. Other supporters of the hypothesis, on the other hand (e.g. Budde and Gunkel) considered that they had been compiled within particular circles or 'schools of narrators' over a more or less extended period, and were not to be attributed to any one individual. The implications of this disagreement are far-reaching, but were not fully admitted by the critics.
The work of the redactors
There was general agreement that conservatism was the reason why the documents as they succeeded one another did not simply supersede and consign to oblivion the earlier versions, but were combined with them to form new works. It was held that the earlier documents had acquired such an authoritative standing as 'standard' accounts of the national tradition that, even though they might be judged inadequate and in need of supplementation in a later age, there could be no question of their suppression. A considerable degree of unanimity was reached by the critics about the way in which the conflation was carried out; but in comparison with the authors of the individual documents the redactors remained somewhat shadowy figures, and the extent to which they themselves had contributed to the material by additions of their own remained obscure.
The extent of the documents
Although the traditional division of the books of the Hebrew Bible separates Joshua and the books which follow from the five books of the Torah (Pentateuch), placing Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings in a separate section known as the Former Prophets, it was an agreed tenet of the Documentary Hypothesis that originally Joshua had belonged together with the earlier books (forming the 'Hexateuch'), of which it was the concluding section. The Pentateuchal documents continued through Joshua, and were there combined in a similar way. Some supporters of the hypothesis went further, maintaining that they continued into Judges, Samuel and even Kings (so, for example, Budde and Benzinger). Others vigorously disputed this view. The question is an important one because it seriously affects the view to be taken about the structure and purpose of the Pentateuchal sources, and of the Pentateuch as a whole. A work which ends with the death of Moses is a different kind of work from one which carries the story of Israel across the Jordan and describes the fulfilment of the promises to the Patriarchs in the conquest of Palestine, or from one which ends with the foundation of the monarchy, or the triumph of David, or some other point in the history of the monarchy.