The Documentary Hypothesis
29 February, 2008
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy form the first five books of the Bible. They are known collectively as the Torah, and also as the Pentateuch, and as the Five Books of Moses. Traditionally they were said to have been written by Moses himself and include creation accounts, folk tales, ancestry listings, place name etymologies and many, many laws and codes of behaviour. It is clear to anyone who reads the books that they cannot have been written by Moses himself. Deuteronomy 34 includes some accounts of Moses’ death and includes phrases like “And no man knows his burial place to this day” and “And a prophet did not rise again in Israel like Moses”. So either Moses was ghost writing much later, or he was writing about his upcoming death. Neither of these makes as much sense as the idea that some other author was writing these lines. But who was this author?
This question was asked in the nineteenth century and from careful study of the text a theory grew up which is now called the Documentary Hypothesis. The basic idea is that the Torah we have today (and indeed have had for over two thousand years, it hasn’t changed much since the earliest versions we have) is composed of various documents that were spliced together by editors (redactors). These source documents could be isolated within the text by following clues within the text. Much of the bible seems contradictory, but this is only because it is, in fact, contradictory. By looking through the text it was possible to see that these contradictions went hand in hand with each other, and that if the text is peeled apart and broken into different strata, each layer of text works as a coherent whole.
The four main documents that make up the Torah are designated J, P, E and D (There is also JRE, Dtr1, Dtr2 and R, but we can leave those aside for now). In the J stories, God is always called Yahweh (Jahwe in German , hence J source). Yahweh is anthropomorphic, will chat to humans and is full of mercy. In the E stories God is called El, or Elohim, until his name is revealed to be Yahweh to Moses. In the P stories (the priestly source), much is made of the Aaronite priesthood. God is depicted as being Just rather than merciful. The only way to get into God’s good graces in the P stories is by bringing sacrifices to the priests. The D stories take up most of Deuteronomy and are mainly law codes with a framing story about Moses.
There are various clues within the text which show which of the source documents any particular part of the Torah came from. What is amazing to see is how much of the inconsistency disappears when each of these sources is read on its own. The time of writing can also be roughly placed. J was writing sometime before the 7th century BCE, as was E. The P and D sources were written later, and all four were before the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE (with later editing making up a small part of these books). By looking carefully and critically at these books, and seeing where the different sources place their emphasis we can get a glimpse of the early disagreements within the Hebrew community. Just as with early Christianity there is a wealth of difference visible in the texts we still have, indicating that the ideas of Judaism were varied and rich and not as narrow as some would have us believe.
Moses didn’t write the first five books of the bible. Nor did any one single person. The Documentary Hypothesis sheds light on the origins of the bible and also saves us from having to posit a schizophrenic as it’s author.