Does Anyone Still Believe the 'Documentary Hypothesis'?

Picture of Julius Wellhausen
A Picture of Julius Wellhausen.

Should Theology, Religious Studies and Comparative Religion Students Take the Documentary Hypothesis (JEDP System) Seriously?

Are the 5 Books of Moses (The Torah), a hotch-potch of largely unconnected writings by later writers?

The Intellectual Arrogance of Julius Wellhausen.

I recently wrote a letter. Upon reviewing my letter before posting it, I noticed that my letter was structured in 5 clear sections. In these sections I covered five different topics so my vocabulary naturally changed as I moved on to differing topics; in other words, my letter varied stylistically as I moved on to a different subject. I was immediately reminded of the 'Documentary Source Hypothesis.' I found myself musing on the ridiculous possibility that some "higher critic" might discover my letter in 1,000 years and decide that those five sections must have been written by five different writers (possibly at five different times) because of the stylistic/vocabulary changes as I changed my topic! Ridiculous you say? Sure it is, but this is exactly what some have done to parts of the Old Testament (attempts have also been made to undermine the New Testament in such a manner but far less successfully).
I want to introduce our readers to a number of links/writings which expose the sadly flawed Graf/Wellhausen Documentary Source Hypothesis.

Just what is this system (often known as the 'JEDP' system)?


The concept that all early religion was animistic or naturistic and that belief in Monotheism was a late arrival as a result of 'evolving religious thought' is now even more seriously undermined by Rodney Stark's exhaustive 2007 study of religious development. Stark's 'The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief' (HarperOne, 2007), simply must be consulted by any who want to go deeper with this subject. In this book, Stark uncovers much useful information on the antiquity of Monotheism. He writes,
"Despite decades of faulty reports that early religions were crude muddles of superstition, it turns out that the primitive humans had surprisingly sophisticated notions about God and creation."

The system arose in the 19th century and was the work of certain scholars who accepted the 'history of religions' school of thought. This was the application of evolutionary principles to the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible). These people were very accepting of the principle of evolution and rejected any concept of a God who 'knows the end from the beginning.' They believed that the earliest form of religion was primitive and animistic with early man having no concept of One God (Monotheism). Therefore, they reasoned, the concept of One God found in the Torah was clearly an anachronism, being back-projected by much later writers! Their minds were already made up on this point before they even started their "research"- Of course, these people were not likely to accept much within the Torah in any case since they were mostly quick converts to the (then) fledgling theory of evolution.

These liberal scholars who were committed to Theological Naturalism - ruling out any possibility of a supernatural God, set out to deconstruct the Old Testament and were especially interested in the Torah since it appeared to contradict much of their dogma. I was exposed to some of this system when at University but even our 'dyed in the wool' liberal Old Testament lecturer presented the JEPD system with a mighty 'pinch of salt' - he told us that the system has been regularly revised by later scholars and that, while the basic schema is still accepted, much has changed within the overall approach, and much likely to continue to change. Our lecturer seemed intent on being postmodernist in approach and so he seemed to have a 'You can believe whatever you like' attitude. Not necessarily a helpful approach!

Hermann Gunkel along with others of the "history of religions" school assumed that many of the stories narrated in the final text of Genesis, for example, were taken originally from imaginary stories about pagan gods and were gradually transformed by Hebrew poets into imaginary stories about an imaginary Hebrew God in relation to imaginary patriarchs who were projected as founders of the nation.
So, if we are to believe people like Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932), and others of their school of thought (in fairness, Gunkel, who was more interested in the Psalms, thought Wellhausen had gone too far in his literary claims about the Pentateuch), the Old Testament writers were utterly deceitful people with a complete disdain for the truth; moreover, we are asked to believe that a succession of writers over a very long period of time remained utterly committed to maintaining this deceitful and lying approach about the origins and history of Israel! But does that not fly in the face of the wonderful moral teaching (including the commandment not to bear false witness), which we find within the Old Testament itself?
Does this theory really 'stack up' ?

Can we really accept the notion that the writers and compilers of the Old Testament were the biggest historical liars of all time? Or should we reconsider the credentials of the Wellhausen/Gunkel gang?
We need to understand that people like Wellhausen, and then Gunkel, completely rejected any concept of a God who might inspire every word of Holy Scripture, immediately making the judgment that this could not possibly be the case, therefore any other explanation of the Old Testament was bound to be preferable.

Okay. So how did the 'JEDP' system work?
Essentially, attempts were made to find different authors who had contributed to the Torah; this led to the breaking up of the 5 books into four sections, J, E, D, and P.
How were the lines drawn? Differences of writing style and vocabulary were looked for (even though all of us change style/vocabulary whenever we change our topic in any written work).
J (from the divine name Yahweh -- in German, Jahweh); it was said to have originated in Judah between 950 and 850 B.C. and pieces of it are scattered in sections from Genesis through Numbers.
E (the Elohistic source, from the prevalence of the word Elohim); it was said to have originated in the northern kingdom of Israel between 850 and 750 BC. It too, is scattered from Genesis through Numbers.
P (the Priestly source, so called because it seems most concerned with aspects of the formal worship in the temple); it was said to come from the exile or shortly thereafter -- sixth to fifth centuries B.C. Mostly made up of the genealogies and priestly ritual described in Genesis through Numbers.
D (the Deuteronomic source, so called because it includes mostly just the book of Deuteronomy); the author or editor of this section was assumed to be responsible for the framework of the historical account that runs from Joshua through 2 Kings. D was regarded as having reached its final form during the reign of Josiah, when the priests "found" the book of the law (2 Kings 22:3-23:25).

But not all agreed with all of the components, some thought 'E' was the oldest part but others thought 'J' the older part. Various redactors (editors) came along and added bits throughout an amazingly long period of time (according to the theory). Some even thought that there were two Elohist writers, but the work was so closely intermeshed with 'J' that attempts to separate the authors were deemed problematic. It apparently did not bother these Bible critics that sometimes violence was done to the natural flow of a passage, where a particular letter 'source' was thought to give way to another.
I could go on and on... But there is really little point; some of the theories became quite extreme and bizarre and it is almost surprising that much of it ever won acceptance!!
But we have to keep reminding ourselves that not one iota of real, hard evidence exists for any of it!! Moreover, indications of real unity within the first 5 books of the Old Testament are actually abundant, but - like the theory of evolution which it was largely based upon - it was the right theory at the right time for a group of godless and materialistic pseudo-intellectual 'scholars' who wanted to set up a wholly materialistic model of religious history, without any reference to the supernatural, and, yes, undoubtedly also wanted to make a name for themselves in the new academic world of 'higher biblical criticism.'

In 1966 Professor Kenneth Kitchen wrote,
' . . . Even the most ardent advocate of the documentary theory must admit that we have as yet no single scrap of external, objective evidence for either the existence or the history of J, E, or any other alleged source-document..' (p. 23, Kitchen, K.A. (1966), Ancient Orient and Old Testament. London: Tyndale).

That was written in 1966, but about 40 years later the situation is even more bleak since it is now obvious that no evidence to support Wellhausen's theory will ever be found.

The documentary hypothesis has a number of problems - some of which, the original documentary theoryists could not have been aware of in the century in which they wrote; Kenneth Collins points one out in his essay, 'The Torah in Modern Scholarship' (find link to the full essay lower on this page),

'The documentary hypothesis was originally based on the supposition that the events in the Torah preceded the invention of writing, or at least its use among the Hebrews. This is because Julius Wellhausen lived in the nineteenth-century, but nineteenth-century notions about ancient literacy have been completely refuted by archaeological evidence. The documentarians have not updated the documentary hypothesis to take this into account, so we still find them assigning very late dates to their hypothetical sources of the Torah.... Archaeology has shown that writing was common during the time in which the events of the Torah were to have taken place.'

My Old Testament lecturer was either ignorant of the much greater knowledge of the ancient world which we now have, or he was being disingenuous when he stated that the theory has been greatly revised, and will continue to be, but still stands. The truth is that the very foundation which the history of religions school was based upon (the concept that the earliest forms of religion were simple, naive and animistic, and that belief in one all-powerful God was a late arrival), has now largely been demolished! We know much more about the religion of the ancients than the devisers of the 'JEDP' system ever did. We now know that the belief in one all-powerful God is very, very old - just as Genesis claims! Many obscure and ancient peoples and tribes have now been able to put their side of the case, and the concept of one all-powerful God as an original belief is to be found everywhere. Some of these tribes have even explained how various 'holy men' within their tribes tried very hard to hold on to Monotheism, as more corrupt strains of religious belief - such as animism - later arose!

Today, in the face of evidence from archaeology, the Dead Sea scrolls, and much more available information about the languages of the ancient world, dependence on the Wellhausen theory is looking increasingly unfeasible and, indeed, inexcusable. We now have thousands of Old Testament texts and fragments to compare and in every single case the format found in our Old Testaments is validated - if the documentary theory were really correct surely some manuscript evidence would have been discovered somewhere to reveal the work of these dishonest men and their literary conspiracy? Is not the fact that conspiracies and plotters are always discovered one of the strongest lessons of human history? Let us remind ourselves once more that the documentary theorists never produced a single shred of real evidence for their literary theory! Happily now at last there is a welcome and growing trend among scholars to view the Pentateuch as a literary unit again.

Despite this, there are still websites around which present the Documentary Theory as though it was the very latest learning, apparently unaware that many of the points which they make have long since been disproven/overturned.

The tragedy of all this is that for over a hundred years many Theology and Religious Studies students have been indoctrinated in a system which wholly discredits the claims of the Old Testament to be the inspired Word of God. We have to keep reminding ourselves that Jesus fully backed up the truth and authenticity of Moses and of the 'Law, Prophets and Writings' (the Old Testament), by frequently quoting from it. He based His authority and credentials upon the Old Testament! And yet some who claim to be followers of Jesus have gone along with the practise of breaking the Old Testament up into these (purely imaginary) divisions and sections, even pontificating on whether or not Moses actually existed. There is now no need for such scepticism! How odd that a system can continue to enjoy some kind of existence long after its very foundations have crumbled!!
The following links will take you to several articles outlining the serious inadequecies of the JEDP schema.
Robin A. Brace
(Find my article Bibliography right at the bottom of this page).

By Kenneth W. Collins

By Wayne Jackson M.A.



By Don Closson

By Timothy Lin Ph.D.
(PLEASE NOTE: This is a PDF file which has to be downloaded).

Albright, William F. The Israelite Conquest of Canaan in the Light of Archaeology, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 1939. Vol. 74..
Archer, Gleason Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago: Moody Press, c1964.
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Wisdom and Law in the Old Testament. London: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Harrison, R.K. Introduction to the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing company, 1970.
Free, J. P. Archaeology and Bible History. Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press, 1969.
Kitchen, K. Ancient Orient and Old Testament. London: Tyndale, 1966.
Morris, Henry M. The Genesis Record. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976
P.J. Wiseman, Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis: A Case for Literary Unity, Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985.




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