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Why Documentary Hypothesis Failed

Original Date
June 11, 2009

The literary analysis embodied in the higher criticism not only attempted to explain the compositional history of the Pentateuch, it also served as the basis for reconstructing the evolution of religious ideas in Israel and early Judaism. The earliest sources, J and E (which Wellhausen wisely did not try to distinguish too systematically), were thought to reflect a more primitive stage of nature religion based on the kinship group. Deuteronomy (D), on he other hand, recapitulated prophetic religion; at same time, Deuteronomy brought the age of prophecy to an end by the issuance of a written law. For most scholars in the 19th century, the prophets, with their elevation of ethics over cult and their unmediated approach to God, represented the peak of religious development. Accordingly, after the age of prophecy came to an end, there was nowhere to go but down. The last stage Israel’s religious development, reflecting a theocratic world view, found expression in the, Priestly source (P) from the Exilic or early post-Exilic period (sixth-fifth century BCE).This kind of evolutionism, which drew heavily on German Romanticism and the philosophy of Hegel, is fortunately no longer in favor. What remains as a task for scholarship today is a more careful evaluation of the arguments on which the documentary hypothesis is based.  Since the publication of Wellhausen’s Prolegomena it has become apparent that all four strands of the Pentateuch—J, E, P and D—are themselves composites. But the attempt to break them down into their components (J1, J2, for example) has led increasingly to frustration and has contributed to the current widespread disillusionment with the documentary hypothesis.

There have always been those who either questioned one or another aspect of the documentary hypothesis or, like the Jewish scholars Yehezkel Kaufmann and Umberto Cassuto, have rejected it outright. In the last decade, however, doubts have begun to be raised by biblical scholars standing in the critical mainstream. A more detached investigation of key passages, especially in Genesis, has suggested that the criteria for distinguishing between the “classical” sources (J, E, P, D and their subdivisions) can no longer be taken for granted. The distinction between J and E has always been problematic, and there has never been complete consensus on the existence of E as a separate and coherent narrative. In the years shortly after World War II, the Yahwist (J) achieved a high degree of individuality as the great theologian the early monarchy (tenth or ninth century BCE), largely due to the influential work of the Heidelberg Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad. During the last decade, however, growing doubts have emerged about the date, the extent and even the existence of J as a separate and cohesive source spanning the first five or six books of the Bible. Similar if less insistent doubts have been voiced about the date of the Priestly source (P) and its relation to earlier traditions in the Pentateuch. The net result is that the earlier consensus, which was never absolute, has suffered erosion, while no paradigm capable of replacing the classical documentary hypothesis of J, E, P and D has yet emerged. Some continue to pay it lip service but do not use it, a few—for example, the prominent German Old Testament scholar Rolf Rendtorff—have abandoned it altogether.

In short, the critical study of the sources of the Torah (Pentateuch), which has been at the forefront of Old Testament studies since the late 18th century, seems to have lost its sense of direction in recent years. Many Old Testament scholars, especially in the English-speaking world, excited by their discovery of the New Criticism (no longer new after about half a century), have lost interest in investigating sources and original settings of biblical texts. The same goes for those who are applying structuralist theory to biblical narrative, since the essence of structuralist literary theory is to read a text as a closed system. A more traditional approach to the biblical text, which goes under the name of canonical criticism (represented preeminently by Professor Brevard S. Childs of Yale Divinity School), insists on the final canonical form of the Pentateuch, rather than its hypothetical sources, as the proper object of theological exposition. These influences have resulted in a great diminution of interest in the kind of literary archaeology that produced the documentary hypothesis in the 19th century.

Those who are still concerned with the problem are desperately seeking for new answers. For example, many now question the earlier view that J (or Yahwist, as he is often called) was an author with distinctive theology. In reaction against this view, many scholars are now questioning the unitary and cohesive nature of this source and no longer see it as the foundation of the story line in the Pentateuch. As suggested earlier, doubts continue to be entertained both about the existence of the Elohist (E) as a distinct strand, once thought to be a source parallel to J, but originating in the northern kingdom of Israel sometime after the death of Solomon. P has survived recent attacks on the documentary hypothesis best of all, due to its highly distinctive language, and its fondness for genealogies and exact chronological indications. But now scholars recognize that P too is a composite document. It too has gone through a number of compositional stages involving editing (reaction) and expansion of the text. There is even debate as to whether P should be considered an, independent narrative source or a reworking of earlier traditional material. Moreover, other lines of inquiry have been found to be more promising than refined efforts at source criticism: for example, the study of the literary character and structure of the text and the social origin of small textual units (form criticism), the identification and tracing of the growth of traditions embodied in the texts (tradition history), the identification of editorial procedures in the development of the text and their ideological or theological presuppositions (redaction history).

To obviate any possible misunderstanding, let us emphasize that there is no question of a return to a pre-critical reading of the biblical text. If the documentary hypothesis is in crisis, the question for those still interested in the formation of the Torah (Pentateuch), is whether the hypothesis is salvageable and, if not, what might take its place. But it remains clear that we cannot simply discard on a historical-critical approach to the biblical text.


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