I first heard of the “Documentary Hypothesis” as an undergraduate freshman study of religion major at a public university. Two of my professors, both trained at Harvard Divinity School, drew upon the work of Julius Wellhausen, who argued in 1878 that the first five books of the Bible came from four major documentary sources:

  • Jawhist (used the name Yahweh for God), mid-ninth century BC, southern kingdom of Judah
  • Elohist (used the word Elohim for God), eighth century, northern kingdom of Israel
  • Deuteronomic (used the book of Deuteronomy), seventh century, during the reign of Josiah
  • Priestly (Leviticus and other parts with a priestly interest), fifth and sixth centuries, Babylonian exile and after

These various sources were stitched together over the centuries to provide a literary whole that contained contradictions.

My professors—who were not biblical scholars—didn’t offer in-depth arguments. This wasn’t an area of speciality for them. But they were quite confident in it nonetheless, and it was the sort of thing that could easily shake the confidence of any of the students who assumed that this was the Word of God.

Old Testament scholar Duane Garrett—whose book Rethinking Genesis has been called “the most convincing refutation of the documentary hypothesis now in print”—writes:

A creature stalks the halls of biblical studies. It is routinely raised up from the grave in classrooms and it haunts textbooks and monographs that deal with the Hebrew Scriptures. Wherever it roams, it distorts the analysis of the text of the Bible, confounds readers, and produces strange and irrational interpretations. This undead creature sometimes goes by the quasi-mystical sounding sobriquet “the JEDP theory,” but it is better known by its formal name, the documentary hypothesis. The time has come for scholars to recognize that the documentary hypothesis is dead. The arguments that support it have been dismantled by scholars of many stripes—many of whom have no theological commitment to the Bible. The theory is, however, still taught as an established result of biblical scholarship in universities and theological schools around the world. Books and monographs rooted in it still frequently appear. Laughably, some of these books are touted for their “startling new interpretations” of the history of the Bible while in fact doing little more than repackaging old ideas. If the sheer volume of literature on a hypothesis were a demonstration of its veracity, the documentary hypothesis would indeed be well established. Nevertheless, while the dead hand of the documentary hypothesis still dominates Old Testament scholarship as its official orthodoxy, the cutting edge research of recent years has typically been highly critical of the theory.

In his new commentary on the book of Exodus, Christopher Wright deals briefly with the theory, noting that “the whole scheme has come under severe scholarly critique and outright rejection in some quarters. There is agreement on all sides (including conservative ones) that the Pentateuch is a complex and composite piece of literature that incorporates various kinds of writing, sources, and topics around a broad thematic unity. But the neat linear scheme of cleverly interwoven documents stretched out over Israel’s reconstructed history is no longer convincing, and many alternative accounts of how it all came together now vie for acceptance in the biblical academy.”

Wright adds why he has never had much use for the theory himself:

Speaking for myself, I never did find the JEDP scheme convincing, and not just out of loyalty to my evangelical understanding of the nature of Scripture (which did not, in my view, compel me to accept every traditional view of the authorship of biblical texts, unless clearly stated in the Bible itself, or to reject per se the assumption that beneath the final text of the books we have in our Bible lie earlier source materials). Rather, my skepticism was on two fronts.

On the one hand, the whole scheme seemed to me highly unlikely as comparative evidence of such “cut and paste” processes in any contemporary literature. It seemed a very modern and Western way of conceiving how “authors” might go about their work with “documents” on a desk in front of them, and even in that context to be based on very dubious criteria for confident source identification.

On the other hand, I never recall finding such source dissection and allocations of biblical texts of any benefit whatsoever in the exegetical and hermeneutical task—that is, of discerning the meaning, intentions, and implications of the text for anyone who comes to it as in some sense authoritative Scripture with a view to understanding and communicating its message today. (Christopher J. H. Wright, Exodus, The Story of God Bible Commentary, ed. Tremper Longman III and Scot McKnight (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2021], 4–5.)

In sum: (1) it is implausible, and (2) it does not help.

For those interested in older resources on this question, see The Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch (available free online) by William Henry Green, who held the chair of Biblical and Oriental Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1851 until his death in 1900.

The great scholar and rabbi Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951)—who held the chair of biblical studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and wrote commentaries on Genesis and Exodus—gave a series of eight lectures in 1940 offering one of the first mainstream critiques of the documentary hypothesis, published as The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch. His argument was that the documentary hypothesis rested on five pillars. He then sought to show, in detail, that upon closer examination all five pillars were without substance. As a result, “this imposing and beautiful edifice has, in reality, nothing to support it and is founded on air. ”

Here is a summary of his conclusions:

Pillar #1: the variations in the use of the divine names. “These changes depended on the primary signification of the Names and on the rules governing their use in life and literature, rules that applied to the entire body of biblical literature and even to post-biblical Hebrew writings, and are rooted in the literary traditions common to the peoples of the ancient East. Since we saw that these factors fully solved the problem of the changing of the divine names—leaving nothing unexplained—on the basis of principles that are radically different from those of the documentary theory, we came to the conclusion that the first pillar is void of substance.”

Pillar #2: the inequalities of language and style. “These linguistic disparities, insofar as they really existed, could be explained with the utmost simplicity by reference to the general rules of the language, its grammatical structure, its lexical usages, and its literary conventions—general rules that applied equally to every Hebrew writer and every Hebrew book. We thus saw that in this respect, too, there was no question of different documents, and that the second pillar was only an empty delusion.”

Pillar #3: the differences in the subject matter of the sections. “Where there were actual discrepancies between the sections, they were not of a kind that could not be found in a homogeneous work. On the contrary, such incongruities were inevitable in a multi-faceted book like the one before us, which contains materials of varied origin and character, and consequently presents its themes from different viewpoints. Hence we concluded that the third pillar was also incapable of withstanding criticism.”

Pillar #4: the duplications and repetitions. “Underlying both of them was a specific intention, which not only was reflected in the final redaction of the sections but was evident even in their original composition. We consequently decided that the fourth pillar was not stronger than the preceding three.”

Pillar #5: the composite sections. “This hypothesis relied on evidence that in truth did not point to a composite text; on the contrary, exact study revealed unmistakable and conclusive indications of a close connection between the parts of the section that were considered to belong to different sources. From all this, we judged the last pillar to be likewise without foundation.”