Posts Tagged ‘documentary hypothesis’

Rembrandt painting of Moses

Rembrandt: Moses With the Ten Commandments. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The question of who wrote Genesis has long been disputed among the erudites of religion and academia. I have a particular interest in the issue as a fiction writer, because the first installments of my Edhai fiction series are all set during the time period covered by the Bible book of Genesis, particularly the very earliest history recounted in Gen 1-11, from the creation of the first humans up to the time of Abraham.

Traditionally, Judaism and Christianity have asserted that Genesis was written by the Hebrew prophet Moses during the mid-second-millennium B.C.E. However, over the last couple hundred years, mainstream academia and many religious scholars adopted an idea called the documentary hypothesis (DH). According to this idea, the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) is actually a compilation of various original documents written between the early- and mid-first millennium B.C.E. There are various versions of the DH, but the classic version identifies four key sources for the Pentateuch:

  •  J, the Jahwist source — Prefers the personal name of God (YHWH, JHVH; Yahweh or Jehovah), particularly before Exodus chapter 3.
  • E, the Elohist source — Prefers the generic title “Elohim,” particularly before Exodus 3.
  • D, the Deuteronomist source — A purported later source that starts with the book of Deuteronomy and continues with other Bible books, such as Joshua and Judges
  • P, the Priestly source — Concerned with ritual and formalism and prefers the title Elohim in referring to God.

At Wikiversity, you can see a helpful text of the King James Bible, with the purported sources highlighted in different colors. Reviewing that overlay, I can see that the portion of Genesis I’m writing about, chapters 1 through 11, is attributed primarily to the Priestly and Jahwist sources, with ‘additions by a redactor’ inserted in some portions, supposedly to provide transitional language that ties the various original documents together to make a whole.

For a basic overview of the documentary hypothesis, see the lesson on “Source Criticism” maintained by theology professor Ronald A. Simkins, but written, I think, by Ralph W. Klein.

Fundamentally, the documentary hypothesis is based on analysis of the content of the Bible, rather than on a rigorous historical investigation. If different portions of the text exhibit different styles or different interests, those portions are attributed to different sources. If the investigators believe they have uncovered contradictions or anachronisms, those problems are attributed to the diversity of author sources.

Chart showing sources for the documentary hypothesis

Chart of sources according to the Documentary Hypothesis. Vadym Zhuravlov, via Wikimedia Commons.

However, many of the adherents of the documentary hypothesis take things much further than the mere assertion that the Pentateuch is based on multiple documents. They employ complicated explanations to attribute those sources to particular time periods and to various religious and political elements within the nation of Israel, often with conflicting aims and agendas. In the conventional view, none of the four DH sources dates back before about 950 B.C.E., which would rule out any association with the historical Moses, about 500 years before then. In fact, many scholars claim that Moses never existed, or at least that he wasn’t anything like the personage portrayed in the Bible. Such extreme views are in turn used to convince students and the public that the Bible is fictional, and to prop up the materialist-atheistic bias that controls much of academia today.

For many of us, these assertions are too extreme and speculative to be given much credence. Back into antiquity, Moses has been recognized by historians and by Jewish and Christian authorities as an historical character and the writer of the Pentateuch. In his history The Antiquities of the Jews (Book 1, Chapter 1), the first-century Roman Jewish historian Josephus frankly attributes the Genesis creation account to the literal Moses, including in his summary of that account such comments as “… but Moses said it was one day…,” “Accordingly Moses says,” and “Moreover, Moses, after the seventh day was over, begins to talk philosophically …”

All of this is not to say that there is no room for a nuanced understanding of the sources of Genesis. It’s possible that Moses himself might have been working from pre-existing written or oral sources in producing some parts of the Genesis account. Chapters 7 and 8 read almost like a mariner’s log or journal. Could Moses have been in possession of Noah’s account of his survival of the great flood? Possibly. Some portions of Genesis read as if they could have come from previous documents. For example, Genesis 5 starts with “This is the book of Adam’s history.” Genesis 6:9 starts Noah’s story with “This is the history of Noah.”

Some scholars suggest that certain issues with the text of Moses’ writings might be explained by the work of later copyists. In Creation and Chaos, Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke writes,

[O]thers have not been persuaded by these [Documentary] arguments and would still trace the basic unity of the Pentateuch back to Moses without denying that the text was modernized in the course of its transmission according to the common Near Eastern scribal practices.

The point here is that I find no good reason to discount the existence of Moses or his writership of the Pentateuch. The Genesis account, including the first eleven chapters, are a legitimate source on which to base a storytelling project, which can reasonably considered historical fiction.

ARK, 23 February 2015



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