Documentary hypothesis

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See also: Authors of the Bible

The Documentary hypothesis, also known as the Graf-Wellhausen Hypothesis, is best known from Julius Wellhausen's 1876 work, Die Komposition Des Hexateuch in Der Jungsten Diskussion,[1] although a number of authors in the 17th and 18th centuries also developed the idea.[2] The hypothesis derives from the belief that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Christian Bible and Jewish Tanakh) is inconsistent in its writing,[3] and shows signs of multiple authors, rather than one, Moses. This has in turn led to the theory that the Pentateuch is the result of four different authors, who supposedly wrote the book centuries later than the Biblical Moses, and were compiled by a later redactor. As a general framework, the proposed authors are:

  • J: Jehovist/Yahwist source - Claimed to be written in the 9th or 10th century B.C.[2]
  • E: Elohist source - Claimed to be composed shortly after J in Israel's north, when both were combined into a 'JE' source.[4]
  • D: Deuteronomist source - Claimed to be written in 8th century B.C.[2]
  • P: Priestly source - Claimed to be written in 6th century B.C. by combining other 3 sources.[2]

Oxford scholarship has repeatedly declared the Documentary Hypothesis as authoritatively recognized since the 19th century,[5] and while recognizing recent challenges deny its former place as the consensus view, asserts no other theory has gained widespread support in its stead.[6] The topic has become one of the most "hotly debated" in the field of Biblical scholarship,[7] and the details of the hypothesis strongly debated even among those who support it, with younger scholars abandoning it in recent years for other approaches.[8]


Traditional views

Traditionally, Moses was considered the author of the Pentateuch.[2] Jewish tradition held that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch.[9] In Deuteronomy 31:24-26 it says Moses wrote the words of the Law in a book, that was then put in the Ark of the Covenant. In 2 Chronicles 34:14 it says Hilkiah found a book of the Law of the Lord given by Moses and the book of Nehemiah[10] says the Law was given by Moses, a claim repeated in the New Testament's Gospels of Mark[11] and John.[12]

Start of criticism

In the 18th century, Jean Astruc, J.G. Eichhorn, and H.B. Witter questioned the commonly held belief in Mosaic authorship, considering that the Pentateuch came from two sources, originating what is known as the Two-source hypothesis. In the 19th century W.M.L. DeWette originated the theory of a D source. At this time the Hegelian theory on the development of civilization was in vogue in 19th century Germany, influencing Karl Heinrich Graf and Wilhelm Vatke, as they further refined the theory by dating the sources. Despite strong opposition to the late dating by De Wette and others, the compiling of prior research by Graf and earlier theorists into a unified whole by Julius Welhausen established the dates proposed.[13]

Established theory

From the 19th century on, the Documentary Hypothesis rapidly grew in popularity, and for many years was considered an unchallengeable bedrock of Biblical criticism.[5] However, while criticism in recent decades has called into question many of its principles, no alternative theory has yet achieved broad support.[6]

German influence

See also: Alfred Rosenberg and Positive Christianity

Like the Q Source hypothesis claimed by critical scholars to have been used as a basis by the authors of the Mark and Luke Gospels, (see Johannes Weiss, Christian Hermann Weisse and Friedrich Schleiermacher), the Documentary Hypothesis found its roots in 19th century Germany, where it would ultimately be popularized by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, as noted by Ken Collins:

"The Nazis, borrowing from the growing scholarly consensus that the Torah consisted of myth and legend, used this scholarly climate to invalidate both Judaism and the Old Testament. The Nazis promoted a revised form of Christianity called Deutsches Christentum, in which they replaced the Old Testament with Germanic myths and legends. Deutsches Christentum never caught on with the public, but since it epitomized the beliefs of the leadership of the Nazi party, it contributed to the martyrdom of a number of famous German Christians."[14]


The hypothesis first claims inconsistencies in the Bible as its basis for assuming multiple authorship (see Alleged inconsistencies). This includes the use of doublets.

It then points to the following proofs for multiple authors:


A doublet, also called a 'double narrative' or 'variant' in textual criticism is, loosely defined, multiple accounts of the same event.[15] As noted by Aulikki Nahkola, though the terms are recognizable to those in the field of Old Testament scholarship, no universal definitions exist for such terms, or even consensus on what constitutes the duplication involved by them.[16] Some commonly cited examples as addressed in the Alleged inconsistencies section include the Genesis Creation account(s) in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 and flood account(s) in Genesis chapters 6 through 9.

Friedman claims that separate parallel narratives for Genesis emerge when extracting each of the separate sources, based on the names used in relation to God, whether "Yahweh"/"Jehovah" or "Elohim".[17] and that this was proof "someone had taken two different old source documents, cut them up, and woven them together to form the continuous story in the Five Books of Moses."[18] The first major proof of this Friedman cites is The Flood (see Alleged inconsistencies and Criticism).

Northern origin bias

Friedman repeatedly interprets the separate doublets as indicating bias towards Israel's northern or southern tribes, namely Israel and Judah respectively, and presents this interpretation as evidence for the theory.[19] Friedman cites as primary examples the origins of Israel's tribes (Genesis chs. 30-50),[20] account of Jacob and Esau (Genesis chs. 25-33),[21] God's discussion with Moses (Exodus ch. 3),[22] story of the golden calf (Exodus ch. 32),[23] giving of the commandments to Moses (Exodus chs. 31 and 34),[24] and Miriam's leprosy (Numbers ch. 12).[25]

Third person

Moses rarely speaks in 1st person, but in 3rd person, which Michael Coogan suggests indicates another author writing about him.[2] This is also noted by Encyclopaedia Biblica.[3]

Impossible/unlikely mentions

Richard Friedman in "Who Wrote the Bible?" questions how Moses could be the humblest/meekest person in the world if stating this of himself (Numbers 12:3), how he could have written about his own death and later events in Deuteronomy 34:4-12, and the use of phrases like "to this day" and "across the Jordan".[26]

Alleged inconsistencies

See also: Bible contradictions

As the basis for the hypothesizing, and upon which the assumption is made that the Pentateuch could not be of Mosaic authorship, are a number of alleged inconsistencies,[27][2] as referenced by supporters of the Documentary Hypothesis like John Barton and Richard Friedman.

Genesis 1 and 2

Supporting hypothesis Opposing hypothesis
Asserted is that two conflicting stories called doublets, separate accounts, are presented in the beginning chapters of Genesis,[3] that in 1:27 God created man in his image, but in 2:7 it repeats this as though man's creation hadn't been mentioned before.[4][28] According to Barton, the "simplest explanation" is that two separate versions of the story have been allowed to remain in the finished book form, unreconciled with each other.[27] Friedman notes that the order of creation in the 1st chapter is plants, animals, humans, but in the 2nd chapter, it is man, plants, animals, woman. Friedman also calls attention to the first version (1:1-2:4) referring to the Creator as God 35 times and the second calling him Jehovah God 11 times, with no overlap.[29] The chapters are two separate accounts, one general, the later an overview, since in 1:1 it says "God created the heavens and the earth", and in 2:4, a more detailed account is given of "the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created", a pattern that will be seen used all through Genesis. In essence, the preceding section serves as the introduction, relating the genealogy or overview, the next relates details from the view of a major character in that genealogy.[30][31] This is also recognized by Claus Westerman in "A Continental Commentary."[32] Dr. Richard S. Hess has recognized the use of an overview account, rather than a contradictory doublet, at work here as well as elsewhere in Genesis (including chapters 4 through 5 and 10 through 11).[33]

Genesis 6 through 9

Supporting hypothesis Opposing hypothesis
Asserted is that the Flood is represented as being variously 40 days long and 150 days long, conflicting accounts.[3] Friedman additionally argues for two separate narratives differentiated by the names of God, references to gender, and anthropomorphic (human) qualities attributed to God such as emotion.[34] The text says (7:4,12) that it will rain 40 days and 40 nights, and that the Flood will be on the earth for this time. (7:12,17) It then says the flood waters themselves are on the earth for 150 days,(7:24) and return off the earth constantly until at the end of the 150 days they were stopped.(8:4) This is particularly clear when looking at the time frame, as the Flood began in the 2nd month, 17th day,(7:11) and in the 7th month, 17th day the Ark rested on the mountains of Ararat.(8:4) The plain context seen is that God stopped the Flood itself after 40 days with a wind, and it was the abating or drying up of the waters to stop them from 'prevailing' that took 150 days to where the Ark could finally come to a rest.(8:1-4) With a flood, there is one period where the rain occurs, and another period where the waters are still at work, perhaps with waves or fierce activity, even though the rain has stopped. Additionally, a chiasm is at work throughout the entire account making it entirely structured, as referenced in the Criticism section.

How many pairs?

Supporting hypothesis Opposing hypothesis
Asserted by Michael Coogan[2] and[35] that the text is inconsistent in saying in Genesis 6:19-20 that two pairs of each animal are to be taken on the Ark, and shortly thereafter in 7:2-3 that 7 each of clean animals and bird species are to be taken, and of each unclean animal, two. In the Mosaic Law, clean and unclean animals are differentiated for purposes of food, with clean animals allowed for eating, and unclean animals not allowed for eating.[36] In short, both the Genesis 6 and 7 passages mentioned the 7 pairs of animals, since the 7 pairs were mentioned in Genesis 6:21, which said "and take for yourself of all food which is eaten..." The 7 pairs were likely brought as food for the other animals on the Ark, and possibly for the people on board as well, and thus were mentioned in the previous passage, just not as explicitly.

Genesis 11 and 12

Supporting hypothesis Opposing hypothesis
John Barton claims that in Genesis 12:1 Abram is told to leave after the death of his father, Terah. Barton says in 11:26 Abram was born when Terah was 70, and according to 11:32, Terah died at age 205, so Abram must have been age 135, yet in 12:4 it says he was only 75.[27] As with Genesis 1 and 2, Barton fails to note the existence of an overview description given in chapter 11:10-32, stating the genealogies of Abram's lineage, and then a specific account of Abram's life, covering him specifically, starting in ch. 12, in which Abram's father has not yet died.

Genesis 20 and 26

Supporting hypothesis Opposing hypothesis
Peyrerius has criticized the chronological context of Genesis chapters 20 and 26.[3] Presumably this is because each tells similar accounts. In Genesis 20 Abraham, who has married his half-sister Sarah (20:12), tells Abimelech, king of the Philistines, that she is his sister, without mentioning their marriage, out of fear he'll be killed so they can take his wife. (20:11) In Genesis 26, Isaac also is in Abimelech's land, and tells Abimelech the same thing of Rebekah (26:7). However, there are a number of differences between the stories[37] and no reason to think the accounts are contradictory, or could not simply be relating different events. Reasons for the similar occurrences could include customs among Abimelech's land putting the wives of foreigners at risk or Isaac imitating what he saw his father do.
See also: Bible_contradictions#Incest.3F

Exodus 24

Supporting hypothesis Opposing hypothesis
According to John Barton, the chapter says that Moses went up to the mountain 3 times.[27] The chapter says he was asked to go up the mountain (vv. 1-8), then he actually did go up with Aaron and the elders of Israel (vv. 9-11), and then God asked Moses to go up to the mountaintop specifically. (vv. 12-18) While they were asked to come up and did so previously, not until v. 12 is Moses asked to go to the "mount" specifically (Hebrew "har" defined as a mountain or range of hills[38]), a word not used until this point save in v. 4 where it says Moses built an altar beneath the mount.


"Rarely have such grandiose theories of origination been built and revised and pitted against one another on the evidential equivalent of the head of a pin; rarely have so many worked so long and so hard with so little to show for their trouble."
-Meir Stenberg on the Documentary Hypothesis[7]


Duane Garrett[39] has accused the Documentary Hypothesis of resting on the following presuppositions:

'Cut and Paste'

Garrett notes that according to the hypothesis the redactors simply merged all the documents together via a "scissors and paste" method into a continuous narrative, concluding "No true analogy to this somewhat bizarre editorial procedure is available."

Able to Divide by Style

Garrett questions the belief held by early supporters of the Documentary Hypothesis that they could easily separate texts from each merely on the basis of style, when the whole Pentateuch is written in standard Biblical Hebrew. Garrett suggests the only way this would be possible is if each "monotonously and rigorously maintained a highly idiosyncratic style."

Based on debunked philosphy

Calling attention to the hypothesis' roots in the now discredited theory of Hegelianism, Garrett admits this is not enough to prove the theory wrong, but at the same time says it is certain Israelite religion can't be presented in the simple and very evolutionary pattern Wellhausen believed it could at the time.

Easy determination of purposes and methods

Questioning why the early founders of the Documentary Hypothesis believed they could easily interpret the purposes and methods of the redactors, given the vast cultural differences existing between themselves and the redactors, Garrett also points out their odd views that each writer sought to create a single, continuous history void of inconsistencies, narrative digressions, and repetitions, yet the redactors when joining said histories were utterly oblivious to all such inconsistencies, narrative digressions, and repetitions.

Interpretive and un-evidenced

According to R.A. Brace, the hypothesis is entirely interpretive, and has no historical evidence supporting claims for sourcing from multiple documents, apart from the analysis of the Bible undertaken by the hypothesis.[40]

Section to be completed with possible sources: Dr. William F. Campbell[41] Glenn Giles [42], James P. Holding[43] [1]


One of the strongest arguments against doublets, that there cannot be multiple accounts behind a book's section, is evidence of a perfectly correlated structure underlying the section. Just such a structure exists in the Pentateuch, and is known as a chiasmus. Chiasms are simple literary structures such as that in Genesis 9:6:

____A) Whoever sheds
_____B) the blood
______C) of man
______C) by man shall
_____B) his blood
____A) be shed.

However, the account of the Flood that Friedman and others have asserted is a cut and paste job of multiple sources actually contains one of the most complex chiasms in scripture.[39]

____A) Noah and his family are the only righteous people on earth (6:9–10)
_____B) God says he will destroy the earth and its inhabitants with a global Flood (6:11–22)
______C) God tells Noah, Noah's family, and the animals to enter the Ark (7:1–10)
_______D) The flood waters comes on the earth (7:11–16)
________E) The flood waters rise and cover the earth (7:17–24)
_________F) God remembers Noah (8:1)
________E) The flood waters recede from the earth (8:1–5)
_______D) The flood waters go away and the earth is dry (8:6–14)
______C) God tells Noah, his family and the animals to leave the Ark and fill the earth (8:15–9:7)
_____B) God promises never again to destroy the earth and its inhabitants with a global flood (9:8–17)
____A) Noah and his family are the only people on earth (9:18–19)

Though supposedly having two separate accounts running through this, that have been, according to Friedman and others, rather carelessly cut-and-pasted together, it shows signs of being perfectly structured, similar to a poem or sonnet. Similar chiasms actually run all through the book of Genesis despite claims by Friedman et. al. that it is a patchwork quilt of different sources.[44]

Northern origin bias

Third person

Yoram Bogacz points out it is common practice throughout the Bible, not just the Pentateuch, for authors to speak of themselves in the third person, citing Exodus 19:11, 24:1, Joshua 1:9, and 12:11 as examples.[45]

Impossible/unlikely mentions

Concerning Moses' seeming reference to himself as humble, Dovid Gottfield points out that according to the traditional view of the Bible, accepting what it claims, it is God telling the story through Moses, and thus God who designates Moses as humble, not Moses himself.[45]

In Deuteronomy 34:10 it is said, "And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face..." However, as a prophet, with visions of the future, it is A) possible Moses was given insight to make such a claim, and B) that God speaking through him had knowledge of the future to make it. Gottfield points out that such instances of the phrase "to this day" are often addressing future readers, and that God is speaking to all future generations with such phrases through Moses, the traditional view.[45]

Alternate theories

P.J. Wiseman first presented the "Tablet Theory", also called the Wiseman Hypothesis, in his 1936 book, New discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis. Most recently Curt Sewell has refined the hypothesis.[31] Wiseman first noticed that many of the ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets we're discovering use "colophon phrases" naming the tablet's writer or owner, as well as some method of dating the tablet; and often relate to family histories and origins. Wiseman also noted their similarity to the book of Genesis, which scholars have long recognized is sub-divided into sections via the phrase "these are the generations of..." Such a phrase is translated from the Hebrew word "toledoth", defined by Strong's dictionary as 'generations' as related to family history or descent.[46]

Sewell hypothesizes that each of these subsections divides into differing individual accounts separated by the Hebrew word "toledoth", God's account of Creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4), Adam's genealogy/personal history (2:4-5:1), Noah's genealogy/personal history (5:1-6:9), Shem/Ham/Japheth's (6:9-10:1), Shem's specifically (10:1-11:10), Terah's (11:10-11:27), Isaac's (11:27-25:19), Ishmael's (25:12-18), Jacob's (25:19-37:2), Esau's (36:1-36:43), and Jacob's 12 sons (37:2-Exodus 1:6).

Since each of these sub-sections is separated by the Hebrew word "toledoth", Sewell considers that Genesis is actually a grouping of the family genealogical tablets, per Mesopotamian style, and thus very much is a compilation of accounts, but not in the way Wellhausen envisioned, since it would make Genesis' origins far older than Moses, rather than younger; with Moses himself the likely compiler/redactor of the tablets' accounts. The theory has also been supported by R.K. Harrison[47] and Russell Grigg.[48]


  1. McKim, D. (2007). Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters. pp. 130-131.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Glassman, G. (2007). NOVA: The Bible's Buried Secrets. PBS.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Cheyne, T., & Black, J. (Eds.). (1899). "Hexateuch." In Encyclopaedia Biblica (Vol. II, pp. 2045-2058).
  4. 4.0 4.1 Reed, A.Y. (2004, September 20). Source Criticism, The Documentary Hypothesis, and Genesis 1-3.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Browning, W.R.F. (1996). Oxford Dictionary of the Bible. pp. 148, 288. Oxford University Press.
    Metzger, B. & Coogan, M.D. (eds.)(1993).Oxford Companion to the Bible. pp. 246, 580. Oxford University Press.
    Rogerson, J. (2001). The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible. p. 3. Oxford University Press.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Browning, W.R.F. (1996). Oxford Dictionary of the Bible. p. 580. Oxford University Press.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Cassuto, U., Berman, J., & Abrahams, I. (1941, 2006). The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch. Originally published by Magnes Press, the Hebrew University. Full-length version at ShalemPress.
  8. Alter, R. (1996). The Five Books of Moses. pp. 10-11.
  9. Hirsch, E.G., & Jacobs, J. Pentateuch.
  10. The Bible. Nehemiah 8:14; 9:29.
  11. The Bible. Mark 12:26.
  12. The Bible. John 8:17.
  13. Friedman, R.E. (1987). Who Wrote the Bible? p. 23-26. Summit Books.
  14. Collins, Ken (1993). The Torah in Modern Scholarship. Retrieved on 2011-03-12.
    Robinson, B.A. (2007, August 21). The Documentary Hypothesis on the identity of the Pentateuch's authors.
  15. Friedman. p. 22.
  16. Nahkola, A. (2001). Double Narratives in the Old Testament. p. 4.
  17. Sheahen, L (2004), The Editorial Team Behind the Bible.
    Friedman. pp. 51, 59-60, 81-85.
  18. Friedman. pp. 22-23.
  19. Friedman. pp. 44-49, 61-72.
  20. Friedman. pp. 63-66.
  21. Friedman. pp. 67-69.
  22. Friedman. pp. 81-83.
  23. Friedman. pp. 70-74.
  24. Friedman. pp. 74-76.
  25. Friedman. pp. 76-79.
  26. Friedman. pp. 19-20.
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 27.3 Barton, J. (1992). Source Criticism. The Anchor Bible Dictionary (Vol. 6). (also here)
  28. Friedman. pp. 25-26.
  29. Friedman. pp. 50-51.
  30. Tsumura, D. (1996). Genesis and Ancient Near Eastern Stories of Creation and Flood: An Introduction Part I.
    Jackson, W. (1991). Are There Two Creation Accounts in Genesis? Apologetics Press.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Sewell, C. (1994). The Tablet Theory of Genesis Authorship. Bible and Spade (Vol. 7, No. 1).
  32. Westerman, C. (1994). A Continental Commentary. p. 583. First Fortress.
  33. Hess, R.S. (1990). Genesis 1-2 In Its Literary Context. Tyndale Bulletin 41.1.
  34. Friedman. pp. 53-60.
  35. Morgan, D. Bible Inconsistencies.
  36. The Bible. Leviticus 11:46-47.
  37. Abraham's Half-Truth: passing Sarah off as his sister.
  38. Strong's Hebrew Dictionary. 2022.har.
  39. 39.0 39.1 Garrett, D. (2010, September 24). The Documentary Hypothesis.
  40. Brace, R.A. (2003). Does Anyone Still Believe the 'Documentary Hypothesis'?
  41. Campbell, W.F. (2002). The Qur'an and the Bible in the Light of History & Science (2nd ed.). Section 3, chapter 1.
  42. Giles, G. (2009, June 12). The Documentary Hypothesis: Its History and Present Status. Christian Evidence Conference Houston, Texas.
  43. Holding, J.P. (2005). Debunking the Documentary Hypothesis.
  44. (2006). Examples of the Pentateuch's Literary Beauty.
  45. 45.0 45.1 45.2 Gottfield, D. & Bogacz, Y. (2004). Who Wrote The Bible? Critique by Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottfield.
  46. Strong's Hebrew Dictionary. 8435.toledoth.
  47. Harrison, R.K. (1994). From Adam to Noah: A Reconsideration of the Antediluvian Patriarchs' Ages. Jets (Vol. 16, No. 2). pp. 161-168.
  48. Grigg, R. (1994). Creation Ex Nihilo (Vol. 16 No. 1). pp. 38-41.