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October 10, 2003

No Wonder It's So Confusing


I don’t know if you’ve come across the “Documentary Hypothesis” that the Jewish Torah (for non-Jews, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) are the work of four authors cut and pasted together by one editor or redactor. This hypothesis, also known as the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis after the scholars who originally formulated it back in the 19th century, claims to be able to separate the contributions of the four authors by word choices, literary style, and preferred name or names for the Big Guy upstairs. (For the curious, there is a succinct description of the theory here.)

I’ve been dimly aware of this theory for ages—I ran into it (in my tender years) during my own religious education. Ever since I first heard of it I’ve been curious to read the Torah disassembled into its original sources. Of course, since I'm quite lazy, this was one of those ‘I’ll get around to it someday’ aspirations. It probably would have remained that way permanently except that my hard-working brother, as part of a larger project he is working on concerning Middle Eastern religions, went to the trouble of e-mailing me a copy of the Torah (plus the book of Joshua), color-coded for the different sources. Being the simple-minded guy I am, I am in the process of separating the four original accounts. My brother’s color-coding follows the work of Richard Elliot Friedman, perhaps the leading contemporary proponent of the Documentary Hypothesis, as presented in his books, “Who Wrote the Bible?” and “The Hidden Book in the Bible.”

I’m not even finished with Genesis yet, but I have to say reading the ostensibly original sources is pretty intriguing. (Let me offer a disclaimer here: I am no biblical scholar, I don’t read Hebrew and I am resolutely unqualified to comment seriously on any aspect of the truth or falsehood of the Documentary Hypothesis. If the comments that follow offend you, feel free to ignore them as the work of a lunatic amateur.)

Based on the material as translated into English in the 1952 Revised Standard Version, I will say that each identified “author” seems to maintain a quite constant point of view and literary style—an identifiable voice.

What intrigues me—at least so far—is just how different the various versions are. The two most voluminous sources so far are the “P” source and the “J” source, both of which form fairly continuous narratives (although “J” is more encyclopedic—if the Documentary Hypothesis is correct, chunks of the “P” story must have been edited out as redundant). The “J” source is into drama and psychology—it is the source that contains the Garden of Eden episode, the Tower of Babel episode, the Cain and Abel episode, the various episodes where Abraham passes his wife off as his sister, the episode of Lot offering his virginal daughters to the lust-crazed inhabitants of Sodom and the episode in which Jacob tricks Isaac into giving him, rather than Esau, his blessing. The relationship between the Diety and man in “J” is complex, murky, quirkily personal and not very concerned with morality.

In the “P” source, by contrast, everything is much more straightforward and above-board (but correspondingly less juicy). I would describe the main concerns of “P” as genealogical and legal. “P” focuses on who begets who and offers an exposition of the “rational” evolution of the relationship between the Big Guy and humanity.

(It may amuse you—it did me—to learn that most Documentary Hypothesizers think that “J” was written by a woman and “P” by a man.)

Going beyond the strictly literary aspects, the differences in point of view are sufficiently marked that one could conclude that “J” and “P” represent quite different theological points of view. In fact, except for sharing some common characters, they could be writing about different religions. I wonder if theologians or anyone else have done an in-depth analysis of the differing religious conceptions of the four Documentary Hypothesis authors.

I’m sure you’ve heard people say that you can support any point of view with Biblical quotes. After looking at the dis-assembled sources per the Documentary Hypothesis, I can only wonder if that’s not the logical consequence of the way the book was ostensibly stitched together. It could be compared to creating an account of Great Depression by taking alternating paragraphs from the works of John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman. Who knows what theological controversies have arisen because of the choices of that editor/redactor!



posted by Friedrich at October 10, 2003


Whew! I can see the temptation to lose oneself for years in debates over this stuff -- enter yeshiva and just stay there forever.

I reach the limits of my knowledge here within seconds, so assuming you're willing to forgive massive ignorance, I'll volunteer the one or two things I think I do know.

* Have you ever read that Harold Bloom book about "J"? I forget: was he the guy who first argued that J was a woman? Anyway, people seem to love the book, and it seems a perfect subject for Bloom to be erudite and grand about.

* I confess that I don't know what the opposing view is. Are there people who think that the opening Bible books weren't cut and pasted together out of lots of different sources? What do they think instead?

* I forget where, but I once ran across an interesting notion. It was floated by someone who knew a little something, so I was happy to take it seriously. It was this: it may be helpful to view the Bible not as "a book" but as "a library." Ie., a heap of different books all bound together into one, for convenience's sake. What's great about the image, I find, is that it reminds you not to look to One Book for The Answer, and you thereby stop wasting time trying to Figure Out What's Really Meant. Instead, you browse and graze through it, taking this point and that point and this story and that story into account, using it as you would a library, and not expecting it to make the kind of one-point-of-view sense that we think of "a book" as having.

And with that I'm all out. Fascinating posting, though, thanks.

Come to think of it, does the Bible speak to you much? I read it, or passages from it anyway, with some curiosity -- Western civ, etc, gotta know these things. But it's an unmoved-by-anything-else, anthropological curiosity, mainly. I've found that very little in it reaches me. Classical lit and philosophy reaches me, yes. But that other basis for Western civ, the Bible, I dunno. Reminds me of watching big ol' Hollywood epics -- Romans and Jews and arks and thunder and such. All of which spectacle I can enjoy. But the stories? The proclamations and declamations? "Huh? What's that all about?" -- that's about the extent of my reaction to them. My shortcoming, of course, though I don't think I'm fighting anything or resisting anything. I'm just not resonating. It's like reading a genre that doesn't work for me. And no offense meant to anyone, of course -- just reporting a reaction as honestly as I can.

How about you?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 10, 2003 11:10 AM


I think it's fun, like a parlor game is fun, to read these various "source texts" that people claim to have weeded from the Bible. However, I do think it's largely just that - a game, and it has no basis in any reality. (I don't know if I've ranted about "Q" here - the supposed source bullet list of the sayings of Jesus - but I think that theory is totally a load, too.) My primary reason for this is these folks are simplifying the stylistic abilities of the original authors too much (assuming they're simple) which is partially "chronological snobbery" (C.S. Lewis' term): the assumption that people that came before us were not as sophisticated, so if their writings are sophisticated, it's not because the author was. My other reason is that I don't feel they are taking into account either in the right way or seriously enough that the authors were writing down stories that were born in the oral tradition, which is always a patchwork of styles simply created in the retelling by many people. Yes, they always acknowledge the oral tradition, but then analyze as though the work is strictly from the linear, written tradition.

Now, if any of these teams of scholars would try to sort out either "The Talisman" or "Black House" co-authored by Stephen King and Peter Straub who wrote them in tag-team fashion, and if any of these teams successfully identified at least, say, 80% of who wrote what, then I'd be willing to take their other work seriously. King and Straub have enough of a difference in style that I think I can often tell who wrote what, but I bet if I submitted my guesses to King and Straub, I'd be off 50% of the time, even though I've got a good "ear" for style. Yes, let these guys prove they can do it on modern prose (which is, to me, less of an enigma) first, eh?

Posted by: Yahmdallah on October 10, 2003 12:46 PM


I understand your skepticism, and I grant you that such analyses (of works written in distant millenia) should be approached with extreme caution. Some of the line-by-line divisions which the Documentary Hypothesizers have come up with--by which I mean, the notion that they can pick a single sentence, or even a partial sentence, out of the middle of another author's paragraph--strikes me as pretty fancy dancing.

However...I would ask if you've ever sat down and done the same exercise I discuss here; chop the Torah into the pieces per the notions of the Documentary Hypothesis and then read each piece. Having done it, the consistency of each source's combination of subject-matter interests along with a discernible literary style along with constant use of the same name or names for the Big Guy starts to become pretty hard to ignore. Does this establish the theory beyond a reasonable doubt? Nah. But I think an objective observer would find the results suggestive (if not overwhelmingly conclusive) at the very least. And, while both the "J" and the "P" narratives are clearly summaries of previous, presumably oral, sources (at least, they sure read as if they are), there are clearly different theological and psychological emphases between the authors, even if they're writing down episodes and ideas that they inherited. Understanding those differing emphases would, I think, be quite significant for a theologian, no?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 10, 2003 1:37 PM

P.S.--for a small example, note the different creation/creation of man stories in Genesis (which the Documentary Hypothesis allot to different authors.) In the "P" account, the "Let there be light" account, the Big Guy is all- powerful and perfectly benevolent towards his creation. In the "J" account, the Big Guy seems much less powerful (he goes around asking questions like "Where are you?" to Adam and Eve in the Garden when they are hiding) and he has an ambivalent, love-hate relationship with humans (as when he points out to himself, or to his divine fellows, that if the humans would eat of another forbidden tree, then they would in turn become divine/immortal, a much-to-be-avoided event. This same, rather paranoid turn of thought recurs in the Tower of Babel episode. Surely you wouldn't claim that the concept of the Diety is the same between these stories. Mix them together, though, and things get pretty murky, theologically speaking.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 10, 2003 1:52 PM


If you take a text, and cut it up, and find all the bits that seem to go together, and stitch them together, then it's not surprising that the bits you've stitched together seem to go together. As Yahmdallah says, you've proven nothing; the results say more about what you find interesting and how you categorize information than anything else.


Of course the Bible is a library; the individual sections are called the "books of the Bible" for a reason. They were written at different times, for different purposes, by different people who had different problems and concerns. What draws them together is the belief by the people who assembled the Biblical canon that these books in particular are the Word of God, that they were in some sense inspired by God, that this is the information about Himself that God wanted us to have.

As a Christian, I don't believe that God dictated every word; I do believe God guided the authors and redactors so that the finished products says what He wants it to say. And in that sense, the Bible is rather like sausage--if the Man Upstairs says it tastes good, I'm not going to worry too much about how it was made.

Posted by: Will Duquette on October 10, 2003 2:30 PM


Appreciate your point of view, but--as someone without much of an ax to grind here--I would reply: Don't knock it if you haven't tried it. As something of a Documentary Hypothesis skeptic myself (for the all the reasons discussed above), all I can say is that I found the results to be surprisingly persuasive. (But then, I'm kind of a weak minded and easily impressed guy.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 10, 2003 2:40 PM


My main point isn't so much that I think the Documentary Hypothesis is necessarily wrong, as that I think it's largely irrelevant.

Not that I see any reason why you or Michael should agree with me, given my reasons for thinking so. :-)

Posted by: Will Duquette on October 10, 2003 3:35 PM

Will and Friedrich,

What I am hearing is that Will is looking at the text as Scripture and Friedrich is looking at the text as Art.

The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive but do serve a very different purpose when being read. I personally find comfort in the thought that Scripture has artistic merit and exercises my mind as well as my spirit.

Posted by: Deb on October 10, 2003 4:03 PM


It's a fair cop. It's true, I'd be more likely to shelve my bible with the computer manuals than with the novels.

Posted by: Will Duquette on October 10, 2003 7:08 PM

I read the book who wrote the Bible at the same time I was studying the Torah with a Hasidic Rabbi. I am asked him one time if there was a stylistic difference betweent the sections where Elohim was used (usually translated as lord and mainly used in the P sections) and Adonai (i.e. Jehova sections). He said oh yes and then went into a long historical lecture on how various rabbis had seen how this use varied with the point/moral of the story. Obviously he did not believe that the Torah was written by humans (i.e. he believed it was dictated to Moses at Sinai) but it does show that these differences in the text were recognized many centuries before the documentary hypothesis was propounded.

Posted by: Larry Levin on October 10, 2003 7:44 PM

I learned it in a Comparative Lit class 25 years ago in college. This isnt particularly new.

Posted by: Deb on October 11, 2003 1:59 PM


I said the Hypothesis was originally developed in the 19th century.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 11, 2003 3:38 PM

I've had this quirky idea for a few years now. I want some "chosen" group of religious dudes (women too) to get together and create another Bible. They would discuss all notable spiritual books written in the last say, 1000 years (?). Then they would vote for their all time favs. The winning books would be printed, bound together and entitled, The Holy Bible Volume II. The process would be a modern day canonization.

Come on, what do you think. Okay, you're mad. I LOVE the idea.

Posted by: laurel on October 11, 2003 8:52 PM

Laurel: Elizabeth Cady Stanton attempted a "Woman's Bible" project at the turn of the 20th century. It wasn't the same as your idea, but my point is that women-centered approaches to theology aren't new or far out. Even the democratic aspect (used in the Council of Nicea to determine the New Testament canon) is pretty common in current Biblical scholarship; the Jesus Project, which attempts to piece together a "historical Jesus" from the texts of canonical and non-canonical Gospels, allows scholars to vote on whether Jesus did or did not say the words attributed to him.

Will: You're exercising what scholars call "post-critical naivete." This pragmatic strategy allows believers to live with our Christian faith as well as a deeper knowledge of the texts on which we base that faith. So long as the naivete is post-critical and not pre-critical, you run no danger of fanaticism or fundamentalism.

FvB: This discussion reminds me of Harold Bloom's quip, "Christian fundamentalism is for people who don't realize the Bible was written with words." The documentary hypothesis is most dramatically persuasive when you have multiple versions of the same event: Two diametrically opposed creation stories placed back to back, three different accounts patched into one story of Moses parting the Red Sea, and so forth.

And don't even get me started on those textual variations ...

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 12, 2003 9:54 AM

Yahmdallah: Textual analysts, looking at word choice and writing style, have performed some remarkable feats of authorial identification. For example, they fingered Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors. (But if they haven't picked out King from Straub, as you claim, it's because they haven't tried it yet.) Prior to computer searches, textual analysis was also the primary means to identify plagiarism in modern writing, and it's still the only way to investigate earlier sources in pre-modern texts.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 12, 2003 10:02 AM

Dude, Tim, I know all about it. But thanks anyway...maybe others don't.

Posted by: laurel on October 12, 2003 4:44 PM

Thanks, Tim. I was too lazy to look up examples from the many cases...

Posted by: j.c. on October 13, 2003 1:14 PM

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