Deconstructing the Documentary Hypothesis

Are you unfamiliar with the Documentary Hypothesis? You might not know the name, but you have probably encountered it; if you have picked up a scholarly book on the Old Testament written in the past fifty years, chances are you have. The Documentary Hypothesis is a theory about the historical compilation of the Old Testament. Though there are many facets to the Documentary Hypothesis, it is best known for its assertion that the Old Testament is basically an amalgamation of four groups of editors, named the Yahwist, the Elohist, Deuteronomist and the Priestly writer—often abbreviated as JEDP. The core of the hypothesis is that the oldest parts of the Old Testament (J) were compiled in an alleged era of primitive Hebrew polytheism, which was later combined with other accounts (E). Later, under the influence of the Israelite prophets and their strict monotheistic preaching, the sacred books were edited to remove embarrassing anomalies and redact them in the spirit of the theology of the late kingdom period, the alleged D documents. Finally, after the Exile, and under the influence of the priestly revival under Ezra, the specifically liturgical elements of the Old Testament (such as the Book of Leviticus) were added in the so-called P accretions. The resulting incoherent, self-contradictory hodge-podge is what Christians and Jews venerate as the Old Testament.

In this article we will examine the history of the Documentary Hypothesis, examine its underlying historical and philosophical assumptions, and offer a response to them from a traditional Catholic perspective.

The Doctrines of the Documentarians

The teachings of the Documentarians—those who advocate the Documentary Hypothesis— can be divided into one major doctrine and several minor doctrines which are inferred from the major.

The major doctrine of the Documentarians is the assertion that the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch) were not written until over a thousand years after Moses’ death and were the result of a process of writing, rewriting, editing, and compiling by various editors and redactors. The final book we know as the “Old Testament” is actually a compilation of four distinct works or “traditions”: the Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and the Priestly (JEDP). This also represents the order of compilation—the J and E documents were written first, followed by the D and finally P. According to the most prevalent form of the Documentary Hypothesis, J was compiled around 950 BC, E around 850, D around 620, and P around 450 BC. This means that no part of the Pentateuch can be dated from prior to the Divided Monarchy, and most of it does not predate the Prophets. The main criterion for this theory is a laborious scrutiny of the text itself, through which it is asserted that the four documents can be isolated. The evolutionary development of the JEDP documents is the heart of the theory. This is the crux of the theory.

If accepted, this gives rise to several subsidiary theories, all implied by the JEDP hypothesis. The minor doctrines asserted by the Documentarians are:

• Naturalistic view of Israelite history
• Priority of textual analysis over archaeological or historical evidence
• Monotheism was a late development in Israelite history
• Religious beliefs of Israel borrowed from pagan neighbors
• Patriarchal stories are legendary
• Israelite history basically fraudulent

We will examine each of these items in length when we look at the philosophical and historical assumptions of the Documentarians. For now it is sufficient to list these minor doctrines and note that they all contain an anti-supernatural bias. The entire JEDP edifice rests on a philosophical pillar of anti-supernaturalism. For this reason, the Documentary Hypothesis is incompatible with traditional Catholicism; in fact, it is a form of Modernism, insofar as it places the center of Old Testament religion not on the objective acts of God in Israel’s history, but on Israel’s understanding of itself or its subjective religious perception, a form of vital immanence.

Let us now turn to the origin of the Documentary Hypothesis which, not surprisingly, came out of the late 19th century school of “higher” criticism rampant among Protestants in Germany.

Wellhausen and the Origin of the Documentary Hypothesis

Julius Wellhausen

The founder of the Docuementary Hypothesis as we know it today was Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), a Lutheran theologian and philologist from Hanover. The Documentary Hypothesis was first proposed in his 1878 work Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (“Prolegomena to the History of Israel”). Wellhausen did not come upon his theory independently, however. Several earlier authors going back to the Enlightenment had laid the foundations for the Documentary Hypothesis. Of note is H.B. Witter, a Protestant theologian who, around 1711, first suggested that the use of different names for God (Yahweh, Elohim, etc.) reflected different authorship; this theory was later developed by the French physician Jean Astruc in a 1753 book. At the height of the Enlightenment, German Protestant J.G. Eichhorn wrote a three volume series on the Old Testament, suggesting that the criteria for source analysis of the Pentateuch should include literary considerations—for example, style, use of particular words, etc.) in addition to the divine names criteria.

Catholics scholars also contributed to the development of the hypothesis. Around 1800, a Scottish Catholic priest A. Geddes, in a well-intentioned attempt at rebutting the writings of Jean Astruc, inadvertently made the situation worse by asserting that, rather than two main documents, the Pentateuch was actually composed of thirty-eight fragments by scores of authors and that individual authors are impossible to isolate. Thus, in attempting to refute the two-source theory he advocated what is called the “Fragmentary Hypothesis,” which makes the Old Testament even more of a hodgepodge than his predecessors. Geddes’ theory was expanded by various disciples—all of whom were in agreement with the earlier Documentarians that the bulk of the Pentateuch was post-Exilic (c. 450 BC). 

Getting closer to Wellhausen’s day is the work of Heinrich Ewald, who first gave the names J and E to what he perceived to be the earliest “traditions” in the Pentateuch. According to Ewald, E is the basic “underlying” document which the other sources were pasted into. Ewald would later reject this and posit five primary narrators—with no “underlying” document—all compiled by a redactor during the reign of Uzziah (c. 740). He also held Deuteronomy to be very late, compiled around 500 BC. Ewald was extremely influential in his day; in fact, Wellhausen was one of his students at the University of Göttingen. The disciples of Ewald proposed various modifications of his theory; some asserted that J was the underlying document, some another. They also debated the order of the various documents, the four main segments being P, J, D, and E.

Enter Julius Wellhausen. Wellhausen, a Protesant theologian and philologist and a student of Ewald, was not novel in proposing multiple authors from a late date; as we have seen, the groundwork was all laid by earlier authors. Wellhausen’s significance lay in his crystallization of the theory by ordering the four narrators chronologically—J,E,D,P—and by assigning a particular schema to the compilation of the whole. Wellhausen theorized:

(1) The earliest parts of the Pentateuch came from two originally independent documents, the Jehovist or Yahwist (J), c. 850 BC, and the Elohist (E), c. 750 BC. Much of this material came from legends of both Israelite and Babylonian origin.
(2) From these, the Yahwist “school” compiled them both into a single document around 650 BC. Alleged anomalies (the supposed “two stories of Creation” issue, for example) are the results of a sloppy merging of these two documents by the Yahwist.
(3) Deuteronomy (D) was written in the time of King Josiah (641-609).
(4) The priestly legislation of the Elohist document—Leviticus and portions of Exodus—was the work of Ezra and is labelled the Priestly tradition (P).
(5) A later editor or editors edited and compiled this mish-mash of documents around 200 BC into the Pentateuch we know today.

While later followers of Wellhausen made slight modifications to his theory, the above remains the standard explication of the Documentary Hypothesis still in use today. So influential was Wellhausen’s chronology that it is sometimes called the Wellhausen Theory. It reached the United States in the 1920’s and by the 1940’s was making rapid headway in Catholic universities around the world. After Vatican II it became enthroned as the new orthodoxy of biblical interpretation. To this day is often taken for granted in Catholic works of biblical scholarship. Even Pope John Paul II, in his “Theology of the Body” homilies, evidenced a familiarity with the Documentary Hypothesis and gave it an unfortunate boost in credibility by citing it in his talks on Creation—for example see his General Audience of September 12, 1979.

Hegel in the Shadows

Behind the theories of Wellhausen looms the shadow of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), one of modernity’s most obnoxious philosophers. Julius Wellhausen was an intellectual disciple of Hegel, who famously asserted that all social and intellectual change proceeded by way of evolution: an initial idea (thesis) was challenged by an opposing idea (antithesis), and the struggle between the two results in a new concept (synthesis). It is the theory of evolution as applied to thought and has become known as the Hegelian Dialectic. Even as Karl Marx applied the dialectic to material conditions, so Wellhausen applied it to the development of the Pentateuch.

It is difficult to overestimate the influence of the Hegelian Dialectic in middle and late 19th century thought. Protestant Old Testament scholar Herbert F. Hahn, writing a century removed from Hegel and Wellhausen, comments on the influence of Hegel and Darwin in biblical studies of the late 19th century:

The conception of historical development was the chief contribution of the liberal critics to the exegesis of the Old Testament. It is true, of course, that this conception did not grow merely from an objective reading of the sources. In a larger sense, it was a reflection of the intellectual temper of the times. The genetic conception of Old Testament history fitted in with the evolutionary principle of interpretation prevailing in contemporary science and philosophy. In the natural sciences, the influence of Darwin had made the theory of evolution the predominant hypothesis affecting research. In the historical sciences and in the areas of religious and philosophical thought, the evolutionary concept had begun to exercise a powerful influence after Hegel had substituted the the notion of “becoming” for the idea of “being.” He had arrived at the notion by a priori reasoning without testing it by scientific application to observable fact, but Hegel was nonetheless the intellectual progenitor of the modern point of view. In every department of historical investigation the conception of development was being used to explain the history of man’s thought, his institutions, and even his religious faiths. It was not strange that the same principle should be applied to the explanation of Old Testament history. In every age exegesis has conformed to the thought forms of the time, and in the latter half of the nineteenth century thought was dominated by the scientific methods and an evolutionary view of history (1)

Another modern biblical scholar, Paul Feinberg, comments on Hegel’s influence on Israelite and Christian religious thought in particular:

Hegel believed that the problem of philosophy was to find the meaning of history. From this fundamental presupposition he attempted to explain the whole of human history. The history of Israel covering nearly two millennia was likely a starting place. In his Philosophy of Religion, Hegel assigns the Hebrew religion a defined and necessary place in the evolutionary development of Christianity, the absolute religion. Hegel’s view of Hebrew religion and his general schematization of history offered an irresistible framework in which Hegelians would attempt to interpret the Old Testament (2).

This was the philosophy Wellhausen and his disciples appropriated to the study of the Old Testament. Characteristic of this was Abraham Kuenen (1828-1891), a renegade Dutch Calvinist who summarized the Hegelian evolutionary dialectic applied to ancient Israel:

To what we might call the universal, or at least the common rule, that religion begins with fetishism, then develops into polytheism, and then, but not before, ascends to monotheism—that is to say, if this highest stage be reached—to this rule the Israelites are no exception” (3).

Thus, enamored of the Hegelian dialectic applied to religious history, Wellhausen initially adopted the Documentary Hypothesis on philosophical rather than scientific grounds. He admits this in Prolegomena to the History of Israel:

At last in the course of a casual visit in Gottingen in the summer of 1867, I learned through Ritsch that Karl Heinrich Craf placed the Law later than the Prophets, and, almost, without knowing his reasons for the hypothesis, I was prepared to accept it; I readily acknowledged to myself the possibility of understanding Hebrew antiquity without the book of the Torah (4). 

Any scholar wishing to maintain objectivity should be appalled at the careless and subjective methodology of Wellhausen’s acquiescence to the Documentary theory “without knowing [the] reasons for the hypothesis.” This is but one demonstration of how Wellhausen’s theory is based not on hard science but on the philosophical presuppositions of an evolutionary view of history. As we shall see, these assumptions lead Documentarians to focus strictly on internal/textual approaches to the Old Testament while placing little value on archaeology and other more objectively verifiable disciplines. This is because today, as then, the underlying principle behind the Documentary Hypothesis is an anti-supernaturalism that must deny the fact of divine revelation at all cost.

Philosophical and Historical Assumptions

The assumptions of the Documentarians presuppose the Modernist proposition that the Old Testament is not history (though it may have a historical background); rather, it is a self-reflection on the religious sentiments of the Israelite people. Before looking at the assumptions of the Documentarians, let us recall the teaching of St. Pius X on the Modernist principle of vital immanence as taught in Pascendi:

However, this Agnosticism is only the negative part of the system of the Modernist: the positive side of it consists in what they call vital immanence. This is how they advance from one to the other. Religion, whether natural or supernatural, must, like every other fact, admit of some explanation. But when Natural theology has been destroyed, the road to revelation closed through the rejection of the arguments of credibility, and all external revelation absolutely denied, it is clear that this explanation will be sought in vain outside man himself. It must, therefore, be looked for in man; and since religion is a form of life, the explanation must certainly be found in the life of man. Hence the principle of religious immanence is formulated. Moreover, the first actuation, so to say, of every vital phenomenon, and religion, as has been said, belongs to this category, is due to a certain necessity or impulsion; but it has its origin, speaking more particularly of life, in a movement of the heart, which movement is called a sentiment. Therefore, since God is the object of religion, we must conclude that faith, which is the basis and the foundation of all religion, consists in a sentiment which originates from a need of the divine (5).

If the Documentary Hypothesis be admitted, the divine revelation of the Old Testament is reduced to mere religious sentiment. This leads to all sorts of errors and heresies. Remember, the primary teaching of the Documentarians is that the Pentateuch does not date from the time of Moses but was compiled almost a thousand years later, after the Exile, and only after much editing to make Israelite history “fit” with post-Exilic Jewish belief. If this is the case, then Israelite history is completely naturalistic in origin. That is, the Israelite religion was not formed on the basis of a divine revelation from God, but rather from natural processes of self-reflection, adaptation and borrowing from pagan sources. The alleged divine intervention of God becomes an afterthought, something the Israelites think about their relation with God rather than an objective truth. This means that much of Genesis, especially the stories of the patriarchs, are mere legends. To quote Wellhausen:

From the patriarchal narratives it is impossible to obtain any historical information with regard to the patriarchs; we can only learn something about the time in which the stories about them were first told by the Israelite people. This later period, with all its essential and superficial characteristics, was unintentionally projected back into hoary antiquity and is reflected there like a transfigured mirage. (6)

Elsewhere in the same work, Wellhausen says that Abraham was “a free creation of unconscious art” (7).

Consequently, monotheism must be a very late development in Israelite history. The revelation of “I AM THAT I AM” to Moses and the monotheism of the patriarchs are fables. Kuenen, the disciple of Wellhausen, wrote:

The Hebrews were undoubtedly polytheists…At first the religion of Israel was polytheism. During the eighth century B.C. the great majority of the people still acknowledged the existence of many gods, and what is more, they worshipped them. And we can add that, during the seventh century, and down to the beginning of the Babylonish exile (586 B.C.), this state of things remained unaltered…To what one might call the universal, or at least the common rule, that religion begins with fetishism, then develops into polytheism, and then, but not before, ascends to monotheism – that is to say, if this highest stage be reached – to this rule the Israelites are no exception (8).

Notice the Hegelian dialectic applied to the development of religion, as if it were self-evident or even remotely empirically verified that polytheism necessarily gives way to monotheism. The advent of monotheism is usually attributed to the time of the prophets or even after the Exile; some go so far as to credit the prophets with the invention of monotheism. One Documentarian, Robert Pfieffer, surprisingly attributes the invention of monotheism to Amos:

Amos, without discrimination of race or nation, planted the roots of universal religion, from which were to grow the great monotheistic religions of salvation, Judaism, Christianity and Islam (9).

Since a direct revelation from God is ruled out a priori, Israelite monotheism therefore must have developed along regular evolutionary channels like all other religions.

All of these silly theories are put forward on the support of a certain methodology which exalts literary and linguistic considerations above all else. That all of these theories could be deduced by simply analyzing the text is probably the most outrageous aspect of the Documentary Hypothesis. Archaeology and history are almost discarded entirely in favor of literary and philological considerations. The Protestant Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, for all its errors, actually hits the nail on the head in its article on the Documentary Hypothesis:

In its standard form the documentary hypothesis rested upon arguments of two kinds: those based upon literary and linguistic evidence, which resulted in the division of the Pentateuchal material into various written sources; and those based upon historical evidence for the evolution of religious institutions and ideals in Israel, which produced an analytical description of the interrelationships among the documents, and a chronological arrangement to account for them. (10)

While it certainly now appears as naive to construct such theories on literary evidence alone, part of the Documentarians’ error is simply that they formulated their doctrines before the age of archaeology had truly dawned. When Wellhausen published his seminal work in 1878, the great age of Egyptology was still thirty years away, and the pivotal excavations of William F. Albright in the Holy Land almost fifty years. More importantly, it would be another long sixty-eight years before the discovery of the first of the Dead Sea scrolls, which would nullify many of the literary arguments the Documentarians insisted on so strongly.

To give an example of how hyper-focused the Documentarians are on analyzing the source text, take the case of Genesis 21;1-2, a simple two Bible verses which the Documentarians chop up into various “sources”. The verses say:

The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him.

According to the critics, “The Lord visited Sarah as He had said” came from the J source, while “and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised” is assigned to P. “And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age” is attributed to J, while “at the time of which God had spoken to him” is said to come from P. (11) The parsing gets down to the level of individual sentences. What absurdity! And there are over one hundred single verses in Genesis which the Documentarians divide up into at least two sources.

When all is said and done,  the Documentary Hypothesis teaches us that Israelite history is basically fraudulent. It is very difficult – nay, impossible – to square the assumptions of the Documentarians with the words of Pope Leo XIII, that “those who maintain that an error is possible in any genuine passage of the sacred writings, either pervert the Catholic notion of inspiration, or make God the author of such error” (12).

Refuting the Documentary Hypothesis

The fundamental premise of the Documentary Hypothesis is simple, and it is only necessary to disprove or at least cast doubt on this premise to knock the Hypothesis down from its position of apparent strength among scholars. The basis of the Documentary Hypothesis is that those sections of the Old Testament which it labels D and P (essentially Deuteronomy and Leviticus) were written around the time of the Exile, almost a thousand years after Moses. Let us once more quote Wellhausen:

To anyone who knows anything about history it is not necessary to prove that the so-called Mosaic theocracy, which nowhere suits the circumstances of the earlier periods, and of which the prophets, even in their most ideal delineations of the Israelite state as it ought to be have not the faintest shadow of an idea, is, so to speak, a perfect fit for post-exilian Judaism, and had its actuality only there (13).

Thus, if it can be proven that Deuteronomy and Leviticus can be confidently dated to the 15th-13th centuries B.C., the Hypothesis collapses. While a very thorough treatment of the dating of these two books is beyond the scope of this article, we will here cite only the main Documentarian arguments for a late dating of these books and offer a rebuttal to each.

The Existence of Writing

Wellhausen and his successors insisted that there was no writing in Israel at the time of Moses (1500-1400 B.C.) and hence a written law code at the time of the Exodus was impossible. As mentioned above, Wellhausen developed his theories prior to the great archaeological excavations of the early 20th century. The cuneiform Ras Shamra inscriptions of Ugarit in Canaan (c. 1400 B.C.), the Amarna Letters of Egypt (c. 1375-1358 B.C.) , the Canaanite inscriptions on Mount Sinai found by Sir Flinders Petrie and dating from 1500 B.C., and the early 1st millennium Gezer Calendar all demonstrate that Canaan was a highly literate place in the 16th-14th centuries B.C. Furthermore, considering the centuries the Israelites spent among the Egyptians (the most highly literate civilization in the ancient world), and the fact that, as a noble, Moses would have almost certainly been trained in writing, it would be much more surprising if the Israelites were not a literate people. Given that the Egyptian, Canaanite, and Mesopotamian civilizations demonstrate a remarkable degree of literary refinement, not only of Moses time, but going back a thousand years before Abraham, it the contention that the Israelites were illiterate can no longer be taken seriously.

Style of Deuteronomy

Moving on to the Book of Deuteronomy, chief repository of alleged D source texts, the Documentarians allege that Deuteronomy was composed during the reign of Josiah and promulgated for the purpose of centralizing Israelite worship in Jerusalem. Thus the “finding” of the Book of the Law in the Temple by Hilkiah in 2 Kings 22:8-13 is nothing but a pious fraud. 

Ironically, this is debunked by appealing to the style of Deuteronomy. In its essence, Deuteronomy strongly reflects the form of the Hittite suzerainty treaties of the second millennium B.C. (the Hittites being the dominant culture in northern Palestine during the period of the Exodus). Both Deuteronomy and the Hittite treaties contain the following elements:

(a) Preamble or title, identifying the author of the covenant
(b) Historical prologue or retrospect, mentioning previous relations between the two parties
(c) Stipulations, basic and detailed – the obligations laid upon the vassal by the sovereign
(d) Deposition of a copy of the covenant in the vassal’s sanctuary, and periodic reading of the covenant to the people
(e) Witnesses, a long list of gods invoked to witness the covenant
(f) Curses and blessings invoked upon the vassal if he breaks or alternately keeps the covenant

Nearly all known treaties of the 15th-13th century B.C. follow this order. It was a stable and recognized literary form for treaties, such that when God dictated the words of Deuteronomy, the Israelites were given to understand that God was essentially entering into a vassal-sovereign treaty with them. Not surprisingly, Deuteronomy follows this structure exactly:

(a) Preamble (1:1-5)
(b) Historical prologue (1:6-3:29)
(c) Stipulations (4-11) basic, and (12-26), detailed
(d) Deposition of the text (31:9, 24-26) and public readings (31:10-12)
(e) Witnesses – since no pagan gods are invoked, the “Song of Moses” is interjected in place of this in 31:16-30 and 32:1-47.
(f) Blessings and cursings (28:1-14, 28:15-68).

The similarities are so direct that most biblical scholars no longer entertain any serious doubt that Deuteronomy exhibits the structure of a suzerainty treaty common to the 15th-13th century B.C. (14) Even contemporary Documentarians are beginning to grudgingly accept the obvious. Gerhard von Rad, a German form critic and Documentarian, writes:

Comparison of the ancient Near Eastern treaties, especially those made by the Hittites in the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C., with passages in the Old Testament has revealed so many things in common between the two, particularly in the matter of the form, that there must be some connection between these suzerainty treaties and the exposition of the details of Jahweh’s covenant with Israel given in certain passages in the Old Testament” (15).

This argument is further clinched by the fact that this particular literary form did not survive the collapse of the Hittite empire around 1178 B.C. Many treaties from the early to mid first millennium survive—those of the Assyrians, Babylonians, etc.— but these bear little resemblance to the Hittite treaties of the 15th century. The structure of the covenants and the manner in which they bound their vassals were entirely different. By the late 7th-6th century, when Deuteronomy was supposed to have been composed, these treaties had been extinct for almost seven hundred years. For those who maintain a late date for Deuteronomy, how is it that the Deuteronomic author was able to so accurately reproduce, down to the smallest detail, the exact complex legal structure of a form that predated him by a millennium? Where exactly would he get this information?

The answer, of course, is that it makes much more sense from a stylistic perspective to date Deuteronomy from the 15th-13th century B.C., roughly where it dates itself and where tradition has placed it. A similar argument can be made regarding God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17, which also reflects a striking similarity with vassal-suzerainty treaties of the early 2nd millennium B.C.

Deuteronomy: Geographical Considerations

If Deuteronomy was composed during the late kingdom period, we would expect its geographical expressions to reflect the political geography of Israel of the 7th century, not the geography of the 15th century, of which the Deuteronomic author would have no insight. Yet the descriptions of Moabite country and the descriptions of the wanderings of chapters 1-3 bear a stronger resemblance to the geography of pre-conquest Canaan than late-kingdom Judah. The omissions are also telling; if Deuteronomy was written in the days of Josiah, we would expect some sort of hint of the importance of Jerusalem (remember, the Documentarians say the whole purpose of Deuteronomy was to centralize worship in Jerusalem). Yet there is no hint of Jerusalem in Deuteronomy; nor is Ramah mentioned, which was the center of religious life during the long priesthood of Samuel, nor is there any mention of Shiloh, where the Ark and Tabernacle stood for generations during the period of the judges. How could a document of the 7th century evidence such familiarity with the geography of the 15th century whilst simultaneously omitting all references to contemporary geography? The answer, of course, is that the document was written in the 15th century, when it claims to have been written.

Antiquity of Legislation

Another argument in favor of a late date for Deuteronomy is the complexity of the legislation, which Documentarians say is more advanced and better reflects the refined moral and community life of the late kingdom period than the Exodus; essentially, that the Israelites of the Exodus were too primitive to have produced such a complex law code.

Of course, we can retort that the law is given by God, not developed by man. Still, man must be sufficiently cultured to receive, understand and implement that law. Again, here the early origin of Documentarian theories before the great age of archaeology hurts their theory. The complexity of the Mari Tablets (c. 1700 B.C.), the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1750), the Iraqi Nuzi Tablets (c. 1500 B.C.), and Ebla Tablets (c. 2250) and the wealth of material out of Egypt prove that the moral, literary and cultural achievements of the second millennium B.C. rendered their civilizations perfectly capable of receiving a law such as that found in Deuteronomy. 

The P-Source and Post-Exilic Judaism

The P source—mainly Leviticus, Numbers and those parts of the law associated with priestly ritual—is said to be the last part of Pentateuch to be composed, around 450 B.C., according to the Documentarians. Thus, the ceremonial law reflects not any prescriptions from the 15th century B.C., but rather the post-Exilic period. If this were true, it is difficult to understand why the P texts speak so much about things like the Urim and Thummim, Nazrites, the tabernacle, Ark of the Covenant, cities or refuge, the test of adultery by ordeal, wave offerings and many other things that were complete anachronisms by the post-Exilic period. It also would not explain why there are several features present in post-Exilic Judaism which find no reference in P, like liturgical singing and music, prominence of scribes, designation of the central sanctuary as the “Temple,” and of course, the importance of the City of Jerusalem. If P really were written in the post-Exilic period, we would not expect it to contain so many features that were completely absent from post-Exilic Judaism; similarly, we would expect P to contain references to other features that were prominent in post-Exilic Judaism. The fact that we see neither indicates that Leviticus was composed exactly when it claims to have been, during the time of the Exodus.

Further evidence that Leviticus antedates the Exile comes from the Book of Amos and Deuteronomy, both of which demonstrate familiarity with the proscriptions of Leviticus. For example, Deuteronomy 15:1 speaks about the year of Jubilee, which also appears in Leviticus 25:2, even though according to the Documentarians Deuteronomy is supposed to precede Leviticus by several centuries. Compare Deut. 23:9, 10/Lev. 15, Deut. 24:8/Lev. 1, 14, Amos 2:11/Num. 6:1-21, Amos 4:5/Lev. 2:11, Amos 5:22/Lev. 7,8, Amos 4:5/Lev. 7, Amos 5:21/Lev. 23, Hos. 12:9/Lev. 23:42. Clearly pre-Exilic Judaism was very familiar with the Levitical law for it to feature so prominently in the books of Deuteronomy, Amos, Hosea and others. This strongly suggests Leviticus was composed much earlier than the Documentary Hypothesis allows. Already by 755 B.C. there was a written body of law, including both Deuteronomy and Leviticus, and called by Amos “the Law (Torah) of the Lord” (Amos 2:4) and accepted by Israel as an authentic and binding body of legislation.

The Tabernacle

Documentarians assume the tabernacle of Exodus never existed. As centralized worship of Yahweh did not begin in Israel until very late into the kingdom period—according to the Documentarians—the existence of something such as the tabernacle is inadmissible, a pure creation of the post-Exilic imagination. According to Wellhausen:

The temple, the focus to which worship was concentrated, and which was not built until Solomon’s time, is by this document regarded as so indispensable even for the troubled days of the wanderings before the settlement, that it is made portable, and in the form of a tabernacle, set up in the very beginning of things. For the truth is, that the tabernacle is the copy, not the prototype, of the temple at JerusalemThe tabernacle rests on an historical fiction…at the outset its very possibility is doubtful. (16)

Another citation from a turn-of-the century Documentarian, S.R. Driver:

The Tabernacle, as described by P, represents, not a historical structure, which once actually existed, but an ideal, an ideal, based upon a historical reality, but far transcending it, and designed as the embodiment of certain spiritual ideas. (17)

Besides the assumption that there was no monotheism in Israel at such an early date, the Documentarians presume that the Israelites could not have produced a structure so elaborate. However, again, the Documentary Hypothesis suffers from ignoring archaeology. A prefabricated, portable canopy belonging to Queen Heterpheres I of Egypt (mother of Cheops) dating from 2600 B.C. is still in existence. It contains a framework of long beams, rods, corner posts, and lintels, all overlaid with gold and containing hooks for curtains all around. It fit together using tenons and sockets for rapid construction or dismantling. Several of these structures are depicted in tomb art dating from the Old Kingdom period (c. 2850-2200). Other portable tents of ancient Egypt were the tents of purification in which the corpses of royal persons were carried to and from the rituals of embalming. These ‘tents’ were large structures featuring cloth hangings on a framework of poles or pillars linked by horizontal beams. Many of these have been discovered. In view of the existence of other Tabernacle-like structures almost a millennium prior to the Exodus, there is no sufficient rationale for denying the existence of a structure such as the Tabernacle among the Israelites of the 15th century B.C. Furthermore, the Semites of the New Kingdom period known to the Egyptians were skilled craftsmen and valued for their mechanical ability. There is no warrant for suggesting that the Israelites of the Exodus would not have possessed such mechanical knowledge as to build a collapsible tent.

Terminology of Leviticus

It is sometimes asserted that much of the liturgical phraseology of Leviticus is post-Exilic in origin. Phrases like kalil (“burnt offering”) and the rest of the ceremonial vocabulary are said to have originated with the priestly class of the Second Temple period. The discovery of the Ras Shamra tablets at the Canaanite city of Ugarit, first  edited and published in 1971, debunks this assertion. The Ras Shamra tablets, dating to 1400 B.C. (i.e., the generation of the Exodus), contain not only word kalil, but also ishsheh (“offering made by fire”), shelamin (“peace offering”) and asham (“guilt offering”). Though they are obviously used in a pagan context, these term sin the Ras Shamra tablets demonstrate that this vocabulary was current in Palestine at the time of Moses. Thus there is no reason to suggest a late date for Leviticus based on vocabulary.

Appeal to Redactors

Finally, we should make mention of the Documentarian method of “appeal to redactors.”  The Documentarian claim in that different sections of the Pentateuch can be isolated to different “sources” based on their literary features, like style, terminology, Hebrew words used for God, etc. Yet sometimes features from one source are found in another source. For example, the use of the divine name Elohim signifies the E source while Yahweh signifies the J source (the P source uses Elohim until Exodus 6:3 but thereafter uses Yahweh). However, Elohim occurs in the J source passages Gen. 31:50 and Gen. 33:5, 11 while Yahweh occurs in P source passages Gen. 17:1 and 21:1, both prior to Ex. 6:3. Yahweh also occurs in the E source passages Gen. 21:33, 22:4, 28:21 and Exodus 18:1, 8-11.

The critic’s answer to this problem is an appeal to a redactor: that a later scribe who compiled and edited the work either mistakenly copied the wrong name in the wrong spot or else took the liberty of changing the names occasionally. The appeal to the redactors is central to the Documentary Hypothesis and is in fact one of its major weaknesses. It means that wherever simple breaking up of the text will not yield the source desired by the Documentary critics, it must be alleged that a redactor has altered the sources. If Yahweh is the divine name used by the J source, then the presence of the name Elohim in Genesis 31:50 must be attributed to a redactor.

It is important to realize how circular this reasoning is: the whole hypothesis is said to be deduced from the features of the text; but if the features of the text do not suit the hypothesis, those features are rejected as being the work of redactors or corruptions in the manuscript. Every appeal to a redactor is in fact a tacit admission of the Documentary Hypothesis’s insufficiency.

Furthermore, if the Old Testament is as full of errors and contradictory accounts as the Documentarians claim, then this alleged “redactor” was probably the worst editor in all of human history.


The Documentary Hypothesis, which posits a very late date of composition for the Pentateuch from four or more different sources, has its origins not in sound biblical exegesis but in a flawed philosophy of history based on the ideas of Hegel. Arising as it did in the late 1800’s prior to the golden age of archaeology, its myopic focus on literary form criticism is methodologically flawed. It also fails historically, as there is no credible historical reason to suppose late composition dates for Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers. Everything about the alleged D and P sources can be easily situated in the context of the 15th century B.C. As archaeological research moves forward, everything we uncover continues to prove what a complex and cultured society Moses and the Israelites of the Exodus existed in. Thus the Documentary Hypothesis, with its faith-destroying J,E,D,P theory, need not be taken seriously by Catholics. It fails both methodologically, historically and theologically, as its presuppositions inevitably lead to heresy. Catholic exegetes and scholars who use this bankrupt, dated theory ought to abandon it and return to the traditional teaching of the unified, integral nature of the Pentateuch and its authorship in the 15th-13th century B.C.

(1) Herbert F. Hahn, The Old Testament in Modern Research (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), pp 9-10
(2) Paul Feinberg, “The Doctrine of God in the Pentateuch”, Ph.D. Dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1968, pg. 3 
(3) Quoted in James Orr, The Problem of the Old Testament (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917), 47
(4) Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel. Trans by Black and Menzies (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1885), pp. 3-4
(5) Pope St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, 7
(6) Wellhausen, Prolegomena, 331
(7) ibid., 320
(8) A. Kuenen, The Religion of Israel. Trans. by Alfred Heath May (Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1874), 270, 223-225
(9) Robert Pfieffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Harpers & Bros, 1948), 580
(10) Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George A. Buttrick (New York: Abdington Press, 1962), 713
(11) The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, pg. 2, 34, 85
(12) Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus, 21 (1893)
(13) Wellhausen, 151
(14) We recommend Kenneth Kitchen The Ancient Orient and the Old Testament (1966) and Meredith Kline’s article “Dynastic Covenant” (1961) for more on the similarities between Deuteronomy and these ancient treaties.
(15) Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, 2 vols (Edinburgh & London: Oliver and Lloyd LTD, 1962),132
(16) Wellhausen, 36-37, 39
(17) S.R. Driver, “Book of Exodus”, Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: The University Press, 1911),426

I also want to acknowledge the help of Josh McDowell’s book, New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, which pointed me to a lot of the passages from Wellhausen as well as the modern criticisms of the Documentary Hypothesis and is generally a good resource for this issue.

Phillip Campbell, “Deconstructing the Documentary Hypothesis,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, August 27, 2014. Available online at