The Documentary Hypothesis does Damage to the Bible


Published on October 23, 2009 by Stephen Rives

This series came in seven installments: an Intro, then Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Because I am preaching through Genesis it seems fair to introduce the Old Testament documentary hypothesis (sometimes called the JEDP theory), its relationship to Genesis studies, and my reasons for rejecting it.

Instead of working from scratch it is expedient to construct the next few blogs around the book, Before Abraham Was: A Provocative Challenge to the Documentary Hypothesis by Kikawada (Berkeley) and Quinn (Princeton). Their book is borrowed scaffolding. Along the way I will show where my perspective varies from theirs, but my main objective is to explore the documentary hypothesis and reasons for my rejection of it.

An Admission
I am not trying to be fair to all adherents of the documentary hypothesis. That is, I necessarily will work with main thrusts coming from the theory, even as I know that nuances abound and updated versions have new tweaks, twists and turns. I maintain, however, that updates and tweaks to a sunken ship won’t free it from its watery grave, restore its crew, and get it sailing. I am no more persuaded by the latest apologetics of Jehovah Witnesses or Islam than I am with the next defense from the documentary hypothesizers.

A Definition
The documentary hypothesis of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) states that there is a long history and complex layering of story fragments that comprise Genesis. The Darwinian view of the Grand Canyon is illustrative of the hypothesis. As with the Canyon, one looks upon stratum and supposedly gets irrefutable evidence for long evolutionary periods. The writings of Moses are his in name only, for really they are accretions — the production of so many editors over so many centuries. Each contributor laid down their particular layer until, over time, the Pentateuch finally reached a settled state. This is a hypothesis grown in the same dark and moldy room as Darwinian evolution. It too is rooted in the 1800s as it is, “a characteristic product of its time…” (9).

According to the program of the documentary hypothesizers, Genesis 1-11 is not read as the unveiling of one mind — not Moses’s, let alone God’s — but is a particolored quilt of seams and patches that betray the tinkerings of Jewish scribes. These editors secretly and anonymously created a poorly done religious history that shows no higher design than propagandized agendas. As man evolved from apes, so the books of Moses are not by special design; they are manuscripts that suffer the accidents of time. They emerged as survivors of religious fitness and scribal mutations.

They have a presently stable form despite their tumultuous struggle to emerge from the scribal slime. According to the clever inspectional work of specially trained researchers from the 19th century, that scribal slime turns out to be composed of at least four detectable editors. We don’t know who the editors are, of course, but we can assign them names. The most common monikers for the four are J, E, P and D. That is, the J editor (along with her disciples and followers) is uniquely discernible behind particular patches in the variegated quilt. Of course, discerning J is not a black and white venture because the specially trained researches are not uniform in their imaginations.

A Problem
Just as Darwin’s evolution is pre-Micro Biology, pre-Computer, pre-Flight, pre-Hubble, pre-NASA, pre-GNOME, pre-Einstein, pre-Nuclear, … so the documentary hypothesis is a leftover from an age long gone. The documentary hypothesis was a mistake of history never meant to upstage the real sciences of Archaeology, Egyptology, Assyriology and Linguistics. Biblical studies can be likened to other sciences. As the physical sciences frequently abandon false starts, Biblical studies are not beholden to failed conjectures advanced during the pre-archaeological period.

Before Abraham Was. Chapter 1
Genesis 1-11 tells the story of creation, Adam, the fall, Noah, the flood, the tower of Babel and the emergence of nations. The pre-flood period is as its own world with its own history. Out of the ark emerged a new history distinct from Genesis 1-5. And in terms of God’s redemptive activity, all of it is a prelude to Abraham (who shows up in Genesis 12). “Before Abraham Was” refers to the long and complex history of Genesis 1-11.

The Name (הַשֵּׁם)
In the telling of Judah’s long and complex history, God’s name is alternatively “Elohim”, “Yahweh” and sometimes “Yahweh Elohim”. Switches between these names are taken to be the DNA evidence of different editors. According to the documentary hypothesis, Genesis 1-5 is internally grouped according to two editorial schools — one written by priests who use “Elohim” and one from the editors who use “Yahweh.” To this day Yahweh is not a name often spoken by Jews. At some point in the Jewish past (perhaps after the destruction of the temple in AD 70), the name Yahweh ceased to be pronounced by the religiously pious. It is a priestly concern that guards the name as holy.

The Sources: J, E, P, D
J, E, P and D are names given to the theoretical schools who wrote that which Moses wished he wrote (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). In fact, the only thing that documentary scholars seem to agree about is that Moses and his helpers were too dense to pull off the complex writing that recorded God’s activities. In fact, when they get done with their hypothetical scholarship, Moses himself probably did not exist, the exodus is a myth, and the only thing that is certain is that they are scholars of what they consider to be a fairytale book. Following this pattern, in 2000 years I expect people to get their PhDs in Harry Potter and then to endlessly debate and pretend that their ideas merit the attention of other scholars.

P stands for Priestly and designates the supposed editor who reworked material according to a late priest’s perspective. An orthodox priest of Jerusalem (writing after the Babylonians took Jerusalem) sees God as above, wholly other, far off, creating by his words, inhabiting his high mountain, instituting Sabbath, and dwelling in a heavenly and exalted temple. The P editors used Elohim as the name of the deity (being too humble to evoke the covenant name). Thus the P material of Genesis can be detected in the use of the name Elohim, particularly when God is acting or speaking with priest-like concerns (holiness, sacrifices, otherness, exalted status, etc.).

J is for Jehovah. The Hebrew name Yahweh was rendered by Germans scholars (leaders in the development of the documentary hypothesis) as Jehovah. I use Yahweh and Jehovah interchangeably. The documentary hypothesis postulates that Yahweh/Jehovah would have connoted the view of a conservative religious editor writing from a Jerusalem-like perspective. Namely, Yahweh is the name of the God who was with Israel in the wilderness. Yahweh is the God who walked in the garden of Eden. He is the relational God with a revealed covenantal name. The conservative religious editor is from the southern kingdom of Judah and employed the name Jehovah as a polemical way to obtain distance from the polytheistic religions.

E is the name of the non-Priestly editor who used “Elohim” to reference God. Elohim is plural. This plural form is interpreted as a residual of a polytheistic editor. It represents a theological point of view — a view that would have been at home in the northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim). Roughly speaking, E designates editors from Ephraim who were less critical of polytheism and who used the name Elohim to reference God (II Kings 1:3).

One can see how the documentary hypothesis is capable of putting a lot of stock in a name. The selection of a name to alternately encode a polytheistic or monotheistic worldview is to laden one word with the essence of a religious debate. Of course it is possible that the plural ending is a theological polemic revealing the polytheistic DNA of northern editors, but if we go by an argument from possibilities, then it is just possible that it is not the case. In fact, by Occam’s razor, the documentary hypothesis asks one word to do too much.

Naming the different editors and authors, the books of “Moses” can be graphically sliced and color coded according to the different contributors.

However, the documentary hypothesis is sophisticated enough that it won’t be boiled-down to name usage only. One can observe that with each switch in name (Elohim vs. Yahweh), there is a corresponding switch in literary style. Genesis 1, for example, has a different feel than Genesis 2. Genesis 1 uses Elohim and Genesis 2 uses Yahweh. One style is Priestly (P), another is Yahwehistic (J).

So what we find in Genesis 1-5 are not only changes in vocabulary, narrative styles, and theologies, but also unnecessary…repetitions–and all these obey the general sectioning of Genesis 1-5 suggested by the divine names. (20).

Inventors of the Documentary Hypothesis have Invented a Crisis
The astute reader detects stylistic changes as Genesis unfolds; chapter 1 gives way to chapter 2, and things move around and the story has development and action as we go from 2 to 3 all the way to the end of the book. At this point the documentary hypothesis invents a crisis by finding contradictions whenever the camera angle changes or when a new character comes in uninvited. After the crisis is elevated to the level of a force-ten hurricane, the hypothetical scholar puts on his cape and the documentary hero emerges to save us from the dreadful deluge.

The documentary hypothesis had its own Noah, and his name was Wellhausen (21).

Without a single story teller, we are quickly saved from the notion of a single theme. The story of the Bible can’t be about Jesus (who named himself as the theme in John 5:39), but is about something altogether different. The Bible becomes the story of hypothesizing scholars. It becomes the story of how 19th century scholarship untangled the mess of ancient Hebrew texts.

Scholars of the Documentary Hypothesis are Self Created Heroes
The creation story ceases to be how the Holy Spirit brooded over the formless void to create order. Genesis becomes a formless mass of texts where vipers find their brood wherein to hatch hypothetical scholars. The documentary scholars have come to save us from the despair of an ancient story that moves along and has development. They save us by saying there is no theme and there is no single author. They relieve us of seeing how God and Moses wrote the Pentateuch. The hypothetical scholar becomes the hypothetical savior to save us from thinking that God wrote a book. God is dethroned, and the scholar is put in his place.

Our salvation comes in realizing that we have been tricked. There is no unified author and only the discovery of editors shows the order embedded in the formless crisis. They created the problem, and they created the solution, and they are the real heroes of the story. The Bible, it turns out, is about them and their scholarship.

The Documentary Hypothesizers are Blind to Masterminds and Artists
The documentary hypothesizers don’t know about single authors who write complex, changing and multi-faceted masterpieces. A single book, like Genesis, with a single author… it is preposterous! Who could imagine such a thing? Moses writing Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 would be like a musician who could play two instruments. Vocalists can sing only one song. Artists can make only one album. Narrators can’t write poetry, and poets can’t write history, and historians can’t make music. Moses couldn’t write Genesis, because that would mean he was able to write both Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 (and that insanity would be a crisis of Biblical proportion). It is too complex. Genesis was created over centuries and each editor attributed his part according to his editorial-kind. And so the crisis is solved. Salvation has come and we are relieved from believing that one author could have written an amazing book.

If Genesis 1-5 is the product of a single author, then that author is capable of two quite different narrative styles and no compunction about using them…from this thesis and antithesis we would expect him to attempt a synthesis, a synthesis that would exhibit to an even greater degree his theological profundity and literary virtuosity (21).

How to Answer a Fool
Kikawada and Quinn are sharp, almost sarcastic, in how they represent the documentary hypothesis — perhaps following the Proverb, “answer a fool according to his folly.” If a fool thinks that the many colors of a great painting prove that the painting had many artists and many pallets, then what is left to say? Great artists do paint great paintings. Genius authors do write complex books. God did create the visible and invisible realms and all that is in them — writing down his deeds seems like a lesser feat. The answer for the fool is too obvious to give, so sarcasm may be all that is left for them.

God is the Author of the Bible
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. His story has a beginning and an end, and Jesus is the Alpha and Omega. The story is history that radiates from a point and consummates in a Lamb. God has worked and created according to a unified purpose; the Holy Spirit hovered over the formless void to bring it into conformity to the pattern of the architect. The same God who did this promised by his Spirit that he would attend to the keeping of the divine records. Earth would contain a written copy of the heavenly records (John 14:26), and it does. We have the Bible. It is a book divine in origin. This is no more incredible than a God who can create the whole cosmos. Whoever invented atoms, molecules, air, water, cells, blood, frogs, trees, dirt, elephants, you, volcanoes, quarks, planets, space, and light can have a book. In the grand scheme of things, to believe that God wrote a book is not a crisis.

The documentary hypothesis is a rival theology that presumes to talk about God. It refuses to have him as he is revealed. Like the first rebel force, it starts by asking, “Has God really said” (Gen 3:1), and then goes on to articulate how God is not the Alpha and Omega. God becomes like us, only less so, for he is nothing more than the invention of an editor or a theologian from the 1800s. Documentary hypothesizers are unable to see a single author, and so the question of a single theme is not even a possibility for them. When we can’t find a single author for the Bible, it becomes a collection of circumstantially gathered writings bound together from evolutionary processes. If God can’t keep a record, then he can’t give us his grand theme or purpose. The documentary hypothesis is nothing more than another way of saying Amen to the crafty serpent of the garden.

Steve Rives
Eastside Church of the Cross


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