4 Problems With the Documentary Hypothesis Theory of Genesis Authorship

Moody Bible Commentary
header for 4 Problems With the Documentary Hypothesis Theory of Genesis Authorship

The Pentateuch was one of the first portions of the Bible in the post-Enlightenment period to be seriously reexamined by humanist-inclined scholars. The starting point for these scholars’ research was the conviction that the Bible is a purely (or primarily) human literary product, representing a collection of various ancient Near Eastern sources, both historical and mythological, which were collected, systematized, edited, and refashioned over centuries of time.

The application to the Pentateuch (and thus to Genesis) of this less-than-traditional approach was consolidated toward the beginning of the 19th century under the rubric of what has come to be known as the “documentary” or “JEDP” theory of the Pentateuch’s origins. According to this theory the Pentateuch is comprised of at least four different sources (Jahwistic, Elohistic, Deuteronomic, and Priestly), each of which is characterized by certain distinct features and emphases.

The ideological starting point of this view and its attendant methodology is, necessarily, that Moses did not write (or, at the very least, may not have written) the Pentateuch. A review of some of the “proofs” of this assertion illustrates the tenuousness, and even the circular logic through which the data are sifted:

1. The Different Names for God.

In the Torah, different names for God are used in different passages, so advocates of the documentary hypothesis claim that this indicates different sources. For example, God is called Elohim in Gn 1:1–2:3 but called Yahweh Elohim (the Lord God) in Gn 2:4–3:24. This, however, does not derive from two separate sources but rather two distinct emphases. Elohim is the name for God as the Almighty Creator of the universe, while Yahweh is the relational, covenant name for God. It makes sense therefore, that the passage that describes the creation of the world would use Elohim, but the passage that describes the creation of humanity would use His relational name. Moreover, multiple names for God appear in other literature, such as Homer’s epics and the Quran, without requiring different sources.

2. The Presence of Duplications.

In the Torah, there are several accounts that some claim are repetitions of the same event. For example, it is claimed that there are two creation accounts (1:1–2:3; 2:4-25), two covenant accounts (chaps. 15, 17); two banishments of Hagar (chaps. 16, 21); two name changes for Jacob (32:28; 35:10); two times Abraham claims Sarah as his sister, as does Isaac once (12:11-13; 20:11-13; 26:7); two complaints about food resolved by manna and quail (Ex 16:1-21; Nm 11:4-35); and two times water came from the rock (Ex 17:1-7; Nm 20:813). However, several possible reasons exist for these repetitions that do not require multiple sources. These events happened repeatedly, and the author included them for emphasis, or to show patterns of behavior, or to complement one another. In each case, there are good literary reasons for these repetitions.

3. The Presence of Anachronisms

It is claimed that when the text notes that “the Canaanite was then in the land” (Gn 12:6; 13:7) it reflects authorship at a time long after Moses when the Canaanites no longer were the dominant people in the land. Hence, the author was informing the audience of a prior state of affairs. However, the statements may simply imply that Moses, writing to the generation about to enter the land, sought to remind them that the Canaanites were also there in the days of the patriarchs. Another alleged anachronism is that the ancient city of Laish is called Dan (Gn 14:14), a name only given to that city after the conquest of Canaan (Jos 19:47; Jdg 18:29). However, calling the city Dan in the account of Abraham may be a result of a later scribe, when copying the Torah before the close of the OT canon, updating the city name, so that later generations would be able to identify the city under discussion. Another alleged anachronism is the statement that certain kings reigned in Edom “before any king reigned over the sons of Israel” (Gn 36:31), implying that this was written many years after Moses when there was kingship in Israel. But this could merely be Moses anticipating that Israel would one day have a king (cf. Dt 17:14-20) or even an editorial comment by a later scribe, copying the text before the close of the OT canon, and reflecting that Israel did indeed have kings later.

Clearly, these and other alleged anachronisms are easily resolved by recognizing that later scribes, writing before the close of the OT canon, would bring place names and circumstances up to date so that the readers could better understand the text.

4. The Characterization of Moses

This claim is that the Torah speaks of Moses as if he were a character in the narrative and not the author. For example, in the Torah, Moses is spoken of in the third person. This claim presupposes that the early Israelites were either unacquainted with or literarily too unsophisticated to employ the technique of third-person self-reference. However, this technique is attested in many instances throughout the OT (as in Ezra, Nehemiah, and most of the prophetic books) as well as in the NT and early postbiblical Hebrew literature. Another example is that the Torah reports that Moses “was very humble, more than every human on the face of the earth” (Nm 12:3). It is difficult to picture the humblest man on earth writing these words. However, this is a problem only if the concept of humility is understood as “marked by meekness or modesty,” “low in rank,” or “deferential.” But the Hebrew term ’anav conveys the fundamental idea of “unworthiness,” “needy,” or even “afflicted” (see, e.g., Pss 10:16; 34:3; Is 29:19; 61:1). One other example is that the Torah includes an account of Moses’ death (Dt 34). However, all that this indicates is that Moses did not write the last part of Dt and that God used a later prophet to add these words.

For Further Reading:

The Moody Bible Commentary

by Michael A. Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham

Imagine having a team of 30 Moody Bible Institute professors helping you study the Bible. Now you can with this in-depth, user-friendly,...

book cover for The Moody Bible Commentary