The Documentary Hypothesis, and the identity of the Pentateuch’s authors

History of the Documentary Hypothesis:

Both Judaism and Christianity assumed that the Pentateuch — the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) were written by Moses, as the Bible itself states. However, in recent centuries, alternative authorship has been proposed. The documentary hypothesis is now accepted by essentially all mainline and liberal theologians.

  • 11th Century CE: Isaac ibn Yashush suggested that the list of the Edomite kings in Genesis 36 was added by an unknown person after Moses died. For this assertion, he became known as “Isaac the Blunderer.” 1
  • 15th Century: Bishop Tostatus suggested that certain passages were written by one of the prophets, not by Moses.
  • 16th Century: Andreas van Maes suggested that an editor added additional material to some of Moses’ writings.
  • 17th Century: Thomas Hobbes prepared a collection of passages that seemed to negate Moses’ authorship.
  • 18th Century: Three investigators (Witter, Astruc and Eichhorn) independently concluded that doublets in the Torah were written by two different authors.
    A doublet is a story that is described twice, as in:

    •  the two creation stories in Genesis;
    • two descriptions of the covenant between God and Abraham;
    • two stories about the naming of Isaac;
    • two stories about the renaming of Jacob;
    • two versions of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5);.
    • two accounts of Moses’ striking the rock at Meribah

These doublets appeared to contradict each other. In most cases, one referred to God as Yahweh while the other used the term Elohim.

  • 19th Century: Scholars noticed that there were a few triplets in the Torah. This indicated that a third author was involved. Then, they determined that the book of Deuteronomy was written in a different language style from the remaining 4 books in the Pentateuch. Finally, by the end of the 19th Century, liberal scholars reached a consensus that 4 authors and one redactor (editor) had been actively involved in the writing of the Pentateuch.
  • 20th Century: Academics have continued to refine the Documentary Hypothesis by identifying which verses (and parts of verses) were authored by the various writers. They have also attempted to uncover the names of the authors. In 1943, Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu in which he urged academics to study the sources of Biblical texts. Recent archaeological discoveries and new linguistic analysis tools have facilitated the research into the hypothesis.

Belief in the documentary hypothesis was triggered by a number of factors, such as:

  •  Anachronisms, like the list of the Edomite kings;
  • Duplicate and triplicate passages
  • Various passages portrayed God in different ways;
  • The flood story appears to involve the meshing of two separate stories;
  • The belief, centuries ago, by archaeologists and linguists that writing among the ancient Hebrews only developed after the events portrayed in the Pentateuch. Thus, Moses would have been incapable of writing the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.

These factors led theologians to the conclusion that the Pentateuch is a hybrid document which was written well after Moses’ death, and much later than the events portrayed. The authors and redactors are unknown, and are commonly referred to as authors J, E, P and D.

As it happens, their belief about Moses being illiterate is probably wrong. Archaeological evidence has since been found which shows that all of the major civilizations surrounding the Hebrews were literate at the apparent time of the Exodus. So one can assume that Moses knew how to read and write.

Writing by various authors, according to the documentary hypothesis:

J: a writer who:

  • focuses on humanity in his/her writing;
  • might possibly have been a woman. His/her writing shows much greater sensitivity towards women than does E;
  • regularly used “JHWH” as God’s name;
  • describes God in anthropomorphic terms: God formed Adam from clay; he walked and talked with Adam and Eve in the garden; he spoke to Moses;
  • lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, during an early period of Israel’s history when they followed a nature/fertility religion. May have been a member of the Judean court;
  • wrote a more or less complete story of the history of the Israelites from a Judean perspective;
  •  J was probably written sometime between 848 BCE (when King Jehoram gained power in Judah) and 722 BCE when the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom Israel and took its people into exile. Some scholars date J to the 10th century BCE.

E: a writer who

  •  writes about religious and moralistic concerns;
  • in all probability was a man;
  • consistently used “Elohim” as God’s name;
  • lived in the northern kingdom of Israel;
  • wrote a more or less complete story of the history of the Israelites from the perspective of the northern kingdom, including that version of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20;
  • probably wrote between 922 and 722 BCE;
  • y have been a priest from Shiloh who viewed Moses as his spiritual ancestor.

 D: a writer who:

  • lived after J and E, because he was familiar with later developments in Israel’s history. He lived at a time when the religion of ancient Israel was in its spiritual/ethical stage, about 622 BCE.
  •  wrote almost all of book of Deuteronomy, as well as Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. A second writer edited the original text after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. He added the last two chapters to 2 Kings and inserted short passages elsewhere to reflect the change in circumstances brought about by the Babylonian attack.
  • lived in Judah – probably in Jerusalem;
  • was probably a Levitical priest – perhaps Jeremiah.

P: a writer who:

  • focused his writings on God;
  • added material from a priestly perspective. It discusses priests’ lives, religious rituals, dates, measurements, chronologies, genealogies, worship and law;
  • was a priest who identified Aaron as his spiritual ancestor;
  • views God as a distant, transcendent deity, less personal than in J and E; sometimes harsh and critical. The words “mercy,” “grace” and “repentance” do not appear in his writing. In contrast, they appear about 70 times in J, E, and D;
  • was displeased with the work of J and E and wrote P as an alternative history;
  •  rejected the concepts of angels, dreams and talking animals that are seen in J & E;
  • believed that only Levites who were descended from Aaron could be priests;
  • lived after J, E and D because he was aware of the books of the Prophets which were unknown to the others. Lived when the country’s religion reached a priestly/legal stage, before the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE;
  • patterned his writing after the topics in J and E.

R: a redactor who:

  • was an Aaronid priest and thus definitely a male.
  • joined the writings of J, E, P and D together into the present Pentateuch.

We have prepared a copy of the first ten chapters of Genesis which identifies the passages contributed by J, P and R. Each of the authors’ writings is shown in text of a different color. In the case of the creation stories, the first legend was written by P. Part way through chapter 2, J takes over and describes a second creation story. In the case of the Noachian Flood, from Genesis 6:5 to 8:22, the redactor has taken a different approach. He alternates between short passages from P and J. One can start at Genesis 6:5 and read the contribution of J; it is a complete story. One can then restart at the beginning and read P’s text. Again, P has written a consistent account – one that differs significantly from J.

How the Pentateuch evolved, according to the documentary hypothesis:

Friedman 3 suggests that when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom in 722 BCE, many refugees streamed south into Judea, bringing their sacred writing “E” with them. Subsequently, E and J were combined into a single document, referred to as “JE.”

D was written perhaps a century later. It was conveniently “discovered” in the temple by the priest Hilkiah in 622 BCE, shortly after it was written. D was then joined with JE

P was written before the death of King Josiah in 609 BCE, probably during the reign of King Hezekiah. It was written as an alternative to JE.

R combined J, E, P and other documents together into the first four books of the Hebrew Scriptures. To this, he added D’s writings, the book of Deuteronomy, to complete the Pentateuch. By the time that he did the editing, the JE, D and P documents were in wide circulation. Each was supported by various factions. R saw his task as attempting to join these sources together into a more or less cohesive, single document. Friedman suspects that Ezra was the redactor.

Of course, the various writers often incorporated into their writings earlier material obtained from Pagan sources outside of Israel and Judah. Friedman writes:

“From the texts found in Mesopotamia, it is clear that types of literature parallel to what is in the Old Testament existed during the period from the third to the first millennia BC. We know of law codes, creation stories, primeval histories, epic stories and the like from various periods of Mesopotamian history.” 4

One might add a flood story with many parallels to the Noachian flood.


R.E. Friedman, “Who Wrote the Bible?” Harper Collins, San Francisco, CA, (1997).
Ibid, Page 79
Ibid, Page 87-88
P.C. Craigie, “The Old Testament: Its Background, Growth & Content,” Welch Publ. Co, Burlington ON Canada, Page 121.
Ken Collins, “The Torah in modern scholarship,” at:

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