Some Objections to the Doumentary Hypothesis

Someone responded to my introduction to the “documentary hypothesis” by pointing to a web site that disagrees with the hypothesis, here: In the interest of responding to objections in general, let me start by commenting on the points made on this site. I should mention that the site is well designed and maintained, and Rev Collins has a lot of excellent material, some of which I agree with. This response is not directed at Rev Collens personally. He seems like a very nice fellow.  I'm simply using his organization of material to formulate a response.

First of all, Rev. Collins implies that the difficulties in authorship were recognized, and accounted for, anciently. “As today, the concept of authorship included the possibilities of ghost writers and editors working under the author’s supervision. Therefore, neither Christians nor Jews had a problem with those passages of the Torah that describe Moses’ death and the ultimate disposition of his body.”

There are several points to be made about this. For one thing, while some of the more obvious problems (such as the account of Moses death) were noticed in ancient times as “issues” – the more analytical evidence assembled for the documentary hypothesis is a very recent development. For another thing, any challenge to Mosaic authorship in earlier historical periods was officially condemned. Both Jews and Christians who suggested any hand other than Moses’ in the Pentateuch suffered ridicule, excommunication, condemnation of their work, censorship and even arrest. Richard Friedman catalogues a few of these in his “Who Wrote the Bible?” The type of analysis that characterizes the documentary hypothesis was only possible when the power of official religion to condemn it had diminished.

But most important, in my earlier discussion ( I pointed out that the incongruities in the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch extended far beyond the death of Moses. Various statements are made from the point of view of authors who are looking back on legendary events from at least the middle monarchial period of Israel. Secretaries and scribal assistants of Moses don’t account for this at all.

Rev. Collins next states, “The documentary hypothesis was formulated in the nineteenth century before the bulk of the archaeological discoveries in the Holy Land.” This would be a valid point if Rev. Collins went on to mention any recent discoveries that tended to disprove the documentary hypothesis. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any. He does mention the discovery of the “Hittites”, but there is much debate about equating the biblical “Hittites” with the Anatolia Empire discovered by archeologists (see Even if they were indeed the same group, it would not alter the documentary hypothesis at all. Not only that, but there have been several discoveries that tend to support the documentary hypothesis. For example, many of the excavated sites in Israel show continuous occupation by the same groups of people since before the traditional time of the conquest of Canaan (see “The Religion of Israel” by William Doorly) This tends to suggest that the conquest as described in the Pentateuch was at least partially a later recounting of an earlier legend, as the documentary hypothesis would suggest. Also, archeological evidence suggests that Israel’s early culture and religion was more fragmented and polytheistic than the Pentateuch portrays it.

Names of God

Next we this: “Since the advocates of this theory use the name of God as the main criterion for detecting the constituent documents of the Torah, we must begin by asking if this criterion is truly valid.” This is a significant misunderstanding. Different names for God are not in fact “the main criterion” for detecting constituent documents – they were rather the first vital clue in suggesting the possibility of multiple authors. The idea of constituent documents was only pursued because differences in the name of God were found to correspond to differences in style, theology, geographic and historical emphasis, politics and point of view.

Rev. Collins compares the different names of God in the Pentateuch with Christian authors in the New Testament who sometimes use Jesus, sometimes Christ, sometimes Jesus Christ etc. in referring to the Lord. But supposing that – when we sorted all the New Testament writings according to their names for Jesus – we found that passages that called him “Jesus” always had a very different point of view and theology than passages that called him “Christ”. Suppose further than the “Jesus” passages always referred to places in Galilee and the Christ passages always referred to places near Jerusalem. With enough of these factors diverging, you would be entirely reasonable to wonder if two different authors were responsible. This is exactly the situation in the documentary hypothesis. Shortly I hope to prepare an illustration of this using the “J” and “P” stories of the flood, which are interwoven into one account in our current version of Genesis.

Hard Evidence

Rev. Collins makes a good point that we no hard evidence of the existence of any of the theoretical source documents of the Pentateuch. While this is an argument from silence, it would seem reasonable to give the benefit of the doubt to the text, if it claims to be a unified whole. Unfortunately, the Pentateuch does not make this claim. It seems to be an anonymous work, and there is no clear indication that the books belong together. It is only in tradition that the books of Moses take on a uniform identity with Moses as the author. And while it’s true that we don’t have any early manuscripts of “J”, “E”, “P” or “D”, neither do we have any early manuscripts of the complete Pentateuch. We have some fragments back to the 2nd century or so BCE, with some degree of variation. So there is no “hard” evidence of either the documentary or the traditional hypothesis.

Rev. Collins also complains that there are several versions of the documentary hypothesis, and that the divisions in the text vary somewhat depending on the researcher. But this is what we would expect of an attempt to separate an intricate redaction of at least four sources. Many of the sections being analyzed are short, and the shorter the text, the less likely that it will display ALL the characteristics of a particular author. Researchers have to decide how many characteristics they are willing to rely on to make their decisions on authorship – and it’s only natural that different researchers will make slightly different decisions. There was, at one point, a tendency to extract more and more sources from the Pentateuch, but these attempts have been largely unsuccessful, and opinion has consolidated around four or even three major sources.

“…methods of the documentary hypothesis have not been tested on modern documents to see if they do in fact accurately resolve the literary history of a document,” says In fact, there have been some spectacular successes of similar stylistic analysis on modern documents. For example (as seen here ) Professor Don Foster used similar methods to identify columnist Joe Klein as the author of the anonymous “Primary Colors”. Although initially denying his authorship, Klein finally confessed. Professor Foster went on to prove his methods on several texts presented to him by John Hockenberry of Dateline. Foster correctly identified all the sources in a combined text created by Hockenberry.

Ancient Literacy

Yes, it is entirely possible that if Moses really existed, and was really brought up as a member of the royal house of Egypt, he might have been literate. The only evidence we have of Moses and his status is, of course the Pentateuch itself. This isn’t evidence against the documentary hypothesis. It would simply make the traditional hypothesis a possibility.

The Supernatural

The documentary hypothesis does not require any denial of the supernatural. It is interesting, regarding this, that one of the sources (“P”) DOES seem to have less of a taste for the supernatural than “J” does. In “P”, there are no talking animals, angels, or anthropomorphic pictures of God. God is more transcendent and spirituality more formal. But “J” has supernatural beings and events a-plenty.

The Geographical Origins of the Torah

I’d not heard this point before, but Rev. Collins claims, echoing a claim I’ve now seen at various places around the internet, that the Pentateuch is more familiar with the geography, flora and fauna of Egypt than Palestine. Unfortunately, most of the sites that make this claim don’t provide examples. I found two in the footnotes at ( They are:

1. And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as thou comest unto Zoar. (Gen 13:10)

The problem with this is that Zoar in one of the five cities of the plain and is nowhere near Egypt. There are several theories to explain this passage, and I haven’t studied the theories well enough to pass judgment on them. But I certainly wouldn’t count this as good evidence of knowledge of Egyptian geography when, on the surface, it appears the author is totally clueless about where Egypt even is.

2. Acacia trees. Answers in Genesis claims that Acacia are native to Egypt and very rare in Canaan. In fact, there are several places in Canaan named for the acacia (or shittim) tree. It was a highly prized wood found in several places in Canaan. If it were scarcer in Canaan than Egypt, it is all the more natural that it would be used for holy objects, such as the ark.

There is also a claim that the “crop sequence” in Exodus 9:31-32 is Egyptian, not Palestinian. Since I’m not aware of any reliable source of information on crop sequences in ancient Egypt and Palestine, I’ll leave this one alone, but I’d not give it much weight until I saw it documented.

Literary Form

There’s something a little odd about using form criticism to attack source criticism, but in any case, I believe Rev. Collin’s attack is too general. He states that the Pentateuch has the literary form of an ancient suzerainty treaty between a vassal and conqueror. Looking at the example, it seems to me that applying this form to the Pentateuch as a whole is quite arbitrary. It DOES seem to apply quite well to Deuteronomy. This is not a problem for the documentary hypothesis. Friedman and others place the final composition of Deuteronomy at the time of Jeremiah, using older sources that could easily be pre-monarchial. As Jeremiah wrote in the 7th century BCE – a time when suzerainty treaties of this form were still in use, the documentary hypothesis is not disturbed by this form observation.

Synthesis of Northern and Southern Traditions

Rev. Collins finds it improbable that Northern religious documents would be synthesized with Southern, as the Northern kingdom had been destroyed for idolatry and this made all its religious writings tainted and apostate. This is too simplistic. The refugees who fled from the destruction of the Northern kingdom – particularly the priests of Shiloh (who were the probable compilers of “JE”) were unlikely to see this as a judgment of them personally. In fact, the priests of Shiloh likely saw it as a vindication of themselves and their tradition against the Kings who had slighted them. By merging the two traditions, the priests of Shiloh would have been able to attract public support, interests and power. Rather than being opposed by prophets, they were primarily opposed by the Aaronid priest, who (in Friedman’s version) compiled “P” as a polemic response. Ironically, both rival sets of scriptures were finally harmonized by Ezra.

The Origin of the Documentary Hypothesis

Rev. Collins begins: “It is also interesting that the documentary hypothesis did not arise among the rabbis, even though the rabbis have studied the Torah longer, harder, and more critically than anyone else.” We can agree with most of this except perhaps the word “critically”. Well, actually we have to disagree with the whole premise. Jewish scholars did occasionally suggest additional authors for the Pentateuch. In the eleventh century, a Jewish court physician, Isaac Iban Yashush suggested that someone other than Moses wrote parts of the Pentateuch. He was subsequently labeled “Isaac the Blunderer” by other Rabbis. Another Jewish scholar Bonfils of Damascus, wrote similar opinions. They were removed from subsequent editions of his work after his death. Spinoza, suggesting the same thing, was excommunicated from Judaism AND placed on the Catholic index of proscribed books.

Holocaust Connection?

The argument made next is that, by discrediting the Jewish tradition of Mosaic authorship, the documentary hypothesis became ammunition in the cause of anti-Semitism. It should go without saying that one should accept or reject an idea on the basis of the evidence for or against it. It would be not be correct to accept a bad theory simply to avoid discrediting the traditions of a persecuted group. Rev. Collins tacitly admits this, and says he is only bringing up the anti-Semitic angle to warn documentary hypothesis supporters to take precautions to mitigate the unintended consequences of their theory. It’s hard, however, not to see this as a veiled attempt at “poisoning the well”. The only real, lasting approach to teaching tolerance is a respect for the dignity of all human beings, rather than to pretend acceptance of religious traditions that don’t do a good job of explaining the facts.

Does Jesus endorse the Mosaic tradition?

Assuming we are willing to question religious tradition, what of Jesus’ apparent identification of Moses as the author of the Pentateuch? I have pointed out elsewhere ( that Jesus several times seems to question the traditional authorship of various passages of the Old Testament. “An eye for an eye” from Exodus is ascribed by Jesus simply to “them of old” – i.e. a human tradition. So we cannot rely on Jesus mentioning Moses as an endorsement of Mosaic authorship for the entire Pentateuch.

Also, in taking on our humanity, Jesus relinquishes his absolute prerogative to divine omniscience. While at times he displays supernatural knowledge, at other times he seems to share human limitation. Provided that salvation is not compromised, Jesus would not necessarily have omniscient information about the exact sources of the Pentateuch. Even if he did, he might well refer to “Moses” as the traditional author. Just as I might quote “Hamlet” as making a particular remark, when I know the author was actually Shakespeare.

Having responded to some initial objections, I’ll proceed later to the evidence for the documentary hypothesis.

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