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The Documentary Hypothesis

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(By Mark Fontecchio)

The psalmist boldly proclaimed, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps. 119:105). Is this a legitimate statement? Can God’s Word be trusted completely, or is it the product of men that has a limited value? The soul of every living person depends on the truthfulness of God’s Word. This elevates the discussion of the documentary hypothesis to a subject of critical importance.

The documentary hypothesis is:

A critical attempt to explain the present composition of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. The Pentateuch is analyzed as a composite of four documents (JEDP), each of which had its own background and development before it was edited into the five books. The hypothesis arose from a serious concern with the duplications, stylistic differences, seeming contradictions, various names for Deity, and different perspectives in the books of the Pentateuch. Apart from several post-Mosaic passages, Jewish and Christian scholars had generally assumed the essential Mosaic origin of the Pentateuch (Elwell 1988, 637).

Let it be noted that this hypothesis was not a static belief. It developed over time by different men with different motivations. A German scholar by the name of Julius Wellhausen played a significant role in the 1800’s in the development of the hypothesis. Specifically:

Wellhausen adopted the conclusions of Hupfeld, Graf, and Kuenen and, along with Vatke, was heavily influenced by Hegelian philosophy. Hegel’s dialectic approach went hand in hand with Charles Darwin’s evolutionary model set forth in his The Origin of Species. Buoyed by the popularity of Darwin, Wellhausen’s view that Israel’s religion developed from a naturalistic animism to an advanced monotheism met with almost immediate acceptance (Wolf 1991, 65-66).

In other words, Wellhausen believed that Israel’s religion evolved over time. He did not accept the Pentateuch at face value. Instead, he turned to the documentary hypothesis to explain his lack of faith in the Word of God. In the end, “the Documentary Hypothesis had been transformed into a model for historical reconstruction” (Elwell 1988, 638).

It should be correctly observed that the documentary hypothesis does give an answer for some of the questions posed by liberal scholars, such as:

  • Why is there a repetition of the creation account in Genesis 1 and 2?
  • Why is there a repetition of other narratives (Gen. 6:1–8, 9–13; 12:10–20; 20; 26:6–11)?
  • Why are there different names for the Hebrew God used in the Pentateuch?
  • What is the explanation for conceived differences in content and style of writing?

These questions are answered under the belief of the documentary hypothesis. This must be seen as a strength of this particular point of view. If different documents were pieced together by an editor (or editors) it would give an explanation for these alleged inconsistencies. Unfortunately, it would also undermine the very fabric of the Christian faith.

Another strength of the documentary hypothesis is that it does recognize different sources of information were used to provide the information found in the Pentateuch. If understood correctly, certainly this does not take away from the inspiration by God of the Pentateuch. Moses received some information, such as the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, directly from God. Other truth was documented by Moses because he was a firsthand witness of the events he recorded (consider the events of Egypt or the wilderness wanderings). Further information that Moses detailed could have come to him by various means. Inspiration does not mean that Moses could not have used other sources. It does, however, mean that what God inspired Moses to record was accurate (Benware 1993, 284). A critical problem of the documentary hypothesis is that it suggests documents to be a source material that have never been proven to exist. It also proposes that a later editor (not Moses) was the one gathering different sources to create the Pentateuch.

The strongest rebuke to the documentary hypothesis is the Word of God itself. The Lord Jesus Christ affirmed that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch. We are reminded:

The evidence that Moses wrote the Pentateuch is conclusive if one believes that Jesus Christ spoke the truth when He attributed authorship to Moses (Matt. 19:8; Mark 7:10; Luke 18:29–31; 20:37; 24:27; John 7:19). Jesus Christ did not specifically say that Moses wrote Genesis, but in our Lord’s day the Jews regarded the Pentateuch (Torah) as a whole unit. They recognized Moses as the author of all five books. Consequently they would have understood what Jesus said about any of the five books of Moses as an endorsement of the Mosaic authorship of them all (Constable 2003, Intro. to Gen.).

If the documentary hypothesis is correct then Jesus made an error in His assessment of the Pentateuch being written by Moses. This would bring into question everything that He taught. The writers of the New Testament also considered Moses to be the author of the Pentateuch. This can be seen in Acts 3:22; 26:22; 28:23; Rom. 10:5, 19. Again, if the documentary hypothesis is correct, the teachings of the New Testament are suspect.

It is not only the New Testament that contradicts the documentary hypothesis. The Pentateuch actually claims Moses as the author of key sections (Exod. 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; Lev. 1:1; 4:1; 6:1, 8; Num. 1:1, 19; 33:2; Deut. 1:1; 17:18; 31:9, 24–26). In addition, other books of the Old Testament testify that the Pentateuch was written by Moses (Josh. 1:7–8; 8:31–34; 22:5; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Chron. 23:18; 34:14; Dan. 9:11, 13; Ezra 3:2; Neh. 8:1; 13:1–3) (Benware 1993, 284). These passages are a clear contradiction of the documentary hypothesis. It comes down to a belief in the united testimony of God’s Word. Either we accept it by faith, or we try to make it fit into the theories of men.

It also should be recognized that Moses has traditionally been considered the author of the Pentateuch in church history. It is only the modern liberal critics that have challenged this belief (Benware 1993, 284).

The Pentateuch is the foundation of God’s Word. Within the Pentateuch we have the account of creation, the flood, the establishment of Israel and the nations, the covenant program of God, and so much more. It is easy to see why attacks on these five books of the Bible continue to exist. On these five books, the entire belief system of the Christian faith rises and falls. It is a glorious truth that we can have confidence that God inspired Moses to record the historical account found in the Pentateuch!

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The Holy Bible: The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982.

Benware, Paul N. Survey of the Old Testament (Revised)Everyman’s Bible Commentary. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1993.

Constable, Tom. Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible. Galaxie Software, 2003.

Elwell, Walter A. and Barry J. Beitzel. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.

Wolf, Herbert M. An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1991.


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