The JEPD Theory In A Nutshell

[Posted by John Loftus] Someone sent me a link to this. See what you think. It looks pretty good.
I’ll begin by introducing the history of the theory, provide my perspective on JEPD, and then proceed to outline its strengths and weaknesses.

The Documentary Hypothesis

JEPD is a reference to a collection of theories regarding the composition of Genesis through Kings. J is an abbreviation for the German word for Yahweh, Jahve, and references the Yahwist source. E references Elohim, or the Elohist, specifically. P is the priestly source, and D is the Deuteronomist. These are the general categories of the alleged textual sources for the books of Genesis through Kings. Other more recent inclusions include JE, RJE, L, and so forth. The theories associated with these abbreviations derive from 19th century German biblical scholars, although the roots extend back to the 17th century, when philosophers and theologians first began to question Mosaic authorship of Deuteronomy [1].

Julius Wellhausen and K. H. Graf are generally cited as the originators of the modern manifestation, which holds that the Pentateuch was redacted from four textual and oral sources, known as J, E, P, and D. Wellhausen proposed their composition be relatively dated in that order, but modern scholars have provided a number of plausible alternatives. Wellhausen’s theory is known as the Documentary Hypothesis since it posits four different documents were combined and edited over several centuries to give us the Torah. Other theories include the Supplementary Hypothesis (E’s text forms core and supplemented with other material), the Fragmentary Hypothesis (fragments of stories were combined at a single stage), the Tradition-Historical Hypothesis (individual traditions which developed alongside each other and were then combined by a redactor), the Newer Supplementary Hypothesis (traditions combined and then supplemented by subsequent editors), and the New Documentary Hypothesis (E replaces J as the oldest source). Scholars are in a constant state of debate regarding the number and order of these sources, their shape, and their date.

Early manifestations of DH were plagued by Hegelian presuppositions that were universal in the German school. Gunkel, von Rad, Alt, and Noth all show the influence of Hegel’s theory of religious evolution, and they gave the more ritual oriented texts later dates. More recently scholars have moved beyond those presuppositions, which has given rise to the “Newer” compositional hypotheses which don’t appeal to those fallacies or presuppose the novelty of ritual and formalized worship. Some scholars, like Whybray [2] and many apologists, propose DH be abandoned entirely, but, as will be shown, none of their concerns has significantly undermined the foundations of DH. Scholarship is still nowhere near a consensus or a comprehensive picture of the composition of the Pentateuch, but the foundational conclusions concerning redaction and multiple authorship are, for the most part, solid.

Who Wrote Deuteronomy?

As explained above, the impetus for the development of DH revolves around the question of who wrote Deuteronomy. The text describes events subsequent to Moses’ death, so he cannot have written it entirely himself. Others have insisted Joshua finished the text, but this theory has problems as well. For instance, in Deut 34:1 Moses is said to be shown the “land of Gilead, unto Dan.” Neither the city nor region of Dan had not been established at that time period. It wasn’t until Jdg 18:29 (well after Joshua’s death) that the city of Laish was given the name Dan and the tribe acquired a land of inheritance. Deut 34:1 cannot have been written prior to the time of the judges. Assertions that Moses wrote the end of Deuteronomy through revelation ignore those textual considerations and rely on a fallacious line of reasoning that holds that anything unexplainable can simply be dismissed with an appeal to revelation. Such reasoning begs the question and refuses to actually deal with evidence.

Jdg 18:12 appeals to a significant phrase used throughout the Hebrew Bible: “unto this day.” Deuteronomy uses the phrase numerous times to reference an event whose influence was felt “unto this day” (e. g., Deut 2:22; 3:24; 34:6). The idea in every instance is that the effects of the event perdured for a significantly large amount of time. It makes no sense at all for the author of Deuteronomy to use such a phrase in reference to events which occurred in his own lifetime, and the phrase is never used that way elsewhere. Deut 34:10 makes that conclusion even more untenable: “There never again arose a prophet in Israel like Moses.” Such a statement cannot have come from a time period at all close to Moses’ life (and there was no land of Israel then). The author of these verses is writing from a much later time period, after numerous prophets had come and gone.

The best clue as to the date of the composition of Deuteronomy is found in 2 Kgs 22, where the “book of the law” is discovered in the temple and read to Josiah. The reforms instituted by Josiah line up consistently with rather unique regulations found in Deuteronomy, like the requirement that no temples operate outside of Jerusalem. An Israelite temple in Arad was in operation from the 10th century BCE to the beginning of the 7th century BCE, when Josiah instituted his reforms. No reference to Deuteronomy or the unique requirements found therein are extant in any texts from prior to Josiah’s reign. Deuteronomy seems to come out of thin air during that time period. The most substantial portions of Deuteronomy were most likely written then. This accounts for the reference to the city of Dan, the phrase “unto this day,” as well as the assertion that no prophet ever arose in Israel like Moses. While earlier traditions no doubt form a part of Deuteronomy (portions subsequent to Josiah’s reign are also evident), no explicitly early sections of the text are isolatable, and the most representative portion of the text cannot possibly have been written prior to a few hundred years after Moses’ death.

Who Wrote the Torah?

Knowing when the book of Deuteronomy was written (and when it could not have been written) then opens up the question of the rest of the Torah. Like Deuteronomy, Genesis makes reference to the city of Dan (Gen 14:14) and uses the phrase “unto this day” (Gen 22:14). These sections could not have been authored by Moses. Genesis also mentions the Chaldeans and several Edomite kings, none of which existed anytime near Moses’ lifetime. The Edomite king list from Genesis 36, in fact, lists known historical figures who lived well after Moses’ lifetime. Genesis was not written by Moses or anyone who lived close to his lifetime.

The evidence also indicates Genesis and the rest of the Torah was not written by a single individual. The text is convoluted and conflicting. For instance, the internal timeline of Genesis (Gen 12:4; 16:3; 17:1; 21:5) would indicate that when Hagar was expelled by Sarah, Ishmael was fifteen years old. This makes the story of him later being put on Hagar’s shoulder and then being cast under some shrubs to die, only to cry until being saved by an angel, quite silly. Ishmael is clearly presented as an infant in that story. The chronology of Genesis also makes Isaac a grown man of about 30 when he is almost sacrificed by Abraham. The sacrifice pericope, however, clearly treats Isaac as a child. The two creation accounts from Genesis 1–3 conflict, as do the two versions of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. In Exod 6:2–3 God tells Moses that he appeared to Abraham but was not known by the name Yahweh to him, but in Gen 15:7 God tells Abraham, “I am Yahweh.” In the flood story cattle and fowls were supposed to be gathered by twos, but a couple verses later fowls and “clean animals” (cattle are clean animals) are supposed to be gathered by sevens. For one author Amorites inhabit the Promised Land and Horeb is the mountain where the law was received. For another author Canaanites inhabit the Promised Land and Sinai is the name of the mountain where the law was received.

These conflicting accounts show multiple authorship and lead to certain conclusions. First, single authorship is absolutely precluded. Second, redaction of the text is absolutely unquestionable. Other evidence supports that conclusion. For instance, the kings that fought in the battle of the kings in Gen 14:2 have names like “His Name is Lost,” and “His Name is Unknown.” These aren’t names anyone would actually be given, but are names someone far separated from the events would come up with to fill in gaps in information, and revelation is precluded. Elsewhere names have been similarly changed. Eshbaal (Man of Baal), Saul’s son, is so named in Chronicles (1 Chr 8:33), but in Samuel (2 Sam 4:8) his name has been edited to Ishbosheth (Man of Shame). This was not his name, but a name provided by a redactor who did not want to write about the son of Israel’s king having a theophoric Baal name. During Saul’s day Baal was not a particularly offensive epithet, and by the time of the Chronicler the significance of it had been lost. Mephibosheth, Molech, and Ashtoreth are other examples of the bošet (“shame”) consonants and/or vocalization interpolated into a name to indicate “shame.” These are clear indications of late redaction, and they preclude a pristine text. Errors also indicate a lengthy transmission history. For instance, 1 Sam 13:1 claims that Saul was one year old when he began to rule (ben šānāh šâûl bĕmālḵô). The text is actually just corrupt, the number of years of Saul’s age having been lost over time. Third, specific traditions can be isolated in the text and can be shown to appeal to specific ideologies, which form the basis of the JEDP theories.

My Own Perspective

While these facts preclude a theory of single authorship or a pristine text, I’m not fully convinced by much of the contemporary JEDP scholarship. I don’t think D and P are conceptually distinct enough to be able to accurately delineate between the two in every instance. I also don’t believe variation in style or nomenclature necessarily indicates unique authorship, nor do I think the Pentateuch preserves enough distinction between Yahweh and El to detect authorship in every instance. An early distinction is detectable, however, and is a very important part of the Hebrew Bible. I’ll discuss that briefly.

Yahweh and El were originally conceived of as different deities. [3] Exodus 6 introduces the question. Why would God tell Moses in Exodus 6 that he had revealed himself to Abraham and others previously, but never by the name Yahweh? It only makes sense if this name were new or unknown. The fact that the received text of the Hebrew Bible previous to Exodus 6 repeatedly refers to God as Yahweh, and even has God telling Abraham “I am Yahweh” leads to the inescapable conclusion that something has been added that wasn’t there before, specifically the name Yahweh. Someone retrojected Yahweh into a text that originally lacked mention of him.

The Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions refer to El and Yahweh as distinct individuals, Yahweh coming from Teman in the south, and later from Samaria. [4] Deut 32:8–9 presents Yahweh as one of the sons of El/Elyon. Verse 8 originally finished, “according to the number of the sons of El.” [5] The Septuagint and more clearly the Dead Sea Scrolls confirm that reading. The MT changed it to avoid reference to El’s children. Yahweh is given Israel as his inheritance of the nations, which number seventy (see Genesis 10, specifically v. 32, which references Deut 32:8–9). This identifies him as one of the “sons of El,” since they were the ones being given this inheritance. This is a reminiscence of the seventy sons of El from the Ugaritic literature. In Ps 82 those other gods are condemned for their negligence, and Elohim (identified with Yahweh, but still distinct from El/ Elyon [6]) is commanded to take over stewardship of the remaining nations. [7]

The manipulation of Genesis to include Yahweh indicates El was originally the only name of God mentioned. The lack of Yahwistic theophoric names in early Israel, combined with the sole use of the name “El” in the name “Israel” indicates El was originally the national God, not Yahweh. The divine council type scenes that present El as the leader of the council and Yahweh as one of the members supports that understanding. The later emphatic identification of Yahweh with El (for example, Exod 6:2–3), and the addition of the name Yahweh to Genesis indicate an attempt was made by a subsequent editor to replace Elohistic ideologies with a conflated ideology that identified Yahweh with El. Later other titles were conflated, including Elyon, El Shaddai, and so on. While I don’t believe all the original Elohistic texts can be recovered, large portions of Genesis are conspicuously reticent when it comes to using the name “Yahweh,” indicating it was unknown or avoided by a redactor. All these fact support the conclusion that an editor with a Yahwistic prioritization was redacting a text with an initially Elohistic perspective. This supports the Newer Documentary Hypothesis.

I find Joel Baden’s recent Harvard dissertation on JE quite convincing, and I think his theory will define the direction much of DH scholarship will follow in the coming years. [8] In it Baden rejects the notion of an RJE redactor in favor of a single redactor of the entire text, and completely does away with the JE source, prominent in most contemporary DH theories. I agree with Baden’s criticism of Van Seters’ New Supplementary Hypothesis, specifically Van Seters’ prioritization of D over the other sources and his rejection of an E source. I think Deuteronomy attempts to appeal numerous times to older literary motifs in an effort to associate itself with the earlier books of the Pentateuch, although I also find the evidence overwhelming that redaction took place on Genesis through Numbers subsequent to Deuteronomy’s publication (thus R).

Strengths and Weaknesses

No current DH theory can account for all the literary minutiae of Genesis through Kings. I don’t believe the current theories recognize the amount of convolution that has taken place in those books as a result of constant redaction, and so I am unconvinced by theories that categorize every verse of the Pentateuch as J, E, D, or P. I do, however, feel clear examples of each are manifested in certain places. The evidence clearly shows El and Yahweh as distinct deities, and Exodus 6 clearly manifests the original lack of Yahweh’s mention in Genesis. As has been shown, Deuteronomy was also clearly not original to the Torah. I haven’t discussed P much since I don’t agree with most of its identification, but DH is accurate in separating out the other three sources.

Source criticism is a controversial biblical criticism, primarily because it undermines theories of inerrancy and Mosaic authorship. Such theories have no place in biblical scholarship, though, since Mosaic authorship and biblical inerrancy utterly conflict with all the available evidence. This is not the result of “antisupernaturalism,” as many will claim (the originators of source criticism were all believing scholars), but the result of an honest evaluation of the text. Errors are undeniably present throughout the text, as is the presence of conflicting accounts of the same event, as well as the harmonization and repetition of clearly distinct events. It cannot possibly have been written by a single author or have avoided multiple redactions. DH helps to explain how the text came to be the way it is. Fundamentalists will always disagree with DH and claim it is invalid because of the suppositions of the scholars responsible for it, but the vast majority are believing scholars and have no “antisupernatural” tendencies. That criticism is simply invalid.


For simplicity sake, I will review some of the conclusions made inevitable by a thorough evaluation of the text of the Hebrew Bible. First, anachronisms in the text of the Pentateuch preclude authorship contemporary with Moses’ lifetime, and thus preclude original Mosaic authorship. Conflicting texts and textual corruption make redaction an inevitable part of the received text. Redaction also accounts for the antiquity of some passages and their proximity to much later passages. Multiple authorship thus also becomes an inescapable conclusion. Hebrew literary style cannot account for these differences. Stylistic differences may not point necessarily to multiple authorship, but the vast majority of the differences to which I refer (e. g., fowls and cattle by two and then by seven; infant Ishmael story when the child was fifteen) are differences in content, not style, and those differences serve no rhetorical function within a unified literary framework. The Torah’s univocality is unquestionably refuted. Specific ideological backdrops are also easily detectable in the differing accounts. Yahweh was clearly not original to Genesis, meaning it was originally an Elohistic text, which is supported by the paucity of early Yahwistic theophoric names and the numerous Elohistic inscriptions and names.

The Deuteronomist can be easily isolated as well. For instance, originally, Exod. 34:24 did not read “to appear before Yahweh your God,” but “to see the face of Yahweh your God.” The Hebrew of the received text (lērā’ôt ’et-pĕnē yhwh ’elohēḵā) is vocalized so that the verb r’h (“to see”) is made passive (“to appear”). The Niphal infinitive construct requires a preformative /h/, though, and this verb doesn’t have it, meaning the verb is not Niphal, but Qal, and so is not passive, but active. ’et-pĕnē is a preposition that literally means “to the face of,” but is commonly used to mean “before,” or “in front of.” Since the verb is Qal, the verse must read “to see the face of Yahweh your God.” The Deuteronomist didn’t like the idea of seeing God’s face, so he made some changes to the text. In Exodus 33 he introduced the idea that no man could see God and live. This conflicts, however, with numerous examples of people seeing God and his face (mostly in Genesis and Exodus). In Exod 23:17; 34:24; Deut 16;16; 31:11; Isa 1:12; and Ps 42:3 the reading was changed to passive to avoid that reading. [9]

I have a couple things to say about criticism of my post. The most common apologetic response to DH is to attempt to identify an undergirding fallacy, usually fallacious in and of itself, of which a simple logical refutation serves to dismiss wholesale the entire argument without actually engaging any of the evidence. I don’t like that little smoke and mirrors trick and if anyone intends to refute my post with a simple “it all comes down to antisupernaturalism,” or “you’re begging the question,” I’ll expect clear and specific examples of exactly how my argument qualifies. There is a lot of evidence in this post, and it merits engaging.


1 - A good introduction to source criticism is found in Pauline A. Viviano, “Source Criticism,” in Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes, ed., To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, Revised and Expanded (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 35–57. A good history of the Documentary Hypothesis is included in that article, but an important supplement to that is John Van Seters, “The Pentateuch,” in Steven L. McKenzie and M. Patrick Graham, ed., The Hebrew Bible Today: An Introduction to Critical Issues (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 3–52.

2 - R. N. Whybray, The Making of the Pentateuch: A Methodological Study (JSOTSup 53; Sheffield: Sheffield University Press, 1987). Whybray makes the most respectable argument against DH.

3 - Recently this has been argued by Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 49; the argument has been made many times before. See, for instance, O. Eissfeldt, “El and Yahweh,” JSS (1956): 25–37 and John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan (JSOTSup 265; Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 13–41. Michael S. Heiser is the only scholar of which I know to argue against this interpretation (see Heiser, “Are Yahweh and El Distinct Deities in Deut 32:8-9 and Psalm 82?” Hiphil 3 [2006]), although his refutations only refute specific interpretations of Deut 32:8 and Psalm 82, and he does not recognize the redaction of Deuteronomy or the importation of literary motifs.

4 - See J. A. Emerton, “New Light on Israelite Religion: The Implications of the Inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud,” ZAW 94 (1982): 2–20 (3–9).

5 - See I. Himbaza, “Dt 32, 8, une correction tardive des scribes. Essai d’interprétation et de datation”, Biblica 83 (2002): 527–48. A good bibliography accompanies that article. For an interesting recent theory, see J. Joosten, “A Note on the Text of Deuteronomy xxxii 8,” Vetus Testamentum 57 (2007): 548–55. Joosten holds that the text originally read bny šr ’el, which would become bĕnē yisra’el through dittography of the yod. Joosten’s theory is one of the only ones that views the variant as an accident.

6 - Yahweh/Elohim is not the head of the council, but merely one of the members. Elyon is the head of the council. See Simon B. Parker, “The Beginning of the Reign of God – Psalm 82 as Myth and Liturgy,” RB 102 (1995): 534–35.

7 - Several things need to be said about these verses. First, ’ĕlohîm can never refer to human judges. The genesis of that interpretation is a small collection of rabbinic paraphrases of scripture that are refuted not only by other contemporary rabbinic commentaries, but by the Hebrew language itself. LXX never translates ’ĕlohîm as anything other than theos, or sometimes kurios. The traditional interpretation also ignores the evidence from Ugaritic literature, which uses the phrase “sons of El” (bn ‘ilm in Ugaritic) numerous times exactly as it is used in the Hebrew Bible. It never refers to humans in Ugaritic. For a comprehensive evaluation of the term, see Joel S. Burnett, A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim (SBLDS 183; Atlanta, Ga.: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001). Second, their quotation in the New Testament tells us how they were interpreted during New Testament times, which is consistent with general Second Temple Jewish ideologies. It does not tell us what the authors originally intended. Third, bĕnē ’ĕlohîm does not refer to angels. This is a Second Temple Period interpretation of the term that relies exclusively on the conclusion that it cannot refer to children of God. The cognate literature as well as an internal evaluation absolutely precludes this interpretation. Angels are always obedient messengers in the Hebrew Bible. The “sons of God” are rarely obedient and are never messengers (see Genesis 6 and Psalm 82). Angels were originally on the bottom level of a four tiered pantheon of divine beings. El occupied the top tier and his seventy sons occupied the second tier. Yahweh was originally part of the second tier. Craftsmen deities occupied the third. The Hebrew Bible rarely references these deities. The bottom tier was angels, seraphim, cherubim, and so on. During the eighth century BCE these tiers were collapsed. Yahweh and El were conflated, and everyone else was demoted to the bottom tier and conflated with angels. This is why Lucifer, originally presented as one of the “sons of El,” is described as an angel in the Second Temple Period literature, and why rebellious angels were such a large part of that literature despite their utter absence from literature prior to that time period.

8 - Joel S. Baden, “Rethinking the Supposed JE Document” (PhD Dissertation, Harvard University, 2007).

9 - For a full discussion of this emendation, see Carmel McCarthy, The Tiqqune Sopherim (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1981), 198–205.

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Anonymous said...

For a free book on the subject: Hebrew Records (google gooks)

Brad Haggard said...

Good summary. I don't think evangelicals have to be afraid of composition theory at all, and I hope it informs more of our study and theology in the future.

jimvj said...

Could we have a post on how much of the Torah is historically plausible, let alone accurate. All this talk about who wrote this should be much less important.

One fact that would weigh heavily in checking its factuality is WHEN these documents first surfaced; regardless of who wrote them.