A Summary of the Documentary Hypothesis

Introduction to Biblical Literature

1. The Documentary Hypothesis claims that the Pentateuch is a composite of four separate, complete, and coherent documents.

2. Those documents are:

3. J, E and P are either placed end-to-end or intertwined (as in the flood narrative) throughout the first four books of the Bible.

4. The major strength of the hypothesis is that it accounts for the differences in ideas and terminology between various sections and stories in the Pentateuch. In particular, it provides a good explanation for the peculiar character of the material labeled P, by suggesting that P reflects the perspective and concerns of Israel's priests.

5. Recent criticisms of the hypothesis have included:

  • Its assumption of originally coherent documents is tenuous.

    The hypothesis attempts to account for discrepancies and repetitions in the Pentateuch by positing the combination of separate and coherent documents.

    But the assumption that the original sources were logically consistent can be accepted only in the face of the fact that whoever assembled them into a single work (the Pentateuch) was not interested in producing a document free of discrepancies. If the editor(s) of the Pentateuch did not have that concern, why should we assume that those who compiled J, E and P (also relying on sources) produced coherent documents?

  • Its assumption of originally complete documents is tenuous.

    Because it is difficult to reconstruct either E or P as continuous documents, one can accept the assertion that they were originally complete documents only "by faith."

    Accordingly, if one accepts the theory that E and P were originally complete documents, then one must argue that only parts of them have been preserved.

  • Those who have studied the literary structure of the Pentateuch have perceived motifs and themes crossing the boundaries of the various sources (see PC, p. 120).