Documentary hypothesis

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The documentary hypothesis is an attempt to chart the origins and authorship of the Pentateuch and parts of the Deuteronomistic historical writings (The Books of Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Kings, and 1 & 2 Samuel). It was formulated in its "classical" form in the 1880s by the German theologian Julius Wellhausen on the basis of research done in the 17th and 18th centuries.[1]

The hypothesis[edit]

Briefly put, the documentary hypothesis posits that the Pentateuch has been assembled by various editors on the basis of four different sources, referred to respectively as J, E, D, and P.

  • The J, or Jahwist source is mostly narrative. It is the oldest of the four, making up half of Genesis, the first half of Exodus, and parts of Numbers.
  • The E, or Elohist source has much the same content as J, likewise making up about one third of Genesis, the first half of Exodus, and parts of Numbers.
  • The D, or Deuteronomist source is mostly found in Deuteronomy, focusing on legal points and sermons.
  • The P, or Priestly source contains the greater part of Leviticus, as well as parts of Genesis, Exodus and Numbers.

The four sources differ on a number of points, including age, content, literary style, and theology. These differences often make it possible to distinguish which parts of the Pentateuch come from which sources, and how they have changed through time.

According to the hypothesis, different editors have at times combined some of the sources or drawn upon each other to form intermediary sources, as shown in this figure:


The ultimate collection of the material in the Pentateuch is held to have happened around the middle of the 1st century BCE by the final editor, usually referred to as the Torah Redactor. There is no agreement on the identity of this figure.


The documentary hypothesis soon gained widespread recognition. Until about the mid-1960s, it was substantially accepted by the vast majority of biblical scholars, with the exception of a few Christian fundamentalists, who typically held (and still hold) Moses as the author of the Pentateuch.

In recent decades, this consensus has mostly disappeared, as a number of new theories that suggest both more and less complex origins for the Pentateuch have appeared. However, the documentary hypothesis still stands as a central theory with a number of proponents, most prominently Richard Elliott Friedman.


  • Friedman, Richard E.: Who Wrote The Bible? (Harper and Row: New York, 1987)
  • Wellhausen, Julius: Prolegomena To The History Of Israel (Berlin, 1882)

See also[edit]


  1. Wellhausen, Julius 1882. Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels