The Documentary Hypothesis
The Documentary Hypothesis is a theoretical explanation for the sources and content of the first five books of the Old Testament. According to the theory, the composition of the five books resulted from the combination of four distinct traditions from different periods in the history of Israel. The sources of the traditions are entitled Elohist, Deuteronomist, Jahwist ad Priestly. The merits of the hypothesis are that it offers an alternative interpretation of the scriptures and allows for inference.
The documentary hypothesis is an important area in the study of the bible in two main ways. In one way, it puts forth the claim that the first five books of the bible were written by different authors at different times in history, and that their writing took place long after the events described in them. In another way, it proposes a radical manner of reading and interpreting the bible around the time of its authorship. As such, the documentary hypothesis offers a new perspective of looking at the bible, which is necessary for our choice of its interpretation.
In fact, owing to the field of documentary hypothesis, the bible is essentially no longer viewed as a documentation of historical events, at least not among biblical scholars. The advocators of the documentary hypothesis take the view that the bible is more of a work of literature than a historical account of events. The belief is that the historical value of the scriptural narrative lies in what it enables critics to infer from the lifetimes of its authors, rather than its narration of events.
In an assessment of the documentary hypothesis, the book, Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch begins by explaining that the accreditation of the Pentateuch to Moses was a defensive move against perceived and potential attacks on the authority of the Judaic Scriptures by pagan authors. This explanation breaks the link between the Pentateuch and Moses, a connection that the scripture has traditionally owed its supposed credibility. The book thus takes a supportive position on the documentary hypothesis.
Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch further provides a critical analysis of the works of the advocators/scholars of the documentary hypothesis. The scholars rely on their discovery of the four sources of the Torah, and evaluate them for historical consistency. In particular, Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch is keen to point out that one of the four sources, the Elohist, was written last, rather than first and may have had two authors. The author’s analysis of these scholars’ works is in-depth, objective and insightful. The book arrives at the same conclusion as the scholars.
By disputing the traditional belief that the biblical account of events is a historical truth, the documentary hypothesis presents rather an uncomfortable position to believers. Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch’s arrives at the conclusion that the documentary analysis could be correct. The evidence for the documentary hypothesis offers a new way of interpreting scriptural accounts, and, as such, may lead to a new, and perhaps the originally intended, understanding of the scriptures.
Rendtorff, Rolf. “Traditio-Historical Method and the Documentary Hypothesis.” In Proceedings
of the Fifth World Congress of Jewish Studies (1969): 5-11.
Ska, Jean Louis. Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2006.
Rolf Rendtorff, “Traditio-Historical Method and the Documentary Hypothesis,” In Proceedings of the Fifth World Congress of Jewish Studies, (1969): 6.
Rendtorff, “Traditio-Historical Method and the Documentary Hypothesis,” 8.
Jean Louis Ska, Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch (Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2006), 96.
Ska, Introduction to Reading the Pentateuch, 107-108.