Documentary Hypothesis


I picked up a book by Father Roland Vaux on religious institutions of the Old Testament and was very disappointed to find he gives credence to the Documentary Hypothesis (the multiple source JEDP theory of the Pentateuch). I did some research and found this theory to be totally worthless, not only from a theological viewpoint but even among biblical scholars.

If the JEDP theory has caused your faith to suffer, please read this excellent article on why Catholics should not buy into the Documentary Hypothesis:


I don’t fully buy into the JEDP hypothesis either, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “totally worthless”. A fair percentage of biblical scholars subscribe to it. And even for those who don’t, it provides a useful language for differentiating between different portions of the Pentateuch.


I tend to think the truth lies somewhere between the traditional view and the documentary hypothesis. Did the five books of the Pentateuch evolve through various compilations and redactions over a period of centuries? Quite possibly… but that doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit didn’t inspire this process, working through various writers and editors, and that also doesn’t mean that the traditions contained within are fabrications. I believe that the Traditions of St. Moses, the Prophet and Lawgiver (whose feast is commemorated today in the Roman Martyrology btw!) were passed down as oral tradition and accurately preserved in the same way that the Sacred Tradition of the Apostles has been preserved in the Church. The patriarchs were indeed real people, but whether they lived exactly when and where we traditionally assumed is another question. Certainly, various literary devices are employed in the Pentateuch. Catholics distinguish between a literal interpretation of Scripture (we must accept all that the Sacred Writers intended to teach us as literally true) and the literalist interpretation of fundamentalist Protestants (contemporary motifs and genres were not employed, and all of the Pentateuch must be understood as a history textbook).


Every modern Catholic And ecumenical study Bible that I own ( or have read) and all my commentaries (inc. Navarre) use the documentary hypothesis in the introduction to the Penteteuch.


It’s not totally worthless. You should read The Bible with Sources Revealed by Richard Elliot Friedman. He highlights the each authors’ text so you can see the difference. The authors have slightly different words, phrases, wordings, and focuses in their sections.


I must confess, I can’t see much merit to it either for whatever that’s worth. I prefer to work with texts which actually exist rather than which have to be hypothesised. I mean, Are we really that well-placed to try to decompose texts written in another language 3,000 years ago into hypothetical sources? And did Jesus do so? (It doesn’t look like it to me, e.g., Matthew 8.4, Mark 10.4-8, Mark 7.10, 10.3, 10.4-8, Luke 24.44.) That settles the matter for me personally.


The Challenge to Bible Inerrancy: Combating Biblical Scepticism
'The popular J, E, D and P theory is considered outdated by many scholars today, both Protestant and Catholic (see for example The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch by Umberto Cassuto; *The Redaction of Genesis *by Gary A. Rendsburg; or *Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis: A Case for Literary Unity *(1985) by P.J. Wiseman).

‘This theory of the progressive development of texts from diverse sources separated in time was developed about the same time as the theory of evolution. Unfortunately, the net effect of JEDP is to make contradictions and cast doubt on statements, such as, “the Lord said to Moses.” The reverence of the Early Church Fathers for Holy Scripture is too often discounted or forgotten, as many now embrace the rationalist view of German Protestant scholars like Wellhausen, who never hid his animus for Catholicism. Wellhausen’s theory illustrates the undue influence of historicism, as he tends to date the four sources of the Pentateuch by where they fit into his historical scheme rather than on scientific criteria. (Source: “What is Biblical Criticism—and Should we Trust It?” By Fr. Peter Funk, O.S.B., page 14, This Rock, April 2005) This theory, which some believe inimical to Christian Orthodoxy, becomes primary in their hermeneutics.’

Catholics would do well to challenge and debunk these anti-Biblical opinions.


A hypothesis is just that, a type of educated guess which attempts to explain its subject.

OK, let’s say the hypothesis is rejected. Then, what?

It seems that Deuteronomy must be the work of more than one person – certainly not Moses alone – whose death and legacy is described in Chapter 34.

I don’t think that the Documentary Hypothesis needs to be perfect the first time around. In physics, there were many attempts to document the speed of light, for example. As the science developed, the number has gotten more accurate and the uncertainty has been significantly reduced.

I have read Jewish commentaries that offer more modern literary theories, including the idea that there were redactors of the text. There is some really interesting evidence, whether or not anybody wants to credit it to the work of a redactor.

When you get to the wording of the text and you examine the structure, which hasn’t had the slightest mention in any Catholic book that I have come across so far, let me say that it is eye-opening.

From the Jewish Publication Society commentary on Genesis, the author points out that in the first creation account in Genesis, each of the sections which we now refer to as verses had seven Hebrew words or a multiple of seven Hebrew words. And, even in English, you can see that there is a re-use of words or an omission of words to make the numbers come out correctly. So, if you don’t want to attribute such things as this to a documentary hypothesis, you still have the data to contend with.

If you read the 1993 document from the Pontifical Biblical Commission, On the Interpretation of the Bible in the Church ( )
you will read that the Church officially has no single method for analyzing scripture. This document, in a lengthy discussion, points out the pros and cons, for example, of the feminist interpretation of scripture or literary analyses of scripture or the form-analysis of scripture, etc.

Pros and cons of a hypothesis.

In science, when a hypothesis must be rejected, then scientists look for another hypothesis. The rejection of a hypothesis does not discredit all hypotheses or revised hypotheses. A rejected hypothesis may even be useful to get to the next hypothesis.

If the Genesis creation accounts sound, even vaguely, like some other neighboring religions’ creation accounts, that doesn’t bother me. The first few chapters of Genesis certainly were not written by an observer who witnessed the events that were described. Everyone has to accept that they were written by some form of inspiration.

And, there are things that just cannot be explained. If Adam was condemned to scratching a living out of the soil, how did his offspring become a herder of animals? Where did Cain and Abel get the idea of making sacrifices to God? These things just occur. While the documentary hypothesis may make some lose faith, the text itself challenges the faith of a lot of people, up against the evidence for evolution, for example.

There is no official interpretation of any verses of the Hebrew Bible in Judaism. But, there has been, over the centuries, a lot of inquiry striving for harmonization of two creation accounts for example or for three interwoven accounts of Noah’s flood.

In the book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope St. John Paul II said that some people reject Christianity or religion itself, because they reject the way God has revealed himself. You are forewarned.


The Documentary Hypothesis contains an inherent anti-supernaturalism that is damaging to faith. What’s more, many biblical scholars reject it. It’s just that the JEDP theory is trendy so its adherents have a bigger soap box. The fact that it is in so many commentaries means nothing other than that modern biblical scholarship is infected with anti-supernaturalism.


The fact that some author posits theses different sources does not mean they exist. There are some very very strong arguments against this hypothesis, one of the strongest being that no other ancient text is subject to such parsing, even within phrases, which makes it subject to a kind of double standard. It was also formulated before the age of archaeology, which has rendered a lot of its assertions untenable.



The 1966 Jerusalem Bible uses it in its commentary, and the newest Catholic Study Bibles that I have, also use the documentary hypothesis. It has been at least 48 years (in Catholic bible study) and there is no indication that it is going anywhere.


There’s a puzzling way to end a post – “not going anywhere.” What do you mean? That it’s not going away?

The problem with this hypothesis is that it can’t be tested. Second, as a Jewish commentary pointed out, suppose you accept the JEDP sources, it’s hard to tell where the boundaries are, sometimes. Thereupon, the Jewish commentary takes the high road of interpreting the text as it has been received, instead of trying to break it down into its fragments for whatever kind of “fragment analysis” you might want to subject it to.

The Jewish commentaries end up descriptively – pointing out when it seems that a couple oral traditions have been retained and merged together.


The ‘Documentary Hypothesis’ is exactly that, a hypothosis. It is not doctrine and the dividing lines of the different writers can be obscure in places. In time it maybe adjusted either way depending upon any new discoveries in the world of archaeology. The Old Testament has probably been passed on orally, written down, assembled and edited over a period of approx 1000 years. To me this is what is amazing; the Holy Spirit working through the ‘Israelites’ over all their transformations (nomadic, tribal, monarchy, exile, captivity and return), to finally establish a series of Scriptures that will become the Hebrew Bible that Jesus will use as his Bible!


The article entirely misses the boat on the nature of the documentary hypothesis and thus, in turn, the criticisms don’t really hold water. While some biblical theologians may not agree with the documentary hypothesis, I honestly don’t know of a single biblical scholar (including any Catholic) that denies it–so it’s not like the hypothesis is some sort of weird minority position within biblical studies or an idea that has died out.

The documentary hypothesis begins by noting various anomalies in the text of the Hebrew Bible, particularly in the Pentateuch. (Just as one short example, Gn 12:6b.) The documentary hypothesis explains these anomalies by conjecturing that the Bible, and specifically the Pentateuch, is a composite work. That’s really all there is to the documentary hypothesis.

J, E, P, D are textual models constructed to explain the “compositeness” qualities of the Bible, but just because scholars may quibble on what is, for example, J versus E, or argue about the dating or ordering of the sources, or whether Julius Wellhausen was a nice guy or not, really says nothing about the theory. J, E, P, D are simply one way of explaining how the “compositeness” came together, but a way that is also generally accepted among Bible scholars.

The problem with the article is that it 1) entirely omits the questions and problems that give rise to the hypothesis and thus leaves them unaddressed, and 2) combines the general theory of the hypothesis (which is actually stated fairly clearly and accurately in the article) with various ideas about the sources–which in a highly conflationary move is labelled the “JEPD theory,” ostensibly for purposes of bringing down the entire hypothesis–a logical non sequitur.

Since the model under consideration is a scientific one, to show that the documentary hypothesis is incorrect the scholar would need to come up with a superior explanation for the various anomalies in the Hebrew text. It’s been well over 100 years, and so far, no one has come up with a better explanation. One could posit, say, that JEPD are entirely wrong and that WXYD is a better way to understand the Pentateuch, but that would do nothing to the hypothesis. Thus statements like “if it can be proven that Deuteronomy and Leviticus can be confidently dated to the 15th-13th centuries B.C., the Hypothesis collapses” simply display a deeply flawed understanding of the theory.

There’s absolutely nothing in archeology or the Dead Sea Scrolls that undermines the documentary hypothesis.

As a general note, when people start straying into* ad hominem* attacks as this article does, it’s probably an excellent clue that what you’re reading isn’t particularly objective.


What is it about the Documentary Hypothesis that troubles you?

I’ve spent a moderate amount of time at seminary reflecting upon it. I would like to clearly understand your particular objections.


What is the JEDP theory, and does it disprove Genesis?

The JEDP theory claims that the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, were compiled from four sources or traditions, which are respectively known as the Jahwist, Elohist, Priestly, and Deuteronomist sources (hence the abbreviation JEDP). This theory is also known under other names, such as the Wellhausen hypothesis (named after Julius Wellhausen, who pioneered the theory).

This theory states that a final editor or compositor (or a number of them) drew upon these different traditions in assembling the Pentateuch and that one can identify the source by noting certain clues in the text. For example, the Jahwist source is supposed to favor the divine name Yahweh “(I AM”), while the Elohist source is supposed to favor the term Elohim or El (“God”).

Three of the sources, J, E, and P, are thought to have gone into the writing of Genesis. The reason many think this undermines the historicity of Genesis is that all of these sources are considered inaccurate, written centuries after the time of Moses.

In fact, the conclusion that they are inaccurate does not follow from the idea that they are from a late date. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit even late sources are infallible, just like early sources. The conclusion that Moses did not edit or oversee the editing of the Genesis is also not required. Even if J, E, D, and P were real sources, Moses could have been the one who wove them together. There are other problems with the JEDP theory. For example, many passages in Genesis contain references to God using both divine names (“the Lord God” or “Yahweh Elohim”).

For an excellent discussion and critique of the JEDP theory, see Before Abraham Was by Isaac Kikawada and Arthur Quinn.

At Catholic Answers, we prefer the GELND theory, which claims that the Pentateuch is a compilation of five sources: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.


The problem with DH is that it removes you from the narrative and places you in the copy editing room. I prefer the textus receptus approach. Here’s what we have, what does it say. However, the DH perspective can be helpful if you are willing at any given point to dismiss its conclusions. An example of how the DH and other forms of textual criticism might be helpful is in highlighting the different names of God. Now you certainly don’t need to buy into its conclusion that these different epitaphs prove that a merging of different documents happened. But it does help us realize something about the text as it is now. And that is that in certain places a certain name or emphasis seems to dominate the narrative. Why? What is the Holy Spirit telling us with this? (rhetorical questions) The writer(s) wrote it this way and let it stand. It meant something to them and their audience that it be written in this manner. We can safely assume the author(s) would have opted to communicate clarity and not ambiguity to their audience. So the DH and other theories can help highlight some very interesting items present in the text that are worthy of prayerful reflection. There is no need to buy into to their conclusions which are not unanimously accepted even among the theorists.



I agree, particularly with the point that (if nothing else) it provides a common way to discuss the various portions of the Pentateuch. I also agree with the posters that have pointed out that many (in my view the great majority) of Catholic biblical scholars use some version of the documentary hypothesis in their work. I just want to add, for those that may not know, that Pope Emeritus Benedict appears to be one them. If you read the text of his General Audiences, or many of his other writings, he often refers to the various JEDP sources when discussing Scripture.


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