Howard Wallace's home page

Formation of the Pentateuch

1. Introduction

In our reading of the flood story we encountered some interesting phenomena in the text. We found contradictory facts in the text (number of animals in the ark; the length of the flood; the cause of the flood), repetition of some elements in the text (command to build the ark; command to enter the ark), different names use for the same entity (God; Lord). Many other stories present similar phenomena. This is particularly the case in the Pentateuch. There are other examples of doublets (e.g. two accounts of creation in Gen 1 & 2; two lots of 10 commandments in Exod 20 and Deut 5 etc.). Many anachronisms are evident (e.g. the account of Moses' death at the end of a text which he is supposed to have written; the fact that some place names are mentioned when it is only in later texts that the name is given, like the name of the place Dan in Gen 14:4 and Judges 18). There is also the suggestion in Num 21:14 that at least some of the Pentateuch material was written some time after the events it reports, and that writers have drawn on earlier material.

In a passage like Exod 24:1-18a we encounter further examples of these complexities. The passage can be divided into three sections: vv. 1-11, 12-15a and 15b-18a. In each of these sections Moses goes up on the mountain but never comes down, a different group of people accompanies him on his ascent each time, and there is a contradiction in whether these people see God. The three units also show some different characteristics, theological perspectives and language.

In examples such as these we need to ask ourselves what is going on? How do we see these duplicated stories in relation to each other? Does the writer tell us about one incident two or three times with variations (if so why?) or of different incidents (which is not implied) or has the writer gathered separate accounts of the same story together? How have some stories developed, particularly those which bear inner contradictions?

2. Pentateuchal Sources

The presence of seams, contradictions, doublets, changes in style, expression, vocabulary, inconsistencies, and anachronisms in the stories of the Bible has led many scholars to suggest that the biblical stories have developed in complex ways. Some have developed hypotheses about the Pentateuch and other parts of Scripture which see them as the end products of the deliberate combination of older sources (not extant now). A good example of the process may be seen in the way that the Books of Samuel-Kings have clearly been used as a source for the Books of Chronicles.

Scholars develop such hypotheses to explain the present state of the biblical text for a number of reasons. First, they need to understand something of the history of the biblical text if they are to begin to study the history of the institutions of ancient Israel, its religious development, its social and political history. It is important to know something of these things if individual books or passages of scripture are to be interpreted. Secondly, when scholars begin to interpret passages of scripture they need to know what sort of literature, or what genre of writing, which they are dealing with, and for whom, and by whom it was written.

The most widely held hypothesis in Source Criticism of the Pentateuch over the last century has been the New Documentary hypothesis. Proponents of this hypothesis argue that the Pentateuch was developed by the combination of four major written sources: the Yahwist (J); the Elohist (E), and the Priestly source (P), all to be found principally in Genesis - Numbers; and Deuteronomy (D), which is largely the book of that name, but possibly with some small pieces elsewhere in Pentateuch. Scholars have assigned portions of text to these sources according to terminology, vocabulary used, style, and content.

3. An example

The following extract is the section from the flood story we examined in class (Gen 7:1-24). I have indicated the sections assigned to the two sources J and P, which many scholars have detected within the flood story. This particular division into J and P sources was suggested by a German scholar, Martin Noth. While in many places scholars agree on the assignment of verses to particular sources, in many others there are points of disagreement. The aim here is not to argue the rights and wrongs of Noth’s division or any other, but simply to get a feel for the process and results of one such attempt. Please note that I have used bold type for J sections, ordinary type for P sections, and underlined type for “harmonising additions” from a later editor. The translation of the text is the NRSV. The division and key follow that recorded by A. Campbell  and M. O’Brien, Sources of the Pentateuch: text, introductions, annotations. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.

As you read the section consider what variations in emphasis, language, theology, and facts can you notice between the different pieces of material as set out, that has led scholars like Martin Noth to see the story as a combination of sources?

1 Then the LORD said to Noah, "Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. 2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; 3 and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. 4 For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground." 5 And Noah did all that the LORD had commanded him.

6 Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth. 7 And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons' wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8 Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground,9 two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.

11 In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 12The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.13 On the very same day Noah with his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah's wife and the three wives of his sons entered the ark, 14 they and every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind -- every bird, every winged creature. 15 They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. 16 And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the LORD shut him in.

17 The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth.18 The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19 The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; 20 the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. 21 And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; 22 everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23 He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth.Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. 24 And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.

If you have time read also Gen 4:17-24 and 5:1-11. Note the differences in genealogical style even though the lists of names bear marked similarities. Note the formal style of Genesis 5 is reminiscent of Genesis 1, as are the themes of the image of God, male and female (cf. flood) and blessing.

4. Julius Wellhausen

Julius Wellhausen is largely credited with the refinement of the classic statement of the New Documentary hypothesis. He published his major work on it,  Prolegomena to the History of Israel, in 1885 (Eng. trans.). In his work he built on the work of earlier scholars such as: de Wette, Reuss, Graf, and Kuenen.

Wellhausen proposed four major sources for the Pentateuch as follows:

Yahwish (J) source c.850 BCE
Elohist (E) source c.750 BCE
J and E were combined by a redactor sometime after E into Rje.
Deuteronomy (D) source 621 BCE
Priestly (P) source c. 500 BCE
Finally D and P were combined with Rje sometime in the 5th century BCE.

5.  20th Century Developments (see Hayes, pp. 167-194)

These have varied considerably. There have been some reactions totally against the Documentary Hypothesis, mainly due to religious convictions and other factors external to the text. Many scholars have accepted the hypothesis with some modifications in delineation or dating of sources or with arguments for a stronger identification or delineation. Some have suggested even more sources: L, N, S, K, J1 J2 etc.

One major development in Pentateuchal study this century involved bringing a theological dimension to source analysis. The work of G. von Rad, whose major contribution was worked out in his commentary on Genesis, is an example. He saw the material in the sources tied originally to the cult in the form of independent sagas etc. He thus began to discuss the traditions (oral) behind the sources. von Rad also saw sources in terms of their "theologies". That is, he saw the 'authors' of sources as having given the materials at their disposal some theological shape. He saw these as expressions of the normative faith of Israel in specific contexts. von Rad also located the sources further in the cult and thus changed the dates for the sources documents themselves. He identified J as a theologian of the Solomonic "enlightenment", hence ~ 950 BCE (cf. Wellhausen c.850 BCE); he saw E as northern, and connected with the prophetic period, ~ 850 BCE (cf. Wellhausen c.750 BCE).

The most thorough explanation of the view originating with von Rad can be found in W. Brueggemann and H.W. Wolff, The Vitality of Old Testament Traditions, 1975. In this work certain “pictures” of J, E, and P were developed by means of listing the characteristics of these proposed documents. The following is a list of some characteristics which have been attributed to the various sources in some forms of the Documentary Hypothesis (e.g. in Brueggemann and Wolff, Vitality of OT traditions.)

The Yahwist (J)

Begins in Gen 2:4b and covers Genesis to Numbers.
Divine name YHWH used from Gen 4:26 on. Occasionally YHWH 'elohim (Gen 2-3).
Anthropomorphism common in description of YHWH and his activity when he appears.
Stress on immanence of YHWH.
Ancestral stories centre on area of Judah in south.
Mt Sinai is the name given to the mountain of revelation of Torah.
Moses's father-in-law is named Reuel.
Theme of promise of progeny, land and blessing (Gen 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:4-5; 26:2-5; 28:13-15).
Pre-Israelite inhabitants of land of Canaan called Canaanites.
Human attitude in presence of deity is usually comfortable.
Members of any of the 12 tribes of Israel can serve as priests.
Months of the calendar referred to by name.
Predominantly narrative in style.
Gives prominence to Judah among twelve brothers.
The Elohist (E)
Fragmentary and elusive source. Begins in Gen 15.
Divine name YHWH revealed in Exod 3:13-15. Until then uses 'elohim.
Indirect revelation of deity through intermediaries or visions (Gen 20; 21:1-14; 22:1-19; 28:10-12, 17-22).
Humans often presented as anxious in presence of deity.
Mt Horeb is the name of the mountain of revelation of Torah.
Moses's father-in-law is named Jethro.
Region of Ephraim in the north is central in the narratives.
Pre-Israelite inhabitants of land of Canaan called Amorites.
Miriam, Abraham and others are called "prophets."
Members of any of the 12 tribes of Israel can serve as priests.
Mostly narrative in style.

The Priestly source (P)

Vocabulary and interest heavily weighted toward cultic issues: Sabbath, Passover, circumcision, tabernacle etc.
Major use of genealogies to tie history together (Gen 2:4a; 5:1-28, 30-32; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10-27; 25:12; 36:1; 37:2).
Little by way of major blocks of narrative. Associated with large blocks of legal material.
System of three covenants:
Noah Gen 9 - food laws and sign of bow;
Abraham Gen 17 - circumcision;
Moses and people Exod 25ff - Torah.
YHWH revealed as divine name in Exod 6:2-3. Until then 'el shaddai used (Gen 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 48:3).
Stress on eternal nature of covenant.
Stress on demand for human obedience to divine word (Gen 6:22; 7:6 etc).
Yahweh is hidden, often within numinous cloud, the kabod "glory" of the deity.

In addition to the type of developments mentioned above, a whole series of questions and issues have been raised about the Documentary Hypothesis by some scholars on technical grounds. These questions have lead to flux and uncertainty in Pentateuchal Source Criticism. There is no longer any assured ground. A major work of criticism in this area has been by R.N. Whybray, The Making of the Pentateuch, 1987.

The questions that have been raised focus on the nature of the proposed documents (e.g. is E a less fully preserved document, or chiefly a supplement to J, or some form of modification? or is P to be regarded as a separate document or simply supplementary material interwoven with the penultimate JEP form?). Other questions concern the dating of the supposed source documents (e.g. are the arguments associating J with the Solomonic period strong enough or should we accept the argument of others that J’s theology reflects the exilic context).

A final set of questions concerns literary critical perspectives. Some would argue that as critics of literature we can only look at the literary shape of a text, not at the history or development of a text or the intention of the author. Questions have now been raised by canonical critics who see theological purpose not just in sources but in the canonical shape of the combination of these sources.

6. Recent Defence of the Documentary Hypothesis

Some recent criticism of the Documentary Hypothesis of the Pentateuch has been made on the grounds that it is inappropriate to use criteria applicable to discussing the unity of ‘modern’ written works when considering the development of ancient works of literature. The latter often exhibit features derived from oral literary techniques and were ‘composed’ under the criteria of an ancient written style, which are not all that clear to us and within which expectations of consistency etc. could be totally foreign. However, some recent work argues that the hypothesis is not unreasonable. [See J. Tigay, Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism]. The first two extracts below are taken from Exodus and Deuteronomy and are the section of the Ten Commandments dealing with observance of the Sabbath. Following those are two quotations of Deuteronomy 5, one from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) and one from the LXX (Septuagint).

Law of Sabbath:

Exod 20:8-11

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work -- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Deut 5:12-15
12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work -- you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

The following quotes are taken from J.H. Tigay, Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1985.

4QDeutn 5:12-15

12Observe  the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13Six days you shall labor and do all your work; 14but on the seventh day, the Sabbath to the LORD your God, you shall do no work in it, you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your ox, or your ass, or your cattle, the sojourners who are within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. 15You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy; for in six days the LORD made the heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day to keep it holy. (Tigay, pp. 55-56)
LXXB, Deut. 5:12-15
12Observe  the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13Six days you shall labor and do all your work; 14but on the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God; you shall do no work in it, you, and your son, and your daughter, your manservant and your maidservant, your ox, and your ass, and your cattle, the sojourner who dwells among you, for in six days the LORD made the heaven and earth and the sea and all that is in them; that your manservant and your maidservant and your cattle may rest as well as you. 15You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and a raised arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy. (Tigay, p. 56)

The point of the above extracts is to show that in the course of normal scribal activity, as the scribe at Qumran was copying out Deuteronomy 5 and as those responsible for the LXX were translating Deuteronomy 5 into Greek, the knowledge that the Exodus 20 version of the law of the Sabbath provides a different justification for Sabbath observance (namely God's rest after creation), gave rise to each scribe adding the reason for Sabbath observance found in Exodus 20 to that found in Deuteronomy 5. But note that each has added it in a different place. The argument is that such scribal activity as these additions is similar to the type of activity of successive editors and scribes in the formation of the canonical Pentateuch. Based on this type of evidence, some would argue that it is not out of place to see points of inconsistency, duplication etc. as pointers towards a text being composite of two or more written sources.

7. Conclusions

Blenkinsopp, Pentateuch, p 28:

"... it is true that the documentary hypothesis has increasingly been shown to be flawed, and will survive, if at all, only in a greatly modified form, but that does not mean that we should ignore the results of the last two centuries of investigation. Our task is to find better ways of understanding how the Pentateuch came to be without writing off the real advances of our predecessors."

8. More Recent developments

An example of further modification on the Documentary Hypothesis built upon a diachronic approach  with attention to some of the criticisms of the documentary and other approaches in the past is seen in the work of David M. Carr, Reading the fractures of Genesis: historical and literary approaches. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1996, esp Ch. 12, pp. 297-335.

He proposes a development in several stages.

a) (p 298) At the beginning have an independent Primeval History (PH; Genesis 1-11), and Jacob and Joseph compositions, the latter of which are combined into successive Israelite and Judean editions of the Jacob-Joseph narrative. We can’t probe further back with confidence in PH. The Jacob stories (trickster narratives) were possibly at home in the northern resistance movement against the Davidic-Solomonic power structures around Jerusalem.

b) The Jacob-Joseph narrative was developed in a more political way and with specific reference to northern locations to support new power structure in the northern kingdom. This effort was not without its seams in the material which resulted in a tension between the trickster Jacob and the divinely supported one. (p. 300) The Joseph traditions possibly started with a core (chs. 39, 40-41) of Egyptian material, (p. 301) again at family level but developed in an institutional-political vein with connection to the Jacob story.

c) (p 302) This  northern edition of the Jacob-Joseph cycles develops with minor changes supporting the northern monarchic ideology. After 722 BCE and the destruction of the northern kingdom this cycle of stories is brought south to Judah.

d) The Jacob-Joseph cycle is redacted to its new southern context. Joseph is reduced to a ruler in Egypt and Judah is brought into prominence. This work has left some fractures especially around Joseph.

e) (pp 305-6) The Proto-Genesis phase. There is the addition of the PH and Abraham and Isaac traditions with some additions to later material. This is at a time when the traditions of monarchy etc. are threatened or gone. The promises within the narrative becomes the audience’s promises and the promises to Jacob are extended back to Abraham and ultimately are reliant on the God who promises. The author builds on the personal piety and royal ideology in the Abraham story to shape this. They use earlier materials familiar to the southern audience to connect them to the promises and see nthe orth and south as recipients of one promise. This leaves a number of fractures in the process. This edition also connects Israel to lthe arger world situation, thus again speaking to the context. There are exilic and early post-exilic revisions of proto-Genesis, mainly with a Deuteronomic emphasis (note esp Gen 14, 15).

f) (pp 312-313) The Priestly document is composed as a replacement for proto-Genesis with different emphases. It employs earlier materials including the toledot book (book of generations). Probably late exilic or early post-exilic in date.

g) The final combination of P and non-P Genesis material. A more +ve view is found in P’s PH toward humans and there is the possibility of human-divine relationship. More emphasis goes on the Abraham character especially outlining obedience and righteousness There is emphasis on the genealogical connections, travel and promise themes. (p. 326) The editor's work in combining P and non-P is an effort to combine material important to two groups in the post-exilic period, priestly and non-priestly leadership groups. (p. 327ff) Carr cites evidence for possible Persian support for the project in an effort to establish standard Jewish law.

Note with Carr:

a) that he goes beyond the old sources to suggest primary units with the cycles of stories;
b) he is still using source critical method. The question arises of subjectivity in this and what is surety of results.
c) The division between P and non-P material is OK but can we neatly divide non-P so well?
d) his historical associations are interesting.

In our study of the bible we will never be free of generating working hypotheses. Each one will have its strengths and weaknesses. Our wisdom is in rejecting what over time has been shown to be inadequate, and building on what real advances others have made, and being humble enough to know that others will reject and/or build upon our hypotheses in the future.

Reading on Pentateuchal criticism.

Outline of the history and issues of Pentateuchal criticism:
Boadt, Reading the OT, pp. 89-108.
Campbell, Companion, pp. 116-136.
Campbell and O'Brien, Sources, pp. 1-20.
Bailey, Pentateuch, pp. 22-60.
Blenkinsopp,. Pentateuch, pp. 1-30.
Clements, R.E. "Pentateuch, Pentateuchal Criticism," in Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, Coggins and Houlden (eds.), pp. 527-531.
Friedman, R.E. "Torah (Pentateuch)" in ABD, Vol. 6, pp. 608-621.
Hayes, Introduction, pp. 115-120, 155-198.
Schmidt, Introduction, pp. 41-56.
Soggin, Introduction, pp. 91-113.
Whybray, Introduction to the Pentateuch, pp. 12-28.
c. H. Wallace
March 2007