More about the Bible

The Torah in Modern Scholarship

The first five books of the Bible are called the Torah by Jews and the Pentateuch by scholars. The word ‘Torah’ is Hebrew for ‘teaching’ or ‘law,’ and the word ‘Pentateuch’ is Greek for ‘five books.’ Sometimes scholars include the book of Joshua and term the collection the ‘Hexateuch,’ which means ‘six books.’

According to Jewish and therefore also Christian tradition, the Torah was written by Moses. Jesus Himself affirms Moses as the author of the Torah. As today, the concept of authorship included the possibilities of ghost writers and editors working under the author’s supervision. Therefore, neither Christians nor Jews had a problem with those passages of the Torah that describe Moses’ death and the ultimate disposition of his body. Although it was obvious to people then as now that Moses could not have penned those sections, it did not impugn Moses’ authorship. Even today, if an author dies after completing the bulk of a work and someone else finishes off the final chapter from the author’s notes and adds a few concluding comments about the death of the author, we have no problem attributing the whole work to the original author.

The text of the Torah is stylistically bumpy, one might say. Although it reads as one continuous narrative from Genesis to Deuteronomy, the careful reader notices some interesting features. The Torah contains narrative, poetry, legislation, and other types of writing. It appears to include duplicate narratives of the same events, and in places the transitions seem rough. Deuteronomy, for instance, seems to be a rehash of the earlier four books.

It is always valid to analyze a written document to find internal clues about its structure, its author, the circumstances of its writing, and the possible number of times it was edited. This is called ‘literary analysis,’ and we do it all the time. For example, on receiving a letter from Aunt Matilda, we might infer from a discontinuity in the middle of the letter that she was interrupted while writing it, or we might infer from the change of handwriting that Uncle Seymour added the postscript.

Literary analysis yields information that requires confirmation and validation in the outside world. We might erroneously conclude from a discontinuity in our aged aunt’s letter that dementia has set in, when in fact she was interrupted by the doorbell and returned with different thoughts on her mind. We might infer some emotional state from a change in her handwriting, when in fact it was at that point that her arthritis medication took effect.

The Torah is also a valid object of literary analysis. The current and most popular system, at least among Christian scholars, for analyzing the Torah is called the documentary hypothesis. In this essay, I wish to show that the documentary hypothesis is the product of faulty literary analysis.

Introducing the Documentary Hypothesis

The documentary hypothesis, as it was articulated by Julius Wellhausen in the nineteenth century, theorizes that the Torah is actually four documents edited into one. These four documents are identified primarily by the name that is used for God and by their writing style. The four are as follows:

J  The hypothetical J document was characterized primarily by the use of ‘Yahweh’ as God’s name. This document also contains lively narratives of God’s providence to Israel. This document is supposed to be the product of a scribe living in Solomon’s time and was motivated by the desire to preserve the old traditions.
E  The hypothetical E document was characterized primarily by the use of ‘Elohim’ to designate God. This document contains lively stories about old heroes, and is supposed to be the product of the northern tribes, sort of the northern counterpart of J.
P  The hypothetical P document was the priestly code. It is a collection of laws and rituals and was supposed to have been drawn up by the priests during the Babylonian exile to preserve the priestly traditions that would have been lost during the captivity, when there was no Temple in which to carry them out.
D  The hypothetical D document, which is primarily Deuteronomy, was supposed to be the product of a religious reform movement during the reign of King Josiah.

The documentary hypothesis was formulated in the nineteenth century before the bulk of the archaeological discoveries in the Holy Land. For example, as Wellhausen worked, there was no evidence for the existence of the Hittite empire, which the Old Testament depicts as a major world power. Since then, the Hittite empire has been discovered and it is even possible to study the Hittite language in German universities.

Names of God

Since the advocates of this theory use the name of God as the main criterion for detecting the constituent documents of the Torah, we must begin by asking if this criterion is truly valid.

In Christian writings, even contemporary works, we often find references to ‘Jesus,’ to ‘Christ,’ and to ‘Jesus Christ’ in the same document, yet no one has offered up the theory that any of these documents were editorial melanges from different sources. No scholar has offered the theory that there was a J tradition, in which Jesus was called ‘Jesus,’ and a C tradition, in which He was called ‘Christ,’ and that portions of documents that refer to ‘Jesus Christ’ are narratives that stem from both traditions that were editorially combined. Similarly, the British sometimes refer to their monarch as ‘Elizabeth,’ sometimes as the ‘Queen,’ and sometimes as ‘Queen Elizabeth.’ No one theorizes that there are E, Q, and QE traditions lurking behind British newspaper articles.

The reason no one offers these theories is that they are absurd. So why is it not absurd to ascribe the J passages to one writer and the E passages to another? The terms Queen, Christ, and Elohim are essentially job titles. The names Elizabeth, Jesus, and Yahweh are personal names. Just as the Christians found out that the office of Messiah was uniquely and exclusively held by someone named ‘Jesus,’ Moses and the ancient Hebrews were informed in the Torah that the office of Elohim was uniquely and exclusively held by someone named ‘Yahweh.’

Thus we conclude that dividing the Torah into source documents based on divine names is unjustified, unless some corroborating, nonliterary evidence can be found to verify it.

The Lack of Hard Evidence

In the real world of archaeology, J, E, D, and P do not exist. Their existence is purely theoretical. The recent publication entitled The Book of J is a modern theoretical reconstruction, not the publication of an actual ancient document. The identity and content of J, E, D, and P vary from scholar to scholar. Even the number of source documents varies, depending on whose book you read. If the documentarians are detecting the historical facts about the composition of the Torah, we should expect that, with time, their views should converge upon a single set of facts, and would be increasingly validated by archaeological data. Instead, documentarians grow more diverse and are increasingly at odds with historic facts.

There is no record, within or without the Torah, written or oral, that these were the source documents, or that they were destroyed after the final copies were made—which is the only way to explain their nonexistence today. If holy documents were edited into a harmonious whole and if the source documents were destroyed, the ancients had no reason to suppress the event, because the people who carried it out would have seen themselves as piously motivated and would have recorded the ceremony as an important spiritual milestone. We should read of a solemn event in which the nation rededicated itself to pure religion and put false things behind it—such as occurred under Ezra’s leadership—but the destruction of rival Torahs is missing from history. By way of contrast, it is interesting to note that there was a movement within early Islam to standardize the text of the Koran, and Islamic tradition and scholarship records the destruction of the variant copies as a pious and necessary act.

Not only is there no external corroboration that the conclusions of the documentary hypothesis are correct, the methods of the documentary hypothesis have not been tested on modern documents to see if they do in fact accurately resolve the literary history of a document.

Any scientific observation must be corroborated by outside evidence and any scientific procedure must be tested with a control group. Since the documentary hypothesis has no external corroboration and its methods have never been tested on documents whose literary history is wholly known, we must conclude that the documentary hypothesis is conjectural at best.

Ancient Literacy

The documentary hypothesis was originally based on the supposition that the events in the Torah preceded the invention of writing, or at least its use among the Hebrews. This is because Julius Wellhausen lived in the nineteenth-century, but nineteenth-century notions about ancient literacy have been completely refuted by archaeological evidence. The documentarians have not updated the documentary hypothesis to take this into account, so we still find them assigning very late dates to their hypothetical sources of the Torah.

Archaeology has shown that writing was common during the time in which the events of the Torah were to have taken place. All major civilizations surrounding the Hebrews were literate—Abraham and Joseph lived in literate societies, who themselves were founded on a long chain of literate societies extending back into what even they considered ancient times. In fact, double-entry bookkeeping—in its present form—was as old to Abraham as Abraham is to us! Archaeologists have even found graffiti written by slaves constructing public works; therefore, we cannot categorically assert that the Hebrews were necessarily illiterate simply because they were slaves in Egypt. Since Moses was given the same education as any other member of the Egyptian royal family, the idea that Moses was illiterate is now unthinkable—especially since we are now able to reconstruct the curricula of Egyptian schools during that period.

Stylistic Bumpiness

The documentarians also rely on the stylistic bumpiness within the Torah to bolster their claims of multiple source documents. Yet they have conducted no investigation into literary works whose history is wholly known to determine the normal range of stylistic bumpiness in a single author’s works, how a writer’s talents may change over time, or what sort of stylistic bumpiness we might expect in an author who writes over a lifetime and edits his earlier works that were written when he was less skilled. Therefore, the documentarians have no empirical basis whatsoever for asserting that the stylistic bumpiness of the Torah contradicts the notion of a single author!

The Supernatural

Another premise undergirding the documentary hypothesis is the assertion that supernatural events, such as are depicted in the Torah, categorically do not occur. This is an unscientific statement because it is not falsifiable; that is, it can never be refuted, even hypothetically. If we say that the supernatural never occurs, then we would reject real supernatural events before we would reconsider our statement. The documentary hypothesis tests the evidence; the reverse of the scientific method, in which the evidence tests the hypothesis. If this premise were true, then it would follow that the supernatural events are mundane events that have become exaggerated with time. It is possible for an entirely fictional story to become the foundation of a nation—we have only to look to Switzerland, where Schiller’s story of William Tell has become historical fact in the minds of most Swiss. We have no method of determining that William Tell is a fictional story just by analyzing Schiller’s work; we must research the matter historically. The documentarians fail to seek external corroboration, which is a serious lapse in scientific procedure, and they assume in the beginning the conclusion they seek to prove, which is an elemental error in logic.

The Geographical Origins of the Torah

Contrary to what the documentary hypothesis would lead us to expect, the Torah displays an intimate knowledge with conditions in Egypt and with the flora and fauna of Sinai—at the time of the events it records. It describes the promised land in metaphorical terms, based on conditions in Egypt. If the Torah were written in Canaan many centuries after the events that were described, we should expect to find Egypt and the Sinai described in Palestinian terms rather than the reverse, as is the case. We can only conclude that it was written before the Hebrews entered Canaan, during the time of the events it describes.

The Literary Form of the Torah

Literary analysis, properly applied, does not corroborate the documentary hypothesis. The covenant between God and Israel follows, with appropriate modifications, the form of a suzerainty treaty, which defined the relationship between a conqueror and a conquered people. Suzerainty treaties of this type existed during the time that the Torah purports to have been written. At the time that the documentarians theorize the Torah’s alleged constituent documents were written, this type of suzerainty treaty had not been used for centuries. It is unclear how the writers could have gained such accurate knowledge of an obsolete literary form or what their motivation could have been in using it. It is also unclear how the literary features of the suzerainty treaty could have survived a complex editing process by editors who were largely unaware of the form that they accidentally preserved. It is like supposing that a Shakespearean sonnet in Elizabethan English was the unwitting product when twenty-first-century editors harmonized nineteenth-century documents from various different sources.

It is more probable that the Torah was written more or less at the same time as latest events that it describes. It is less probable that a document, coalescing out of disparate accounts many centuries after the fact, could have accurately reproduced events and conditions several centuries in the past. It is quite reasonable to assume that Moses would have learned about suzerainty treaties during his royal education, and there is nothing to prohibit Moses from casting the covenant with God in that form.

The Alleged Synthesis of Northern and Southern Religious Traditions

Because the documentary hypothesis posits that the Torah was composed quite late, it includes the idea that the E document was primarily a northern document that was edited into the J document to form the JE document, an intermediary step toward the final form of the Torah.

When the Northern Kingdom was defeated and carried into captivity, the prophets interpreted this as God’s punishment for their idolatry and religious impurity, and warned Judah not to follow the example. If anyone had undertaken to preserve the Northern Kingdom’s traditions by modifying Judah’s sacred documents, it would have contradicted the message of the prophets and thus would have met with fierce prophetic opposition. The debate could only have been resolved by a prophet of great stature, who would have been vindicated after much opposition. The resolution would have been recorded, if only because it would have been so unusual: there is no other instance in which a canonized prophet advocated the preservation of any practice or artifact that had previously belonged to apostates.

There is no record of such an event occurring in Judah, and the event is intrinsically improbable. We can only conclude that the combination of the J and E document, as proposed by the documentarians, cannot be a fact of history and never occurred. If, on the other hand, the documents were of such small importance to have escaped controversy, we cannot explain how they suddenly swelled into importance later on.

A remnant of the Northern Kingdom has survived to this day as the Samaritans. Because of the extreme enmity between the two kingdoms, the Samaritans have maintained a separate literary tradition of their own. If the documentary hypothesis were true, we should expect the Samaritan Pentateuch to consist primarily, if not entirely, of the hypothetical E document. Yet in fact the Samaritan Pentateuch differs from the Jewish Pentateuch only in a few minor areas important in the religious disputes between the two groups.

The Origin of the Documentary Hypothesis

It is also interesting that the documentary hypothesis did not arise among the rabbis, even though the rabbis have studied the Torah longer, harder, and more critically than anyone else.

The Documentary Hypothesis and the Holocaust

The Documentary Hypothesis became one of the contributing factors to the holocaust in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

It is important to understand that in Germany, the university system is publicly supported and accessible to all, because there is no tuition. It also has a very strong tradition of academic freedom that goes back about 500 years. Essentially, at any point in German history, even during the Nazi dictatorship, you could do almost anything in the name of academia inside the university, no matter how heretical or outrageous it may have been on the outside. As a result, the German university system has produced many extraordinary original thinkers, far too many to list here, who have contributed mightily to the well-being of the human race.

But weeds grow as well as roses in such fertile soil. The Documentary Hypothesis probably could not have reached such prominence in any other place than in the academic freedom of the German university system, because in any other place it would have been perceived as too outrageous or too heretical.

As it stands, however, the Documentary Hypothesis gained respectability and currency in the German university system in the late 1800s, tragically just in time for the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Nazi party, which was founded in 1919. The Nazis, borrowing from the growing scholarly consensus that the Torah consisted of myth and legend, used this scholarly climate to invalidate both Judaism and the Old Testament. The Nazis promoted a revised form of Christianity called Deutsches Christentum, in which they replaced the Old Testament with Germanic myths and legends. Deutsches Christentum never caught on with the public, but since it epitomized the beliefs of the leadership of the Nazi party, it contributed to the martyrdom of a number of famous German Christians. The most important fact to remember here is that the Documentary Hypothesis, whether by design or by accident, gave theological aid and comfort to the people who turned on the gascocks in the concentration camps. If you are not convinced by my essay to abandon the Documentary Hypothesis, then at least be aware that it may cause unintended anti-Semitic side effects and take measures to forestall them.

Who Wrote the Torah?

Well, it appears that the documentarians haven’t a clue. They have a lot of opinions, but we know the following facts:

Did Moses write the Torah? Scientifically, we can’t prove that he did. Those who believe that Jesus is an unimpeachable authority on the subject have a conclusive answer that Moses did write the Torah. For most of us the question requires a lot more research and thought. However, even to religious skeptics, we can demonstrate that the documentary hypothesis in the form best known to the public is unscientific, illogical, superfluous, improbable, implausible—and possibly also ludicrous.

This article was originally inspired by Josh McDowell’s book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith, Thomas Nelson, 1993, and later augmented by information from experts at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC and Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia.