9 The Documentary Hypothesis
In the 19th century, scholars began to discover more inconsistencies and anomalies in the Bible, and its compositional history appeared more complex than anyone had previously thought. In 1886, the German historian Julius Wellhausen proposed that the Hexateuch (the Pentateuch plus Joshua) was a composite of four distinct documents by different authors. These documents were labeled J (Jahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly), and each has its own theology and agenda.
This theory explains overlapping or repetitive stories (“doublets”) such as the two accounts of Creation and the two accounts of the Flood—Genesis 7:17 describes a 40-day flood, while Genesis 8:3 describes one lasting 150 days. It is believed that later editors stitched together the multiple sources into one narrative, sometimes intertwining two versions of a single story and neglecting to iron out the seams, as can be seen in the Flood narrative.
The J source calls God “Yahveh,” or “Jahveh” in German, hence the designation “J.” It pictures God in anthropomorphic terms, appearing to people like Abraham face-to-face. E calls the deity “Elohim,” who shows Himself indirectly, as in dreams. D is the source for Deuteronomy as well as the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. It defines God as having no form that anyone can see at all. P is cultic in its character and is obsessed with genealogies and lists.
More recently, the idea of four separate, complete, and coherent documents has come under question, but the composite character of the Pentateuch remains the commonly accepted view.