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The JEDP theory basically states that the first five books of the bible (the Pentatauch) were not written by a single person, but rather by four different people.

I'm trying to understand if this theory is even remotely valid or if it is complete nonsense.

Specifically (to avoid this being closed as argumentative), what are the most reasonable supporting arguments for this theory? Also, what are the major criticisms against this theory?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The JEPD theory was developed in three stages, which I summarized in my answer to What was the reasons for documentary hypothesis?. It isn't complete nonsense; it's the culmination of several centuries of Bible scholarship. Whether it is a giant leap forward or a brilliant mistake, I'm not certain.

On the one hand, it's rational, and it fits different types of writing into neat categories. It has a ready answer for things that might be hard to explain otherwise.

On the other hand, it's highly speculative. I've found that it is trivially easy to look at any source text and find inconsistency. I myself have tried this method and "discovered" evidence of multiple sources in Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion.

Perhaps the most serious scholarly argument against the JEPD hypothesis is that it doesn't explain why a later editor would bring all these sources together, if the traditions had kept them separate. The more likely scenario, according to this argument, is that the doublets and stylistic differences were part of a tradition that began with Moses and was accumulated over the years.

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There are two big things that come to the top of my head:

  1. Deuteronomy describes the death and burial of Moses (the book's supposed author). Moses could have finished the book before ascending the mountain, but that seems much less likely than a contribution from another author to complete it.
  2. Numbers 12:3 Now Moses was a humble man: the most humble man in all the earth. It seems to me that humble man would have a hard time writing that sentence. This again indicates an additional author, or at least editor.

Neither of these rule out Moses as the primary author of all 5 books, though, especially considering the necessity of the time of frequently hand-copying the books for preservation. Addendums had a habit of finding their way into the original text over time.

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This answer says nothing about the reasons why JEDP is proposed, or any reasons why it might be valid. –  DJClayworth Sep 7 '11 at 19:35

The classic works on the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) are Julius Wellhausen's Die Composition des Hexateuch und der historischen Bücher des Alten Testaments and Prolegomena to the History of [Ancient] Israel (the latter of which, incidentally, is available in English for free via google books). The theory is generally attributed to Karl Graf, but it was Wellhausen who brought it to the forefront of biblical scholarship.

The basic premise of the Prolegomena is the identification of certain contradictions throughout the Pentateuch that point toward a progression toward the "Judaism" of the Exilic and second Temple period. The arguments are very nuanced, but Wellhausen's attention to detail is staggering. Central to his argument is the apprent change of opinion regarding the centrality of Jerusalem for the worship of Yahweh. The earlier strata seem unconcerned by, for instance, Solomon (or Samuel, Elisha, etc.) making sacrifices to God outside of Jerusalem, which is strictly forbidden in the later D and P sources. Moreover, none of the above mentioned people were Levites who were the sole practitioners of the temple cult.

Biblical scholarship has come a long way since Wellhausen, but one would be remiss to toss out his work as passe or otherwise "disproven." The DH is broadly accepted by nearly every serious scholar of the Hebrew Bible (with modification and individual nuance, of course) for good reason.

Don't accept (or reject) the theory just because someone on the internet said so; read the first few chapters of the Prolegomena (with a Hebrew Bible next to you if you can)--the man was truly brilliant.

Post Script: Incidentally, Wellhausen was a devout Christian--keep that in mind when you read about his theories.

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