Monday, November 13, 2006

The Documentary Hypothesis: Do you Believe?

Mormon scholars tend to be ambivalent towards the Documentary Hypothesis, the model of current biblical scholarship. The basic idea behind the Documentary Hypothesis – that the Bible is a composition of several sources which were developed over many years and then redacted into a single work – has definite implications for the way we view the Bible. Moreover, the Documentary Hypothesis poses a challenge to traditional claims about LDS scripture.

For example, the cosmogony (explanation of how the world was formed) from the Book of Abraham treats two literary sources as though they were originally paired together. That is the opposite of what we would expect if, A) the two sources were first distinct narrations and only later redacted into one work, as the Documentary Hypothesis claims, and B) Joseph Smith restored the ancient and original text of Genesis 1-3.

Anthony Hutchinson deals with these issues by recasting the Book of Abraham as “Mormon Midrash.” The Book of Abraham is Joseph Smith’s interpretation of the Bible; it is not historically true, but is nonetheless valid in some sense. Kevin Barney wisely avoided taking a specific stance, although he admits that the Documentary Hypothesis rules out the possibility that Smith translated from a source dating to the time of Abraham. These are just two examples of the kinds of reactions LDS scholars give to the Documentary Hypothesis.

There are inconsistencies between the Documentary Hypothesis and a literal view of the Book of Abraham just as there are inconsistencies between the Genesis’ cosmogony and science. This post is just scratching the surface. I hope that other bloggers will continue to treat the problems that arise from our knowledge of the Documentary Hypothesis. What I would like to see right now is your opinions of the theory’s overall conclusions. Is it a valid representation of the formation of the Bible? Do you accept the major conclusions of the Documentary Hypothesis? And, if so, how have you had to reformulate your beliefs to keep in line with the DH? Or, put another way, how have you had to reformulate your views of the DH in order to keep them in line with your faith?

(Note: the answer “I see no problem at all” may help you sleep better at night, but it will make for a boring post).


TrailerTrash said...

For those who don't know anything about it, the wikipedia article is a good start:

I think that you have put your finger on the primary problem for LDS and the DH. The issue doesn't have anything to do with biblical inerrancy as is the case with many other Christians and Jews, but with the meaning of Abraham and the Book of Moses. These are so tied up to JS's prophetic message that a strictly historical view of these texts seems to problematize the very foundation of the church. At the same time, I think that there is a lot of room for reinterpretation of these texts as non-historically accurate, deriving their meaning from their content, not their authenticity.

Kurt said...

In general, I dont have any problem with the DH in general at all. What I do have a problem with is the modern version of it as manifested in the JEPD theories. The JEPD theory is just rubbish, just as much rubbish as the whole deutero and trito-Isaiah with scores of pious final redactors per the Interpreter's Bible. Giving academia its due and taking away the good from it is wise, giving them respect when they deserve none is not.

Kiskilili said...

I find the basic premise of the Documentary Hypothesis--that our received biblical text is composed of interwoven strands of originally separate texts--extremely persuasive, even if particular attempts to identify redactors and propose settings for various authors are not always well founded and are sometimes outright flights of fancy.

One interesting point that I've never seen taken up (but that probably has been) is the implications for belief in the Documentary Hypothesis to our reading of the creation stories. Since the command to "multiply and replenish the earth" (Genesis 1:28)is found in P, and the command not to eat the forbidden fruit is part of J, I don't read the story as an instance of God issuing conflicting commandments between which Eve had to choose. (I've often wondered how/whether acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis might modify our liturgy.)

To my mind, the Documentary Hypothesis (which I would abbreviate DH, but that looks like Deuteronomistic History) is only one of several reasons that militate against accepting the book of Abraham as a document written by a historical Abraham.

Handle said...

Right: the texts' truth is not dependent on their historicity. I think this is a legitimate approach to LDS scripture. Barlow dealt with this in his "pathologic, prophetic" paper in HTR. Are you aware of other theologians who deal with this in any detail?

Thanks for your comments. I think its refreshing that you have used the Documentary Hypothesis to explain what would otherwise be contradictory commandments. I agree that it has big implications our liturgy.

HP said...

I don't think that the DH has very much at all to say about the historicity of the PGP version of the creation account. Nor does the existence of various strands, some possibly written down hundreds of years apart, necessitate differing sources for them. Of course, it is much more probable that this is the case, but it isn't necessary.

What is the Documentary Hypothesis of which you speak which doesn't involve some iteration of JEDP? Also, why are you convinced that all the scholars are wrong and you are right on this one?

Kurt said...

JEDP is the modern permutation of the much older DH, which has been around since the middle ages, although not explicitly labeled "DH". Take a look at:

JEPD is a fairly recent innovation, and it stinks. I am convinced it is junk because I have looked at it and it looks like junk. If you expect me to write some kind of lengthy exhaustive treaty as to why it is junk, sorry. I am just killing time here.

Handle said...


Nothing is neccessary with the Documentary Hypothesis; however, many of the fundamental conclusions seem very probable (the most we can expect from a theory that deals with biblical material). Furthermore, as I'm sure you're aware, one of the main conclusions of the DH is that the Book of Genesis contains two creation accounts, the first from P (1:1-2:3) and the second from J (2:5-3). This is where the DH sheds light on the Pearl of Great Price because there again we see two creation accounts, only with one major difference: the first creation is spiritual and the second is physical. At the very least we can say that Joseph Smith was an astute reader. He noticed the two sources and made sense of them through the Book of Moses. At the very most we can say that JS really did restore an accurate, ancient account of creation. If this scenario were true it would require us to rethink the DH. Did J's source once contain the Priestly version of creation and visa versa? Why were the two versions redacted as to leave out the spiritual/physical cosmogony found in the Book of Moses?

Rob Osborn said...

I do not know a lot about all of those bible theories and how the bible may have been written or compiled, but I do know that Genesis 1 and 2 go hand in hand. There are no problems with the two accounts as they are really only one account. The problem is in the wording and how it has been changed down through the years.

Chapter one deals with the physical preparation of the earth so that it would be able to bring forth life on the seventh day. The command to multiply and replenish (fill) the earth was given to the spirit beings before they were housed in their physical tabernacles. The earth was not ready for any life to dwell on it's surface until it was sanctified (set apart) which didn't happen until the seventh day. We are then told through greater clarification in the PoGP that the first life forms including both plants and Adam were placed first on the earth on the seventh day. After this came all of the animals.

So to sum things up, I think generally speaking, we often times come up with wild theories that fit into what we want to perceive but in all actuality, it is just simple translation/ recording techniques.

Jared E. said...

The DH does not bother me at all. In my view, the evidence is substantial enough to warrant the conclusion that Genesis was 1) written by multiple people and 2) Moses was not one of the authors. Of course this does call the Pearl of Great Price into question, but I suspect a persons conclusions on that question will have more to do with their beginning assumptions then with the evidence. I don't think what is found in the POGP to be of a historical nature, so the fact that they conflict with what is found in historical documents written by a conglomeration of Hebrew scribes does not at all surprise me.

HP said...

I am familiar with much of the history of the Documentary Hypothesis. I am still unsure how to understand your objection to it. If the fact that it appears to be the best option currently available for explaining the make-up of the Pentateuch won't persuade you, I suppose that nothing will.

You are right that I am not sure that LDS theology currently has a good answer to this issue. I am happy to say that the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible was inspirational in nature and not necessarily reflective of historical realities. It is harder to make that same statement for Abraham (which claims that it comes from the man's hands). While I am not entirely opposed to the kind of diffusionism your suggestion would entail, it is certainly an inelegant solution to the problem. In general, I can say that J/E is interested in flawed founding heroes and P most definitely is not, but that sort of generalization doesn't really help very much. It is not something to be dealt with blithely.

All (who care),
What do you think of the criticisms of Rendtorff and others who find the JEDP system too focussed on minutiae and unable to deal with larger contexts and the intent thereof?

Jared E. said...

I dare say that all who are informed believe the founding heroes to be somewhat flawed. As far as Abraham goes, I would very much like to believe that what is found in the POGP reflects what was on the papyrus, but there just doesn't seem to be any justification for such a belief (in my estimation, which could be wrong). Obviously the question of whether it is inspired is a different question.

I do think the criticism that the JEDP is too focused on minutiae to be well founded, but I think the same complaint could be made toward much of the work that has been done on the Gospels. Explanations generated to answer questions such as who wrote the Gospel of John, are equally pedantic.

Handle said...

I think attention to detail is just part and parcel of the trade. I look forward to a little more detail given to LDS scriptures. A lot of my favorite authors have given sweeping overviews: Barney, Wright, Ostler, and Hutchinson. I hope we can move past the introductions into highly focused explinations for specific verses. The great thing about LDS scriptural studes is that it involves ancient history/theology, exegesis, and modern history/theology. Of course, that makes it difficult to really expound on a subject. Either we all have to become generalists, or there needs to be more correlation between disciplines.

Dave said...

I don't see how one can understand the Bible without a working knowledge of the Documentary Hypothesis. I posted on it here and here.

History and theology don't always mix. Follow the history and it often illuminates the basis and development of the theology. Impose the theology and one will often mischaracterize the history. You can guess which fork in the road I'm inclined to follow.

Jared E. said...

Well said Dave.

Kurt said...

HP, I dont see what the big deal is. I think DH is OK up until about the mid 19th century when the JEPD thing started up. I reject the JEPD thing wholesale, so anything after that point is crap as far as I am concerned. Prior to that, the DH stuff makes a lot of sense and is based on common sense textual analysis. So what is there to convince me of? That JEPD isnt a load of highly speculative crap? You would have an easier time convincing me that there was a Deutero-Isaiah.

Kevin Christensen said...

THere are several interesting tidbits on the LDS side of things. John Sorenson has an essay called "The Brass Plates and Biblical Scholarshop" that argued that the Book of Mormon looks like an "E" source document. One could argue that that was Joseph Smith's style until Robert F. Smith (I think it was) showed that the Book of Abraham looks like J. Besides Kevin Barney's important Dialogue essay, I think we can make a case that the Book of Mormon the First Temple theology that was suppressed by the Josiah and the Deuteronomist Reformers. Barney accepts the DH, though with reservations about its reliability in performing microsurgery on texts. I've noticed comments by Robert Alter in The World of Biblical Literature that raises some questions about some basic premises about the original sources. For instance, where Friedman would see the two accounts of coats of many colors as evidence of common authorship, Alter talks about deliberate literary allusion. He observes that the DH fixation on dissecting texts tends to focus attention away from the narrative and on the character of the hypothetical ediors. Margaret Barker points out some interesting things about the use of Divine names, and evidences of late editing, that counters some of the assumptions. Though both of them accept the Deuteronomist part of the theory. I also liked Friedman's defense of the antiquity of certain sources in the Appendices to The Hidden Book of the Bible, though, I'm both impressed and puzzled by the implications and questions that the chiastic structures in the Noah story raise for Friedman's certainties about text divisions. There is a large scale structure containing the whole story, plus there are some smalled structures that bridge the alleged divisions. It's a phenomena I find fascinating but have never resolved. Barker cites Whybray's The Making of the Pentateuch, which questions the fundamental assumptions and finds them inadequately supported. Whybray favors fairly late composition. Plus, I had an essay in Dialogue in Fall 91 responding to Hutchinson's view of the creation accounts. I spotted some evidence in Hamlet's Mill that an Abraham- like, geocentric, Kolob-based cosmology precedes what appears in the Genesis account.

Incidentally, Barker's The Older Testament convinced me that there was a Deutero- and Tritero Isaiah, but that the Deutero divisions aren't what have been generally offered. In the OT, she suggests that it was the Deutero Isaiah who insisted that El was Yahweh, based on materials in Isaiah 40-47, none of which is quoted in the Book of Mormon. She has also recently argued that Isaiah 53 is based on Hezekiah's bout with the black plague, which makes that chapter at least, consistent with First Isaiah authorship.

And then there is Noel Reynolds' essay showing that the Book of Mormon seems to pre-suppose the Moses version of Genesis.

Handle said...


I’ve read your New Wine article as well as your critique of Wright, so I’m glad you found our conversation. I have a couple of questions for you about your articles: why were you so troubled by Hutchinson and not by Wright? I thought you were too quick to dismiss his data as “no trouble at all.” Also, have your views changed much since you wrote those pieces?

You are right to point out that scholars have not come to a consensus on the DH. There is a lot of tension in the field. I just attended a lecture by Robert Alter where he emphasized how useless philology and other sub-disciplines of Hebrew Bible can be for the translator/commentator. His respondent, a local Hebrew professor, then pointed out how his translation of the conjunctive “vav” flew in the face of very basic Hebrew syntax. So I think there needs to be more collaboration in the field. The same goes for us: when critical scholars write papers about LDS scripture, they should be able to quote important FARMS work. Conversely, more orthodox (would you call yourself an apologist?) scholars need to be in dialogue with critical views. It’s not going to work if everyone is on the defensive.

That being said, I like your emphasis on JS’s transcendence in scripture. Your point about the Enoch material in the PoGP – how it at least requires us to wonder about its origins – is right on the money.

Jared* said...

And then there is Noel Reynolds' essay showing that the Book of Mormon seems to pre-suppose the Moses version of Genesis.

Can anybody give me a reference? I recently read a BofM passage that made me think the opposite.

Jared* said...

Oh, I think I found it:

"The Brass Plates Version of Genesis." In By Study and Also by Faith, ed. J. Lundquist and S. Ricks, Vol. 2, pp. 136-73. Salt Lake City, 1990.

JupitersChild said...

Two things on the DocHyp: Friedman, who by the way isn't generally acknowledged to be the best source critic, though is the one most acknowledged generally, has an important clarification to some myths that have arisen regarding the DocHyp in the introduction to his color-coded version of his division of the sources, The Bible With Sources Revealed. I'd recommend it to everyone, especially those who argue that the evidence for different sources is weak (including Kurt).

hp: Good question about Rendtorff et al. I'm persuaded, by a source critic friend of mine, that the reason for the whole european disillusionment with the standard way of explaining the text is that such critics, including Wellhausen, didn't do it right to begin with. Their criteria for determining sources made it such that a heavy-handed redactor had to be invented (this also gives rise to Van Seters' take on the whole thing). Once, according to my friend, you divide the sources correctly, there is no heavy-handed redactor, but rather four documents plus a couple independent compositions (Gen 14) with minimal redaction to join everything together. Sorry I don't have details and I'm just reporting hearsay, (I'll direct you to his diss. when it comes out), but I'm convinced, at least about his take on why Rendtorff, Childs, Van Seters, etc., have had to resort to explanations other than sources.

The other thing I wanted to say, generally, is that I seem to hear a lot of talk about Genesis 1-3. While it's the most important for an LDS discussion of the theory for all the good reasons listed above, it's not the strongest evidence for the DocHyp. So when one wishes to refute the DocHyp, it's best not to pick these chapters, because they aren't the lynchpins. (See Friedman). The Rabbis, for example, had no problem with the differences in the accounts, which they recognized to some degree.

To take another example, what do we make of the Flood story? Is it two of each or seven?

handle, good post.

JupitersChild said...

Addenda to my previous post:

Another myth is that the DocHyp is based solely, or primarily, on the alternation in the names of deity. You can have "Yahweh" in E.

Also, on the Margaret Barker thing. One should use caution when building too much on her work. I know that there's much written on her ideas and their relevance to LDS theology (if there is such a thing...), but I'm still not convinced that she's right about the existence of "a" non-Dtr theology, and I'm convinced she's probably wrong in many ways about what that theology was. Her methodology allows her to have her cake and eat it too, as Williamson said in a review in Vetus Testamentum (38.3 [1988], 380-381): Where she finds no evidence, it's been deleted by Dtr; and where she finds only fragmentary evidence, it indicates something much larger that once existed. Plus, she uses late texts (e.g., Enoch) and tries to work backward from there. This is not to say that she doesn't have some valid points, but I wouldn't jump on that bandwagon too quickly.

HP said...

Who would you say is a better current source critic than Friedman? Certainly, he is the most influential, but I agree that he isn't considered the best critic at the moment. I just don't know who is. Also, I would be very interested in what your friend has to say (it would impact my dissertation). Could you send me some contact info for him/her? My email address is hpsoandsos [at] gmail [dot] com.

Robert Alter once came to BYU while I was attending and gave a lecture on his theories regarding Biblical prose. He noted that, in the story of Abraham's servant and Rebeckah, that the seemingly repeated speech was changed subtly to reflect the new situation Abe's servant found himself in each time (his name escapes me at the moment). I remember thinking, "That's great. Now explain to me why we have three wife/sister stories and we'll talk."

Robert C. said...


I think Alter discusses why there are three wife-sister stories in The Art of Biblical Narrative. I don't remember enough to recount his view accurately, something to do with his view on type-stories. I'll look this up and summarize better if I get a chance later....

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Greg said...

For reference, here is my introduction to Hamlet's Mill per Kevin Christensen's comment above that an "Abraham-like, geocentric, Kolob-based cosmology precedes what appears in the Genesis account."

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Dresden said...

I very much like the idea of DH. While some may believe that LDS scriptures can only come from the prophet himself, I can believe that it is all culminated from human history; as such, humans influence one another, and stories are passed down from generation to generation. Like a big line of telephone.

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