How the Documentary Hypothesis has been Debunked: R.N. Whybray

In the comments to THIS POST I was asked about a good and accessible volume that communicates how and why the documentary hypothesis has been debunked.  My response: R.N. Whybray’s The Making of the Pentateuch, published in the JSOTSup series.  Whybray challenges both source-critical and tradition-historical approaches to Pentateuchal composition.  What is most helpful, though, is the distillation at the end of each chapter of the basic tenets of his argument.

Since the topic of the documentary hypothesis has come up several times on this blog and elsewhere, and because I think it is quite clear it has been debunked and is by no means a convincing way to talk about Pentateuchal composition . . . . AND because I’m going to be lecturing on Pentateuchal composition in a week . . . . I thought it would be helpful to post up Whybray’s list here from the conclusion to his source-critical chapter.

These are the following reasons Whybray argues the documentary hypothesis holds no sway:

1) DH “relies on a complexity of converging arguments” (the old ‘house of cards’ argument)

2) DH cannot account for all the material in the Pentateuch.  Even Wellhausen had to admit the law codes did not fit tidily, and the distinction between the so called earliest sources J and E is often blurred.

3) DH is “dependent on a particular view of the history of the religion of Israel,” an evolutionary view, that is no longer persuasive to many.

4) Authors are required to be consistent, but this same criterion is not applied to redactors (this is one of the strongest arguments in my view).  Such a view requiring consistency also fails to take into account the possibility of deliberate use of these features for aesthetic or literary purposes.

5) Doublets, repetitions, inconsistencies may already have existed in the oral stage of transmission.

6) Breaking up these narratives (“scissors and paste method”) lacks ancient literary analgoies, and destroys literary/aesthetic qualities of the narratives that should not be ignored.

7) DH places an over-emphasis on differences of language and style, especially in light of our ignorance of the history of the Hebrew language.

8 ) “Constants” required throughout each document (i.e., single style, purpose, theology) and an unbroken narrative thread do not exist in any document.

9) Pre-exilic authors appear to konw nothing of ancestral and Mosaic traditions, raising doubt about an early (United Monarchy) date for J or E.

10) Countless attempts to modify the hypothesis are only indicators of its breakdown.

11) Supplementary and fragmentary hypothesis have been neglected and need to be reassessed.

There are surely other reasons, but this is Whybray’s list, a very fine one at that.  For more on Pentateuchal composition, see my work HERE.

So, what do you think?

20 thoughts on “How the Documentary Hypothesis has been Debunked: R.N. Whybray

  1. John Anderson says:


    Good question. I plan to survey the history of Pentateuchal scholarship, though in pretty basic terms (I’m not convinced they will understand, nor that I will hold their attention, if I prattle on too long about tradition historical units, etc.). I’ll probably spend some time on DH, outlining various texts that seem to show evidence for this view, and then present the challenges to it. Why it is problematic. And then just talk about a variety of approaches that we have now, with no consensus.

    I have said elsewhere that, if pressed, I would likely tend towards a supplementary model, though not one that speaks of sources proper (as does Van Seters) but one that pays attention to separate blocks of tradition that are joined together (a la Rendtorff’s complexes of tradition; see his Problem of the Process of Transmission of the Pentateuch).

  2. John Anderson says:

    Michael: You’re welcome! I would highly recommend reading Whybray’s volume.

    Levi: Yes, I have read Campbell and O’Brien’s Rethinking the Pentateuch (2006, if I recall correctly; maybe 2007). I was not convinced. Briefly, for others to follow along, they take a “text-as-base-for-user” approach, which argues that the topic of sources and all its attendant baggage can more or less be jettisoned. The text, they argue, replete with its various doublets and inconsistencies, actually serves as a base for storytellers upon which they could expand. The doublets then represent various traditions, preserved for this specific intent of having various different starting places for the storyteller. The text then stands at the beginning of the process of development, and is not the final product of such a development.

    I am unconvinced for a variety of reasons:

    1) Most importantly, there are no ancient parallels to such behavior to which they point. There is also little to no evidence this went on in ancient Israel.

    2) It appears to be a wholesale giving up of the question of Pentateuchal composition.

    3) They treat only the legal material; any approach claiming it has solved the problem must take all the material–narrative and legal–into account.

  3. Nathan Smith says:

    #5 was an important point for consideration in my thesis work on 1 Samuel 17-18. Tov et al asserted that repetition was a sign of a later redactor, but it seemed more likely that these features of “conflation” were already present in the narrative from its earliest written form (as shown by the manuscript evidence).

  4. slaveofone says:

    I think the DH is helpful in that it enables us to highlight literary differences in a text which are important in a literary investigation, but it becomes anachronistic and question-begging when it uses that to establish sources or stages of composition. A better indication of sources or stages of composition should come from a comparative examination of the Hebraic texts alongside ancient near eastern scribal methods, culture, composition, and textual development. Perhaps one of the biggest anachronisms of the Documentary Hypothesis is its reliance upon the ideology of the book and book culture and all that entails instead of the scroll and scroll culture and all that entails–a similarly damning anachronism when it comes to another DH, the Deuteronomistic History.

  5. Pat says:

    Good summary. Whybray doesn’t name the fallacies in DH, some of which go back to Wellhausen (as I’m finding from reading Prolegomena now) but he describes them well enough that I’ve been able to identify them at Gary Curtis’ Fallacy Files site.

  6. Elliot says:

    Whybray focuses mainly on older core Wellhausen positions. I think some of his issues fall away with Richard Elliot Friedman’s positions. As one who has studied the Bible in Hebrew (with many commentaries) for over 10 years, I feel Friedman is on the right track.

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