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Documentary Hypothesis


The idea of the documentary hypothesis has been around for a long time, so what is placed here should not be news to anyone. What should be news, and we will include ‘Q’ and any other letter scholars have come up with over the years, is that none of these letters or authors is attested to by any ancient writer.

What this means of course is that the idea that there was a J priestly writer, D, E & P one or even a source book called ‘Q’ is all made up figment of some very fertile scholarly imaginations. The problem is not that some people can see this fact but that scholars ignore it when it is pointed out to them and they keep teaching the idea like it is a proven fact.

As an example, some scholars have spent years reconstructing the document ‘Q’ but how can you reconstruct something that has never existed? Verification of the content is impossible because there is no ancient source holding any quoted words from the supposed source ‘Q’.

The idea that scholars waste theirs and their students’ time with such fruitless work is irritating and annoying to this organization. The idea that some Christians have adopted this hypothesis and pass it on like it is gospel truth is even more upsetting. Christians are to go for the truth, not participate in meaningless academic games.

What follows are some excerpts from different writings to give you an idea of what the Documentary Hypothesis is all about. We encourage our readers to dig further than what is presented here in order for them to obtain the complete picture of the issue.

#1. (1993). Bible and Spade (1993), 6, 34.

The History and Salient Points of the Documentary Hypothesis

  The Documentary Hypothesis began when Jean Astruc (1684–1766) came to believe that he could uncover the sources of the Pentateuch by using the divine names Yahweh and Elohim as a guide. He placed passages that use the name Elohim in one column (A), those that use Yahweh in another (B), and passages with “repetitions” (C) and interpolations (D) in a third and a fourth column. From this simple, if not facile, beginning originated the road to the Documentary Hypothesis. Along the way came a “fragmentary hypothesis” (which asserts that the Pentateuch was compiled from a mass of fragmentary sources) and a “supplemental hypothesis” (which asserts that a single, unified document lies at the core of the Pentateuch, but that many fragmentary sources have been added to it). But the triumphant theory of Pentateuchal origins was the Documentary Hypothesis, often called the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis after the   two men, K.H. Graf and Julius Wellhausen, who gave it its classic expression.

  The theory, in its most basic form, is easy enough to grasp: Behind the Pentateuch are four source documents, called J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly Code).

  J, the oldest, begins at Genesis 2:4b and includes large portions of Genesis as well as portions of Exodus and Numbers and a few short texts in Deuteronomy. It may be dated to the early monarchy (Solomonic?) period. In Genesis, J refers to God as Yahweh, for, according to the hypothesis, people began using the name Yahweh early in the antediluvian period (Gn 4:26, a J text). As a theological statement, J is often regarded as the work of a great, original thinker who gave shape to the Old Testament idea of the history of salvation.

  E is somewhat later than J but follows the same basic story line. Genesis 15 is the earliest extant E text. E’s provenance is the northern kingdom. In Genesis, E refers to God as Elohim rather than Yahweh, for, according to E, the name Yahweh was not revealed until the exodus period (Ex 3:15, an E text). E is more sensitive to moral issues than J, but it views God as somewhat more distant from man. J and E were subsequently redacted (edited) into a single document by RJE (R=redactor). In the course of redaction, much of the E material was edited out and thus lost to posterity.

  D was produced at the time of the Josianic reformation (2 Kgs 22) and is essentially the Book of Deuteronomy. D does not have a characteristic divine name since it has little if any representation in Genesis. RD subsequently combined the texts JE and D.

  P was produced last, in the exilic period. It begins at Genesis 1:1 and includes large portions of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers and all of Leviticus. In Genesis, P refers to God as Elohim since, like E, it assumes that the divine name Yahweh was first revealed at the exodus (Ex 6:3, a P text). It is dominated by genealogies, priestly regulations, and a highly stylized manner of narration. P was soon redacted into JED by RP. The Pentateuch was thus formed.

  A few fragments not related to any of the four source documents (e.g., Gn 14) are also to be found in the Pentateuch.

#2. (1993). Bible and Spade (1993), 6, 37.

  The central arguments for the hypothesis are as follows:

  1. Some texts in Genesis refer to God as Yahweh, whereas others call him Elohim. Those texts that call him Yahweh may be assigned to J, who thought the name Yahweh was revealed to humanity well before the patriarchal age began. Those texts that refer to God as Elohim may be assigned to E or P. both of whom thought the name Yahweh was not revealed until the Exodus.

  2. Genesis contains some duplicate stories and repetitions. This is because each of the two source documents contained its own version of a single tradition. Thus 12:10–20 (J) and 20:1–18 (E) are variants of a single tradition. Sometimes the two variant versions were redacted into a single narrative, yet the documents behind the single redaction are still apparent. J and P each had a version of the Flood story, for example, but these have been combined in the present text.

  3. Contradictions within Genesis indicate the existence of the separate documents. The implication is that one document had one tradition, but a second had another.

  4. The language and style of the documents vary. J is said to have been a masterful storyteller, but P is prosaic and wordy. Each document also has its own preferred vocabulary. For the English “begot.” J prefers the G stem yld, but P uses the H stem hôîid.

  5. Each document, when extracted from the present text of Genesis, shows itself to have been a continuous, meaningful piece of literature. In particular, it is possible to see a specific literary and theological purpose behind each. This validates the method.

  6. Even on a superficial reading, some texts obviously involve more than one source. The best example is Genesis 1–2, which can hardly come from a single source. Instead, Genesis 1:1–2:3 and Genesis 2:4ff. must be regarded as separate works. The presence of obvious examples of separate sources in a text validates the principles of the Documentary Hypothesis, which may then be applied to texts where the source division is not obvious.

  7. The confused history of the Israelite priesthood found in the Pentateuch is best explained by the Documentary Hypothesis. In some texts (e.g. Deuteronomy), all Levites are priests. In other texts, (the P portions of Exodus and Leviticus), only the Aaronites are priests and the rest of the Levites are mere hierodules-workers in the temple without priestly privileges. The Pentateuch, therefore, cannot be a unified work from a single hand. Rather, documents D and P come from different perspectives and different ages.

#3. Bennett, S. J. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Exodus, Book of, Critical Issues. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press

The documentary hypothesis identifies four documents, which are known by the abbreviations J, E, D, and P. D represents most of Deuteronomy and is not represented in Exodus at all. The other three were considered to be intertwined in the other books of the Pentateuch. The documentary hypothesis was a sophisticated development of earlier theories that sought to explain literary characteristics in terms of multiple sources (such as the fragmentary and supplementary hypotheses).

Samuel Driver followed the documentary hypothesis in his 1891 introduction to the Old Testament. In his analysis of Exodus, the first half of the book alternates between P and the J and E sources every few verses. For example, Exodus 1–2 are analyzed as follows: Exod 1:1–5 (P); 1:6 (J); 1:7 (P); 1:8–12 (J) 1:13–14 (P); 1:15–2:14 (E); 2:15–23a (J); 2:23b–25 (P). His analysis of the second half of the book assigns larger units to the sources. For example, the construction of the tabernacle in Exod 35–40 is all attributed to P (Driver, Introduction, 22, 32).

Martin Noth defended the documentary hypothesis in his 1962 commentary on Exodus (1959 in German). He identifies the sources by means of italic and Roman type in his translation. Noth finds the J source in the narrative material of Exodus. For example, the making of the covenant in Exod 34:1–28 is designated as J because it has no cultic element and resembles the J composition of Gen 12:1–3 (Noth, Exodus, 15). E material is also narrative, but Noth finds a greater cultic interest in this source as, for example, in the making of the covenant in Exod 24:9–11. P material is less interested in narrative and more interested in ritual, especially divine ordinances and instructions (such as those for building the tabernacle; Noth, Exodus, 16).

The choice of divine names is an important factor in the documentary hypothesis. The use of Yahweh is considered typical of the J source, while Elohim is preferred by the E and P sources. This is relevant for the first few chapters of Exodus, where the divine name is revealed in Exod 3:15. U. Cassuto challenged this criterion in 1961 and suggested instead that the choice of divine name was determined by the different nuances of the different names. He argued that Elohim is used in matters of international concern or application, while Yahweh is used in matters that concern Israel alone (Cassuto, Documentary Hypothesis, 23; see Whybray, Making of the Pentateuch, 55).

Nicholson is not convinced by this reasoning, especially because the use of Yahweh increases after the revelations of Exod 3:15 and 6:3, while the use of Elohim decreases (Nicholson, “The Pentateuch,” 13). Cassuto would argue that the later part of Exodus is more focused on national concerns (hence the use of Yahweh), while earlier in the book the Egyptians are involved, making a more international focus (hence the use of Elohim).

Of particular importance for Exodus is the statement in Exod 6:3, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as God Shaddai, but by my name Yahweh I was not known to them.” In support of the documentary hypothesis, Claus Westermann argued that this statement could not have come from the same author who wrote Gen 4:26, “At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord [that is, Yahweh]” (ESV) (Westermann, Genesis 1–11, 579).

Various explanations other than the documentary hypothesis have been offered to account for Exod 6:3 and the earlier use of Yahweh. Westermann refers to M.H. Segal’s suggestion that Exod 6:3 is concerned only with the meaning of Yahweh, not with the first instance of its revelation (Westermann, Genesis 1–11, 579). H.H. Rowley takes the reference to the patriarchs in Exod 6:3 exclusively. If the name Yahweh was not revealed to the patriarchs, that does not mean that it was not revealed to anyone else before Moses. This possibility is supported by the explicit statement in Gen 4:26 (Rowley, Unity, 25f). Rowley’s view is weakened, however, by references to the patriarchs calling on the name of Yahweh (e.g., Gen 12:8). It would also be surprising if the patriarchs were ignorant of a name that was common knowledge to others.

Source Criticism and the Old Testament

While the Pentateuch is traditionally attributed to Moses, the early church recognized that at least some portions of the Pentateuch were the work of someone other than Moses; for example, Moses could not have recorded the events of his own death (Deut 34). The author of the Homilies of Pseudo-Clement states that Peter said, “For in the law itself it is written, ‘And Moses died; and they buried him near the house of Phogor, and no one knows his sepulchre till this day.’ But how could Moses write that Moses died?” (Pseudo-Clement, Homilies III, 247). Jerome also suggests, in his Prolegomena book 5, that the Pentateuch may have been edited by Ezra (see also Jerome, Adv. Helv. 7). Deuteronomy 34 indicates that Moses’ burial spot remains a secret “until this day,” indicating that this portion of Deuteronomy was written well after Moses’ death.

In 1753 Astruc, father of the Documentary Hypothesis, challenged Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch in his work Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux dont il paroit que Moyse s’est servi, pour composer le Livre de la Genese. He argued that the Pentateuch was a compilation of various documents. Astruc questioned Mosaic authorship based on three criteria:

  1.      repetition

  2.      doublets

  3.      the alternating names for God in the Pentateuch

Later, Wellhausen, building on the work of Graf, developed a four-source version of the hypothesis in his work, Prolegomena to the History of Israel. Wellhausen believed that by finding and dating the literary sources behind the Pentateuch, he could present a better understanding of the development of Judaism. He developed his hypothesis on the basis of the following factors:

  •      time and dating issues (e.g., the chronological issues of Hagar and Ishmael in Gen 16:16; 17:1, 21)

  •      various doublets (e.g., the two creation accounts in Gen 1–2)

  •      stylistic variations in the Pentateuch (e.g., the different names for God in Genesis)

Wellhausen’s four sources went by the initials JEDP:

  •      J—The Yahwist. Wellhausen believed that the passages that use the Hebrew name “Yahweh” (“Jahweh” in German) for God are the work of one writer (950 BC).

  •      E—The Elohist. Passages that use the name “Elohim” for God are the work of another writer (750 BC).

  •      D—The Deuteronomist. Passages that are the work of a Deuteronomistic writer (650 BC).

  •      P—The Priestly source. Refers to the priestly writings (587 BC).

The compilation of these four sources is supposed to have taken place around 400 BC.

There are ongoing efforts to refine Wellhausen’s work, with little consensus. For example, Van Seters argues that the J source was written much later in the exilic period rather than during the monarchy. The hypothesis has also been criticized, and newer hypotheses have been advanced and developed within historical-critical school. Form and redaction criticism developed out of the inability to discover the actual sources behind the text. Gunkel (the father of form criticism) challenged the Graf-Wellhausen source-critical methods on this basis; his challenge did not deny the use of sources, just the ability to recover them.

The hypothesis is not universally accepted. Brevard Childs broke radically from his historical-critical counterparts in his monograph Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. He argued for the need to forget about sources and forms and study the Bible as it is received canonically. Closson notes that some scholars hold “to Mosaic authorship and treat the books as a literary unit. This does not mean that Moses didn’t use other documents to write his books. He obviously did. But since other Old Testament authors affirm Mosaic authorship, as do numerous New Testament writers and the early church fathers, the veracity of the Bible as a whole begins to crumble if Moses is not the author of the Pentateuch” (Closson, “Did Moses Write the Pentateuch?” 1). These scholars are concerned that acceptance of sources cannot be reconciled with the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible. However, Closson affirms that Moses drew from sources in the composition of the Pentateuch. As Moses was not present for the creation account or with the patriarchs, he must have received this information from someone.

Others object to the methodology of source criticism. Closson criticizes the assumptions that source-critical scholars bring to their work: “Modern scholars assume that Hebrew writers never used the repetition of ideas or occurrences even though authors in other ancient Semitic languages did so. They also assume that they can scientifically date the texts, even though they have no other ancient Hebrew writings to compare them with. Documentary scholars have felt free to amend the text by substituting more common words for rare or unusual words that they do not understand or do not expect to see in a given context” (Closson, “Did Moses Write the Pentateuch?” 2).

Source Criticism and the New Testament

Source-critical analysis continues to influence New Testament studies, particularly in relationship to the Synoptic Gospels. Until the 19th century, Matthew’s Gospel was believed to be the first Gospel written. Augustine was one of the first to record an argument for Matthean priority. Johann Jakob Griesbach argued that Matthew’s Gospel predated Mark’s, and that Mark used both Matthew and Luke (see Orchard and Longstaff, J.J. Griesbach). With the advent of source criticism, scholars began to search for the interconnectivity within the synoptic traditions as well as for the prior oral or written sources used in the development of the Synoptic Gospels. The beginning of Luke’s Gospel seems to indicate such a dependence on sources: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first” (Luke 1:1–3a NRSV). Scholars began evaluating patterns of agreement and disagreement within our current forms of the Synoptic Gospels in their attempt to understand this developmental process that led to our current Gospels. Out of this research came two main hypotheses.

#4. Geisler, N. L. (1999). In Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics (p. 87). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Form Criticism. Form criticism studies literary forms, such as essays, poems, and myths, since different writings have different forms. Often the form of a piece of literature can tell a great deal about the nature of a literary piece, its writer, and its social context. Technically this is termed its “life setting” (Sitz im Leben). The classic liberal position is the documentary or J-E-P-D Pentateuchal source analysis theory established by Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) and his followers (see PENTATEUCH, MOSAIC AUTHORSHIP OF). They actually attempted to mediate between traditionalism and skepticism, dating Old Testament books in a less supernaturalistic manner by applying the “documentary theory.” These documents are identified as the “Jahwist” or Jehovistic (J), dated in the ninth century B.C., the Elohistic (E), eighth century, the Deuteronomic (D), from about the time of Josiah (640–609), and the Priestly (P), from perhaps the fifth century B.C. So attractive was the evolutionary concept in literary criticism that the source theory of Pentateuchal origins began to prevail over all opposition. A mediating position of some aspects of the theory was expressed by C. F. A. Dillman (1823–1894), Rudolph Kittle (1853–1929), and others. Opposition to the documentary theory was expressed by Franz Delitzsch (1813–1890), who rejected the hypothesis outright in his commentary on Genesis, William Henry Green (1825–1900), James Orr (1844–1913), A. H. Sayce (1845–1933), Wilhelm Möller, Eduard Naville, Robert Dick Wilson (1856–1930), and others (see Harrison, 239–41; Archer; Pfeiffer). Sometimes form-critical studies are marred by doctrinaire assumptions, including that early forms must be short and later forms longer, but, in general, form criticism has been of benefit to biblical interpretation. Form criticism has been most profitably used in the study of the Psalms (Wenham, “History and the Old Testament,” 40).

These techniques were introduced into New Testament study of the Gospels as Formgeschichte (“form history”) or form criticism. Following in the tradition of Heinrich Paulus and Wilhelm De Wette (1780–1849), among others, scholars at Tübingen built on the foundation of source criticism theory. They advocated the priority of Mark as the earliest Gospel and multiple written sources. William Wrede (1859–1906) and other form critics sought to eliminate the chronological-geographical framework of the Synoptic Gospels and to investigate the twenty-year period of oral traditions between the close of New Testament events and the earliest written accounts of those events. They attempted to classify this material into “forms” of oral tradition and to discover the historical situation (Sitz im Leben) within the early church that gave rise to these forms. These units of tradition are usually assumed to reflect more of the life and teaching of the early church than the life and teaching of the historical Jesus. Forms in which the units are cast are clues to their relative historical value.

The fundamental assumption of form criticism is typified by Martin Dibelius (1883–1947) and Bultmann. By creating new words and deeds of Jesus as the situation demanded, the evangelists arranged the units or oral tradition and created artificial contexts to serve their own purposes. In challenging the authorship, date, structure, and style of other New Testament books, destructive critics arrived at similar conclusions. To derive a fragmented New Testament theology, they rejected Pauline authorship for all Epistles traditionally ascribed to him except Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, and Galatians (Hodges, 339–48).

Thoroughgoing form critics hold two basic assumptions: (1) The early Christian community had little or no genuine biographical interest or integrity, so it created and transformed oral tradition to meet its own needs. (2) The evangelists were compiler-editors of individual, isolated units of tradition that they arranged and rearranged without regard for historical reality (see Thomas and Gundry, A Harmony of the Gospels [281–82], who identify Dibelius, Bultmann, Burton S. Easton, R. H. Lightfoot, Vincent Taylor, and D. E. Nineham as preeminent New Testament form critics).

#5. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BR 14:01.

Early in his career Julius Wellhausen—the German Bible scholar best known for the development of the so-called documentary hypothesis, which divides the Pentateuch into four major authorial strands* —asked to be transferred from the University of Greifswald’s Theological Faculty to the Philosophical Faculty. He explained: “I became a theologian because of my interest in the scientific study of the Bible. Gradually I realized that a professor of theology has at the same time the practical task of preparing the students for their ministry in the Protestant church. But I do not succeed in this practical task; notwithstanding all my restraint, I render the students incapable of their ministry. Thus my theological professorship weighs heavily upon my conscience.”

Wellhausen obviously understood the discrepancy between his scientific approach to the Bible and the needs of the religious community. I regard myself as one of Wellhausen’s intellectual heirs; like him, I only came to realize this discrepancy gradually.

The Wellhausen letter from which I quoted was written in 1872 but was only published much later, by Alfred Jepsen, who also taught at Greifswald. In his publication of the letter, Jepsen asked, “How could Wellhausen come to the conviction that teaching an acknowledged truth would contradict the preaching of the gospel and therefore make people incapable for their ministry in the church?” In other words, if the historical-critical method really reveals “the truth,” how can it contradict the ministry in a religious community?

I do not deny a certain plausibility to the results of modern scientific study of the Hebrew Bible. But I have two main objections to the way these results are often used. One is the conviction, not to say the complacency, with which the results of the historical-critical method are asserted. This has been true even as the results themselves have changed dramatically. An example: Wellhausen dated the Yahwist strand of the Pentateuch to early in the Israelite and Judahite kingdom, perhaps as early as the tenth or ninth century B.C. The Yahwist narrative was therefore of great importance as a source for Israelite history during this period. Recently, a growing number of scholars has come to doubt this dating. Many of them date the Yahwist to the time of the Babylonian Exile (sixth century B.C.). One would have expected an outcry about this shocking crumbling of one of the pillars of source-critical research. But that has not been the case; there has been no objection. Why not? Because the method itself is regarded as valid, and therefore its results have to be accepted as true, even when they change fundamentally. What kind of “truth” is that?

My second objection is related to the first. Why should the documentary hypothesis, for example, be the only way to apply the historical-critical method to the Pentateuch? Why not use new approaches? Take the Book of Isaiah: Many Old Testament scholars simply accept that the book comes from two, or even three, authors—First Isaiah (chapters 1–39), Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40–55) and even Trito-Isaiah (chapters 56–66). Recently, some of us have been asking, What about the book Isaiah? Should we not ask what the final author (or authors) of the book wanted to tell the reader?

Modern scholars often reflect what I call the hubris of the 19th century. They see everything more clearly than those who came before, in particular those who came before the Enlightenment. The so-called redactors, or final editors, of the biblical books, and similar scribes are, it is assumed, much less intelligent and informed than the modern professor. The Hebrew of these ancient editors, it is sometimes said, is bad. They did not know the historical context of the texts they were reworking. Sometimes they did not even understand the “original” meaning of the text and therefore changed it for the worse, requiring the modern professor to put things in order and so make the text comprehensible.

Unfortunately, this is not simply a caricature; it is very close to reality. I do not mean to exclude myself from this tradition: As a young academic, I was sometimes very harsh with students who did not believe in the documentary hypothesis. But gradually, I began to understand the limits of such hypotheses. In addition to dissecting the text, we must try to read and understand the texts as they have come down to us. This is what Brevard Childs, in his important Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, calls “canonical interpretation.”1

As Childs emphasizes, the Bible was the sacred scripture of Israel. “Israel,” in this context, refers to a community of faith. Therefore, to read the Hebrew Bible “as Scripture” means, first of all, to read it as a religious document that served a religious community.

From this viewpoint, the main question is no longer “How did this text emerge and develop?” but “What is the message of the text in its final form?” Only in this form did it serve as sacred scripture for a religious community.

At this point a certain tension emerges between the scientific and the religious dimensions of exegesis. The traditional interest of historical-critical scholarship is in the assumed earlier stages of the text. We are now witnessing a certain change in the line of sight, however. More and more scholars are focusing on the final form of the text. I should stress that this does not involve a departure from the historical-critical method, only a change in the focus.

Nevertheless, there is a certain tension between the two approaches. Let me explain with an example:

It is obvious that the Book of Genesis was not written by a single author. The two main elements, traditionally known as the Yahwist strand and the Priestly Code, are clearly distinguishable. The question is how to handle those insights. Clearly, chapter 1 and chapter 2 of Genesis were written by different authors and are two different stories of creation. (Genesis 1:1–2:3 is generally attributed to the Priestly Code; the balance of Genesis 2, to the Yahwist.) My suggested “canonical exegesis” will acknowledge this difference, but it will not stop there. Indeed, only then does the real exegetical task begin—to try to understand the message of the text as a whole. What does it mean to “Fill the earth and master it” (Genesis 1:28)? This is explained in the second account of creation, in chapter 2: God put the man in the garden “to till it” and “keep it,” or “tend it,” or better yet “guard it” (Genesis 2:15). Thus we learn that “master” in Genesis 1:28 does not mean “subdue,” as it is often rendered in English translations, or to rule, but to work carefully and guard. It seems obvious that the author of the text as it has come down to us understood the relation between the two chapters in this way. They are not in contrast to each other, but related to each other.

#6. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BR 10:04.

The Catholic Church and Bible Interpretation

Major Catholic report endorses modern critical scholarship, condemns fundamentalist biblical interpretation

The historical-critical method of Bible interpretation is “indispensable”, declares a remarkable new report of the Pontifical Biblical Commission of the Roman Catholic Church.1 “Proper understanding [of the Bible] not only admits the use of this method but actually requires it.” Holy Scripture is the “word of God in human language”; in short, the Bible “has been composed by human authors in all its various parts,” states the report issued late last year by a 20-person committee, all men and all leading Roman Catholic scholars.

One of the most valuable aspects of the Commission’s report is its careful, yet succinct descriptions of the wide variety of methods of biblical interpretation, noting both the strengths and limitations of each method.

The Commission’s report discusses both the “documentary hypothesis” regarding the editing of the Pentateuch and the “two-source hypothesis” regarding the relationship of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) to one another.

The report describes the “documentary hypothesis” as “an explanation of the editing of the Pentateuch. According to this hypothesis, four documents, to some extent parallel with each other, had been woven together: that of the Yahwist (J), that of the Elohist (E), that of the Deuteronomist (D) and that of the priestly author (P); the final editor made use of this latter (priestly) document to provide a structure for the whole.”

As for the “two-source hypothesis”:

    “In similar fashion, to explain both the agreements and disagreements between the three synoptic Gospels, scholars had recourse to the ‘two-source’ hypothesis. According to this, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were composed out of two principal sources: on the one hand, the Gospel of Mark and, on the other, a collection of the sayings of Jesus (called Q, from the German word quelle, meaning “source”). In their essential features, these two hypotheses retain their prominence in scientific exegesis today—though they are also under challenge.”

The report goes on to describe not only source criticism as reflected in the methods described above, but also form criticism, tradition criticism, redaction criticism and other tools of the historical-critical approach, which, the report concludes, have provided “fresh access to the Bible.”

The report specifically rejects the literalist stance of fundamentalist interpretation. The report describes the fundamentalist approach as “dangerous,” inviting people to “a kind of intellectual suicide.” This approach “unwittingly confuses the divine substance of the biblical message with what are in fact its human limitations.” The report’s discussion of fundamentalist interpretation is printed in its entirety in the sidebar to this article.

While noting the limitations of feminist exegesis, the report gives generally high marks to it:

    “Feminist exegesis has brought many benefits. Women have played a more active part in exegetical research. They have succeeded, often better than men, in detecting the presence, the significance and the role of women in the Bible, in Christian origins and in the church. The worldview of today, because of its greater attention to the dignity of women and to their role in society and in the church, ensures that new questions are put to the biblical text, which in turn occasions new discoveries. Feminine sensitivity helps to unmask and correct certain commonly accepted interpretations which were tendentious and sought to justify the male domination of women.”

The report gives a more qualified endorsement to liberation theology. Liberation theology seeks a reading of the Bible “drawn from the situation of people as it is lived here and now. If a people lives in circumstances of oppression, one must go to the Bible to find there nourishment capable of sustaining the people in its struggles and its hopes.”…

  Fundamentalist Interpretation is “Naively Literalist”—An Excerpt from the Catholic Report on the Bible

“Fundamentalist interpretation starts from the principle that the Bible, being the word of God, inspired and free from error, should be read and interpreted literally in all its details. But by ‘literal interpretation’ it understands a naively literalist interpretation, one, that is to say, which excludes every effort at understanding the Bible that takes account of its historical origins and development. It is opposed, therefore, to the use of the historical-critical method, as indeed to the use of any other scientific method for the interpretation of Scripture.

The fundamentalist interpretation had its origin at the time of the Reformation, arising out of a concern for fidelity to the literal meaning of Scripture. After the century of the Enlightenment it emerged in Protestantism as a bulwark against liberal exegesis.

The actual term fundamentalist is connected directly with the American Biblical Congress held at Niagara, N.Y., in 1895. At this meeting, conservative Protestant exegetes defined ‘five points of fundamentalism’: the verbal inerrancy of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, his virginal birth, the doctrine of vicarious expiation and the bodily resurrection at the time of the second coming of Christ. As the fundamentalist way of reading the Bible spread to other parts of the world, it gave rise to other ways of interpretation, equally ‘literalist,’ in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. As the 20th century comes to an end, this kind of interpretation is winning more and more adherents, in religious groups and sects, as also among Catholics.

Fundamentalism is right to insist on the divine inspiration of the Bible, the inerrancy of the word of God and other biblical truths included in its five fundamental points. But its way of presenting these truths is rooted in an ideology which is not biblical, whatever the proponents of this approach might say. For it demands an unshakable adherence to rigid doctrinal points of view and imposes, as the only source of teaching for Christian life and salvation, a reading of the Bible which rejects all questioning and any kind of critical research.

The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation of this kind is that refusing to take into account the historical character of biblical revelation, it makes itself incapable of accepting the full truth of the incarnation itself. As regards relationships with God, fundamentalism seeks to escape any closeness of the divine and the human. It refuses to admit that the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language and that this word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources. For this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods. It pays no attention to the literary forms and to the human ways of thinking to be found in the biblical texts, many of which are the result of a process extending over long periods of time and bearing the mark very diverse historical situations.

Fundamentalism also places undue stress upon the inerrancy of certain details in the biblical texts, especially in what concerns historical events or supposedly scientific truth. It often historicizes material which from the start never claimed to be historical. It considers historical everything that is reported or recounted with verbs in the past tense, failing to take the necessary account of the possibility of symbolic or figurative meaning.

Fundamentalism often shows a tendency to ignore or to deny the problems presented by the biblical text in its original Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek form. It is often narrowly bound to one fixed translation, whether old or present-day. By the same token it fails to take account of the ‘rereadings’ (relectures) of certain texts which are found within the Bible itself.

In what concerns the Gospels, fundamentalism does not take into account the development of the Gospel tradition, but naively confuses the final stage of this tradition (what the evangelists have written) with the initial (the words and deeds of the historical Jesus). At the same time fundamentalism neglects an important fact: the way in which the first Christian communities themselves understood the impact produced by Jesus of Nazareth and his message. But it is precisely there that we find a witness to the apostolic origin of the Christian faith and its direct expression. Fundamentalism thus misrepresents the call voiced by the Gospel itself.

Fundamentalism likewise tends to adopt very narrow points of view. It accepts the literal reality of an ancient, out-of-date cosmology simply because it is found expressed in the Bible; this blocks any dialogue with a broader way of seeing the relationship between culture and faith. Its relying upon a non-critical reading of certain texts of the Bible serves to reinforce political ideas and social attitudes that are marked by prejudices—racism, for example—quite contrary to the Christian Gospel.

Finally, in its attachment to the principle ‘Scripture alone,’ fundamentalism separates the interpretation of the Bible from the tradition, which, guided by the Spirit, has authentically developed in union with Scripture in the heart of the community of faith. It fails to realize that the New Testament took form within the Christian church and that is the Holy Scripture of this church, the existence of which preceded the composition of the texts. Because of this, fundamentalism is often anti-church; it considers of little importance the creeds, the doctrines and liturgical practices which have become part of church tradition, as well as the teaching function of the church itself. It presents itself as a form of private interpretation which does not acknowledge that the church is founded on the Bible and draws its life and inspiration from Scripture.

The fundamentalist approach is dangerous, for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to the problems of life. It can deceive these people, offering them interpretations that are pious but illusory, instead of telling them that the Bible does not necessarily contain an immediate answer to each and every problem. Without saying as much in so many words, fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide. It injects in to life a false certitude, for it unwittingly confuses the divine substance of the biblical message with what are in fact its human limitations.”

#7. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BR 17:06.

Today, when scholars discuss the multiple authors whose work has been woven together in the Bible, they often credit the groundbreaking research in the mid- to late 19th century of Julius Wellhausen and Karl Graf, whose documentary hypothesis identified four source texts (the Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomic and Priestly sources) woven together in the Pentateuch.* But in truth, some of the credit should go instead to the German Rationalists and Neologists working decades before Wellhausen.

In 1780 Johann Gottfried Eichhorn posited two sources for Genesis 1–11—an Elohim source and a Jehovah source (Jehovah being a misvocalization for the sacred name YHWH made common in Reformation-era Bible translations)—based on the two names used for God throughout these chapters.2 Eichhorn also separated the history found in Samuel and Kings from that in Chronicles and dated the latter to the post-Exilic period (post 539 B.C.E.) based on the late linguistic forms found in the text and the book’s elaborate demonology and angelology, in which he detected Persian influence.

Literary differences in prophetic literature were also identified as the work of different writers brought together by later editors. In 1780, Johann Benjamin Koppe claimed that Isaiah 40–66 was written during the Babylonian Exile, a position widely espoused by late Victorian and 20th-century scholarship (although today this dating is increasingly challenged).3

In the early 19th century, Wilhelm M.L. de Wette argued that much of the material in Genesis-Numbers was unhistorical (anachronistic). The comprehensive legal system, sacrificial cult and priesthood associated with Moses were actually products of the Exilic period that had been retrojected into the Mosaic era. He found that Chronicles was too late to include reliable information about Israelite religion during the time of the monarchy. De Wette, like the church father Jerome centuries earlier, identified Deuteronomy as the book discovered when the late-seventh-century king Josiah was making repairs to the Temple (according to 2 Kings 22). Thus de Wette concluded that Deuteronomy, which institutes the written law and establishes a central sanctuary in Jerusalem, reflected events and cultic regulations from the late monarchic period.4

Deuteronomy was further identified as the beginning of a literary process that was to conclude with the formal priestly religion enshrined in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. Thus, Wellhausen’s Deuteronomic and Priestly sources were foreshadowed, in chronological order, without being named as such. By the early 19th century, adherents of the German higher critical approaches believed that writings that had once been attributed to Moses were actually the work of several authors and editors dating no earlier than the Israelite monarchy.

Word of this radical German biblical criticism reached England in the late 18th century. But it did not receive a prominent airing until the 1820s, when the Anglican divine Edward B. Pusey excoriated the German scholar Michaelis (as well as Eichhorn and de Wette) for his “perverted applications of mere civil, often of modern, principles, unfounded theories and low views.”5

British shock over this treatment of Holy Writ had far less to do with the redating of biblical texts, however, than with the willingness to question and reject traditional dogmas of church belief. If the world we inhabit is devoid of miracles, a credo of the Enlightenment, then Moses did not part the Red Sea by supernatural intervention. Once skepticism in the literal historical reading of the Bible took root in the academy, the training ground for tomorrow’s clergy, where would it end?6

Moderate British churchmen struggled to promote a counter-educational program that appealed to reason without offending conventional piety. Popular commentaries were generated for lay consumption, and the young were taught in Sunday schools to resist the allure of skepticism.

Nevertheless, German higher criticism continued to gain ground, and the offended British intelligentsia cast about for ways to protect the traditional dogmas of inspiration and scriptural infallibility.