The Course of Reason

A Crash Course on the Documentary Hypothesis

September 9, 2011

I’m reading a book right now called “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism” by Bishop John Shelby Spong. It’s a fascinating read, and it has gotten me all geeked out once again (as though I ever stopped) about the origins and evolution of the Bible. Rational, skeptical folk know that the Bible didn’t spring fully formed from the forehead of Jesus in the first century. Its origins extend deep into the past to the tenth century B.C. via the oral traditions of the Hebrew tribes living in the middle east, and its evolution consists of the merging and compiling of these differing oral traditions along with an idealized retelling of Hebrew history. 

For centuries it was commonly believed that the author of the Pentateuch was none other than Moses himself, but by the 17th century there were some who doubted the truth of that claim. Using verses from the Bible itself, philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and Benedict Spinoza argued against the claim that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. Their opinions were, of course, frowned upon and condemned by the Church, but that would not stop later skeptics from analyzing the text and reaching the same conclusion. By the early 19th century, meticulous analysis of the text would lead scholars to begin proposing the idea of earlier source material written by several authors over time.

Julius Wellhausen 

In the latter half of the 19th century, a German scholar by the name of Julius Wellhausen proposed a hypothesis claiming that the five books of Moses were originally four separate narratives that, over time, had gotten interwoven and redacted to eventually form the Pentateuch we know today. Wellhausen used things like linguistic style and vocabulary, the particular name given to God (Yahweh or Elohim), geographical clues, the anthropomorphic nature vs the intangible nature given to God in the text, and so forth as guides to pick apart the books of Moses in order to unlock their origin sources. Eventually he was able to distinguish four distinct sources called J (for Jahweh), E (for Elohim), D (for Deuteronomical reforms), and P (for Priestly redactors). He was also able to ascribe approximate dates for these sources. The J source material was the earliest, written around 950 B.C. by the southern tribe of Judah who called their god Yahweh. The E source material came a century later, written by the northern tribe of Israel who called their god Elohim. The Deuteronomist material came after religious reforms from the discovery of a lost law code. Though Deuteronomical additions to the Pentateuch were not fully integrated with the extant literature until the exile in Babylon around 600 B.C. The Priestly redactors made their changes to the Pentateuch post-exile, during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.

These four sources in turn each have source material of their own. The most notable example of this would be the story of the flood in Genesis, coming from the earlier Babylonian story called the Enuma Elish, which dates to as early as the 18th century B.C. (some nine centuries earlier than the Yahwist source date for the book of Genesis). Another notable story is the Tower of Babel, coming from an earlier Sumerian myth called Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. Many other ancient myths from middle eastern cultures were no doubt woven in to the increasingly diverse literary tapestry that would one day be known as the Bible.

Some have asked me why it would be important for an atheist such as myself to not only read the Bible, but to try and understand its origins. This is just basic science. By understanding how the five books of Moses, and the other books of the Bible, were compiled and the history from which they emerged, we glean a greater understanding of the religions which developed from these texts and the cultures which practice them. The Bible is a literary potpourri, a dense tapestry of lives and times and cultures, spanning nearly four thousand years of human history. It’s a tiny slice of civilization, complete with war, violence, oppression, slavery, human sacrifice, hate, love, poetry, wisdom, philosophy, concern for the future, hope for redemption, and so many other themes. It makes sense that it is one of the most widely read books in the world. Yet there are many religious folk who genuinely believe that this book, the Bible, emerged parthenogenetically from the heavens as the literal word of God, completely denying it any history of its own or any potential for human authorship whatsoever. This kind of mentality denies human development, stunts scholarly growth, and promotes polarized thinking. To make the claim that it is the literal truth as spoken by God is, in my opinion, quite possibly the greatest misanthropic claim in the history of human civilization.

[For those who are interested, has a copy of a text titled “The Book of Yahweh” by Clarimond Mansfield which is a reconstruction of the Jahwist source.]

This post originally appeared on the blog Skeptic Freethought.

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About the Author: Astrid Lydia Johannsen

Astrid Lydia Johannsen's photo
"I graduated from the University of Oregon in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies with extra focus on Greco-Roman history and culture. I've always wanted to try and understand why people are religious. I've questioned religion since I was a child, but it wasn't until I attended university that I finally came out as an atheist. It was my doubt about religion which inspired me to study it in greater detail."




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