Documentary Hypothesis and the Deuteronomistic History

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Old Testament
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The documentary hypothesis was postulated by Julius Wellhausen in 1878 in his book Prolegomena to the History of Israel.  He indicated four sources: J (Yahwistic), E (Elohistic), P (Priestly), and D (Deuteronomic).  Each of these sources represented various concerns found in various epochs, somewhere between the ninth century and fifth century B.C.  The Yahwistic source is considered the oldest and the Priestly the youngest.  Generally, the Pentateuch is thought to find its final form circa 400 B.C.

The first source, J (Yahwist), is given this name due to the author’s preference for using YHWH as God’s name.  The text is mostly narrative and has a large focus on women.  Harold Bloom, has proposed that the author was a woman (Bowley 113).

Next, E (Elohist), thought also to have been composed during the Southern Kingdom’s divided monarchy but originating from the Northern Kingdom, is supposedly authored by a priest.  El or Elohim is the author’s preferred name for God until Exodus and Moses where YHWH is employed.

Third, P (Priestly) is derived from priests in Jerusalem sometime shortly after J and E (700-600 B.C.) after the fall of the Northern Kingdom.  Exodus, Numbers, and almost the entirety of Leviticus is composed of P source.

Fourth, D (Deuteronomy) was formed in the second half of the seventh century in Jerusalem, around the time of Judah’s king Josiah (639 to 609 BCE).  It is largely found in the book of Deuteronomy.  In Wellhausen’s view, D came before P (thus the order JEDP); but [Richard Elliot] Friedman argued quite successfully for their reversal (Bowley 114).  This reversal essentially viewed D as a redactor of sorts for the other three sources.

Lastly, the documentary hypothesis proposed by Wellhausen was reformed by Friedman with the addition of a final source… or, more appropriately, an editor of the four sources.  The question is how these diverse sources came together, especially since they are sometimes in conflict with one another.  However, these sources are not merely thrown together.  They have some unifying thread among them that binds them into a cohesive unit.  Viewing the concerns of pre-exilic and post-exilic communities allows us to see how these various sources found in the Deuteronomistic History sought to provide a theological understanding for their current state.

The documentary hypothesis is a collection of the multivalent voices that sought to contextualize the experience of God’s people.  Who is God?  What does it mean to be His people?  These were the questions that the JEDP sources sought to answer.  Sometimes these voices are seemingly in conflict, which suggests multiple authors.  At other times, they build upon one another’s understanding.  These various documents preserve the struggle of those early communities in trying to speak faithfully about the Creator.  These texts balance, correct, call each other to accountability.  It is not simply the mad ranting of an individual.  It is the careful composition of a community.

Deuteronomistic History

                The Deuteronomistic History (DH) is primarily concerned with the theology found in the book of Deuteronomy.  This historical narrative is found in the four scrolls Joshua through Kings.  With Deuteronomy’s recital of the law as the background, the DH seeks to see how well Israel lived out that covenant.  Deuteronomy provides a theological lens with which to assess Israel’s history.  “Because of the prophetic concerns of this material, the Deuteronomistic history might also be appropriately called the prophetic history” (Varughese 136).

It is during the reign of Josiah that the Law of Moses is re-discovered.  As a result, Josiah calls his people to repentance.  It is also during this time, between 622 and 609, that the Deuteronomistic history is thought to be predominantly compiled.  Thus, the literature would have a strong pre-exilic presence found within its text.  This explains the tones of hope describing the Josianic reform, which ultimately fails due to his untimely death.  This calls for further redaction after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587.  What would the Deuteronomistic texts mean in light of the Babylonian exile?  How might God’s people understand their plight?

There are four strong theological themes found in the Deuteronomistic history.  The first relates to the “religious and political alliances” formed with other nations.  Second, exile is seen as the fulfillment of curses warned about in Deuteronomy if obedience to the Law is not kept.  Third, death and destruction is not the end.  God provides hope in the midst of despair.  Finally, the people are called to repentance.  This framework encompasses, not only a pre-exilic concern, a post-exilic desire to re-constitute the covenant between God and His people.

There are three proposals for the author of the DH.  First, prophetic circles are thought to have originated the material.  An heir of Hosea’s tradition is thought to possibly have put the traditions together.  Another proposal is the Levitical priesthood, who was largely concerned with Law.  They would have had immediate access to these source materials.  Finally, Deuteronomy is sometimes attributed to wisdom and scribal circles.  Wisdom traditions, largely influenced by a motivation to live out of a righteous fear of God, might possibly hold an interpretive key for DH.

The DH is most prominently concerned about what it means to be the people of God.  How is that to be lived out?  The DH will consistently say that obedience to the Law of God is necessary for God’s covenantal community.  And, as with all or most prophetic voices, it is a call to be separate from the pagan societies surrounding the communities.  It is a call to live apart from the world.  And, for those who find themselves captured by those false allegiances, it is a call to repentance.  Obedience allows God’s blessings to become a reality for the community.  Disobedience consequently results in curse.


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