No Fear Biblical Criticism: Critical Approaches & The Documentary Hypothesis

Perhaps the biggest issue people face when approaching Biblical Criticism is their misconceptions about what it really is. When most people hear the words “Biblical Criticism” they immediately think of the Documentary Hypothesis. Ultimately, however, the Documentary Hypothesis is only a small portion of the vast tapestry that is Biblical Criticism. In truth, Biblical Criticism is such a broad field that the best definition might be “Academic Approaches to the Bible.” What this means is that Biblical Criticism includes many different approaches with many different interests.

Some of these approaches, like Form Criticism or Source Criticism — parent categories of the Documentary Hypothesis — are solely an attempt to determine what sources the human authors of the Tanakh used to compose the texts we see before us today. Such an approach is obviously anathema to a religious believer dedicated to the idea of a purely divine text. However, Biblical Criticism also includes Literary Criticism, which might be thought of as “the study of the Bible as Literature.” While that same religious believer might take offense at calling the Torah “Literature,” he or she presumably would not disagree with the literary critic about the incredible beauty and complexity of the Torah text, or the significance of every word.

With the above in mind, I will attempt to begin to explain a few of these different approaches, as well as how they relate to each other and the religious believer. While some approaches — like Archaeology or Patternism — will have to wait for a later installment, the Documentary Hypothesis will be given primary placement in this essay, as it is both the most famous aspect of Biblical Criticism, and possibly the most challenging to the religious believer.

A Brief Explanation Of The Documentary Hypothesis

The Documentary Hypothesis is the culmination of hundreds of years of Biblical Scholarship, starting from the first medieval scholars to ever questioned the Mosaic Authorship of the entire Torah1. It’s first fully realized manifestation was the work of Julius Wellhausen. Wellhausen was the first to not only create a full picture of which parts of the Torah were assigned to which source, but also when in the history of the Israelites the different sources had been written.

He broke the text down into four basic sources, (J)awhist, (E)lokist, (P)riestly & (D)ueteronomist, and a (R)edactor who put them all together. Historically, these sources had been broken up based on the different names they used to refer to God, repetitive or contradictory stories, and varying writing styles. Wellhausen was the first to take these sources and figure out where, and how, they might fit historically. He placed the writing of J & E at the time of the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel, with J being written in Judah and E being written in Israel2. He placed the writing of D in the reign of King Yoshiyahu, and the writing of P in the time of Ezra, the Second Temple Period. However, this last placement of P has long been recognized to be based not only on faulty assumptions, but also on some underlying antisemitism, as P includes most of the ritual laws that people associate with Judaism. Thus, many people eventually began to place P earlier, at which point it becomes a matter of much debate amongst Bible scholars. Some even split P into P and H, the Priestly Source and Holiness Code, and suggest that while one was written earlier, the other was written very late3.

This, writ large, is the basic concept of the Documentary Hypothesis. Each of these sources may have had it’s own development — it may have been written by a single person, or perhaps even a school of writers — but whatever the case may have been, these were the sources the Redactor combined to make the text we today call the Torah.

Dealing With The Documentary Hypothesis

While much of this was initially challenging to Orthodox Jewry, R’ Mordechai Breuer developed what is known as “Shitat HaBehinot”, or “The Method of the Aspects.” According to this approach, all of the different voices and styles the Documentary Hypothesis scholars claimed they had found really do exist in the Torah. However, these disparate elements do not represent different human authors, but different aspects of the Divine Truth, which cannot be put simply into Human language without compromise or contradiction.

While there is certainly merit in this approach, the Documentary Hypothesis was to suffer much critique from within the world of Biblical Criticism itself — not only from literary critics, but also from within Source Criticism. In recent decades, advancements in the study of ancient languages and how they changed over time — the way scribal copying really used to work, and the like — has changed the face of Source Criticism to the point where a critic’s ability to really identify sources with a high degree of accuracy has been called into question4. Thus, the whole practice of identifying source documents is considered by many Source Critics to be rather passé5. Further, harsh critiques have been leveled against Source Criticism in general, and the Documentary Hypothesis in specific, by the rising trend of Literary Criticism, as will be discussed below.

For now, it is safe to say that the Documentary Hypothesis need not trouble the believer too much.

The Other Criticisms

Source Criticism, to reiterate, is the attempt to uncover the different sources that were combined to create the text as we have it today. This is done by a rather intensive dividing up of texts based on repetitions, contradictions, and supposed authorial styles. There is a similar approach called Form Criticism which attempts to find the original forms of these sources, namely, the original written or oral compositions that developed into the narratives of the Biblical text as we know it. This is done by determining the beginning and end of each unit of the Torah text, and then attempting to determine what “genre” the unit would fall under (examples: kingship myth, victory song, folktale, etc.). This genre can then be used to determine the meaning of the text, as well as it’s sitz im leben, or the situation in the national life in which the text would have existed (example: a funeral, a coronation, a sacrificial procedure, etc.).

However, much as Source Critics are forever arguing over the correct divisions of the Torah text, so too Form Critics argue about the beginning and ends of units within the text. Moreover, there is little agreement among Form Critics regarding the number of genres in Biblical Literature, or what exactly those genres might be. These two fields struggle from an incredible amount of internal debate6, but perhaps their greatest critiques have come from the field of Literary Criticism.

Literary Criticism is an approach that eschews the whole practice of searching for the origins of the Biblical text, not because it’s difficult or impractical, but because such an approach cannot tell you what the text means. Literary Criticism says that regardless of whether the author of the Torah may have been using varied sources or not, the text was composed with great intent. Therefore, the meaning of the text can be best assessed not by picking it apart, but by looking at it as a unified whole. In fact, such an approach says that even if the text is a combination of older sources, what matters is how they were put together, not what they were separately. Therefore, what appear to be seams uniting two texts will often unlock the greatness and meaning of the larger text7.

This approach was developed by thinking of Tanakh not as scripture, but as literature, and thus subject to Literary Theory. This type of analysis originally suffered due to comparing Tanakh to various forms of literature — such as Homer or Shakespeare — where the comparisons were totally artificial. However, as knowledge of the Ancient Near East and, more importantly, the field of Literary Theory8 improved, Literary Criticism became an approach that truly appreciates the incredible nature of the text of Tanakh. It is from this literary vantage point that many critiques have been launched against Source Criticism and Form Criticism.

One of the foundational concepts of Source Criticism is that a repetition means the combination of two sources. However, repetition often serves a purpose within a narrative, so assuming a combination of sources is far from necessary. An excellent example is pointed out by Professor Robert Alter in his seminal work, “The Art of the Biblical Narrative.” When Yosef reveals himself to his brothers (Bereishit 45), he says, “I am Yosef. Is my father still alive?” Then, a verse later, he repeats himself saying “I am your brother Yosef whom you sold to Egypt.” Source critics split these two verses into two separate sources, but Alter argues that the repetition is obviously a function of the psychological and dramatic narrative, where the brothers are initially dumbfounded, and only after they draw closer and Yosef repeats himself, can they truly understand9. Professor Adele Berlin, in “Poetics and the Interpretation of the Biblical Narrative,” argues that many such repetitions also come from switches between various perspectives, not from multiple sources. In the same chapter10 she compares Form Critical analysis of Tanakh with Form Critical analysis of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and shows that even in the case of the Epic of Gilgamesh — where we have obvious and empirical development from primitive sources to more complex literary works — such development still cannot account for the literary complexity of the final composition. This applies all the more so in the case of Tanakh where there are no extant versions of primitive sources, and the text can really only be understood in terms of an author with full control over the text — not someone gingerly combining older sources.

All in all, Literary Criticism is actually a realm of Biblical Criticism where the religious believer can feel fairly at home.


The first mistake many make in approaching Biblical Criticism is believing that it is a monolithic entity. It is, rather, a large tapestry, and not all the different strands get along with one another. Moreover, even within each strand there is much disagreement. Biblical Criticism is not some big scary entity to be fear or adored, to be either entirely accepted or entirely rejected.

Hopefully, this essay has conveyed that one can examine Biblical Criticism critically, and see that we do not need to fear the elements we cannot accept, and perhaps also that there may be some elements we will want to embrace.

1. Much of the information in this paragraph comes from Richard Elliot Friedman’s “Who Wrote the Bible?”, a clear and easy text explaining the development of the Documentary Hypothesis, and one which a clear-headed believer should not haven much trouble with.

2. This type of assignment is usually made on the assumption that the Biblical authors would only have written things that would benefit themselves, and thus a source that talks about Hebron must be from the Kingdom of Judah, which was originally based in Hebron. Simply put, this assumption is one of several options, and not necessarily the preferred one, as people, particularly religious people, are often motivated by something other than personal gain.

3. Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, Yale Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol. 1, Introduction.

4. For more on this, see Professor Alan Brill’s fantastic interviews with Professor David Carr and Professor Jacob Wright.

5. This has also called into question some of R’ Breuer’s conclusions, and thus many religious academics have failed to embrace it. However, it should also be noted that this newer conception is largely based on the assumption that ancient Israelite society functioned just like the societies around it, something not necessarily conclusive.

6. For more on the development of internal debates of Form Criticism, see Appendix II of Meir Weiss, “The Bible From Within”.

7. This was the “Holistic Method” of Moshe Greenberg, which is wonderfully and masterfully demonstrated in his analysis of Yehezkal’s vision of Idolatry in the Bet HaMikdash in Yehezkal 8-11.

8. For a survey of the development of Literary Criticism, including the literary-critical sides of Form Criticism, see the First Introduction to “The Bible From Within.”

9. Robert Alter, “The Art of the Biblical Narrative”, Chapter 8, “Narration and Knowledge”.

10. Her critiques can be found here.

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