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The documentary hypothesis
Latter-day Saints and the Bible
Reliability of the Bible
Understanding the Bible
The Bible and the Book of Mormon
The documentary hypothesis
As explained by scholars Richard N. Soulen and R. Kendall Soulen, the Documentary Hypothesis (commonly referred to as the "DH") is “a theory concerning the origins of the Pentateuch (the first five books of Moses) that [argues that the Pentateuch is composed of various sources that were] combined and revised over several centuries from varying historical and theological points of view.” These sources, according to source critics (scholars who study authorship of scriptures) who argue for the DH, “could be (fairly) precisely dated and placed in an evolutionary sequence…A J (Yahwist) document (ca. 850 B.C.E.) and an E (Elohist) document (ca. 750 B.C.E.) were, according to this hypothesis, combined by a redactor (RJE) around 650 B.C.E.; the Deuteronomic Code (621 B.C.E., called D) was added by a redactor (RD) around 550 B.C.E.; the Priestly Code (ca. 450 B.C.E.) constituted the final document added by a redactor (RP) around 400 B.C.E."
Below is a chart outlining the characteristics scholars see in the different sources of the Documentary Hypothesis:
The Book of Mormon contains allusions to all five of the Books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and thus all four sources of the Documentary Hypothesis (J,E,D, and P) are included in it.
Nephi tells us that the brass plates contained the “five books of Moses” (1 Nephi 5:11). Thus, this criticism is founded on the premise that the five books of Moses not be present (in some form) on the brass plates before Nephi and his family left Jerusalem--before the Babylonian Exile around the beginning of the 5th century BCE. We are not required to believe that they existed in the form that they exist today back then, but that the parts that do make it into Nephi’s record be there in a time before the exile.
Source critics have a myriad of theories to identify the sources of the Pentateuch and approximately date their composition and there is no established consensus. Many critics ignore this and translation theory for the Book of Mormon in making their claim.
There are a few problems with this claim that relate to the dating of the sources, the identification of the sources, and the assumptions about the translation of the Book of Mormon.
One is the idea that J,E,D, and P are static sources (meaning that they are four discrete units of text put together like cars on a train. In this case it would be like cutting up four box cars into many pieces and then rearranging them to fit together) , or that they are even sources at all.
Most European scholars reject J and E altogether as sources, and opt to name their sources D, P, non-D, and non-P (Deuteronomist, Priestly, non-Deuteronomist, non-Priestly). These same scholars, however, tend to lean towards a late dating for most of the sources-- D being the earliest source (during King Josiah's reform); but P, non-D, and non-P date from the beginning of the exile onward. Whether these scholars are correct about the identification of the sources themselves is a separate matter from whether they are correct about the dating of these sources.
Many European scholars (such as Erhard Blum and previously Rolf Rendtorf) tend to favor a Fragmentary Hypothesis--the belief that the Pentateuch (the first five books of Moses) are the compilation of many, many fragments (like a puzzle)-- instead of the Documentary Hypothesis. Thus, dating of the fragments creates a separate issue. If J was dated to the Israelite monarchy, or to pre-exile/exile/post-exile, generally the argument goes that the entire source dates to that period. If fragments are not part of J then they'd be dated differently.
Some scholars, like Mark A. O'Brien and Antony Campbell (the authors/compilers of “Sources of the Pentateuch”) reject the Documentary Hypothesis altogether. They accept the Supplementary Hypothesis which argues that there was a base upon which fragments were added (Like sprinkles on an ice cream cone). Dating could be across the board here since there would be a core text that continually evolved over an 800 year period.
There is generally no consensus regarding the dating of the Documentary Hypothesis nor the identification of its sources. Some scholars, like John Van Seters, date the sources very differently-- putting J as being composed during the exile; but put D and P as pre-exilic (with some P redaction after the exile). Thus, the presence of themes relating to the Garden of Eden in the Book of Mormon would be anachronistic under Van Seters’ perspective.
The P source is the one that usually comes up for Latter-day Saints in discussion of the DH in relation to the Book of Mormon since it is frequently dated to a post-exilic period. If it dates past the Baylonian Exile, then how would the Lehites be able to have them on the brass plates? P has been dated as pre-exilic by many scholars. For example, the most recent issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature contains an article by Joshua Berman, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and esteemed source critic, arguing for a pre-exilic P. Latter-day Saint scholar David Bokovoy has argued that the E source came before J and that the P source came before D and that D was pre-exilic. Scholar Thomas K. King has argued for a pre-exilic P in his excellent book. Scholar Risa Levitt Kohn argues for a pre-exilic P in her book. Chapters 2 and 3 have a lot of information summarizing the debate on the dating of P and example after example of why P is pre-exilic (or at minimum, predates Ezekiel). Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary puts it at “no later than the 8th century B.C.E.”
As scholar Richard Friedman has written:
The best known, most compelling explanation of all our textual evidence is called the documentary hypothesis. A lot of people will tell you that this hypothesis about who wrote the Bible has a smaller consensus than it used to. That is true. Others will tell you that it has been disproved. That is false. The part about consensus, I must admit, reflects a rather strange breeze blowing through the field of Bible scholarship in recent years. The situation is not that the documentary hypothesis does not have a clear consensus of Bible scholars. It is that no hypothesis has a clear consensus of Bible scholars. The documentary hypothesis is just what it says: the Hebrew Bible is made up of documents, of source texts that editors (redactors) put together in several stages. That is the central idea, and nearly all scholars known to me outside of orthodox or fundamentalist communities are persuaded by that idea. (And even the orthodox and fundamentalist communities are beginning to come to terms with it in the last few years.) The point about consensus is that we are now getting a profusion of variations of this central idea. There are supplementary hypotheses, meaning that authors wrote some of the documents and then other authors wrote more pieces around those documents as supplements. There are hypotheses of many very small documents that were expanded and connected to each other. There are hypotheses that date the documents later and later in Israel’s history. Some hypotheses propose a different order in which the source documents were written. There are hypotheses that deny that one or another of the documents ever existed. In all of these variations, the scholar remains critical: not automatically accepting or rejecting the Bible’s reports, but rather identifying the Bible’s sources and their history to see what trustworthy information they can yield.
This is significant coming from a well-recognized scholar working on the Documentary Hypothesis. What we can establish from this is the general non-consensus among biblical scholars working in Pentateuchal criticism. Anyone who claims to know such a “consensus” misunderstands the field as it currently stands.
Most critics ignore translation issues. Meaning, even if the Book of Mormon included text that would be considered anachronistic because the source dating was reliable, that doesn't preclude Joseph Smith/the Lord from providing that text couched in KJV verbiage. This would be an example of dynamic equivalent translation, rather than formal equivalent.
Thus, the Documentary Hypothesis should not be any large problem for Latter-day Saints as it pertains to the Book of Mormon.
The Book of Moses
The Book of Moses was produced as part of Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible beginning in 1830. Critics claim that the Book of Moses asserts Moses’ authorship of the Pentateuch. However, this is not so. We only get references to a “book” that Moses writes (Moses 1:41), not specifically the Pentateuch. It should be noted for honesty that Joseph did assume that Moses authored the Pentateuch. Though it does not seem that he would have been opposed to studying the Book of Moses this way and examining our assumptions about it (D&C 88:77-79).
One additional issue though is that the Book of Moses and the accounts of creation in Genesis still hold many similarities. Why they hold such similarities may be something we should deal with. This most relates to the dating of the source(s) that make up the Book of Moses.
Traditionally, it has been assumed by most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that the Book of Moses represents the literal historical words of the prophet Moses. Though there are actually a couple of plausible decisions one could take (in light of evidence from the book itself and from history) of when the Book of Moses may have actually been written.
High Chronology (more ancient)
The first is the high chronology or the traditional dating assumed by most members of the Church. If we assume the high chronology, then reconciling the Documentary Hypothesis becomes possible but just slightly more complicated. It is traditionally claimed that Moses was born around 1600 B.C. The Book of Moses under this dating would be claiming to be written after Moses spoke with God in the burning Bush (Exodus 3; Moses 1:17) and either before or slightly after receiving the command to lead the Children of Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 14; Moses 1:26). The Exodus is traditionally claimed to have taken place around 1400 B.C. Below is a chronology of the events of the Exodus as taken from the bible:
A couple of issues arise that need to be dealt with if we accept this. The first is the Book of Moses’s relation to the translation of the Pentateuch that Joseph had access to. The earliest source of the Documentary Hypothesis is the J source (Yahwist) which dates to 1000 - 920 BCE. If Moses did indeed write/speak words found within the Book of Moses, then he had to have written his book much, much longer before the documents contained in the Pentateuch. If that is true, he would have had to have written in something besides Hebrew since Hebrew as a writing system did not develop until roughly 8 centuries after Moses is traditionally claimed to have lived. The most likely candidate would be Demotic. Thus the similarities among creation myths of the Pentateuch and the Book of Moses would be explained by the writers/editors that lived after Moses using his book (or another authority that followed it closely) as a reference for their own compositions of the creation myths. Thus we get our “restoration” of the Book of Genesis.
Thus under the assumption of high chronology:
- The sources used to compose the Book of Moses would have been (an) entirely separate document(s) from the sources used in the Documentary Hypothesis.
- It would likely have been written in Demotic
- Joseph would be the one writing in Moses 1:1 and 1:42 and providing us the literal historical words of the Prophet Moses.
Low Chronology (more recent)
We have another option to accept. The low chronology for the Book of Moses would accept that the Book of Moses represents a pseudipigraphical text. Moses 1:1, under this assumption, is treated as a simple attribution of words to Moses and not using a source with Moses’ actual words.
If we accept the Low Chronology, then the questions to answer become almost none. The author could have used existing sources from the JEDP to compose the text. This would explain similarities to them in the Book of Moses easily.
Matthew Roper has found ancient sources that seem to support this notion.
A Resolution of the Chronologies
One resolution that may be able to bridge the two positions would be to say that one or more of the sources used in the Book of Moses in reality represent the words of the literal historical Moses and that some (like the creation themes) represent later sources that a mid to late 1st millenium BCE editor brought together.
Another potential resolution would be that the Book of Moses represents the actual composition of Moses that may have been passed down the generations of (most likely) his descendants and edited/reinterpreted as writers felt inspired.
Further research will be needed to establish either of the chronologies or the resolutions.
The Book of Abraham
Some have applied this same type of criticism to the Book of Abraham. Similar chronologies and solutions have been proposed.
The only major difference between this issue and the Book of Moses is that the Book of Abraham has a physical papyri that Joseph translated from that dates "to between the third century B.C.E. and the first century C.E." Thus, under a Missing Papyrus Translation Theory, one has to begin with someone living during this time and then using ancient and/or more contemporary sources to speak about Abraham or have a text that was passed down in a line of Abraham's descendants to that time with them adding their emendations/interpolations to the text as they felt inspired. Under the Catalyst Theory, such a requirement does not exist.
One issue with assuming a Missing Papyrus Theory is that there are many ancient sources — both more contemporary to Abraham (according to the traditional dating of his life) and more contemporary to a later-yet-still-ancient copyist/redactor/editor of the Book of Abraham that prove dating the narrative of the Book of Abraham difficult.
Further research will be needed to establish where the Book of Abraham fits.
After careful analysis, it doesn’t seem that the Documentary Hypothesis presents any real challenges to Restoration scripture at this time.
- Jeffrey Bradshaw, "Did Moses Write the Book of Genesis? (Old Testament Gospel Doctrine 3B)". This article examines the Book of Moses in relation to the Documentary Hypothesis
- John Sorenson, "The 'Brass Plates' and Biblical Scholarship". This article argues that the Book of Mormon reflects what we expect from source criticism to be on the brass plates during Nephi's day--especially the E source.
- Kevin L. Barney, "Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 33 no. 1 (Spring 2000), 57–99. off-site. This article offers reflections of the Documentary Hypothesis in relation to restoration scripture and provides a historical survey of reactions among Latter-day Saint leaders and scholars as they have approached it.
- Avram R. Shannon, "The Documentary Hypothesis and the Book of Mormon," in They Shall Grow Together: The Bible in the Book of Mormon, ed. Charles Swift and Nicholas J. Frederick (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 2022), 249–75. This book chapter reflects on the Book of Mormon and its use of the different pentateuchal sources. It provides helpful insights for reconciling any criticism that arises against the Book of Mormon because of the DH.
- Richard N. Soulen and R. Kendall Soulen, Handbook of Biblical Criticism, fourth edition (Louisville, KY: John Knox Westminster Press, 2011), 79.
- This non-consensus is described in more informed terms in Marc Z. Brettler, "Introduction to the Pentateuch," The New Oxford Annotated Bible, fifth edition, eds. Michael Coogan, Marc Brettler, Carol A. Newsome, and Pheme Perkins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018) 5–6.
- Joshua Berman, “The Biblical Criticism of Ibn Hasm the Andalusian: A Medieval Control for Diachronic Method,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol 138, No. 2 (2019): 377–390. This claim written 19 June 2019.
- David Bokovoy, Authoring the Old Testament (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2014) 84–85. As Bokovoy wrote: "E actually came before J (exactly when we cannot say) and that P was written as a priestly reaction to these sources some time later toward the beginning of the Judean exile (remember P is earlier than D, and D for the most part is clearly pre-exilic)."
- Thomas J. King, The Realignment of the Priestly Literature: The Priestly Narrative in Genesis and Its Relation to Priestly Legislation and the Holiness School (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2008).
- Risa Levitt Kohn, A New Heart and a New Soul: Ezekiel, the Exile, and the Torah (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2009).
- Anonymous, “Priestly Document,” Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1084.
- Richard Elliot Friedman, The Exodus (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 43–44.
- Written 19 June 2019.
- Chronology taken from Rick Aschmann, Chronology of the Exodus, <https://aschmann.net/BibleChronology/The_Exodus.html> (23 July 2019).
- Angel Saénz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 16.
- Anonymous, "Translation and Historicity of the Book of Abraham," <https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics-essays/translation-and-historicity-of-the-book-of-abraham?lang=eng&_r=1> (23 July 2019).