Documentary Hypothesis

Book of Exodus

Documentary Hypothesis - Wellhausen

Attributing the Pentateuch to a historical lawgiver of the 17th to 13th centuries BCE— represents a wide range of dates given for Moses’s era, reflecting its lack of solid historical foundation.  Some scholars support dates for certain books and authors ranging from the 10th to seventh centuries BCE, with parts of it even older. Others consider the majority of the Pentateuch to have been written between the Babylonian exile/captivity (6th century), and the third century BCE.  Other OT books, such as Esther (5th–1st centuries BCE) and Daniel (c. 165 BCE), were redacted, interpolated or composed much after the "Books of Moses."

As per the “Yahwist’s Primeval Myth,” Dr. Bernard F. Batto summarizes current mainstream scholarship (“Documentary Hypothesis”:) on who actually wrote the Torah;

“The Yahwist” is, of course, part of the so-called Documentary Hypothesis, which is currently under attack from a number of quarters. Nonetheless, this theory remains in its broad outline the best and most widely accepted explanation of the development of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.  To be sure, numerous aspects of the theory as originally formulated in the classical statement by Julius Wellhausen toward the end of the nineteenth century must be revised in light of more recent research.  But as an explanation for the many doubles and apparently contradictory narratives of the Pentateuch, the Documentary Hypothesis remains unsurpassed….

Rather than scrap the whole Documentary Hypothesis as some have suggested, it seems more in keeping with the literary data of the Pentateuch to modify the Documentary Hypothesis along the lines suggested by Frank Cross.  Cross maintains the basic four pentateuchal traditions, but posits that the early epic traditions (J and E) were subsequently reworked by P, who added his own editorial structure and priestly materials to form a Tetra-teuch (viz., Genesis through Numbers).... P never existed as a separate source...

The J, E, D, P Designations

The complex construction of the Pentateuch has been worked out over a period of centuries, including famously by the renowned German biblical scholar and theologian Rev. Dr. Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918), one of the originators of the Documentary Hypothesis. Wellhausen’s hypothesis is as follows:

1. The Yahwist source (“J”), possibly written around 950 BCE in the southern kingdom of Judah;

2. The Elohist source (“E”), c. 850 BCE in the northern kingdom of Israel;

3. The Deuteronomist (“D”), c. 600 BCE in Jerusalem during a period of religious reform; and

4. The Priestly source (“P”), c. 500 BCE by kohanim (Jewish priests) who had been in exile in Babylon.

Thus, according to this theory, J was first, followed by E and D, and all were redacted together by P.

Jesuit priest Rev. Dr. William W. Meissner (d. 2010) elaborates the lettering system developed by Wellhausen and maintained in the current documentary hypothesis, along with the reasons for doubting the writing of the Pentateuch to Moses:

...modern scholarship has revealed variations in style, disruptions of sequence, and narrative repetitions that argue against a single author. Following Wellhausen, modern scholars have regarded the Pentateuch as an amalgam of four documents, all written much later than the time of Moses.  There were initially two narrative sources, the Yahwistic (J), which uses the divine name (Yahweh) that was given to Moses, and the Elohistic (E), which uses the common name for God, Elohim.

J was written in Judah in the tenth century B.C., and E followed a little later in Israel.

After the fall of the Northern Kingdom (following the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C.), J and E were combined.

After the period of Josiah, the Deuteronomic (D) source was added; the Priestly Code (P), made up of laws for the most part, with a smattering of narrative, was joined to the existing compilation (JED) after the exile.

The redactional steps by which the Deuteronomic and Priestly traditions were later joined to JE are still matters of scholarly debate, but it is clear that the entire Pentateuch had reached its present form by the period of the exile or shortly thereafter.


In Who Wrote the Bible, Friedman dates P to the time of the brutal Israelite reformer king Hezekiah (fl. 715–686 BCE), because the hypothesized text reflects a strong centralizing tendency of the priesthood, which was the reformer’s major thrust. In this regard, P diminishes Moses’s role and raises Aaron and his priesthood to dominance. This supremacy is reflected in Hezekiah’s destruction of the Mosaic serpent in the temple at 2 Kings 18:4.

He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.    2 Kings 18:4


As Meissner states, a number of later redactors over the centuries have been proposed as well. The hypothesized individual who combined J and E in the eighth century is styled the “Redactor of JE” or “RJE.”  

The person who apparently combined all five texts after Deuteronomy was composed is called the “Redactor” or “R.” Another redactor/editor is posited as having reworked the texts during the second century BCE, when it appears the book of Daniel was composed.


Nevertheless, Pentateuchal scholarship remains fractured by multiple alternative theses.  For example, Van Seters has argued for a sixth-century date for J and no E at all, making D the earliest layer, dating to the late seventh century.  

Other biblical scholars such as Dr. Roger N. Whybray see the Pentateuch as a

“collection of fragments assembled into its present form in the post-exilic period by a single author.”

Many writers have averred this single author to be the prophet Ezra (fl. 480–440 BCE).

For reasons discussed below, American scholar Russell E. Gmirkin dates the Pentateuch’s final composition to the third century BCE.

Moreover, the documentary hypothesis remains debated, naturally, by Bible literalists, who maintain the biblical Mosaic composition as actual history of the second millennium, as well as by the most skeptical critics called “minimalists,” who push the book’s composition into the latest possible period, around the middle to the last quarter of the first millennium BCE.

However, arguments for the antiquity of at least certain parts of the Pentateuch include linguistic studies revealing Hebrew at “several distinct periods,” which suggests that some of the texts were composed, orally at least, centuries earlier.

Exodus Composition

Concerning the date of the Exodus story’s composition, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, edited by biblical scholar Dr. Bruce M. Metzger (1914–2007), states:

The account of the Exodus in the Pentateuch is multilayered, being composed of various traditions, some very ancient, such as the “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15, and the bulk a prose narrative combining the Pentateuchal sources J, E and P, to be dated from the tenth to perhaps as late as the sixth century BCE.

Theologian and biblical studies professor Dr. Brian D. Russell calls the “Song of the Sea,” a snapshot at Exodus 15:1–18, “perhaps the oldest literary or textual element extant in the Hebrew Bible,” citing as evidence the text’s “archaic grammar and syntax, lack of prosaic particles, the use of staircase parallelism, and phrases and word pairs in common with Ugaritic prosody.”

Theologian Dr. Michael D. Oblath concludes that the Exodus epic was “created and given its original life” during the “foundational era” of the period of David and Solomon (10th to ninth cents. BCE).  Egyptologist Redford argues for the time of the drama’s composition to after the Babylonian Exile, during the Late Egyptian/Saite era (c. 712–332 BCE) or Persian period (539–334 BCE).

Based on the fact that the pre-exilic texts are virtually devoid of Moses, it would appear that the bulk of his story was composed during or after the Babylonian Exile, using an older mythical core such as the Song of the Sea.

Regarding the date when the Exodus story was composed significantly, Israeli archaeologist Dr. Israel Finkelstein and archaeology writer Neil Asher Silberman conclude:

All of these indications suggest that the Exodus narrative reached its final form during the time of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, in the second half of the seventh and first half of the sixth century BCE.

Its many references to specific places and events in this period quite clearly suggest that the author or authors integrated many contemporary details into the story.... Old, less formalized legends of liberation from Egypt could have been skillfully woven into the powerful saga that borrowed familiar landscapes and monuments. But can it be just a coincidence that the geographical and ethnic details of both the patriarchal origin stories and the Exodus liberation story bear the hallmarks of having been composed in the seventh century BCE?

The Exodus story is highly in error with anachronistic facts and reflects the topography of much later centuries. This time period is when it evidently was composed.  The seventh century, of course, was the time of the violent reforms of the Israelite king Josiah (fl. c. 640–609 BCE), on the heels of those by Hezekiah, when Josiah’s high priest Hilkiah stated he “found” or, possibly, composed the “Book of the Law.”

This date of about 650 to 550 BCE for the Exodus composition of this part of the tale makes sense in light of all the data, including access to texts in Babylon before and during the Babylonian exile.

While the language of some texts in significant part may be older than the Babylonian Exile, with later interpolations, there remains no credible evidence that Moses even existed as depicted, much less wrote any part of the first five books of the Bible.  If we allow that someone else wrote about Moses’s death and grave, such as his successor Joshua, we can suggest likewise that other individuals wrote other parts of the Pentateuch, which is what skeptical scholarship and biblical criticism have held for a number of centuries now.