The JEPD or Documentary Hypothesis
(a) JEPD in a nutshellThe JEPD hypothesis is a very old theory in Biblical studies, going back deep into the 1700s. Put simply, it’s a theory that Torah (the first five books of the Bible), traditionally considered to be written by Moses, were in fact compiled from 4 distinct traditions, and then ‘pasted’ together, skillfully, by a series of redactors. The four traditions from which Torah is compiled are:
J = Yahwist (Jehovahist) — Essentially all passages in which God is called YHWH (the LORD)
E = Elohist — Essentially all passages in which God is called Elohim (God)
P = Priestly — Essentially all passages with a priestly focus or issues important to the priesthood
D = Deuteronomist — Essentially all of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and large chunks of other books
On a first cursory read-through, this theory makes a lot of sense and explains a lot of odd ‘double-stories’ in Genesis especially. It is the main theory taught in secular Biblical studies, and is considered quite untouchable by many scholars. There are many Christian scholars who accept it in varying forms as well. Most secular schools teaching Biblical studies will coin phrases similar to “the traditional view that Moses wrote Torah has long since been replaced by the JEPD hypothesis, and scholars now universally agree on the JEPD hypothesis’ general findings”.
I ‘grew up’ in this framework. It explained a lot and had a very attractive deconstructionist approach that was very exciting and fun to follow down all kinds of tangents and rabbit holes. My first ever exposure to a challenge to this theory (other than fundamentalist ones that deny research and scholarship all together) was in my first commentary set, the EBC. I purchased it because it was a conservative commentary that held to a high view of Scripture (infallible, God-breathed) and I wanted to be challenged in my views to see what else was out there. At the time I did not hold to an infallible view of Scripture.
Even though, in retrospect, the EBC is one of the least thorough and rigorous of the modern evangelical commentaries out there, a simple read-through of the first volume, on the background of the entire Bible, was more than enough to bring the JEPD theory crashing down for me. I am not going to go into this any detail, so don’t consider this an attempt to win over more converts, but I wish to just get this ‘out of the way’ so that we can deal with the JEPD deconstruction of Noah’s Ark and the Flood, and then see why it fails to add anything to analysis of the Scriptures.
Just some of the problems with JEPD:
(1) The key one for myself, coming from a love of scientific methodology, is that the JEPD was proposed in the early 1800s when archaeology was essentially nonexistent and the jury was very, very out on whether any of the history of the Bible was even real in the slightest–or whether the entire thing was as pure a mythology as Greek mythology was. In the early 1800s, the JEPD theory would actually be, and actually was, a very powerful hypothesis that generated new theories, and seemed to lead to new data (though I believe in retrospect it did not do the latter at all). As archaeology became more legitimate and grew up, it stopped trying to prove the Bible (or disprove it), and started trying to simply reconstruct ancient near east history. Once it did this, the data that grew out of it was immense and, today, the broad history of the Bible is incredibly substantiated (the details are another matter).
(2) For a theory to have any value, it must generate new questions and ultimately lead to new data that confirms or disconfirms that theory. The JEPD has gone through hundreds, possibly thousands, of iterations, but it has never really adjusted to the data of archaeology. More specifically, there are as many JEPD theories as there are JEPD theorists, there are as many ways of carving up Torah and the Bible into JEPD categories as there are theorists, and, like the manuscripts of the NT, among serious JEPD theorists there is not a single theorist who agrees with another on which parts of Torah belong to each one. Most importantly, the JEPD has, after nearly 200 years of existence, failed to produce explanations of difficult passages in the Bible that are superior to the simpler approach of Torah being written by one person, and later redacted.
(3) Crucially, when it was proposed, the JEPD theory hypothesized that over time, archaeology would reveal 4 distinct camps of ancient Israelite scribes, corresponding to J, E, P, and D. This has failed abysmally, and by all accounts should be shelved as a theory because of it. To this day, the Priestly group is the only one of these four groups that can actually be said to have been ‘real’ in history. After nearly 200 years, and after remarkably numerous discoveries of ancient near east history, there is no evidence for any group resembling Yahwists, Elohists, or the Deuteronomist(s). No extra-biblical literary sources, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, can be convincingly put in one of these categories and not the other.
(4) The JEPD theory breaks down utterly upon close inspection. If you actually carve up the Bible according to passages that use the name YHWH vs. those that use the name Elohim, you will, especially in Genesis, come across some interesting divisions that seem to make sense. However, applying this theory on the micro-level to Torah, much less the OT as a whole, crushes this theory. The end result is a hodgepodge of nonsense that loses nearly all of its historical explanatory power, not to mention theological explanatory power. And yes, if you apply more nuanced and refined divisions that aren’t as cookie-cutter as what I just described, you still get a weaker explanatory power than if you just stuck with Moses, plus redactors. Just as importantly, you can’t get any two JEPD theorists to agree with each other on how to make more refined cuts, and where they would see the divisions.
(5) The Deuteronomist is seen as a strong division, it being believed that the writer of Deuteronomy wrote considerably later than the history of Gen/Ex/Lev/Num, and that he used these four sources to write his own ‘second history’. It’s a cute theory that makes sense at the beginning, but again, ultimately only produces worse theories than just sticking with Moses. Plus, it doesn’t hold up on it’s own. Take a look at this site alone. I write a ‘geeky version’ post, which is written during my research, is more free-form, certainly more disorganized, definitely more in-depth, assumes a more steeped knowledge base on the reader’s part including some ‘arcane knowledge’, is more long-winded and meandering, and so forth. My ‘coffee break’ versions of the same post are shorter, more succinct, explain technical terms at a more introductory level, don’t assume technical knowledge, go on less tangents, and get to the point quicker. They are written second, based on the geeky version, and are slightly more polished. If everything about Biblical studies was lost except for only my website, a thousand years later it would only be common sense to assume that there were two different writers on the website, both of whom adopted the name ‘Krister Temme’, but only one of whom, or maybe neither, actually was. Likewise, it is far simpler to say that after researching and writing Gen/Ex/Lev/Num, Moses, at the end of his life, and writing to a completely new generation (the older one dying off as they served their 40 years of wandering), wrote a more organized, succinct, and theologically clearer ‘summary’ of Ex/Lev/Num.
(6) Much of the appeal of the JEPD theories is to account for the many contradictions, some apparent, some real, in Torah and the Bible. This is only necessary, however, if you limit your theology and philosophy to disallow any contradictions, as both atheists and, ironically, inerrantist fundamentalists do. There is no such need to be so limited however, and the theory of condescension and tension more than accounts for the contradictions in the Bible–admitting their existence, without getting all antsy about throwing the entire thing out because of it.
(b) JEPD applied to the Flood narrativeThe JEPD has been applied to the Flood narrative, and two distinct accounts of the Flood are therefore posited by the JEPD theory. In fact, the Flood narrative is regarded by JEPD theorists as one of, if not the, crowning achievement of the JEPD theory1
The simplest division is separating out all the passages that describe God as ‘Elohim’ (God) from all those that describe God as YHWH (the LORD). Doing so produces, sure enough, two accounts of the Flood Narrative that appear to work together side by side. In the case of the Flood, these two sources are J and P, with a redactor connecting the pieces:
In addition, this chart shows how they run in parallel:
And here’s the full accounts separated:
However, a counter to this, and one I find has more explanatory power, is simpler, and requires less appeals to non-existent data about two groups that have failed to show up in history despite 200 years of looking for their hypothetical existence (even the Higgs-Boson only took a couple decades to find after it was theorized!). In this view, Elohim is the name Moses gives to God when he is speaking of the Creator God–a slightly more distant, impersonal aspect of God who is powerful, creator of all, and lord of all. By contrast, when Moses wants to speak about the relational, or covenantal, aspect of God, he uses YHWH, who reaches out to humanity directly, seeks relationship and covenant with humanity, and is far more ‘personal’. Two aspects of one and the same God, the names being interchangeable as fits Moses’ needs. In addition, Elohim is clearly traceable back to El, a Canaanite God who, it appears, YHWH permitted the patriarchs to think was the one true God (Elohim/YHWH), waiting until Moses to reveal more of his identity as YHWH.
In the application to the Flood narrative, for example, it is quite incontestable that Moses drew on the Mesopotamian account–the parallels are too perfect and too frequent. But if we chop up the narrative in the P and J accounts above, for example, notice that:
“Though these chapters then present further evidence of a J-type redaction of earlier sources, I think it would be wrong to regard the J/P analysis of these chapters as final. In the light of Mesopotamian parallels to the flood story it is strange that certain elements from the flood tradition are missing from P and J. P omits the command to enter the ark, the closing of the door, the opening of the window, the bird’s reconnaissance, the sacrifice, and God’s smelling it, whereas J omits the building of the ark, the ark landing on a mountain, and the exit from the ark”2.
In other words, by positing (or creating, perhaps) a J and a P version of the Flood, you create two accounts that lose their connection to Gilgamesh’s narrative, thus also losing the power of Moses’ twist on the Mesopotamian Flood, affirming the power of God and the ‘irrelevance’ of humankind in light of God’s power. In addition, of course, while we have the Priests as a group, who on earth were the ‘Yahwists’ (J), and why have they vanished from history without a trace? It’s a very questionable hypothesis to hold onto after 200 years of complete failures to be found in literary or archaeological sources.
As summarized in the notes for Gen 7:1-5 commentary in the EBC:
God’s intention to destroy the inhabitants of the earth is stated four times (Gen. 6:5- 7, 11- 13, 17; 7:4).
Four times it is recorded that Noah and his companions entered the Ark (7:7- 9, 13- 14, 15, 16).
Three times the coming of the rain is recorded (7:6, 10, 11- 12).
The prevailing or increasing of the waters of the Flood is mentioned five times (7:17, 18, 19, 20, 24),
and their abatement similarly five times (8:1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
It is illogical on the basis of these repetitions to analyze the story into two documents (J and P). On the other hand the dramatic effect of this portentous constant repetition in the text as it stands cannot be denied…Andersen has shown that much of the repetition in the Flood account stems from the writer’s use of a type of sentence he has called “epic repetition” and “chiastic coordination.” Thus, far from being a haphazard mixture of two divergent accounts of the Flood, the end result of the narrative composition “looks as if it has been made out of whole cloth” (Sentence in Biblical Hebrew, p. 40)”.
It is, however, possible, that Moses used two distinct sources in his research on the Flood (completed as it was, by our faith, in a God-breathed fashion), and that he ‘dropped’ sections of one to prefer the other. However, these two sources need not be J or P. Nor, for that matter, do we need such a theory, though that alone doesn’t invalidate it (WBC, for example, accepts something to this effect, albeit by bypassing Moses as chief author).
To be sure, this theory runs into challenging problems as well. However, there are far less of these problems, the answers to them do not require phantom groups of scribes who might not exist, and Moses as the author (along with redactors) can easily be given permission, just like I ask permission, to write in different styles and tones, and use different names for the same God, sometimes seemingly randomly (as I do).
If you’re familiar with the JEPD theory, you’ll want to dissect the Flood narrative into it’s categories. I challenge you to view it as a cohesive whole and see which approach is simpler, more founded, and requires less appeal to nonexistent data.
The JEPD theory was originally proposed when we had, essentially, no ANE literature, and so at the time it was a good theory for explaining the Bible’s repetitions. Today, however, the ANE context provides not only a more powerful explanatory tool to analyze Biblical repetitions, but it is also, frankly, real. You can hold ANE tablets in your hand. The JEPD theory, frankly, is not real. It’s a shame (and an oddity) that secular approaches are lagging behind Christian apologetics in this. Acknowledging the modern irrelevancy of the JEPD theory by no means compels a secularist to become Christian. It simply acknowledges the ANE data and throws out a theory that has long outlived it’s functional use.
Summary and critical thinking
I love Wikipedia, and trust it to a large degree in my research in Biblical studies and most other sources of knowledge. However, like the universities from which it’s editors mostly come, it’s choice to accept uncritically the awkwardly outdated JEPD theory for the foundation on which all of it’s OT analysis is written, leads to all kind of screwy results–by which I mean, conclusions and results that contradict and fly in the face of the real data of ANE literary sources and physical findings.
The reason, I suspect, for the JEPD’s zombie-like staying power among otherwise scientifically-minded people, is the short-sighted reasoning that to abandon the JEPD theory is to accept ‘conservative Christian scholarship’, with all of it’s ‘miracle-believing, evangelical’ implications. While I would certainly hold to a conservative, evangelical scholarly (not fundamentalist, mind you) view of the Bible myself, including it’s miracles and theological claims, by no means does accepting the broad unity of the OT books compel one to anything resembling a confession of faith. Dropping the JEPD is just basic science. We have ANE research now, the JEPD is incompatible with it. Enough said.
As the well-known scientific adage goes: ‘old theories only die with old theoreticians’. You cannot read analysis of almost any OT passage in either secular or Christian sources without mentioning the JEPD approach–whether it is to accept it or reject it. The JEPD is in the ‘bone marrow’ of Biblical studies, and it is considered ‘bad scholarship’ to analyze a passage of the OT without spending some ink on how the JEPD would carve that passage up. Until scholars feel it is safe to write about OT passages without even mentioning the JEPD–for fear of being seen as un-scholarly for not mentioning it–we will have to continue to mention this ancient zombie-theory, just as we increasingly use ANE context to better explain the Bible–whether for secular or for religious outcomes.
This is the sixth post in an extended series on Noah and the Flood (Gen 6-9). For the first three posts:
1) Click here for a discussion on the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
2) Click here for a discussion on the New Testament View of the Nephilim and sons of God in Gen 6:1-4
3) Click here for a discussion of the Cause of the Flood (Order vs. Chaos) in Gen 6:5-8
4) Click here for a discussion on God repenting and the animals being wiped out
5) Click here for a discussion on the Mesopotamian Flood and Genesis’ reliance on it
This is a detailed series that focusses on nuanced and more complicated findings. For a friendlier and more user friendly version of the same content, see the “coffee break version” of this series over here.