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The JEPD or Documentary Hypothesis and the Flood — Coffee Break Version

The JEPD or Documentary Hypothesis

(a) JEPD in a nutshell

The 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 — 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.  Wikipedia’s take on the Bible, for example, is fully informed by the JEPD hypothesis, and it treats the lens of the JEPD as a given for Biblical studies.

I ‘grew up’ in this hypothesis, and spent more than 10 years reading the OT this way before I encountered my first serious challenge to the hypothesis, which it turns out is the conventional answer by Christian scholars in Biblical studies.

Since we’re in the Coffee Break version of this post, I’m going to keep the rejection of the JEPD hypothesis down to two points:

(1) The historical existence of the J, E, and D writers has failed to appear after more than 200 years of searching for them in literary and archaeological sources.
(2) The explanatory power of the JEPD hypothesis is weaker than the ‘traditional’ view.  That is, JEPD views of the Bible bring up more difficulties and problems than they solve, and are also more complicated.

(1) The failed predictions of the JEPD theory after 200+ years

While scientific methodology seems to many to be inappropriate for studying the Bible, the profession of Biblical studies does just that, and it is the application of the method that has led to new and better editions of the Bible.  Modern English translations are almost all based on the NT in it’s 28th edition, and the OT in it’s 4th, as we get closer to what the original documents might have been.  The New Kings James Version, with it’s insistence on relying on medieval manuscripts of the NT, instead of more ancient texts, is a rare exception.  The fact that both believers and non-believers co-exist in the study of the Bible certainly leads to some schizophrenic results, as initial assumptions on the validity of the Bible colour much of your interpretation.  However, while differing interpretations must be allowed to exist, we can also speak of ‘facts’ that are independent of whether you view the Bible from an atheist, agnostic, or Christian perspective.

For me, the JEPD deconstruction of Torah and the OT is the most natural reading of the Bible from a modern perspective–in a vacuum from the context of the Ancient Near East (ANE).  It’s intuitive, it explains both repetitions in the text as well as the many contradictions that arise, and it’s explanatory power for the variety of traditions has great appeal.

However, the JEPD theory was birthed over 200 years ago, before archaeology in it’s modern scientific sense was born, when the Bible was largely read from a European lens, stripped of it’s ANE context.  Much has changed in the last 150 years.  A century ago, you could still legitimately hold the position that the archaeology of the ANE did not provide enough support for the broad history of the Bible, and therefore that the Bible was a series of legends with only the faintest hint of historical roots.

Flood - Noah - Ark - Biblical world - ancient near east

ANE Evidence for Biblical analysis

Today, such a position is impossible in light of the physical objects uncovered by archaeology (though some high profile researchers still maintain some rather paranoid theories to that effect).  Certainly, it is legitimate to hold a secular perspective that the miracles didn’t happen by definition (the position of secularists), but the ‘non-miraculous’ history of the events from the time of David’s monarchy onwards is unquestionable in it’s broad form, though details can be questioned.

The JEPD theory hinges on the existence of 4 distinct historical ‘groups’, each with a distinct interest in maintaining their own view of history.  Images of these groups range from single individuals (the ‘Deuteronomist’), to ‘schools of thought’ (the ‘Deuteronomist school’), and onwards.  Some Christians argue that the inability after 200 years of JEPD theorists to even agree on what the Deuteronomist(s) ‘looked like’ in history is already a failure of the theory, but, for me especially, it is the inability of both archaeology but also literary analysis of ANE texts to produce even the slightest legitimate hint of a J (Yahwist), E (Elohist), or D (Deuteronomist) existence that cripples the theory.

The JEPD theory was proposed in a vacuum, in a time when ANE history was lost to the sands of history.  We no longer live in that vacuum, and our knowledge of ANE history is now the foundation for both secular and Christian understandings of Biblical studies.  There is, today, not one shred of evidence that a person, group, school, or philosophy of J, E, or D thinking ever existed.  The ‘existence’ of these three groups is entirely theoretical, based solely on readings of the Biblical text divorced from their ANE context.  The P source (Priestly), on the other hand, does point to a historical group that is verified archaeologically and in literary sources independent of the Bible–namely the priestly system of the Temple.  This is the one successful prediction of the JEPD theory–though it’s conclusions require belief in the legitimacy of the J, E, and D sources, and so in that context it too loses it’s power.

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JEPD applied to Torah (minus Deut) Source:

200 years ago, I would agree that the Bible’s internal inconsistencies, contradictions, and repetitions, would best be explained by the JEPD, because in the absence of ANE context, it has the most explanatory power.  Today, the ANE context has far more explanatory power, and has produced verified theories time and again, where the JEPD has consistently failed to lead to any legitimate conclusions, but instead only oceans of wasted ink.  To hold onto the imaginary Yahwists, Elohists, and Deuteronomists, despite the absolute lack of any evidence for such groups existing, is foolish when the ANE context shows us a tradition of repetitious writing (‘epic literature’ and semitic writing styles found in the ANE mirror the Bible’s style of excessive repetition with internally inconsistent variations and hyperbole).

Flood - Noah - Ark - Biblical world - ancient near east

The ‘Siloam Inscription’. A tablet dating to and referencing the historical King Hezekiah, and the events of 2 Kings 20:20.

Just look at the images in this post.  All of them are ANE archaeological discoveries that inform modern secular and Christian understandings of the Bible.  If I relied solely on JEPD sources for the images in this post, I would not be able to have a single image–because none exist.

(2) The explanatory power of the JEPD theory is weaker than the unitary theory

The second biggest reason for rejecting the JEPD approach is that in it’s attempts to explain ‘problems’ within the Bible, it’s solution of carving up the OT into four distinct groups produces new problems which far outweigh in number and difficulty the problems as they rest in the Bible itself.  More to the point, the problems of the Bible can be explained with greater simplicity and finality when ANE context and texts are used as background, than when we carve up the Bible into four or more sources.

First off, we need to imagine J, E, and D schools, and the redactors (editors) who edited them together.  We need to imagine time periods later than the events recorded, and view the text of the Bible from these imaginary later time periods.  The secular view, which uses the JEPD, likes to think of most of the OT as being written in the Persian and Greek periods, when Hebrew was already a dead language, and the Israelites (or technically Jews, by that point) spoke Aramaic and Greek instead.  Not only does this view not explain how we have our Hebrew Bible, but it produces new problems of how to see how the Bible supports a political view of Jewish history from a post-exilic (Persian) perspective.

The JEPD theory utterly fails to explain the ancient anachronisms that post-exilic Jews held.  For example, many of the Canaanite gods that were the root of so many Israelites going astray from worshipping YHWH, and who were the ’cause’ of the Prophets writing at such length the bulk of the OT, were already ‘extinct’ or not worshipped or believed in by the time the post-exilic Jews supposedly redacted and wrote the Bible.  This raises a host of questions that produce no solutions, only problems, and furthermore these are ‘hypothetical’ problems that neither archaeology nor ANE texts raise themselves.

That the Bible as it stands today has many internal problems and inconsistencies is unquestionable.  I know of no scholar, commentator, researcher, or translator who would disagree.  But the JEPD theory simply adds to the problems already inherent in the Bible by adding on layers of it’s own–and none of these layers bares any resemblance to physical (archaeological) or literary/historical (ANE texts) evidence.

(b) JEPD applied to the Flood narrative

The 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 theory.  According to Skinner, Gen 6-9 “is justly reckoned amongst the most brilliant achievements of purely literary criticism, and affords a particularly instructive lesson in the art of documentary analysis.”1

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.  Here according to the JEPD theory are the two literary sources, J and P, that a later redactor(s) compiled into the account in Genesis we have today:

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JEPD Chart 3 for Noah

Considered the crown jewel of the JEPD theory, the Flood would seemingly be the hardest place to attack this theory which is taught in most universities and is the template, for example, through which Wikipedia views Biblical studies.  But it actually takes little effort to discard the historical legitimacy of this separation when we put it against it’s ANE context.  Here are just two examples:

1) The J and P sources depart from the Mesopotamian context

As discussed last post, both secularist and Christian scholars who hold a high view of Scripture accept that the Genesis Flood account is based on some version of the Mesopotamian Flood account, though they disagree on the meaning of this fact.

When we divide the Flood narrative into a J source, and a P source, however, neither one on its own mirrors the Mesopotamian Flood account enough to be dependent.  “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.

Since the Mesopotamian Flood literary history is real, and the JEPD theory is merely a theory (with no evidence backing it up, after centuries of making predictions), it is no contest to say that the JEPD theory is incompatible with ANE evidence.  It is therefore both a weaker theory of how the Genesis Flood account came to be, but also produces new problems that need not exist.  One is ‘why do the J and P sources differ?’  More importantly, a new question is raised of ‘why did the redactor who ‘cut and pasted’ the two sources together produce such a unified result that is explained more simply by the ANE evidence’?

In other words, by theorizing about a J and a P version of the Flood, you create two accounts that lose their connection to the Mesopotamian narrative, thus also losing the power of Moses’ twist on the Mesopotamian Flood, which affirms the power of God and the ‘irrelevance’ of humankind in light of God’s power.  Given that this is the point of the Flood narrative in both secular and Christian perspectives, it is strange to hold to a JEPD theory that invalidates either J or P source as affirming this theme.  The JEPD theory must instead theorize that the redactor wanted to achieve the result of the ‘moral of the story’, and cobbled together two sources that have no meaning on their own in order to do so.

2) The J and P sources fail to account for the repetition in the narrative

The supposed power of the JEPD theory lays in it’s ability to account for all of the repetitions, including the contradictory ones, found in the OT.  However, when viewed in detail, the JEPD theory actually does a worse explanatory job than a simpler one which views a single author of the Genesis account:

“R. N. Whybray3, for example, has shown that not only is virtually every element in the Flood account repeated, as the [JEPD theory] has shown, but also in most cases the repetition is not simply twice but three and four times:

God’s intention to destroy the inhabitants of the earth is stated four times (Gen 6:5-7; 6:11-13; 6:17; 7:4).
Four times it is recorded that Noah and his companions entered the Ark (Gen 7:7-9; 13-14; 15; 16).
Three times the coming of the rain is recorded (Gen 7:6; 10; 11-12).
The prevailing or increasing of the waters of the Flood is mentioned five times (Gen 7:17; 18; 19; 20; 24),
and their abatement similarly five times (Gen 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).”4

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More ANE literary sources for understanding the Bible. Referencing both El–the god of Abraham and of the Psalms, and Baal, and using Semitic repetition, this Ugaritic text reads: “Then Anat went to El, at the source of the rivers, in the middle of the bed of the two oceans. She bows at the feet of El, she bows and prosternates and pays him respects. She speaks and says: “the very mighty Ba’al is dead. The prince, lord of the earth, has died””
“They fight like heroes. Môt wins, Ba’al wins. They bit each other like snakes. Môt wins, Ba’al wins. They jump like horses. Môt is scared. Ba’al sits on his throne” Source:

As is abundantly visible in ANE literature, Semitic language epics rely heavily on repetition and parallelism in their narrative storytelling5.  If we were to discover the Bible for the first time ever today, but we had all of the ANE literature we currently have, we would predict before opening the cover of the Bible that, based on it being ANE literature, it would be chock full of repetitions and what is called ‘Semitic parallelism and chiastic poetry’, and that is exactly what we find in the Flood narrative.

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 on the Causes of the Flood in Gen 6:5-8
4) Click here for a discussion on God repenting and the animals being wiped out in the Flood
5) Click here for a discussion on the Mesopotamian precedents to the Flood narrative

This series is a summary series that focusses on broad findings.  For details, nuances, and debate, see the “geeky version” of this series over here.