Imagine a situation where a group of doctors agree that a patient has cancer, but they disagree about whether he is afflicted with leukemia, pancreatic cancer, or a brain tumor. We could, of course, make the claim that all the doctors agree. On the other hand, the appropriate treatment for each type of cancer differs dramatically. What would be the benefit of brain surgery if you really have pancreatic cancer? In this situation the fact that there is a consensus diagnosis of cancer would be of little help. This little parable is, of course, an allegory for the claimed scholarly “consensus” regarding the Documentary Hypothesis.
Arguments in favor of the Documentary Hypothesis almost always at some point make the claim that there is a scholarly consensus affirming the hypothesis, and that it is the position of the majority of “mainstream” or “critical” scholars. This claim requires a great deal of unpacking to understand exactly what it means.
First, the argument that “there is scholarly consensus regarding the Documentary Hypothesis, therefore we should believe it” is a logical fallacy known as the “argument from authority.” Scholarly consensus, assuming such a thing exists, means the ideas and theories of the scholars should certainly be taken seriously. But such a consensus does not demonstrate that their idea is necessarily correct, especially in a case with as much ambiguity as the Documentary Hypothesis. Here’s why.
The reality is that there is no such thing as the Documentary Hypothesis. Rather, there are many different, and sometimes contradictory versions of the theory. Hence, we should more properly speak of the Documentary Hypotheses. I’ll discuss the details of the differences in some of the theories later, but at this point it is only necessary to recognize that the various hypotheses differ in claims regarding the number of different sources, the dates of the sources, and which texts which should be attributed to which source. And scholarly disagreement over the issues is often fundamental and irreconcilable.
We also need to understand that the specifics of the Documentary Hypotheses change through time. The theory is, in fact, a rapidly moving target. (For a history of the transformations of the theory, see Ernest Nicholson, The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen, Oxford, 1998. There has been further development in the past two decades since this book was written.) Just as importantly, rather than slowly moving toward an actual consensus on the details, we find greater disagreement among scholars today about the details of the Documentary Hypothesis than in the past. The number of different theories are multiplying, not converging. The claim of consensus regarding the specifics of the theory are exaggerated at best. This multiplication of theories in part due to the nature of the sociology of knowledge in the academy. Young professors get tenure and promotion by publishing new articles that “advance” knowledge in the field. An article saying “I agree with professor X” is less likely to be published than an article that disagreeing with professor X. To get promoted you must publish, and to publish you must have a new idea. Hence, there is a built-in social bias in the academy towards proliferation of variant theories rather than consensus.
The claimed consensus also essentially ignores conservative pastors, evangelical biblical scholars, Orthodox Jews, etc. These people are professional Bible scholars and teachers, but their views are generally dismissed by Documentarians with a way of the hand as “uncritical” and hence irrelevant. Consensus can be claimed only by ignoring the views of those who disagree with the theory! Now, in fact, I’m not an evangelical or an inerrantist, and I generally disagree with much in their approach to the Bible. But if we want an accurate assessment of the state scholarly opinion regarding the Documentary Hypothesis, we cannot ignore the “minority report,” which in fact may actually be the majority report.
An accurately description of the state of scholarly consensus regarding the Documentary Hypotheses, would be more like this: “Those scholars who share a certain set of theoretical and methodological assumptions about the Bible have a consensus that one of several dozen versions of the Documentary Hypothesis is probably correct.”