The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis

The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis November 9, 2014


I don’t exaggerate when I state that Dr. Jeffrey Stackert has produced one of the most significant books in the field of biblical studies to emerge in recent years.   For anyone interested in the academic study of the Hebrew Bible, Stackert’s A Prophet Like Moses: Prophecy, Law, and Israelite Religion published by Oxford University Press is an absolute must read.  Stackert presents a provocative thesis on the relationship between prophecy and law in the Hebrew Bible that carries significant implications for understanding the history of ancient Israelite religion and the development of the Pentateuch.

I’m not going to review the entire book at this point, but in light of the focus this blog has given to the topic of the Documentary Hypothesis, I would like to share Stackert’s articulation of the present state of documentary analysis in the Torah and then simply encourage readers to dive into the book.

What is the present state of documentary analysis in the Pentateuch in biblical scholarship? Has the long-held view that individual documents can be successfully identified in the Pentateuch been abandoned?  The answer to this question is of course, “No. Not by a long shot!”  Documentary analysis is still the foundation of Pentateuchal scholarship (see here).   Criticisms of the Documentary Hypothesis have simply allowed scholars to develop higher standards for identifying these sources.

In the beginning of his book, Stackert summarizes the new approach to what is often referred to as the “Neo-Documentary Hypothesis” (to distinguish contemporary documentary analysis from Wellhausen’s original model).  Stackert provides seven points that effectively lay out this new vision, and that I believe provide a compelling response to criticisms of the theory. They’re found on pages 19-22 of Stackert’s book.

He writes:

  1. The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis creates a hierarchy of literary features for distinguishing texts that prioritizes plot claims and continuity of narrative over stylistic features and terminology (including the divine name). Indeed, style and terminology are relegated to a corroborative role, valuable for the description of a source once identified, not primarily for the identification of source material itself.
  1. The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis recognizes that, in the midst of their common framework, the Torah sources may each tell its own story and need not include in its unique account episodes, viewpoints, or other elements included by other sources.
  1. The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis divorces the division of the Torah sources from the reconstruction of Israelite religion. It is not that the former is irrelevant to the latter. . . It is simply that the two are properly independent of each other.
  1. The Neo Documentary Hypothesis also divorces the division of the Torah sources from their dating. The hypothesis is simply a literary separation of the sources on the base of their internal, narrative claims and narrative continuity (see #1 above), and it is irrelevant to their separation which source came earlier or later.
  1. The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis proper concerns only the penultimate state in the composition of the Torah, not the earlier stages in the composition of the sources that likely occurred nor the later, post compositional redactional actively for which there is good evidence in the Torah.
  1. The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis posits that a single compiler, working with a consistent method, is responsible for the combination of the four Torah sources into a single story in a single compilational event. The principles of this compilational method are chronological arrangements of its plot (with reference to the chronologies of the plots of the sources it combines), preservation of source material, and minimal intervention.
  1. In line with the foregoing, the Neo-Documentary Hypothesis seeks a more economical and defensible solution to the problem of incomprehensibility of the Torah than previous iterations of the Documentary Hypothesis (or, for that matter, current, non-Documentary alternatives).

This is an extremely helpful guide.  Though there are still many questions that remain, the Documentary Hypothesis is the best way scholars have come up with to make sense of the inconsistencies and doublets in the Pentateuch.  It is a significant literary observation that has withstood the test of time (albeit with continued refinement).  So not only is the Documentary Hypothesis alive and well, it’s healthier than it’s ever been.  Our understanding of these sources has grown substantially as a result of academic debate.  In recent years, Stackert’s work has contributed significantly to this discussion, and his new volume really should be your next book purchase.


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