DH 15: Verifiable?

DH 15: Verifiable? April 17, 2014

The Documentary Hypothesis is not only unfalsifiable but also unverifiable.  That is to say, there are no definitive criteria by which it can be decided which particular version of the Documentary Hypothesis, if any, is correct.  It is, in its essence, an extended exercise in the fallacy of the possible proof.  This is not to say that arguments can’t be made in favor of the Documentary Hypothesis, and for (or against) its many different variants.  The problem is, how do you prove it?  This, of course is a problem found in all the humanities, which for the most part and neither objective nor empirical disciplines.  But the continued and ongoing disagreements among confirmed Documentarians is really unique in the annals of academia.  Most disciplines would have jettisoned such a unfruitful hypothesis long ago.  (Indeed similar theories about alleged multiple sources in Homer and early Islamic History are now rejected.)  And such a movement to jettison the theory indeed began some decades ago, and the debate rages on.  There is less consensus today about the Documentary Hypothesis than thirty years ago.  I’ll discuss some of these specific differences later.

The debate about the details of the Documentary Hypothesis has essentially become and exercise in speculative argument, rhetoric, and persuasion which has still produced no ultimate consensus.  Independent-minded and informed scholars, all equally indoctrinated into the Documentary Hypothesis in graduate school, simply cannot agree about the details.  The debates go on and on and on.  Documentarians may argue that the overall theory is sound, and they are simply debating the nuances of the details.  But the devil is in the details.

Which points to the fundamental problem of problem of false positives.  Imagine that one of the many versions of the documentary hypothesis happens to be correct in all its details (which is unlikely, since there are so many debated details).  It still necessarily means that all of the other versions are wrong in their details.  And that means that, despite the fact that everyone is using using precisely the same theory, presuppositions, methodology, and evidence, the method has produced dozens of inconsistent false positives over the past century.  Furthermore the methodology has proven unable to develop definitive criteria which allow scholars to distinguish between the correct interpretation of the details of the Documentary Hypothesis, and all of these different false positives.  In other words, the theory has necessarily produced far more erroneous interpretations than it has correct interpretations—even if one version of the theory happens to be ultimately correct.  And worse, it provides no mechanism to distinguish between the correct details and the numerous false positives.  Outsiders, who have not been indoctrinated into the Documentary Hypothesis, can be forgiven for being skeptical about the utility of such a theory and method.


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