Lessing, R. Reed & Andrew E. Steinmann. Prepare the Way of the Lord: An Introduction to the Old Testament. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2014. Chapter 2 “The Origins of the Pentateuch” pp. 13-44.
Jews and Christians alike place the same five books at the start of the canon. The plot of Genesis through Deuteronomy is quite cohesive, but there have been many theories of multiple authors and extensive redaction (Lessing 2014, 13). Moses, historically recognized as the author, would have been well qualified to write the work. He was present at the time of the Exodus and would have had adequate education to write (Lessing 2014, 14). There are also passages in the Pentateuch strongly suggesting Moses as an author. The rest of the Old Testament frequently refers to Moses as the author of these books (Lessing 2014, 15). The New Testament also frequently refers to the Pentateuch as the work of Moses (Lessing 2014, 15). There are, however, certainly some passages which are apparently editorial insertions (Lessing 2014, 16), most notably the account of Moses’ burial at the end of Deuteronomy. Lessing also suggests a number of explanatory remarks which would not make much sense at the time of Moses but would at a later date (Lessing 2014, 17).
Lessing observes that there have been some groups at various times who have doubted Mosaic authorship (Lessing 2014, 19). He details a few in different locales and separated by several hundred years. Those seem very much like isolated incidents. In the Enlightenment period, however, more widespread and constant questions arose (Lessing 2014, 20). Influential writers were Thomas Hobbes, Benedict Spinoza, and Richard Simon. Following on their heels, Jean Astruc in 1753 suggested that the Pentateuch was compiled from four sources (Lessing 2014, 20). Astruc’s work was built on by Johan Gottfried Eichhorn, who, in 1780-83, divided Genesis and part of Exodus by their supposed sources (Lessing 2014, 21). This practice, known as “the Older Documentary Hypothesis,” sought to identify sources of the text (Lessing 2014, 21). As this view was growing strong, some scholars chose to seek smaller fragments and a stronger role of the later editor or redactor (Lessing 2014, 22). This view came to be known as the “Fragmentary Hypothesis.” It became popular at the very start of the 19th century. In the 1820s another view arose, the “Supplementary Hypothesis,” which considered the Pentateuch was originally one document which was augmented from other materials (Lessing 2014, 22). “In 1853 Hermann Hupfeld returned scholarship to a purely documentary approach to the composition of Genesis” (Lessing 2014, 23). He articulated a “New Documentary Hypothesis” with four sources. At the same time, other scholars, drawing on Hegel’s philosophy, saw the Scripture as a product of, rathe than a guide for, Israel’s state (Lessing 2014, 24). The synthesis was articulated by Wellhausen in the 1870s (Lessing 2014, 25). This became the classic formulation of the Documentary Hypothesis which was widely accepted by critical scholars by 1900 (Lessing 2014, 25). Lessing describes the theoretical development of the Old Testament in some detail.
The broad acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis led scholars to attempt to understand the forms of literature behind the various sources later assembled to create the Old Testament. This practice, “Form Criticism,” came to prominence in the early 20th century (Lessing 2014, 27). A related discipline was Tradition Criticism, which seeks out groups of statements or ideas which may have originally belonged together (Lessing 2014, 28).
Not only does Lessing consider all these methods very speculative, but he observes they depend on a late date of final composition and tend to reject other explanations out of hand regardless of evidence (Lessing 2014, 30). Lessing then addresses weaknesses of specific hypotheses. In the last quarter of the 20th century the Documentary Hypothesis has largely been discredited (Lessing 2014, 34). Critical studies of the rhetoric and literary structures have largely overtaken the concerns of authorship (Lessing 2014, 35). The editorial work suggested by the Documentary Hypothesis is so thorough it appears no editor existed and that the works may have been cohesive from the start (Lessing 2014, 37). Lessing does not various recent supporters of the Documentary Hypothesis as well (Lessing 2014, 38). The work of cataloging various putative authors does continue.