Since the 19th century, scholars have made exciting discoveries that shed significant light on the Bible. One of these findings is the fact that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) were not composed by a single individual, but instead consist of a redaction of originally independent literary works. This view, known as the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), challenges traditional religious beliefs that the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) is connected with the prophet Moses.
The DH presents unique challenges for Latter-day Saints, who not only revere the Bible, but also possess additional 19th century scriptural works produced by Joseph Smith. These scriptural texts rely upon and often directly cite portions of the Pentateuch. In 2014, I published a book titled Authoring the Old Testament which sought to both introduce a Latter-day Saint audience to the DH and present a way in which believers might make sense of the scholarship and their religious convictions.
It took some time before I agreed to write the book. I had recently faced challenges at Brigham Young University for my commitment to historical critical scholarship, and I was at the time still employed as a professional religious educator for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As a result, I had some reservations. I recognized that others in the past had gotten into some trouble with Church authorities for publishing on this topic. I also understood that if I left church employ to take a full-time academic position, a devotional book written for Latter-day Saints on historical scholarship would not help my career. In the end, I decided that the topic was simply too important, and at the time, I felt driven to help my community address this challenge.
I did not (nor do I still) pretend to possess all the answers, nor do I claim the ways in which I understand the DH, and how I once made sense of the scholarship as a committed Latter-day Saint are without error. I often make mistakes in my judgment, and when it comes to the creation of the Pentateuch, we need to constantly refine our understanding to accommodate new scholarly discoveries.
Since 2014, several articles have appeared in the Interpreter journal that have addressed this same topic. Though no doubt well intended, these apologetic efforts to defend a traditional understanding of scripture have unfortunately caused some confusion and misunderstanding. With this essay, I will illustrate the need apologists have to first understand the scholarship they’re addressing before attempting to counter its implications for LDS scripture.
The most recent article from the Interpreter addressing the DH appears in volume 45 and is titled, “The Brass Plates: Can Modern Scholarship Help Identify Their Contents?” The essay was written by A. Keith Thompson, a Law professor and former LDS Mission President. Thompson commences the essay by addressing the DH with these words:
“In simple terms, the Documentary Hypothesis holds that Old Testament scripture has more sophisticated theological and political origins than is apparent to casual readers (p. 85).”
The DH certainly has many complicated elements, and scholars continue to debate some of the significant issues pertaining to the theory. Yet I personally believe that casual readers are quite capable of recognizing that the first five books of the Bible are not the product of a single author and/or tradition. Really, the only thing the casual reader needs to do to see why the DH is necessary is simply open up the Bible and read the first two chapters.
The Bible begins with two creation stories. The first account, contained in Genesis 1, appears neatly organized into three days of preparation followed by three days of actual formation. Each day concludes with the formulaic expression: “and there was X.” By the seventh day, all creation exists in its proper sphere and so, God rests. Then quite dramatically, everything changes. Creation simply starts all over again.
In some ways, these two accounts are duplicative– each telling a story concerning the creation of animals, plants, and man. On several key issues, however, they contradict each other. For example, while the two stories describe the same events, they place the actions in a different sequence. Genesis 1:26-27 states that man and woman were created together on the sixth day, after all the animals. The creation story in Genesis 2, however, states that God created man on the first day before he created the animals. Finally, after everything else was finished, God created the woman from the man’s rib. Thus, in Genesis 1, God creates plants, then animals, and finally man and woman at the same time. In Genesis 2, however, God creates man, plants, animals, and finally woman.
There’s another interesting difference. The creation story in Genesis 1 uses the divine name Elohim (translated “God” in the KJV), and the second story in Genesis 2 uses the divine name Yahweh/Jehovah God (translated as LORD in the KJV). This vocabulary distinction appears consistently throughout the texts. So what is the casual reader to conclude? That these two stories present two distinct views on creation that have been brought together by an editor or “redactor” to open the book of Genesis.
And that’s the Documentary Hypothesis. Well, of course there is more to it, but I think casual readers are quite capable of seeing why the DH has remained the scholarly consensus for understanding the creation of the Pentateuch for nearly two hundred years. In reality, it’s quite difficult for a casual reader to make sense of the books without it.
In his essay, Thompson attempts to expose his readers to the basics of documentary analysis in the Pentateuch with these words:
“The [Documentary] hypothesis claims that the Old Testament was probably compiled after the Jews returned from their Babylonian captivity and that the compilation drew its text from four different Hebrew narrative traditions, each of which had its own agenda (p. 85).”
This, however, is an incorrect assertion. And unfortunately, it’s not a trivial mistake. The DH makes no such claims. The DH only pertains to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament). The OT contains 24 books that were written over a thousand-year period from approximately 1200 to 200 BCE. The DH only pertains to the first five books or the Pentateuch, not the entire Hebrew Bible. Yet unfortunately, this is not simply an editorial oversight. Thompson makes this same critical error throughout the essay:
“Scholars who analyze the Hebrew Bible describe four separate sources for all the Old Testament; they label them J, E, D and P” (p. 85).
The sources J, E, D, and P are found throughout the first five books of the Bible, but they do not appear throughout the rest of the Old Testament, which includes a variety of distinct literary compositions and genres. You’re not going to find J or E in Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, or Song of Songs. And of course the Old Testament was compiled long after the Jewish exile. Many of the books hadn’t even been written yet. That’s something that Thompson and the editors over the Interpreter piece could have discovered by simply looking at a Mormon seminary or youth Sunday School manual.
To simply take one example, the book of Ezekiel was written after the Jews left Babylon, so of course the OT, which includes Ezekiel, wasn’t complied before Ezekiel was written.
I believe what Thompson and the Interpreter editors meant to say was that the DH proposes that the Pentateuch, not the entire OT, was “probably compiled after the Jews returned from their Babylonian captivity and that the compilation drew its text from four different Hebrew narrative traditions.” But even that statement although better would be incorrect. In reality, the DH is a literary issue, not a historical one. It reflects the fact that the first five books feature a variety of doublets and inconstancies that suggest multiple authors contributed to the book.
The dating of the documents in the Pentateuch and its compilation has no effect upon the literary analysis and should be kept separate from the DH. Joel Baden addresses this issue quite nicely in his book The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis:
“If it could be demonstrated somehow that J is from the tenth century BCE, and that P is from the third century BCE, while E is from the second millennium BCE, and D was written during the Hoover administration, the literary evaluation of the text and the isolation of the sources on the grounds of narrative flow would be precisely the same” (p. 31).
In other words, although important, dating of the composition of the Pentateuchal sources is a separate scholarly issue from the DH itself, and it must be kept that way. Scholars continue to debate when these sources best fit into Israelite history, and they will no doubt continue to do so for many years, but the DH does not help us identify when the sources were composed and edited into their present form, only that they were.
Continuing, Thompson also makes the following assertion regarding the DH:
“[Some] versions of the Documentary Hypothesis focus less on the agenda and foibles of the original traditions and redactors and consider that scripture is cumulative and that prophets interpret what they receive from God in familiar cultural terms” (p. 85).
For a reference, Thompson cites my book Authoring the Old Testament. I feel a need, therefore, to clarify. Authoring does not present another, separate version of the DH that argues that prophets interpret their revelations from God in familiar cultural terms. My book presents a basic, contemporary survey of the DH (what is sometimes called the Neo-Documentary Hypothesis) that reflects my own understanding of the sources and how they relate historically and literarily to one another. Although there are scholars who see some of the issues differently from the way I do, we all rely upon the DH to understand the Pentateuch. I addressed this issue briefly in a 2015 edition of the Biblical Archeology Review, explaining that contrary to some arguments, the DH is not “dead,” but still in various forms represents the scholarly consensus.
What my book does is present the DH and then offer ways in which a believing Latter-day Saint might make sense of the issue. It does not present another, less critical version of the DH. And this is why it is strange that Thompson’s article cites my work and then presents this statement:
“I do not accept the suggestion that faith-based scholars are incapable of objective research in this area. I believe that all research and writing have an inescapable autobiographical element” (footnote 11).
The entire purpose of Authoring the Old Testament was to show that people of faith can produce and accept the conclusions of objective scholarly research on the Bible—that accepting scholarship will often necessitate a shift in paradigms, but it does not require that a person abandon his or her religious beliefs. I still very much adhere to this position. Thompson’s statement suggests that he is either unfamiliar with the work he cites, or he has not understood it.
Additionally, Thompson’s suggestion that all scholarship features “autobiographical elements” or bias is a red herring. It is true that we all have bias, but it is not true that all we have is bias. Here is how scholars Marc Zvi Brettler, Peter Enns, and Daniel J. Harrington explain the issue in their book, The Bible and the Believer: How to Read the Bible both Critically and Religiously:
“Historical critics of the Bible argue that we know enough about the world and languages of the Bible (and we hope to know more in the future) that we can offer reasonable explanations of an author’s meaning or a text’s function in the original context, and on that basis, we can certainly disqualify some interpretations of a text as anachronistic, fanciful, and therefore impossible” (p. 6).
Thompson’s view that we can uncover portions of an original book of Moses in the Pentateuch is exactly that—his arguments simply do not accord with the historical record.
In his essay, Thompson provides another reference to my work with this statement:
“David Bokovoy has observed that some faith-based modern scholars have suggested that the ‘Documentary Hypothesis’ is dead, while reasserting the inspired unity and inerrancy of the original biblical texts beginning with Moses. . . In relation to the Book of Mormon, Bokovoy suggests that the references to the five books of Moses are “clearly anachronistic” since ‘the concept of five Mosaic books’ did not eventuate until well after the exile. But more recent scholarship has reaffirmed Noel Reynolds’s 1990 view that the Brass Plates may well have contained material related to the Book of Moses which Joseph Smith later translated and which now forms part of the Pearl of Great Price in the Latter-day Saint scriptural canon” (p. 87).
Scholarly consensus holds that the Pentateuch as we know it was not produced until the Persian era (550–330 BCE), and the notion of Mosaic authorship of five books, i.e. what appears in the Book of Mormon, is historically anachronistic, since the idea that Moses wrote five books of Torah dates to the Persian period in Jewish history, and subsequent Jewish writings reveal that the Torah was commonly understood as the book of Moses only in the Hellenistic era—in other words, after the Jewish exile and hundreds of years after Lehi and his family would have left Jerusalem.
So what is this “recent scholarship” that counters the fact that the Book of Mormon’s reference to “five books of Moses” is anachronistic and could not have been made by someone like Lehi prior to the Jewish exile? Thompson cites two articles by LDS scholar Noel Reynolds, one published in Interpreter and the other a presentation given in Provo in 2020. Reynold’s work reaffirms his argument that the Brass Plates contained material related to Joseph Smith’s Book of Moses, published in the Pearl of Great Price. I’m not going to address Reynolds’ argument in detail. Interested readers should consider the Honor’s and subsequent Master’s thesis by Ph.D. student Colby Townsend which address this issue (Here).
Instead, I will simply observe that the LDS Book of Moses combines separate documentary traditions from the Bible into a single literary unit. Those documents were originally composed in Hebrew. If Moses was a historical person (and scholars do not have enough evidence to make that determination) most would assign his dates to sometime during the 14th through 13th centuries BCE. However, the earliest segments in the Bible were produced during the 12th century BCE. They are attested in several poems including the so-called “Song of Moses (Ex. 15), and the Song of Deborah in Judges 5. These poems were most likely recited in antiquity, which is why they retain archaic grammatical features unlike the later Hebrew that appears throughout the Pentateuch. The earliest Hebrew writing yet discovered is from Khirbet Qeiyafa and dates to the 10th century BCE. This means that it is impossible to associate any portion of the written Pentateuch with Moses himself.
Moreover, and this seems to me to be quite important, even if Reynolds’ argument was correct that a book of Moses existed that reflects Joseph Smith’s Book of Moses, this would only mean that a book of Moses existed prior to the exile. Hence, the Book of Mormon’s reference to “five books of Moses,” i.e. a Pentateuch would still be anachronistic.
The view of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch that influenced Joseph Smith’s scriptural productions reflects traditional Jewish and Christian assumptions. The Book of Moses, for example, provides a new introduction to the Pentateuch that explicitly presents Moses as the author of Genesis:
“And now, Moses, my son, I will speak unto thee concerning this earth upon which thou standest; and thou shalt write the things which I shall speak. And in a day when the children of men shall esteem my words as naught and take many of them from the book which thou shalt write, behold, I will raise up another like unto thee; and they shall be had again among the children of men—among as many as shall believe” (Moses 1:40-41).
This revelation from Joseph Smith identifies Moses as the man who wrote a book that depicts the things pertaining to this earth, including its creation as described in Genesis 1 and 2. Yet as we have seen, those two chapters represent two separate views of creation written by different authors. The Book of Moses, therefore, reflects the later Jewish and Christian tradition familiar to Joseph Smith that these two chapters present a unified view of creation authored by Moses himself. And we know where this tradition stems from historically.
The Bible states that Moses stayed on Mount Sinai in the presence of God for forty days and forty nights (Ex. 24:18, 34:28; Deut. 9:9, 10:10). Later Jewish interpreters concluded that this constituted too long of a period of time for Moses to have only received the laws that the Bible itself identifies as a Mosaic revelation. Traditions, therefore, developed that Moses received the entire written Pentateuch, Genesis through Deuteronomy, at this time.
Eventually, Jewish rabbis even expanded this view to include the entire oral tradition that provided an authoritative interpretation of the written Torah. This view, however, does not reflect the way contemporary scholars understand the Pentateuch. In terms of the books themselves, only Deuteronomy contains a possible allusion to Mosaic authorship.
The book appears introduced as “the words which Moses spake unto all Israel beyond the Jordan” (Deut. 1:1). Moses is also attributed as a source for later sections of Deuteronomy (4:44; 31:24; 32:45). However, in the subsequent biblical books of Joshua and Kings, the expression “the torah of Moses” should be taken as a reference to the laws of Deuteronomy rather than the Pentateuchal collection (Josh. 8:31-32; 23:6; 1 Kgs 2:3; 14:6; 23:5). This stems from the fact that historically, the book of Deuteronomy was the law of Moses attached to the Deuteronomic History, which included the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. If Reynolds and his colleagues at Interpreter truly wish to counter this view they have a long way to go.
Thompson’s description of the documents in the Pentateuch shows further confusion. For example, here is the way he presents the J source that begins in Genesis 2:4b, i.e. the second creation story:
“The Yahwist/ Jahwist author from the Southern Kingdom (“J”) wrote a narrative epic story in the tradition of Homer’s Iliad. God was referred to as Jehovah or Yahweh or by some derivative of those names. David, as a descendant of Judah, was the hero of the Jehovists” (p. 85).
Stating that David was the hero of the Jehovists is odd since the J source concludes in the book of Exodus and David does not appear mentioned in the Bible until the book of Samuel. It is true that we see some effort in J to prop up the tribe of Judah, which suggests a pro-Davidic/Solomonic political agenda, so perhaps this is the feature that Thompson alludes to in the source. But his confusion is even more apparent when he addresses the story of Cain and Able. Thompson references a point I made in Authoring:
“Bokovoy’s view that references to Cain and Abel are anachronistic if the Book of Mormon comes only from E sources (ibid., 206) is also rebutted if something like the Pearl of Great Price version of the Book of Moses formed part of the Brass Plates” (p.87-88),
This, however, is a misrepresentation of my position. I wasn’t suggesting that references to Cain and Abel are anachronistic. What I stated was that the story derives from the J source in Genesis. This makes the proposal that the Book of Mormon authors only had access to the E document (something that LDS apologist John Sorenson once argued) impossible. One of the central features of the Elohist account is that it only focuses upon the story of Israel. E does not contain a story of creation or an account of prehistory. Instead, E features a much tighter focus on Israel as a people. From E’s perspective, if a story is not specifically an “Israelite” account (like the stories of creation, Cain, Abel, Noah, etc.) then it was simply not worth addressing. What I suggested was that since the Book of Mormon is aware of the Cain and Abel (as well as Adam and Eve) story, it is quite problematic to assert that the Book of Mormon authors only had access to E.
Following the lead of previous Interpreter contributors such as Reynolds, Bradshaw, and Lindsey, Thompson is suggesting that a hypothetical book of Moses may have predated these documents, and that it included features of each of the documentary strands that appear in Genesis. This is a strange assertion in light of the following point Thompson presents regarding criticisms of the DH raised by traditional believers:
“Skeptics of the Documentary Hypothesis observe that none of these alleged source documents exist except in the minds of their hypothesizers” (p. 86).
The fact is these source documents do exist. They appear in the first five books of the Bible. We can see them there today. Extracting them from the Pentateuch, scholars are able to resolve narrative problems in the account, and in the process, we witness that once identified, the sources feature unique themes and literary styles that flow into beautifully consistent documents. What truly only exists in the minds of hypothesizers is a hypothetical book of Moses that predates these sources and contains features from all of them. There’s obviously nothing even close to that, which has been discovered by archeologists.
If Thompson and others are skeptical of the DH because we have yet to uncover an independent version of P or J outside of the Bible, shouldn’t that skepticism be even greater for a hypothetical book of Moses for which we have zero physical evidence?
Thompson’s article features similar problems in his description of the Elohist or E source:
“The ‘Elohists’ rewrote the ancient history in the Northern Kingdom after the David/Solomon empire split under Rehoboam and Jereboam, and those writers referred to God as Elohim. David is barely referred to in Elohist literature. The heroes of this ‘E’ tradition are older, including Jacob and Joseph in particular” (p. 85-86).
David is never referred to in E. E ends in Exodus, and once again, David does not appear in the Bible until the book of Samuel. Concerning the Priestly source, which begins with Genesis 1, Thompson offers the following summary:
“The ‘Priests’ (the authors of ‘P’) are often said to have written during the Babylonian captivity to keep the captives on the strait and narrow path (‘P’) and to preserve Jewish identity and culture through careful religious observation. (However, others, as noted above, argue for a pre-exilic origin of the material often said to be from ‘P'” (p. 86).
In reality, as I explained in Authoring, P itself is an edited document with separate literary layers (some of which may very well be “pre-exilic). The consensus holds that an early stage of P was probably composed during the sixth century BCE and brought together after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 586 BCE.
I recognize that the details of the DH in all of its varieties are complex. To understand them, a scholar must devote a significant amount of time and energy to studies that have taken place over the past two hundred years, and which continue to be debated and refined. I also recognize that the implications of this scholarship prove uncomfortable for many traditional religious readers.
Yet before LDS apologists seek to counter this extensive body of research, it would be best if they first sought to understand it. I suspect simply producing apologetic essays such as this, which make fantastic claims about the implications of recent scholarship, and which misrepresent the DH will ultimately do more harm than good for those trying to maintain religious devotion to LDS scripture.
Instead, I would suggest two possible approaches: 1. Believers such as Thompson could simply ignore the implications of mainstream scholarship and just choose to believe. This would never work for me, but it does for some. 2. Believers such as Thompson could accept these historical views about the Bible and shift their belief paradigms to accommodate the implications of scholarship. It is possible to do, and many believers in a variety of faith communities are able to make that approach work.
In my view, either approach would be superior to publishing apologetic work, which shows that the authors have had very little exposure to the topics they’re addressing.