The documentary hypothesis (DH), sometimes called the Wellhausen hypothesis, proposes that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) was derived from originally independent, parallel and complete narratives, which were subsequently combined into the current form by a series of redactors (editors). The number of these narratives is usually set at four, but this is not an essential part of the hypothesis.
The hypothesis was developed in the 18th and 19th centuries from the attempt to reconcile inconsistencies in the biblical text. By the end of the 19th century it was generally agreed that there were four main sources, combined into their final form by a series of redactors, R. These four sources came to be known as the Yahwist, or Jahwist, J (J being the German equivalent of the English letter Y); the Elohist, E; the Deuteronomist, D, (the name comes from the Book of Deuteronomy, D’s contribution to the Torah); and the Priestly Writer, P.
The contribution of Julius Wellhausen, a Christian theologian and Christian biblical scholar, was to order these sources chronologically as JEDP, giving them a coherent setting in a notional evolving religious history of Israel, which he saw as one of ever-increasing priestly power. Wellhausen’s formulation was:
- the Yahwist source (J) : hypothetically written c. 950 BCE in the southern Kingdom of Judah.
- the Elohist source (E) : hypothetically written c. 850 BCE in the northern Kingdom of Israel.
- the Deuteronomist (D) : hypothetically written c. 600 BCE in Jerusalem during a period of religious reform.
- the Priestly source (P) : hypothetically written c. 500 BCE by Kohanim (Jewish priests) in exile in Babylon.
While the hypothesis has been increasingly challenged by other models, especially in the last part of the 20th century, its terminology and insights continue to provide the framework for modern theories on the composite nature and origins of the Torah and Bible compilation in general.