Discuss the problem of the date, setting, character and purpose of J. What are the implications for the larger history of ancient Israel of the various solutions to this problem?


According to the post-Noth/von Rad formulation of the Documentary Hypothesis, J (Yahwist) was composed in the 10th century in the south during Solomon’s reign. J uses the divine name Yahweh and depicts Yahweh in anthropomorphic terms (he makes humans with his hands; he walks in Garden; closes the door of the ark, etc.).The main themes of J, however, vary between sections. In the Primeval History (Gen 2-11), it has themes that highlight humanity’s crumbling relationship with the earth, its degeneration in sin, and the impermeable barrier between humanity and God. However, the patriarchal narratives foreground the theme of the promise to Abraham of land, decedents, and blessings.

Noth and von RadEdit

This traditional understanding of J as a single documentary source has not gone unquestioned. A brief summary of von Rad’s and Noth’s work will be given. Noth, noting the similarities in content between J and E, proposed that they both relied upon an early oral or written G source. This G source already represented five main themes of the Pentateuch (promise to Patriarchs, guidance out of Egypt, Sinai, desert wanderings, and conquest) that were the basis for the common tradition and ideology of the pre-monarchic Israelite amphictyony. (As an aside, Cross proposed that the Pentateuch originated as an Israelite oral epic that was later compiled into a prose account [although parts of the epic were preserved]; Noth’s theory is compatible with this view). Von Rad, however, earlier demonstrated by looking at creedal statements throughout the Pentateuch that the Sinai tradition seems to be a later addition to this profession of faith. He attributed its inclusion into the pentateuchal narrative to J, a single author in the south during a Solomonic enlightenment. This proposed “enlightenment” was a golden age and produced other literary masterpieces such as the Succession Narrative. He argued that although J used early sources, he was an author and theologian, who had an original theological contribution.

Critique: RendtorffEdit

It was this formulation of the documentary hypothesis that became the traditional consensus up until the 1970s when cracks began to show. Both Noth’s idea of the amphictyony as well as von Rad’s Solomonic enlightenment have been severely shaken and few scholars would follow these today. Rendtorff in the 1970s called for a radical reassessment of the traditional documentary hypothesis and the dissolution of J as a continuous source altogether. Influenced by Noth’s tradition criticism approach to the main themes of the Pentateuch, Rendtorff argued that these themes themselves had formed into coherent literary units themselves before they were ever incorporated with one another. Additionally, he argued that this form critical understanding was not compatible with the idea of continuous sources in Documentary Hypothesis. Rendtorff’s critiques were continued by his student Erhard Blum who developed a new theory for the formation of the Pentateuch. Blum, abandoned JE altogether and argued that the Pentateuch consisted of two stages of composition, a KD (Deuteronomistic Composition) that dates to the exile and KP (Priestly Composition) that took place later on. Blum argues that KD has two main sources to work with, one about the patriarchs (Gen 12-50) and another was a “Life of Moses.” KD put these two documents together and integrated them by including the promises to the patriarchs. KP then subsequently added the primeval history as well as the rest of what is traditionally P. An important consideration for Rendtorff and others that question the traditional Documentary Hypothesis is the lack of connection between the stories of the patriarchs and the rest of the Pentateuch. If the main themes of J in Genesis are not found in the rest of the Pentateuch, this makes a case for J as a continuous narrative difficult. John Van Seters still holds on to the Yahwist, but it has a very different character than the traditional hypothesis. Van Seters initially comes from a historical approach, demonstrating that the stories of the Patriarchs with their journeys to and from the promise land and their lack of historically verifiable data point toward a time in the Babylonian exile. Although Van Seters acknowledges pre-J texts (even with a pre-J supplement (=E)), most of what is ascribed to JE in the traditional hypothesis is ascribed to a exilic antiquarian who composed his history similar to Greek and Mesopotamian antiquarians in the late first-millennium. For Van Saters J composes the Pentateuch as a prologue to the Deuteronomistic History (DH), and models Moses prophetic call narrative on those of Jeremiah and Isaiah.


The unity of J has always been a problem in Pentateuchal studies. This difficulty is shown in attempts at cataloging common vocabulary or finding a united theme to documents attributed to J. It has been observed that J has often been the source leftover when the more easily identifiable portions of the Pentateuch were peeled away. The J portions of the Primeval History (which focuses on humanities deteriorating relationship with the soil, human corruption, and separation between divinity and humanity) seems weakly connected to the themes of the patriarchs (the promise to Abraham of land, posterity, and blessing). Additionally, one of the main problems of those who are reassessing the documentary hypothesis is the connection of the patriarchal narratives to the rest of the Pentateuch. If J, as a single author, provided the backbone of the Pentateuch, why is there so little connection between the important themes of the patriarchs, exodus, Sinai, wanderings, and conquest? The disunity of J was felt early on in the classical formulation of the documentary hypothesis, since Wellhausen himself argued for three different editions of both J and E, Gunkel also distinguished two J’s for the primeval history and others for the patriarchal narratives. O. Eissfeldt in his influential Introduction, took up the two-fold division of J first proposed by R. Smend (Sr.) (J1 J2), but renamed J¬1 as L (“Lay” source). Others have also looked for bipartite divisions, calling for a N (Nomadic source), a K (Kenite Source), and an S (South source).


Another important question in the history of J, and of the pentateuchal sources more broadly, was: where did it end? There were varying proposals for, von Rad felt that J had to extend into Joshua because of the emphasis upon the promised to the patriarchs. Noth, however, dispensed with J and pentateuchal sources in Joshua because he put Joshua into the larger work of the Deuteronomist (Dtr). This forced Noth to claim that the original ending of J was lost. Van Seters, however, who continues to use J, but as post-exilic, post-Dtr source, still sees J in Joshua. However, Rendtdorff’s questioning of the traditional understanding takes us away from continuous documentary sources altogether and advocates for a supplementary hypothesis, a paradigm in which the extent of J is irrelevant.


Dating J to the 10th century had the effect of further legitimizing the historical value of its writings. Through the efforts of form and traditional criticism it was argued that J and E had access to this time period and much earlier. However, efforts to pull the date of J into later time periods have tended to minimize the historical value of the pentateuchal documents. Thus, for Van Seters, J is nothing more than an exilic antiquarian who freely composed his sources. Important points in the consensus of a 10th century J, was the idea of a Solomonic enlightenment, a period of literary flowering and creativity, in which J was able to create his masterpiece. Noth’s idea of the amphictyony served as the historical basis for the coalescing of his purposed G source that served to inform both J and E. The historical pillars are no longer held, together with the unraveling of the United Monarchy that has occurred since the 1990s. The archeological remains, or lack of thereof, and the redating of archaeological strata has precluded the existence of the traditional unified monarchy for many scholars. Finkelstein has argued that Judah never became an independent nation until the 8th century with the dissolution of their dominant neighbor, Israel.


Collins, John J. “The Nature of the Pentateuchal Narrative.” In Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 47–65. Augsburg: Fortress, 2009. Coogan, Michael David. The Old Testament: a Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. De Pury, Albert. “Yahwist (‘J’) Source.” Anchor Bible Dictionary VI. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Dozeman, Thomas B., and Konrad Schmid. A Farewell to the Yahwist?: The Composition of the Pentateuch in Recent European Interpretation. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2006. Knight, Douglas A. “The Pentateuch.” In The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters, edited by Douglas A. Knight and Gene M. Tucker, 263–296. Minneapolis ; Atlanta: Fortress and Scholars, 1985. Römer, Thomas Christian. “The Elusive Yahwist: A Short History of Research.” In A Farewell to the Yahwist?: The Composition of the Pentateuch in Recent European Interpretation, edited by Thomas B. Dozeman and Konrad Schmid, 9–28. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2006. Von Rad, Gerhard. “The Form-Critical Problem of the Hexateuch.” In The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays, translated by E. W. Trueman Dicken, 1–78. London: SCM, 1984. Wenham, Gordon J. “Pondering the Pentateuch: The Search for a New Paradigm.” In The Face of Old Testament Studies: A Survey of Contemporary Approaches, edited by David Baker and Bill T. Arnold. Grand Rapids Mich.: Baker Academic, 1999.

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