Among the many contributions of Julius Wellhausen is his study of the cult in ancient Israel. Explain how Wellhausen approached this subject and what he achieved. Evaluate his work in the light of subsequent scholarly discussion.


Wellhausen’s ProlegomenaEdit

Wellhausen’s greatest contribution is enshrined in his Prolegomena to the History of Israel. In this work, he builds upon Pentateuchal source critical work developed by his predecessors and using these four sources ([four sources representative of three strata of cultic development] JE, D, P) reconstructs the history of Israel’s cult. This use of source criticism as a vehicle for historical reconstruction itself is one of the great contributions of Wellhausen. Wellhausen was not as much concerned with the content of the historical traditions of the Hebrew Bible, as much as their theological Tendenz toward the cult. The main question that drove his work was the place of the ‘law of Moses’ within the history of ancient Israel and Judaism (two entities that were sharply divided in Wellhausen’s mind). Wellhausen conducted his study of the “history of worship” by looking at five categories that he believed are indicative of the development of Israelite religion: place of worship, sacrifice, the sacred feast, priests and Levites, and the endowment of clergy. In each of these points, Wellhausen sought to show a diachronic change that reflected the free and unrestricted religious expression of early Israel (JE) that was subsequently partially restricted and systematized during Josiah in the 7th century (D), and then restriction and systematization was completed in the post-exilic period (RQ=P) that resulted in/or was indicative of the death of ancient Israelite expression and the birth of early Judaism.

Summary of ProlegomenaEdit

For example, Wellhausen shows that JE was okay with multiple altars, whereas D calls for centralization, and subsequently RQ (=P) presupposes this centralization (though it has been retrojected into the Mosaic era). For sacrifice, he notes that JE and D are more preoccupied with to whom to offer sacrifices, rather than how which preoccupies the P. He sees the sudden concern of Ezekiel with the cultus and its preservation in writing to be a sign of its demise, something that ceased to be a living category but became theory. He also sees that the sacrificial meal that accompanied sacrifice in JE is lost in P, and the reforms of Josiah (D) paved the way for the uprooting of religious life in small communities. In regards to festivals, in JE they were tied naturally to agriculture and involve the celebration of harvest and planting, whereas D connects the agricultural festivals to events in history. P then removes the agricultural element completely. He argues furthermore, that in JE there is little distinction between common people and priests, only in great sanctuaries where there was a significant benefactor for the priests (Shiloh and Dan). However, in D the Levites are the priests, but by RQ, the priests and Levites are two distinct classes. The development of priestly dues goes from the priest sharing in the sacrificial meal on invitation (JE), to progressively measured and regulated portions in D and RQ.

Reception: Some examplesEdit

Wellhausen’s reconstruction of the development of the cult of early Israel has had and continues to have a lasting impact upon the field. His reconstructions and basic assumptions have been questioned and attacked, but he continues to offer the framework for discussion through his historical reconstruction. Wellhausen believed that the sources of the Pentateuch were only reliable for the time period in which they were written, and this was something that many scholars reacted against, the reaction against his reconstruction of the cult was no different. For example, Wellhausen did not reconstruct much about the priesthood prior to Josiah’s reform in the 7th century (D), but subsequent scholars relying on form critical observations such as Möhlenbrink tried to reconstruct the development of the priesthood by isolating Levitical genres and assigning them to historical periods. F. M. Cross has contributed significantly in developing this pre-Josiah history of priesthood by seeing an early struggle between a Mushite priesthood and an Aaronide priesthood reflected in the conflict stories during the desert wanderings and in David’s choice of priesthoods in his new capital of Jerusalem. R. Albertz has been said to essentially return to Wellhausen’s position but slightly more nuanced.

This being said, his approach has engendered sharp criticism for a number of reasons, and not all have taken the evidence that Wellhausen has presented as suggested development in a single direction. His general approach of (d)evolutionary change in human society and religion, itself indicative of the time period in which he wrote, has been sharply criticized. Wellhausen assumes that systematized ritual strangles the free expression of natural religion, something that is reflective of anti-Catholic/anti-Jewish biases. His neglect of ancient Near Eastern material has also a weakness, though, to be fair, Assyriology was still a field in its infancy during the time that Wellhausen was working on the Old Testament. He also fails to take into consideration any distinction in religious pluralism in ancient Israel, something that is glaringly obvious in the 21st century.

A group of Jewish scholars following the lead of Y. Kaufmann have argued that Wellhausen’s order of JE D and P is incorrect. I. Knohl, himself one of this school, argues that not only is D before P, but H is actually later than P. Wellhausen sought a diachronic explanation for the religious pluralism found within ancient Israel, and but this group of scholars not only argue for diachronic change but argue for greater understanding and distinction between “official” and “popular” religion. For example, Knohl argues, in concert with Kaufmann, that P reflects an earlier theology and outlook that was sharply distinct from "popular" religion. Certain aspects of Israelite religion were not a part of P, such as prohibition of work on the Sabbath, and the lack of thanksgiving offers or other penitential prayers in the temple precinct. Knohl argues that HS has a "priestly-popular" approach where some of the more "popular" elements of religion became integrated with priestly observances. For example, on the Day of Atonement, H "combines the priestly purification ceremonies with the strict prohibition of labor and the injunction to practice self-affliction which was the creation of the popular tradition" (p.104[40]). Not all have accepted this reordering of D and P, or of H and P, but some parts of the arguments have begun to have traction. Significant however, is that each of these studies are essentially still arguing with Wellhausen more than anyone else.

Milgrom, and others who follow these approaches, also find benefit in understanding the sacrificial system as a whole as it stands in the present text. Milgrom and others have shown that there is for the most part a system within the text that has a logical unity about conceptions of purity and impurity, sacrifice, and expiation. This more or less canonical approach however is strongly informed by comparative research and ritual theory. Milgrom also rejects the dichotomy that Wellhausen and others have made that presupposed a sharp break between ancient Israel and Judaism. Milgrom copiously uses rabbinic sources under the assumption that these represent an unbroken tradition that can still illuminate the ritual practice of the first temple period.

More recent approaches to the religion of Israel and the ancient Near Eat have put greater emphasis as noted above upon the different social settings of religion, such as family, small community, and state. It is noticeable in the last two decades a preponderance of studies focusing upon family religion in the ancient near East. Notable scholars in this regard are R. Albertz and K. van der Toorn. The practices of private families, such as the maintenance of past ancestors through the cult of the dead, were not a part of the main cultic centers, but this may have little to do with diachronic development and perhaps more with distinction of religious spheres. Thus, the absence or presence of one element in a certain document may tell us more about the dialogical conversation between different layers of religion life just as much as any diachronic different.


In the end, Wellhausen’s reconstruction continues to frame the discussion for the history and development of Israel’s cult. However, very few of Wellhausen’s assumptions and arguments have gone unquestioned even by those who accept and use the framework that he constructed. Some scholars have used form and traditional criticism to push beyond time periods represented by the sources, and others have question the ordering of the main sources of the documentary hypothesis as well as the ordering of their constituent parts (P and H). Still more, sociological research is illuminating the concentric social and religious spheres in which an Israelite might participate or be influenced by.


Berlinerblau, Jacques. “The ‘Popular Religion’ Paradigm in Old Testament Research : A Sociological Critique.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament no. 60 (December 1, 1993): 3–26. Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic; Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1973. Gignilliat, Mark S. A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism: From Benedict Spinoza to Brevard Childs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012. Knohl, Israel. “The Priestly Torah Versus the Holiness School : Sabbath and the Festivals.” Hebrew Union College Annual 58 (January 1, 1987): 65–117. Kugler, Robert A. “Priests and Levites.” New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009. Machinist, Peter. “The Road Not Taken: Wellhausen and Assyriology.” In Homeland and Exile, 469–531. Leiden: Brill, 2009. Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. Translated by J. Sutherland Black and Allan Menzies. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1885.

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