Mosaic Authorship and Misconceptions Regarding Source Criticism

Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch: Misconceptions About Source Criticism

In a previous post, I argued that Mosaic authorship was structurally significant for the Orthodox faith. I demonstrated that a non-critical acceptance of source criticism was no more amenable to Orthodox Christianity than it is to Protestantism.

But before I provide my reasons for rejecting most source critical scholarship, I want to explore and reject poor arguments against source criticism, so that we might clear the ground and approach this issue with Christian charity.

First, source criticism is not ‘dead,’ as if scholarship has suddenly come to the traditional Christian position.

Not all source criticism is equivalent to the Graf-Wellhausen Documentary Hypothesis. Whybray, perhaps the most often cited secular scholar who rejects the Documentary Hypothesis, absolutely does not hold to the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch. Actually, he suggests that the Pentateuch is probably composed of more sources than posited by the traditional Documentary Hypothesis. His argument is that scholars are simply too confident in their ability to detect literary seams in the Pentateuch. Instead of being composed of four primary detectable sources, Whybray argued that the Pentateuch is the work of one author in the exilic period, drawing on a number of literary sources whose seams largely cannot be detected. Some scholars have followed Whybray, while others have formulated their own source critical theories. Even so, a number of modern biblical scholars, especially in the state of Israel and the United States, hold to the traditional Documentary Hypothesis. Proclaiming that source criticism is “dead” does nothing but destroy one’s own credibility.

Second, most source critics aren’t on an express mission to refute the traditional Abrahamic faith.

There are a number of Jewish scholars who genuinely believe in the God of Israel and the divine origin of Judaism who continue to perform source critical work. One prominent example is Jacob Milgrom, a superlative Torah scholar of the twentieth and early twenty-first century. In Milgrom’s three-thousand page commentary on the book of Leviticus, he argued that the purity laws were fundamentally about God’s identity as the God who gives life and refuses to dwell among death. As such, his work is highly amenable to our own confession of Jesus’ resurrection as the supreme act of this God. Milgrom, though believing in the divine origin of the Torah, continued to believe that there were literary seams within the book of Leviticus, and even proposed original modifications to such work. I believe the error in source criticism primarily lies in the method used, rather than a diabolical effort to attack the Scriptures.

Third, divine names are not the only criteria for source critical work.

One of the most frequent problems I see among critics of the Documentary Hypothesis is the pervasive assumption that critical scholars divide sources purely on the basis of divine names. The method is actually more subtle than this. Most source critics believe that in the E and P sources, the divine name is disclosed to Moses in Exodus 3 and 6, so that afterwards, these authors are free to use the Sacred Name (YHWH) in their documents. Source critics work by noting clusters of features in particular blocks of text. Richard Elliot Friedman, for example, in his book Who Wrote the Bible explains that the most persuasive argument for the hypothesis is the consistent clustering of unique features. He argues that the P source displays not only a consistent use of the Elohistic divine name (before the disclosure of YHWH), but also a consistent use of peculiar word-groups and a consistent anti-anthropomorphic theology.

Fourth, doublets cannot be explained by literary strategy alone.

All too often I see critics of the Documentary Hypothesis argue that every doublet (a case where the same story seems to appear in two different versions) is a result of literary strategy rather than multiple documents, and leave their argument at that. As above, the argument of critical scholars is that doublets consistently use different divine names. For example, Abraham’s encounter with Pharaoh in Genesis 12 is contrasted with Abraham’s encounter with Abimelech in Genesis 20. In both stories Abraham pretends that his wife is his sister in order to protect himself from a king. In the former, the author uses the Jawhistic divine name while in the latter, the author uses the Elohistic divine name. It is the consistency of these features that constitutes the argument for the Documentary Hypothesis.

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I wanted to clear this ground before I made my positive case.

I believe that if we are to defend the Faith in an honorable manner, we must do so in an honest manner. This means that we cannot misrepresent the arguments of those who disagree with us.

On another level, conservative readers who only read conservative critics of the hypothesis may well feel deceived when they read proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis (and other source critical theories) presenting arguments that are far stronger than conservative authors had led them to believe. I have seen this happen with sad results.

In another post, I will explain why I personally reject source criticism. Instead of merely critiquing the positive arguments for source critical work, I will demonstrate peculiar features of the text—features that cut through sources—and demonstrate a consistent, authorial strategy throughout the layers of the Pentateuch.


  1. Evan L says

    Looking forward to part 3. I like how you’re taking your time establishing the groundwork when it comes to this topic.
    Major tip of the hat to you Seraphim.

  2. Jeremiah C says

    Yes I look forward to the next installment also. Source Criticism has always fascinated me.