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Understanding the JEDP Theory

By Luke Lancaster

Intermediate Bible students often learn about something called the Documentary Hypothesis or JEDP theory. This theory involves a skeptical approach to the Pentateuch, which is the first five books of the Bible, oftentimes called the Law of Moses. The theory says that the five biblical books of Genesis (G),

Exodus (E), Leviticus (L), Numbers (N), and Deuteronomy (D) were not each written as independent and coherent documents by a single author. Rather, these five books were combinations of the four sources J, E, D, and P, and each one of these sources have its own conflicting theology and intention. Think of it like a patchwork quilt. For example, Exodus was not written by one author, but might have elements of J, E, D, and P in it. This post will not go into the issues with this theory and why I disagree with it, but will only describe the theory. If you’d like to see the critiques, click here and here.

The general layout of the JEDP theory goes as follows. Originally, a pure and simple version of Israel made up the Pentateuch (sources J and E), where worship of God was lay-run, and there were multiple centers of worship. A priesthood and central Temple in Jerusalem did not exist. Over time, however, as the religion evolved, the monarchy became more complex and pronounced. This led to the creation of the D source. Then the priests rose to power and complexified everything, leading to the P source. The priests took control and created, for example, the meticulous law-codes of Leviticus. Redactors compiled the J, E, D, and P sources together into the present-day Pentateuch.

The reason that this JEDP theory was created was because of the odd features of the Pentateuch, such as the doublets of events and apparent contradictions. To give some doublet examples, see the multiple creation accounts (Gen. 1 and 2), the multiple genealogies of the same person, the two accounts of Jacob’s name change. There are also apparent contradictions between the doublets. One example is where the man (Adam) and woman (Eve) are created last in Gen. 1’s chronological succession of created things, whereas the man is created first and then the woman last in Gen. 2. These things are explained by JEDP theorists by claiming that multiple sources were strung together.

To get a sense for this, consider the J source. It stands for the “Jahwist,” which is German for the Hebrew word “Yahwist.” It stands for the name of God (Yahweh) which frequently appears throughout the Pentateuch. This name is one of multiple names used for God in the Pentateuch (ex. Elohim), and when this name (Yahweh) is used, JEDP theorists said that a particular source (J) wrote the specific story that utilized it. So, for example, the creation account in Genesis 2 refers to God as “Yahweh,” so theorists assume that J was the ancient origin of that story.

Explanation of Each Letter

Theorists traditionally have claimed that the J source was written around the 10th or 9th centuries BC in the southern Judean monarchy. Some of the unique vocabulary words in this source that appeared to show up consistently in the Pentateuch are: (1) God’s name as “Yahweh” over “Elohim” in Gen. 2, (2) the holy mountain which Moses communicated with God on as “Sinai” over “Horeb,” and (3) the pagan nations inhabiting the Promised Land are called “Canaanites” over “Amorites.” J covered a simple version of Israel’s history, spanning creation, the patriarchs, Moses, the wilderness wanderings, and Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land. J was simple, where worship of God was lay-led, and sacrifices were done in multiple cultic sites. This source was the pure, original, parent source that covered all the history of Israel, from creation to the entrance of the Promised Land.

The E source was traditionally claimed to have been written around the 9th or 8th centuries BC in the northern monarchy. This was supposedly its content because of the emphasis on the northern tribes of Israel (i.e. Manasseh, Ephraim, and Reuben), the northern worship sites (i.e. Bethel and Shechem), and the unique vocabulary opposed to J, such as “Elohim” over “Yahweh,” “Horeb” over “Sinai,” and “Amorites” over “Canaanites.” The E source was without the complexity of priests or a centralized worship site in Jerusalem, meaning that it was very simple, like J was.

The D source was classically understood to have been written around the 7th century in the southern monarchy. It contained the text of Deuteronomy, which included things that were unheard of in Gen-Ex-Lev-Num, but central to the ideas of the southern monarchy. One such example is Moses’s command to worship God in a central site. This example, according to scholars, must have been invented by the southern monarchy, for only they did that. The presumed beginning was around 620 BC, where king Josiah discovered the book of the Law of Moses, and instituted various religious reforms. Scholars argued that king Josiah invented the text of Deuteronomy and feigned that he discovered it. That way it would bolster the authority of his religious reforms, for they were coming from the mouth of Moses.

The P source was classically understood to have been written during the return from exile in the 6th or 5th centuries. Instead of a lay-run religion like J and E or only a centralized government and worship site like D, the P source ensured that the priests oversaw the worship of God. Such priests supplemented J by adding in worship-related things, such as the circumcision practice of Genesis 17, the Passover rite of Exodus 12, the tabernacle of Exodus 25-35, etc. The priests focused on order, such as Genesis 1’s description of seven days of creation, and the seventh day of the sabbath. P is principally responsible for texts like Leviticus and the purity codes.


To help comprehend this four-source approach, here are three analogies. The first analogy is the dissecting analogy. JEDP theorists say that the Pentateuch is like a dead frog with multiple parts that need to be dissected. Each part belongs either to J, E, D, or P. A second analogy is the rock analogy, which highlights how there are different layers of strata within a rock. JEDP theorists say that the Pentateuch is like that, having multiple layers that each possess separate historical time periods. One paragraph in Genesis was invented by J in the 10th century, another by P in the 6th century, etc. A final analogy is the evolutionary analogy, where simple stuff slowly morphs into complex stuff. JEDP theorists say that the Pentateuch evolved from the simple stories of J and gradually became complex as it combined with E, D, and P. No longer could the lay people offer sacrifices to God wherever they wanted, but they needed the priests in the Jerusalem Temple.


This theory was developed during the so-called Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. That time period wanted absolutely nothing to do with religion. So, as could be expected, the JEDP theory was developed. Scholars like Richard Simon, Jean Astruc, Johann Eichhorn, Wilhelm de Wette, and Karl Heinrich Graf developed this theory, and it was ultimately organized and popularized by Julius Wellhausen. This outline by Wellhausen dominated biblical scholarship throughout the 20th century. Yet some critique the theory (ex. John Van Seters). Such critiques have identified other sources or have edited the sources. Some believe in the H source (holiness code of Lev. 17-26), some combine the J and E sources into the "non-P" source, etc. I think there are serious issues with the whole theory, as the two article posts I mentioned earlier show.

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