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What Is Source Criticism?

Source criticism is a scholarly method for detecting written sources behind the biblical text.

The Genesis Apocryphon from Qumran.
Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen)

Source Criticism seeks to identify independent source documents behind the present biblical texts. It is the oldest method of critical biblical study except for textual criticism. It was initially called higher criticism to distinguish it from lower or textual criticism, then called literary criticism because of its emphasis on written documents. It differs from form criticism in its focus on written rather than oral sources and from redaction criticism in its quest to describe independent sources rather than editorial work.

Brief History

The Bible sometimes mentions written sources, such as the book of Yahweh’s wars (Num 21:14) and the chronicles of the kings of Israel and Judah (1Kgs 14:19, 1Kgs 14:29). Such mentions justify source criticism as an approach, even though it has not focused on identifying these specific sources. The main forum for source criticism has been the Pentateuch or Hexateuch—the first five or six books of the Bible. Careful readers like Ibn Ezra (twelfth century) and Spinoza (seventeenth century) suspected the presence of multiple documents behind these books. But a physician to King Louis XIV named Jean Astruc (1753) first sought to isolate source documents and explain their relationship to one another. Using techniques common for analyzing classical texts, especially the observation of doublets (two versions of the same story or item) and of the different names for God—Yahweh and Elohim—Astruc defended the Mosaic authorship of Genesis by arguing that Moses had used source documents. Over the next century, scholars gradually surrendered the idea of Mosaic authorship and identified four sources in the Hexateuch: E1 and E2, which both used the name Elohim; J, which used the name Yahweh (written Jahwe in German); and D for Deuteronomy.

In 1878, a landmark synthesis by Julius Wellhausen brought an end to competing models—the Fragmentary Hypothesis (numerous fragmented sources rather than continuous documents) and the Supplementary Hypothesis (a kernel source supplemented by additions)—and established the Documentary Hypothesis as the consensus explanation for the Hexateuch. Wellhausen identified E2 as Priestly and the latest of the sources and put forward a developmental sequence for the sources—JEDP. Wellhausen’s main interest was reconstructing Israelite history and religion. The initial title of his book (in German) was History of Israel, Part One. (He did not write Part Two until much later.) The book is better known by the title Prolegomena to the History of Israel. Dating P in the postexilic period, Wellhausen traced the evolution of ancient Israelite religion into Judaism while also pointing out their differences. The evolutionary scheme was a prime reason for the theory’s popularity. It underwent a major adjustment in 1943 when Martin Noth separated Deuteronomy and Joshua as parts of the Deuteronomistic History, leaving the Tetrateuch (Genesis–Numbers) as the subject of the Documentary Hypothesis. There were also dissenters from the start, notably Scandinavians, such as Ivan Engnell, who argued for the oral nature of the sources behind the Tetrateuch, and Israelis, especially Yehezkel Kaufmann, who advocated the antiquity of priestly material and were generally doubtful about breaking up the text.

Nevertheless, the Documentary Hypothesis dominated Pentateuchal study until the 1970s when the existence of E began to be questioned and J was dated to the postexilic period. At about this same time, source criticism replaced literary criticism, which came to be used for the interpretation of the Bible as literature under the influence of literary studies in the humanities. In the late 1990s and early 2000s European scholars dismissed J as a source, replacing it with a model that identifies numerous written sources and cycles of tradition. However, many North American scholars steadfastly defend the Documentary Hypothesis. This widespread disagreement continues today, although P is still generally recognized as a principal source, and the distinctiveness of D is also maintained.

While the showcase of source criticism has been the Pentateuch, it is also used in other parts of the Hebrew Bible. To give just a few examples, in Isaiah, source criticism has been used to identify three distinct parts of the book (Isa 1-39; Isa 40-55; Isa 56-66) and to isolate other possible source documents such as the Servant Songs, the most prominent of which is Isa 52:13-53:12; in Judges, an underlying collection of hero stories has been perceived behind Judg 3-9; and in 1-2 Samuel, several older documents have been theorized, including a narrative about the ark, a collection of stories about Saul, a narrative about David’s rise to kingship, and one about his succession as king.


Source criticism entails three steps: determining the separate elements that make up a text, reconstructing the sources, and dating them. The first two steps involve taking note of three features within a text: doublets and repetitions, contradictions and tensions, and differences of vocabulary and style. The leading examples are the creation accounts in Gen 1-3 and the flood story in Gen 6-9. In Gen 1-3, two separate accounts of creation (doublets) have been juxtaposed in Gen 1:1-2:3 and Gen 2:4b-3:24, with Gen 2:4a as a linking verse. (The a and b refer to half verses.) The most obvious tension between them is the order of creation where humans are created last and as a group in Gen 1:26-27 but a man and a woman separately in Genesis 2, with plants (the garden) and animals between them. In the flood story, two versions have been intertwined. Doublets are apparent, as in the two sets of reasons for the flood (Gen 6:6-8 vs. Gen 6:11-13). One of the most obvious contradictions concerns whether Noah is to bring one pair of every kind of animal (Gen 6:19) or seven pairs of clean animals and one pair of unclean (Gen 7:2). Such differences in content are reinforced by different styles and sets of vocabulary, including the two distinct names for god—Yahweh and Elohim. Once the different sources are isolated, an effort can be made to date them. Dating is of two kinds: relative and absolute. Relative dating tries to determine which source is older than the other. The link in Gen 2:4a is often recognized as part of an organizational scheme used by P as a heading. This suggests that the author of Gen 1:1-2:3 (P) edited Gen 2:4b-3:24 (J?), which would be, therefore, the older of the two accounts. Absolute dating assigns concrete dates to the sources. The postexilic date typically assigned to Gen 1:1-2:4a, for instance, depends on the dating of P as a whole and on possible evidence of Babylonian influence during the exile.

  • Steven L. McKenzie

    Steven L. McKenzie is professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and Spence L. Wilson Senior Research Fellow at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. His research and teaching interests include the history of ancient Israel, the literature of the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew language, the Dead Sea Scrolls, methods of biblical interpretation, and archaeology.