Umberto Cassuto and the Documentary Hypothesis
September 17, 1992

Several years ago, the Wall Street Journal gave prominent recognition to a book called Who Wrote the Bible? The book was a popularization of the famous “Documentary Hypothesis,” which claims that the Pentateuch was not the work of Moses, but was a (rather incompetent) pastiche of contradictory sources written much later in Israel’s history. This theory labelled the four main sources “J” (for Jehovah), “E” (for “Elohim,” a name of God), “D” (Deuteronomist), and “P” (the Priestly writer). Such theories have been around in some form for well over 250 years, so I was surprised that a major newspaper would give so much space to what is really an old theory.

The article was a reminder that the theory is far from dead. Even evangelical scholars today employ some of the methods and conclusions of the Documentary Hypothesis. The longevity of the theory is all the more surprising when one considers the weakness of its foundations. Orthodox Christians have demolished it repeatedly, but they are generally ignored. A half century ago, the Jewish scholar Umberto Cassuto raised damaging questions about the theory. His conclusions were summarized in a little book called The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, Hebrew University, 1941).

Cassuto claimed that the Documentary Hypothesis was based on five sets of observations:

1) the use of different names for God;

2) variations of style and language;

3) contradictions in the text;

4) duplications and repetitions; and

5) signs of composite structure in the text.

Anyone familiar with the Pentateuch will admit that many of the things observed by the proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis have a surface plausibility. There is, after all, considerable variation in the use of the names of God. The book of Genesis seems, moreover, constantly to repeat itself. The creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 seem, at first glance, to contradict one another in important details.

Cassuto admitted that the Documentary Hypothesis is based on some valid observations. But he made three crucial counter-arguments. First, he said that the dificulties of the text do not require the conclusion that there was more than one source. He consistently raised the question, “Is there an easier way to explain the dificulties?” Second, he showed how in an unbiased reading of the text the alleged contradictions would vanish. Finally, he consistently called attention away from the history of the text to the content and form of the existing text. Over and over, he emphasized that the Documentary Hypothesis explained nothing; even if there is evidence that an editor used contradictory sources, we still have to explain why the editor used those sources in the way that he did. Each of the five “pillars” of the theory, Cassuto argued, crumbled to dust upon investigation.

Let me summarize a few examples of Cassuto’s approach. If the Documentary Hypothesis has a central pillar, it is that the use of different names for God is evidence of different sources. If we find a section of the Pentateuch that uses the name “Elohim” for God, then we have a text that comes from the “E” source. If we find a text that uses “Yahweh,” we have a text that comes from the “J” source. (The “P” source is also said to use “Elohim.”)

While acknowledging the obvious fact that the Pentateuch uses different names for God, Cassuto showed that each name had a specific meaning. The name “Yahweh,” he argued, is the covenant Name of God, and is used when His relationship to Israel is in view. The name “Elohim,” by contrast, points to God as the God of the whole world, and is used when God’s relationship to the nations or to the universe is in view. Thus, Psalm 47:1, when it exhorts “all nations” to praise God uses the name “Elohim.” In the prophetic literature, which is directed to Israel, the name Yahweh is predominant.

This becomes especially striking in the first chapters of Genesis. Genesis 1 uses the name “Elohim” since it is describing God’s creation of the universe. Genesis 2, however, uses the unique combination “Yahweh Elohim,” showing to the Israelite reader that the God who entered into a covenant with Israel is also the God who created all things. The different names of God, then, are not evidence of separate sources. Instead, they are used to call attention to different attributes and activities of God.

Cassuto’s discussion of the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 is especially helpful. The two chapters clearly differ in a number of details. The question is, are they contradictory? Cassuto examined five alleged contradictions:

1. Genesis 1 says that the creation was done in a week’s time, but Genesis 2:4 speaks of the “day” of creation. Cassuto explained that the phrase “in the day when He created” can mean “at the time when He created” (cf. Num 3:1).

2. According to the Genesis 1, the earth came out of the waters, but 2:5f. appears to indicate that the creation began with dry land. Cassuto argued that this argument assumes that the two chapters are contradictory. If we assume the two chapters to be a single narrative, there is no contradiction.

3. Genesis 1:27 says that God created male and female together, but Genesis 2 shows that there were two separate acts of creation (2:7, 21-22). Cassuto argued that Genesis 1 gives a general statement, and Genesis 2 fills in the details, a literary device found frequently in the Pentateuch.

4. Genesis 1 says that the plants were made before man, but Genesis 2:5, 9 seems to indicate that the plants were made after man. But several points suffice to explain the apparent contradiction. First, Genesis 2:5 mentions specific types of plants, not plants in general; it is these specific plants that had not grown. Second, the implication of Genesis 2:5 is that other types of plants were already growing. Third, comparing 2:5 and 3:18, Cassuto argued that the plants that were not yet growing in Genesis 2 are the plants that “sprang up” as a curse for sin. Fourth, Genesis 1:11-12 emphasizes by insistent repetition that only seed-bearing plants were created on the third day. Finally, Genesis 2:9 has specific reference to the Garden of Eden (see 2:8): God produced new individual trees for the garden, but not new species of plants.

5. Genesis 1 says that the beasts and flying creatures were created before man, but Genesis 2 seems to say that man was created before the other creatures. Cassuto first noted that 2:19 says that God produced from the ground every “beast” and “bird,” but not “cattle” (domestic animals). The implication is that the cattle were already with Adam in the Garden, since he later gives names to them (2:20). The reason why God formed the other animals was so that they could pass before Adam. As with the trees of the Garden in 2:8-9, 2:19 does not show God creating new species, but producing new individual animals for Adam to name.

Finally, Cassuto’s discussion of the “attack on the matriarch” story that is repeated several times in Genesis (12:10-20; 20:1-18; 26:1-11) showed that the story is repeated to make a theological point, not because the “editor” wished to include variant versions of the story. He wrote, “The purpose is undoubtedly to teach us that the acts of the fathers are a sign unto the children. . . . This episode . . . contains an implicit promise that was given to Abram and Sarai and was realized in their offspring.”

Peter Leithart is the president of Theopolis Institute. This post originally appeared on Biblical Horizons

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