The documentary hypothesis (DH) would come to full fruition in the 19th century when scholars identified two more sources—"P", which focuses on rituals of interest to priests, and "D", which comprises the majority of the book of Deuteronomy—as well as a redactor "R" who brought everything together into the five books we know today.
German scholar Julius Wellhausen put the DH on solid footing by showing that that the different sources had different points of view. They differed, for example on where and how to worship. In "J", animal sacrifices could be made on simple stone altars.
The main Jehovistic law, the so-called Book of the Covenant, contains (Exodus xx.24-26) the following ordinance: "An altar of earth shalt thou make unto me, and thereon shalt thou sacrifice thy burnt offerings and thy peace-offerings, thy sheep and thine oxen; in place where I cause my name to be honoured will I come unto and will bless thee. Or if thou wilt make me an altar of stones, thou shalt not build it of hewn stones, for if thou hast lifted up thy tool upon it thou hast polluted it. And thou shalt not go up to mine altar by steps, that thy nakedness be not discovered before it." Unquestionably it is not the altar of the tabernacle, which was made of wood and plated over with brass, nor that of Solomon's temple, which on its eastern side had a flight of steps, and had a passage right round it at half its height, that is here described as the only true one. On the other hand, it is obvious that a multiplicity of altars is not merely regarded as permissible, but assumed as a matter of course.
But the Deuteronomist, "D", has other ideas. God will choose a place to be the worship center, and the Israelites will not erect altars anywhere except in that one location.
The Jehovistic Book of the Covenant lies indeed at the foundation of Deuteronomy, but in one point they differ materially, and that precisely the one which concerns us here. As there, so here also, the legislation properly so called begins (Deut. xii.) with an ordinance relating to the service of the altar; but now we have Moses addressing the Israeites in the following terms: "When ye come into the land of Canaan, ye shall utterly destroy all the places of worship which ye find there, and ye shall not worship Jehovah your God after the manner in which the heathen serve theirs. Nay, but only unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes for His habitation shall ye seek, and thither shall ye bring your offerings and gifts, and there shall ye eat before Him and rejoice. Here at this day we do every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes, but when ye have found fixed abodes, and rest from your enemies round about, then shall the place which Jehovah shall choose for His habitation in one of your tribes be the one place to which ye shall bring your offerings and gifts. Take heed that ye offer not in every place that ye see; ye may not eat your holy gifts in every town, but only in the place which Jehovah shall choose."
The Priestly source, "P", also speaks of a single place of worship, but in a somewhat different way than "D".
The tabernacle is not narrative merely, but, like all the narratives in that book, law as well; it expresses the legal unity of the worship as an historical fact, which, from the very beginning, ever since the exodus, has held good in Israel. One God one sanctuary, that is the idea. With the ordinances of the tabernacle, which form the sum of the divine revelation on Sinai, the theocracy was founded; where the one is, there is the other. The description of it, therefore, stands at the head of the Priestly Code, just as that of the temple stands at the head of the legislation in Ezekiel. It is the basis and indispensable foundation, without which all else would merely float in the air: first must the seat of the Divine Presence on earth be given before the sacred community can come into life and the cultus into force. Is it supposes that the tabernacle tolerates other sanctuaries besides itself? Why then the encampment of the twelve tribes around it, which has no military, but a purely religious significance, and derives its whole meaning from its sacred centre? Whence this concentration of all Israel into one great congregation [ QHL, (DH ], without its like anywhere else in the Old Testament? On the contrary, there is no other place besides this at which God dwells and suffers Himself to be seen; no place but this alone where man can draw near to Him and seek His face with offerings and gifts. This view is the axiom that underlies the whole ritual legislation of the middle part of the Pentateuch.
The difference of focus between "D" and "P" gives clues as to when they were written, relative to each other.
In that book [Deuteronomy] the unity of the cultus is COMMANDED, in the Priestly Code it is PRESUPPOSED. Everywhere it is tacitly assumed as a fundamental postulate, but nowhere does it find actual expression; of course. What follows from this for the question before us? To my thinking, this:—that the Priestly Code rests upon the result which is only the aim of Deuteronomy. The latter is in the midst of movement and conflict: it clearly speaks out its reforming intention, its opposition to the traditional "what we do here this day;" the former stands outside of and above the struggle,—the end has been reached and made a secure possession. On the basis of the Priestly Code no reformation would ever have taken place, no Josiah would ever have observed from it that the actual condition of affairs was perverse and required to be set right; it proceeds as if everything had been for long in the best of order.
So J was written before the temple centralized worship; D was written when worship was moving toward centralization, and P was written after centralization had been completed.
Wellhausen next looked at the evolution of the sacred feasts. In J and E they were geared toward an agrarian society. In Exodus 23:15-16 we find:
You shall observe the festival of unleavened bread; as I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor.
But in D, the focus is less on the harvest and more on the place of worship. Deuteronomy 16 gives much more detailed instructions for this feast.
Observe the month of Abib by keeping the passover to the Lord your God, for in the month of Abib the Lord your God brought you out of Egypt by night. You shall offer the passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, from the flock and the herd, at the place that the Lord will choose as a dwelling for his name. You must not eat with it anything leavened....You are not permitted to offer the passover sacrifice within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you. But at the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name, only there shall you offer the passover sacrifice, in the evening at sunset, the time of day when you departed from Egypt.
By the time of P, the festival had lost its connection with harvest. So in Leviticus 23:5-7 we see:
In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord, and on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations.
Wellhausen continued in this vein, looking at the role of priests and the purpose of sacrifices. In numerous details of worship, we can see a clear evolution from J and E through D to P. Three hundred years after Thomas Hobbes' simple observation of a few historical anachronisms, the seeds of scholarly inquiry he planted had flowered into the acknowledgement that the Pentateuch contained a mixture of voices, each with their own perspectives and presuppositions, each writing for a different era.
But not everyone agreed with Wellhausen's assessment. From traditionalists hoping to preserve Moses' name to scholars considering alternative ways the Pentateuch could have been assembled, the documentary hypothesis has been challenged on many fronts. We'll look at some of these reactions in the next post.