Mormonism and the Documentary Hypothesis

July 20, 2010    By: Jacob J @ 11:06 pm   Category: Scriptures

On the one hand, it seems like Mormons are uniquely primed to accept the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) given that:

  1. The Book of Mormon was compiled by a late redactor (Mormon) in a way that is at least superficially similar to what R is proported to have done in the DH.
  2. There is a long tradition in Mormonism of suspecting that there were problems in the transmission of the Bible. Not just the problem of translation noted in the eighth article of faith, but the outright tampering alleged in 1 Ne 13.

On the other hand, the JST and the Pearl of Great Price make the DH threatening in ways that are uniquely Mormon, for example:

  1. Moses 3:5 seems to support the theory that the two creation accounts of Genesis 1/2 are spiritual/physical respectively. This theory, of course, is contradicted by the DH and raises questions about the nature of the JST.
  2. Abraham 4-5 crosses a P-J seem which is an odd thing for it to do if it was written by Abraham.

We are studying the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine this year and the DH hasn’t come up in my ward yet. I suspect that is because the people in my ward are not familiar with it. Earlier in the year I would often bring my copy of The Bible with Sources Revealed with me so I could keep track of the sources while I was following along with the reading done in class.

Our instructor is a friend of mine and saw my book one Sunday at which time he made a disparaging remark about the DH, something about “scholars who don’t believe in miracles or revelation” or something ignorant like that. As it turns out he is quite smart and fairly open minded so he took me up on my offer to (i.e. demand that he) read the first 50 pages of that book which summarize the best evidence for the DH. He reported back that the case was better than he had previously been made aware. So I know that at least one of our instructors has a cursory awareness of the DH.

I have come to believe that a genuine study of the OT requires at least a basic knowledge of the DH. Even when source criticism is not informing the interpretation of specific verses, the high level, big picture assumptions we bring to the text will be different if we know something about JEP and D.

I get to teach in priest’s quorum periodically when the instructor doesn’t want to prepare a lesson or is out of town, or whatever. I often pick a theme and do installments. I did four or five lessons on the temple (spread out over as many months) in an experiment in how I would teach temple preparation classes. Recently I started a Bible series. I did a lesson the Synoptic Problem as a lead in to a lesson on the DH, but it just so happened that half way through my DH lesson the bishop became concerned that I not undermine anyone’s testimony of the scriptures, which is, of course, a worthy thing to be concerned with. But it did sort of derail the lesson and I never got to explain why Moses was cursed for hitting the rock at Meribah in one version of the story but not in the other.

I am really surprised about how little interaction with the DH I have seen in Mormon scholarship. In blog posts about the DH everyone always links to Kevin Barney’s paper, which is great. Kevin mentions John Sorenson’s paper in Dialogue which is also quite good. Do these papers tap the full potential for analysis of Mormon scripture as it intersects with the DH? If there are other good papers you can suggest, please add them to the comments.

From time to time the topic comes up in the bloggernacle and it is my recollection/impression that people generally feel that the DH would not be an appropriate topic for lessons in church. That bothers me. If we are going to spend all these hours studying the scriptures it seems like we’re doing ourselves a huge disservice to do so without ever becoming aware of the theories and issues that serious students of the scriptures wrestle with. I’m interested in arguing about that.


  1. I am literally half-way through Friedman’s book at the moment, and was intending to do a quick search on this topic in the Mormon context, when I saw this post.

    In fact my first thoughts were very similar to yours, i.e. how we can think about Mormon or Moroni (the two editions of the deuteronomistic history) in light of the DH? I heard that Don Bradley was going to consider JS in light of Josiah’s reformation. I’m not sure if this ever happened but it would be interesting to see how the DH influenced his reading of JS.

    Regardless I look forward to reading the materials gathered here.

    Comment by Aaron R. — July 21, 2010 @ 1:53 am

  2. I’m of two minds on this. While I can see where the DH would be a fascinating topic of study for Latter-day Saints, I personally would probably only give it a winking nod in any lesson I taught, mainly due to the way my lessons are much more likely to dive into soft skills/praxis rather than history. This is mainly due to the fact that I don’t really feel I have a competent grasp of the totality of the DH and it’s implications. I suspect it is the same for most members.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 21, 2010 @ 6:42 am

  3. A useful article in a Mormon journal is this:

    Thomas B. Dozeman, “The Authorship of the Pentateuch,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 32, no. 4 (Winter 1999): 87-112.

    The author is not LDS, but the article is conveniently available by using the search tool at the Dialogue website ( This article is cited in the first footnote of mine.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — July 21, 2010 @ 8:29 am

  4. Thanks Kevin, I linked it for easy access. I don’t have anything against the article but it is focused on the DH itself rather than on its intersection with Mormonism, so it doesn’t quite fit the description of what I’m looking for. The portions of your paper under the sub headings “What is at stake?” and “The Hypothesis as an Aid in Scriptural Interpretation” are good examples of the kind of analysis I find very interesting and sorely lacking from discussions of Mormon scripture. It’s possible that between you and Sorenson there is nothing left to say on the matter, it just seems unlikely. But thanks for writing your article, it was obviously sorely needed.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 21, 2010 @ 8:56 am

  5. Matt, that is a big part of my beef with the lessons I participate in. Somehow we think we can pull the messages from the scriptures without ever becoming serious students of the texts. Don’t you think it is embarrassing that we have lifelong members of the church who have “studied” the scriptures in church for 40-70 years who have never heard of the Synoptic Problem or the DH and who naively assume Deuteronomy was penned by Moses and Hebrews was written by Paul?

    Many people reading right now will want to argue that who wrote Hebrews doesn’t matter, but it is studying things like authorship which force you down the rabbit hole. You may emerge from the rabbit hole still not caring who wrote Hebrews, but in my experience you’ll emerge with a very different and more realistic view of the scriptures which will inevitably impact the life lessons you gleen from the scriptures.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 21, 2010 @ 10:41 am

  6. I broght up the two accounts of the Creation in an Elders Quorum lesson once. It went really well. I did it to show the two different purposes of each story. As I see it anyway, Genesis 1 is about the importance of the Sabbath and Genesis 2 is about the relationship between husband and wife. I didn’t mention the DH specifically then.

    I did bring up the DH once when someone brought up the times when God commanded to utterly destroy entire cities. I was actually teaching at the time and said I didn’t believe that God would do that and that those passages were likely redactions by nationalist scribes during the Babylonian exhile (from Robert Wright’s “The Evolution of God”). That comment had more mixed results but many appreciated it. At the time I was teaching that it was contrary to the nature of God to do harm to another person, an assertion I feel is well founded.

    Anyway, the DH explains a lot. It’s not perfect and no one claims that it is. But to understand the Bible, it is essential.

    Comment by Todd — July 21, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  7. I think I agree with Matt W. Our focus in Church should be on Doctrine, not on textual criticism/etc. I don’t see a problem with an occasional nod/wink concerning other issues, but they should be prayerfully considered, so as not to detract from the importance of doctrine.

    For example, I am doing a blog on the OT right now, including discussions on the divine council, the DH, and right now how Jeroboam’s calves were probably from the ancient El Elyon worship; but I wouldn’t discuss those things in Church itself (maybe an Institute class, but not in Sunday School, etc).

    Comment by Rameumptom — July 21, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

  8. This topic is another one of those things that many Mormons say but don’t really believe. Along with “the Prophet is fallible” and “God looks on the heart, and not on outward appearances,” there is an Article of Faith that states that we believe the Bible to be the word of God only “as far as it is translated correctly”, but one sure way to be thought of as at least borderline-apostate is to talk about problems in the King James Translation, let alone the DH.

    I believe it is not by accident that the Sunday School class is called “Gospel Doctrine” and not “Scripture Study”.

    Comment by CS Eric — July 21, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

  9. Todd, right on.

    Rameumptom, when the assigned reading is Ruth, what is the point of Doctrine we should focus on? Maybe I don’t know what you mean by Doctrine.

    CS Eric, well, we have EQ and RS do lessons that are structured around a gospel topic, but in Sunday School the lessons are based around a block of scripture, so regardless of the name it is structured as an hour of scripture study. I agree that there are a lot of people at church who assume something similar to innerancy, even if they don’t take it as far as Todd Wood.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 21, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

  10. I have read Kevin’s paper multiple times over the years, but I had forgotten (or never read) this footnote which is exactly along the lines of what I am thinking:

    I think it would be worthwhile for someone to study all of the references and allusions to, and quotations of, the Pentateuch in the Book of Mormon, with a view to determining which sources appear to be used and whether any obvious seams are crossed. I am not aware of any major seam being crossed in the Book of Mormon, but I have not undertaken a detailed study of the matter. My brief survey above is consistent with Sorenson’s thesis that the brass plates contained E, but I suspect that other sources may be represented. For instance, Mosiah 13:5, which reports that Abinadi’s face shone with exceeding luster as Moses’ did, seems to be dependent on a P text (Exodus 34:29-35). But, as with the Ten Commandments, it is difficult to know whether there may have been an E text underlying the P account in Exodus 34. Given the brevity of the Book of Mormon allusion and its pro-Moses nature, this is certainly a possibility.

    Exactly, why hasn’t this been done in the ten years since his paper was published?

    Comment by Jacob J — July 21, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

  11. Jacob J,

    It is true that GD is structured as if we are studying a block of scripture, but the teacher’s manual simply uses selected verses as proof texts for whatever topic the lesson covers. For example, on the recent lesson about Deborah, you would have no idea simply by reading the teacher’s manual that Deborah was the one calling the shots as the prophetess–she is treated more like the wacky sidekick. That is how she was presented in our GD class that week. That simply ain’t scripture study.

    Comment by CS Eric — July 21, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

  12. I believe that the scriptures are essentially irrelevant in our institutional Church, and that that is as it should be. Individual members can and should use the scriptures for personal inspiration and other devotional purposes, but the institutional Church does not properly base its doctrine, its policy or its practices on what can be learned from the scriptures. Although tradition unfortunately also plays a role, the Church is intended to be based on on-going revelation.

    This is the reason the Church will never invest the resources to discover or teach the original context and meaning of the scriptures, including the DH. As Karen Armstrong convincingly demonstrated in The Bible: A Biography, no religion can really make a go of sola scriptura anyway.

    Comment by ricke — July 21, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

  13. Seems to me that all the love for Margaret Barker hinges on accepting the DH.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 21, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

  14. Todd and Rammy are likely referring to ethics lessons when they refer to doctrine in many occasions.

    The DH explains a lot more than it calls into question and nothing about the DH should remotely threaten a proper Mormon understanding of the Bible. It is threatening to a trinitarian creedalist understanding of the Bible that posits biblical inerrancy/sufficiency, neither of which really follow from the biblical text itself.

    But another way the DH actually aligns with uniquely Mormon views, is, as noted by J., being investigated by Margaret Barker. The DH provides a way of seeing how, when and why the Melchizedek Priesthood was written out of the Old Testament. Not a few Latter-day Saints have wondered about this over the years. For example, if Josiah’s reforms entailed subordinating the temple to Levitical priests holding the priesthood of Aaron, then Lehi would certainly have had something to preach against in the Jerusalem of his time.

    Comment by john f. — July 22, 2010 @ 5:54 am

  15. As another example, the DH could perhaps easily explain why our OT doesn’t have books or writings by Zenock, Neum or Zenos whereas the Brass Plates apparently did.

    Comment by john f. — July 22, 2010 @ 5:59 am

  16. Not to side track things, but we have our own perfect example of the DH in our “History of the Church.”

    Comment by WVS — July 22, 2010 @ 6:07 am

  17. My Comment #2 was missing a part. added it now. I added “…This is mainly due to the fact that I don’t really feel I have a competent grasp of the totality of the DH and it’s implications. I suspect it is the same for most members.”

    I could also add here that I think this is why, less and less, people make comments on complex doctrine in church as well. I think we tend to stick to praxis because praxis is comprehensive. We know where it begins and ends, and mainly even where the gray areas are. We do hit the inch deep mile wide doctrine quite a bit, but shy away from getting our trowels out and digging any deeper. We like to say it is because it wouldn’t be appropriate for others who are “new members”, or “old people”, or “young people” etc. but we know we are really the ones who don’t want to dig any further.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 22, 2010 @ 8:07 am

  18. WVS, I’ve thought a number of times about writing a post on how studying Mormon history has affected my reading of the Bible. And you hit on a major thing. The “History of the Church” has explicit parallels to scripture making that I think are very enlightening (as does the correlation movement). Add in the fact that happened with the available of primary texts readily available and it shows how the parties involved simply weren’t trying to do what modern folks often assume.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 22, 2010 @ 8:17 am

  19. Perhaps it’s for the best, Matt: for who knoweth what thou mayest uncover digging too deeply, even like unto the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm in the Mines of Moria?

    Comment by john f. — July 22, 2010 @ 8:32 am

  20. The History of the Church and how portions of it became quasi-scriptural is quite illuminating. Good call J. I think the changes between the Book of Commandments and the D&C is an other good place to look – especially the refactoring of revelations. (Presumably under inspiration)

    I think the problem is folks think in terms of some “perfect” ur-text. Even relative to the Book of Mormon which the Book of Mormon doesn’t even claim. While I think Blake Ostler’s expansion theory is problematic because it can explain too much (i.e. we need a narrower theory) the fact is that we have to acknowledge refactoring, expansions, inspired midrashic commentaries interspersed with texts, and a whole lot more. The idea of perfect texts transmitted perfectly really leads to a lot of problem.

    Comment by Clark — July 22, 2010 @ 11:19 am

  21. CSEric, I think we are basically in agreement except that you are talking about how things *are* and I am talking about what the format of Gospel Doctrine implies about how things *should be*.

    ricke, it is one thing to say that we don’t base our doctrine primarily on scriptures and saying that the scriptures are thus irrelevant to the institutional Church. Again, I hate to repeat myself, but the institutional church has set aside an hour a week for us to read specific passages of scripture and learn from them. Ergo, the context and meaning of scriptures is relevent in that setting. QED.

    WVS, that is a great point. Ditto what Stapley said.

    john f., Great point about the priesthood. Struggles between different claims to the priesthood seem to have been at the center of the storm and Mormons have a unique interest in that as you astutely point out.

    Matt, I’m really starting to wonder what constitutes this comprehensive praxis you have in mind. Is it just telling people to be nice and good? Fleshing out “nice” and “good” can become as complicated and difficult as fleshing out points of theology, so I really am not sure what you mean. Maybe some examples would help me.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 22, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

  22. Jacob J:
    I don’t even think being nice and good fall in the praxis. I was thinking more of law of chastity, word of wisdom, read your scriptures and pray every day, hold a calling, pay your tithing, do all the things you need to do to get temple recommend praxis.

    Do you need to be kind and good to hold a temple recommend?

    Comment by Matt W. — July 22, 2010 @ 12:46 pm

  23. Ah. So your idea of how to teach 2 Sam 11 is to point out that David violated the law of chastity, leading to great misery for himself and others, followed by a questions like “What can we do to protect ourselves from temptations to violate the law of chastity?”

    Or reading the story of Jesus’ first miracle and asking: “What are ways we can turn water into wine in our own lives?”

    Do I have it?

    Comment by Jacob J — July 22, 2010 @ 1:52 pm

  24. Good point, and ouch.

    1 Sam. 11 is about Saul. But I think I had that specific 2 Sam. 11 lesson taught to me a few weeks ago.

    I think there are 4 ways people teach from the lesson manual currently.

    1. They teach the lesson presented in the manual
    2. They look at the lesson, read the scriptures associated with it, and teach anything (Maybe DH, or the Greek, or Whatever) that falls in line with those scriptures.
    3. They look at the “objective” of the lesson in the manual. “To help the class better appreciate the importance of chastity” and throw the scriptures out and just talk about the objective. (I’m guilty of this)
    4. They teach whatever they want and ignore the manual.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 22, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

  25. Thanks for the correction, I fixed my comment to say 2 Sam 11. I have a lot of concerns with the teaching strategy you are advocating, but I think my main concern is that when we do this week after week our sunday school time does not benefit anyone in attendance. To be sure, we must have plenty of devotional aspects to our lessons, but 100% focus on checklist-righteousness is boring, uninspiring, and unmotivating. Of course, there are one million threads about sunday school pedagogy so I don’t mean to rehash all that here, but for the purpose of this post I’ll say that I am in favor of a healthy mix of devotional material and the teaching of new information. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 22, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

  26. I don’t disagree at all, I’m just saying I tend to focus my “new information” on material like “five dysfunctions of a team” or “leadership and self-deception” rather than DH. I’m not advocating my way over yours, and if you taught in my ward, would enjoy your lessons, it’s more that my understanding of DH is somewhat vague. (Pentateuch was written by multiple authors, got it, who wrote which sentences, dunno,it is kind of like figuring out what is in Q.)

    On the other hand, Moses writing the OT was not what I was taught as a Catholic growing up, so maybe I’m not playing on the right field for this one.

    Comment by Matt W. — July 22, 2010 @ 9:23 pm

  27. Kevin Barney’s Dialogue essay remains a great resource for LDS students wanting to wrap their heads around the DH and its implications for LDS.

    Margaret Barker, by the way, is critical of the classical formulation of the DH on various grounds, particularly, she questions the existence of the E and J epics. On that point,she likes Whybray’s The Making of the Pentateuch, citing it in The Great Angel, as well as during the 2003 BYU Seminar. She cites evidence that divine names were still being changed during the time early Christians, which raises issues for dating texts and assigning JEDP authorship based key names. Her essay, “Text and Context” on the transmission of Hebrew scripture is fascinating to compare with 1 Nephi 13.

    That said, her approach to the reforms of Josiah and the Deuteronomists has been most intriguing in comparison to the Book of Mormon. I personally see Lehi’s first public discourse as directed at the reformers, and Jacob 4 as also commenting directly. On the other hand, Professor Szinc, in FR 16:2 was not so favorable. On yet another hand, I expect Theodore Huchel’s forthcoming book on Joseph Smith and Temple Theology will have more favorable insights. Ben McGuire has suggested in several online posts that the Book of Mormon only quotes proto-Deuteronomy. And see his FAIR essay on how allusions to the David and Goliath story point to only one of two separable accounts spliced together in the MT.

    Ben McGuire also commented online on how impressed he was that Joseph’s expansions in the Book of Moses occur on the seams between P and J. That struck me as in interesting contrast with David Wright’s skeptical interpretation of the same phenomenon.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

    Comment by Kevin Christensen — July 23, 2010 @ 8:33 am

  28. Kevin, thanks for commenting and giving me some leads to track down. I am not aware of Ben McGuire’s FAIR article so I’ll go find it. Your comment whets my appetite for more but you give me hope that all I need is a bit of patience. BTW, I enjoyed your comment about Jeremiah and Deuteronomy at DMI earlier this year.

    Comment by Jacob J — July 23, 2010 @ 9:19 am

  29. Thanks Jacob. I notice that I should have referred to Anthony Hutchinson’s Dialogue article on the JP seams, rather than Professor Wright. (A hazard of posting away from my books.) Though, on that I think Wright and Hutchinson would generally agree.

    Ben’s FAIR article on Nephi and the Goliath story is here:

    A later version was published in JBMS, though without the parallel comparisons that I think are the most provocative finding.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

    Comment by Kevin Christensen — July 23, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  30. My problem with the entire higher criticism movement is that my introduction to it was the German minimalists who insisted that Jericho never existed — I read them after Jericho had been located.

    I think the problem is folks think in terms of some “perfect” ur-text.

    I’d have to agree. I’m always amused when I read Christ questioning the Nephites on why portions of Samuel’s prophesies are missing? They don’t answer (the answer is simple, his prophecies did not meet contemporary artistic standards), and they add in the bottom line of what they missed.

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — July 23, 2010 @ 7:21 pm

  31. Aaron,

    Of all the things I might have expected to find mentioned on this thread, I am not one of them(!), but I appreciate your interest in my work.

    Yes, I will be doing some work on Joseph Smith and aspects of the Book of Mormon in relation to Josiah’s reformation and role as reformer.

    I touched on this very lightly in my paper “The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism”: Joseph Smith’s Unfinished Reformation,” which explores a “reformation” of the church that Joseph announced in July 1843. His model as a reformer was, I argue, Josiah, and the Book of Mormon was itself framed early on as an instrument in effecting a reform for which the Josian reform was a model.

    In the future I’ll try to develop further such Book of Mormon echoes of the Josian reform.

    BTW, I think “Who Wrote the Bible?” is fantastic and envy you if you’re discovering Friedman’s argument for the first time. 8-)


    Comment by Don Bradley — July 26, 2010 @ 2:38 am

  32. This is a little late to the game, but you might also be interested in a series of posts we did on the DH a couple of years ago:

    Comment by SmallAxe — July 26, 2010 @ 5:49 am

  33. How much of scholarly reconstruction of the Josiah reforms is pure conjecture though?

    Comment by Clark — July 26, 2010 @ 9:31 am