What Is Source Criticism? by Steven L. McKenzie

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 1-39Isa 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, "What Is Source Criticism?", n.p. [cited 3 Dec 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/tools/bible-basics/what-is-source-criticism-mckenzie


Steven L. McKenzie

Steven L. McKenzie
Professor, Rhodes College

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.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

A state of being that, in the Bible, combined ritual and moral purity. Certain actions, like touching a corpse, made a person unclean.

Evaluating its subject carefully, rigorously, and with minimal preconceptions. "Critical" religious scholarship contrasts with popular and sectarian studies.

Related to the religious beliefs connected to Deuteronomy, which emphasized monotheism, the Jerusalem temple, observance of the Law, and the destruction of idolatry.

The theory that the Pentateuch (Torah) is composed of four distinct literary sources, known as J, E, D, and P, that were edited together by a redactor into a single composition.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

Interpretation of the genre and shape of a narrative in order to determine its original setting and function.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

of or relating to Moses or the writings attributed to him.

of or relating to Moses or the writings attributed to him.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

first five books of the Bible

Relating to the period in Judean history following the Babylonian exile (587–539 B.C.E.), also known as the Persian period, during which the exiles were allowed to return to Judea and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

Redact, redacting. A method of biblical study that considers the various versions of a text and the edits that have been made to it.

Four passages in the book of Isaiah that focus on “the Lord’s servant.”

A historical-critical method of biblical interpretation that analyzes discontinuities, inconsistencies, repetitions, and other narrative clues to identify the different authors of the Bible; see Documentary Hypothesis.

A line of officials holding a certain position over time.

A mode of working with biblical writings that works to identify the most original (or earliest) form of a work.

A state of being ritually unacceptable and therefore excluded from proximity to holy objects or use in religious observance. According to the book of Levticus, some unclean things can be purified and become clean, whereas other are permanently unclean.

Num 21:14

14Wherefore it is said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord,
“Waheb in Suphah and the wadis.
The Arnon

1Kgs 14:19

Death of Jeroboam
19Now the rest of the acts of Jeroboam, how he warred and how he reigned, are written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel.

1Kgs 14:29

29Now the rest of the acts of Rehoboam, and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah?

Isa 1-39

1The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.The Wickedness ... View more

Isa 40-55

God's People Are Comforted
1Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her pena ... View more

Isa 56-66

The Covenant Extended to All Who Obey
1Thus says the Lord:
Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be reveal ... View more

Isa 52:13-53:12

The Suffering Servant
13See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.14Just as there were many who were astonished a ... View more

Judg 3-9

Nations Remaining in the Land
1Now these are the nations that the Lord left to test all those in Israel who had no experience of any war in Canaan2(it was only ... View more

Gen 1-3

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more

Gen 6-9

The Wickedness of Humankind
1When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them,2the sons of God saw that they were fair; ... View more

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