Documentary Hypothesis, Delitzsch, and the atrophy of orthodoxy.

The Documentary Hypothesis (DH) is a proposed method for divining the authorship of the Pentateuch contra the traditional understanding of Mosaic authorship. Proponents of DH articulate their position of nonacceptance of Mosaic purview and, instead, propose “four separate sources arising over the course of half a millennium.”1 This explanation is founded in an effort to account for the “problem items” that appear throughout the Pentateuch itself. In his article on “Source Criticism” in the Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, D. W. Baker synthesizes these problem items into five primary areas: anachronisms, divine names, duplicate narratives, literary style, and contradictions.2 To illustrate why these apparent complications exist, adherents of the DH ascribe to a more evolutionary development of the Pentateuch, surmising its texts can be derived from sources ranging from 850 B.C. all the way to the fifth century B.C.

Among the many significant weaknesses with DH scholarship, chief among them is its apparent disregard for historical accuracy. In its pursuit of clarification, ironically, more complications arise. Untying the whole of the Pentateuch from its historical moorings by sourcing its texts to an array of centuries affects not only its historical context but also its theological underpinning. “While the Pentateuch was not written as a historical document but as a theological one,” Baker continues, “its theology is nevertheless historically based, and impugning its historicity has theological outcomes.”3 Perhaps, then, one should learn the lesson of Friedrich Delitzsch.

In an article entitled, “Babel und Bibel und Bias,” Bill T. Arnold and David B. Weisberg recount the atrophied orthodoxy of renowned Hebrew scholar, Friedrich Delitzsch. Through a series of lectures in the early 1900s, Delitzsch articulated his position that “Babylonian religion and culture were not only older than that of the Israelites, but were superior, too.”4 His assessment that the Hebrew Scriptures “should no longer be valued as a book of Christian religion,”5 along with his overly anti-Semitic approach as an interpretative framework, certainly found its roots in an “enlightened” view of scholarship. By recasting the Hebrew Scriptures with a predominantly nationalistic viewpoint (that is to say, very Aryan), Delitzsch and his constituents believed they were “progressing” religion toward a “higher good.” This they deemed to have been founded in the revelation of considerably more Babylonian influences on the Old Testament than previously thought.

The atrophy of Delitzsch’s orthodoxy is articulated nowhere better than by the apostle Paul himself. That is to say, in Delitzsch’s quest for an “enlightened” view of Scripture, he ended up promoting “empty speculations rather than God’s plan, which operates by faith.” (1 Tm 1:4) Rather than heeding the apostle’s warning to Timothy to not “pay attention to myths and endless genealogies,” Delitzsch “turned aside to fruitless discussion” (1 Tm 1:7), allowing his own predilections for contemporary scholarship to fundamentally alter his view of Scripture. Yet, for all his bravura, Delitzsch was utterly wrong about the Hebrew Scriptures and, insofar as that remains true, he was wrong about the gospel, too. It is impossible to divorce the redemptive narrative of the Bible from the people of Israel and their place in the “apple of God’s eye.” (Ps 17:8; Zec 2:8)

This is not to say that he was an apostate; but one cannot help but notice the perfidious teachings he published. Indeed, one has to wonder how many scores of seminarians and churchmen who flocked to Delitzsch’s lectures left utterly convinced of his “findings.” The tragedy of Delitzsch’s biblical scholarship offers a lesson that any and all budding Bible scholars must observe and heed. Namely, that the Scriptures must speak for themselves, without the trappings of nationalism or contemporary cultural norms. The timelessness of God’s written Word ought to be the pursuit of every student of the Word.


D. W. Baker, “Source Criticism,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, edited by T. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 801.


Ibid., 800–1.


Ibid., 802.


Bill T. Arnold and David B. Weisberg, “Babel und Bibel und Bias,” Bible Review 18.1 (2002): 34.


Ibid., 36.