Documentary hypothesis

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Diagram of the 20th century documentary hypothesis.
J: Yahwist (10th-9th century BCE)
E: Elohist (9th century BCE)
Dtr1: early (7th century BCE) Deuteronomist historian
Dtr2: later (6th century BCE) Deuteronomist historian
P*: Priestly (6th-5th century BCE)
D+: Deuteronomist
R: redactor
DH: Deuteronomistic history (books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) Modern document hypothesis.svg
Diagram of the 20th century documentary hypothesis.
Jahwist one of the sources of the Torah in the documentary hypothesis, dated to the Babylonian captivity or later; uses the name YHWH throughout, anthropomorphizes God physically/mentally, focuses on the Kingdom of Judah, and supports the Davidic monarchy

The Jahwist, or Yahwist, often abbreviated J, is one of the most widely recognized sources of the Pentateuch (Torah), together with the Deuteronomist and the Priestly source. The existence of the Jahwist is somewhat controversial, with a number of scholars, especially in Europe, denying that it ever existed as a coherent independent document. Nevertheless, most scholars do assume its existence, and date its composition to the period of the Babylonian captivity or perhaps somewhat later. The Jahwist is so named because of its characteristic use of the term Yahweh for God.

Elohist One of the four sources of the Torah in the documentary hypothesis

According to the documentary hypothesis, the Elohist is one of four source documents underlying the Torah, together with the Jahwist, the Deuteronomist and the Priestly source. The Elohist is so named because of its pervasive use of the word Elohim to refer to the Israelite god.

Deuteronomist according to source criticism, the main source underlying the biblical books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Jeremiah; symbol D

The Deuteronomist, abbreviated as either Dtr or simply D, may refer either to the source document underlying the core chapters (12-26) of the Book of Deuteronomy, or to the broader "school" that produced all of Deuteronomy as well as the Deuteronomistic history of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings and also the book of Jeremiah. The adjectives "Deuteronomic" and "Deuteronomistic" are sometimes used interchangeably; if they are distinguished, then the first refers to the core of Deuteronomy and the second to all of Deuteronomy and the history.

The documentary hypothesis (DH) is one of the models historically used by biblical scholars to explain the origins and composition of the Torah (or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). [4] More recent models include the supplementary hypothesis and the fragmentary hypothesis. All agree that the Torah is not a unified work from a single author, but is made up of sources combined over many centuries by many hands. [5] These models differ on the nature of these sources and how they were combined.

Torah First five books of the Hebrew Bible

Torah has a range of meanings. It can most specifically mean the first five books of the 24 books of the Tanakh. It can also mean the continued narrative from all the 24 books, from the Book of Genesis to the end of the Tanakh (Chronicles), and it can even mean the totality of Jewish teaching, culture, and practice, whether derived from biblical texts or later rabbinic writings. Common to all these meanings, Torah consists of the origin of Jewish peoplehood: their call into being by God, their trials and tribulations, and their covenant with their God, which involves following a way of life embodied in a set of moral and religious obligations and civil laws.

Book of Genesis first book of the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament

The Book of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament, is Judaism's account of the creation of the world and the origins of the Jewish people.

Book of Exodus Second book of the Bible

The Book of Exodus is the second book of the Bible and describes the Exodus, which includes the Israelites' deliverance from slavery in Egypt through the hand of Yahweh, the revelations at biblical Mount Sinai, and the subsequent "divine indwelling" of God with Israel.


The documentary hypothesis posited that the Pentateuch is a compilation of four originally independent documents: the Jahwist (J), Elohist (E), Deuteronomist (D), and Priestly (P) sources. The first of these, J, was dated to the Solomonic period (c. 950 BCE). [1] E was dated somewhat later, in the 9th century BCE, and D was dated just before the reign of King Josiah, in the 7th or 8th century. Finally, P was generally dated to the time of Ezra in the 5th century BCE. [3] [2] The sources would have been joined together at various points in time by a series of editors or "redactors." [6]

Priestly source One of four sources of the Torah

The Priestly source is perhaps the most widely recognized source underlying the Torah. It is both stylistically and theologically distinct from other material in the Torah, and includes a set of claims that are contradicted by non-Priestly passages and therefore uniquely characteristic: no sacrifice before the institution is ordained by Yahweh (God) at Sinai, the exalted status of Aaron and the priesthood, and the use of the divine title El Shaddai before God reveals his name to Moses, to name a few. In general, the Priestly work is concerned with priestly matters – ritual law, the origins of shrines and rituals, and genealogies – all expressed in a formal, repetitive style. It stresses the rules and rituals of worship, and the crucial role of priests, expanding considerably on the role given to Aaron.

Solomon king of Israel and the son of David

Solomon, also called Jedidiah, was, according to the Hebrew Bible, Old Testament, Quran, and Hadiths, a fabulously wealthy and wise king of the United Kingdom of Israel who succeeded his father, King David. The conventional dates of Solomon's reign are circa 970 to 931 BCE, normally given in alignment with the dates of David's reign. He is described as the fourth king of the United Monarchy, which would break apart into the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah shortly after his death. Following the split, his patrilineal descendants ruled over Judah alone.

Josiah King of Judah

Josiah or Yoshiyahu was a seventh-century BCE king of Judah who, according to the Hebrew Bible, instituted major religious reforms. Josiah is credited by most biblical scholars with having established or compiled important Hebrew Scriptures during the "Deuteronomic reform" which probably occurred during his rule. Josiah became king of Judah at the age of eight, after the assassination of his father, King Amon, and reigned for thirty-one years, from 641/640 to 610/609 BCE. Josiah is known only from biblical texts; no reference to him exists in other surviving texts of the period from Egypt or Babylon, and no clear archaeological evidence, such as inscriptions bearing his name, has ever been found. Nevertheless, most scholars believe that he existed historically and that the absence of documents is due to few documents of any sort surviving from this very early period, and to Jerusalem having been occupied, conquered, and rebuilt for thousands of years.

A version of the documentary hypothesis, frequently identified with the German scholar Julius Wellhausen, was almost universally accepted for most of the 20th century, but the consensus has now collapsed. [7] This was triggered in large part by the influential publications of John Van Seters, Hans Heinrich Schmid, and Rolf Rendtorff in the mid-1970s. [8] These "revisionist" authors argued that J was to be dated no earlier than the time of the Babylonian captivity (597–539 BCE), [9] and rejected the existence of a substantial E source. [10] They also called into question the nature and extent of the three other sources. Van Seters, Schmid, and Rendtorff shared many of the same criticisms of the documentary hypothesis, but were not in complete agreement about what paradigm ought to replace it. [8]

Julius Wellhausen German theologian

Julius Wellhausen was a German biblical scholar and orientalist. In the course of his career, he moved from Old Testament research through Islamic studies to New Testament scholarship. Wellhausen contributed to the composition history of the Pentateuch/Torah and studied the formative period of Islam. For the former, he is credited as one of the originators of the documentary hypothesis.

John Van Seters is a Canadian scholar of the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Currently University Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina, he was formerly James A. Gray Professor of Biblical Literature at UNC. He took his PhD at Yale University in Near Eastern Studies (1965) and a ThD h.c. from the University of Lausanne (1999). His honours and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEH fellowship, an ACLS Fellowship, and research fellowships at Oxford, Cambridge, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, and National Research Foundation of South Africa. His many publications include The Hyksos: A New Investigation (1966); Abraham in History and Tradition (1975); In Search of History ; The Edited Bible (2006); and The Biblical Saga of King David (2009).

Hans Heinrich Schmid was a Swiss Protestant Reformed theologian, University Professor and University Rector.

As a result, there has been a revival of interest in fragmentary and supplementary approaches, frequently in combination with each other and with a documentary model, making it difficult to classify contemporary theories as strictly one or another. [11] Modern scholars generally see the completed Torah as a product of the time of the Persian Achaemenid Empire (probably 450–350 BCE), although some would place its production in the Hellenistic period (333–164 BCE), after the conquests of Alexander the Great. [12]

Achaemenid Empire first Persian Empire founded by Cyrus the Great

The Achaemenid Empire, also called the First Persian Empire, was an ancient Iranian empire based in Western Asia founded by Cyrus the Great. Ranging at its greatest extent from the Balkans and Eastern Europe proper in the west to the Indus Valley in the east, it was larger than any previous empire in history, spanning 5.5 million square kilometers. Incorporating various peoples of different origins and faiths, it is notable for its successful model of a centralised, bureaucratic administration, for building infrastructure such as road systems and a postal system, the use of an official language across its territories, and the development of civil services and a large professional army. The empire's successes inspired similar systems in later empires.

Hellenistic period Period of ancient Greek and Mediterranean history

The Hellenistic period covers the period of Mediterranean history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the emergence of the Roman Empire as signified by the Battle of Actium in 31 BC and the subsequent conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt the following year. The Ancient Greek word Hellas is the original word for Greece, from which the word Hellenistic was derived.

Alexander the Great King of Macedonia

Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a king (basileus) of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon and a member of the Argead dynasty. He was born in Pella in 356 BC and succeeded his father Philip II to the throne at the age of 20. He spent most of his ruling years on an unprecedented military campaign through Asia and northeast Africa, and by the age of thirty, he had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to northwestern India. He was undefeated in battle and is widely considered one of history's most successful military commanders.

History of the documentary hypothesis

11th-century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. Targum.jpg
11th-century manuscript of the Hebrew Bible.

The Torah (or Pentateuch) is collectively the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. [13] According to tradition they were dictated by God to Moses, [14] but when modern critical scholarship began to be applied to the Bible it was discovered that the Pentateuch was not the unified text one would expect from a single author. [15] As a result, the Mosaic authorship of the Torah had been largely rejected by leading scholars by the 17th century, and the modern consensus is that it is the product of a long evolutionary process. [16] [17] [Note 1]

Book of Numbers Fourth book of the Bible

The Book of Numbers is the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible, and the fourth of five books of the Jewish Torah. The book has a long and complex history, but its final form is probably due to a Priestly redaction of a Yahwistic source made some time in the early Persian period. The name of the book comes from the two censuses taken of the Israelites.

Mosaic authorship tradition that Moses was the author of the Torah; denied by the majority of scholars

Mosaic authorship is the Jewish, Christian and Muslim tradition that Moses was the author of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. The books do not name any author, as authorship was not considered important by the society that produced them, and it was only after Jews came into intense contact with author-centric Hellenistic culture in the late Second Temple period that the rabbis began to find authors for their scriptures. The tradition that Moses was this author probably began with the law-code of Deuteronomy, and was then gradually extended until Moses, as the central character, came to be regarded not just as the mediator of law but as author of both laws and narrative.

In the mid-18th century, some scholars started a critical study of doublets (parallel accounts of the same incidents), inconsistencies, and changes in style and vocabulary in the Torah. [16] In 1780 Johann Eichhorn, building on the work of the French doctor and exegete Jean Astruc's "Conjectures" and others, formulated the "older documentary hypothesis": the idea that Genesis was composed by combining two identifiable sources, the Jehovist ("J"; also called the Yahwist) and the Elohist ("E"). [18] These sources were subsequently found to run through the first four books of the Torah, and the number was later expanded to three when Wilhelm de Wette identified the Deuteronomist as an additional source found only in Deuteronomy ("D"). [19] Later still the Elohist was split into Elohist and Priestly ("P") sources, increasing the number to four. [20]

These documentary approaches were in competition with two other models, the fragmentary and the supplementary. [5] The fragmentary hypothesis argued that fragments of varying lengths, rather than continuous documents, lay behind the Torah; this approach accounted for the Torah's diversity but could not account for its structural consistency, particularly regarding chronology. [21] The supplementary hypothesis was better able to explain this unity: it maintained that the Torah was made up of a central core document, the Elohist, supplemented by fragments taken from many sources. [21] The supplementary approach was dominant by the early 1860s, but it was challenged by an important book published by Hermann Hupfeld in 1853, who argued that the Pentateuch was made up of four documentary sources, the Priestly, Yahwist, and Elohist intertwined in Genesis-Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers, and the stand-alone source of Deuteronomy. [22] At around the same period Karl Heinrich Graf argued that the Yahwist and Elohist were the earliest sources and the Priestly source the latest, while Wilhelm Vatke linked the four to an evolutionary framework, the Yahwist and Elohist to a time of primitive nature and fertility cults, the Deuteronomist to the ethical religion of the Hebrew prophets, and the Priestly source to a form of religion dominated by ritual, sacrifice and law. [23]

Wellhausen and the new documentary hypothesis

Julius Wellhausen Julius Wellhausen 02.jpg
Julius Wellhausen

In 1878 Julius Wellhausen published Geschichte Israels, Bd 1 ("History of Israel, Vol 1"); the second edition he printed as Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels ("Prolegomena to the History of Israel"), in 1883, and the work is better known under that name. [24] (The second volume, a synthetic history titled Israelitische und jüdische Geschichte ["Israelite and Jewish History"], did not appear until 1894 and remains untranslated.) Crucially, this historical portrait was based upon two earlier works of his technical analysis: "Die Composition des Hexateuchs" ("The Composition of the Hexateuch") of 1876/77 and sections on the "historical books" (Judges–Kings) in his 1878 edition of Friedrich Bleek's Einleitung in das Alte Testament ("Introduction to the Old Testament").

Wellhausen's documentary hypothesis owed little to Wellhausen himself but was mainly the work of Hupfeld, Eduard Eugène Reuss, Graf, and others, who in turn had built on earlier scholarship. [25] He accepted Hupfeld's four sources and, in agreement with Graf, placed the Priestly work last. [20] J was the earliest document, a product of the 10th century BCE and the court of Solomon; E was from the 9th century in the northern Kingdom of Israel, and had been combined by a redactor (editor) with J to form a document JE; D, the third source, was a product of the 7th century BCE, by 620 BCE, during the reign of King Josiah; P (what Wellhausen first named "Q") was a product of the priest-and-temple dominated world of the 6th century; and the final redaction, when P was combined with JED to produce the Torah as we now know it. [26] [27]

Wellhausen's explanation of the formation of the Torah was also an explanation of the religious history of Israel. [27] The Yahwist and Elohist described a primitive, spontaneous and personal world, in keeping with the earliest stage of Israel's history; in Deuteronomy he saw the influence of the prophets and the development of an ethical outlook, which he felt represented the pinnacle of Jewish religion; and the Priestly source reflected the rigid, ritualistic world of the priest-dominated post-exilic period. [28] His work, notable for its detailed and wide-ranging scholarship and close argument, entrenched the "new documentary hypothesis" as the dominant explanation of Pentateuchal origins from the late 19th to the late 20th centuries. [20] [Note 2]

Collapse of the documentary consensus

The consensus around the documentary hypothesis collapsed in the last decades of the 20th century. [7] Three major publications of the 1970s caused scholars to seriously question the assumptions of the documentary hypothesis: Abraham in History and Tradition by John Van Seters, Der sogenannte Jahwist ("The So-Called Yahwist") by Hans Heinrich Schmid, and Das überlieferungsgeschichtliche Problem des Pentateuch ("The Tradition-Historical Problem of the Pentateuch") by Rolf Rendtorff. These three authors shared many of the same criticisms of the documentary hypothesis, but were not in agreement about what paradigm ought to replace it. [8]

Van Seters and Schmid both forcefully argued that the Yahwist source could not be dated to the Solomonic period (c. 950 BCE) as posited by the documentary hypothesis. They instead dated J to the period of the Babylonian captivity (597–539 BCE), or the late monarchic period at the earliest. [9] Van Seters also sharply criticized the idea of a substantial Elohist source, arguing that E extends at most to two short passages in Genesis. [29] Their arguments started the erosion of the scholarly consensus. [10]

Some scholars, following Rendtorff, have come to espouse a fragmentary hypothesis, in which the Pentateuch is seen as a compilation of short, independent narratives, which were gradually brought together into larger units in two editorial phases: the Deuteronomic and the Priestly phases. [30] [31] [32] By contrast, scholars such as John Van Seters advocate a supplementary hypothesis, which posits that the Torah is the result of two major additions—Yahwist and Priestly—to an existing corpus of work. [33]

Scholars frequently use these newer hypotheses in combination with each other and with a documentary model, making it difficult to classify contemporary theories as strictly one or another. [11] The majority of scholars today continue to recognise Deuteronomy as a source, with its origin in the law-code produced at the court of Josiah as described by De Wette, subsequently given a frame during the exile (the speeches and descriptions at the front and back of the code) to identify it as the words of Moses. [34] Most scholars also agree that some form of Priestly source existed, although its extent, especially its end-point, is uncertain. [35] The remainder is called collectively non-Priestly, a grouping which includes both pre-Priestly and post-Priestly material. [36]

The general trend in recent scholarship is to recognize the final form of the Torah as a literary and ideological unity, based on earlier sources, likely completed during the Persian period (539–333 BCE). [37] [38] Some scholars would place its final compilation somewhat later, however, in the Hellenistic period (333–164 BCE). [39]

A revised neo-documentary hypothesis still has adherents, especially in North America and Israel. [40] This distinguishes sources by means of plot and continuity rather than stylistic and linguistic concerns, and does not tie them to stages in the evolution of Israel's religious history. [40] Its resurrection of an E source is probably the element most often criticised by other scholars, as it is rarely distinguishable from the classical J source and European scholars have largely rejected it as fragmentary or non-existent. [41]

The Torah and the history of Israel's religion

Wellhausen used the sources of the Torah as evidence of changes in the history of Israelite religion as it moved (in his opinion) from free, simple and natural to fixed, formal and institutional. [42] Modern scholars of Israel's religion have become much more circumspect in how they use the Old Testament, not least because many have concluded that the Bible is not a reliable witness to the religion of ancient Israel and Judah, [43] representing instead the beliefs of only a small segment of the ancient Israelite community centred in Jerusalem and devoted to the exclusive worship of the god Yahweh. [44] [45]

See also


  1. The reasons behind the rejection are covered in more detail in the article on Mosaic authorship.
  2. The two-source hypothesis of Eichorn was the "older" documentary hypothesis, and the four-source hypothesis adopted by Wellhausen was the "newer".

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Biblical criticism is an umbrella term for those methods of studying the Bible that embrace two distinctive perspectives: the concern to avoid dogma and bias by applying a non-sectarian, reason-based judgment, and the reconstruction of history according to contemporary understanding. Biblical criticism uses the grammar, structure, development, and relationship of language to identify such characteristics as the Bible's literary structure, its genre, its context, meaning, authorship, and origins.

The Hexateuch is the first six books of the Hebrew Bible: the Torah (Pentateuch) and the book of Joshua.

Umberto Cassuto Italian rabbi

Umberto Cassuto, also known as Moshe David Cassuto (1883–1951), was a rabbi and Biblical scholar born in Florence, Italy.

Ritual Decalogue set of commandments found in Exodus 34:11–26; according to scholars the original reference of Exodus 34:28 (“[Moses] wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten words”), instead of the (ethical) Decalogue of Exod. 20

The Ritual Decalogue is a list of laws at Exodus 34:11–26. These laws are similar to the Covenant Code and are followed by the phrase "ten commandments". Although the phrase "Ten Commandments" has traditionally been interpreted as referring to a very different set of laws, in Exodus 20:2–17, many scholars believe it instead refers to the Ritual Decalogue found two verses earlier.

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The Covenant Code, or Book of the Covenant, is the name given by academics to a text appearing in the Torah, at Exodus 20:22-23:19; or, more strictly, the term Covenant Code may be applied to Exodus 21:1-22:16. Biblically, the text is the second of the law codes given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai. This legal text provides a small but substantive proportion of the mitzvot within the Torah, and hence is a source of Jewish Law.

Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels is a book by German biblical scholar and orientalist Julius Wellhausen (1844–1918) that formulated but did not found the documentary hypothesis, a theory on the composition history of the Torah or Pentateuch. Influential and long debated, the volume is often compared for its impact in its field with Charles Darwin's 1859 work, On the Origin of Species.

<i>The Bible with Sources Revealed</i> book by Richard Elliott Friedman

The Bible with Sources Revealed (2003) is a book by American biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman dealing with the process by which the five books of the Torah or Pentateuch came to be written. Friedman follows the four-source Documentary Hypothesis model, but differs significantly from Julius Wellhausen's model in several respects.

Source criticism (biblical studies) attempt to establish the sources used by the authors and redactors of a biblical text

Source criticism, in biblical criticism, refers to the attempt to establish the sources used by the authors and redactors of a biblical text.

Supplementary hypothesis hypothesis that the Torah was derived from a series of additions to an existing corpus of work, starting from the Deuteronomist stratum, to which the Yahwist and the Priestly strata were added

In biblical studies, the supplementary hypothesis proposes that the Pentateuch was derived from a series of direct additions to an existing corpus of work. It serves as a revision to the earlier documentary hypothesis, which proposed that independent and complete narratives were later combined by redactors to create the Pentateuch.

Composition of the Torah The origins and composition of the Torah

The composition of the Torah was a process that involved multiple authors over an extended period of time. While Jewish tradition holds that all five books were originally written by Moses sometime in the 2nd millennium BCE, this view began to be seriously questioned in the 17th century. Today scholars are virtually unanimous in rejecting Mosaic authorship of the Torah.


  1. 1 2 3 Viviano 1999, p. 40.
  2. 1 2 3 Gmirkin 2006, p. 4.
  3. 1 2 Viviano 1999, p. 41.
  4. Patzia & Petrotta 2010, p. 37.
  5. 1 2 Viviano 1999, pp. 38–39.
  6. Van Seters 2015, p. viii.
  7. 1 2 Carr 2014, p. 434.
  8. 1 2 3 Van Seters 2015, p. 41.
  9. 1 2 Van Seters 2015, pp. 41–43.
  10. 1 2 Carr 2014, p. 436.
  11. 1 2 Van Seters 2015, p. 12.
  12. Greifenhagen 2003, pp. 206–207, 224 fn.49.
  13. McDermott 2002, p. 1.
  14. Kugel 2008, p. 6.
  15. Campbell & O'Brien 1993, p. 1.
  16. 1 2 Berlin 1994, p. 113.
  17. Baden 2012, p. 13.
  18. Ruddick 1990, p. 246.
  19. Patrick 2013, p. 31.
  20. 1 2 3 Barton & Muddiman 2010, p. 19.
  21. 1 2 Viviano 1999, p. 38.
  22. Barton & Muddiman 2010, p. 18–19.
  23. Friedman 1997, p. 24–25.
  24. Kugel 2008, p. 41.
  25. Barton & Muddiman 2010, p. 20.
  26. Viviano 1999, p. 40–41.
  27. 1 2 Gaines 2015, p. 260.
  28. Viviano 1999, p. 51.
  29. Van Seters 2015, p. 42.
  30. Viviano 1999, p. 49.
  31. Thompson 2000, p. 8.
  32. Ska 2014, pp. 133–135.
  33. Van Seters 2004, p. 77.
  34. Otto 2015, p. 605.
  35. Carr 2014, p. 457.
  36. Otto 2014, p. 609.
  37. Greifenhagen 2003, pp. 206–207.
  38. Whisenant 2010, p. 679, "Instead of a compilation of discrete sources collected and combined by a final redactor, the Pentateuch is seen as a sophisticated scribal composition in which diverse earlier traditions have been shaped into a coherent narrative presenting a creation-to-wilderness story of origins for the entity 'Israel.'"
  39. Greifenhagen 2003, pp. 206–207, 224 n. 49.
  40. 1 2 Gaines 2015, p. 271.
  41. Gaines 2015, p. 272.
  42. Miller 2000, p. 182.
  43. Lupovitch, Howard N. (2010). "The world of the Hebrew Bible". Jews and Judaism in World History. Abingdon: Routledge. pp. 5–10. ISBN   978-0-203-86197-4.
  44. Stackert 2014, p. 24.
  45. Wright 2002, p. 52.