Documentary Hypothesis - Reuel vs Jethro


I have started a class on the Old Testament at MIT (a secular university). They assert the documentary hypothesis which basically says that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses but rather made up hundreds of years later by people looking back at history and wove in a story about a deity. This allowed them to fabricate a rather coherent story and explains some of the contradictions in the Bible because many different authors that took part in the process.

Does anyone have any arguments/explanations they can share abouth this?

There are quite a few instances where Jesus mentions that Moses wrotes (at least parts) of the Pentateuch. However, in this very academic setting, I cannot just quote Jesus’s words as truth. However, I would like to have some form of a defence as this view is very problematic since it undermines the autority of the first five books.

I have many questions about the seeming contradictions in the books but the one I have at this moment is: Why is Moses’ father in law sometimes called “Reuel” and at other times “Jethro”?


Well, I’m sure you’re aware that there are no end of biblical critics from every conceivable direction. But as for so-called contradictions in the Bible, you can Google just about any particular controversy and find very simple resolutions. Nowadays that’s a relatively easy thing to do.

As for the specific issue you’ve raised about Jethro and Reuel, it is not at all uncommon for Bible characters to have multiple names. In fact, many characters have at least two. Abraham/Abram, Jacob/Israel, Joseph/Zaphnath-Paaneah, Daniel/Belteshazzar, Esther/Hadassah, Matthew/Levi, Nathanael/Bartholomew, Saul/Paul, and on and on.

I hope this helps you - especially in the secular environment where you find yourself!


@Esme Excellent question :slight_smile: I took both Old and New Testament at a secular college, but I had one professor who taught a class on Paul that seemed to be Christian, though I think he was covert to avoid expulsion - haha. One point he made is that Paul’s letters are very short and the sample size is small, which means that using statistics to try to analyze what Paul’s writing looks like is silly - there just isn’t enough of it. In addition, the letters are addressed to different audiences at different times in Paul’s life. Even more, the same person might write very differently even in the same document - this is in fact very common; especially in letters. Add to that the fact that sometimes an amanuensis was used… So when textual critics claim part of a letter was not written by Paul because it doesn’t match his other letters it’s just silly. While I could not find a more up to date article, the following classic treatise makes some excellent points along the same lines about the documentary hypothesis and may be worth at least a skim.

You also have to remember that the documentary hypothesis is built on a lot of assumptions about when certain religious practices developed in the Israelite community. For example, it is assumed that the priestly regulations and even the laws developed at a later date by some scholars. If these assumptions are wrong, the argument falls apart. Not unlike how critical scholars often date the book of Daniel later in history because they assume that no one could describe future events. Their disbelief in God or the supernatural is impacting the way they interpret the text…

Also, even conservative scholars believe that the Torah did have at least one author other than Moses because Moses could not write about his own death. This is called essential or substantial Mosaic authorship. And frankly, if someone else within the covenant community was led to compile the documents as they were passed down, this does not bother me in the slightest or reduce my confidence in their authenticity.

So why do we say essential or substantial Mosaic authorship rather than just Mosaic authorship? Well, it’s because if you look at the inner testimony of the Pentateuch, it also looks like some of these portions weren’t written by Moses. The key example is Deuteronomy 34. Deuteronomy 34 is the death of Moses. So how can Moses write it? Of course, it’s possible that Moses, prophetically looking forward, wrote Deuteronomy 34. But it doesn’t read that way, does it? It doesn’t read like other prophecies in the Old Testament, instead it just reads like history. So it seems highly probable that Moses commissioned someone, maybe Joshua or another scribe, to finish the book of Deuteronomy for him. Now we also see things in Deuteronomy 34 like, “There has not arisen in Israel prophet like Moses to this day.” That would sound a little bit weird if Moses actually wrote that about himself because he was still alive. So we attribute to Moses essential or substantial Mosaic authorship, saying that the vast majority of the Pentateuch was written by Moses, besides these small portions like Deuteronomy 34 that Moses commissions to be updated or completed upon his death.

We might take a chapter or poem of any one author, sunder out a page, note the striking expressions, then examine the other parts of the work, combine all the passages where the same terms appear, give them the name of a document, and finally declare that all the rest constitutes a second document, and that the two were interwoven by the hand of a redactor so as to form now an apparent unity.

What the critics in reality do by this method, is just by a dexterous but suspicious movement to turn in their favor what is in fact against them. That an Elohistic phrase all at once makes its appearance in the midst of a purely Jehovistic environment, is a most perplexing difficulty, which cannot be relieved by declaring it the result of a variety of hands which have been at work upon the composition of the Pentateuch. For it is a sound critical axiom, that diversity of style and diction can only be verified by a comparison of lengthy passages, whose usus loquendi is exclusive. Isolated exceptional cases turn back upon the theory, and prove exactly the opposite; viz., that the criteria intermingle, which is tantamount to saying that they are no criteria at all (p. 29).

mosaic_origin_pentateuchal_codes.pdf (12.8 MB)


I am not sure that I can add much to the conversation. Still, I have attached a file, The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch, Eight Lectures by U. Cassuto.
Here is an excerpt from the translators forward:

Though summary in form and popular in presentation, it provides a masterly exposition of the Documentary Hypothesis and subjects its exegetical methods and conclusions to a critical probe that is distinguished alike by brilliant scholarship and acute textual analysis. The writer challenges the widely-held theory that the
Pentateuch is an amalgam of fragments excised from various source-documents of different authorship, date, style and outlook. He examines the basic arguments of the prevailing Higher Critical
view one by one, and proceeds to rebut them with compelling logic supported by profound learning. The result is not so much a scientific edifice laid in ruins as the reaffirmation of the Torah’s literary and artistic integrity and the enhancement of its spiritual significance.
You might find this useful. It is available on Scribd.
Cassuto-Umberto-The-documentary-hypothesis-and-the-composition-of-the-Pentateuch-e.pdf (1.0 MB)