The Bible's Buried Secrets

Who Wrote the Flood Story?
by Richard Elliott Friedman

For centuries, scholars from many backgrounds have worked on discovering how the Bible came to be. They were religious and non-religious, Christians and Jews. Their task was not to prove whether the Bible's words were divinely revealed to the authors. That is a question of faith, not scholarship. Rather, they were trying to learn the history of those authors: what they wrote, when they wrote, and why they wrote.

The solution that has been the most persuasive for over a century is known as the Documentary Hypothesis. The idea of this hypothesis is that the Bible's first books were formed through a long process. Ancient writers produced documents of poetry, prose, and law over many hundreds of years. And then editors used these documents as sources. Those editors fashioned from these sources the Bible that people have read for some 2,000 years.

In the following article and interactive feature, explore the Documentary Hypothesis through the story of Noah and the flood.


[Editor's Note: Today, the consensus among many biblical scholars is that there are four main sources (known as J, E, P, and D). These sources contributed to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.]

The process of identifying the biblical sources took centuries. The process of refining our identifications of these sources has been ongoing, and it continues to the present day. Scholars in recent years have proposed many variations, arguing for different identifications, different dates, and different pictures of the editing of the parts into the final work. This has led some to claim that there is a lack of consensus in the field. But that is misleading. The central fact of these sources and editing remains the dominant model among critical scholars, though not among most fundamentalist or orthodox scholars, who remain committed to traditional beliefs.

Initially, it was a tentative division based on simple factors: where the name of God appeared in the texts, similar stories appearing twice in the texts, contradictions of fact between one text and another. Accounts of this early identifying and refining may be found in many introductions to this subject and in my book Who Wrote the Bible? The collection of evidence here is not a review of that history of the subject. It is a tabulation of the evidence that has emerged that establishes the hypothesis. It is grouped here in seven categories, which form the seven main arguments for the hypothesis in my judgment.


When we separate the texts that have been identified with the various sources, we find that they reflect the Hebrew language of several distinct periods.


Certain words and phrases occur disproportionately—or even entirely—in one source but not in others. The quantity of such terms that consistently belong to a particular source is considerable.

Consistent Content

The sources each have different and consistent presentations of central matters, including the priesthood, the ark, the Tabernacle, the time of the revelation of God's name, and the very nature of God.

Continuity of Texts (Narrative Flow)

One of the most compelling arguments for the existence of the source documents is the fact that, when the sources are separated from one another, we can read each source as a flowing, sensible text. That is, the story continues without a break. You can see this demonstrated with the flood story.

Connections With Other Parts of the Bible

When distinguished from one another, the individual sources each have specific affinities with particular portions of the Bible. This is not simply a matter of coincidence of subject matter in the parallel texts. It is a proper connection of language and views between particular sources and particular prophetic works.

Relationships Among the Sources: To Each Other and to History

The sources each have connections to specific circumstances in history. And they have identifiable relationships with each other.

Convergence of Evidence

The most compelling argument for the hypothesis is that this hypothesis best accounts for the fact that all this evidence of so many kinds [mentioned above] comes together so consistently.


The story of Noah and the flood, found in Chapters 6, 7, and 8 of the book of Genesis, is thought to have been composed of two sources referred to as J and P.

Take a closer look


In the first place, it is significant that it is possible to separate the text into two continuous stories like this. And it is even more significant that we can find this throughout the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Five Books of Moses. Thus:

The P text here always calls the deity "God" (16 times). The J text always calls the deity by the proper name "YHWH" (10 times).

The P text uses the word "expired." The J text uses the word "died."

In J, it rains for 40 days and nights, and the water recedes for 40 days. In P, the whole process adds up to a calendar year.

In J, Noah releases a dove. In P, he releases a raven.

P has two of each species of animal, a male and a female. J has 14 (seven pairs) of each species of the pure animals (animals that may be sacrificed) and only two of the animals that are not pure. This is important because J ends the story with Noah making a sacrifice—so he needs more than two of each animal or he would make a species extinct!

P has details of cubits, dates, and ages. J does not.

In J, God is personal and involved: known by a personal name ("YHWH"), personally closing the ark, personally smelling Noah's sacrifice, described as "grieved to his heart." In P, God's name is not yet known ("God," in Hebrew Elohim, is not a name; it is what God is), and there are none of the anthropomorphic descriptions that are found in J.

And the point is not just that these differences are maintained consistently in this particular text. These differences are also consistent with the language and characteristics of the other P and J texts throughout the Five Books. P consistently is concerned with dates, ages, and measurements. P uses the word "expired" for death elsewhere (11 times); it never occurs in J. And the distinction regarding the name of God is maintained through over 2,000 occurrences in the Torah with only three exceptions. In the P creation story, God creates a space (firmament) that separates waters that are above it from waters below. The universe in that story is thus a habitable bubble surrounded by water. That same conception is assumed here in the P flood story, in which the "apertures of the skies" and the "fountains of the great deep" are broken up so that the waters flow in. The word "rain" does not occur. The J creation account, on the other hand, has no such conception, and here in the J flood story it just rains.

One cannot just say that this is the work of clever scholars who divided up the text to come out this way. Just try doing it with any other work of comparable length to the Five Books of Moses. No scholar is clever enough to make all of this come out so consistently.

Some opponents of the Documentary Hypothesis claim nowadays that this hypothesis no longer is the dominant view in the field. Some assert that there is a new consensus. Some even claim that it was disproved long ago and that "no one believes that anymore." In the first place, this claim is just not true. Scholars at nearly all of the major universities and many seminaries in the United States still are persuaded that it is correct, they work in it, and they teach it to their students. The same may be said of most scholars in England, Israel, and other countries. Major commentaries (such as the Anchor Bible), encyclopedias, and introductions treat it. The most common challenges have come from a number of European scholars, but as of this time, they have not responded to the central evidence. Specifically: They have not come to terms with the linguistic evidence, the continuity of the sources, the match of the sources (especially J and E) with history, or the convergence of the lines of evidence.

The Documentary Hypothesis is still the most common view in scholarship, and no other model has a comparable consensus, but in the end the question is not a matter of consensus anyway. It is a matter of evidence. And the evidence for the hypothesis is, in my judgment, now substantial and stronger than ever.


For two centuries (from 922 to 722 B.C.) the biblical promised land was divided into two kingdoms: the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south. A text known as J was composed during this period. It is called J because, from its very first sentence, it refers to God by the proper name YHWH (Jahwe in German, which was the language of many of the founding works in the field of biblical analysis). It includes the famous biblical stories of the garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the flood, the tower of Babylon ("Babel"), plus stories of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as stories of Joseph and then of Moses, the exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Mount Sinai, and Israel's travels through the wilderness to the promised land. J was composed by an author living in the southern kingdom of Judah.

The third main source (out of the four—J, E, P, and D) is known as P because one of its central concerns is the priesthood. In critical scholarship, there are two main views of when it was composed. One view is that P was the latest of the sources, composed in the sixth or fifth century B.C. The other view is that P was composed not long after J and E were combined—specifically, that it was produced by the Jerusalem priesthood as an alternative to the history told in JE. Linguistic evidence now supports the latter view and virtually rules out the late date for P. P, like E, involves both stories and laws. The P laws and instructions take up half of the books of Exodus and Numbers and practically all of the book of Leviticus. The P stories parallel the JE stories to a large extent in both content and order, including stories of creation, the flood, the divine covenant with Abraham, accounts of Isaac and Jacob, the enslavement, exodus, Sinai, and wilderness. Also like E, the P stories follow the idea that the divine name YHWH was not known until the time of Moses.


Richard Elliott Friedman earned his doctorate from Harvard in Hebrew Bible. He is Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia and Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus of the University of California, San Diego. One of the premier biblical scholars in the country, Friedman has written many books on biblical studies, including The Disappearance of God, Commentary on the Torah, Who Wrote the Bible? and The Bible With Sources Revealed. This feature was adapted from The Bible With Sources Revealed with kind permission of the author and publisher, HarperSanFrancisco.

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