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Who Invented the Deuteronomist – and Why?

Even if Moses was considered to be the author of the Pentateuch for centuries, awareness that the first five books of the Old Testament should be seen as a unified, complex literary work has always been present to some degree. With the emergence of Biblical Criticism at the beginning of the 18th century, scholars endeavoured to provide a more systematic explanation for the irregularities evident in this literary complex. Relatively early in this process, scholars drew attention to the unique place that the book of Deuteronomy occupies within the Pentateuch, particularly on account of its characteristic language, style and theology.

See Also: The Deuteronomist's History (Brill; Lam edition, 2015).

By Hans Ausloos
Professor of Old Testament
F.R.S.-FNRS / Université catholique de Louvain
March 2016

Genesis–Numbers versus Deuteronomy

Martin Noth’s contribution to Old Testament scholarship can hardly be overestimated. Even if Noth did not invent the term ‘Tetrateuch’ himself – it was Ivan Engnell who began using this term – his denial of the possibility that the ‘sources’ J, E and P also continued in the book of Joshua was at the origin of the hypothesis that a clear distinction should be made between the first four books of the Pentateuch – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers – and the book of Deuteronomy. In Noth’s view, the latter book should be regarded as the beginning of the so-called Deuteronomistic History. Therefore, in his work Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien (1943), Noth could write: ‘Within the books Genesis–Numbers, there is no trail of a “Deuteronomistic redaction”’. Nevertheless, in a footnote, he added: ‘The fact that there are some passages, where the original text has been expanded in a Deuteronomistic style, such as Exodus 23:20-33 and 34:10-16, can not be regarded as traces of an encompassing Deuteronomistic redaction’.

This statement placed Noth at a considerable distance from the then prevailing tendency in historical-critical research into the first five books of the Old Testament. Since the end of the 19th century, scholars then considered the ‘Deuteronomist’ to be almost universally present within the books of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and even Leviticus. Nevertheless, there is nothing novel to scholars being interested in the relationship between passages in Genesis–Numbers, and the so-called Deuteronom(ist)ic literature, of which the book of Deuteronomy and the so-called Deuteronomistic History served as a prototype. On the contrary, scholars had exhibited particular interest in the question of the relationship between Genesis, Exodus, Numbers and Leviticus on the one hand, and Deuteronomy on the other hand, as early as the beginning of the 19th century.

The origins of a problem

Even if Moses was considered to be the author of the Pentateuch for centuries, awareness that the first five books of the Old Testament should be seen as a unified, complex literary work has always been present to some degree. With the emergence of Biblical Criticism at the beginning of the 18th century, scholars endeavoured to provide a more systematic explanation for the irregularities evident in this literary complex. Relatively early in this process, scholars drew attention to the unique place that the book of Deuteronomy occupies within the Pentateuch, particularly on account of its characteristic language, style and theology. For instance, when dealing with the Promised Land, the author of Deuteronomy often refers to it as a land ‘flowing with milk and honey’ (6:3; 11:9; 26:9, 15; 27:3). He characterises loyalty to the Law as ‘to love YHWH’ (6:5; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 13:4; 19:9; 30:6, 16, 20). Elsewhere, the author describes God leading the Israelites with ‘a strong hand an outstretched arm’ (4:34; 5:15; 7,19; 11:2; 26:8). From a stylistic perspective, Deuteronomy has been characterised as a ‘parenetic’ book due to its appeal to the collective experience, often followed by the promise of a special relationship with God, contingent on obedience and keeping of the covenant. The Numeruswechsel – the switching between 2nd person singular and 2nd person plural when addressing the Israelites – has also often been regarded as a typical feature of Deuteronomy’s style. As to typical Deuteronomic content, we can refer to Deuteronomy’s accentuation of the necessary extermination of the autochthonous Canaanite population.

This particular position of the book of Deuteronomy received strong emphasis in the insights of Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette. In 1805, he isolated the book of Deuteronomy as an independent work and identified it (or at least parts of it) with the legal code found during the reign of King Josiah (8th century BCE), the account of which is to be read in 2 Kings 22–23. At the same time, De Wette not only suggested that Deuteronomy was discovered during Josiah’s reign, but that it had in fact come into existence by his agency.

The first solutions

In 19th century critical scholarship, the Pentateuch was increasingly understood to be a complex that had been subject to several redactions. Within this complex, more and more scholars began to regard Deuteronomy as a book that established its own accents. Nevertheless, a careful reading of the first four books of the Pentateuch led to the conclusion that these so-called typical Deuteronomic features could also be detected at seemingly random passages outside Deuteronomy. The books of Exodus (3:17; 13:5; 33:3), Leviticus (20:24) and Numbers (13:27; 14:8; 16:13, 14), also present the Promised Land as a land ‘flowing of milk and honey’. The Decalogue in Exodus (20:6) also characterises obedience to the law as ‘loving YHWH’. One can also read the typically Deuteronomic motif of ‘a strong hand’ and/or ‘an outstretched arm’ in the books of Exodus (3:19; 6:1, 6; 13:9: 32:11) and Numbers (20:20). Further, the Numeruswechsel is also present in the epilogue of the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 23:20-33, and there is the ‘Deuteronomic’ demand to expel the autochthonous peoples out of the Promised Land. The challenge of scholarship is clear: how to explain this presence of so-called typical Deuteronomic language and style in the other books of the Pentateuch?

When historical-critical scholarship started to develop, this question of the relationship between Deuteronomy and the other books of the Pentateuch, and in particular the presence of specifically Deuteronomic language, style and theological accents within Genesis–Numbers, was not yet approached systematically – at least not to any serious degree. This particular issue, however, started to play a role through the work of Friedrich Bleek. In 1822, Bleek proposed a twofold redaction within the books of Genesis–Joshua. Situating the first during the still undivided kingdom, Bleek ascribed the second redaction to the author of Deuteronomy himself. This redactor not only relocated the final chapters of Numbers to the end of Deuteronomy, but also made several interpolations in Leviticus (17; 26:3-45). With Bleek, the ‘Deuteronomist’ was born.

While Bleek regarded Leviticus 17 and 26 as Deuteronomic passages, in 1840, Ernst Bertheau was most probably the first scholar to observe Deuteronomic elements in the book of Exodus as well. In the same period, Johann Jakob Stähelin identified the ‘Jehovist’ – who, according to him, supplemented the Elohistic basic narrative – with the author of Deutero-nomy, and identified his hand within several passages of the book of Genesis. It was these scholars and others who generated more and more interest was shown for so-called Deuteronomic verses and passages within the first four books of the Pentateuch.

The Deuteronomist’s acme

A real impetus for attributing (parts of) verses in Genesis–Numbers to a Deuteronomic redactor came at the end of the 19th century from John William Colenso, a missionary bishop in South Africa. Mainly on the basis of the comparison of the vocabulary of Deuteronomy on the one hand, and Genesis–Numbers on the other, he concluded that the Deuteronomist wrote more than one hundred verses of the latter complex. This Deuteronomist, who introduced numerous interpolations in Genesis–Numbers, and expanded the whole with his own work, namely the book of Deuteronomy, should be identified as the prophet Jeremiah. Although there has been scant reference to Colenso after his death, it cannot be denied that he launched the hypothesis of an encompassing Deuteronomic or Deuteronomistic redaction of first four books of the Old Testament.

Colenso’s emphasis on the presence of Deuteronomic elements in Genesis–Numbers notwithstanding, his contemporaries Abraham Kuenen and Julius Wellhausen, founding fathers of the traditional source-critical model of the Pentateuch (the JEDP-model), were much more nuanced with regard to the literary relation between Genesis–Numbers and Deuteronomy. Although they accepted the hypothesis that texts from the so-called Tetrateuch, which appeared to have a strong association with Deuteronomy in terms of vocabulary, style and theology, should be ascribed to a redactor (RD), who was said to have revised and supplemented the work of the so-called ‘Jehovist’ (JE) along Deuteronomic lines, they also suggested the possibility that the older JE-work already showed some traces of the Deuteronomic ideas, concluding thereby that the typical Deuteronomic style, vocabulary and theology did not come out of the blue. Nevertheless, when this JEDP-model became accepted as the best model to explain the origin and growth of the Pentateuch (even when serious objections and modifications were made to it) during the first half of the 20th century, most scholars were gradually convinced of the hypothesis of a redactor who reworked the older ‘sources’ of the Tetrateuch in a Deuteronomic or Deuteronomistic spirit. Further, in 1943, when Noth characterised the book of Deuteronomy as the inception of an extensive ‘Deuteronomistic History’ and detached this book from the ‘Tetrateuch’, the Deuteronomist kept up his position as an author or redactor who expanded certain pericopes in Genesis–Numbers in Deuteronomistic fashion.

From early proto-Deuteronomic...

In spite of the almost universal acceptance of Deuteronomistic elements in Genesis–Numbers, some scholars, following in the wake of the protagonists of the Documentary Hypothesis, continued to draw attention to in the fact that the style and ideas associated with the ‘older’ JE-texts have an affinity with the language, style and theological convictions of the Deuteronomist. In doing so, they argued that one could discern evidence of a preliminary stage of the Deuteronomic tradition in certain passages of the Tetrateuch. It was only in 1963, however, that this possibility was explored anew. In that year, Chris Brekelmans and Norbert Lohfink suggested the possibility that the texts in Genesis–Numbers, which had been associated with a Deuteronomistic redaction, should rather be considered as preparatory for the stereotypical language of the Deuteronomist, and not necessarily as dependent upon him. Together, but independently, they introduced the term ‘proto-Deuteronomic’, a generic name that fits into the encompassing Deuteronom(ist)ic line of tradition, thus referring to the beginnings of that tradition, which also may be found outside the compositional unit Deuteronomy–Kings.

... to late post-Deuteronomistic

The debate about the presence of Deuteronomic material within the Tetrateuch reached a turning-point in the 1970’s. A variety of scholars, among whom we may regard Frederick Winnett, Rolf Rendtorff, Martin Rose, Hans Heinrich Schmid and John Van Seters as pioneers, were at the origin of a real paradigm shift in Pentateuch studies. Each in their own way, and with their own specific accents, they came to associate more and more pericopes from Genesis–Numbers with a sweeping Deuteronom(ist)ic redaction process. In the wake of the Documentary Hypothesis, verses exhibiting Deuteronom(ist)ic language and Deuterono-m(ist)ic ideas were considered up to circa 1970 to be slightly interfering interpolations – with the exception of the authors who describe those passages as proto-Deuteronomic. For the 1970’s onwards, however, one can observe that the same texts acquired much greater significance in the various hypotheses concerning the origins of the Pentateuch. Since that time, scholars have argued that the passages in question are often evidence of the hand of one or more (post-)Deuteronomistic redactors, or even authors, who collected available traditions, regardless of whether those authors were setting down those traditions for the first time, or redacting an earlier record. Scholars even go a lot further in characterising those passages as post-Deuteronomistic post-Priestly additions, thus being part of the latest stadia in the formation of the Pentateuch.

Under the influence of these studies, it almost became a moral obligation to identify the impact of Deuteronomistic literature on Old Testament texts – and not just the Tetrateuch. This tendency – often labelled ‘pan-Deuteronomism’ – appears to have brought the research concerning the origin and identity of Deuteronom(ist)ic elements in Genesis–Numbers to something of an impasse. Since scholars now consider the entire Pentateuch to be a relatively young composition, and therefore dependent on Deuteronomistic literature, it has become very difficult to find good criteria for investigating the nature of the relationship between passages in the Tetrateuch and the Deuteronomistic corpus. The fact that there is a relationship is mostly undisputed; the direction of the relationship, however, is much more difficult to determine. For example, one can easily invert the view that a so-called proto-Deuteronomic redaction did not yet reflect the stereotypical language and theology of the Deuteronomist: one can consider a text to be dependent upon the Deuteronom(ist)ic literature precisely when one can no longer discern stereotypical Deuteronom(ist)ic language and themes. Still, the quest of the Deuteronom(ist)ic elements in Genesis–Numbers remains one of the crux interpretum of Old Testament biblical exegesis.

Suggestion for further reading:
The Deuteronomist’s History. The Role of the Deuteronomist in Historical-Critical Research into Genesis–Numbers (Old Testament Studies, 67) Leiden – Boston: Brill, 2015 (

Comments (1)

Lebetechte de Wette's identification of Deuteronomy with the Josiah law code was anticipated bybThomas Hibbes 150 years before. Hobbes does not present this idea (Leviathan 43£) as a startling innovation: he gives the impression that in 'liberal Anglican' circles it was a fairly acceptable idea
#1 - Martin Hughes - 03/04/2016 - 20:35

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