Julius Wellhausen(1844–1918), a great and stormy figure in history of biblical studies, brought together the work of earlier documentary critics in a brilliant synthesis that has dominated the study of the Pentateuch for the last hundred years. In his Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (1883), Wellhausen used his revised sequence of Pentateuchal sources to reconstruct the history of Israel. He regarded the earliest sources, the Yahwist(J) and Elohist (E), as reflections of a primitive and spontaneous stage of nature religion. The latest, the Priestly source (P), which included a great mass of cultic regulations, corresponded to the rigid ecclesiastical institution of the post-Exilic period (after 586 B.C.). Within this scheme of things, Deuteronomy (D) marked the passage from the old order to the new. According to Wellhausen, the publication of the Deuteronomic law (Deuteronomy 12–26) toward the end of the Israelite monarchy in, the late seventh century B.C, brought the old freedom of worship to an end and sealed, the fate of classical prophecy. The Deuteronomic reform insisted on one central sanctuary—the Temple in Jerusalem. All religious authority now depended on a written law; Deuteronomy thus prepared the way for the legalism and ritualism of the post-Exilic period. It is precisely in this period that we find the origins of Judaism. According to Wellhausen, Judaism’s legalistic and ritualistic character has persisted to the present.

While Wellhausen had some harsh things to say about the outcome of this historical process—he referred to it, for example, as a “petty scheme of salvation”—it would be mistaken to all him anti-Semitic. His animus was directed not so much against Judaism itself as against religious institutions, including institutional Christianity

Unfortunately, his enormously influential book appeared at time when anti-Semitism was endemic in German universities and public life in general. In 1879, for example, Heinrich von Treitschke, a renowned professor of history at the University Berlin, coined the slogan Die Juden sind unser Unglück (“The Jews are our misfortune”), widely used in the Nazi epoch.

Although the critical study of the Bible belongs to the intellectual history of the modern world, this study has been carried on in an atmosphere prejudicial to Judaism—which may help explain why, until modern times, relatively few Jewish scholars have participated in it. Now, a century later, Old Testament scholars are searching for alternatives to the Wellhausian hypothesis, there is a clearer awareness of the fact that this this kind of study of Old Testament bears directly not only on Christianity but also on Judaism, as well as on the relation between the two faiths.