History of the Documentary Theory of the Pentateuch

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GLEASON L. ARCHER, JR. (1916-2004), (B.A., M.A., Ph.D., Harvard University; B.D., Princeton Theological Seminary; L.L.B., Suffolk Law School) was a biblical scholar, theologian, educator, and author. He was a professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he taught from 1965 through 1991.

UNTIL THE RISE of deistic philosophy in the eighteenth century, the Christian church had always taken at face value the claims of the Pentateuch to have been composed by the historic Moses of the fifteenth century B.C. A few Jewish scholars such as the pantheistic Spanish Jew, Benedict Spinoza (a name derived from espinoso: “spiny, thorny”), had suggested the possibility of later authorship of at least parts of the Torah, but these conjectures had been largely ignored by European scholarship, until the deistic movement created a more favorable attitude for historical skepticism and the rejection of the supernatural. (Spinoza in 1670 had expressed the view in his Tracatus Theologico-Politicus that the Pentateuch could hardly have been written by Moses, since he is referred to in the third person, he rather than by the first, I; nor could he have recorded his own death, as is done in Deut. 34. Spinoza therefore proposed Ezra as the final composer of the Torah (Although this suggestion was largely ignored in his own generation, it constituted a remarkable anticipation of the final formulation of the Documentary Hypothesis by Graf, Kuenen, and Wellhausen in the latter half of the nineteenth century.)

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Early Developments

The Documentary Hypothesis—the theory that the Pentateuch was a compilation of selections from several different written documents composed at different places and times over a period of five centuries, long after Moses—had its beginning with Jean Astruc, a French physician who became interested in the literary analysis of Genesis. He was intrigued by the way in which God was referred to only as Elohim (God) in Genesis 1 and mostly as Jehovah (or Yahweh) in Gen. 2. In his Conjectures Concerning the Original Memoranda Which It Appears Moses Used to Compose the Book of Genesis (1753), he tried to account for this phenomenon by the supposition that Moses used two different written sources which gave two different accounts of creation. He contended that in composing these two chapters, Moses quoted one author who knew of God only by the name of Elohim (presumably the earlier writer) and another author who referred to Him only as Jehovah. While Astruc’s proposal found little immediate favor, it set forth a criterion of source division which before long met with a response from a scholarly world (which was similarly involved in the dissection of Homer’s epics into many different sources) and furnished the first basic assumption of the Documentary Hypothesis, the criterion of divine names.

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The next stage came with the Einleitung in das alte Testament (Introduction to the Old Testament) of Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, published in 1780–1783. He divided the entire book of Genesis, plus the first two chapters of Exodus (up to Moses’ interview with God at the burning bush) between the Jahwist and the Elohist (J and E). He attempted to correlate the supposedly divergent “parallel accounts” and “doublets” (e.g., the “two accounts” of the Flood) with these two “sources” and isolate the characteristic traits of each. He at first attributed to Moses the editorial work of combining these “pre-Mosaic” written materials, but in later editions of his Einleitung he at last yielded to the growingly popular view that the Pentateuch was written after the time of Moses. Thus was the J-E division extended to much of the Pentateuch.

DEFENDING The Authorship of the Pentateuch

The third stage came with the contribution of Willem Martin Lebrecht De Wette concerning Deuteronomy. In his Dissertation Critico-Exegetica (1805) and his Beitraege zur Einleitung (1806), he set forth the view that none of the Pentateuch came from a period earlier than the time of David. But as for Deuteronomy, it bore all the earmarks of being the book of the law which was found by the high priest Hilkiah in the Jerusalem temple at the time of King Josiah’s reform, according to 2 Kings 22. Both the king and the priest were united in the purpose to abolish all worship and sacrifice to Jehovah outside the capital city. Centralization of worship would contribute to closer political unification of all parts of the kingdom, and it would insure that all revenues from the pious would pour into the coffers of the Jerusalem priesthood. Therefore this book was concocted to serve the governmental campaign, and its discovery was then staged at the psychological moment. This pinpointed the date of composition as 621 B.C. (the date of Josiah’s reformation) or shortly before. Thus arose document D (as it came to be called), entirely separate in origin from J or E, and framed to support governmental policy by means of its references (see chap. 12) to the “city which Jehovah shall choose.” This made the roster of “sources” for the Pentateuch include three documents: E (the earliest), J, and the late seventh-century document D.

Strictly speaking, however, De Wette did not belong to the Documentary School, but rather to the Fragmentary Theorists. The Fragmentary Theory of the origin of the Pentateuch was first propounded in 1792 (Introduction to the Pentateuch and Joshua) by a Scottish Roman Catholic priest named Alexander Geddes. Geddes held that the Torah was composed in the Solomonic era from many separate fragments, some of which were as old as Moses, or even older and then were fitted into a historical context.

Geddes’ views were adopted by Johann Vater (Kommentar uber den Pentateuch, 1802), who analyzed the book of Genesis alone into no less than thirty-nine fragments (which of course involved the division of E into diverse elements). While some fragments dated from the Mosaic age, the final combination and arrangement did not take place until the time of the Babylonian Exile (587–538 B.C.). The compelling reason for this later date derives from these passages in the Torah (i.e., Lev. 26:27–45 and Deut. 28:58–63) which predict the Babylonian captivity and the later restoration from Exile. Even the predictions contained in Gen. 49 would imply a later fulfillment after the prediction had been fulfilled. It should be noted, however, that Deut. 28:64–68 was not actually fulfilled until the first and second revolt of the Jews against the Roman powers, which resulted in the Jews being scattered throughout the Mediteranean and the Near East. (Cf. Chap. 18, pp. 281–82) De Wette fell in line with this type of source analysis, alleging that the historical records of Judges, Samuel, and Kings did not betray the existence of Pentateuchal legislation (since the laws of Moses were consistently ignored as if non-existent). Therefore there could not have been any such laws until the later Jewish monarchy.

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There were no major changes in the development of the Documentary Hypothesis between De Wette and Hupfeld. During this intervening period, certain other theories of Pentateuchal composition found able advocates. The Supplementary Theory, advocated by Ewald, Bleek, and Delitzsch, assumed the existence of one basic document or body of tradition (E) which underlay all the rest and which dated from about 1050–950 B.C., i.e., from the time of Saul, David, and Solomon. But this earlier material acquired additions and supplements by the later author of J, who left the earlier E material largely unaltered as he incorporated it with his own.

Heinrich Ewald (of Gottingen and Tubingen) in his Komposition der Genesis (The Composition of Genesis, 1823) stressed that the essential basis of Genesis was very early, even if not quite Mosaic. He discounted Eichhorn’s use of repetitions and headings in the Hebrew text to prove diverse authorship, for he pointed out that early Arabic works (the unity of whose authorship was unquestioned) employed similar techniques as characteristic traits of Semitic style. In his Geschichte Israels (The History of Israel, 1840), he expressed the view that Moses personally composed the Decalogue (Ex. 20) and a few of the oldest laws. Genesis 14 and Num. 33 were also of very ancient origin. But these earlier materials were supplemented by a Book of Covenants, composed by an anonymous Judean in the period of the Judges. In the time of Solomon came a Book of Origins written by an anonymous Levite, containing much of the material of document E. A third supplement came in the ninth century (the time of Elijah) in the form of a biography of Moses. Later still came a prophetic narrator, and lastly a Judean from the time of Uzziah (middle eighth century) who introduced the name “Yahweh” in numerous places and reworked the whole corpus as final editor. This 1840 work of Ewald’s actually involved a departure from the Supplementary Theory to the Crystallization Theory, a modification which regarded each successive contributor to the Mosaic corpus as reworking the entire body of materials, rather than simply adding his own isolated contributions here and there. Thus by successive layers of molecules, a sort of literary “crystal” was built up. (Other advocates of the Crystallization Theory were August Knobel [1861] and Eberhard Schrader [1869], who simplified the growth process somewhat in their treatments of the Pentateuch.)

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The second Supplementarist mentioned above was Friederich Bleek, who in 1822 came out with an extension of literary source analysis to the book of Joshua, thus giving rise to the term Hexateuch (“six volume”) as the form in which the Mosaic tradition found its final written form, rather than in any mere five-volume Pentateuch. In 1836 he published his observations on Genesis, in which he granted that some passages in it were genuinely Mosaic. The first considerable supplementation came in the time of the United Monarchy (tenth century) when an anonymous compiler brought together the earliest form of Genesis. A second important redaction came in the period of King Josiah (approximately 630 or 620 B.C.) by the anonymous compiler of the book of Deuteronomy, who incorporated Joshua also to form the Hexateuch. Bleek later published a complete Old Testament introduction, the second edition of which (appearing in 1865) was soon translated into English (1869). In this work he took a stand against some of the most unwarranted extremes of the literary criticism then in vogue; yet he made many unwise and unjustified concessions to the whole Documentarian approach.

As for Franz Delitzsch, the third Supplementarist scholar mentioned above, he was far more conservative in tendency than were Ewald and Bleek. In his commentary on Genesis, appearing in 1852, he advanced the view that all portions of the Pentateuch attributed by the text itself to Mosaic authorship were genuinely his. The remaining laws represented authentic Mosaic tradition, but were not codified by the priests until after the conquest of Canaan. The non-Mosaic parts of document E were probably composed by Eleazar (the third son of Aaron), who incorporated the book of the covenant (Ex. 20:23–23:33). A still later hand supplemented this work, including Deuteronomy with it. Delitzsch produced a series of excellent commentaries on most of the books of the Old Testament (some of them in collaboration with Karl Friedrich Keil, a pupil of Hengstenberg’s). In the latter part of his career (1880), Delitzsch shifted to a modified form of the regnant Documentary Hypothesis. (Incidentally, Franz Delitzsch is not to be confused with his son, Friedrich Delitzsch, who distinguished himself particularly in the field of Assyriology, and who held somewhat more liberal views of Old Testament criticism than did his father.)

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Mention was made in the previous paragraph of Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg, the leader of the conservative wing of German biblical scholarship. He was a very able defender of the Mosaic authorship of all five books of Moses, and he skillfully refuted the standard arguments for diverse sources which had been purveyed in scholarly circles since the days of Astruc and Eichhorn. His most influential work was translated into English in 1847 as The Genuineness of the Pentateuch, and it did much to bolster the conservative position. As has already been mentioned, he exerted a profound influence upon Friedrich Keil, who became the foremost conservative Old Testament scholar in the German-speaking world during the latter half of the nineteenth century. In America the Princeton Seminary scholars Joseph Addison Alexander and William Henry Green vigorously upheld the same viewpoint, and subjected the Documentarian School to devastating criticism which has never been successfully rebutted by those of Liberal persuasion.

In 1853 appeared the epoch-making work of Hermann Hupfeld, Die Quellen der Genesis (The Sources of Genesis). His contribution to the discussion resulted in what has been termed the “Copernican revolution in the history of the Documentary Theory.” In the first place he subjected document E to a thorough reexamination, and distinguished in it two distinct sources: one (E2) consisting of those rather considerable portions of the Elohist which greatly resembled J in style, vocabulary, and type of subject matter, and which occasionally seemed to contain allusions to material also found in (the presumably later) J. Indeed, if it were not for the divine name (Elohim), it would be very difficult to tell such passages from J. (It should be observed that the admission of the existence of such passages as these dangerously undermined the soundness of using the divine names Elohim and Jahweh as a valid criterion for source division.) Hupfeld therefore segregated such portions (beginning at Gen. 20) from the rest of the E corpus, which latter he adjudged to be the earliest and called the “Grundschrift” (“basic document”) and designated as El. This El document roughly corresponds with what later criticism renamed P, or the Priestly Code. The later E2 (which later came to be designated simply as E) was still a bit earlier than J (the Jahwist). D (the Deuteronomic work) was of course the latest (dating from Josiah’s time). Therefore the correct order of the “documents” was for Hupfeld as follows: PEJD.

It should be mentioned here that Hupfeld was not the first to originate this idea of E division, but was preceded by Karl David Ilgen of Jena, who in 1798 published a work setting forth the view that Genesis was made up of seventeen different documents, among the authors of which were two Elohists and one Jahwist. This work, however, was a product of the Fragmentary School and did not carry very wide or lasting influence.

Hupfeld’s Quellen also emphasized the continuity of the supposed documents El, E2, and J, and tried to demonstrate that when segregated by themselves, the sections of Genesis assigned to each of the three made good sense and could stand in their own right as separate works.8 But most noteworthy of all was Hupfeld’s emphasis upon a hypothetical redactor (i.e., a final editor) who rearranged and supplemented the whole corpus of Genesis through Numbers and who accounted for all the instances where J passages came up with words or phrases supposedly characteristic of E, and vice versa. In other words, wherever the theory ran into trouble with the facts or ran counter to the actual data of the text itself, the bungling hand of R (the alleged anonymous redactor) was brought in to save the situation.

Hupfeld’s contributions provoked new interest in the Documentary Theory among scholarly circles. Particular attention was devoted to document El, Hupfeld’s Grundschrift. First of all appeared the discussion of Karl Heinrich Graf in 1866. Like his teacher, Eduard Reuss, Graf believed that this Priestly Code in the Pentateuch contained legislation which was of later origin than Deuteronomy itself (621 B.C.), for the reason that D shows no acquaintance with the legal portions of P (the Priestly Code), although it does reflect the laws of J and E.9 Hence we are to regard the legislation of P as dating from the time of the Exile (587–539 B.C.). The historical portions of P, however, were undoubtedly very early. Thus the order of the “documents” with Graf turned out to be: historical—P, E, J, D, and legal—P. He felt that E was supplemented by J, and then in Josiah’s time El was redacted by the author of D.

The Documentary Hypothesis—Defending Moses’ Authorship of the Pentateuch

But P was not destined to remain long in the split condition in which Graf had left it. A Dutch scholar, Abraham Kuenen, in his De Godsdienst van Israel (The Religion of Israel, 1869) argued very forcefully for the unity of P, insisting that the historical portions of this “document” could not legitimately be separated from the legal. And since Graf had proved the exilic or post-exilic origin of the priestly legislation, therefore the entire P document had to be late. This meant that what Hupfeld had determined to be the earliest portion of the Pentateuch (his Grundschrift) turned out to be altogether the latest portion of all, which received its final definitive form when Ezra assembled the entire Pentateuchal corpus in time for the public Bible reading ceremony mentioned in Neh. 8. The new order of the “documents” was now: J, E, D, and P. J was the basic document of the Torah (largely because of J’s “anthropomorphic” presentation of God, which was thought to reflect an earlier stage in the evolution of Israel’s religion), and E was incorporated into it afterward. D was added next in Josiah’s time, just before the end of the Jewish monarchy. During the ministry of Ezekiel in the exilic period, the Holiness Code (H), consisting of Lev. 17–26, was formulated as the earliest portion of P; the rest of P originated in the late sixth century and the first half of the fifth century-nearly a thousand years after the death of Moses, in the time of Ezra.

After the work of Hupfeld, Graf, and Kuenen, the stage was set for the definitive formulation of the newer Documentary Theory by Julius Wellhausen, whose most important contributions were Die Komposition des Hexateuchs (The Composition of the Hexateuch), which appeared in 1876, and Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (Introduction to the History of Israel), which came out in 1878 (Berlin: Druck & Verlag von G. Reimer). Although Wellhausen contributed no innovations to speak of, he restated the Documentary Theory with great skill and persuasiveness, supporting the JEDP sequence upon an evolutionary basis. This was the age in which Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was capturing the allegiance of the scholarly and scientific world, and the theory of development from primitive animism to sophisticated monotheism as set forth by Wellhausen and his followers fitted admirably into Hegelian dialecticism (a prevalent school in contemporary philosophy) and Darwinian evolutionism. The age was ripe for the Documentary Theory, and Wellhausen’s name became attached to it as the classic exponent of it. The impact of his writings soon made itself felt throughout Germany (claiming such luminaries as Kautzsch, Smend, Giesebrecht, Budde, Stade, and Cornill) and found increasing acceptance in both Great Britain and America.

THE MOSAIC AUTHORSHIP OF THE PENTATEUCH

In England it was William Robertson Smith (The Old Testament in the Jewish Church, 1881) who first interpreted Wellhausianism to the public. Samuel R. Driver gave it the classic formulation for the English-speaking world (Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament, 1891), although he was personally of somewhat more conservative theological convictions than the architects of the Documentary Theory had been. The same is true of George Adam Smith, who counted himself an Evangelical in theology and yet devoted his skilled pen to a popularization of the Documentarian type of approach to the Old Testament prophets (notably Isaiah and the Minor Prophets, for which he wrote the exposition in the Expositor’s Bible edited by W. R. Nicoll). In the United States the most notable champion of the new school was Charles Augustus Briggs of Union Seminary (The Higher Criticism or the Hexateuch [New York: Scribner’s, 1893]), seconded by his able collaborator, Henry Preserved Smith.

As we shall see in the next chapter, the twentieth century has witnessed a vigorous reaction against Wellhausen and the Documentary Hypothesis, and general confidence in it has been somewhat undermined, even in Liberal circles. Nevertheless, no other systematic account of the origin and development of the Pentateuch has yet been formulated so lucidly and convincingly as to command the general adherence of the scholarly world. For want of a better theory, therefore, most nonconservative institutions continue to teach the Wellhausian theory, at least in its general outlines, as if nothing had happened in Old Testament scholarship since the year 1880. In England, W. O. E. Oesterley and T. H. Robinson’s Introduction to the Books of the Old Testament (London: SPCK, 1934) was basically Wellhausian, although some uncertainties are expressed concerning the comparative dating of the “documents” (J-E may have been contemporaneous with D, and H may have been a bit earlier than D). In American Julius A. Bewer’s Literature of the Old Testament (New York: Longmans, 1922) and Robert H. Pfeiffer’s Introduction to the Old Testament (1948) adhered quite loyally to classic Wellhausianism (although Pfeiffer isolated a new document, S, a pessimistic Edomite source, and also dated the Ten Commandments as later than D, rather than constituting a part of E).

In Germany itself the influence of Form Criticism (which will be discussed in the next chapter) has resulted in an attempt to synthesize the Form Critical approach of Gunkel and Gressman with the Documentarianism of Wellhausen. This synthesis appears most strongly in the work of Otto Eissfeldt (Einleitung in das Alte Testament, 1934, English ed. The Old Testament, an Introduction [New York: Harper & Row, 1965]). In Scandinavia, Aage Bentzen of Copenhagen (Introduction to the Old Testament, 1948) holds mainly to the type of synthesis which Eissfeldt had attempted; but his earlier compatriot, Johannes Pedersen, as well as Sigmund Mowinckel of Oslo and Ivan Engnell of Uppsala, Sweden, inclines far more definitely toward a form-critical or history-of-tradition approach than to Wellhausian source criticism. In England and the United States, however, the rule of Wellhausen continues more or less supreme in most nonconservative schools, and makes its influence felt in many of the more or less conservative schools of the old-line denominations. Therefore we must treat the Documentary Theory as still a live issue today, even though Liberal scholarship on the European continent has administered well-nigh fatal blows to nearly all its foundations.

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Description of the Four Documents of the Documentary Hypothesis

J—written about 850 B.C. by an unknown writer in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. He was especially interested in personal biography, characterized by vivid delineation of character. He often portrayed or referred to God in anthropomorphic terms (i.e., as if He possessed the body, parts, and passions of a human being12). He also had a prophet-like interest in ethical and theological reflection, but little interest in sacrifice or ritual.

E—written about 750 B.C. by an unknown writer in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He was more objective than J in his narrative style, and was less consciously tinged with ethical and theological reflection. He tended rather to dwell upon concrete particulars (or the origins of names or customs of particular importance to Israelite culture). In Genesis, E shows an interest in ritual and worship, and he represents God as communicating through dreams and visions (rather than through direct anthropomorphic contact, after the fashion of J). In Exodus through Numbers, E exalts Moses as a unique miracle worker, with whom God could communicate in anthropomorphic guise.

About 650 B.C. an unknown redactor combined J and E into a single document: J-E.

D—composed, possibly under the direction of the high priest Hilkiah, as an official program for the party of reform sponsored by King Josiah in the revival of 621 B.C. Its object was to compel all the subjects of the kingdom of Judah to abandon their local sanctuaries on the “high places” and bring all their sacrifices and religious contributions to the temple in Jerusalem. This document was strongly under the influence of the prophetic movement, particularly of Jeremiah. Members of this same Deuteronomic school later reworked the historical accounts recorded in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings.

P—composed in various stages, all the way from Ezekiel, with his Holiness Code (Lev. 17–26) ca. 570 B.C. (known as H), to Ezra, “the ready scribe in the law of Moses” under whose guidance the latest priestly sections were added to the Torah. P is concerned with a systematic account of the origins and institutions of the Israelite theocracy. It shows a particular interest in origins, in genealogical lists, and details of sacrifice and ritual.

Summary of the Dialectical Development of the Documentary Hypothesis

  1. Astruc said that different divine names point to different sources—J and E division; this idea was extended more thoroughly by Eichhorn (E earlier than J).
  2. De Wette defined D as a manufacture of Josiah’s time (621 B.C.).
  3. Hupfeld divided up E into the earlier El (or P) and the later E2 (which more closely resembles J). His order of documents was PEJD.
  4. Graf thought that the legal portions of P were Exilic, latest of all, even though historical portions may be early. His order of documents was: P1EJD2.
  5. Kuenen felt that historical portions of P must be as late as the legal. He gave as the order of documents: PEJD.
  6. Wellhausen gave the Documentary Theory its classic expression, working out the JEDP sequence upon a systematic evolutionary pattern.

Observe the contradictions and reversals which characterize the development of this Documentary Theory. (1) Different divine name points to different author (Astruc, Eichhorn), each with his own circle of interest, style, and vocabulary. (2) Same divine name (Elohim), nevertheless employed by different authors (Hupfeld); whereas some E passages really do not greatly differ from J in circle of interest, style, or vocabulary. (3) That Elohist (P) which most differs from J in interest and style, must be the earliest (Jahweh being a later name for God than Elohim). (4) No, on the contrary, this P must be latest instead of earliest (for this fits in better with Evolutionary Theory about the development of Hebrew religion from the primitive polytheistic to the priest-ridden monotheistic.) (5) J of course is later than E (all the critics up to Graf); but no, J is really earlier than E (Kuenen and Wellhausen).

The most thoroughgoing refutation of the Wellhausen hypothesis to appear at the end of the nineteenth century in America was furnished by William Henry Green of Princeton, in his Unity of the Book of Genesis (New York: Scribner, 1895) and Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch (New York: Scribner, 1896). With great erudition and skill he showed how inadequately the hypothesis explained the actual data of the biblical text, and upon what illogical and self-contradictory bases the critical criteria rested.

A general discussion of the fallacies in the Documentary Theory which render it logically untenable will be found in chapter 8. The various criteria used by the Documentarians to prove diverse authorship will be discussed more in detail in chapters 9 and 10. Refutation of specific arguments dealing with particular books in the Pentateuch will be found in the chapters (14–18) which deal with those books.[1]

[1] Gleason Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 3rd. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 89–98.

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