Documentary hypothesis

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The documentary hypothesis is a theory proposed by many historians and academics in the field of linguistics and literary criticism that the Five Books of Moses (the Torah) are in fact a combination of documents from different sources rather than authored by one individual.

In general, the authorship of all the books of the Bible is still very much an open topic of research. Historians are interested in learning about who wrote the books of the Bible and when they were written. Modern studies on this subject began in the 19th century, and they constitute a lively field of activity even now.

Assigning solid dates to any books of the Bible is difficult. This subject is covered in the article on dating the Bible.


The theory

Background to the theory

The main areas considered by these critics when supporting the Documentary Hypothesis are:

  1. The variations in the divine names in Genesis;
  2. The secondary variations in diction and style;
  3. The parallel or duplicate accounts (doublets);
  4. The continuity of the various sources;
  5. The political assumptions implicit in the text;
  6. The interests of the author.

Doublets and triplets are stories that are repeated with different points of view. Famous doublets include Genesis's creation accounts; the stories of the covenant between God and Abraham; the naming of Isaac; the two stories in which Abraham claims to a king that his wife is really his sister; and the two stories of the revelation to Jacob at Bet-El. A famed triplet is the three different versions of how the town of Be'ersheba got its name.

There are many portions of the Torah which seem to imply more than one author. Some examples include:

  • The creation story in Genesis first describes a somewhat 'evolutionary' process, with first the planet created, then the lower forms of life, then animals, and finally man and woman being created together. It then begins the story again, but this time man is created first, then animals to assuage man's loneliness, and when this failed, Adam's wife Eve was created.
  • The flood story in Genesis appears to claim that 2 of all kinds of animal went on the ark, but also that 7 of certain kinds went on, and that the flood lasted a year, but also lasted only 40 days.
  • Numbers 25 describes the rebellion at Peor, and refers to Moabite women; the next sentence says the women were Midianites.
  • The Ten Commandments appear in Exodus 20, but in a slightly different wording in Deuteronomy 5. A second, almost completely different set of Ten Commandments appears in Exodus 34.
  • In some locations God is friendly, and capable of errors and regret, and walks the earth talking to humans, but in others God is unmerciful and distant (although just).
  • A number of places or individuals have multiple names. For instance, the name of the mountain that Moses climbed to receive the commandments is given in some places as Horeb and in others as Sinai, Moses' father-in-law is known by at least three names in the Hebrew original (יֶתֶר, יִתְרוֹ, and רְעוּאֵל), etc.

There are classical rabbinical interpretations accounting for all of these differences, but many are rather strained and are not in perfect harmony with the actual text.

The modern theory

Missing image

The theory proposes that the Torah was composed from four earlier source texts, which were combined by a redactor (referred to as R)

  • J - the Jahwist. J describes a human-like God called Yahweh and has its main interest reflecting Judah and the Aaronid priesthood. J has an extremely eloquent style. J uses an earlier form of the Hebrew language than P.
  • E - the Elohist. E describes a human-like God initially called El (which is sometimes Elohim according to the rules of Hebrew grammar), and called Yahweh after the burning bush, and has its main interest reflecting biblical Israel and the Shiloh priesthood. E has a moderately eloquent style. E uses an earlier form of the Hebrew language than P.
  • P - the Priestly source. P describes a distant and unmerciful (but just) God sometimes referred to as Elohim and El Shaddai. P partly duplicates J and E, but altering details to suit P's opinion, and also consists of most of Leviticus. P has its main interest in an Aaronid priesthood and King Hezekiah. P has a low level of literary style, and has an interest in lists and dates.
  • D - the Deuteronomist. D consists entirely of most of Deuteronomy. D probably also wrote the Deteronomistic history (Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings). D has its interest reflecting the Shiloh priesthood and King Josiah. D uses a form of Hebrew similar to P, but in a different literary style.

The theory postulates that various collections of remembered traditions were written down both in biblical Israel (producing E) and in Judah (producing J) shortly after their separation. These collections are alleged to have been written by rival priesthoods, E being written by the priests of Shiloh (who were in Israel), J having been written by the Aaronid priests (who were in Judah). The priests of Shiloh (who were Levite as were the Aaronids) had been removed from power by the king of Israel, who instead set up an alternate religion, and as such it is thought that E also reflects this by describing stories appearing to condemn the change (such as referring to a Golden Calf - the symbol of the new version of the religion).

The theory then goes on to state that after the fall of Israel to the Assyrians, the refugees from Israel brought E to Judah, and in the interests of assimilating them into the general population an unknown scribe combined the text with J to produce JE. JE is thought to have been produced, in preference to keeping the texts separate, in order to combine the refugees rather than have them form a separate subversive nation within Judah. As such, it is thought that the creator of JE thought it necessary to retain as much as possible of both J and E, in order to avoid readers and listeners complaining that a text was missing or different, and thus create a schism.

It is thought, in the theory, that due to the centralising religious reform instituted by King Hezekiah, the Aaronid priests created a text (P) which rewrote JE in a light favourable to them and the changes. In addition to performing this change, a few intolerable stories (such as that of the golden calf) were removed, and a few stories were added. Within the text, the author also added a body of laws (constituting most of Leviticus) supported by the Aaronids.

[Note: based on the paragraph above, there should be an arrow in the diagram pointing from JE to P.]

A few generations later, the Shiloh priesthood are thought to have written a law code more favourable to them, and conspired with King Josiah to have it be "found" in the Temple, so that he could base reforms on it (the reforms of Hezekiah having been previously undone by his descendants). A scribe connected to the Shiloh group subsequently created a text (Dtr1) describing the span of time intervening between Moses and Josiah's rule, embedding the law code at the start in the framework of Moses' dying words.

Dtr1 presented Josiah as a parallel to Moses, an ideal king, whose reforms would be the saving of Judah. Unfortunately Josiah was killed in battle with the Egyptian army, and subsequent kings undid his reforms, and shortly afterward Babylon destroyed Judah, burnt the Temple, and killed the royal family. The scribe who created Dtr1 made minor additions (Dtr2) to the text to reflect the additional history, and iron out the flaws in their original presentation of Josiah and the permanence of Judah (by implying that the destruction was as a result of the undoing of Josiah's reforms). The subsequent text is known as D.

When Persia conquered Babylon, the Persian king sent back the exiled elite of Judah, empowering Ezra to dictate the religion. JE and P contained rival histories and rival religious views, and P and D contained rival law codes. Both sets had to be kept to avoid alienating each group in the new creation of the nation, and thus avoid creating a power struggle or a nation within a nation, but the differences needed to be ironed out so that people were certain what the law code and history was. Someone joined the texts together, making only minor additions and changes, creating the Torah, and Ezra read it out. Anyone who disagreed had the Persian king to answer to.

Secondary hypothesis

The secondary hypothesis of the documentary hypothesis is that there were two schools of writers who created the biblical text of the Old Testament, the Priests of Shiloh, and the Aaronid priesthood.

The texts associated with the Priests of Shiloh are:

  • E (the Elohist source of the Torah)
  • the Deuteronomical law code (of the D source)
  • the Deuteronomical history from Joshua to Josiah (of the D source for Deuteronomy, and also Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings)
  • the Book of Jeremiah

The texts associated with the Aaronid priests are:

  • J (the Jahwist source of the Torah)
  • P (the Aaronid re-writing of JE)
  • The book of generations (used by R in the Torah)
  • The book of journeys (used by R in the Torah)
  • the Aaronid law code (Leviticus)
  • the Aaronid history from Joshua to Josiah (1 & 2 Chronicles)
  • the Book of Ezekiel

History of the Theory

Traditional Jewish and Christian beliefs

The traditional Jewish view is that God revealed his will to Moses at Mount Sinai in a verbal fashion. This dictation is said to have been exactly transcribed by Moses. The Torah was then exactly copied by scribes, from one generation to the next. Based on the Talmud (Tractate Gittin 60a) some believe that the Torah may have been given piece-by-piece, over the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert. In either case, the Torah is considered a direct quote from God. Likewise, the traditional view among Christians was that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible, apart from a number of passages, such as the death of Moses, written by his successor Joshua.

Rabbinical biblical criticism

However, classical Judaism notes a number of exceptions: Over the millennia scribal errors have crept into the text of the Torah. The Masoretes (7th to 10th centuries CE) compared all extant variations and attempted to create a definitive text. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra and Joseph Bonfils observed that some phrases in the Torah present information that should only have been known after the time of Moses. Some classical rabbis drew on their observations to postulate that these sections of the Torah were written by Joshua or perhaps some later prophet. Other rabbis would not accept this view.

The Talmud (tractate Shabbat 115b) states that a peculiar section in the book of Numbers 10:35-36, surrounded by inverted Hebrew letter nuns, in fact is a separate book. On this verse a Midrash on the book of Mishle states that "These two verses stem from an independent book which existed, but was suppressed!" Another, possibly earlier midrash, Ta'ame Haserot Viyterot, states that this section actually comes from the book of prophecy of Eldad and Medad. The Talmud says that four books of the Torah were dictated by God, but Deuteronomy was written by Moses in his own words (Talmud Bavli, Megillah 31b). For more information on these issues from an Orthodox Jewish perspective, see Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, edited by Shalom Carmy (Jason Aronson, Inc.) and Handbook of Jewish Thought, Volume I, by Aryeh Kaplan (Moznaim Pub.)

Individual rabbis and scholars have on occasion pointed out that the Torah showed signs of not being written entirely by Moses.

  • Rabbi Judah ben Ilai held that the final verses of the Torah must have been written by Joshua. (Talmud, Bava Batra 15a and Menachot 30a, and in Midrash Sifrei 357.)
  • Parts of the Midrash retain evidence of the redactional period during which Ezra redacted and canonized the text of the Torah as we know it today. A rabbinic tradition states that at this time (440 B.C.E.) the text of the Torah was edited by Ezra, and there were ten places in the Torah where he was uncertain as to how to fix the text; these passages were marked with special punctuation marks called the eser nekudot.
  • In the middle ages, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra and others noted that there were several places in the Torah that apparently could not have been written in Moses's lifetime. For example, see Ibn Ezra's comments on Genesis 12:6, 22:14, Deuteronomy 1:2, 3:11 and 34:1,6. Ibn Ezra's comments were elucidated by Rabbi Joseph Bonfils in his commentary on Ibn Ezra's work.
  • In the twelfth century, the commentator R. Joseph ben Isaac, known as the Bekhor Shor, noted that a number of wilderness narratives in Exodus and Numbers are very similar, in particular, the incidents of water from the rock, and the stories about manna and the quail. He theorized that both of these incidents actually happened once, but that parallel traditions about these events eventually developed, both of which made their way into the Torah.
  • In the thirteenth century, R. Hezekiah ben Manoah (known as the Hizkuni) noticed the same textual anomalies that Ibn Ezra noted; thus R. Hezekiah's commentary on Genesis 12:6 notes that this section "is written from the perspective of the future.".
  • In the fifteenth century, Rabbi Yosef Bonfils while discussing the comments of Ibn Ezra, noted: "Thus it would seem that Moses did not write this word here, but Joshua or some other prophet wrote it. Since we believe in the prophetic tradition, what possible difference can it make whether Moses wrote this or some other prophet did, since the words of all of them are true and prophetic?"
  • Martin Buber reports how his friend and co-translator of Scripture Franz Rosenzweig jokingly used to expand the sigil R for the redactor to Rabbenu — Our Master

The Enlightenment

A number of Enlightenment Christian writers expressed doubts about the traditional Christian view. For example, in the 16th century, Carlstadt noticed that the style of the account of the death of Moses was the same as that of the preceding portions of Deuteronomy, suggesting that whoever wrote about the death of Moses also wrote larger portions of the Torah.

By the 17th century, some commentators argued outright that Moses did not write most of the Pentateuch. For instance, in 1651, Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, ch. 33, argued that the Pentateuch was written after Moses's day on account of Deut. 34:6 ("no man knoweth of his sepulchre to this day"), Gen. 12:6 ("and the Canaanite was then in the land"), and Num. 21:14 (referring to a previous book of Moses's deeds). Others include Isaac de la Peyrère, Spinoza, Richard Simon, and John Hampden. Nevertheless, these people found their works condemned and even banned, and de la Peyrère and Hampden were forced to recant, whereas an attempt was made on Spinoza's life.

The famous French scholar and physician Jean Astruc first introduced the terms Elohist and Jehovist or Elohistic and Jehovistic, in a little book titled Conjectures... sur Genèse ("Conjectures on the original documents that Moses appears to have used in composing the Book of Genesis"), anonymously printed in 1753, noting that the first chapter of Genesis uses only the word "Elohim" for God, while in other sections the word "Jehovah" is used. In the second and third chapters, the title and name are combined, giving rise to a new conception of the Deity as Jehovah Elohim ("Lord—God" as commonly translated in many English Bibles today). He speculated that Moses may have compiled the Genesis account from earlier documents, some perhaps dating back to Abraham, and that these had been combined into a single account. So, he began to explore the possibility of detecting and separating these documents and assigning them to their original sources. He did this, taking as axiomatic that scriptural documents could be analyzed in the same manner as secular ones and the assumption that the varying use of terms indicated different writers.

Using "Elohim" and "Yahweh" as a criterion, Astruc used columns titled respectively "A" and "B", and also set other pieces apart. The A and B narratives he regarded as originally complete and independent narratives. From this was born the practice of Biblical textual criticism that came to be known as higher criticism. J. G. Eichhorn brought Astruc's book to Germany and further differentiated the two chief documents through their linguistic peculiarities in 1787. However, neither he nor Astruc denied Mosaic authorship, nor analyzed beyond the book of Exodus. H. Ewald recognized that the documents that later came to be known as "P" and "J" could be seen in other books. F. Tuch showed that they were also recognizable in Joshua.

W. M. L. de Wette (1780 - 1849) joined this theory to one asserted by 17th century commentators by stating that the Book of Deuteronomy was not written by the author(s) of the first four books of the Pentateuch. In 1805 he attributed Deuteronomy to the time of Josiah (ca 621 BC). Soon other writers also began considering the idea. By 1823 Eichhorn abandoned claiming Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch.

19th Century Theories

About 1822, F. Bleek commented about the original relationship of Joshua to the Pentateuch in its continuation of the narrative in Deuteronomy, of which it formed the conclusion. The letters "J" for Jahwist and "E" Elohist were then designated for the documents. H. Hupfeld followed K. D. Ilgen in identifying two separate documents that used "Elohim". In 1853, Hupfeld set forth Genesis chapters 1-19 and 20 - 50 as being the two separate Elohistic source documents . He also emphasized the importance of the redactor of these documents. The arrangement of the documents that he followed was: First Elohist, Second Elohist, Jehovist, Deuteronomist: J, E, and D.

K. H. Graf showed that Leviticus chapters 17 to 26 were to be discriminated by many individualities from the priestly document, and suggested a fifth document (to which the name "Holiness Code" was attached by A. Klostermann because this body of laws was marked by the declaration of God's holiness, and Israel's duty to be holy as his people.

Julius Wellhausen

In 1886 the German historian Julius Wellhausen published Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (Prolegomena to the History of Israel). In this book he stated: "according to the historical and prophetical books of the Old Testament the priestly legislation of the middle books of the Pentateuch was unknown in pre-exilic time, and that this legislation must therefore be a late development."(2) The letter "P", for priestly, became associated with this view.

Wellhausen argued that the Bible is an important source for historians, but cannot be taken literally. He argued that the "hexateuch," (including the Torah or Pentateuch, and the book of Joshua) was written by a number of people over a long period. Specifically, he narrowed the field to four distinct narratives, which he identified by the aforementioned Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly accounts. He also proposed a Redactor, who edited the four accounts into one text. (Some argue the redactor was Ezra the scribe). Using earlier propositions he argued that each of these sources has its own vocabulary, its own approach and concerns, and that the passages originally belonging to each account can be distinguished by differences in style (especially the name used for God, the grammar and word usage, the political assumptions implicit in the text, and the interests of the author).

  • The "J" source: In this source God's name is always presented as YHVH, which scholars transliterated in modern times as Yahveh (German spelling: Jahwe; the previous transliteration was Jehovah).
  • The "E" source: In this source God's name is always presented as Elohim (Hebrew for God, or Power) until the revelation of God's name to Moses, after which God is referred to as YHVH.
  • The "D" or "Dtr" source: The source that wrote the book of Deuteronomy, and the books of Joshua, Judges, I and II Samuel and I and II Kings.
  • The "P" source: The priestly material. Uses Elohim and El Shaddai as names of God.

Wellhausen argued that from the style and point of view of each source, one could draw inferences about the times in which the source was written (in other words, the historical value of the Bible is not that it reveals things about the events it describes, but rather that it reveals things about the people who wrote it). He argued that the progression evident in these four sources, from a relatively informal and decentralized relationship between people and God in the J account, to the relatively formal and centralized practices of the P account, one could see the development of institutionalized Israelite religion.

A number of Wellhausen's specific interpretations, including his reconstruction of the order of the accounts as J-E-D-P has been questioned, and to a large degree rejected. Biblical scholars today suggest that he organized the narrative to culminate with P because he believed that the New Testament followed logically in this progression. In the 1950s the Israeli historian, Yehezkel Kaufmann, published The Religion of Israel, from Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, in which he argued that the order of the sources would be J, E, P, and D.

Wellhausen resigned his post as professor of biblical studies stating that his theories were causing his students (who were training to be Evangelical Priests) to be unsuitable for the priesthood.

Richard Elliot Friedman

In recent years attempts have been made to separate the J, E, D, and P portions. Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote The Bible? is a very reader-friendly and yet comprehensive argument explaining Friedman's opinions as to the possible identity of each of those authors, and, more important, why they wrote what they wrote. Harold Bloom then wrote "The Book of J", in which he claims to have reconstructed the book that J wrote (though, certainly, some of J's original contribution could have been lost in the consolidation, if one believes the four-author theory). Bloom (picking up on Friedman's earlier speculation) also indicates that he believes that J was a woman, but this is not accepted by other scholars.

More recently, Friedman came out with The Hidden Book in the Bible, in which he makes a comprehensive argument for his theory that J wrote not only the portions of the Torah commonly attributed to J, but also sections of Judges, Joshua and 1&2 Samuel (which Bloom and earlier Biblical scholars attributed to another source, the Court History of David), which contained the bulk of the accounts of the life of King David, with a close thematic interrelationship between the earlier and later portions of what Friedman argues is a single united work by one author of Shakespearean literary ability.

The modern era

The documentary understanding of the origin of the five books of Moses was immediately seized upon by other scholars, and within a few years became the predominant theory. While many of Wellhausen's specific claims have since been dismissed, the general idea that the five books of Moses had a composite origin is still accepted by some historians.

Note that the documentary hypothesis is not one specific theory. Rather, this name is given to any understanding of the origin of the Torah that recognizes that there are basically four sources that were somehow redacted together into a final version. One could claim that one redactor wove together four specific texts, or one could hold that the entire nation of Israel slowly created a consensus work based on various strands of the Israelite tradition, or anything in between. Gerald A. Larue writes "Back of each of the four sources lie traditions that may have been both oral and written. Some may have been preserved in the songs, ballads, and folktales of different tribal groups, some in written form in sanctuaries. The so-called 'documents' should not be considered as mutually exclusive writings, completely independent of one another, but rather as a continual stream of literature representing a pattern of progressive interpretation of traditions and history." (Old Testament Life and Literature 1968)

Opponents of the hypothesis

Fundamentalist Jews and Christians reject the documentary theory entirely, and accept the traditional view that the whole Torah is the work of Moses. For most Orthodox Jews and most traditional Christians, the divine origins of the five books of Moses in its entirety is accepted as a given; divine origins and the documentary hypothesis are considered by them as incompatible. Some Christians, such as the translators of the New International Version of the Bible believe that Moses was the author of much of the text, and was the editor and compiler of the rest of the text. Over the last century an entire literature has developed within these religious communities, dedicated to the refutation of higher biblical criticism in general, and the documentary hypothesis in particular. They have had a tendency to focus on the extra-literary analysis of Pentateuchal scholars such as the oral traditionalists. Recent defenders of the classical view include Rabbi David Zwi Hoffman (known for his responsa titled "Melamed le-Ho'il") of Berlin.

The oral traditionalists, the first of whom was Hermann Gunkel, viewed the Torah originally as a form of saga, much like the Iliad or Odyssey, passed down by word of mouth by an illiterate people. More recently, this point of view has been represented by Scandanavian scholar Ivan Engnell, who believes the whole of the Torah was transmitted orally to the post-exilic period, at which point it was written down in a single document by an author whose attributes match those ascribed to the author that the theory refers to as P.

The view of Heidelberg professor Rolf Rendtorff is that larger chunks of narrative, within the texts the theory calls J and E, evolved independently of other parts of each of these texts, and were not part of a large text like J or E. This view proposes that the narrative was only combined editorially at a later stage, by a Deuteronomic redactor. In this synthesis, he allows for a post-exilic P source, but far reduced from the notions of Wellhausen.

A more critical analysis that rejects the partitioning scheme of Wellhausen includes that of Hans Heinrich Schmid, whose 1976 work, Der sogenannte Jahwist or translated, The So-called Yahwist, almost completely eliminates the J document and, according to Blenkinsopp, if taken to its logical extreme, eliminates all narrative sources other than the Deuteronomic author. Furthermore, some studies have showed literary consistency throughout the Pentateuch, such as a 1980 computer study at Hebrew University in Israel which concluded that the Pentateuch was most likely written by a single author.


  • An authoritative and readable overview is provided by John Rogerson in Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century: England and Germany (1985).
  • Allis, Oswald T. The Five Books of Moses, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., Phillipsburg, New Jersey, USA, 1949, pages 17 and 22.
  • Blenkinsopp, Joseph The Pentateuch, Doubleday, NY, USA 1992.
  • Bloom, Harold and Rosenberg, David The Book of J, Random House, NY, USA 1990.
  • Campbell, Joseph "Gods and Heroes of the Levant:1500-500 B.C." The Masks of God 3: Occidental Mythology, Penguin Books, NY, USA, 1964.
  • Dever, William G. What Did The Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It? William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, USA, 2001.
  • Finkelstein, I. and Silberman, N. A. The Bible Unearthed, Simon and Schuster, NY, USA, 2001.
  • Fox, Robin Lane, "The Unauthorized Version." A classics scholar offers a measured view for the layman.
  • Friedman, Richard E. Who Wrote The Bible?, Harper and Row, NY, USA, 1987.
  • Friedman, Richard E. The Hidden Book in the Bible, HarperSan Francisco, NY, USA, 1998.
  • Kaufmann, Yehezkel, Greenberg, Moishe (translator) The Religion of Israel, from Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, University of Chicago Press, 1960.
  • Larue, Gerald A. Old Testament Life and Literature, Allyn & Bacon, Inc, Boston, MA, USA 1968
  • McDowell, Josh More Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Historical Evidences for the Christian Scriptures, Here's Life Publishers, Inc. 1981, p. 45.
  • Mendenhall, George E. The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.
  • Mendenhall, George E. Ancient Israel's Faith and History: An Introduction to the Bible in Context, Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
  • Nicholson, E. The Pentateuch in the Twentieth Century: The Legacy of Julius Wellhausen, Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Rogerson, J. Old Testament Criticism in the Nineteenth Century: England and Germany, SPCK/Fortress, 1985.
  • Spinoza, Benedict de A Theologico-Political Treatise Dover, NY, USA, 1951, Chapter 8.
  • Tigay, Jeffrey H. "An Empirical Basis for the Documentary Hypothesis" Journal of Biblical Literature Vol.94, No.3 Sept. 1975, pages 329-342.
  • Tigay, Jeffrey, Ed. Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, USA 1986
  • Wiseman, P. J. Ancient Records and the Structure of Genesis Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, TN, USA 1985

See also

External links

pl:Teoria źródeł


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