“Deuteronomic history” is a term used by biblical scholars for a hypothetical work composed in ancient times that consisted of the books of Deuteronomy through 2 Kings. A variant form used by some scholars is “Deuteronomistic history.”

The hypothesis was proposed by Martin Noth, who in 1943 pointed to the common phrasing and theological themes that permeated those books, and argued convincingly that these similarities were evidence of a single author. This author compiled already existing traditions and supplied his own framework and connecting material, as well as speeches for key characters (e.g., Josh. 24; 1 Sam. 8; 12), to express his view of the history of the people of Israel from the time of Moses to the exile in Babylon. The book of Deuteronomy forms a kind of theological preface for the history, with an introduction (chaps. 1–3) and a conclusion (31.1–13 and parts of chap. 34) supplied. Noth dated this Deuteronomic history to the exilic period because it concludes (2 Kings 25.27–30) with the release of the Judean king Jehoiachin from prison in Babylon (561 BCE). According to Noth, the purpose of the history was to show the exiles that their situation was the result of infidelity to the covenant as set forth in the Deuteronomic laws.

Noth's theory has been widely accepted. It explains why the literary traditions (J, E, and P) found in the first four books of the Pentateuch are absent in subsequent books, and why those traditions end with some abruptness without the fulfillment of the promises made in them. As the biblical books were collected, edited, and arranged, the Deuteronomic history replaced the original endings of the Pentateuchal traditions.

Subsequent scholars have elaborated positive themes in what Noth had suggested was essentially a negative work. One of the most influential refinements of Noth's hypothesis is that of Frank Moore Cross. He began by tracing two contrasting themes throughout the books of Kings: the sin of Jeroboam (1 Kings 13.34; 15.34; 16.19; 22.52; 2 Kings 3.3; 13.2; 14.24; 15.9; etc.), which culminates in the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel and the destruction of Samaria (2 Kings 17), and the faithfulness of David, grounded in the covenantal theology of the southern kingdom of Judah (1 Kings 3.6; 14.8; 15.11; 2 Kings 14.3; etc.). Only two kings meet the standard set by David: Hezekiah (2 Kings 18.3–7) and Josiah (2 Kings 22.2). Since the reforms of Josiah (2 Kings 22.11–23.25) are the culmination of the second theme, Cross argued that the Deuteronomic history had two editions, the first during that king's reign in the late seventh century BCE, serving as a support for his political and religious programs. After Josiah's untimely death in 609 and the fall of Jerusalem in 587/586, the first edition was rewritten to explain and even to justify the exile, as Noth had originally suggested. Other modifications of Noth's hypothesis continue to be proposed, implicitly demonstrating the strength of his original insight.

Russell Fuller