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Priestly source

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This article describes the opinion of the DH without taking into account alternative opinions; see the Documentary Hypothesis article for details on the disputes to this theory.

The Priestly Source (P) is the most recent of the four chief sources of the Torah, according to the long-established "standard" Wellhausen (or Graf-Wellhausen) formulation of the Documentary Hypothesis (DH). It was work of an Aaronid priest and as such reflects, among other characteristics attributable to priests, the rigorous emphasis of censuses and genealogies.[1] It describes conditions during and after the Babylonian exile, c 550-400 BCE and hence is thought to have been incorporated into the Torah c 400 BCE.[1]

Nature of the Priestly text

This source is thought to have written the majority of the book of Leviticus, as well as stories that parallel those in J (the Jahwist text) and in E (the Elohist text), suggesting it was composed after J and E had been integrated into a JED proto-Torah.

P emphasizes the position of the priesthood and particularly of Aaron, and always presents Aaron as being present when Moses does something on God's behalf. God works miracles through Aaron's staff, rather than Moses'. P also denigrates Moses' ability to continue to perform as leader by stating that, on descent from having become close to God at the mountain where he received the commandments, he was changed in such a way that no-one could bear to look at him. From the 1st century until the Renaissance, a misreading of a Hebrew word was responsible for the idea that the change included a pair of horns (see Moses for details). Michelangelo's Moses is one example of this image.

Further denigration of the heroes of the non-Aaronid priesthood occurs in P's treatment of Nadab and Abihu, who in J are described as being taken, with Moses, to meet God in person. In P, contrastingly, Nadab and Abihu are condemned for offering strange fire, and destroyed by God.

P is notable for its repetition of lists, long, unexciting, interruptions to the narrative, cold unemotional descriptions, and the lack of a high literary standard. While P uses Elohim and El Shaddai as names of God, unlike the Elohist, P treats God as transcendental, and distant, acting only through priests, and communicating only via the priesthood. In P, while God is just, God is also unmerciful, and applies brutal, and abrupt, punishment when laws are broken, such as killing 12,000 people with an instant plague, merely because they complained. P is regarded by the majority of scholars as particularly inelegant, and most think themselves able to recognize a text from P on sight due to this.

Contrasted with JE

The Priestly source follows the combined JE source based on the Jahwist and Elohist narratives, although the narrative of the priestly source is noticeably small. However, much of JE appears to have been excised in the priestly source, in particular, stories not directly concerning Judah, or its heroes, are simply not present. None of the stories involving the plain and Lot, except for a passing mention in a single verse of Sodom and Gomorrah, nor Esau and Edom, are present, and neither are any tales concerning Joseph, the hero of the Kingdom of Israel.

The source also cuts out any story that implies direct contact with, or intervention by, God is possible and cannot be rewritten to involve an Aaronid priest as intermediary, due to the timeframe being before Aaron. Thus the priestly source does not include the story of the Garden of Eden, of Cain and Abel, of Nephilim, or of Babel, nor of Jacob wrestling with god, Isaac's near sacrifice, nor Balaam the prophet and his divine talking donkey. Stories that imply places other than Jerusalem can be religious are also cut, such as that of the Nehushtan, of Beersheba, and of Galead. The priestly source also cuts out any stories which contradict its own law code, as expressed in Leviticus, such as the tale of Jacob and the blemished flock, which implies that it was the blemished flock that was divinely chosen, not the unblemished, and the tale of the rape of Dinah, which implies that the act of circumcision is all that is required for a non-Jew to marry a Jew.

The favouritism of Aaronid priests extends to the priestly source not including any tale casting Aaron negatively, such as that of the Golden Calf, or of Snow-white Miriam. However, it also extends to cutting tales casting Moses, hero of non-Aaronid priests, as being in any way divine or having divine authority by himself. In this manner, the tale of Moses being cast in the reeds, sent into exile, and given divine power to make signs of his authority, having met god in a burning bush, is simply reduced to an ordinary man called Moses being appointed by God to simply speak for him, while Aaron carries out his tasks. It is noticeable that in the priestly source, it is Aaron's staff that produces water from rocks, splits the sea, and casts plague over Egypt, whereas it is that of Moses in JE.

Another reason for the brevity of the narrative in the priestly source, which is otherwise occupied with an extensive set of laws, descriptions of ritual objects, and numbers, is its preference for describing family relationships as simple genealogies, rather than the stories that are used for the same function in JE. The loss of elegance, and ease of reading, that this produces is typical of the poor literary ability of the priestly source. However, when it comes to adding tales enforcing Aaron's divine superiority over other would be priests, the priestly source proves surprisingly capable. Both the tale of how Aaron's staff flowers whereas the others do not, and the recasting of the JE tale, of the rebellion against Moses by Dathan and Abiram, into a tale of Korah and others attempting to offer incense and thus being killed by God, are not badly written.

The priestly source also introduces a few tales concerning the Levites and their rights. The tale concerning the appointment of the Levites clearly favours the Aaronid priesthood, as does the tale concerning the allocation of Canaan, in which certain cities are described as being allocated to the Levites in perpetuity, neither of which tales are present in either the Jahwist or Elohist sources. A tale whose political purpose is not so clear, which was introduced by the priestly source, is that of the cave of Machpelah, which some academics have proposed is a tale designed to assert land rights to the area around the cave, whereas others have proposed it is designed to assert what the priestly source saw as the correct form of disposal of the dead: burial in a cave.

Unfortunately, the partial elegance of original narrative in the priestly source, does not extend to the attempts to present portions of the law code as case law. Many of the descriptions of ritual objects, census data, and legal rules, are cast as the situation being carried out, but are simply repeated to the letter. The priestly source often repeats logorrhoeic phrases extensively, where cutting the phrase altogether would lose no content, and make it much more readable, for example the phrase By their generations, after their families, by the house of their fathers, According to the number of the names, by their polls, every male from twenty years old and upward, all that were able to go forth to war; Those that were numbered of them is repeated for each tribe in the census, as well as spelling out obvious conclusions, such as .... Of Shupham, the family of the Shuphamites, Of Hupham, the family of the Huphamites ...., leading to whole chapters being written rather than single verses.

Note that all of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures were originally written without commas, and similar modern punctuation.

The dating of the Priestly text

P is considered by the Documentary Hypothesis to have been written at a time after the fall of the northern kingdom.

Early theories asserted that P was written after the Babylonian exile, claiming that P appears to have been written after the Prophets ceased (since it does not mention Prophets, and the Prophets do not use passages from P); the references to a tabernacle were read as a coded reference to the temple, intended to support the priesthood and the new temple (as there is no other reference to either old or new temples). Centralisation is supposedly assumed as being normal.

However, later versions of the DH have discredited this theory, claiming that the lack of mention of prophets is due to the desire by P to assert that only the priesthood can act as intermediaries with God, that the post-Babylonian prophets do use P (for example, Ezekiel uses certain passages from P word for word), that the tabernacle was a reference to an object put inside the temple - under the cherubim (its dimensions corresponding), and that centralisation was something that the creator of P desired to enforce.

Since P follows the layout and stories of JE, but uses a later form of Hebrew, it is thought that the writer of P must have seen the text of JE, and as such P must date after JE was created. JE is associated with the fall of biblical Israel, and thus requires P to have been created after 722BC. This date, however, leaves almost 200 years in which P could have been created, while still being before the exile. Israel Finkelstein [2] suggests J was composed during the reign of Hezekiah, with the result that JE would have been integrated later, leaving less time for the composition of P. It is proposed that Jeremiah's diatribe against the "false Torah", was an attack upon the Aaronid slurs against Moses, the hero of the Shilonite priesthood, suggesting that P may have been in independent existence during the reign of Josiah.

The origin of the Priestly text

King Hezekiah carried out a religious reform, centralising the religion into the Temple at Jerusalem. Hezekiah destroyed the high places (religious centres outside Jerusalem), and eliminated all religious symbols outside the Temple (including the Nehushtan).

According to the DH, JE came to the attention of Aaronid priests during Hezekiah's reign after his reforms. JE contained the story of the Golden calf, denigrating Aaron. It also contained stories supporting a human-like God who is merciful, and can act through intermediaries other than priests. Furthermore, it supported multiple religious locations and told the story of the Nehushtan. JE had been circulating since 722BC.

The DH states that a priest chose to rewrite JE to suit the reform and the Aaronid ideal. As such, their new text, P, followed JE and duplicated its stories, cutting out those elements which did not fit the new religion, such the Golden calf story. The author of P also desired to assert a set of laws whose opinion suited the Aaronid priesthood and King Hezekiah. The original collection of these is known as the Holiness Code, thought to be an earlier law code, which P inserted into the text at the position taken in JE by the Covenant Code.

Spinning tales

Where the author read a story of a personal action by God, or a mystical plant or object, it was rewritten to produce a distant god, or simply cut (for example, P describes a more esoteric creation story, and refers to the idea that the earth is a bubble inside a pool of water in the flood story - unlike JE which simply claims it rained).

Where the author read a story describing an action by a talking animal, or some other non-Aaronid intermediary, including Moses, P rewrote it to assert Aaron's involvement or that of his descendants (for example, changing things as having occurred due to use of Moses' staff into requiring the staff of Aaron).

Some stories the author changed to assert the sole jurisdiction of Aaronid priests, for example by changing the story of a rebellion (JE and P are combined as Numbers 16) from one against Moses by a few challengers, into one against the priesthood of Aaron by non-Aaronid Levites.

Some stories are thought to have been changed because other editing by the author made it necessary, for example, Joshua was added as another scout who supported Caleb's opinion to explain why Joshua became the leader, since the stories about the golden calf (where Joshua was the one who did not succumb), and of Joshua guarding the tabernacle (P only allowed priests into the tabernacle), had been excluded.

A few stories are believed to be created entirely by P, such as that of the cave of Machpelah, to assert Aaronid claims (in the case of Machpelah, in order to justifying the importance of the Aaronid city of Hebron, in which the cave was situated).

Accretion of material

During the period that P circulated amongst the Aaronid priesthood, several scribes [3] are thought to have added extra materials, mostly concerning laws, into the work. While the original version of P is known as the Grundschrift (Pg), there is no fixed name for the various later additions. In particular, while the additions are identifiable by features such as colophons, abrupt interruptions to the narrative, and so forth, it is difficult to identify which additions were made at the same point, or by the same scribe.

The supposed additions fall into several groups

  • The Priestly Code, the accreted collection of laws and rituals which were in addition to the Holiness Code
  • The set of duties for the Levite families (Numbers 3:5-10 ? )
  • The three sets of numbers for the Israelite census (Numbers 1, 2, and 26), each being added by a different scribe
  • The instructions concerning the creation of an altar of incense (Exodus 30-31), and the description of the construction of the ritual objects (Exodus 35-40), being added to an earlier instruction concerning the creation of the Ark of the Covenant, and its surroundings
  • The creation of brass broadplates for the altar, from misused censers (Numbers 16:16-17, and 16:36-40)
  • The altar dedication gifts (Numbers 7, except 7:89)
  • The list of Midianite spoils, and associated battle (Numbers 31, and 25:16-17)
  • The description of the borders of Canaan (Numbers 34:1-15)

List of texts regarding Aaron in the Priestly Source

Response to the production of P

The prophet Jeremiah lived under the king Josiah (a later king than Hezekiah), and originated from the Shiloh priesthood. As such Jeremiah would have been hostile to P, and would have preferred JE to it. On one occasion Jeremiah (according to the Book of Jeremiah) states

How do you say "We are wise, and the Lord's Torah is with us"? In fact here it was made for a lie, the lying pen of scribes (Richard Elliott Friedman version)

Many supporters of the DH think Jeremiah was complaining about the Aaronid's production, the Priestly source.

The authors of Chronicles were heavily influenced by the Priestly source.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.
  2. Finkelstein, Israel and Silberman, Niel Asher (2001), "The Bible Unearthed"
  4. Gary N. Knoppers, I Chronicles 1 - 9 (New York:Doubleday, 2003), p. 404

External links

hu:Papi kódex

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