The Pentateuch: A Long History of Study and Research (Sixth part)

The source P. This “source” presents a considerable amount of difficulties. At first it was called Elohist (by the French physician Jean Astruc), then “priestly code” (hence the initials “P”) or “priestly tradition”.

Classically it is believed that P has represented the last editorial phase of the Pentateuch, giving it the general plot. However P contained laws and stories, e.g. the story of the flood (Gen 6-8). The work of P starts from Genesis, where the source is traditionally recognizable in the so-called “toledoth” that structures the first book of the Bible into ten parts.

His language is often conceptual and stereotyped (e.g. he first account of creation in Gen 1:1-2:4a), full of numbers and genealogies. Typical is the interest in the cult and its rituals.

If it is true that P is the Pentateuch’s final redaction this does not mean that P does not have a literary history. The prevailing view is to distinguish three phases:

            1. basic script, which was the basis of source
            2. the collection of laws called “code of holiness” (

Lev 17-26

          ), which dates back to the days of Ezekiel
          3. other additional details

This P chronological sequence entered into crisis. Scholars now believes that P has a  post-exilic origin. But there was the problem of how P had been able to draw on the most ancient tales, i.e. the so-called traditional material. Some thought that P narrative derived from the combination of J and E at the time of Hezekiah (the so-called RJE). Others think instead that P has collected stories hitherto unpublished. Moreover some elements of P seem to stem from the monarchical period, such as the statements of the “Tent of Meeting” (Exodus 25-3135-40). This account cannot be considered just the back-projection of the cult of the Temple service, when this no longer existed, since Temple was destroyed. So goes for the mention of divination objects, like the Urim and Thummim, which obviously no longer existed in the Second Temple period, when the Torah was at the center of jewish life.

J (Jahwist) + E (Elohist) + D (Deuteronomy) + P (Priestly Code): this was then the classical chronology of the sources that formed the classical documentary hypothesis around which flowed the consensus of the scholars, until the first half of XX century. But things changed dramatically after World War II. The Elohist began to disappear and the main interest of scholars focused on J and P.

One of the basic problems was that of the compatibility of the concept of “source” with the notion of “tradition” (Gerhard von Rad and Martin Noth). If a tradition runs transversally through the entire Pentateuch,it is still possible talks about sources, i.e. of crystallized material used by the authors of the Pentateuch?

But it will be especially since the seventies that scholars put the documentary hypothesis to a crisis. Now there are now clear points of no return. (To be continued)

Simone Venturini


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