Priestly scriptures (bible)

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The term priestly script (abbreviated: P ) has been used in historical-critical biblical studies since the 18th century to denote a source script that was probably processed in the Pentateuch , the five books of Moses.

Research history

With the Enlightenment , historical and critical research into the Bible began in Europe. Since the 18th century, the Bible has not only been received in its function as a revealed word of God , but has also been perceived and examined in its form as a book that has grown over time.

With regard to the Pentateuch, early research discovered tensions and inconsistencies within the text, which in the 18th century led the Hildesheim pastor Henning Bernward Witter and a few decades later the French medic Jean Astruc to develop a new theory about the origin of the Pentateuch. This theory broke with the belief that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch. Witter and Astruc concluded that the five books of Moses were created in a long process of growth from formerly independent sources. Although these source scripts have not been preserved, they can be reconstructed from today's final text using the historical-critical method.

Astruc recognized four independent source scripts within the Pentateuch, which he named with the letters A – D. This thesis was further developed, which in the following decades in Germany mainly involved the researchers Johann Gottfried Eichhorn , Karl David Ilgen , Johann Severin Vater , Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette and finally Julius Wellhausen .

After designations such as "Elohim-Epic" were first used, Abraham Kuenen coined the term Priesterschrift (1880), which has been common since then.

The development led to the formulated by Wellhausen and Martin Noth developed more recent documentary hypothesis that could outline the four sources Astruc historically and content accurately and named them as follows:

The priestly scripture (P) is therefore the youngest of the four sources of the Pentateuch. It was written during the time of the Babylonian exile and worked together with the older sources J, E and D to form a continuous text in the post-exile period.

In the course of the 19th century there was a broad consensus on the scope and form of the priestly scriptures. The “priestly basic layer” worked out by Theodor Nöldeke in 1869 is largely undisputed, despite all the upheavals in Pentateuch research. Since the 1970s, Old Testament scholars have increasingly judged priestly scriptures as the only continuous source.

In recent times, the majority of the thesis is that the basic layer (P G ) was expanded by individual "late priestly" additions (P S ).


The priestly script originated in a first level (basic script - P G ) probably in the 6th century BC. During the Babylonian exile in circles of the former Jerusalem priesthood who must have known the older materials of the later Pentateuch. The experience of the demise of temples and kingship with the Babylonian conquest in 587 BC Chr. Made it necessary to re-portray history from creation to the time of the desert of the Israelites, which emphasized the holiness of the god YHWH and therefore developed a new understanding of sacrifice. It was expanded in post-exile Jerusalem (secondary script - P S ).

The priestly script was probably in the 5th century BC. Worked together with the other sources of the five books of Moses by the so-called Pentateuch editor (abbreviation: R P ).


The priestly scripture tells the story of Israel from the creation of the world ( Gen 1,1) to the death of Moses ( Deut 34,7-9). Research has disputed where exactly the end of the priestly scripture lies. According to some scientists, it is already in Ex 40, according to others, the book of Leviticus ( 3rd book of Moses ) also belongs completely to it. Possibly also in the book Numbers ( 4th Book of Mose ) there are priestly written narratives; in the book of Deuteronomy it is especially the final section.

The story is outlined in the priestly scriptures as a story of revelation with different periods (Exodus 6: 3). There are indications that the Priestly one announced by the pre-exilic writing prophets future ideal as past shows (for example, in gene 6,13  EU the word of the prophet Amos At 8.2  EU and in Ex 25.8 to 9  EU and in ex 29,45  EU f the word of Ezekiel Ezek 37.26 to 28  EU quoted). The goal of the creation of the world is the emergence of Israel as a people (Exodus 1,7) and the establishment of the sanctuary (Exodus 25–31, 35–40), a reduced rear projection of the Jerusalem temple: In the sanctuary of Zion, God wants YHWH dwell in the world, here he wants to sanctify Israel through the atonement which he instituted.

Central texts

The key texts assigned to P include:

Text corpus theme Bible passages
Creation Gen 1,1-2,4a
Genealogy from Adam to Noah Gen 5: 1-32 *
Flood with Noah's covenant Gen 6,9-9,17 *
Peoples table Gen 10.1-7 * .20.22f.31f
genealogy Gen 11.10-27.31f *
Paternal history
Story of Abraham Gene 12,4b.5; 13,6.11b.12abα
Abrahamic Covenant Gen 17 *
Sara's funeral Gen 23 *
Mixed marriages of Esau and weddings of Jacob Gen 26,34f; 27.46-28.9; 29,24.28b.29
Apparition of El Schaddai to Jacob in Bet-El Gen 35: 9-13a.15
Joseph and Jacob in Egypt Gene 41,46a; 46.6f.
Exodus, desert, Sinai
Suppression of Israel in Egypt Ex 1,1-7 * .13f .; 2.23-25
Calling Moses Ex 6.2-12
Five plagues Ex 7.8-12.19-22 *; 8.1-3.11 * .12-15; 9.8-12; 12.1-20 * .28.40f.
Sea wonder Ex 14 *
Manna + Sabbath Ex 16 *
Establishment of the tent sanctuary Ex 24.15-29.46 *; 39,32.43; 40.17.33-35 *
Beginning of the cult Lev 8f. *
Desert and promised land
Scouts Num 13f. *
Disbelief of Moses and Aaron Num 20.1-13 *
Aaron's death Num 20,22-29 *
Announcement of the death of Moses Dtn 32.48-52 *
Death of moses Dtn 34.1 * .7-9 *
* Not all verses "P" can be assigned within the specified places.

Theological profile and stylistic features

Typical of the priestly script is primarily the interest in cultic institutions and rites.

Another peculiarity of the priestly script are its genealogies , the Toledot series as well as their special preference for numbers and precise chronological arrangements. In terms of linguistic style, the priestly script appears rather dry, matter-of-fact and inelegant, but in the opinion of others it appears as a solemn priestly proclamation.

The designation of God, which has been used as a criterion to differentiate between sources since the 18th century, is a complex distinguishing feature with regard to the priestly scriptures. P uses different names for God for the individual epochs of the history of Israel (Ex 6,2f). Within the prehistory (Gen 1–11) P used "Elohim", in the time of the patriarchs "El Schaddai", in the time of Moses "Yahweh" .

The authors see the blame for the Babylonian exile in the turning away of the kings of Israel from their god YHWH. Thus the ideal of a new beginning for Israel after exile is not seen in kingship. Since Israel lost its land with the Babylonian exile, the priestly scriptures paint a new picture of the constitution of Israel. Israel is no longer one people in its own territory, but a community around a sanctuary, and it can thus preserve its identity even when abroad. YHWH is presented in the priestly scriptures as the creator and guide of history. The Babylonian exile is YHWH's judgment, for which he uses the Babylonians .

The covenant (Hebrew ברית / b e rit ) of YHWH with his people is presented in the priestly script as a pure covenant of grace. It consists in the self-commitment of YHWH (Gen 17: 7), for which he does not expect anything in return from people, but which essentially carries a call to the sanctification of the whole life (Gen 9:16). YHWH is not humanized but portrayed as a relatively abstract, transcendent God whose main characteristic is his righteousness. YHWH reveals himself to the people of Israel essentially in the Jerusalem temple cult, with the attribute of "glory" (Hebrew כבוד) and in the image of the "consuming fire" (Ex 24.15-17). The covenant of YHWH promises the people an increase, land ownership and a cultic presence (Gen 17: 2–8). In contrast to the Deuteronomistic diction, b e rit is not constructed with the root כרת in the priestly script, but mostly as נתן / הקים ברית.

The priestly scriptures with the prophet Ezekiel and also Deutero-Isaiah have clear similarities in theology (and language) .


Classic designs

  • Henning Bernward Witter : Jura Israelitarum in Palaestinam terram Chananaeam, commentatione perpetua in Genesin demonstrata. Hildesheim 1711
  • Jean Astruc: Conjectures sur les mémoires originaux, dont il paroit que Moyse s'est servi pour composer le livre de la Genèse. Bruxelles 1753
  • Johann Gottfried Eichhorn: Introduction to the Old Testament. Three volumes, Leipzig 1780–1783
  • Alexander Geddes: The Holy Bible or the books accounted sacred by Jews and Christians. London 1792
  • Karl David Ilgen: The documents of the Jerusalem temple archive in their original form. Volume 1: The documents of the first book of Moses in their original form. Hall 1798
  • Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette: Dissertatio critica. Jena 1805
  • Theodor Nöldeke: The Old Testament literature. 1868; Digital copies: 1 ( BSB ), 2 ( HathiTrust ), 3 ( Google Books ).
  • Theodor Nöldeke: Investigations on the criticism of the Old Testament. Kiel 1869; Digitization: 1 ( ).
  • Julius Wellhausen: The Composition of the Hexateuch and the historical books of the Old Testament. Berlin 1876
  • Julius Wellhausen: Prolegomena to the history of Israel. Berlin 1878
  • Heinrich Holzinger: Introduction to the Hexateuch. Freiburg i. B. and Leipzig 1893
  • Martin Noth: Studies in the history of tradition. Part 1: The collecting and processing historical works in the Old Testament (writings of the Königsberg learned society, humanities class 18.2). Halle: Niemeyer 1943
  • Martin Noth: Tradition of the Pentateuch. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer 1948

Newer literature

Web links


  1. See Witter, Jura Israelitarum .
  2. Cf. Astruc, Conjectures, p. 143 f.
  3. See Eichhorn, Introduction
  4. See Ilgen, documents
  5. Jan Christian Gertz: The first book of Mose (Genesis) . The prehistory Gen 1-11. In: ATD new . Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2018, ISBN 978-3-525-57055-5 , pp. 6 .
  6. See Wellhausen, Prolegomena, p. 8
  7. See Nöldeke, investigations
  8. See Hans-Christoph Schmitt: Arbeitsbuch zum Alten Testament, Göttingen, 2nd edition 2007, p. 193
  9. See Hans-Christoph Schmitt, Arbeitsbuch zum Alten Testament , Göttingen 2005, p. 191 f
  10. See the Sabbath etiology in Gen 2.2
  11. Cf. Gen 6,15f (dimensions of Noah's ark)
  12. Cf. Gen 7:11: Beginning of the Flood in the 600th year of Noah's life on the 17th day of the 2nd month
  13. See e.g. B. Zenger, priestly pamphlet, Pola, priestly pamphlet
  14. Cf. Jan Christian Gertz (ed.), Basic Information Old Testament. An introduction to Old Testament literature, religion, and history . Göttingen 3rd edition 2009, p. 244; Hans-Christoph Schmitt, Arbeitsbuch zum Alten Testament, Göttingen 2nd edition 2007, p. 203
  15. Cf. Jan Christian Gertz (ed.), Basic Information Old Testament. An introduction to Old Testament literature, religion, and history . Göttingen 3rd edition 2009, p. 244; Hans-Christoph Schmitt, Arbeitsbuch zum Alten Testament, Göttingen 2nd edition 2007, pp. 195–197
This version was added to the list of articles worth reading on May 14, 2008 .