The Priestly Work as a Theory of Ritual

The Priestly tradition, whose work you can read here, contains what is arguably the oldest coherent theory of ritual in Western tradition. Why do religious people sacrifice, eat certain things and avoid others, or follow other special forms of behavior in life to please their god? Earlier, Babylonian scholars made brief speculations about why a ritual worked–an exorcism could prevent an earthquake because the two come from the same source, Ea, the god of magic and the waters beneath the earth. And later, ancient Greeks discussed where sacrifice comes from and why it is done in their myths and essays. But the Priestly work is the first milestone in this tradition of religious thought, and by far the richest.

This site makes the Priestly work freely accessible for the first time to students, scholars of comparative religion and social theory, and the general public. Its intellectual significance comes from the fact that this biblical source is not only the most detailed body of ritual law from the ancient Near East but also a story about how ritual came to be: Priestly law is embedded in a narrative of how the universe was created to facilitate its observance and how it was transmitted to human beings on earth, via Moses. Yet it has not been possible to read it on its own until now. Obscured by the extensive editing that placed it at the heart of the Bible, its remarkable picture of ritual remained formative to early Jewish mysticism, Christianity's theory of sacrifice, and the Rabbinic imagination of law and ritual. This makes it an enduring, if forgotten and suppressed presence in the Jewish and Christian intellectual heritage. But it provides a powerful contrast with contemporary theory in its picture of the nature of ritual action–what religious activity is and why it works. The result can help enlarge the historical depth of our thought on the nature of language, ritual, and performance.

Research on the Priestly Work: Discovering the Body Buried in the Bible

It was during the 18th century that religious scholars glimpsed the outlines of a previously invisible form of ancient artifact, buried in plain sight in Europes most widely-read book. The first suggestion as to the shape of this hidden artifact was by a French Catholic doctor, Jean Astruc, who in 1753 wrote a book called “Conjectures on the Original Documents that Moses Used in Composing Genesis.” Sifting the text by divine name, he separated the creation and flood accounts into parallel columns. What he and his successors uncovered was a sacred text effaced not by dirt or damage but by words, additional layers of words made of the very same language that the original artifact itself was made of. But the shape underneath was clear nonetheless. For over 2000 years readers had been perplexed by the way the Bible layers together multiple versions of stories and laws. Pious scholars in ancient times, both Jewish and Christian, puzzled over whether God really created humanity twice (male and female at once after the animals in Genesis 1, or male, then animals, then female, as in Genesis 2-3)? Why do his commandments at once permit, utterly prohibit, and then merely limit the enslavement of fellow Israelites (Exodus 21, Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15)?

It turns out that underneath the Five Books of Moses is a different structure, made of sharply distinct interlocking parts, that gives it its shape. This best-defined and most clearly recognizable foundation was what scholars first called the Founding Document (German Grundschrift; e.g. Nöldeke 1869).1 Recognizing the enormous priority it places on what to do with God’s commands, the role of concrete, daily devotion in the grand cosmic order, scholars gave it the less thrilling but more specific title of the Priestly work (P).

Literary excavation over the following centuries made the shape of this corpus visible: a bright thread running from Genesis 1 through massive blocks of Exodus’ tabernacle revelation, all of Leviticus, and much of Numbers. But despite widespread scholarly consensus about its basic outlines, its consequences have never been fully conceptualized. Paradoxically, the physical shape of this text within the Torah has tended to remain invisible despite being the closest thing to an assured result that Bible criticism has produced. This is true first of all literally, because despite a century of agreement about its shape, nobody seems to have produced a translation and presentation of it as an independent work2even specialists must still imagine what it would look like on its own. For example, its Sinai revelation, where no law is uttered on the mountain and Gods body descends to earth, would be unrecognizable to a reader used to the edited Exodus or its retelling in Deuteronomy (Sommer 2015).

Its invisibility as a text has also made it largely invisible to theory. Many theological overviews exist within biblical studies, but P is also of equal interest to social thought beyond any one religious denomination. It gives us our most clear picture of how people in the ancient Near East thought about performance and embodiment, ritual, and ancient science (Sanders 2014). It presents a unique view of the nature of the world and how we can know it–what philosophers would call ontology and epistemology. But more than this it is a very human work, centering the importance of human bodily cycles like menstruation, birth, and death, and has a surprisingly bodily vision of the divine with its picture of Gods uniquely physical life, including how he comes to actually reside on earth (without limiting his power or cosmic nature). Yet so far, its modern impact on social thought has mostly been confined to its use as a basis for the first modern theory of what sacrifice is (in Robertson Smith’s classic Lectures on the Religion of the Semites) and Mary Douglas’ brilliant anthropological theory of what “clean” and “unclean” mean in a larger human sense in her important Purity and Danger. But there is much more to discover.

How We Can Learn from the Priestly Work

To make Priestly thought available to any reader in the world, this project has two parts. The first is the data–this is the text on the front page, which gives a widely agreed on version of the Priestly text itself. The second part is the interpretation, contained in the notes (the yellow highlights on the text) and these interpretive essays all linked at the bottom of the front page. These use the tools of philology–close reading of ancient languages– to draw out the implications of Bible criticism for social theory, the history of religions, and the general reader.

The first part is designed to simply give a readable text based on the respected Jewish Publication Society translation, of the most commonly agreed-on corpus of P, from Genesis through Numbers, the first open-access version of it as a text in its own right. Until now biblical scholarship has used fairly archaic techniques for presenting this material. For the text it has restricted itself to marking up canonical scriptural books using multiple typefaces or color coding to differentiate the interwoven texts. Analytically scholarly discussion has stuck with rather old-fashioned formats, ones that actually date back over a thousand years to late antiquity. These are the scriptural commentary and the encyclopedia entry. This is strange, because virtually all biblical scholars agree on the independent existence of this important work, but it is still always physically presented and commented on in its canonical form, which we agree is not ancient and not what Israelites read because of the editing that made it part of the Pentateuch as we have it. Making it visible as an object is a new step for biblical studies into the world of public digital humanities.3

The Priestly story of creation begins the Bible, and its laws and stories provide the largest part of its material, but its outline is itself conceptually significant and may even be somewhat mind-boggling to a reader of the later, canonical Pentateuch. In contrast to the Sinai story we know, God does not utter a word of law on Mt. Sinai in the Priestly version. There is no thunder or lightning, no tablets of the ten commandments, but instead Gods own fiery body (Hebrew kabod) alighting on Mount Sinai wrapped in cloud. Gods sole revelation on the mountain causes Moses to see—not hear-- a divine visual model of the tent-shrine where God is to dwell (Exodus 25). With only this wordless image, Moses descends and commands its building, whereupon Gods body enters the shrine (Ex. 40.3338) and stays there. It is only the back room of this shrine sitting on a golden throne above the ark that God finally reveals the sacrificial laws (Leviticus 1-7), and then all of Israels law. This revelation is not primarily an act of lawgiving but of enabling the material presence that knowing and performing the law makes possible.

Once one is able to read the Priestly literary work on its own for the first time, this physical format can help make it easier to grasp the intellectual corpus at the center of Priestly thinking. Most studies have either attempted to apply a preconceived theory of ritual to P or simply describe P, rather than try to draw out P's own original theories. By contrast, in the final part, we can suggest a different approach. One can start by listening to the text itself, to try to see what its rules and ideas are. A particularly interesting perspective comes from looking at its stories through the lens of attitudes toward language: myths and rituals that exemplify what words are for, what human speech should and should not do in contrast with divine speech—what anthropologists refer to as language ideologies (Urban 1984).

A Book “that is not about something, but actually is that something:” The Priestly Concept of Ritual and How the Priestly Narrative Embodies It4

Looking at P from the point of view of language gives a new angle on what the most ancient Western thinking about ritual is really about. For from God’s very first act–a speech–the whole of the Priestly narrative is built around ritual command and fulfillment. It begins when the universe is created purely by divine command and culminates in the Sinai revelation, a series of command-and-fulfillment patterns that allow God to become physically present on earth through the commanded human performance of sacrifice. Thus far from ‘mere words,’ ritual is the fundamental reality–the ontological link between God's self-enacting language and human performance. Rather than being cosmic opposites, divine speech and human action are coordinated by these commanded rites and sacrifices. The goal of the second part of this project is to conceptualize exactly how this happens. Building on the foundations of the comparative study of Hebrew and Babylonian scholarly ontologies (e.g. Sanders 2017) we can begin to illuminate the mechanisms of ancient performativity: why they thought ritual actually worked.

The biggest surprise here is the absence of prayer, for P's theory is that human ritual is marked by action alone. While divine ritual speech is inherently performative, taking effect by its very ontological nature, only physical action is performative for humans. This stark contrast between God's ritual acts in Genesis 1 and his ritual instructions in Leviticus seem to ontologically separate word and deed. It was the great theoretical contribution of Bell (1992) to recognize this gap, the theoretical opposition or antinomy between word and deed, description and practice, as a key gap in western thought about religion. The result was an antinomy that divided the (intellectual, academic) theorist from the (naïve, engaged, “native”) worshiper, with one analytically reflecting and one unreflectively acting.

Like a suppressed memory or hidden secret, P’s antinomy is repressed but keeps reappearing in Western religious thought. For in a key way the western problem with ritual has also been the western problem with Judaism, which since Saint Paul’s harsh criticism in the New Testament book of Galatians has often been accused of being “empty” action,the letter of the law without spirit. The problem Bell investigates has been crucial for the modern popular and scholarly understandings of Judaism: Leviticus' orientation towards apparently mute action, inherited by Rabbinic literature, has been read as a primitive fixation on blood sacrifice and thus an idea of sacrifice itself as mute and savage, placing it at an early low stage in the evolution of religion by such scholars as Robertson Smith. It also resulted in an equation of Judaism with the body and the irrational, blood and fluids, enshrined in Christian thought by Paul’s accusation that Judaism is a religion of the flesh and not the spirit (cf. Eilberg-Schwartz 1991, Balberg 2017). But as we have seen, this misunderstands the ontological nature of that language and law, which makes thoughtful action into a kind of prayer and animates reality itself.

This project is designed to invite and facilitate interpretive study, for example that helps lay out the ancient theory of ritual action underlying the Priestly tradition’s body-centered cosmology, theology, and revealed science. In the case of this work, the resulting artifact is the single most plausible extended pre-Hellenistic work of Hebrew thought, yet profoundly different in terms of both history of religion and literature, than anything most readers and indeed scholars of the edited text ever encounter. An exposition of the Priestly theory of ritual lets us look at our own ideas of ritual performance—and the legacy of religious thought in our concepts of social action—in a newly comparative way. A deep historical perspective on contemporary approaches to ritual opens up the possibility of a fresh critical distance on them, and new kinds of dialogue between religious studies and social theory.



For this and all following references see the bibliography in Key Scholarly References on the Priestly Tradition.


It is with gratitude and excitement that we can say that this has completely changed in the year since this edition and website was completed in January 2022. April 2023 will mark the book publication of Liane Feldman’s The Consuming Fire, her own edition and translation of the Priestly Work.


This will be followed by texts of the remaining non-Priestly elements of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers, as well as the building blocks of Deuteronomy.


This precise and evocative phrase is taken from the horror writer Thomas Ligotti’s story “Vastarien.”