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. This site makes it accessible for the first time to scholars of comparative religion and social theory and the general public. This biblical source is not only the most detailed body of ritual law from the ancient Near East but it is also embedded in a narrative of how the universe was created to facilitate its observance and how it was transmitted to humans. 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. A durable if suppressed presence in the Jewish and Christian intellectual heritage, it provides a powerful contrast with contemporary theory in its picture of the nature of ritual action. The result can help enlarge the historical depth of contemporary debates over the nature of language, ritual, and performance.


It was during the 18th century that religious scholars glimpsed the outlines of a previously unimagined form of buried artifact, buried in plain sight in Europes most widely-read book. This was a sacred text effaced not by dirt or damage but by writing, the very same writing the artifact itself was made of. For over 2000 years readers had been perplexed by the way the Bible layers together multiple versions of stories and laws. Is God really said to have 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 turned out that a different structure, made of sharply distinct interlocking parts, lay beneath. The best-defined and most clearly recognizable foundation of this literary structure is what scholars originally called the Founding Document of the Bible (German Grundschrift; e.g. Nöldeke 1869),1 or later 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 really been conceptualized. Paradoxically, the physical shape of this text within the Torah remains 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 workeven 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 of equal interest outside it, to theories of performance and embodiment, ritual, and ancient science (Sanders 2014): it presents a unique view of performativity, the nature of the world and how we can know it, the importance of human bodily cycles like menstruation, birth, and death, and Gods uniquely physical life, including how he comes to reside on earth. Yet so far, its modern theoretical impact is mostly confined to its use as a model for Robertson Smiths Semiticsacrifice and Douglas’ polarities of purity and danger.

Project Goals

This website is an academic philological project integrated into a public literary work. It uses philological tools to draw out the implications of Bible criticism for social theory, the history of religions, and the general reader. Its first phase consists of a readable open-access 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 its discussion remains confined to the late antique genres of scriptural commentary and encyclopedia entry. If Pentateuch scholars agree on the independent existence of this important work, it is still always physically presented and commented on in its canonical form, which we agree is not ancient and not what Israelites read. Making it visible as an object is a new step for biblical studies into the world of public digital humanities. 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.

The Priestly story of creation begins the Bible, and its laws and stories provide the largest part of its material, but it is now invisible. In contrast to the Sinai story we know, not a word of law is given in the Priestly version. There is no thunder or lightning but instead, Gods fiery own body (the 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. From the back room of this shrine sitting on a golden throne above the ark, God 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 presentation reveals the intellectual corpus at the center of Priestly thinking. Most studies have either attempted to apply a theory of ritual to P or simply describe P, rather than analyze P's own theories. By contrast, we suggest 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 Embodiment of Ritual2

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 ritual serves as 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 ritual. The goal of this second study—the theoretical heart of the project—is to conceptualize exactly how this happens. Building on the foundations of my comparative study of Hebrew and Babylonian scholarly ontologies (Sanders 2017) it will illuminate the mechanisms of ancient performativity: why they thought Priestly rites actually worked.

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 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.

Thus like many formative structures, P’s antinomy is repressed but keeps reappearing in Western religious thought. For the western problem with ritual has also been the western problem with Judaism. 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 primitive, blood sacrifice and bodily fluids, 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 (cf. Eilberg-Schwartz 1991, Balberg 2017). This project is designed to invite and facilitate further open-access 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 and Its Theory of Ritual.


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