The Text of the Priestly Tradition

The basis of the first part of the project is an open-access English version of the Pentateuch’s Priestly literature, that narrates the place of ritual in the universe. In addition to its great inherent intellectual and literary interest, we have chosen to start with the Priestly tradition because its outlines represent the most widely-agreed on result of biblical criticism. We prefer to call it the Priestly tradition rather than “school” or “source,” because it embodies multiple stages of literary work and there is not enough really data to specify its exact social location.


The English text is based on the reliable and clear Jewish Publication Society version. In the occasional place where we think there is an important aspect of the Hebrew that is not clearly represented in the JPS, we provide a note. For example in Leviticus the JPS renders the challenging Hebrew term Sara’at, the mysterious “leprosy” of Leviticus that can spread to furniture, in multiple ways that make for a comprehensible English translation but may obscure what is going on in the Hebrew, and thus in Priestly thought. As we note there (at Leviticus 13:2):

‘One of the most interesting challenges in translating the thought of the Priestly tradition into contemporary English is the great difference in cosmology and medical thinking. In particular, unlike modern European intellectuals and some (though not all) ancient Greek philosophers, the Priestly tradition did not believe in an essential difference between nature and culture. Disturbances in the order of the world could span what we would separate as medical, ritual, and even architectural realms. The effect of this difference is clear in the apparent impossibility of coherently translating the ritual instructions of Leviticus 13. Here Priestly writers describe a form of material impurity called Sara’at (צרעת) that affects both humans and inanimate objects like cloth and walls. Without indicating this remarkable aspect of Sara’at, the JPS translates the term variously as “leprosy,” “scaly (affection),” or “leprous (affection)” when it applies to humans in Leviticus 13:1-46 and “eruption”, “eruptive (affection)” or even “eruptive (plague)” (in Leviticus 14:34) when it applies to material objects in 13:47-59.’

Defining the Boundaries of the Priestly Tradition

As noted above, our text is based on the large areas of philologically well-supported consensus established over the past 150 years. Compare the detailed picture of the Sinai revelation shared between Nöldeke 1869, Carpenter & Harford-Battersby 1900, Blum 1990, Schwartz 1996, and Sommer 2015, where the maximal version (Schwartz) contains about 49 chapters’ worth of material, the minimal (Blum) 47 chapters, and the earliest and latest treatments discussed, Nöldeke and Carpenter & Harford-Battersby on the one hand and Sommer on the other, 48.

In Genesis and Exodus we have mostly followed what is still the most detailed presentation, that of Carpenter and Harford-Battersby; for Leviticus and Numbers we follow the most detailed and up to date single presentation there, that of Knohl. In both cases we have noted every significant place where we diverge from them, and why. The most significant disagreements today are not about the existence or basic outlines of the Priestly corpus per se but over the nature of its internal layers and whether any of them affected non-Priestly material (e.g. the extent to which a distinctive trend within the Priestly corpus should be seen as an independent entity (the “Holiness School” as Knohl 1995, or layers of P as Feldman 2020, though we do not agree with the hypothesis of a narrative or poetic Priestly source e.g. Pola 1995, Gaines 2015, which tends to exclude large and perhap arbitrary amounts of law from a narrative focused on it).