The Priestly source (or simply P) is, according to the documentary hypothesis, one of four sources of the Torah, together with the Jahwist, the Elohist and the Deuteronomist. The characteristics of the Priestly source include a set of claims that are contradicted by non-Priestly passages and therefore uniquely characteristic: no sacrifice before the institution is ordained by God at Sinai, the exalted status of Aaron and the priesthood, and the use of the divine title El Shaddai before God reveals his name to Moses, to name a few.
P was written to show that even when all seemed lost, God remained present with Israel.
The history of exilic and post-exilic Judah is little known, but a summary of current theories can be made as follows:
The Priestly work
The Pentateuch or Torah (the Greek and Hebrew terms, respectively, for the bible's books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) describe the history of the Israelites from the creation of the world, through the earliest biblical patriarchs and their wanderings, to the exodus from Egypt and the encounter with God in the wilderness. The books contain many inconsistencies, repetitions, different narrative styles, and different names for God. There are, for example, two accounts of the creation, two genealogies of Seth and two of Shem, two covenants with Abraham and two revelations to Jacob at Bethel, two calls to Moses to rescue the Israelites from Egypt, two sets of laws at Sinai, and two accounts of the Tabernacle/Tent of Meeting. The repetitions, styles and names are not random, but follow identifiable patterns, and the study of these patterns led scholars to the conclusion that four separate sources lie behind them.
The 19th century scholars saw these sources as independent documents which had been carefully edited together, and for most of the 20th century this was the accepted consensus. But in 1973 the American biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross published an influential work called Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, in which he argued that P was not an independent document (i.e., a written text telling a coherent story with a beginning, middle and end), but an editorial expansion of another of the four sources, the combined Jahwist/Elohist (called JE). Cross's study was the beginning of a series of attacks on the documentary hypothesis, continued notably by the work of Hans Heinrich Schmid (The So-called Jahwist, 1976, questioning the date of the Jahwistic source), Martin Rose (1981, proposing that the Jahwist was composed as a prologue to the history which begins in Joshua), and John Van Seters (Abraham in History and Tradition, proposing a 6th-century BCE date for the story of Abraham, and therefore for the Jahwist). Even more radical was Rolf Rendtorff (The Problem of the Process of Transmission in the Pentateuch, 1989), who argued that neither the Jahwist nor the Elohist had ever existed as sources but instead represented collections of independent fragmentary stories, poems, etc.
No new consensus has emerged to replace the documentary hypothesis, but since roughly the mid-1980s an influential theory has emerged which relates the emergence of the Pentateuch to the situation in Judah in the 5th century BCE under Persian imperial rule. The central institution in the post-Exilic Persian province of Yehud (the Persian name for the former kingdom of Judah) was the reconstructed Second Temple, which functioned both as the administrative centre for the province and as the means through which Yehud paid taxes to the central government. The central government was willing to grant autonomy to local communities throughout the empire, but it was first necessary for the would-be autonomous community to present the local laws for imperial authorisation. This provided a powerful incentive for the various groups that constituted the Jewish community in Yehud to come to an agreement. The major groups were the landed families who controlled the main sources of wealth, and the priestly families who controlled the Temple. Each group had its own history of origins that legitimated its prerogatives. The tradition of the landowners was based on the old Deuteronomistic tradition, which had existed since at least the 6th century BCE and had its roots even earlier; that of the priestly families was composed to "correct" and "complete" the landowners' composition. In the final document Genesis 1-11 lays the foundations, Genesis 12-50 defines the people of Israel, and the books of Moses define the community's laws and relationship to its God.
Many scholars attribute the laws in the P source to the desire to glorify the Aaronide priestly caste responsible for their composition.
The Priestly work is concerned with priestly matters – ritual law, the origins of shrines and rituals, and genealogies – all expressed in a formal, repetitive style. It stresses the rules and rituals of worship, and the crucial role of priests, expanding considerably on the role given to Aaron (all Levites are priests, but according to P only the descendants of Aaron were to be allowed to officiate in the inner sanctuary).
P's God is majestic, and transcendent, and all things happen because of his power and will. He reveals himself in stages, first as Elohim (a Hebrew word meaning simply "god", taken from the earlier Canaanite word meaning "the gods"), then to Abraham as El Shaddai (usually translated as "God Almighty"), and finally to Moses by his unique name, Yahweh. P divides history into four epochs from Creation to Moses by means of covenants between God and Noah, Abraham and Moses. The Israelites are God's chosen people, his relationship with them is governed by the covenants, and P's God is concerned that Israel should preserve its identity by avoiding intermarriage with non-Israelites. P is deeply concerned with "holiness", meaning the ritual purity of the people and the land: Israel is to be "a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6), and P's elaborate rules and rituals are aimed at creating and preserving holiness.
Good cases have been made for both exilic and post-exilic composition, leading to the conclusion that it has at least two layers, spanning a broad time period of 571–486 BCE. This was a period when the careful observance of ritual was one of the few means available which could preserve the identity of the people, and the narrative of the priestly authors created an essentially stable and secure world in which Israel's history was under God's control, so that even when Israel alienated itself from God, leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile in Babylon, atonement could still be made through sacrifice and ritual.
P is responsible for the first of the two creation stories in Genesis (Genesis 1), for Adam's genealogy, part of the Flood story, the Table of Nations, and the genealogy of Shem (i.e., Abraham's ancestry). Most of the remainder of Genesis is from the Yahwist, but P provides the covenant with Abraham (chapter 17) and a few other stories concerning Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The book of Exodus is also divided between the Yahwist and P, and the usual understanding is that the Priestly writer(s) were adding to an already-existing Yahwist narrative. Chapters 1–24 (from bondage in Egypt to God's appearances at Sinai) and chapters 32–34 (the golden calf incident) are from the Yahwist and P's additions are relatively minor, noting Israel's obedience to the command to be fruitful and the orderly nature of Israel even in Egypt. P was responsible for chapters 25–31 and 35–40, the instructions for making the Tabernacle and the story of its fabrication.
Leviticus 1–16 sees the world as divided between the profane (i.e., not holy) masses and the holy priests. Anyone who incurs impurity must be separated from the priests and the Temple until purity is restored through washing, sacrifice, and the passage of time. Leviticus 17–26 is called the Holiness code, from its repeated insistence that Israel should be a holy people; scholars accept it as a discrete collection within the larger Priestly source, and have traced similar holiness writings elsewhere in the Pentateuch.
In Numbers the Priestly source contributes chapters 1–10:28, 15–20, 25–31, and 33–36, including, among other things, two censuses, rulings on the position of Levites and priests (including the provision of special cities for the Levites), and the scope and protection of the Promised Land. The Priestly themes in Numbers include the significance of the priesthood for the well-being of Israel (the ritual of the priests is needed to take away impurity), and God's provision of the priesthood as the means by which he expresses his faithfulness to the covenant with Israel.
The Priestly source in Numbers originally ended with an account of the death of Moses and succession of Joshua ("Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo..."), but when Deuteronomy was added to the Pentateuch this was transferred to the end of Deuteronomy.
It was once thought that P and J extended into Joshua: the similarity between Joshua's crossing of the Jordan and Moses' crossing of the Red Sea is especially striking, for example. This hypothesis has lost almost all its supporters as it has become apparent that Joshua is thoroughly Deuteronomistic. While the crossing of the Jordan has extremely Priestly elements (the Israelites need the presence of the Levites, holding the ark of the covenant, in order to cross), it is more probable that the Deuteronomist knew a "priestly" tradition of the Exodus separate from the one that produced the Pentateuch.