I am reporting on my read of The Poetic Priestly Source by Jason M. H. Gaines.
In between the very specialized analysis of Hebrew passages in P according to his yardstick for what constitutes poetry and what constitutes prose, Gaines gives a useful survey of the ways previous scholars have understood the priestly source. He includes a number of scholars I have read and interacted with.
One of them is Frank Moore Cross. Cross, if his theory is correct, undermines the whole idea that P was ever a source separate from non-P. Cross noticed that in the Jacob story, for instance, P has no story of the birth of Jacob and Esau nor of Jacob acquiring wives. So Cross thought P had put his material into an already-existing narrative as a supplement. So P used non-P as a source, but was not itself a source.
To this Gaines responds:
He is correct that P does not give what many would consider to be colorful, interesting, or evocative stories of the patriarchs that convey their personalities, achievements, and struggles. This fact does not make P incomplete. After all the musical My Fair Lady is not incomplete because it does not include several scenes that are present in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion,
Gaines sees at least two layers in P. Several other scholars have seen layers as well. One well-established view sees the Holiness Code (H) of Leviticus 17-26 as a discrete layer. Early on, scholars thought of the H as the oldest layer which P incorporated. But now H looks to more scholars like an addition to P. Among those who see it this way are Israel Knohl and Jacob Milgrom.
Gaines, however, is a bit agnostic about separating H out, This is in order to avoid prejudging the poetic nature of the material. He acknowledges that H probably existed but reserves his detailed take on the issue for future studies.
Other scholars see a narrative layer and a legal layer. Gaines, however, thinks that though this distinction is real, it reflects the poetic and prose layers.
Richard Elliot Friedman saw two editions of P, one before the exile and one, attributed to Ezra, during the exile. Gaines says this is a little like his own scheme. Actually, though, he turns Friedman’s order around. Friedman saw the material with lists and legal matter as the first edition. Gaines sees such material as more likely to have come later.
Gaines seems closer to David Carr than to others I have studied. Carr and Gaines both think that the first edition of P already used both written and oral traditions that existed apart from non-P. Carr thinks the creation account might have been a stand-alone written piece. The stories about Moses and the escape from Egypt might have drawn on old oral traditions. Gaines would change Carr’s terminology to show that “these earlier, fluid compositions entered the Priestly document in its poetic recension.”
In his detailed account of P’s coming into existence, Gaines sees 5 stages.
First, a small group of priests connected to the Jerusalem temple use “written and oral Israelite traditions, non-P material, preexisting poetry, and Mesopotamian mythology” to write a narrative that goes from creation to just before Israel entered the land.
I am surprised that he says Jerusalem temple priests did this. Since he says he accepts the consensus that P is after the exile, perhaps he is thinking of priests who have been taken to Babylon. But, if they were temple priests before the exile, I do not see the need to put them in the first temple’s last days. They could have worked much earlier. (Many have argued that P does not interact with the monarchy and so the Babylonian conquest must already have occurred. That, however, makes more sense if you are thinking of full P with all its laws and regulations than if you are thinking of a lyrical epic that ended before the occupation of the land.)
On the other hand, Jeremiah and the inscribers of the silver scrolls could have drawn upon the same material the priests used in their poetic recension.
Second, at an unspecified later time another group of priests supplemented the first document with “names, dates, numbers, physical descriptions, character ages, genealogies, clarifications, summaries, repetitions, harmonizations, glosses, prolepses, and the explicit narration of the performance of actions.”
Third, a different school of priests could have added the Holiness laws in Leviticus 17-26 plus other supplements that furthered their point of view. Whatever constituted the Priestly Source at this point, it still existed separate from the rest of the Torah..
Fourth, a final editor (Ezra?) combined the P, non-P (JE?) and D documents to make the five books of the Pentateuch. He also added several interpretive comments and harmonizations to smooth out the combined texts.
Fifth, our text of the Pentateuch also includes further, mostly minor, alterations and copy errors by generations of scribes.
(I am using a Kindle version of the book that does not include page numbers. So the most helpful way to locate the quotes above is to know that they are from chapter 5, The Priestly Source in Scholarship, which occurs between 45 and 50 percent of the way through the book.)