Leviticus is one of the five books located within the Pentateuch (Genesis – Deuteronomy).  Traditional viewpoints of authorship have attributed these five texts to Moses, with the exception of Deuteronomy’s narrating Moses’ death.  “The canon assured an unbroken series of sacred annals which had been preserved from the time of Moses.  The establishment of authorship maintained its authenticity, the divine inspiration its truth, the uninterrupted succession its purity” (Childs 51).  As a result, the traditional view denied the possibility of any authorship outside of Moses within the Pentateuch.

However, as one begins to read even the beginning narratives of Genesis one is struck by the conflicting nature some of these stories contain.  Genesis 1 holds that humans are created last; Genesis 2 states that humans are the first of creation.  Unless the author is suffering from extreme divisions in his/her personality there are likely multiple authors constructing this material, or at least a redactor that has compiled various the various traditions.  This, of course, calls into question Moses’ role in authoring the Pentateuch as a whole.  If the traditional viewpoint is wrong for Genesis, is it possible that they have also made a mistake with books, such as, Leviticus?  It seems like a distinct possibility.

The historical critical method of the 19th and 20th centuries constructed possible solutions to explain these various strands of material found within the Pentateuch.  The most popular solution proposed, which was built upon previous critics’ suggestions, was given by Julius Wellhausen.  Wellhausen believed that the Pentateuch was composed of four strands: Yahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and Priestly traditions (JEDP) (113).  This viewpoint was challenged, but met with little or no success.

Building upon Wellhausen’s theory, M. Noth took it another step further.  This biblical critic suggested that there was in fact a fifth source that came before the JEDP sources.  The “G” source which helped “account for the wide areas of overlap in these two sources.  But even here, it was the vagueness of the theory – Noth could not decide whether it was an oral or written source – which accounted for much of its attractiveness” (114).

Childs notes that the literary problems do not initially seem to provide a challenge.  Typically, Leviticus is thought to be from the Priestly (P) tradition due to its “unified perspective” (182).  Deeper studies have shown; however, that there is a complex, multi-layered composition within these pages.  Baentsch went so far as to suggest that the tensions within the text have roots in a tradition stemming from Ezekiel (182).  However, this estimation was challenged.

There are terms in the priestly material of Leviticus that one would expect to find in Ezekiel and undoubtedly postexilic writings.  But in Ezekiel these terms are missing and sometimes replaced with later expressions.  The importance of this argument led Milgrom to introduce his multivolume commentary by citing this evidence and to date the first half of the book of Leviticus largely to the eighth century BC” (Longman 570).

Traditionally, the sources ascribed to the Pentateuch are thought to be fairly concrete.  In other words, a great many scholars have thought that the JEDP documents’ context of compilation and authorship were fixed to one locale and author.  However, that general consensus has waned in recent years.  J. Coert Rylaarsdam notes, “…there is a growing suspicion that every strand or “document” contains both pre-exilic and post-exilic materials” (242).  With such a reality, it becomes increasingly difficult to talk about these so-called “documents” in terms of certainty when it comes to authorship, date, and location of composition.

To go even further, the history of these strands of material does not simply originate during the pre-exilic or post-exilic period.  Rather, elements of these documents have a much older history, whether written or oral tradition, within the community.  Rylaarsdam argues that these traditions “are really the cumulative results of long periods of development” (245).  Reconstructing their history has proven to be a task far more difficult than originally conceived.

The viewpoint that each document was the work of a single author or a small group of compilers stems from the notion that Deuteronomy was actually formed during Josiah’s reform in 621.  It was reasoned that they formed the Pentateuch in response to their historical milieu.  Thus, it became very easy and natural to talk about the JEP sources in similar fashion.  While this may give us a good handle for understanding some of the redactional qualities of the Pentateuch, this theory seriously undermines the full nature of this work.  Namely, there is a process that occurred over an extended period of time.  Materials and strands have been woven purposefully together from various traditions, authors, times, and places.

The opening of Leviticus itself seems to deny direct Mosaic authorship.  Leviticus 1:1 reads, “The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (NIV).  Undoubtedly, there are echoes of Moses’ voice throughout the Pentateuch.  However, Leviticus clearly opens speaking about Moses, rather than from a first-person perspective.  If Moses were the author it would seem most natural to describe this encounter with God in first-person narrative.  If this assumption is true, we must consider other evidence for authorship within Leviticus itself.

Using Wellhausen’s document theory, the P source became almost synonymous with Leviticus.  Given Leviticus’ priestly concerns, it seemed only natural to connect the Priestly author(s) with this book.  However, as discussed previously, upon deeper scanning of Leviticus, scholars became convinced of more than one strand of tradition within the text.  “The most significant use of the literary-critical method of source analysis in recent years is represented by Von Rad’s analysis of the P document. He concludes that P contains two basic documents, PA and PB, narrative in character and intended as histories” (Rylaarsdam 244).

Although Leviticus is often talked about in terms of a Priestly source, it is of note that Leviticus does not simply address the priests.  “Yet, while some texts are words of God to the priests, most are directed to ‘the people of Israel’; indeed, the concluding summaries are comparably inclusive.  Even the materials addressed to priests are laid out for everyone to hear and read in detail” (Fretheim 122).  It is possible that the concern is not simply priestly but communal.

The complexity of the material was far more diversified than originally concluded by Wellhausen and the early efforts of literary criticism.  The very same problems with the literary-critical theories discussed above are the same concern we now encounter in the text of Leviticus.  Seeing a diversity of materials certainly lends itself to hypothesizing about a redactor or a small group of redactors compiling strands of material and weaving them together.  However, that seriously underestimates the entirety of the various sources’ history.

Therefore, a holistic view of these materials must take into account the overarching history involved in the development of these strands of tradition, as well as, their concluding formation.

For Noth, then, the Pentateuch is the cumulative result of the cultic celebration of these themes. Because he stresses the historic distinctiveness of the Israelite community and because he sees the growth and transmission of the Pentateuch in a living cultic setting, in oral and written forms, he has much to con-tribute to a new comprehensive understanding of Pentateuchal history.

It is appropriate to the nature of this material, including Leviticus, to be seen in the larger scope of the community which made such texts normative for their life and worship.

Terrence Fretheim concludes, “These texts are built back into the Mosaic period, not as a fabrication, but to claim significant continuities with that period in Israel’s worship and life and to provide a paradigm for each generation” (122-23).  The assumption here is that late material shapes the older materials.  However, that delineation is not always clear.  After all, we usually weigh our current situations in light of our past experiences.  Are these materials that different?

Some contend that [Leviticus] was put into roughly the form we have it in during the eighth to seventh centuries BCE…  Many others argue for a somewhat later period, the sixth and fifth centuries BCE…  In any case, all would agree that the document was composed by priests, who were involved in and concerned with the function of the Israelite temple and cult in Jerusalem… But the priests did not see themselves as starting a new cult or temple for YHVH; their interests were also in preserving the past and a heritage (Bowley 151).

Although we can hardly doubt the influence of late material, to impose that history as a full understanding of the text does the material injustice.  The development of Israel had taken centuries, not simply in response to a particular occasion, whether Assyrian oppression or Babylonian exile.  Rather, materials from an earlier period were openly integrated and re-interpreted for such occasions of particularity.

In looking at the material of the Pentateuch as a whole, Leviticus specifically, we must come to the realization that these traditions have a much longer history than was originally supposed by the initial proponents of literary criticism.  “Despite obvious updating of the grammar and style of the text, a growing collection of multilevel parallels between Leviticus and the era of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BC is emerging.  This empirical evidence argues that the substance of Leviticus has an antiquity that reaches back to the earliest traditions of Israel as a nation” (Longman 566-67).  Although I question whether or not Tremper Longman III is trying to be objective or simply uphold Mosaic authorship, there is both a mixture of oral and written tradition with significant roots that has been composed, drawn upon, and re-situated with other materials pre-dating the Josianic reform.  We cannot simply locate the locus of inspiration within an author(s) or redactor(s) of the material in a narrow sense.  Rather, the inspiration of these materials is located in greater measure within the community that understood these texts to be normative for their existence.

So, while we may be able to discern elements from a pre-exilic or even post-exilic time frame, we must ultimately keep in view the extended history of this material.  We cannot, given the information available to us, re-construct with full certainty the authorship, location, or date of the materials located within the Pentateuch.  At best, we can only surmise possibilities.  Rather than getting caught up in the minutiae, it is to our benefit to remember that these texts did not become normative without the influence of the larger community.

The Israelite cult plays a significant role in deciding which texts are valuable and which traditions are disposable.  And, the re-working of these traditions is only authoritative if it is authoritative for the community as a whole, not simply for an author or redactor.  We must carefully weigh the canonical value of these materials within the community as a whole.  While we might be able to identify a person or a group within the larger community, we cannot ultimately separate them from that community.  Thus, we can seriously dialogue in terms of a communal hermeneutic that has continuously shaped and re-shaped its traditions to speak to the community as a whole.


Works Cited

Bowley, James E. Introduction to Hebrew Bible: A Guided Tour of Israel’s Sacred Library. Alexandria, VA: Prentice Hall, 2007.

Childs, Brevard S. Introduction to the Old Testament As Scripture. 1st American ed ed. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1980.

Cousar, Charles B, Terence E. Fretheim, and Gene M. Tucker. The Pentateuch (Interpreting Biblical Texts). New York: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Hess, Richard S. “Leviticus: Introduction.” In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 565-581. Revised ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.

Rylaarsdam, J. Coert. “The Present Status of Pentateuchal Criticism.” Journal of Bible and Religion 22, no. 4 (1954): 242-24. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1458248 (accessed October 18, 2010).


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