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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

History of the Tradition.


We can say with some confidence that the book of Leviticus has had a long period of growth, with numerous additions and editings. Scholarship is practically unanimous on this point. We can also state that much of the material within it seems to derive from priestly circles. Thus, Leviticus is a ‘Priestly’ document as it now stands, whether or not there was a P source as envisaged by the Documentary Hypothesis. More controversial are the precise stages of this growth. In recent years many monographs, as well as commentaries, have attempted to tease out the different layers (in addition to the writers cited below, see Reventlow 1961; Kilian 1963; Rendtorff 1963; Koch 1959 ).


The Documentary Hypothesis has dominated study of the Pentateuch for the past century (see INTROD. PENT B). According to that theory, most of Leviticus belongs to the Priestly source (P), though the P writers may have used a diversity of material in composing it. For example, many would see chs. 17–26 (usually referred to as H, for the Holiness Code) as originally a separate block of material which was taken over by P. Since Wellhausen's time, this dating to the sixth century—whether the exilic or the early post-exilic period—has remained fairly constant among critics. An exception was Vink who put it in the fourth century, though few have followed him. All agree that this is only the date of the final form of the work, though, since the editor/author drew on various priestly traditions, some of them of substantial antiquity.


In recent years, however, there have been two challenges to this consensus: (1) some ask whether P may not date from before the Exile (see below), and (2) others have questioned whether the traditional alleged sources exist at all (Whybray 1987 ). Although biblical fundamentalists have continually rejected the Documentary Hypothesis for dogmatic reasons, it should not be assumed that recent challenges fall into the same category. While some of the arguments may have been around a long time, those who oppose the old consensus do so for critical reasons which have nothing to do with a desire to ‘defend’ the biblical text.


The question of P is discussed at length above (INTROD. PENT B.5) and need not be repeated here. I shall only point out that the composition and dating of the book of Leviticus is very much tied up with the question of when P is to be dated—assuming that it exists. One school of thought, currently a minority but with a growing number of adherents and a strong voice in the debate, now favours a pre-exilic dating (Haran 1978; Milgrom 1991; Hurvitz 1982, 1988; Zevit 1982 ). Indeed, Milgrom even suggests that P was originally composed for the pre-monarchic territory centring on the temple at Shiloh. On the other hand, Gerstenberger (1993 ) continually discusses how the book fits into the situation in the post-exilic community, and Blenkinsopp (1996 ) has recently challenged the linguistic arguments of Hurvitz and others for a pre-exilic dating. A further factor to consider is the current debate on the history of Israel in which a number of scholars are arguing that the present text of the HB is no earlier than the Persian period and perhaps even later (see e.g. Lemche 1993 ). This debate has taken on a new impetus with the launch of the European Seminar on Historical Methodology (see Grabbe 1997 ).


The question is rightly being vigorously debated on several fronts, and I believe it is premature to anticipate the outcome. Yet we should not forget that there is some agreement on several issues. One is that the present form of the book was not reached until the Persian period; another is that the text as it now stands incorporates some material of considerable antiquity. Finally, the book probably says a good deal about the temple cult in the Second Temple period, but one should be cautious in assuming it is an actual description of what went on at that time. For this last point, see further below (‘Leviticus and the Actual Temple Cult’).


Throughout the rest of this commentary on Leviticus, I shall often refer to P, by which the material normally identified as part of the P document is being referred to. However, in each case one should always understand the qualifying phrase, ‘if it exists’ or ‘as normally identified’. I have no intention of begging the question of whether P exists or, if so, what it consisted of.

7. The Holiness Code.

Lev 17–26 is commonly divided off from the rest as the so-called Holiness Code (H), with ch. 27 as an appendix to the book. Not all would accept this delineation, but most would agree that within 17–26 is another document which has been incorporated into the present book but is not necessarily fully integrated with 1–16 . That is, both 1–16 and 17–26 are collections with their own stages of growth, but each has a relative unity which marks it off from the other. There are tensions between the two parts, with some major differences of outlook on certain issues. There is also the difficult problem of trying to give the relative dates of the two collections. In the past it was customary to consider H earlier than most of the material in 1–16 . Nevertheless, a number of prominent scholars had not accepted the existence of H as such. For example, Elliger had proposed several independent legal corpora which had been brought together, with several redactional hands. A. Cholewski took a similar view. I. Knohl (1995; cf. 1987 ), although accepting the existence of H, has come to the conclusion that it was later than Lev 1–16 . He argues the question mainly on the basis of Lev 23 which he thinks is constructed on Num 28–9 . Knohl concludes that there were two priestly schools, one that produced the earlier P document and the other that not only wrote H (the later document) but also did the final editing of the Pentateuch. Similarly, Milgrom (1991 ) has taken the position that most of H is later than most of 1–16 , and in his opinion H was one of the editors of the book.

8. Methods and Approaches to Interpretation.

Having now seen a general consensus that the book grew up over a long period of time, the reader might ask, ‘What level of the book do we interpret?’ There is more than one legitimate answer to the question. In recent years, many interpreters have argued for the final form of the text as the primary object of study, whatever the stages of growth of the book or its dating. This has led to a number of new disciplines under the general rubric of the ‘literary approach’ to the biblical text, including ‘close reading’, structuralism, deconstruction, and rhetorical criticism. So far, few seem to have applied these to Leviticus specifically (but see Damrosch (1987 ) and Schwarz (1991 ) for examples). From a different perspective, those interested in the ‘canonical’ form of the text for theological purposes are also concerned mainly with the final form of the text (see esp. Childs 1979 ). Douglas (1993: 8–12) has recently argued that the book can be properly understood only if one recognizes a basic ring structure of the text in its present form.


This does not mean that the final form of the text has been ignored even by some of the traditional disciplines. For decades, many form critics have practised a structural analysis of the text as we have it before asking questions of growth or even questions of genre and the like. The results of this approach can be seen in the series Forms of Old Testament Literature edited by R. P. Knierim and G. Tucker. Knierim's recent book ( 1992 ) on exegesis combines traditional form criticism with broader concerns, including theological and sociological ones. Some exegetes, while not abandoning traditional source criticism, have severely demoted it in their concerns. For example, although Rendtorff (1982–95 :4) does not reject ‘reconstruction’ of earlier phases of the tradition, he thinks these should be seen primarily as an aid to understanding the present text.


This by no means suggests that older methods of source criticism and the like can be forgotten. On the contrary, they are often presupposed in the new methods. This means that traditio-historical analysis is very important for two further legitimate stages to be interpreted. The second level of interpretation is that of the book as a part of the P document (see below). A third object of interpretation would be the various levels in the growth of the book as determined by form and redaction criticism. This is the most hypothetical and is less favoured today for that very reason (cf. Rendtorff 1982–95 :4), yet most commentators give some attention to the internal growth of the book, and many see it as their primary concern.

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