Should the literary nature of the Priestly corpus prevent us from connecting it to ancient Near Eastern religion on the ground? A generation ago, the sober answer would have been, "yes." Nobody had assessed the overall nature of the Hebrew epigraphic corpus, and we had made only desultory comparisons between the editorial character of P and that of other ancient Near Eastern ritual corpora. But now the answer may be different.
Scholars of ancient religion have long wriggled on the horns of a conundrum: the edited, Hellenistic manuscripts of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers provide overwhelmingly more explicit detail about ritual than any other set of texts -- or artifacts -- from the ancient Near East. For scholars of the Hebrew Bible, the temptation has been to triangulate a social location for these texts--the closest recent readers (Milgrom, Knohl, Schwartz) have tended to locate them in the later Iron Age (IIb). This fits well with the only reliable external evidence for literary activity in Classical Biblical Hebrew--the epigraphic record, which makes clear that the only time that this variety was systematically written was between the 8th and early 6th centuries BCE. Biblical texts from after this period show an increasing mix of Aramaic, Late Biblical Hebrew, and eventually, Persian and Greek features.
But this conclusion is beset by two potential problems, one which has been widely recognized and one that has not. First, the narrative frame of the ritual texts themselves locates them in a mythic period of folk migration, wilderness wandering, miraculous divine combat, and supernatural revelation. If this narrative is mapped onto the circumstances of Late Bronze Age history (as both maximalist and minimalist scholars of the last few generations did, each for their own ends), the situation of their writing becomes both implausible and unverifiable.
The second problem, which I have not seen fully recognized, is that of their historically unusual editorial character. Now, the literary distinctiveness of the Priestly corpus, by itself, is widely recognized among both European and Israeli scholars. What does not seem to have been done, except in a piecemeal (if provocative) fashion by scholars such as Cohen, Fishbane and Levine, is analysis of the editorial character of the Priestly corpus in comparison with the editorial character of Mesopotamian, Hittite/Hurrian, Ugaritic, or Egyptian texts. When this is done on a broader scale than that of isolated colophons (Fishbane), secrecy rubrics (Cohen, though see now the rich analysis of Lenzi), or comparisons of isolated biblical pericopes with individual Mesopotamian or Ugaritic ritual texts (Levine), it emerges that the Priestly rituals of the Torah represent a level of compilation, categorization, and reorganization unique in the Levant. And what is more, when it is taken into account that these texts are not merely rituals but temple rituals, catalogues of physical sacrificial acts, their level of systematization emerges as unique in the entire ancient Near East. While Mesopotamian ritual texts such as Maqlû, Šurpu, the various Namburbi series, and Utukkū Lemnūtu were also serialized and systematized, these were all exorcistic and heavily verbal rituals for court ritual experts (āšipu's); none are sacrificial rituals for temples, none designed for priests. Similarly, there appear to be no Hittite, Hurrian, or Egyptian corpora that not only edit together but also categorize and catalog multiple rituals for daily, monthly, annual, and ad hoc circumstantial situations.
The second problem strikes me as the more serious, and interesting. The location of ritual instructions in some sort of mythic narrative is one of the few editorial features of the Priestly texts that actually does have a very clear Near Eastern scholastic parallel, in the well-studied Marduk-Ea theme of the Mesopotamian incantations (see Falkenstein, Haupttypen, Cunningham Deliver Me From Evil!, and for a convenient summary Sanders, "A Historiography of Demons"). While it is plausible, though unprovable, that there was a historical figure like Moses (for the most detailed responsible reconstruction within the limits of current evidence see Na'aman JANER 2011), these literary texts' ascription of Priestly ritual to a historical Moses is in and of itself no more of a historical problem than Utukkū Lemnūtu's ascription of exorcistic ritual to a historical Ea: it is a literary and ritual claim.
Some scholars, especially in recent decades European ones, have attempted to solve the problem of the Priestly literature's complex editing with the chronological assumption that such compilation is more plausible in the Babylonian, Persian or even Hellenistic periods. But such assumptions have precisely the same problems as a priori assumptions of the texts' early date; they do not address the distinctive editorial character of the texts.
To advance on this problem, we would need two things: first, concrete evidence for the nature and cultural location of a Judean scholastic practice and second, ways of connecting specific Priestly texts with Levantine ritual and editorial practices--not just in history but in space. It is in this way that we may be closer to a plausible, three-dimensional view--though we are certainly not there yet.
Next: The Covenant Code, the Priestly Blessing, and Judean Scholasticism