What Are the J, E, and
P Texts of Genesis?
To understand what scholars are talking
about when they discuss the "J" or "E" or "P" Text
of Genesis, it helps if
we look closely at the first two chapters of Genesis*,
which illustrate the subject. If we note some textual oddities
first, it becomes easier to see how scholars formulated the
ideas of the J, E, and P text.
To begin, when textual criticism and
its systematic techniques for analyzing ancient manuscripts
and 19th centuries (and even earlier in nonscholarly readings
from the Renaissance) many readers noticed some odd details
in the book
we call Genesis. The
first part of Genesis (1:1-2:3) differed from the
later parts (Genesis 2:4-3:23) in interesting ways.
(1) First, each
of these two sections of Genesis contains a different
introduction for the creation story. Genesis 1:1
with the eloquent and imminently quotable, "In
the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over
the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering
over the waters."
The text reaches
its conclusion in Genesis 2:1, where the narrative
voice announces, "Thus
the heavens and the earth were completed in all their
vast array." Finis. The end. However,
a second introduction appears in Genesis 2:4: "This
is the account of the heavens and the earth when they
were created. When
the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, no shrub
of the field had yet appeared on the earth . . . ." This
initially seems a little redundant--at least on the surface
of things. It seems to suggest a second creation story
rather than one alone.
(2) The sections
also differ in genre.
One is written in poetry and the other is written
in prose. Genesis 1:1-2:3 is a poetic text. It
and probably the writer(s) intended for it to be sung
as a hymnic chant. Rhyme
is not all that important
in Hebrew poetry, but Hebrew poems commonly use repetition,
and other rhetorical schemes and tropes. The Genesis
1 text uses "high style" and
artistic devices common
Hebrew poetry--especially catachresis, anaphora,
To indicate these artistic qualities here, most NIV
the text with hanging indentation to mark the
poetic structure. Each section begins with an anaphora:
God said . . ." Each section
ends with epistrophe:
there was evening, and there was morning--the . . .
day." Likewise, after the first two
days, we have the
repetition of the phrase "And
God saw that it was good," leading
up to a final crescendo,
it was very good" in
Genesis 1:31. This structure is high poetry in
the best Hebrew style.
Contrast that with the material following. Genesis 2:4-3:23
is a non-poetic text. It is written in prose rather
poetic lines--no meter.
It does not
use anaphora and parallelism the same way as that
first section. To indicate the non-poetic nature
of the text here, most NIV translations
text into paragraphs. In terms of literary devices,
the primary schemes and tropes are puns providing
For instance, the narrative voice tells us that
humanity (the Hebrew word adam) is called adam because
God made him from adamah (ground or dust).
The folk etymology
provides an etiology explaining
why the word for "woman" in Hebrew sounds so much like
the Hebrew word for "man."
(3) Partly because
of the difference between poetic devices and puns, and
partly because of changes in diction,
the tone of each passage is quite different. In the Genesis
to emphasize the majesty
nature of creation. In Genesis 2:4 and following, the
tone becomes more familiar--more "folksy" and
simple. We have moved away from the grandeur
of the heavens where a disembodied Spirit of God hovers
over the dark waters to a smaller setting--the
muck and dirt of a single garden where we find God shaping
men out of mud and where animals
serpent can talk in the best beast fable tradition.
(4) Fourth, Genesis 1:1-2:3 treats the matter
of creation differently than in Genesis 2:4 and following
passages. In Genesis 1:27, God simultaneously creates multiple
men and women on the sixth day, and he does so by speaking:
God said, "Let
us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let
them rule over the
fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock,
over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move
along the ground.
God created man in his own image, in the image of God
he created him; male and female he created
them. [Note the plural forms indicated
by the object pronouns them in the top and bottom
Contrast this bit
with the section following Genesis 2:4, where we read
a different creation
the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and
breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man
became a living being" (Gen. 2:7). Here, rather
than an abstract and transcendental deity that speaks humanity
effortlessly into existence, we have a God who works in
the dirt and sculpts a single male human from the earth,
rather than one
commands the land itself to produce living creatures.
God, as described in this passage, uses a form of divine
C.P.R. to instill his holy essence in
humanity. To create
several different men simultaneously with several
different women, God in Genesis 2:21-22 extracts a rib
from Adam and fashions
Eve out of this body part--but without breathing his essence
directly into her.**
acts of creation characterize God differently in each
section, suggesting a different perspective
or attitude towards God. In Genesis 1:-2:1,
the Spirit of God need not exert himself to create the
cosmos--only talk. He is an abstract, remote, omnipotent,
and grandiose God
over the dark
waters. Creation is effortless.
When we get to Genesis
we have a God that
on the seventh day, he rested from all his work." Rather
than presenting the remote and omnipotent deity appearing
1, this section of Genesis depicts
a God who needs helpers like Adam to tend his creation.
This depiction characterizes God in a more earthy,
manner. Instead of speaking Eden into being,
he plants the garden (Gen 2:8). Additionally, he feels
sympathy for lonely humanity (Hebrew adam),
so he builds him a helper (Gen. 2:20-21). This God
takes walks in
shade of the garden
goes for walks when the day
is cool, as Genesis
2:8 tells us--apparently to avoid the hot weather?).
Furthermore, the text characterizes God as limited
perception rather than omniscient.
and Eve hide
God can't seem to locate them, so God calls out
to them to reveal themselves (Genesis 3:9). It's
a striking difference
in the narrative voice and in characterization.
sequence of what gets created when appears to be slightly
different in each account.
In Genesis 1:1-2:3, the sequence is as follows:
One: Light or "Day" is
separated from Darkness or "Night." We
have an evening and a morning pass by (though the
sun and moon are
not yet created, nor solid ground to be a revolving
An expanse or barrier (the firmament)
is made to separate and hold apart the "waters
above" and the "waters below."
Another evening and another morning pass.
God separates the "waters below" from dry land.
above" are still left in place somewhere above
the firmament. On the same day, God commands the land
to produce vegetation
including both seed-bearing trees and plants (though
the sun is not yet created for photosynthesis).
Another evening and another morning passes.
sun, the moon, and the stars are created. Another
and another morning pass.
Aquatic creatures and birds are created. Another evening
another morning pass.
Terrestrial creatures are created--including livestock
the creatures that move along the ground." Then
God makes humans. Another evening
and another morning
God rests from his labors.
This account above from Genesis
1:1-2:3 contains elements very similar to Mesopotamian
creation stories found in The
Epic of Gilgamesh and other texts. It takes ideas
of the firmament common
in both Egyptian and Mesopotamian cosmology,
but it restructures the creation so that it is the work
of a single deity rather than a combined effort of several
gods in conflict. Like the Egyptian and Mesopotamian creation
stories common in the 8th century BCE, it assumes a chaotic
watery darkness as the primal state of the cosmos.
The sequence of creation and the
details focused on in Genesis 2:4 onward differ significantly.
Here's a chart adapted from page 90 of Gabel and Wheeler's The
Bible as Literature to illustrate those differences:
|Creation is divided into days.
||No days or other periods of time are mentioned.
|Creation has a cosmic scope.
||Creation has to do with the earth only.
|Animals are created before man.
||Man created before animals.
|Animals are part of a cosmic design (along with plants
and everything else)
||Animals are created
for a limited purpose: to keep man company or be
"a helper"--though they turn out to be
unsuitable for Adam, forcing God to make Eve instead.
|Man is to rule the world.
||Man is to have charge of Eden only and, presumably,
is never to leave it.
|Woman is created simultaneously with man.
||Woman is created
after (and from) the body of man.
|No names are given to creatures.
||All creatures, including man and woman, are given
|Only the deity speaks.
||Four speakers engage in dialogue, one of them an
|The deity makes a day of the week holy.
||The deity forbids eating the fruit of a tree.
According to scholars of Hebrew,
the differences in each passage's diction
tone (Gabel 90). Even
in translation, without looking at the original Hebrew,
a modern reader
differences in the narrative voice.
The narrative voice in Genesis 1-2:3 is solemn, dignified,
precise, and organized. He wastes no words. He is a
poet of great skill. He focuses on God as transcendent.
narrative voice in Genesis 2:4 is also skillful, but
in a different way. He focuses much more on down-to-earth
details and appeals to vivid and concrete imagery.
terms, he describes God doing
a "hands-on" creation
like a potter shaping clay. (The Hebrew word used, yatsar,
is the same verb Hebrew uses for human potters molding
or shaping a vessel, as Gabel and Wheeler
note.) The narrative voice
first half is ultimately concerned with demonstrating
order over chaos; the text emphasizes that creation
is a planned,
orderly construction of God rather than the chaotic
by-product of several gods squabbling as in other
creation stories of the same time. The narrative voice
second section is instead concerned
is agricultural labor necessary? Or pain in childbirth?
Why do snakes crawl on their bellies?
Why do certain
like ground and man sound
make it look initially like there could be two creation
stories appearing in Genesis--possibly written by two
(or more) different
and later anthologized together by a single believer.
(6) Another factor
distinguishing the two passages is the way each refers
to God and the date of respective vocabularies. Some
refer to God by calling God by the name Yahweh,
but others refer to God using a plural noun as Elohim ("the
while attaching singular verbs to this plural noun. In
the 18th century,
H. B. Witter and Jean Astruc suggested
that these terms were not being used indiscriminately,
but that the terms matched the contrasting
creation stories in Genesis we have noted above (and
other passages elsewhere in Genesis and the Hebrew Bible).
The first creation story (Genesis 1-2:3) always and only
to God as
Elohim. The second creation story always refers
to God as Yahweh, or Yahweh Elohim,
but never as Elohim alone. These changes in
diction consistently match the pattern of other distinctions
mentioned above--again suggesting two different linguistic
dates or at least two separate authors.
What do we make of these distinctions?
What do they suggest about the authorship of Genesis?
Biblical scholars today think they indicate that several
people wrote the creation accounts, and then these accounts
anthologized together much later in the book we currently
the Renaissance, Christians assumed a single individual
wrote all the first five books
of the Bible--the Pentateuch of
Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Traditional
Jewish and Christian belief
assumed Moses wrote these books for the Israelites. This
idea is often called "Mosaic Authorship." New
Testament writers, for example, seem to think Moses wrote
all of the Pentateuch, and credit Moses with various
ideas from it. See for instance, Mark 10:3, Luke 24:27,
and John 1:17.
The problem with this hypothesis
is that it doesn't make much
we read, "And
the Canaanite was then in
the land" (KJV, emphasis mine). In both Hebrew
and English, the then bit
implies that, for the narrator, no Canaanites
live now in the land. It would
be odd--even nonsensical--for Moses to write this if
lived before the Conquest of the Promised Land.
He dies looking down on the Promised Land, but he never
it, at least according to Deuteronomy 34. At the time
Moses would have been writing, the land was still inhabited
by Canaanites. Similar "unto-this-day" phrases
appear in Genesis 26:33, 35:20, and Deuteronomy 3:14
These all indicate
a much later perspective than that of Moses. In fact,
Moses's death happens in chapter 34, before the book
ends! While readers might possibly imagine Moses writing
about himself in the third person, it is much more difficult
Moses sitting down and chronicling Joshua's activities
(or even Moses's own burial arrangements) if Moses has
been interred in a Moabite valley
But if Moses
could not have written Genesis, was there a single author
at all? Biblical
scholars analyzing the different sections of Genesis now
think that at least three textual traditions operate
in the work. Based on the language, linguistic studies, the
anthropomorphism, and the folkloric qualities, the section
from Genesis 2:4-3:3
is thought to be actually the oldest textual tradition.
Paleography and linguistics would date this section
to about 799-700 BCE and locate its dialect in the northern
kingdom of Israel around Ephraim. Scholars refer to this
text as part of the the "E
Text" or the Elohist
this tradition uses Elohim as the name of God.
If that part
is the E Text, what is the J Text, you ask? In German transliteration
Hebrew, the letter "J" is used for "Y." Thus,
scholars today refer to the "J
Text" or the Yahwist
Text when they discuss a second textual tradition.
This second tradition refers to God as Yahweh or Yahweh
but never refers to God as Elohim alone. The
J Text was once thought to have been written about 999-800
BCE, but most recent scholarship would date it after the
period of exile (597 BCE). It is written in a dialect
the city of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah,
of the tribal nations. These
two textual traditions probably existed independently
of each other
kingdom of Israel was destroyed toward the end of the eighth
century. The priests of Judah seem to have incorporated
Text tradition after that. This blending resulted in occasional
duplications and repetition of detail in the Pentateuch
the same tale would be told twice, once with a northern
with a southern perspective. We can see the same phenomenon
in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles.
The final editing--and
the addition of the P Text (Priestly Text)
material--occurred during or soon after the Babylonian exile
(597 and 587/586 BCE). At this time,
priests were probably desperate to retain their unique
monotheistic beliefs in the face of overwhelming Babylonian
influence, but they also faced the challenge of harmonizing
their world view
with that of the Babylonian tradition. Babylonian cosmology
(like Egyptian cosmology) believed in a world-destroying
flood and a transparent firmament in the sky. These
ideas go back in the writings of the Babylonian conquerors
Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BCE), long
before classical Hebrew even existed as a separate language from
At this point in their
Babylonian captivity, the Hebrews incorporated a
number of concepts into their later religious
practice. Biblical scholars think these late religious
practices probably included special treatment of the Sabbath
food taboos regarding what is kosher, and taboos
against writing down the name of God.
of the P text--such as the details of the Passover ritual,
ordination ceremonies, and descriptions of the tabernacle--appear
to have come from older (and now lost) manuscript traditions.
These lost texts were updated and modified in the P
tradition. The P text also gives much more prominence
to priests such as Aaron (as opposed to the dominant
role of Moses
E texts), to
death in Deuteronomy, to the legal materials of Leviticus
and Numbers, and to a series of genealogies showing some
influence from older Mesopotamian sources.
At this time, the P-text
editors also adapted elements
of the Chaldean creation stories
account. Some of the elements
from the Chaldean creation stories include the
flood motif, the idea of a firmament that
holds up "the waters above" from "the
waters below," and
and genealogical names appearing in both Genesis and The
Epic of Gilgamesh,
a much older pagan text first written down in cuneiform
tablets about 1800 BCE. Additionally, many Aramaic (aka "Chaldee") loanwords appear
in the Hebrew text at this time and they are incorporated
into the Hebrew Bible thereafter. This influence explains
today why most biblical concordances and dictionaries
(such as the
Comprehensive Concordance of the Bible) refer to
their Hebrew sections as a "Concordance
of Hebrew and Chaldean," a "Hebrew and Chaldee
or a "Hebrew and Aramaic Dictionary." Christ
will still be using some Aramaic terms 400 years later
in the New
Testament gospels, which show how influential and long-lasting
effects of the exile were on the Hebrew vocabulary.
Biblical scholars think that Genesis 1:1-2:3 and other
such as Genesis
6 come from the P Text, and these are probably the latest
additions to the Genesis account. The loanwords mean
the Hebrew texts couldn't have been written before coming
into contact with
the Chaldeans--at least not in the form in which they
come down to us today in surviving manuscripts.
are reading a study Bible like the Anchor
the editors helpfully mark which sections
come from the
J, E, and P Texts.
For more information, students
should consult the following introductory works:
Gabel, John B. and Charles B. Wheeler. The
Bible as Literature: An Introduction. New York: Oxford U P, 1986.
Metzger, Bruce M. and Michael
D. Coogan, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Bible. New York:
Oxford U P, 1993.
Before we begin, remember that ancient Hebrew writers would
have been puzzled by the way modern readers refer to
their work as "Genesis" for several reasons.
First, our modern title comes from a Greek word meaning "creation," but
Greek is a language that would have been unknown to
the original Hebrew writers. Secondly, the convention
of giving written works an actual title did not appeared
until centuries after the time the text was composed.
If Hebrew readers had to talk about a text, they would
refer to it by its opening lines, which in the case
of Genesis would be "Bereshith," the
Hebrew words for "In the beginning . . . ." (Students
of the Latin classics can compare this to how the Romans
would have called The Aeneid the "Arma
Virumque Cano," the opening words to the
work in Latin).
Genesis does not specifically discuss God
Eve. This fact
has been used in some odd ways in scriptural arguments.
Today, a common popular misconception is that the Council
of Nicea (circa
CE) debated whether
or not women actually had souls since God did not breath
his essence into them. After 325, or so the story goes,
the ensouled status of women became accepted as an official
doctrine when the Council of Nicea voted in favor.
In actual point
did not take place in an official ecumenical council,
but it took place informally in a Church Synod in France
recounted in the Historia Francorum of Gregory
of Tours. This debate did not make use of the Genesis
all, but instead
focused on the Latin word homo (man), and argued
whether Biblical passages referring to homo or homines were
equally applicable to women. This account appears to
be the seed from which the later legend grew--a legend
the church decided fairly late that women had souls.
In actual fact, even at the time
of the Council of Nicea, women were already being baptized,
taking communion, and taking last rites--all rituals
that presuppose in the recipient the presence of an applicable
human soul. That suggests many (and probably most) early Christians believed
women had souls, even if a few unorthodox believers might not have shared that thought.