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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 first became available in the 18th 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 launches with the eloquent and imminently quotable, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and voice, 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 is metered, 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, chiasmus, parallelism, and other rhetorical schemes and tropes. The Genesis 1 text uses "high style" and those artistic devices common to Hebrew poetry--especially catachresis, anaphora, and parallelism. To indicate these artistic qualities here, most NIV translations reproduce the text with hanging indentation to mark the poetic structure. Each section begins with an anaphora: "And God said . . ." Each section ends with epistrophe: "And there was evening, and there was morning--the . . . day." Likewise, after the first two days, we have the artistic repetition of the phrase "And God saw that it was good," leading up to a final crescendo, "and 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 than in 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 break the text into paragraphs. In terms of literary devices, the primary schemes and tropes are puns providing Hebrew folk etymologies. 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 1 passage, the diction is grandiose--designed to emphasize the majesty and the ordered 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 mud and dirt of a single garden where we find God shaping men out of mud and where animals like the 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:

Then 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.

So 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 passages]

Contrast this bit with the section following Genesis 2:4, where we read a different creation account: "And 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 who 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 woman, rather than making 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.**

The 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 hovering over the dark waters. Creation is effortless.

When we get to Genesis 2:2, however, we have a God that can grow tired and needs rest: "so on the seventh day, he rested from all his work." Rather than presenting the remote and omnipotent deity appearing in Genesis 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, physical 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 the shade of the garden (but he only 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 in perception rather than omniscient. When Adam and Eve hide from God, 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.

(5) The 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:

  • Day 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 earth).
  • Day Two: 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.
  • Day Three: God separates the "waters below" from dry land. The "waters 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.
  • Day Four: The sun, the moon, and the stars are created. Another evening and another morning pass.
  • Day Five: Aquatic creatures and birds are created. Another evening and another morning pass.
  • Day Six: Terrestrial creatures are created--including livestock and "all the creatures that move along the ground." Then God makes humans. Another evening and another morning pass.
  • Day Seven: 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:

Genesis 1-2:4a Genesis 2:4b-3:24
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 names.
Only the deity speaks. Four speakers engage in dialogue, one of them an animal.
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 sharply contrast in tone (Gabel 90). Even in translation, without looking at the original Hebrew, a modern reader can see significant 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. The 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. In anthropomorphic 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 in the 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 in the second section is instead concerned with etiology--why is agricultural labor necessary? Or pain in childbirth? Why do snakes crawl on their bellies? Why do certain Hebrew words like ground and man sound alike?

These differences make it look initially like there could be two creation stories appearing in Genesis--possibly written by two (or more) different authors 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 passages refer to God by calling God by the name Yahweh, but others refer to God using a plural noun as Elohim ("the Lords)"--sometimes 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 refers 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 were anthologized together much later in the book we currently call Genesis.

Before 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 sense in the context of Moses's life. In Genesis 12:6, 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 he were the author. Moses lived before the Conquest of the Promised Land. He dies looking down on the Promised Land, but he never enters 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 and 10:8. These all indicate a much later perspective than that of Moses. In fact, Moses's death happens in chapter 34, before the book of Deuteronomy ends! While readers might possibly imagine Moses writing about himself in the third person, it is much more difficult to imagine Moses sitting down and chronicling Joshua's activities (or even Moses's own burial arrangements) if Moses has already died and been interred in a Moabite valley opposite Peor.

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 Text because 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 of 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 Elohim 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 associated with the city of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah, the more southerly of the tribal nations. These two textual traditions probably existed independently of each other for some time, but the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed toward the end of the eighth century. The priests of Judah seem to have incorporated the E Text into their J Text tradition after that. This blending resulted in occasional duplications and repetition of detail in the Pentateuch because often the same tale would be told twice, once with a northern orientation and once 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, the Judaic 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 to The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BCE), long before classical Hebrew existed as a separate language from Proto-Canaanite.

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 day, elaborate food taboos regarding what is kosher, and taboos against writing down the name of God. Other features 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 in the J and E texts), to the account of Moses' 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 editors also adapted elements of the Chaldean creation stories into the Genesis 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 certain characters 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 1979 version of Strong's Comprehensive Concordance of the Bible) refer to their Hebrew sections as a "Concordance of Hebrew and Chaldean," a "Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary," 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 the linguistic effects of the exile were on the Hebrew vocabulary. Biblical scholars think that Genesis 1:1-2:3 and other sections 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.

If students are reading a study Bible like the Anchor Bible series, 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.

*Note 1: 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).

**Note 2: Genesis does not specifically discuss God breathing life into 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 323-325 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 part of orthodox doctrine when the Council of Nicea voted in favor. In actual point of fact, the debate did not take place in an official ecumenical council, but it took place informally in a Church Synod in France in 585 CE, as recounted in the Historia Francorum of Gregory of Tours. This debate did not make use of the Genesis text at 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 that 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 early Christians believed women had souls, even if a few might not have.



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