Graded Holiness: A Key to the Priestly Conception of the World (JSOT Supplement 106)

Written by Philip P. Jenson Reviewed By Walter Moberly

Anyone who is interested in understanding the Priestly material in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers should start here. Jenson writes clearly and thoughtfully, he has mastered the extensive literature of recent debate, he makes good use of insights from anthropological writers, and he relates the whole to wider issues of OT interpretation. The book is a revised version of his Cambridge PhD dissertation, mostly written at Tyndale House; would that all PhDs and first books were of this quality.

Jenson’s approach is to focus on a Holiness Spectrum, which is essentially the conceptual world-view of the Priestly material. After introducing the key terms of holiness and purity, he discusses how these are worked out in the four major dimensions of worship: where worship happens—the spatial dimension of the tabernacle; who worships—the personal dimensions of priests and people; how worship happens—the ritual dimension of sacrifice; and when worship happens—the temporal dimension of festivals and sabbath. Because Jenson’s concern is the conceptuality of the material as it stands, he largely eschews well-worn and problematic questions of historical development. The discussion therefore in no way stands or falls by particular historical hypotheses, as is so often the case, and can be read with profit whatever one’s views on the nature of P. Jenson illuminates the world-view of the Priestly material in a way that will not be superseded for a long time, however much one might differ on various particular details. Like any really good work of history, readers are given the feeling of having imaginatively visited, and entered into, a culture not their own.

Rather than attempt detailed nit-picking, I would like to focus on some of the larger issues that arise. For the book poses most acutely the question of the strengths and limitations of historical reconstruction of the religious thought and practice of ancient Israel. The strengths are clear. By bracketing out traditional Christian usage of the material, and by making nuanced use of anthropological categories in a way that is sensitive to the context of ancient Israel, the meaning of the material in its ancient context emerges with freshness and clarity. The weakness is equally clear. To put it crudely, from the perspective of Christian faith what on earth does one do with it? He mentions at the beginning his conviction that Holy Scripture may be studied with profit. Indeed this is so. Nonetheless from a Christian perspective it seems inescapable that some parts are more profitable than others.

For Jews there is far less problem. For despite the destruction of the temple and the cessation of sacrificial worship in ad 70, this Priestly material was central to the development of rabbinic Judaism via the Mishnah (often cited in Jenson’s footnotes) and Talmud. Jenson cites with approval the words of Hayes and Prussner: ‘This material [P] is organized and structured so as to present a total worldview and a structure of time, geography, cultural roles, weekly, seasonal, and multiyear cycles, a view of the proper orders of life and how they interrelate, ritual and routine for overcoming the disruptions in life and for the restoration of proper relationships both between persons and between humans and the divine.’ Exactly the same could be said of rabbinic Judaism. This is presumably why it has been predominantly Jewish scholars in recent years who have pioneered a more positive understanding of the Priestly material: however problematic the material may be for some Jews, it is an integral part of their faith and life down the centuries.

But what should the Christian do? The NT presents three major obstacles to any Christian appropriation of the Priestly material. In Acts 10, kashrut, which is symbolic of the particularity of Israel, is abolished. In Hebrews, the sacrificial system is superseded. And, perhaps most weightily of all, the practice and teaching of Jesus does not suggest anything like the same sense of priorities as is to be found in the Priestly material. There is therefore an intrinsic problem for Christians. Jenson notes in passing the fanciful nature of much traditional Christian allegorizing of the material. But what else should Christians do? A sense of the priority of moral and relational concerns is not incompatible with concerns for ritual and order, and of course not all Christians take such a negative view of such concerns as liberal Protestants of Wellhausen’s ilk. Roman Catholics and Orthodox have their own strong sense of ritual; but that too often appears problematic to Protestants, even those with quite different views from Wellhausen’s.

Moreover, the context of the modern Western world, with its general sweeping away even of its own traditional concepts of hierarchy, distinction and order, makes any appropriation of the Priestly world-view even more problematic. Not that there may not be valuable insights. If, for example, the anthropological contention that the body with its boundaries and functions can stand for society is in any way correct, then presumably the lack of sexual boundaries for so many today may be connected with the general lack of social boundaries; and if so, purely moral exhortation will not address the root of the problem.

All this of course takes us a long way from Jenson’s admirable historical study. But since Jenson teaches men and women who are preparing for Christian ministry, I hope he will not dismiss my concerns with the easy ‘not my field’ but rather in his next book help us see what as Christians we can make of this portion of the OT which in its richness, depth and strangeness he has so clearly set before us.


Walter Moberly

Durham University