British Library, Add. MS 15282

The Book of Leviticus recounts how God related to Moses laws governing sacrificial rituals, purity standards and priestly duties that the Israelites should perform. The first word of Leviticus, in Hebrew Vayikra (meaning “He called”), dominates this illuminated page from a Hebrew manuscript of the first five books of the Bible. Dubbed the Duke of Sussex Pentateuch for an early-19th-century owner, the manuscript was copied and illustrated around 1300 C.E. by Hayyim, a southern German scribe who decorated his name, meaning “life,” whenever it appeared in the biblical text.

The cultic laws enumerated in Leviticus and the other books of the Pentateuch come from one of at least four and probably more literary strands, woven together in the Pentateuch, that Bible scholars have assigned to different authors (or groups of authors) writing at different times. This meticulous description of cultic practice has led scholars to identify one strand as the Priestly source, or P for short.

Given final form in the Persian period (539–332 B.C.E.), P reflects the gradual evolution of Israel’s cult, embodying priestly practices from the Bronze Age (3200–1200 B.C.E.) to after the Exile (post-539 B.C.E.).