Josiah’s reforms: Where is the archaeological evidence?

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by Neil Godfrey

I’ve seen many positive responses to The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, but my own feeling after reading the book was disappointment at the lack of archaeological evidence they cited for their main theme: the Great Reformation of Josiah and his reign as “the climax of Israel’s monarchic history.” These authors dub this period “A Sudden Coming of Age” for the Kingdom of Judah that produced “The Birth of a New National Religion.”

It was during King Josiah’s reign that Finkelstein and Silberman argue that the “defining and motivating text” of the biblical books was composed. The stories of David and others were supposedly modeled on their authors’ propaganda vision of Josiah himself.

This literary “renaissance” coincided with “a new political and territorial agenda: the unification of all Israel.”

After the fall of the northern Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians, the southern kingdom of Judah was “transformed”. “Traditional tales of wandering patriarchs and of a great national liberation from Egypt” were viewed from a new perspective and came to serve “the cause of religious innovation — the emergence of monotheistic ideas — within the newly crystallized Judahite state.”

But when one looks for the primary evidence they draw on in support of this hypothesis, it strikes me as being so tenuous as to be virtually nonexistent. I see no reason to accept the biblical story as historical, and several reasons to interpret it as fiction.

My impression was that F&S have done little more than respond to the failure of archaeology to support the biblical portrait of the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon by shifting the beginnings of today’s Judaism and the first viable Jewish state along about 300 years so that the closing chapters of Samuel-Kings are the historical glory days of Jewish presence in “the land”. But the positive evidence for their claims is scant, and they fail to account for the specific themes of the tales of the wandering patriarchs, exile from Egypt and settlement in the land.

I understand Israeli archaeologists have tended to rush through the more recent layers that mark the Hellenistic and Persian eras in order to get to the strata where they expect to find the “real evidence” for their “biblical-glorious” past. They have been forced to abandon the David-Solomon era, so F&S point to the Josianic kingdom instead. The tragedy is that these biased practices may have destroyed forever the evidence that had the best chance of delineating the real origins of our biblical heritage in the Persian and Hellenistic eras.

Here is the evidence cited by Finkelstein and Silberman for the “glory-days” of the Kingdom of Josiah and the beginnings of the establishment of “Jewish monotheistic” religion and a powerful kingdom seeking to supposedly unite the former territory of Israel with the kingdom of Judah. F&S concede that Josiah’s territorial expansions were in fact very limited or transient. But that makes me wonder what is the evidence for such ambitions or of any potential to achieve them at all.

How Vast Was the Kingdom of Josiah?

Finkelstein and Silberman write

The extent of Josiah’s territorial conquests has so far been only roughly determined by archaeological and historical criteria (see Appendix F). (p. 288)

But when the reader turns to Appendix F the reader must surely wonder why F&S even suggest that Josiah undertook any form of “territorial conquests” at all.

Lachish had been destroyed by the Assyrians, and afterwards apparently served as a Judahite fort. But there is nothing else.

Here is the evidence discussed in Appendix F:

The North: the fort at Megiddo?

Remains of a fort at Megiddo dominating the trade route from Egypt to Mesopotamia has been attributed to Josiah’s time. F&S write of this fort, however:

To start with Megiddo in the north, there is no evidence whatsoever to attribute the fort of stratum II to Josiah. Not a single Judahite item of the seventh century . . . has ever been found at Megiddo. We can safely accept the alternative view, that stratum II at Megiddo represents a peaceful takeover by the Egyptians. (p. 350)

The West: Pottery at Mesad (Fort) Hashavyahu?

This site on the Mediterranean coast about 15 miles south of Tel Aviv has been interpreted as evidence of a Jewish commanded garrison of Greek mercenaries. (There are remains of Greek pottery there.) Its function was presumably to establish a port access to the Mediterranean. Fragments with Yahwistic names (names ending in yahu) have been interpreted as indicators of this fort being built by Josiah.

F&S comment:

Replica of the Mesad Hashavyahu Ostracon
Image via Wikipedia

The question is, should this pottery be understood as representing the physical presence of Greek merchants or mercenaries, or just the product of trade relations with the West? . . . The relatively high ratio of this pottery at Mesad Hahsavyahu may indeed indicate the presence of Greeks. And if the site was indeed a fort, then we may be dealing with Greek mercenaries. The next question would be, in which army did they serve? The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that Greek mercenaries served in the army of Psammetichus I, king of Egypt, and that they were stationed in his border fortresses. This has been confirmed by excavations in Egypt, including a dig at one of the places specifically mentioned by Herodotus. We can therefore quite safely accept the theory that Mesad Hashavyahu was an Egyptian coastal outpost staffed by, among others, Greek mercenaries. (p. 350)

But how to explain the Yahwistic names there?

The book of Jeremiah (44:1; 46:14) tells us that in his time Judahites lived in several places in Egypt, and from the finds at the island of Elephantine in the Nile, in Upper Egypt, combined with the references in the Bible to Syene (Aswan), we may assume that Judahites served as mercenaries in the Egyptian army as early as the late monarchic period. It is therefore quite reasonable that the unit stationed in the Egyptian fort at Mesad Hashavyahu included Judahite mercenaries. Naaman suggested that some of these Judahites may have been corvée workers who were sent there as part of Judah’s obligation as a subordinate of Egypt. There is thus no reason to stretch the territory of Josiah as far west as the coast. (p. 351)

The South: Two forts at Kadesh-barnea and Haseva?

Apparent resemblances to Judahite forts in Beersheba and the discovery of Hebrew ostraca have been seen as evidence that these forts indicated Josiah’s southern expansion.

F&S cite Naaman again to propose “a no less appealing alternative”. Both forts were built in the early seventh century under the Assyrians, and with the assistance of local vassal states, Judah and Edom. Local vassal troops manned them, but they were Assyrian forts.

Other ostraca with Egyptian hieratic script indicates that they passed from the Assyrians to the Egyptian control in the late seventh century.

Furthermore, Naaman writes that their appearance does differ from the Judahite fort in Beersheba.

Temporary expansionist forays?

F&S suggest that Josiah’s expansionist ambitions yielded no lasting extensions to his kingdom’s borders. But if we have no evidence of “a permanent and far-reaching annexation of new territories”, what is the evidence for even temporary forays? What is the evidence for imperial ambitions?

Positive evidence of Judahite territory is found in limestone weights, seal impressions on the handles of storage jars, and many figurines (especially of a woman supporting her breasts with her hands) common “in the heartland of Judah, between Beersheba and Bethel.” But few of these are found beyond that “heartland of Judah”, and those few that are found beyond that region may represent trade rather than political conquest.

Archaeological Evidence for the Religious Reforms

Here the evidence presented by F&S is just as problematic in my view.

F&S begin by reading from the text of Deuteronomy — not the archaeological evidence. This text is supposed to consist of laws that “offer an unprecedented concern for the weak and helpless within Judahite society”. They assert that these laws grew out of a new “consciousness” and “shared perception of nationhood”. I fail to be convinced. The laws of Hammurabi, the Wisdom texts of Egypt, are not from my recollections all that dissimilar from anything in the Bible. So what is the evidence for this “revolutionary step” towards “the new attitude and the new rights offered by the Deuteronomic law” at this time?

Perhaps the single most evocative archaeological artifact seemingly exemplifying this new consciousness of individual rights was discovered in 1960 at a fortress of the late seventh century BCE known to archaeologists as Mesad Hashavyahu . . . . One of the workers composed an outraged appeal to the commander of the garrison, written on a broken pottery sherd. This precious Hebrew inscription is perhaps the earliest archaeological evidence that we possess of the new attitude and the new rights offered by the Deuteronomic law . . . (pp. 286-7)

The inscription testifies to a harvester complaining to an official that his garment was taken and not returned. He wants the official to order its return, either through obligation or a sense of pity.

I suggest that to see this as “the single most evocative archaeological artifact” for the Deuteronomic reforms of Josiah requires a substantial quantity of wishful or wilful vision.

Closure of pagan temples?

Josiah’s primary target in his attempt to rid the land of idolatry was said to have been the temple at Bethel.

The temple of Bethel . . . has not yet been located and only one contemporary Judahite temple outside Jerusalem has so far been discovered. Its fate during Josiah’s program of religious centralization is unclear. (p. 288)

The other temple referred to here is at the fortress of Arad. A fortification wall was built over this temple, suggesting to some that this was a consequence of Josiah’s ending idolatrous worship there. Other archaeologists, F&S explain in a footnote, question the dating of this and are not convinced the temple ceased to function during Josiah’s time.

Enforcement of the second commandment forbidding images of Yahweh?

F&S cite a change in the artistic style of seals and seal impressions in late monarchic Judah. Earlier seals featured images of an astral cult — stars and moon. Then, . . .

. . . in the late seventh century most of the seals include only names (and sometimes floral decoration), conspicuously lacking iconic decorations. (p. 288)

But F&S acknowledge that the same new artistic style is found among seals in the areas of Ammon and Moab! F&S explain that “none is pronounced as Judah’s”. This leaves me a little unconvinced that I am obligated to see in this evidence for a Yahwistic reform.

Does not the evidence contradict the narrative?

And my doubts are only increased with F&S’s subsequent paragraph:

Other evidence, however, seems to suggest that Josiah failed to stop the veneration of graven images, since figurines of a standing woman supporting her breast with her hands (generally identified with the goddess Asherah) have been found in abundance within private dwelling compounds at all major late-seventh century sites in Judah. Thus, at least on a household level, this popular cult seems to have continued despite the religious policy emanating from Jerusalem. (p. 288)

But if F&S are supposed to be supplying us with evidence for those religious reforms then they have failed as far as I can tell. They have no evidence. They are merely shifting Albrightianism from David to Josiah. They are tendentiously interpreting what strikes me as (at best) neutral evidence to support the narrative they read in the Bible.

The Fable of Josiah’s reforms

The following is from my notes on Philip R. Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel at vridar.info:

The other presumed historical period was the discovery of “a book of the covenant” in the Jerusalem Temple that led to the reforms of King Josiah. The only evidence that such a book was ever discovered and that this king ever existed or enacted these reforms is the story itself found in 2 Kings 22-23. The whole point of this story is to explain to the reader that if the laws of book of the covenant had been obeyed then the nation of Judah would never have gone into Babylonian captivity. Furthermore, 2 Kings appears to be strongly influenced by the ideas and language and style found in the book of Deuteronomy, and the book of the covenant in this story is described in a way that makes it look very much like it was really the Book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. The whole story looks like an attempt to make the book of Deuteronomy appear to have been known in ancient times and to have had authority. In the story good King Josiah is conveniently killed after enacting the laws of Deuteronomy and all his good work is undone by his successors.

Thus alas! the book was unknown both before after Josiah’s time, at least until the time the story was written. It looks very much as if the whole story was written to make a much later book look ancient and requiring obedience to its laws.

If such a story as this were found anywhere except in the Bible it would simply lack credibility. Readers would assume it was a fable.

But let’s suppose the story really were true and stop and think about it. Can we imagine an ancient king really using Deuteronomy as his new book of laws. Deuteronomy has only one chapter with commanding a king what to do. (He must not get horses from Egypt and must spend day and night reading the book, etc.) Some scholars have argued that Deuteronomy was actually written at the time of King Josiah, but if this is so it is hard to understand why it has so few commands for kings at a time when kings had all authority over virtually all the activities of their kingdoms. But let’s suppose one king really did decide to give up all his ways and begin to rule entirely by the rules of this book. Can we really imagine the many other powerful individuals and groups in the kingdom, those who owed their powers and status to the king, can we imagine them also calmly stepping aside and allowing their king to do this? Possible maybe, but highly improbable.

Alternative reading of the evidence

For an alternative reading, see the archived posts of Thompson’s discussion of the archaeological evidence and the rise of the Kingdom of Judah:


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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Josiah’s reforms: Where is the archaeological evidence?”

  1. I was quite disappointed when I first read Finkelstein and Silbweman .

    It didn’t live up to the hyperventilating blurb at all …’provocative, exhilarating, bold’, all were inappropriate IMO.
    I initially thought it was a reluctant admission of minimalism that half apologetically put a conservative orthodox maximalist case forward in each chapter and then slowly demolished such somewhat ambiguously and left the conclision, well, somewhat inconclusive.

    On a second more careful reading my opinion of their courage rose a little, the book is after all an attack, muted and confused as it may be, on cherished Jewish/Israeli myths and the authors suffered from a knee jerk ideological reaction from the orthodox scholars.

    But I do wish they hadn’t wasted so much space and ink giving us the traditional version of ‘history’ complete with long excerpts and references from the bible before getting down to the actual archeology.
    The pre-sumptions created muddy the real history.

    Which is why I prefer John laughlin’s book ” Archaeology and the Bible”.

    It covers essentially the same material and era but much more simply, precisely and clearly.
    Just a straightforward narrative of what is known and how we know it.

    1. I just discovered your comment had been redirected to spam and have rescued it now.

      Yes, I get the impression that archaeology is a highly politically charged business among Israelis. But all F & S have done is substitute one myth that can no longer claim archaeological support with another myth that is likewise with “minimal” (so minimal it is effectively invisible) primary evodence.

  2. Reading the last couple of articles has convinced me to read Thompson and Davies work. The note from Davies book wasn’t convincing, but Davies seems to have a large following and his take would be worth considering.

  3. It’s funny that i don’t notice much implication. If Finkelstein has moved onto garrisons and forts as being evidence of an Judaite economy and the book of deuteronomy as really fudged up by Josiah alone I probably would have rejected all he says.

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