Over a week ago I posted Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1 — a discussion drawn principally from Thomas L. Thompson’s The Mythic Past: Biblical archaeology and the myth of Israel. That first post covered the evidence that “Jewishness” originated as a religious rather than an ethnic label:
- the origin myth of Israel being unlike any other national or ethnic origin myth in that it is an etiology of a religious cult
- the fact that there has been far more continuity of the population of Palestine than commonly understood
- the worship of Yahweh was not unique to any one people in the ancient Near East, nor was Yahweh the sort of god often depicted in the Bible
- Jewishness was not a concept that was limited to a particular ethnic group or even “the Jerusalem cult” exclusively, as witnessed by the surviving evidence from diaspora groups
- the concept of Israel in the Bible’s narrative is theological and not political or ethnic (prohibitions on mixed marriages were a safeguard for the preservation of the religious cult rather than an ethnic group)
Thompson argues that modern readers have tended to overlook the literary character of the biblical stories and traditions, and the fact that Israel in these stories is a theological (not historical) construct or metaphor. The same misreading applies to the New Testament, too.
This post addresses the second part of Thompson’s argument, the evidence from Josephus and to a lesser extent from Philo.
In book 12 of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus recounts an etiology of the Jews of Egypt from deportations under Ptolemy ‘from the mountains of Judea and from the places about Jerusalem, Samaria and near Mount Gerizim.‘ These he describes as ‘two groups’ — nevertheless Jews all — who dispute about whether they should send their tribute to Jerusalem of to Samaria (Ant. 12.1.1). (p. 259-60, The Mythic Past, my emphasis)
What is the significance of this? It shows that in Josephus’ mind it was quite acceptable to think of a single functioning Jewish community in the diaspora that was made up of Jews of disparate origins and loyalties. (Thompson, p. 260)
In his next chapter (12.2.1-3) Josephus presents a tradition that the Egyptian ruler, Ptolemy Philadelphus, had set free 120,000 people who had once been deported from Jerusalem to be enslaved in Egypt. What was the origin of this etiological tale of “Jews” having been deported from Jerusalem? Was it not based on Josephus’ understanding of “Jew”? Josephus uses the word “Jew” to describe those people in Egypt who had certain religious affiliations. He did not define them in terms of geography or origins but in terms of religious affiliation.
And what of the Persian name for the province, Jehud? The old name of Judea had referred to the highland region to the south of Jerusalem. Thompson suggests the Persian name of Yehud to refer, rather, to the province of Jerusalem may be related to the same religious association.
Inconsistency over the Samaritans
Later, however, Josephus polemicizes against the Samaritans and attempts to define them as non-Jews. Yet his polemic acknowledges that the Samaritans had identified themselves as Jews, following the same laws of sabbath observance and such. Josephus despises the Samaritans and so presents them as now denying that they are Jews. In attempting to refute the Samaritans’ claim to be Jews as a lie, he argues that they were in fact Sidonians — but then in the same context claims they were Medes and Persians. He even accuses them of demonstrating their “non-Jewishness” by having their temple renamed in honour of the Greek god Jupiter.
When the Samaritans saw the Jews under these sufferings, they no longer confessed that they were of their kindred, nor that the temple on Mount Gerizzim belonged to Almighty God. This was according to their nature, as we have already shown. And they now said that they were a colony of Medes and Persians; and indeed they were a colony of theirs. So they sent ambassadors to Antiochus, and an epistle, whose contents are these: “To king Antiochus the god, Epiphanes, a memorial from the Sidonians, who live at Shechem. Our forefathers, upon certain frequent plagues, and as following a certain ancient superstition, had a custom of observing that day which by the Jews is called the Sabbath. And when they had erected a temple at the mountain called Gerrizzim, though without a name, they offered upon it the proper sacrifices. Now, upon the just treatment of these wicked Jews, those that manage their affairs, supposing that we were of kin to them, and practiced as they do, make us liable to the same accusations, although we be originally Sidonians, as is evident from the public records. We therefore beseech thee, our benefactor and Savior, to give order to Apollonius, the governor of this part of the country, and to Nicanor, the procurator of thy affairs, to give us no disturbance, nor to lay to our charge what the Jews are accused for, since we are aliens from their nation, and from their customs; but let our temple, which at present hath no name at all be named the Temple of Jupiter Hellenius. (Ant. 12.5.5)
But earlier, Josephus himself had spoken positively of identifying the Jewish god with Jupiter.
for both these people [Jews], and we [Egyptians, Greeks] also, worship the same God the framer of all things. We call him, and that truly, by the name of GREEK, [or life, or Jupiter,] because he breathes life into all men. (Ant. 12.2.4)
Clearly such a renaming of the temple thus hardly involves apostasy. But note in particular that the Samaritans identified themselves as the children of Israel — observing the sabbath, the Jubilee year, proper sacrifice, understanding themselves to be Hebrews — “whatever the truth of the claim that they were Sidonians, Medes or Persians might be.” (p. 260, The Mythic Past)
Josephus gives us further evidence that the Samaritans understood themselves to be Jews despite his own loathing of them. In Antiquities 11.8.7 he informs us:
Now when Alexander was dead, the government was parted among his successors, but the temple upon Mount Gerizzim remained. And if any one were accused by those of Jerusalem of having eaten things common or of having broken the sabbath, or of any other crime of the like nature, he fled away to the Shechemites, and said that he was accused unjustly.
So one having been accused of violating the Jewish laws fled to the Samaritans and claimed he was accused unjustly — thus implying that the Samaritans were themselves observing the same traditions.
Everybody can be a Jew
We find that Egyptians are Jews, Syrians are Jews, Samaritans are Jews. Josephus refers to ‘Jews throughout the inhabitable earth, and those that worshipped God, even of Asia and Europe’. The specifics themselves are impressive:
- he refers to Jews having been carried captive beyond the Euphrates.
- Citing Strabo, he speaks of a large portion of Alexandria taken up by the Jews,
- of Jews living in many of the cities of Egypt,
- as well as in Cyrene and Cyprus.
- He describes Jews as controlling Cleopatra’s army (Ant. 13.10.4 and 14.7.2). Their great power in Egypt he explains by their having been themselves originally Egyptian.
- He writes in connection with a revolt in Cyrene, of ‘our people, of whom the habitable earth is full’, and of Jews in every city. ‘It is hard,’ he writes, ‘to find a place . . . that has not admitted this tribe of men and is not possessed by them’.
- He also speaks of the Jews of the diaspora much in the manner of Philo: model citizens of the empire.
- He tells of many nations, imitating the Jews and, having learned from them, supporting ‘great bodies of these Jews’, and becoming prosperous using their laws. (Ant. 14.7.2; 15.2.2; 18.9.1; 18.3.5)
- This picture of the ‘Jews’ of the diaspora is matched by his description of the ‘Jewish’ cities of Palestine at the time of Alexander,
- including the cities of the Transjordan, of Idumea, Phoenicia and even ‘the principal cities of Syria’. (p. 261, my formatting)
What Josephus is doing is describing Judaism as being made up of “all who believe in the almighty God.” This is what underlies his understanding of “Jew”.
Thompson accepts part of Josephus’ description of Christians as being original to Josephus and as making the same point:
Even his more limited description of the followers of Jesus, among who he includes both those he calls Jews and Gentiles, forms part of his comprehension of Judaism (Ant. 18.3.3)
Philo had a different view
Josephus tended to consider all those among the growing adherents to monotheism as Jews. Not so Philo.
Philo, the Jew of Alexandria, identified himself as a Greek (“we Greeks”) when comparing his standing with ‘Barbarians’, the Orientalists.
But when seeing himself as distinct from fellow Egyptians he did call himself a Jew (“we Jews”).
Jews stand against the godlessness of the ethne. Any argument against understanding early Judaism as an ethnic group or nation could hardly be stronger than Philo’s own. (p. 261, my emphasis)
A literary world, not an historical one
Philo’s understanding of “Jew” stands completely in accord with the theological meaning found in the Bible’s theology of “the way”. As does the Bible, Philo pits the way of the godly, those who are dedicated to the observance of the torah, against the way of the ungodly. The biblical concept of ‘new Israel’ refers to the living generation who are expected to learn the lesson of the literary old Israel. (Compare Paul himself calling on his readers to learn from the failings of Israel of old.) The old Israel is always the theological failure and instructor of the new.
[Philo] historicizes the godlessness of the biblical tradition’s ‘old Israel’ with reference to the uncivilized nations of the Orient of his own time. Philo’s historicization of such ideological metaphors is fully comparable to what we have seen of Josephus’ literary techniques. Chronicles gives Hezekiah’s reform a rhetorical balance with the use of a three-fold Samaritan ancestry: Ephraim, Manasseh and Asher. With this same literary manner, Josephus presents the Samaritans (whom he identifies as being Sidonians as well as Persians and Medes) as claiming descent from the tribes of Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim. Similarly, Josephus elsewhere identifies Judaism itself in terms of the three-fold literary division of Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. Such efforts to historicize essentially literary concepts and metaphors are commonplace throughout our literature of Judaism. Only a Weberian sociology would derive a description of ancient society from these literary fictions. Whether they are found in the New Testament, in Philo or in Josephus, they reflect a literary world not an historical one. (p. 262, my emphasis)
The next paragraph is also worth quoting in full:
In ignoring the literary character of biblical stories and traditions, whether of the Old or the New Testament, we have ignored the collector’s world in which the traditions were first interpreted. We ignore the author’s world, centred in the religious sectarianism of true faith over against a false faith of the past. This sectarianism is not a religion of reform, but one of transformation and reinterpretation. In closing the Book of Kings, the tradition rejected that past world of kings and men, and with it that Jerusalem of old Israel with its temple that had been built by men’s hands. The New Israel comes out of the desert, out of exile. The land is the empty land of Nehemiah 1-4 and of Leviticus 26. It is Jeremiah 4:23’s tohu wa bohu. It is 1 Maccabees 1:37’s variant of creatio ex nihilo. The New Israel begins at the creation. It is a celebration not of an ancient nation but of new life. Ancient Israel — from the garden story of humanity’s search for wisdom to the end of God’s patience in 11 Kings — belongs not to the creation’s acts of God, but rather to the acts and to the world of men, where Jerusalem with its walls and its tower was indeed Genesis 11’s Babylon. This Babylon is the Jerusalem where the kings of David’s house, Yahweh’s messiahs all, had done what was right only in their own eyes. (p. 262)
Problems for scholarship’s historiographical interpretation
Recent scholarship tends to assume Judaism originated according to a literal or historical reading of the narrative traditions in Ezra and Nehemiah — as a people forming and reviving an old religion of Yahweh worship. But this model raises two problems:
- We must embrace the historicity of the exclusiveness of the Jerusalem temple’s claim: “an assertion that has no historical or literary warrant.” To assert such a thing would mean we would have to defend the Jerusalem cult’s legitimacy and orthodoxy against such literary constructs as ‘the people of the land’ and the Samaritans of Ezra and Nehemiah;
- Historians would have to ignore the many other communities and that were associated with Yahweh temples and cults. This problem might be solved by the “many Judaisms” approach, but that leaves unresolved the problem of rabbinical Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism of the second century can hardly be explained as the heir to any such temple Judaism.
Rabbinic Judaism cannot be found as a historical or social reality in any period prior to the second century CE. There is no centre or unity before then that can be described as such a Judaism. What one finds, however, is a Judaism that reaches out “embracing the whole of the classical world’s monotheistic inclusiveness.” Before the second century Judaism refers (as we have seen with Philo and Josephus) to religious and philosophical traditions. And those religious and philosophical traditions “all . . . share the common structure and self-understanding of the theology of the way.”
The significance of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE
Thompson believes that the idea of the Jerusalem Temple ever being the “centre of Judaism” — as has been often argued in reference to the Hasmoneans, to John Hyrcanus’ attempts to force conversions, and to various historicized New Testament versions of a Jerusalem in Jesus’ time — such a role “came to it definitively only as a direct result of the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.”
It was at that time that the role of the temple, as expressing the divine presence on earth, was recast in the form of the metaphor of a future and heavenly Jerusalem.
This was not the rabbi’s torah Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism focussed on “the spiritual heart of the tradition” and can hardly be said to be heir to a temple tradition.
Rabbinic [Judaism] is hardly well defined as a religion in any strict sense of the word, any more than are the Tanakh traditions from which it springs. It is hardly like other religions of the ancient world, centred as they were on cults and sacrifices and the service of the gods. All such traditions are — as in Philo — transposed and reinterpreted in philosophical terms. (p. 263)
(Now this flies in the face of my own past interpretation of the Gospel of Mark and the religion that we would recognize as some form of Christianity (as opposed to Paul’s mystical attachment to an entirely mystical Christ). I have tended to think of Christianity as we know it as the end-result of various responses to the demise of the Jerusalem Temple cult in 70 CE. Does anything Thompson is saying here mean a qualification of that view is required?)
Has the hypothesis of ‘multiple Judaisms’ had its day?
Scholarship has focussed on the presumed historicity of the written traditions and proposed that there were “multiple historical Judaisms” to explain the diversity of these.
These many Judaisms living in this essentially metaphorical world are the Judaisms of Elephantine, as well as of the many variant historical forms of benei Yisrael [Children of Israel] Judaism that dotted the Palestinian landscape and the shores of the Mediterranean. They include the Shomronim of Samaria, as well as the Samaritans and Jews of Josephus and the Hellenist Jews of Philo in far-off Alexandria. Among such Judaisms surely belong the Zadokites and the Nazirites, the Essenes, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. (pp. 263-64)
But each of these Judaisms are essentially “literary Judaisms”. Their self-identities have been defined by the tradition.
Other Judaisms have not been so defined as Jewish except by modern scholars. Scholars have constructed “hypothetical groups of Jews living in various hypothetical societies and communities” that are implied by various “sectarians” of:
- the Damascus Covenant
- the Dead Sea Scrolls
- the Apocrypha
- the Pseudepigrapha
of many variable Old Testament traditions such as
- Ben Sira
as well as by the voice of
- the gospels
- the letters of Paul
The basis this conception of many Judaisms, however, is literary rather than historical. These multiple Judaisms are fictive entities. They reflect various ideologies, identifiable only in limited ways with any people who lived in the ancient world other than the authors who created them. (p. 264)
I am restraining myself from commentary here. There is a lot being said that needs to sink in and really register before discussion begins.
What is behind the multiple variants of this literature? Regional differences and chronology have no doubt had some influence but they are not the primary reasons for their variations. What makes them both a collective and a multiplicity of views?
They distinguish themselves from each other according to literary patterns of perceiving. They represent one of other variant of the defining motifs of the ‘new Israel’ and of the ‘new Jerusalem’, of the ‘way of righteousness’, and the ‘way of the torah‘. (p. 264)
This returns us to the central theme running through them all. It is a theological theme: “Old Israel” is a metaphor and an exemplar for the benefit, the contemplation, of the people of God in the here and now, those who identify themselves as the “new Israel”, the people of the “new Jerusalem”, those who have chosen the way of the Lord and turned their backs on the way of the ungodly. The literature consists of multiple ways of perceiving this theological theme or single religious idea.
So what do we do with the various “historical Judaisms”? Thompson is saying the communities behind this varied literary corpus are defined by their intellectual outlook and not any historical ethnicity.
Historically, however, we have a decidedly different taxonomy — one in which the terms Jewish and Judaism are hugely anachronistic, having merely a referential and accidental quality, not a defining one. In this taxonomy, no coherent unity pertains other than those shared intellectual features common to an interrelated geographical area. Here we find people living in
and Samaria and its region
and the cities of Palestine
together with associated populations in the Transjordan
Here we find the many West Semites of Egyptian military colonies such as that of Elephantine and Herontopolis.
We have any number of religiously comparable groups, including the members of the synagogues of the great cities of the empire from Rome to Babylon. (my formatting)
And let’s not forget those well-known assemblies of people who eschewed the distinction between Jew and Gentile yet at the same time identified themselves as a “new Israel” and related concepts.
In all of the above we find “priests and official cult functionaries of the various Yahweh temples”, and even supporters of the temples and who yet belonged to a variety of religious and philosophical associations.
They wrote in Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew.
Today we tend to classify their works as Jewish:
the many anonymous and often pseudonymous works of the Tanakh; the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea scrolls, the gospels and epistles, as well as the works of such authors as Josephus, Philo of Alexandria and Philo of Byblos. For such people, the terms ‘Jew’, ‘Jewish’, and ‘Judaism’ are historically highly equivocal.
Beyond the history of Judea and Samaria
Historians have too easily fallen into the trap of paraphrasing the 1 and 2 Maccabees and declaring it to be the history of the southern Levant during the Hellenistic period. Thompson thinks something more is required:
[W]e need to write a history for the whole of this region. Our history should be more than a history of Judea and Samaria. We need to think about the towns of the lowlands and of the coast. We must especially think of Beth Shan and the towns of the Jezreel, and we mustn’t forget the Galilee. If the Bible remains our focus, we can no longer neglect the great intellectual centres of Alexandria and Babylon as we have. (p. 265)
Historians have tended to treat the religious ideas and texts of the Greco-Roman period as something of an anti-Hellenistic religious reaction emanating from Palestine’s “least Hellenized ‘Jews'”. Thompson suggests reversing that perception and thinking of this literature
more as an intellectual and philosophical movement within Hellenism itself.
Consider the “Jewish” temples of Jerusalem, Samaria, Elephantine, Leontopolis and Beersheva. Are these testimony to religious coherence or to religious and political factionalism and special interests? We know, for example, that many of the early “Jewish” texts such as the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls “do not see the temple as the core of their religion, though they recognize its political and cultic value.” Recall in the previous post the evidence that for the community at Elephantine there was no clear religious primacy for either the Jerusalem or the Samaritan temple. If the Jerusalem temple really were the central idea of Jewish religious affiliation, then the Samaritans would have been excluded by definition, as well as other ethnic and geographic centres of Judea itself. Note, also, the relationship of Idumean power and its relationship with the Jerusalem temple at the time of Herod.
Consider also the various groups of the Galileans.
If Idumeans and Galileans can be understood as Yehudim, what of the people of the Transjordan from Philadelphia to Damascus? (p. 265)
Where did all the Jews come from?
Could all who adhered to such a religion understand themselves as ‘Jews’? Or, like the Samaritans, as benei Yisrael? The early Greek translation of the Bible is associated with the ‘Jews’ of Alexandria. Were such ‘Jews’ transported to Egypt from Alexander’s Samaria? Or were they ‘Jews’ because of their biblical faith? And where did the Jews of the later Jerusalem Talmud come from: those ‘Jews’ centred in the schools and synagogues of Tiberias and Zevad? This is to say nothing about the Jews of Acco, of Byblos and of the diaspora throughout the Roman empire. What does it mean to be a Jew in Palestine — or indeed in the diaspora — under the Roman empire? Why is it that the rabbinic traditions of the Talmud — arguably reflecting traditions of the second to fourth centuries CE — know so little of the immense world of the Jewish diaspora: a Judaism that was so wholly Hellenized and Greek-speaking? And how was this international culture — so well reflected in the Septuagint and in many of the pseudepigraphic traditions — eventually lost to the Jewish world? Lest we be distracted by such questions, what were the non-rabbinic components of the complex region of the Syrian fringe in the Greco-Roman period? Are they to be understood as non-Jewish, anachronistically identifying Judaism as a product of the later Mishnah? What hidden historical societies does the Bible give voice to? Is the Bible itself expressive of Judaism or is it an anonymous voice for an entire region’s intellectual tradition? (pp. 265-66)
And who owns the Bible historically?
Judaism lays claim to the Bible. Christianity lays claim to the New Testament and the Septuagint. They both make this claim out of theological necessity. Both assert a linear, chronological or historical continuity with those books, but that assertion is a religious necessity, ideologically motivated.
Historically, the Bible, and the books that make it up are products of the whole south Levant’s world-view. Those who identified with it as their own tradition were those who emerged in the course of the first or perhaps better early second century CE as Samaritans, Jews and Christians. They were both Greeks and Hebrews. They were both indigenous and people of the diaspora. While all would identify their own heritage with the ‘land of the Jews’, this was a religious assertion, not a statement of historical fact. Just such associations to Judaism were created in Egypt, in Babylon, and in all of the great cities of the Grec0-Roman world. (p. 266)
The myth of exile — what really came to an end in 70 and 135 CE
After Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE, and again in 135 CE, the people of the region “picked up their lives and continued” on. Under the Byzantine period Palestine became Christian and still there was no large deportation.
What came to an end was not the indigenous population of the land.
[W]hat ended was Jerusalem’s and its people’s self-understanding as Jewish.
In the fourth century Monophysites, and in the seventh century the Muslim religion ruled the region.
Though many churches became mosques, the indigenous population continued with a transformed understanding of itself and its religion.
Today’s historical distortion
Today we look back on the history of Judaism through the perspective of a Jewish-Christian dichotomy. This perspective, Thompson writes, is an anachronistic distortion from the second century CE. (Contrast the way many scholars of early Christianity attempt to stress Christianity as originally an entirely Jewish cult.) But this perception, says Thompson,
manipulates and historicizes the theology of the way, from which Judaism and the Christianity of the second century have taken their departures. It corrupts and distorts the tradition. (p. 266)
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