The “Late” Origins of Judaism – The Archaeological Evidence

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Photo from @AdlerYonatan

Archaeologist Yonatan Adler of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has authored a new book, The Origins of Judaism: An Archaeological-Historical Reappraisal. The findings of Adler are consistent with other books I have blogged about over the years setting out a case for the history of “biblical Israel” being a late theological construct, composed no earlier than the Persian era (ca 500 to ca 300 BCE) and even arguably as late as the Hellenistic era (especially after 280 BCE). The works I have posted about have taken one of two approaches to the question of the Bible’s origins: archaeological studies and textual analysis.

No archaeological evidence has been found to support the stories of the patriarchs, the exodus, and the united kingdom of Israel: rather, the archaeological evidence indicates that those scenarios never happened. The biblical narrative is, in Adler’s words, “a living declaration in the present, a call to action in the here and now” (p. x). The other approach has been to analyse the biblical texts and to re-examine what has long been a mainstay of biblical studies, the Documentary Hypothesis (DH). These studies have often questioned the very early dating of any of the Bible, many positing a date as late as the Persian era for most of the writings and some even arguing for the Hellenistic era. (Currently, I have been blogging about Russell Gmirkin’s new book, Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts.)

A new book by an Israeli archaeologist makes the stunning claim that common Jewish practices emerged only a century or so before Jesus — Andrew Lawler, Is Judaism a Younger Religion Than Previously Thought? (Smithsonian Magazine)

I look forward to posting more from Yonatan Adler’s book after I have completed other commitments. Until I do, here are a few excerpts of particular interest in the context of Russell Gmirkin’s thesis that the Pentateuch was composed as late as around 280 BCE.

First, it is best to be clear about what Adler is addressing (my bolding throughout):

. . . this book takes as its starting point the lived experiences of the Jewish people as they have actually practiced their Judaism over the centuries through the observance of the laws of the Torah in their everyday lives. It is this practical Judaism, rather than the biblical tradition about it, that stands at the center of the present book. The aim of this study is to apply systematic historical and archaeological methods to seek the earliest evidence for the emergence of precisely this practical Judaism within the routine lives of ordinary people in antiquity. (pp. x.f)

It should be stressed that our focus here is on the Jewish way of life centered on practices rather than beliefs. (p. 5)

Adler’s study is not exclusively on the archaeological finds. He also refers to textual evidence: Philo, Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. As we have seen in various other posts (especially those relating to Philip Davies, Thomas L. Thompson, Niels Peter Lemche, Keith Whitelam) new questions arise when we begin with the archaeological evidence and seek to explain the texts in that “real life” context:

One of the major advantages of archaeological evidence over texts lies in the fact that the material remains tend to reflect the “real” rather than the “ideal.” (p. 22)

On the evidence for observance of dietary laws:

Prior to the second century BCE, there exists no surviving evidence, whether textual or archaeological, which suggests that Judeans adhered to a set of food prohibitions or to a body of dietary restrictions of any kind. (p. 49)

On ritual purity practices:

Lacking earlier evidence, the second century BCE remains our terminus ante quem for the beginning of widespread Judean observance of the ritual purity practices enshrined in the Torah. (p. 86)

On the law against carved images:

[T]he year 131 BCE would be our terminus ante quem for when a prohibition against figural images was first put into practice. (p. 112)

On the instruction in Deuteronomy to bind sacred words between one’s eyes and engrave them on doorposts:

No evidence for the observance of any practice resembling either tefillin or mezuzah is available from any time before the middle of the second century BCE. (p. 131)

Circumcision, the Sabbath, the annual feasts (Passover, Atonement, Sukkoth), the seven-branched candlestick (menorah):

[C]ircumcision was widely practiced among first-century Judeans, for whom the rite not only served as an identity marker that distinguished Judean from Gentile but also—and perhaps even more importantly—was regarded as a central commandment of the Torah. Laws surrounding the Sabbath prohibitions were also widely observed at this time by Judeans both in Judea and throughout the Mediterranean world, and the precise parameters of these regulations were concurrently being discussed and debated by exegetes of the Torah. A plethora of literary evidence attests that both the Passover sacrifice and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were practiced by first-century-CE Judeans on an impressively wide scale. The main ritual associated with the Day of Atonement was observed at this time through fasting, a practice described by first-century authors as universal among contemporary Judeans. There is good reason to believe that both of the two central rituals associated with the Festival of Sukkot, residing in booths and taking the four species, were observed by Judeans in the first century CE on a very broad scale. And finally, a seven-branched menorah as prescribed by Torah law undoubtedly stood in the temple in the first century CE, and both texts and archaeological finds suggest that Judeans living at the time were well aware of both its existence and its general appearance.

All these elements of first-century-CE Judaism are attested in the first century BCE, and some also in the second century BCE, but none are clearly attested to prior to this.

. . . .

[A]ll the practices examined here characterize Judaism in the first century CE and are attested to one degree or another in the first century BCE and in some cases also in the second century BCE. As with all the practices analyzed until now, the trail of evidence ends once we reach beyond the second century BCE. Prior to this time, we have good reason to think that certain practices (most saliently, the practice of fasting on the Day of Atonement) were completely unknown. (pp. 167, 169)


In summary, evidence for the existence of the synagogue prior to the first century CE is spotty at best. (p. 188)


Throughout this book, in chapter after chapter, it has been shown that the earliest surviving evidence for a widely practiced Judean way of life governed by the Torah never predates the second century BCE. . . . 

Our analysis in the present chapter has led us to conclude that the Judean way of life during the Persian period was more likely governed by cultural norms and traditions inherited from the Iron Age than by anything resembling some kind of Torah law. A central element of what it meant to be a Judean at this time was veneration of YHWH and participation in the cultic worship of this deity, although it remains unclear to what degree this might have excluded the possibility of veneration and worship of other deities. . . . The origins of practices such as [a taboo against eating the “hip sinew” and perhaps also circumcision] may reach back to extraordinarily early epochs, possibly to before the emergence of any kind of distinct “Israelite” identity.

In all these cases [i.e. some form of “Passover” ritual, as well as of a seven-day period probably coinciding in time with what we know of as the Festival of Unleavened Bread], however, there is little reason to interpret the evidence as reflecting practices that were somehow legally mandated by anything akin to a Mosaic law. A conjectural Persian- period Judean way of life thus reconstructed, bereft of any sort of Torah as its regulating principle, can hardly be said to resemble Judaism in any meaningful way.

The roughly two centuries between the conquests of Alexander the Great circa 332 BCE and the founding of an independent Hasmonean polity in the middle of the second century BCE remain a far more conducive epoch in which to seek the origins of Judaism. . . . Here I have explored the possibilities that the Pentateuch came to be adopted as authoritative Torah by Judeans either during the Early Hellenistic period, when Judea found itself under foreign domination by the two great Hellenistic kingdoms, or during the Late Hellenistic period, after the Judeans had gained autonomy under the leadership of the priestly Hasmonean family. . . . [I]t would not be wrong to view Judaism as having emerged out of the crucible of Hellenism, which dominated the cultural landscape of the time. In a poetic way, it seems only fitting that our English word “Judaism” itself is the result of a Hebrew/Greek hybrid, rooted etymologically in the Greek rendering of the Hebrew “yahudah” merged with the Greek suffix “-ismos.” (pp. 235f)

Adler, Yonatan. The Origins of Judaism: An Archaeological-Historical Reappraisal. The Origins of Judaism. Yale University Press, 2022.

%d bloggers like this: