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.

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

12 thoughts on “The “Late” Origins of Judaism – The Archaeological Evidence”

  1. I’m unimpressed — the marketing of this book is tendentious — like Bart Ehrman exclaiming that “there are more errors in our ancient NT texts than there are words.” But that refers mainly to spelling and grammar errors!

    We’ve heard before that we have no archeological proof (yet) that Shakespeare existed, or King David, or Moses. But we can say that about almost *any* medieval or ancient figure.

    The explanation for the sudden drop in material evidence before 500 BC is probably that the First Temple was utterly burned to the ground around that time.

    Also — scientific discoveries are generally announced by committees, and not promoted first as book selling campaigns. I’ll watch for more reviews, although I doubt that this is much more than marketing hype.

    1. The book is being published as part of the Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library, which is one of the most scholarly (and least sensationalistic) imprints out there. They don’t do marketing hype, and nothing that you found “unimpressive” about Neil’s summary of the contents of the book was a surprise to me as this information has been out there for awhile, if you cared to look for it.

      What you seem to be missing is that the book is not about whether David or Moses actually existed (they didn’t, but that’s irrelevant), it is about identifying the earliest evidence of Judaism as allegedly practiced in the Hebrew Bible. The evidence that we have is what it is, but it is not due to a lack of trying to use archaeology to prove the historicity of the Hebrew Bible.

      1. Lipinski, E. (1973). L’Étymologie De “Juda.” Vetus Testamentum, 23(3), 380–381. https://sci-hub.se/https://doi.org/10.1163/156853373×00126

        The first known occurrence of the singular Ioudaios is in the “Moschus Ioudaios inscription”, dated c. 250 BC, from Oropos in Greece. The inscription describes a Ioudaios of Greek religion; such that in this context Shaye J. D. Cohen states the word must be translated as “Judean”. Cohen 1999, p. 96-98.

        Cohen, Shaye (1999). “Ioudaios, Iudaeus, Judaean, Jew”. The Beginnings of Jewishness. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520211414.

    2. Paul, You wrote: “We’ve heard before that we have no archeological proof (yet) that Shakespeare existed, or King David, or Moses. But we can say that about almost *any* medieval or ancient figure.”

      With all due respect, what an uninformed claim! Scholarship knows a great deal about figures from *any* medieval or ancient time frame(s) – can you be a bit more precise in your statements?

  2. Neil,

    I know that you are just beginning to review this work by Adler so my question may be premature. Given the antiquity of the act of circumcision (in its many forms in various ancient civilizations – see Gollaher, DL, Circumcision: A history of the world’s most controversial surgery. New York: Basic Books, 2000), I am wondering about what type(s) of evidence Adler is seeking to determine this ritual’s entry into Judaism.

    1. Adler does not offer any date for the “entry” of circumcision “into Judaism”. As noted in the Conclusion in the post,

      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.

      Adler refers to the literary sources (Diodorus Siculus, Josephus, Jubilees, Theodotus, Ben Sira — pp 134f), noting

      Prior to the second century BCE, I know of no evidence—outside the Pentateuch—for the notion of circumcision as fulfillment of a divine commandment, as in any way legally mandated, or otherwise as associated with any framework of law. (p. 135)

  3. No evidence of dietary laws? That runs against every I’ve read about it. I would be more open-minded if it at least tried to explain the lack of pig bones found in “Proto-Israelite” spots as anecdotal, but to just act like there was never a previous positive conclusion from archaeologists on the subject beforehand seems dishonest. There’s also evidence of iconoclasm in Midianite and Kennite (Cainnite) groups.

    1. I was only quoting the summary conclusions of Adler. Adler does discuss the abundant scholarly work addressing the question of pig remains in Iron Age southern Levant and analyzes their data from two sites at Qumran, seven different sites at Jerusalem, those of H. Burnat North, H Rommon, Shu’afat, Tell el-Ful in addition to about a dozen Roman era non-Judean sites.

      He makes some important points about the interpretation of these data:

      What is essential to remember, though, is that lack of consumption may also be consistent with many alternative, no less plausible hypotheses that do not involve a taboo, and therefore we would still require persuasive evidence before regarding “taboo” as a compelling explanation for ancient dietary choices.


      lack of pig or scaleless fish remains in a faunal assemblage from a Judean site cannot be taken on its own merit to indicate that the site’s residents regarded these foods as “proscribed” or somehow “inappropriate” for consumption.

      On these factors, Adler refers to several studies but especially one by Hesse and Wapnish:

      The possible motivations that may factor into why residents of a certain site or region at any given point in time might or might not have chosen to raise and consume pig are multifarious and complex. Brian Hesse and Paula Wapnish enumerated many of the intricate variables that affect the choice to raise pig, listing eight “pig principles” that they suggested structure the exploitation of swine. They found that pig husbandry and consumption are more likely to be found in

      (1) wet ecological areas rather than arid regions;

      (2) permanent settlements rather than nomadic contexts;

      (3) microeconomies based on domestic consumption rather than those based on intensive agriculture aimed at exchange;

      (4) economically disengaged or politically autonomous rural settlements rather than economies engaged in politically governed urban markets;

      (5) settlements founded by new arrivals to a region rather than mature economies;

      (6) economies where the exchange value of meat is high or the utility of the secondary products of cattle is low rather than those with intensive agriculture where cattle can be exploited for overall higher yields;

      (7) contexts of nonritual or secular consumption rather than ritual or cultic contexts; and

      (8) lower-standing social classes rather than socially elite contexts. (my formatting)

      His analysis of the data leads him to write:

      It is true that pork was not being (regularly) consumed by the highlanders of the early Iron Age or afterward by the Judeans of the Southern Kingdom, but for the most part pork was concurrently also not being eaten by almost any other group settled anywhere in the region! The reasons for this are most readily sought in the kind of ecological and socioeconomic motivations outlined above; there is no apparent reason to assume that anyone was practicing deliberate avoidance of pig consumption because of some sort of cultural taboo against the animal.

    2. Just to add a note from Hesse and Wapnish:

      From the foregoing discussion, it is clear that no human behavioral evidence exists to indicate that pig avoidance was unique to any particular group in the ancient Near East. The fact that complex variables affect the choice to raise swine have confounded attempts to find an origin to the pig prohibition. Lots of people, for lots of reasons, were not eating pork. The bald fact is that there is no date before the Hellenistic period when we can assert with any confidence, based on archaeological and textual evidence, that the religious injunction which enjoined Jews from eating pork was actually followed by them alone as a measure of social distinction. This does not mean that the behavior was not part of the material culture of the Israelites, only that it did not have a context in which it could sharply define a social boundary. This frustrates efforts to set either the onset of the Israelite behavior or, at the very least, a preHellenistic manifestation of it in a specific time frame, forcing research into the origins of the prohibition to be carried out in the absence of a known contextual background. (p. 261)

      1. Did (real) Philistines consume pork? If, for whatever reason, all cultures of the south Levant avoided pork then pork avoidance was meaningless as a cultural or religious marker, since there was no pork-eating culture that the pork-avoiders were distinguishing themselves from. But in Hellenic times pork-eaters arrived, and later became a side in a conflict, and thus pork avoidance becomes one of a set of markers distinguishing those who did not become assimilated in the new culture from those that did. The book of Samuel emphasizes the otherness of Philistines by describing them as uncircumcised, but makes no mention of their alleged culinary habits. If the Bible is indeed from Hellenic times then the Philistines in the Bible may have been modeled on Hellenic culture.

  4. The customs of the Ethiopian Jews (Beta-Israel), before the interference of modern-day Israelis, were said to resemble pre-Talmudic Judaism in Palestine. Ethiopian Jews knew nothing about either the Babylonian or Jerusalem Talmud, and they recognized only the first five books of the Old Testament and some “apocryphal” books. They celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Passover, and they also slaughtered a lamb at Passover. However, they did not celebrate Purim. Ethiopian Jews are genetically distant from other Jewish groups, yet one may speculate that their origins reach back to the pre-rabbinic era and that their customs were evidence of this.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: