Why Josiah’s Reforms “Must Have Happened” – part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Ranier Albertz

In presenting evidence for a late authorship (300 BCE) of the earliest biblical books, I’ve had to address the prevailing view that King Josiah (7th century BCE) undertook reforms based on the laws we read in the Book of Deuteronomy. I’ve already explained why some scholars (e.g. Philip R. Davies, see also Did These 2 Key Events Really Happen?) the reasons for rejecting the historical veracity of that biblical narrative so it is time I addressed the claim that it was indeed a historical event.

In response to Philip R. Davies’ case that the biblical story of Josiah’s Deuteronomistic reforms had no historical basis, Ranier Albertz wrote “Why a Reform Like Josiah’s Must Have Happened” (published in Lester Grabbe’s Good Kings and Bad Kings.)

Since Deuteronomy is primarily about the need for the worship of God to be confined to one central place and that the laws of God should rule all of the state, even the king, Albertz pointed out that it could not have been composed in the Persian era. In the Persian era there was no king of Judah and there was only one temple, the one at Jerusalem, so it makes no sense to imagine someone writing a book that condemned other places of worship and demanded the king be subject to the law, Albertz noted.

[G]iving up the seventh century dating of the Deuteronomy would have far-reaching consequences: not only important features of Israel’s religion like monotheism, exclusivism, and brotherhood would have to be dated much later, but also most of the Deuteronomic reform ideas like the centralisation of cult or the subordination of all the state to the law would lose any connection to societal reality. In the Persian province of Yehud there was only one temple and there existed no king, thus there were no need for centralisation and subordination any longer. As a result of this, an important turning point in the development of Israel’s religious history would disappear. (27)

Albertz referred to The Bible Unearthed in which archaeologists Finkelstein and Silberman explain that the reforms of Josiah are historical fact — despite their acknowledged lack of unambiguous archaeological evidence for them. To quote from Finkelstein and Silberman’s book:

The reign of King Josiah of Judah marks the climax of Israel’s monarchic history — or at least it must have appeared that way at the time. For the author of the Deuteronomistic History, Josiah’s reign marked a metaphysical moment hardly less important than those of God’s covenant with. Abraham, the Exodus from Egypt, or the divine promise to King David. It is not just that King Josiah is seen in the Bible as a noble successor to Moses, Joshua, and David: the very outlines of those great characters — as they appear in the biblical narrative — seem to be drawn with Josiah in mind. Josiah is the ideal toward which all of Israel’s history seemed to be heading. “Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him,” reports 2 Kings 23:25 in a level of praise shown for no other biblical king. (275)

A new era was ushered in with Josiah:

Josiah’s messianic role arose from the theology of a new religious movement that dramatically changed what it meant to be an Israelite and laid the foundations for future Judaism and for Christianity. That movement ultimately produced the core documents of the Bible — chief among them, a book of the Law, discovered during renovations to the Jerusalem Temple in 622 BCE, the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign. That book, identified by most scholars as an original form of the book of Deuteronomy, sparked a revolution in ritual and a complete reformulation of Israelite identity. It contained the central features of biblical monotheism: the exclusive worship of one God in one place; centralized, national observance of the main festivals of the Jewish Year (Passover, Tabernacles); and a range of legislation dealing with social welfare, justice, and personal morality.

This was the formative moment in the crystallization of the biblical tradition as we now know it. (276)

Reforms followed:

Then, in order to effect a thorough cleansing of the cult of YHWH, Josiah launched the most intense puritan reform in the history of Judah. (277)

This was when the original form of the book of Deuteronomy was written:

Such an ambitious plan would require active and powerful propaganda. The book of Deuteronomy established the unity of the people of Israel and the centrality of their national cult place, but it was the Deuteronomistic History and parts of the Pentateuch that would create an epic saga to express the power and passion of a resurgent Judah’s dreams. This is presumably the reason why the authors and editors of the Deuteronomistic History and parts of the Pentateuch gathered and reworked the most precious traditions of the people ofIsrael: to gird the nation for the great national struggle that lay ahead.

Embellishing and elaborating the stories contained in the first four books of the Torah, they wove together regional variations of the stories of the patriarchs, placing the adventures of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in a world strangely reminiscent of the seventh century BCE and emphasizing the dominance of Judah over all Israel. They fashioned a great national epic of liberation for all the tribes of Israel, against a great and dominating pharaoh, whose realm was uncannily similar in its geographical details to that of Psammetichus.

In the Deuteronomistic History, they created a single epic of the conquest of Canaan, with the scenes of the fiercest battles — in the Jordan valley, the area of Bethel, the Shephelah foothills, and the centers of former Israelite (and lately Assyrian) administration in the north — precisely where their new conquest of Canaan would have to be waged. . . . (283f)

And the evidence for all of this revolutionary development?

Although archaeology has proved invaluable in uncovering the long-term social developments that underlie the historical evolution of Judah and the birth of the Deuteronomistic movement, it has been far less successful in providing evidence for Josiah’s specific accomplishments. (287)

Albertz rightly responds:

According to the authors [Finkelstein and Silberman] Josiah was not only the key figure of a ‘new religious movement’, but also created a new Israelite identity by attempting to unify the Judaeans with the people of the former northern state. In their view, vast parts of the biblical literature, not only Deuteronomy and the first edition of the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH) but also the stories of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the Conquest, and the Judges were written during this great religious and national upheaval. Even the stories about David and Solomon and their empire must be understood as reflections of the national hopes raised under Josiah and projected back into the past (cf. Finkelstein and Silberman 2001: 144). In ‘Appendix F’ of the book, which curiously enough was not included in the German edition, Finkelstein and Silberman admit on the grounds of archaeological considerations, however, that Josiah was possibly not able to realize his plans of a united monarchy to any large extent (cf. Finkelstein and Silberman 2001: 347-53).

One may ask what caused two scholars, who are inclined towards a minimal position, to reconstruct a vast religious and national movement under king Josiah that goes even beyond a scenario which ‘conservative maximalists’ like me would venture to draw? All methodical restrictions they made seemed to be forgotten: there are no, or no unambiguous, archaeological data which could verify Josiah’s reform. The biblical text, which includes the report given by the DtrH in 2 Kings 22-23, is suddenly taken to be reliable. If we ask in amazement how that could happen, in my opinion the answer will be easy: Finkelstein and Silberman feel obliged to create a substitute for the United Monarchy that they denied. (28)

How did the idea of a united kingdom of David and Solomon arise if it was a fiction, as the archaeological evidence tells us that it was? Albertz observes that Finkelstein and Silberman have to explain it as an invention in Josiah’s time that was meant to unify the people of Judah with those of the fallen northern kingdom of Israel.

In [Finkelstein and Silberman’s] view the ‘great reformation’ of Josiah in the late seventh century not only gave birth to Israel’s unique religion, but also to Israel’s new identity as a united nation under Judaean leadership. (29)

In other words, Albertz is saying, for the archaeologists Finkelstein and Silberman, if the united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon did not exist, it had to be invented in the time of Josiah to give a new identity to Josiah’s hopes for a new united kingdom of Israel and Judah — all under a newly reformed religion of monotheism and central cult in Jerusalem.

The time of Josiah was the beginning of the biblical literature, according to F&S. Albertz agrees insofar as the only reasonable explanation for the date of the book of Deuteronomy is the time of Josiah — since it would make no sense being composed later in the Persian period when there was no king and a centralized cult in Jerusalem was taken for granted.

In the next post I’ll address Albertz’s more specific arguments for Deuteronomy originating in Josiah’s time.