2024-04-02

The Discovery of the Law in Josiah’s Day Compared with Like Discoveries

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by Neil Godfrey

In my last three posts I explained why I believe we have sound reasons for thinking that the Old Testament story of King Josiah’s “book of the law”, generally understood by modern scholars as the book of Deuteronomy, is a “pious fiction.” I further proposed reasons for believing the story to have originated in Hellenistic times.

This episode has some importance in the field of biblical studies because the story of the discovery of this book in Josiah’s time (late seventh century BCE) is widely seen as a lynch pin for dating the composition of many of our biblical books, especially major revisions to the Pentateuch and the narrative of Israel’s history from Joshua to the Babylonian captivity. If the biblical literature was actually a product of Hellenistic times then we may be invited to further read it through Greek eyes — and that might prove discombobulating to a few of us.

I intend to follow up my last three posts with another that, not really to be contrary, notes evidence that there probably were “religious reforms” in Judah around the time of Josiah. I hope readers will see how they “fit with” but do not overturn the view that the biblical story of the discovery of the law was a late invention. That will be my next post.

In the meantime, here is a table that demonstrates how the biblical story of the discovery of the book of the law in the temple in Josiah’s day fits a standard fictional template for similar stories about discovering long lost writings in sacred places.

Common characteristics Phoenician History by Philo of Byblos Trojan War by Dictys of Crete Wonders of Thule by Antonius Diogenes Book of the Law discovered by Hilkiah the priest
Discovered in tombs or temples after being lost for a very long period of time These records of Taautos were rediscovered by Sanchuniathon who ‘had access to the hidden texts found in the adyta of the temples of Ammon, [texts] composed in letters which, indeed, were not known to everyone’ (Praep. evang. 805.8). Diary of the Trojan war buried in the tomb of the Trojan war veteran Dictys in Crete. Alexander destroys Tyre but in the ruins protruding stone coffins are found. On examining them they discover cypress tablets with writing.

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” (2 Kings 22:8)

Authored by persons of repute and antiquity Now the historian of this subject is Sanchuniathon, an author of great antiquity, and older, as they say, than the Trojan times.

Sanchuniathon’s text was ultimately based on records composed by a certain Taautos who was ‘the first to have conceived the discovery of letters and to have begun writing of records’ (Praep. evang. 804.25).

Authored by an eye-witness to the Trojan war, thus superior to Homer’s account. A notable of the Arcadian League ordered the tale, told by a person of aristocratic rank, to be written on cypress tablets. Written by Moses

 

Require translation to be understood Philo ‘boasted that he was translating the long-lost chronicle of one Sanchuniathon, a Semite whose text showed the Greeks to be wrong on numerous points of ancient history’ (Bowersock 1994: 43). Translated from Phoenician into Greek by Nero’s philologists. “the book moves on to the interpretation and transcription of the cypress tablets” When the book is discovered it cannot clearly be understood and so is taken to the prophetess Huldah for interpretation.
Participation of a leader to endorse the find ‘Of the affairs of the Jews the truest history, because the most in accordance with their places and names, is that of Sanchuniathon of Berytus, who received the records from Hierombalus the priest of the god Ieuo; he dedicated his history to Abibalus king of Berytus, and was approved by him and by the investigators of truth in his time. Nero ordered it translated and deposited in the Greek library. The story is presented to Alexander the Great. Ultimately, the book is officially endorsed by the king, in this case Josiah, who initiates a series of reforms on the basis of its contents.

The above layout is adapted from the following article by Katherine Stott:

  • Stott, Katherine. “Finding the Lost Book of the Law: Re-Reading the Story of ‘The Book of the Law’ (Deuteronomy–2 Kings) in Light of Classical Literature.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30, no. 2 (December 2005): 153–69.

 

 

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Neil Godfrey

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


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2 thoughts on “The Discovery of the Law in Josiah’s Day Compared with Like Discoveries”

  1. Ah, I am with you now. Before I thought that you were claiming that no such reforms took place, but now I am on board. I am looking forward to your next post.

    1. Yes, there does appear to be an archaeological link with the narrative in 2 Kings 23 — but it has no relation to anything in Deuteronomy. But if there’s an opportunity to piggy-back on it, why not? Will clarify in the next post.

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