A Little Question of Past Tense Pillars in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians

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by Neil Godfrey

I have a question. How might we best explain the passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians in which he seems to imply that the pillars of the Jerusalem church, James, Cephas (Peter) and John, “were” pillars — in the past? How are we meant to understand those words?

Was Paul saying that though they were pillars of the church they were no longer generally so regarded at the time of his writing?

Was Paul saying that he himself regarded them pillars in the past but did so no longer?

Does the expression betray the hand of an author who was looking back on past history, after the passing of the generation of the pillars?

2 1Then, after fourteen years again I went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas, having taken with me also Titus;

and I went up by revelation, and did submit to them the good news that I preach among the nations, and privately to those esteemed, lest in vain I might run or did run;

but not even Titus, who [is] with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised —

and [that] because of the false brethren brought in unawares, who did come in privily to spy out our liberty that we have in Christ Jesus, that us they might bring under bondage,

to whom not even for an hour we gave place by subjection, that the truth of the good news might remain to you.

And from those who were esteemed to be something — whatever formerly they were [= ὁποῖοί ποτε ἦσαν ; ποτε = once, formerly, at one time], it maketh no difference to me — the face of man God accepteth not, for — to me those esteemed did add nothing,

but, on the contrary, having seen that I have been entrusted with the good news of the uncircumcision, as Peter with [that] of the circumcision,

for He who did work with Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, did work also in me in regard to the nations,

and having known the grace that was given to me, James, and Cephas, and John, who were esteemed to be pillars, a right hand of fellowship they did give to me, and to Barnabas, that we to the nations, and they to the circumcision [may go],

10 only, of the poor that we should be mindful, which also I was diligent — this very thing — to do.

There are explanations and Ken Olson, whose contributions on the earlywritings forum I have very much appreciated, took the trouble to post me the following explanation. The specific questions of mine to which he was responding were not exactly the same as I mentioned above but I believe his response applies to any number of possible questions that might arise — though I’m willing to modify that claim if Ken objects. I have interspersed Ken’s reply with my own thoughts on the points he makes.

Paul is writing after the Antioch Incident (Gal 2.11-14) and after Jewish Christian missionaries have started preaching to his Gentile converts to Christianity that they must get circumcised and follow the Mosaic law in order to be part of God’s people. Paul thinks the Jerusalem church (including Pete and James) have gone back on the understanding they reached at the Jerusalem conference described in Gal. 2-1-10.

This is a reasonable inference for us modern readers to make. But there is nothing in Paul’s rebuke of Peter that points to a breach of prior agreement with the three pillars. If Paul had been offended by a breach of prior official understanding in Jerusalem, would not we expect him to make some reference to that fact, especially since Paul also associates the offending practice with “false brethren”? Rather, when Paul describes the change in Peter’s behaviour after representatives from James arrived, he implies that James had never accepted Paul’s view that gentiles were not to be “judaized”. Paul faults Peter’s behaviour as hypocrisy, not betrayal or having gone back on his word. Earlier he had even said that Jews who wanted gentiles to keep the Jewish laws were “false brethren”. Yet Paul has nothing to say about that view when confronted by the behaviour of Peter and, by implication, James?

11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

Paul follows with a lengthy sermon or exposition of his gospel that was surely not what he said in the heat of the moment. It certainly reads like a theological explanation that is coloured with some dramatic force by the conflict in the prior narrative:

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles 16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in[d] Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

Paul really said all of that yet not a word about the prior agreement or betrayal by James or the view that such judaizers were “false brethren”? No, surely the dramatic narrative functions as a backdrop for this sermon for the readers’ benefit.

Back to Ken’s reply:

This is an angry letter because Paul feels betrayed both by the Jewish church and by his Galatian converts. Moreover, he wants to emphasize that his (law-free) gospel was given to him directly by God (Gal 1.1, 1.11-12). His authority does not derive from the Jerusalem church *and it never had*.

This is a problem for Paul, because it might look to outsiders like his authority to preach the gospel did indeed derive from the Jerusalem church. He is trying to minimize the contact he’s had with Jerusalem and to suggest that his gospel and his authority to preach it did not come from the Jerusalem church. Paul went to Jerusalem and laid the gospel he preached to the Gentiles before those of note ‘because of a revelation’ (Gal. 2.2). They did not summon him to give and account of his activity and had no authority to do so – he went up because of a revelation.

Is not there a problem here? On the one hand we read that Paul went up to Jerusalem “by revelation” — evidently to disabuse anyone of the idea that he was being summoned by the pillars — but on the other hand we read that he presented his gospel to them “lest he had been or might further be teaching in vain”. Surely there is an irreconcilable contradiction here, is there not? How can Paul say that he submitted what he taught to the pillars “in case it had been mistaken in some way” given his insistence that his gospel was not “from men”.

Moreover, he took Titus with him and he was not compelled to be circumcised (i.e., they did not insist Titus be circumcised. Also, they added nothing to Paul (i.e., he put his gospel before them and they did not insist that he add the requirement of circumcision or observance of the Mosaic law in general). They agreed that They asked only that he remember the poor (collect money for the Jerusalem church), which he was eager to do. They agreed that he and Barnabas should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised (the Jews) and gave them right hand of good fellowship (i.e., they shook on the deal).

The good relationship Paul had (or thought he had) with the Jerusalem pillars at the time he met them (as narrated in Gal. 2,1-10) has been broken.

Galatians 2.6 (Berean literal): And from those who were reputed to be something (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who were of repute added nothing to me;

ὁποῖοί ποτε ἦσαν, οὐδέν μοι διαφέρει, ‘whatever they were formerly makes no difference to me’

I take Paul to be saying that whatever reputation they had enjoyed among men ceased to be relevant in their dealings with Paul (i.e. Paul is not saying they ceased enjoying that reputation among human beings).

In his commentary on Galatians (1997) J. Louis Martyn writes:


PS Yes, that really is the shorter form of my reply.

I agree that Paul’s explanation that he went to Jerusalem “by revelation” was an implicit claim that he did not recognize the authority of James, Cephas/Peter and John over him. The problem remains, in my view, how Paul could at any time imply that he had recognized those three persons as “pillars”. If he says “whatever they were… I no longer regard them as such”, then he is saying something very unlike the Paul we otherwise know.

Paul insisted from the very beginning that his gospel was not from men, so much so that on his conversion he avoided Jerusalem altogether for many years. One has to conclude that he never personally regarded them as pillars. It follows that he could not have at any time without any qualification or explanation have called, or thought of them as, pillars.

But if Paul is saying that others had regarded them as pillars, how can he say in Galatians 2:6 that they “formerly were pillars” — unless they no longer exist at the time of his writing?

If Paul was using the past tense simply because he is talking about past events, it is nonetheless awkward to speak of a situation that still exists at the time of writing itself to also have been a past event — as if it is no longer applicable to the present. We don’t speak of last week’s debate by saying Trump debated Biden “who was (formerly) the president”.

Such is my reply that I had returned to the earlywritings forum to post, only to discover that, without warning or explanation, I had been “permanently banned”. So if any reader here has contact with Ken, do feel free to notify him of this post. Of course the views of others are also welcome.


Origin of Belief in a Supreme Moralizing God

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by Neil Godfrey

What could have prompted individuals of our highly successful species to obey an unseen being who told them what they should and should not do?
— Peoples & Marlowe, 253

In my Origins of Religion post I focussed on anthropological evidence for the most fundamental of religious concepts that we can reasonably infer were found among our earliest homo sapiens ancestors. We saw there that the idea of a high god who is actively interested in humans, imposing on them moral codes and threatening to punish them for disobedience, was alien to our forebears just as it is generally alien to today’s hunter-gatherer societies.

So what is the evidence that informs us when and why the belief in a supreme moralizing god emerged?

The TL;DR version of this post:

In short, the explanation offered by Peoples and Marlowe is that belief in a supreme deity that actively rewards and punishes people according to their moral conduct arises in societies that have a very large population who rely on strong cooperation in order to maintain and protect the facilities and methods on which their survival depends. These are (mostly large) societies in need of controlled complex cooperation.

This time I rely heavily on another article by two of the authors (Peoples and Marlowe) who informed my earlier post. They ask two questions:

What circumstances could have triggered belief in a single creator, or gods that affect the lives of humans, or one all-powerful god of morality? 

What characteristics of High Gods ensured that they would be culturally sustained, and why?

(255 — my formatting and bolding in all quotations)

The authors examined four types of societies across a sample of 168 in all:


Who are the foragers? How do they live?

Foragers are the equivalent of the hunter-gatherer societies of the previous post, those among whom the idea of a moralizing high god was found to be an anomaly. (The article on which I drew for that post was published some years later than the one I am discussing now.)

High Gods are present in all types of societies, but far less often among foragers and horticulturalists. Foragers are far more likely to have inactive High Gods or no High Gods at all….

Among our sample of forager societies, 58% had no High God and 88% had either no High God or one that was inactive.

(258, 260)

The explanation given for this absence of belief:

Most foragers are self-sufficient and usually require less cooperative labor…. They are able to survive on a variety of resources and occupy a wide range of habitats…. Most foraging societies are egalitarian and by nature resistant to others dictating what they should do. They would resist the concept of a demanding High God, and thus be less susceptible to evangelism.



Who/what are pastoralists?

Pastoralists are more mobile than foragers but also more stratified. They are often on the move in small groups sparsely scattered throughout vast areas of land. Their most important and often main source of subsistence exists in the form of large, divisible amounts of energy and wealth which can be stolen: their herd animals.


And the likelihood that they will believe in an active moralizing deity?

According to the sample studied the pastoralists were highly likely to believe in a moralizing high god.

In contrast [to foragers], pastoralists are in constant and direct contact with their main source of subsistence and livelihood in a landscape filled with moment-to-moment contingencies. Situations often become quickly unstable (herds scattering) or dangerous (attacks by marauders or wild animals). Blood feuds within and among groups are not uncommon …. Pastoralists have the highest frequency of warfare across the four modes of subsistence …, which increases the need for collective action. Recurring environmental and ecological threats take on enhanced importance because of the self-generating wealth embodied in herded animals. When drought devastates pasture, disease decimates herds, and constant violence over grazing rights becomes unrelenting, a bond of cooperation within one group or tribe must provide a survival advantage when challenged by other feuding groups.


But how might the above influence a tendency to believe in such a god?

The conceptual seed of a paternalistic High God that meddles in human morality and promises social order probably originated several times in many societies. This type of monotheistic god found fertile ground in the threatening landscape of pastoralism. A broader contextual view, based on Whiting’s theory of psychocultural evolution (Worthman 2010), might suggest that belief in a High God is the projection of the pastoralists’ sense of insecurity in the face of unmitigated ecological threat.



Horticulturalists often combine cultivation with some foraging. They are close to foragers on the productivity-subsistence continuum but less mobile and less autonomous with respect to acquiring food. We might expect to see a pattern of High Gods among horticulturalists similar to that of foragers. But increased food production leads to larger villages and related social problems (crime, disease) that reduced mobility exacerbates. The beginnings of stratification appear among horticulturalists (and complex foragers) in the form of charismatic, entrepreneurial community leaders (“big men”) who begin to establish conventions that institutionalize social controls (Johnson and Earle 2000). These leaders would gain personal power, prestige, and enhanced reproductive success from their association with active High Gods who lend support to their initiatives. Even if they were not the originators of the concept of a High God they would likely have been promoters of it.


That was the prediction. What were the findings?

High Gods are present in all types of societies, but far less often among foragers and horticulturalists.



Agriculturalists reside at the far end of the continuum, excelling in production of resources while being sedentary. Emergence of early agricultural societies benefited from the efficiency and success of cooperative labor. The demands of public works such as construction of communal storage facilities, defensive perimeters, and irrigation networks overcame limits to growth and made possible the population booms that led to big city problems…. It is now clear that agriculture began in a range of habitats from dry to wet. But the high productivity of a managed irrigation system was fundamental to the formation of pristine states in the Mexican highlands, coastal Peru, Egypt, the Indus Valley, Middle East, and possibly China…. These societies were highly stratified and their leaders would gain the most from moral conventions that reduce chances of fissioning and also ensure high levels of cooperation. But the population as a whole would eventually benefit as the society expands at the expense of other competing groups.


And the results of the survey….

High Gods were present in 73% of agricultural societies, and of those where a High God was present, 62% were active or moral.



Peoples and Marlowe note that group size increases significantly among successful agriculturalists. This leads to a higher level of social stratification or inequality:

Group size will grow with increased food production, which may depend on cooperative efforts. Drought, disease, and social-action problems constantly threaten famine. If the costs of cooperation outweigh the benefits, groups will fission as individuals leave for less-competitive resource environments. When leaving is not a good alternative, a population may remain intact even though some individuals are at a disadvantage. The result is inequality (stratification) and exploitation of others by certain individuals or kin groups (Boone 1992).


Maintaining workable cooperation among ever larger populations presents new challenges for the successful functioning of the entire society — with its need to maintain storage facilities, defences against marauders, and increasing numbers of the community wanting to go their own way. The chances of an authority figure emerging in such a situation are high.

One scenario for achieving the levels of cooperation and prosociality needed to stabilize larger populations (or growing ones) suggests the emergence of an authority figure and the concept of an overpowering high god to leverage his authority would be appealing, Peoples and Marlowe suggest.

Proposed Explanation for Belief in a Supreme Moralizing God

We propose that belief in active or moral High Gods stemmed from challenges encountered by individuals employing modes of subsistence that demanded the effective manipulation and cooperation of others in order to produce, manage, and defend vital resources. Constant threats to subsistence and survival engendered, for pastoralists and some agriculturalists, the practical idea of promoting belief in a powerful spiritual force that could promise deliverance from the enemy, and punish those who did not follow the rules of cooperation and moral constraint. The coercive power of religion was used to facilitate cooperation for the benefit of higher-status individuals, which in turn benefitted the whole group. The success of this strategy was copied, and it led to the transformation of human societies into higher levels of collective, economic organization that sustained larger populations….

This research has shown the importance of High Gods to achieving cooperation in growing populations or those under environmental stress.


Peoples and Marlowe, 259

Peoples, Hervey C., and Frank W. Marlowe. “Subsistence and the Evolution of Religion.” Human Nature : An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective 23, no. 3 (September 2012): 253–69. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-012-9148-6.

Permanently banned from the Biblical Criticism & History Forum – earlywritings.com

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by Neil Godfrey

I returned to the forum to follow up a question I had with a scholar on the earlywritings forum and wanted to reply to his answer but discovered when I tried to log in that I am met with a message:

It seems my attempts to engage critically with the moderator of the forum, Peter Kirby, was simply too much for him. Or was it my attempts to protest the trolling insults leveled against others — including ad hominem by Peter Kirby himself — that he interpreted as personal criticisms of his moderation practices? I’d like to point you to my protests and how they were responded to but the moderator has placed them in a section that only members can access.

The irony is that other members would sometimes speak up for me and compliment me on my refusal to engage in the personal attacks and other trolling that is so rife there.

The further irony is that he has publicly praised the forum contributions of the two worst trolling offenders of all. Not that he praised them for their trolling, of course. But trolls are trolls, I think, because they have little of substance to contribute and are at a loss in serious debate. Perhaps some responses that I would see as fatuous disunderstanding of the issues were interpreted as weighty contributions by the moderator — so I wondered privately.

I did point out that Peter Kirby has regularly been critiqued by significant others for raising critiques that are grounded in misunderstanding or failure to read and synthesize the details of works he is attempting to engage with. I did so because of a post of his in which he personally attacked the characters of some others while simultaneously expressing longing for the days of a certain scholar who did not think of his contributions as highly as he seemed to remember. Maybe that was the last straw. Or was it because of my rejoinder to him when he insisted that he had said nothing wrong — indicating that his personal insults are justified? (Ah yes — when he insisted he had said nothing wrong I do recall now that I “let fly” and reminded him of his record of insult and character denigration of others under the guise of “being helpful”. — I guess then I did indeed attack the moderator for his own misdemeanours.) [[NOTE to Neil: Do Not Tick Off a Moderator of a forum by confronting him with his faults if you would like to post from time to time!]]

Or was it my attempt to try to explain that the approach of many biblical scholars was not in accord with the methods of historians in other fields of inquiry?

Whatever the reason he did not seem to think it appropriate to inform me of any reason. As a rule I was always trying to be careful to stay on topic and avoid any insult or denigration of others. Unless some ham-fisted attempts at humour were misunderstood, but I’d normally have a chance to explain if I saw that happening. And standing up for others against insults was certainly not a personal attack on the moderator: it was pleading the moderator, not attacking him.

But Peter has for some reason long been reading my comments and responses with personal hostility, seeing in them personal attacks where there are none, and gratuitously judging my character and mentality in the most outlandish ways. I never could understand why. When I asked at one point he simply indicated that I must be blind not to see how abusive or insulting I was being. I had long thought I got along well with all members except for two well-known trolls and the moderator himself. Sometimes others complimented me in public or in personal messages at my forbearance.

I left the forum as a regular contributor a few weeks back simply because I could no longer handle the personal abuse I received from two trolls and the moderator himself. The pressure to leave had been mounting after Peter set up a trolling and ad hominem free zone for certain “Academic” discussions — only for me to find myself being targeted by trolling responses and very, very lengthy ad hominem posts by Peter himself in which he presented lengthy “arguments” (pop-psychoanalysis) about my psychological disposition and telling me I should never fault an argument for being circular! (seriously)

Well, I guess I am not welcome on a forum in which the moderator breaks his own rules prohibiting ad hominem posts in his “Academic” forum and in which he praises the contributions of two of the most shallow, dogmatic, anti-intellectual and ignorant trolls I have ever encountered. I am certainly not weeping.



Origins of Religion

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by Neil Godfrey

The universality of religion across human society points to a deep evolutionary past.

The universality of religion across human society points to a deep evolutionary past. However, specific traits of nascent religiosity, and the sequence in which they emerged, have remained unknown. Here we reconstruct the evolution of religious beliefs and behaviors in early modern humans . . . . (Peoples, Duda, Marlowe, 261)

Of interest to most of us is the question of God. Belief in a high god, we will see, does not “come naturally”. We can conclude (and as I will further show in future posts) that belief in God is associated with the development of complex societies. (More specifically this post addresses “traits of religion” since “religion” as an abstract concept was alien to many ancient cultures, with what we would consider to be religious beliefs and practices being, to the ancients, a natural part of everyday life.)

We began our evolutionary journey with a study of hunter gatherers since it is reasonable to infer they represent or earliest way of living.

Locations of the 33 hunter-gatherer societies studied (p. 265)

There are many traits of religion and seven were looked for and studied:

Animism is inevitably with us. “The most striking animist is … Charles Dickens. Both as narrator and through his leading characters, Dickens finds animal form, motion, and volition everywhere. Among artifacts, he most animates houses, furniture, clothing, and portraits…” (Guthrie, 58) Surely since Dickens Walt Disney would be a serious contender to be “the most striking animist”. Of should that title go to the modern advertising industry?

1. Animism

We define animism as the belief that all “natural” things, such as plants, animals, and even such phenomena as thunder, have intentionality (or a vital force) and can have influence on human lives. (266 — some will baulk at classifying animism as a religion but it is undeniably a “trait of religion”, “the oldest trait of religion” and “fundamental to religion”.)

2. Belief in an afterlife

Belief in an afterlife is defined as belief in survival of the individual personality beyond death …. (266)

3. Shamanism

We define shamanism as the presence in a society of a “shaman” (male or female), a socially recognized part-time ritual intercessor, healer, and problem solver …. Shamans often use their power over spirit helpers during performances involving altered states of consciousness … to benefit individuals and the group as a whole …. We view shamans as a general category of individuals often found in hunter-gatherer societies who mediate between the earthly and spirit worlds to promote cohesion and physical and mental well-being in the society …. (266)

4. Ancestor worship

Ancestor worship is defined as belief that the spirits of dead kin remain active in another realm where they may influence the living, and can be influenced by the living …. (p. 266)

There are various types of ancestor worship:

  • spirits can be present but not necessarily active in human affairs;
  • they may or may not be influenced by humans through prayer and offerings.

5. High gods

… single, all-powerful creator deities who may be active in human affairs and supportive of human morality. (p. 266)

As with ancestor worship there are variants:

  • some high gods can be present but not interested in humans;
  • or they can be active in human affairs but not interested in moral conduct;
  • or they can be active in judging behaviour and punishing immorality.

6. Worship of active ancestors

7. Worship of active high gods

And here is their result. The graph illustrates how often the respective types of religious belief were found across the 33 societies:



Our results reflect [the] belief that animism was the earliest and most basic trait of religion because it enables humans to think in terms of supernatural beings or spirits. Animism is not a religion or philosophy, but a feature of human mentality, a byproduct of cognitive processes that enable social intelligence, among other capabilities. It is a widespread way of thinking among hunter-gatherers ….  This innate cognitive trait allows us to attribute a vital force to animate and inanimate elements in the environment …. Once that vital force is assumed, attribution of other human characteristics will follow…. Animistic thinking would have been present in early hominins, certainly earlier than language (Coward 2015; Dunbar 2003).

It can be inferred from the analyses, or indeed from the universality of animism, that the presence of animistic belief predates the emergence of belief in an afterlife.

(Peoples, Duda, Marlowe, 274 — my bolding in all quotations)

Our basic psychology that makes it so easy for us to believe in spirit forces has been discussed in earlier posts:

In brief,

The fundamental building blocks of religious thinking and behaviour are found in all human societies around the world – from small-scale indigenous communities to industrial conurbations and inner cities. For example, people everywhere imagine that bodies and minds can be separated, that features of the natural world have hidden essences and purposes and that we ought to please and placate the spirits of the dead. People everywhere are inclined to spread stories about miraculous events and special beings that contradict our intuitive expectations about the way the world works, giving rise to a plethora of beliefs in supernatural beings and forces of various kinds. People everywhere – even babies who have not yet learned to speak – experience feelings of awe and reverence when they encounter those who can channel otherworldly powers. (Whitehouse, 42f)

Animism would appear to be the fundamental human universal.

Our results indicate that the oldest trait of religion, shared by the most recent common ancestor of present-day hunter-gatherers, was animism. This supports longstanding beliefs about the antiquity and fundamental role of this component of human mentality, which enables people to attribute intent and lifelike qualities to inanimate objects and would have prompted belief in beings or forces in an unseen realm of spirits. (Peoples, Duda, Marlowe, 277)

The following traits of religion are contingent. Why some hunter gatherers embraced the following is a follow-up question. But animism is fundamental: animism is the precondition for all the other traits.


Many but not all groups acquire a belief in an afterlife or embrace shamanism.

Once animistic thought is prevalent in a society, interest in the whereabouts of spirits of the dead could reasonably lead to the concept of an unseen realm where the individual personality of the deceased lives on. The afterlife might be a rewarding continuation of life on earth, or a realm of eternal punishment for those who break social norms. Belief in an afterlife may have generated a sense of “being watched” by the spirits of the dead, prompting archaic forms of social norms … actualized in the role of the shaman. (Peoples, Duda, Marlowe, 274)

On the “naturalness” of believing in an afterlife:

While most wild religious beliefs were not selected for in the human evolutionary journey, they came about as a side effect of other, more adaptive psychological characteristics: for example, our intuitive psychology (including the way we anticipate how others will behave), our intuitive biology (such as the way we create taxonomies of the natural world), our tool-making brains (which make us think everything has a purpose) and our tendency to overdetect agency in the environment (particularly our early warning systems for detecting predators). These intuitions helped our ancestors to survive and pass on their genes, but they also make us naturally susceptible to believing in an afterlife; they make us treat certain objects or places as sacred; they lead us to think that the natural world was intelligently designed; and they convince us that invisible and dangerous spirits lurk in caves and forests.

. . . . 

This ability to reason about the mental states of others [“theory of mind”] has profound consequences for our ideas about spirits and the afterlife. A good example of this is … an attempt to explain beliefs in the afterlife as a side effect of the way we naturally reason about minds. … The idea of a ghost or spirit of the dead results from the impossibility of imagining the elimination of certain mental states….

In other words, we imagine the spirits of the dead to remember things that happened during their lives, to have feelings, and to form judgements even if we know that their bodies (including their eyes and their ears) no longer function and may be incinerated or rotting in the ground. This theory is consistent with the very early development of such assumptions in children.

(Whitehouse, 53f)

Belief in afterlife is a precondition for shamanism and ancestor worship.


Shamanism significantly correlates with belief in an afterlife, which emerged first….

Although shamanism has been described as the universal religion of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers … it is not a religion per se, but a complex of beliefs and behaviors that focus on communication with the ancestral spirits, as well as the general world of spirits in the realm of the afterlife. Shamans are healers, ritual leaders, and influential members of society …. Communication with omniscient and perhaps judgmental spirits of known deceased, including ancestors, would have been a useful tool in the work of the shaman….

As humans migrated out of Africa more than 60 kya … the shaman’s curing skills and group rituals would have enhanced survival through physical and emotional healing, enforcement of group norms, and resource management. (Peoples, Duda, Marlowe, 274f)

Ancestor worship

Ancestor worship is not commonly found among hunter-gatherer societies. In future posts I will address research that points to a very strong association between ancestor worship and early agricultural societies.

Worship of dead kin is neither widespread among hunter-gatherers nor the oldest trait of religion. Fewer than half of the societies in our sample believe that dead kin can influence the living…. Greater likelihood of the presence of active ancestor worship [i.e. worship of ancestors actively interested in human affairs] has been linked to societies with unilineal descent where important decisions are made by the kin group…. Ancestor worship is an important source of social control that strengthens cohesion among kin and maintains lineal control of power and property … particularly in the more complex hunter-gatherer societies. In contrast, immediate-return hunter-gatherer societies … seldom recognize dead ancestors who may intervene in their lives. (Peoples, Duda, Marlowe, 275)

The latecomer in the evolution of human societies is “God” . . . .

High gods

Belief in a high god is an outlier in the study. Where it is found the researchers suspected it the belief was acquired from borrowing instead of being organically evolved in the group. (See the original article for a detailed explanation of the ways and extent to which the above religious traits are associated with one another, and the evidence that the belief in high gods is not associated with any other early attribute.)

Belief in high gods appears to be a rather “stand-alone” phenomenon in the evolution of hunter-gatherer religion. Prior studies have shown that among the four modes of subsistence (hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, horticulturalists, and agriculturalists) hunter-gatherers are least likely to adopt morally punishing active high gods, if any high gods at all (Botero et al. 2014; Norenzayan 2013; Peoples and Marlowe 2012; Swanson 1960)…. Early egalitarian hunter-gatherers would rarely have acknowledged an active high god (Norenzayan 2013; Peoples and Marlowe 2012) and would be the least likely to accept or benefit from the supernatural meddling and social constraints of deities who would be seen as “high rulers” (Peoples and Marlowe 2012). The leaders of complex hunter-gatherer societies whose subsistence relies on collective effort should be more likely to benefit from the coercive power of a punishing high god. Our analysis does not support the prevalence of either type of high god among ancestral hunter-gatherers, and the evolution of high gods does not correlate with any of the other traits of hunter-gatherer religion, including ancestor worship. (Peoples, Duda, Marlowe, 276)

God, we will see in more detail in coming posts, appears in certain kinds of socially complex societies:

If a society acquires belief in an omniscient and potentially morally punishing creator deity, it does so regardless of other aspects of its religion but more as a reflection of its social and political structure. (Peoples, Duda, Marlowe, 278)

Guthrie, Stewart. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Peoples, Hervey C., Pavel Duda, and Frank W. Marlowe. “Hunter-Gatherers and the Origins of Religion.” Human Nature : An Interdisciplinary Biosocial Perspective 27, no. 3 (September 2016): 261–82. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-016-9260-0.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (pp. 42-43). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition.


“Game Players” versus “Bomb Throwers” – Journalists Divided

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by Neil Godfrey

On the one hand we have warnings about what the conviction of Julian Assange (the plea bargain was of course made under extreme duress) means for press freedom ….

On the other hand we have reminders that a vast number of journalists embedded within the spectrum of the mainstream press (which includes the left wing Guardian) aspire to cosy up to power rather than expose the realities of power to the people — they will not take the warning as anything but a “see what happens if you don’t play our game” lesson:

Scroll the following video to the 3:30 point….


A catch … freedom costs

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by Neil Godfrey

Long before posting the news of Julian Assange’s release I was scouring sources and waiting to see what the catch was. I only posted after feeling reasonably confident that we had the whole story. But we didn’t. Here is the part that was not known at that time:

For the “privilege” Julian Assange must pay over half a million US dollars.

Please help if you can: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/free-julian-assange

(From https://x.com/wikileaks/status/1805643584328098080 )

From the crowdfunding site

I’ve already chipped in a little.

At last . . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s been a long and painful wait . . .  For posts relating to Julian Assange see https://vridar.org/tag/julian-assange/

Move the play button to 1:25 and start from there for the main 1 minute:



The Collapse of Zionism & Hope in a New Generation

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by Neil Godfrey

* The anthropologist’s work I have just completed is fully in line with similar kinds of analyses of the causes of radicalization and extremist, even suicidal, acts of mayhem — Scott Atran, Jason Burke, Robert Pape, William McCants, Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger, Bruce Hoffman, Anne Speckhard, Raffaello Pantucci, Riaz Hassan, Loretta Napoleoni, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan (sic), Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko, Peter Neumann, Ghassan Hage, Thomas Hegghammer, Richard Jackson, Ed Husain, Mohammed M. Hafez,  Lorne L. Dawson, Quintan Wiktorowicz, Nate Rosenblatt — along with specialist studies of Hamas itself. The point being that the arguments are supported by mountains of research studies.

— I have posted on the research of the above (and others) on this blog. Search under the tags “radicalization” and “terrorism”.

Among the initiators of the The Palestine History and Heritage Project (PaHH) (that I spoke about recently in Imagine Palestine) was Dr Ilan Pappé. Pappé has written a sobering article in which he sees some hope for both Jews and Arabs beyond the current horrors. I’ve read in past years opinions by various hopefuls that “this time” we will see the beginning of the demise of an aggressive power only to have such thoughts wisp away into nothingness. But one thing is certainly clear as day — and this comes just after I have finished reading the latest work by a prominent anthropologist* in which he addresses the nature of “band of brothers” type bonding and willingness to sacrifice one’s life in resistance to an overwhelming force — and in that light it is clearer than ever that even if Israel manages to kill every current Hamas fighter it will inherit only more waves of like minded resistance fighters to battle.

Pappé draws comparisons with the last days of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Some of us will recall how SA’s use of horrific violence to maintain its system only convinced us that it would never change.

. . . Hamas’s assault of October 7 can be likened to an earthquake that strikes an old building. The cracks were already beginning to show, but they are now visible in its very foundations. More than 120 years since its inception, could the Zionist project in Palestine – the idea of imposing a Jewish state on an Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern country – be facing the prospect of collapse? . . . 

. . . Here, I will argue that [the early indicators] are clearer than ever in the case of Israel. We are witnessing a historical process – or, more accurately, the beginnings of one – that is likely to culminate in the downfall of Zionism. And, if my diagnosis is correct, then we are also entering a particularly dangerous conjuncture. For once Israel realizes the magnitude of the crisis, it will unleash ferocious and uninhibited force to try to contain it, as did the South African apartheid regime during its final days.

A first indicator is the fracturing of Israeli Jewish societyAt present it is composed of two rival camps which are unable to find common ground. . . .

— Time capsule – Vridar’s 2007 post on Gaza (Watch this to understand the background to October 7): Gaza (the reality behind the myth of “God’s will” for modern Israel)

One camp can be termed the ‘State of Israel’. It comprises more secular, liberal and mostly but not exclusively middle-class European Jews and their descendants, who were instrumental in establishing the state in 1948 . . . .

The other camp is the ‘State of Judea’, which developed among the settlers of the occupied West Bank. It enjoys increasing levels of support within the country and constitutes the electoral base that secured Netanyahu’s victory . . . .

. . . . More than half a million Israelis, representing the State of Israel, have left the country since October, an indication that the country is being engulfed by the State of Judea. This is a political project that the Arab world, and perhaps even the world at large, will not tolerate in the long term.

One often hears through mainstream channels that the problem is “very complicated”. I recently listened to an academic excuse himself from commenting on the current conflict because Israel-Palestine is “not my area of expertise”. Nonsense. It is as “complicated” as the European dispossessions and ultimate genocides of the indigenous peoples in North and South America and Australia. I posted an overview of the planning and implementation of the Zionist project under Masalha: Expulsion of the Palestinians

The second indicator is Israel’s economic crisis. . . .  The conflict between the State of Israel and the State of Judea, along with the events of October 7, is meanwhile causing some of the economic and financial elite to move their capital outside the state. Those who are considering relocating their investments make up a significant part of the 20% of Israelis who pay 80% of the taxes.

The third indicator is Israel’s growing international isolation, as it gradually becomes a pariah state. This process began before October 7 but has intensified since the onset of the genocide. It is reflected by the unprecedented positions adopted by the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court. . . . 

The fourth … indicator is the sea-change among young Jews around the world. Following the events of the last nine months, many now seem willing to jettison their connection to Israel and Zionism and actively participate in the Palestinian solidarity movement. . . . 

The fifth indicator is the weakness of the Israeli army. There is no doubt that the IDF remains a powerful force with cutting-edge weaponry at its disposal. Yet its limitations were exposed on October 7. . . . 

The final indicator is the renewal of energy among the younger generation of Palestinians. It is far more united, organically connected and clear about its prospects than the Palestinian political elite. Given the population of Gaza and the West Bank is among the youngest in the world, this new cohort will have an immense influence over the course of the liberation struggle. The discussions taking place among young Palestinian groups show that they are preoccupied with establishing a genuinely democratic organization – either a renewed PLO, or a new one altogether – that will pursue a vision of emancipation which is antithetical to the Palestinian Authority’s campaign for recognition as a state. They seem to favour a one-state solution to a discredited two-state model. . . .

Pappé, Ilan. “The Collapse of Zionism.” NLR/Sidecar, June 21, 2024. https://newleftreview.org/sidecar/posts/the-collapse-of-zionism?pc=1610.

To refer back to my latest reading, Inheritance by Harvey Whitehouse: The best we might dare hope for is the emergence of a boundary-crossing leadership, of which Nelson Mandela was a clear example. Two key works cited:

We have seen young Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians working together for justice and assistance for many years now (though their efforts have not made headlines) — so the possibility of that kind of leadership after the slaughter has ended is not out of the question. Though an acceleration of violence in the meantime seems inevitable.



Wounded healers

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by Neil Godfrey

Chiron, the wounded healer (ChatGPT image)

Does a person who has a past history of depression (or any other “psychological issue”) and accordingly takes up a study of psychology inevitably become a bad psychologist?

Can a person who as a youth was involved in criminal acts ever in later years be qualified to be a social worker and role model for other youth?

Can a person who once belonged to a religious cult ever be qualified to help other cult members recover from their experiences?

Can a person who was once a fundamentalist ever be qualified to study religion and the Bible objectively and honestly?

Is it possible for a person who was once a theist and is now an atheist to have a genuine, scholarly understanding of the nature of belief in God? Or for an ex-Christian to be honest and fair about Christianity?

We know the answers to those questions, at least in theory. So I was intrigued to come across the following passage in the new book by the anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse.

The positive role of rituals in human history has taken me a long time to appreciate, in part because I have had a difficult relationship with rituals personally.

This is not so unusual – many of my fellow academics study the things they find particularly difficult to master or understand.

  • Political scientists often strike me as poor strategists in departmental politics,
  • anthropologists struggle with the nuances of their own native groups,
  • and geographers are often the colleagues most in need of directions around campus.

Although my job is to study rituals, I find them rather aversive – particularly the routinized kind we were all obliged to participate in at school in the form of assemblies and chapel services. These activities seemed at the time to be not only pointless and dull but sometimes even menacingly oppressive and authoritarian. I am not alone in thinking this way, of course. As we will see in the final part of this book, many societies are shedding their ritual traditions at a rapid pace, not only through secularization but by dismissing as irrelevant or oppressive many long-established rituals associated with schooling, professional guilds, the institutions of government, and everyday domestic life. However, the more I have learned about the effects of participation in frequent collective rituals, the more I have come to appreciate their importance in fostering large-scale cohesion, cooperation, and future-mindedness. I have argued that ritual routinization helped the first farmers to settle down and create larger and larger cultural groups. But this was only the beginning of a much more complex process. . . .

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (p. 134). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition. – my formatting


And that is why this blog — despite my mixed background in religious experiences and current atheism — is not an “anti-Christian” blog. My interest is in understanding and learning from the latest research. My posts about the Bible are not efforts to “debunk” the Bible. It is about understanding its origins and accounting for its influence. The same for the question that seems to rile many people more than others: Did Jesus exist? That question has no interest for me. My interest is in understanding the origin and nature of the idea of Jesus in the history of religion. My interest is in applying the methods of professional research into all these questions — historical, psychological, anthropological.

Think of personal relevance. It is only natural and right and even beneficial if we take up studies in areas where our personal experiences and challenges have led us. The desire is to understand, overcome, and help others navigate similar circumstances and ideas.

Universals of Morality (without God)

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by Neil Godfrey

It’s all about cooperation, being the uber-social mammals that we are:

Studies led by my colleague Oliver Scott Curry have shown that much of human morality is rooted in a single preoccupation: cooperation. More specifically, seven principles of cooperation are judged to be morally good everywhere and form the bedrock of a universal moral compass. Those seven principles are:

  1. help your kin,
  2. be loyal to your group,
  3. reciprocate favours,
  4. be courageous,
  5. defer to superiors,
  6. share things fairly,
  7. and respect other people’s property.

This new idea was quite a big deal because up until then it seemed quite reasonable to assert – as cultural relativists have always done – that there are no moral universals, and each society has therefore had to come up with its own unique moral compass. As I will explain, this is not the case. Moreover, the same seven principles of cooperation on which these moral ideas are based are found in a wide range of social species and are not unique to human beings.39 These moral intuitions evolved because of their benefits for survival and reproduction. Genetic mutations favouring cooperative behaviours in the ancestors of social species, such as humans, conferred a reproductive advantage on the organisms adopting them, with the result that more copies of those genes survived and spread in ensuing generations. Take the principle that we should care for (and avoid harm to) members of our family. This moral imperative likely evolved via the mechanism of ‘kin selection’, which ensures that we behave in ways that increase the chances of our genes being passed on by endeavouring to help our close genetic relatives to stay alive and produce offspring. Loyalty to group, on the other hand, evolves in social species that do better when acting in a coordinated way rather than independently. Reciprocity (the idea that I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine) leads to benefits that selfish action alone cannot accomplish. And deference to superiors is another way of staying alive, in this case by allocating positions of dominance or submission in a coordinated fashion rather than both parties fighting to the death.

The theory of ‘morality as cooperation’ proposes that these seven principles of cooperation together comprise the essence of moral thinking everywhere. Ultimately, every human action that prompts a moral judgement can be directly traced to a transgression against one or more of these cooperative principles.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (pp. 66-67). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition. (my formatting)

Universal Morality

That’s the theory. What follows is a description of an “unprecedented study” to test the hypothesis that these seven principles are indeed universal. Harvey Whitehouse and his colleagues took sixty societies that had been extensively studied by anthropologists:

To qualify for inclusion, each society had to have been the subject of at least 1,200 pages of descriptive data pertaining to its cultural system. It must also have been studied by at least one professionally trained anthropologist based on at least one year of immersive fieldwork utilizing a working knowledge of the language used locally. The sample of societies was selected to maximize diversity and minimize the likelihood that cultural groups had adopted their moral beliefs from one another. They were drawn from six major world regions: Sub-Saharan Africa, Circum-Mediterranean, East Eurasia, Insular Pacific, North America, and South America.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (p. 67). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition.

In 3,460 paragraphs from 400 documents they located the seven principles being judged by each society according to an ethical value.

This produced 962 observed moral judgements of the seven types of cooperative behaviour. In 961 of those instances (99.9 per cent of all cases), the cooperative behaviour was judged morally good. The only exception was on a remote island in Micronesia where stealing openly (rather than covertly) from others was morally endorsed. In this unusual case, however, it seemed to be because this type of stealing involved the (courageous) assertion of social dominance. So, even though this one instance seemed to contradict the rule that you should respect other people’s property, it did so by prioritizing the alternative cooperative principle of bravery.

The main take-home here is that the seven cooperative principles appear to be judged morally good everywhere.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (p. 68). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition.



Hardwired to Venerate the Supernatural

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by Neil Godfrey

Natural intuitions feed into our social systems in strange and unexpected ways. To take just one example, our intuitions about supernatural beings are also associated with intuitions about social dominance in ways that are consistent across cultures. My colleagues and I have shown in lab experiments that when babies observe an agent capable of floating around like a ghost or a flying witch, they expect the levitator to win out in a confrontation with a rival who lacks such powers.7 To put it more pithily, we naturally look up to supernatural beings. This could help to explain not only why stories about superheroes – from Santa to Superman – are so popular with children but also why magical beings and their earthly embodiments are so often venerated in human societies.

7 Meng, Xianwei, Yo Nakawake, Kazuhide Hashiya, Emily Burdett, Jonathan Jong, and Harvey Whitehouse. “Preverbal Infants Expect Agents Exhibiting Counterintuitive Capacities to Gain Access to Contested Resources.” Scientific Reports 11, no. 1 (May 25, 2021): 10884. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-89821-0.

Whitehouse, Harvey. Inheritance (p. 7). Cornerstone. Kindle Edition.


Understanding Contradictions and Incongruities in the Bible – Or Not…

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by Neil Godfrey

A couple of months ago I posted Why Bible Authors Wrote Anonymously and with Contradictions. I was setting down in writing my thoughts as informed by my latest reading at the time. But doubts remained. In that post I said that ancient Near Eastern authors corrected details in an existing narrative by adding contradictory statements or narratives next to them. That didn’t answer the question, though: If they wanted to make a correction, why not replace the perceived error entirely?

Another perspective on that question is presented by Isaac Rabinowitz in his posthumous 1993 book A Witness Forever: Ancient Israel’s Perception of Literature and the Resultant Hebrew Bible.

Rabinowitz argues that the ancient Israelites, like other peoples in the region, attributed to words a power beyond their merely symbolic representations of their referents. To some extent I found myself sympathetic to the argument given that we see evidence of some cultures today seeming to have the same view. I am thinking of warnings on tv and radio for the benefit of first nations audiences that the ensuing program will contain images and names of the deceased. Words are considered to be more than mere sounds to be decoded for meaning. However, in the end, I found myself wishing that Rabinowitz had produced more explicit evidence to buttress the main thrust of his argument that for the Israelites words of themselves (apparently independent of social context) consist of magic power. Too much — especially given my lack of wider reading in this area — was left to a single interpretation of the data, and perhaps just a tad overly deductive. Still, the book does raise questions.

But what do we make of the following examples of repetition and redundancy in the biblical text? Continue reading “Understanding Contradictions and Incongruities in the Bible – Or Not…”


Finding a Place for King Josiah in the History of Biblical Israel

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by Neil Godfrey

The past few posts have set out the grounds that different scholars have either accepted the historicity of Josiah’s reforms (with varying degrees of certainty) or rejected it.

What we read of Josiah in 2 Kings 22-23 has engendered many questions, problems and hypotheses — theological, textual and historical. In this post I set out some of the various solutions to those questions.

First, recall a few of those problematic questions:

  1. Josiah is said to be one of the “good kings” of Judah, even the best since David. He is said to have restored the “true worship” of God and rid the land of idols. But then we read that Pharaoh kills Josiah and God punishes Judah by sending them into exile because of the sins of his long-dead predecessor!
  2. When Josiah hears the words of the book that was discovered in the temple he tears his robes and weeps. Because of his contrition the prophetess promises him a peaceful death. But his end was not peaceful at all. As mentioned above, we read that Pharaoh killed him.
  3. The prophetess even tells the king that God is going to punish the people of Judah and there is no indication of any hope for them. Yet we read that Josiah proceeds to lead the people in mass repentance — all in vain. God still punishes them. What was the point of the reforms and covenant renewal?
  4. Why do we read that Josiah felt it necessary to consult the prophetess about the book found in the temple when it is clear that he understands the message of the book very well and he acts on it accordingly?
  5. When we read about Josiah’s list of reforms we sense a disconnect from all that has gone before. There is no reference at all to those reforms having anything to do with the discovery of the book of the law.
  6. Later passages in the book of Kings imply that Josiah was one of the “bad kings”. This negative evaluation of Josiah is also found in the books of Jeremiah and Zephaniah. Why was his major reform of returning Judah to God ignored?

Proposed Solutions

Up to the 1940s scholars had generally looked at the first six books (Genesis to Joshua) as a self-contained unit with the following historical books being tied to those six with only a minimum of editorial commentary. The Pentateuch (Genesis-Exodus-Leviticus-Numbers-Deuteronomy) began with promises of the land of Canaan to the patriarchs and the book of Joshua (the sixth book) told of how those promises were fulfilled. Hence the Hexateuch made cogent sense: it began with the promises being made and concluded with them being fulfilled. The historical books from Judges to 2 Kings were of quite a different set of styles and themes.

Martin Noth broke with that assumption and analysis and influenced many to follow or only slightly modify his arguments. For Noth, the historical books through to 2 Kings began with Deuteronomy. An editor or editors had before them existing writings about the law, Joshua’s conquests, various judges, prophets and kings, and they brought these works together into a narrative unity, joining and interrupting the various segments with commentary that reflected key themes and ideology found in Deuteronomy. The result was “a Deuteronomistic history” that, despite some bright moments along the way, was doomed to end in disaster.

Noth’s Deuteronomistic editor(s)/author(s) was working with sources already in existence but these were augmented. The original book of Deuteronomy, for example, was thought to only include our chapters 5 to 30 but Noth’s Dtr (the standard abbreviation for this person or persons) added introductory and concluding chapters that addressed core themes found interspersed throughout the ensuing historical books.

One of the most conclusive and least disputed findings of scholarly literary criticism is that in the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings we are confronted with the activity of a Deuteronomistic author in passages both large – sometimes very small. Like all the other historical books in the Old Testament, this author’s work is anonymous, but we call him the “Deuteronomistic” author because his language and way of thinking closely resemble those found in the Deuteronomic Law and in the admonitory speeches which precede and follow the Law. Broadly following present academic practice, we shall refer below to this author and his work by the abbreviation Dtr.

It is generally considered that Dtr. is by a single “Deuteronomistic editor”, or rather by different “Deuteronomistic editors” closely resembling one another in their style . . . . (Noth, 4)

This style is distinguished by its simplicity, fluency, and lucidity and may be recognized both by its phraseology and more especially by its rhetorical character. . . .

The deuteronomic phraseology revolves around a few basic theological tenets such as:
1. The struggle against idolatry
2. The centralization of the cult
3. Exodus, covenant, and election
4. The monotheistic creed
5. Observance of the law and loyalty to the covenant
6. Inheritance of the land
7. Retribution and material motivation
8. Fulfilment of prophecy
9. The election of the Davidic dynasty . . .

What makes a phrase deuteronomic is not its mere occurrence in Deuteronomy, but its meaning within the framework of deuteronomic theology. . . . 

The most outstanding feature of deuteronomic style is its use of rhetoric. This is true of all forms of deuteronomic writing. . . . (Weinfeld, 1-3)

For over 40 pages of specific instances of Deuteronomistic style and rhetoric see Weinfeld’s Appendix A on archive.org

What is that style and theological flavour identified as Deuteronomistic? For a detailed answer by Moshe Weinfeld to that question see the extracts and link in the side box.

Our interest here is on the core theme of that history. For Noth, the story was a story of failure. The people of Israel time and time again apostatized from the Deuteronomist’s true worship and, from the vantage point of the author/s, ended their days in exile from their land. The northern tribes of Israel were deported by the Assyrians and the southern kingdom of Judah was exiled into Babylonia. Maybe it could be called a morality tale. Beware, we can see what has happened because of transgression of the laws of Yahweh. So beware.

Though highly influential, Noth’s interpretation seemed to be too easily dismissive of other more positive moments in that history. Were not the promises made to David that his dynasty would last forever unconditional? Does not the final chapter of Kings provide a hint of future hope with the raising of the captive king of Judah to royal favour? And how can one explain the glorious time of Josiah’s reformist rule?

Frank Moore Cross proposed another explanation for the combination of hope and despair in the Deuteronomistic history. For Cross, the first historical books were written or at least shaped in the gloriously hopeful days of good king Josiah. The historical work ended on a high note: Judah had repented, Josiah had cleansed the land of idolatry, and a king as great as David was once more on the throne. Sadly, a few kings later (587 BCE) and Judah was overrun by Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar, Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed, and a large portion of the population were deported. Around the middle of the sixth century another scribe, reflecting on the disaster that had overtaken Judah since the time of Josiah, picked up the historical tale and added the chapters of apostasy and failure following the time of Josiah.

Cross’s proposal had the advantage of somewhat explaining how the anomaly of the record of Josiah’s righteousness sat so awkwardly prior to the final doom of Judah. But if the evidence for the historicity of Josiah’s reforms is scant to non-existent, why is it included at all? And how do we account for other oddities in the Josiah narrative, some of which I listed at the beginning of this post?

Other scholars have proposed other refinements: Helga Weippert has suggested there were three redactions. The first Deuteronomist editor concluded the history with Hezekiah’s reforms; the second with Josiah’s reforms; and the third with the fall of Jerusalem. Rudolf Smend identified three different hands working over the same material: the first Deuteronomist redactor completed the historical book so that it concluded with the demise of the kingdom of Judah and its Babylonian exile; the second worked through the existing text by adding prophetic commentary and speeches and documenting their fulfilment; while the third worked at making the importance of the Deuteronomistic law more prominent at key points. There are other variants. Too many — and that’s the reason there has been such a wide gap between this post and my previous one: I have been tracking down and taking on board many of these various explanations — only to set most of them aside so I could conclude this series.

But there is a common thread through all of these proposed explanations. They view Josiah’s reforms as an unremovable fact of history that must be included despite the problems this raises in relation to their beliefs in God’s justice. They scarcely account for the difficulties raised by the Josiah portrait — a good king who leads his people in repentance is cast aside without his promised reward and the people are punished for the sin of a long-dead king.

An Alternative

But what happens if we consider the likelihood that Josiah never undertook any reformist program: that possibility has been raised in recent posts (see above). What happens if we imagine the historical chronicle without any mention of Josiah’s reforms? What if the first historical rendering did not conclude with Josiah’s reform but, knowing nothing of that reform, proceeded to trace the final demise of Judah and its Babylonian captivity?

In other words, What happens if we treat the Josiah reform story as a late interpolation into the earlier doomsday narrative?

Before answering that question, notice that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting it to be a valid scenario.

Possibly the most striking evidence that the Josiah reforms were not written by the same deuteronomistic author/s responsible for the larger and final portrayal is its violation of a fundamental premise of Deuteronomy: that repentance leads to forgiveness and mercy. Up until the story of Josiah the consistent message we have read is that if kings turn away from the sins of their predecessors they can avoid God’s wrath. Josiah completely undid the sins of his predecessor Manasseh:

Manasseh (2 Kings 21:3-6) Josiah (2 Kings 23:4, 8, 10, 12)
He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he also erected altars to Baal and made an Asherah pole, as Ahab king of Israel had done. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them.

He built altars in the temple of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem I will put my Name.”

In the two courts of the temple of the Lord, he built altars to all the starry hosts.

He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced divination, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. . . .


The king ordered Hilkiah the high priest, the priests next in rank and the doorkeepers to remove from the temple of the Lord all the articles made for Baal and Asherah and all the starry hosts. He burned them outside Jerusalem

Josiah . . . desecrated the high places, from Geba to Beersheba, where the priests had burned incense. . . .

10 He desecrated Topheth, which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to sacrifice their son or daughter in the fire to Molek. . . .

12 He pulled down the altars the kings of Judah had erected on the roof near the upper room of Ahaz, and the altars Manasseh had built in the two courts of the temple of the Lord. . . .

Scholars have written at length about the problems raised by the cruel fate of Josiah and the nation despite their wholehearted turning to Yahweh. It is often thought that among the exiles there emerged a crisis in understanding the ways of God. Rationalizations abound, but there is little evidence in any of the biblical writings to support these revisionist notions about the justice and will of God. Some scholars have seen in Josiah a foreshadowing of the death of a righteous messiah. The first difficulty with that interpretation is that in the story of the discovery of the book of the law the prophetess Huldah assures him he will die in peace. One more rightly must conclude that we have a text whose parts were written by authors “not talking to each other”.

There are other pointers to an interpolation. Immediately after the death of Josiah we read of the next king, Jehoahaz, that

He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, just as his predecessors had done. (2 Ki 23:32)

Then of the following king, Jehoiakim, we read

And he did evil in the eyes of the Lord, just as his predecessors had done. (2 Ki 23:37)

Did not the author recall that immediately prior to these kings was a predecessor who was the greatest and most righteous king of all since David? How could that author lump Josiah in with those who had done evil just like all the rest?

Further …. we have other writings referring to Josiah yet are oblivious to any righteousness associated with his reign. One of these is the book of the prophet Jeremiah and the other is that of Zephaniah.

The only prophecy that the book of Jeremiah directly dated “in the days of king Josiah” was Jer. 3.6-11, in which the idolatrous whoredoms of faithless Israel (Samaria) were said to have been exceeded by her unrepentant sister Judah. Additionally, the book of Jeremiah stated that Jeremiah’s prophecies and warnings over a period of 23 years from the thirteenth year of Josiah to the fourth year of Jehoiakim went entirely unheeded. The Jewish people were destined for punishment for their disobedience and their having violated the divine covenant. Repentance by the Jewish nation or its kings could have averted disaster, but none took place in the years leading up to the fall of Jerusalem. Indeed, the rise of Nebuchadnezzar was the direct result of the utter lack of repentance of the Jews during the preceding 23 years of Jeremiah’s prophetic activity (Jer. 25.1-14). It was precisely the utter lack of reform during those years that signaled doom for Jerusalem. There is thus not the slightest hint that Jeremiah’s author(s) were acquainted with changes in religious practices prompted by a purported discovery of the book of the law in Josiah’s eighteenth year. Quite the contrary, Jeremiah’s prophecies against Jerusalem and its rulers starting in the reign of Josiah were unremittingly negative and Jeremiah had nothing favorable to say of any of Judah’s kings after the time of Hezekiah. . . .

A speech in Jer. 44.2-30 to the exiles in Egypt contains significant literary parallels to the regnal evaluations of the last kings of Judah: the speech twice referred back to abominable sins committed in Judah and Jerusalem by their “fathers” and by “the kings of Judah” who made offerings to other gods, committed abominations, ignored the laws and statutes and did evil in the sight of Yahweh (Jer. 44.9-10, 21-24). This negative evaluation of the people of Judah, their ancestors and their kings forms a close verbal parallel to the negative evaluation of Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim and their ancestors. Both painted a negative picture of the last kings of Judah and neither was compatible with Josiah or his generation having walked in obedience to the laws of Yahweh, especially in the matter of worship of other gods.

(Gmirkin, 15f, 29f)


A similar picture of Josiah may be inferred from the book of Zephaniah, whose prophecies were dated to “the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah” (Zeph. 1.1). Zephaniah predicted the coming of the day of the Lord to punish Jerusalem and make the land desolate, brought on as a result of idolatrous practices (Zeph. 1.4-6) and violence against the law (Zeph. 3.1-4). Jerusalem would not accept correction (Zeph. 1.4, 6; 3.1, 7); the kings’ sons and royal officials were singled out as sinners destined for punishment (Zeph. 1.8; 3.3). While these prophecies are connected to the figure of Zephaniah only in the Deuteronomistic superscription, one may reasonably infer that at the time the superscription was created, the Deuteronomistic editor knew nothing about the reign of Josiah that would rule out assigning these prophecies to his time. Specifically, the charges of Baal and Molech worship in Josiah’s days at Zeph. 1.4-5 appear to indicate that the Deuteronomistic editor was unaware of the cultic reforms of 2 Kgs 23.29

29 Attempts to harmonize Zephaniah and 2 Kings 23 typically overcome this difficulty by postulating that Zephaniah was written early in Josiah’s reign, prior to his initiation of cultic reforms. Such an approach assumes that both Zephaniah and 2 Kings 23 were both ancient, authentic witnesses to historical events under Josiah. It is preferable to maintain the literary integrity of both texts by acknowledging their dissonant content.

(Gmirkin, 16)

So it appears from evidence both within the book of 2 Kings and in writing outside 2 Kings that at some point there was no knowledge of the Josiah reforms currently in 2 Kings 23.

The alternative I am setting out here is entirely from Russell Gmirkin’s article published in the Journal of Higher Criticism over two years ago. It is available to all on his academia.edu page. You can read the full argument there.

Another piece of evidence that the 2 Kings 23 recital of Josiah’s reforms were not part of the original work is found in the comparison of Josiah with Moses. The comparison with David and the reminders of God’s promises to David is part of the Deuteronomistic language (see the insert box above and instances of the Davidic notices by the Deuteronomist in Weinfeld’s list at archive.org). Richard Elliot Friedman has detailed the allusions to Moses in Josiah’s portrayal, although note that Friedman is not himself arguing that the Josiah episode is an interpolation. He in fact concurs with Cross’s view (above) that the Josianic reform was the conclusion of the original book of Kings and argues that with Deuteronomy and references to Moses it formed an inclusio to the entire history. But the comparison of Josiah with Moses implicitly nullifies the comparison with David who cannot match the status of Moses. In the table below I have restricted the comparison of Josiah to the person of Moses and not to other passages relating to the law in Deuteronomy.

Moses Josiah
“There did not arise a prophet again in Israel like Moses . . .” (Deut 34:10) “There was no king like him before him turning to Yhwh with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might according to all the Torah of Moses, and after him none arose like him” (2 Kings 23:25). – REF acknowledges Jack R. Lundbom for observing this allusion
Moses burns and smashes the golden calf “thin as dust,” . . . and casts the dust on the wadi . . . (Deut 9:21). At the site of Jeroboam’s golden calf of Bethel, Josiah smashes the [high place] and burns it, “and he made it thin as dust . . .” (2 Kgs 23:15).

Josiah burns the statue of Asherah which Manasseh had set in the Temple, at the wadi Kidron, “and he made it thin as dust . . .” (23:6). The phrase [“made it thin as dust”] occurs nowhere but in the passages noted here. Josiah also smashes the altars which his ancestors had made and casts their dust into the wadi (v 12).

I have illustrated other proposals with diagrams. Here is one that helps us visualize what the biblical record looks like if the Josiah reform narrative were never part of the original deuteronomistic history. The first writing did not include or conclude with Josiah’s reforms. Rather, Josiah was among the “bad kings” that marked Judah’s decline after the good Davidic king Hezekiah. The story outline of the final chapters of 2 Kings is thus:

The Davidic Kings keep David’s “lamp” alight until Hezekiah; after Hezekiah the new king, Manasseh, followed the ways of the wicked king Jeroboam of Israel; Manasseh and Jeroboam are alike (for the extensive parallels between these two figures see Gmirkin, p.34), and both lead their kingdoms to ruin: Jeroboam set Israel on the path to Assyrian captivity and Manasseh set Judah on the path to Babylonian captivity.

The discovery of the book of the law in the temple of God was included in this anecdote as a classic final doomsday warning. This is not only a common enough motif in ancient literature but it is also the explicit reason Moses had the book of the law placed in the ark of the covenant. Recall Deuteronomy 31:24-29 —

24 After Moses finished writing in a book the words of this law from beginning to end, 25 he gave this command to the Levites who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord: 26 Take this Book of the Law and place it beside the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God. There it will remain as a witness against you. 27 For I know how rebellious and stiff-necked you are. If you have been rebellious against the Lord while I am still alive and with you, how much more will you rebel after I die! 28 Assemble before me all the elders of your tribes and all your officials, so that I can speak these words in their hearing and call the heavens and the earth to testify against them. 29 For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall on you because you will do evil in the sight of the Lord and arouse his anger by what your hands have made.” 

The prophetess speaks the words of “a female Jeremiah” (Jeremiah 19:3, 11, 25:7, and 7:20 — the comparison is Christoph Levin’s – p.366) and echoes the above words of Moses. The purpose of the book was not to provoke repentance but was to testify mercilessly against king and nation:

15 She said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the man who sent you to me, 16 This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this place and its people, according to everything written in the book the king of Judah has read. 17 Because they have forsaken me and burned incense to other gods and aroused my anger by all the idols their hands have made, my anger will burn against this place and will not be quenched.’ (2 Kings 22:15-17)

Indeed, Russell Gmirkin’s case for the favourable presentation of Josiah is that it arose only after the completion of the book of Jeremiah:

It was only after the book of Jeremiah was completed that a new literary tradition arose in which Josiah was recast as a Deuteronomist reformer extraordinaire. Once both 2 Kgs 22-23 and the book of Jeremiah are understood as late literary accounts rather than archaic historical accounts, the problem of determining the relationship of the two becomes a simple matter of literary analysis rather than a torturous exercise in historical speculation, as in most past attempts to reconcile Jeremiah and Kings. It is only under the assumption that the reforms of Josiah described in 2 Kings and the prophecies of Jeremiah in Jer. 1-25 were both grounded in historical fact that a compelling need to reconcile the two literary traditions arises.

(Gmirkin, 21f)

Josiah’s reforms are an anomaly at many points:

  1. they violate the theology of the Deuteronomist author who promised salvation to the repentant;
  2. they are contradicted by independent works, Jeremiah and Zephaniah;
  3. they are contradicted by the ensuing text in 2 Kings that refer to the sins of the last kings of Judah;
  4. they present Josiah as a figure who stands beyond comparison with David (viz. with Moses);
  5. the blame placed on Manasseh for the Babylonian captivity only makes sense if Josiah was originally among the “bad kings” — or if the author added an explanation that Judah apostatized after Josiah’s death (Gmirkin, 28);
  6. the archaeological evidence indicates “business as usual” regarding worship of Asherah and idols at Josiah’s time.

I have skimmed the surface of the far more detailed arguments of Russell Gmirkin’s proposal by which the many problems of the Josiah report in 2 Kings 22-23 can be resolved. But one more salient feature must be added.

The book of the law that witnesses against king and nation is not the same one that Josiah acts upon. Or rather, the creator of the righteous Josiah had a different kind of book in mind from the one in the original judgement narrative. Rather than the book of the law that witnessed against the sins of the people, the author states that Josiah is acting on “the book of the covenant”. The covenant restored by Josiah culminated in a mass observance of the Passover and this aligns with the vignette of the Mosaic covenant at Sinai. God came down to show himself to Moses once more after he had broken the first stone tablets:

10 Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you. 11 Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 12 Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. 13 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles.[a] 14 Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. . . . 

17 “Do not make any idols.

18 Celebrate the Festival of Unleavened Bread. For seven days eat bread made without yeast, as I commanded you. Do this at the appointed time in the month of Aviv, for in that month you came out of Egypt. (Exodus 34)

As did Josiah…

Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of the Lord with the people of Judah . . . . He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant.

21 The king gave this order to all the people: “Celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant. (2 Kings 23)

So we can add here a seventh point on which the Josianic reforms sit anomalously with the broader text: the book of the law with its pronouncement of curses has been redescribed as a book of covenant renewal.

How it happened

  1. The original document consistently set forth the sins of the kings in the wake of Hezekiah’s son Manasseh. The discovery of the book of the law in the temple was a climactic moment pronouncing the ultimate curses that were about to fall upon the nation.
  2. Another scribe, presumably unaware or only partially aware of that original writing, independently composed a biography of Josiah as an ideal king restoring a utopian covenant renewal with Yahweh.
  3. When that scribe (or another closely associated one) learned of of the detail whereby the prophetess delivered the curses from the book of the law, an additional scenario was added in which Josiah repented and a new statement by the prophetess was added acknowledging Josiah’s righteousness.
  4. When an editor decided to add this new idealistic biography of Josiah to 2 Kings, they made a few adjustments to “make it fit” between 2 Kings 22:1 and 2 Kings 23:verses but failed to create a smooth transition leading to his death and the subsequent notes about the wickedness of all kings in the wake of Manasseh.

A literary analysis of the closing chapters of 2 Kings thus provides evidence for multiple Deuteronomistic authors.

(Gmirkin, 87)


Russell Gmirkin is best known for his books setting forth the evidence for a Hellenistic provenance of the Hebrew Bible. If his arguments are sound then the traditional view that the book of Deuteronomy and a deuteronomistic history were authored or revised in the days of Josiah and soon after in the exilic period must be set aside.

An alternate model of Deuteronomistic authorial and editorial activity literary activity is to view it as the product of a relatively small group of Deuteronomist authors working contemporaneously and collaboratively. The interrelationship of [the original Josiah account and the subsequent somewhat clumsy Josiah reforms additions] already points to this conclusion. Given that the entire corpus of Deuteronomistic texts display awareness of Jerusalem’s fall and anticipate a return of exiles to the land of Judah, this would seemingly point to a date for this Deuteronomistic activity after ca. 450 BCE and conceivably as late as the early Hellenistic Era when we have the first external evidence for the book of Deuteronomy (the LXX of ca. 270 BCE), Kings (Demetrius the Chronographer, ca. 221-204 BCE) and Jeremiah (Dead Sea Scroll fragment 4QJera palaeographically dated to ca. 225-175 BCE). If we take these texts as roughly contemporary, this points to a date no later than ca. 270 BCE. The Deuteronomists should thus be situated within a relatively brief time span falling sometime within the period ca. 450-ca. 270 BCE.

(Gmirkin, 95)

Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Friedman, Richard Elliot. “From Egypt to Egypt: Dtr1 and Dtr2.” In Traditions in Transformation: Turning Points in Biblical Faith, edited by Baruch Halpern and Jon D. Levenson, 167–92. Winona Lake, Ind. : Eisenbrauns, 1981. http://archive.org/details/traditionsintran0000unse.

Gmirkin, Russell. “The Manasseh and Josiah Redactions of 2 Kings 21-25.” Journal of Higher Criticism, January 1, 2022. https://www.academia.edu/82084563/The_Manasseh_and_Josiah_Redactions_of_2_Kings_21_25.

Levin, Christoph. “Joschija Im Deuteronomistischen Geschichtswerk.” Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 96, no. 3 (1984). https://doi.org/10.1515/zatw.1984.96.3.351.

Noth, Martin. Deuteronomistic History. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981 [1943].

Provan, Iain W. Hezekiah and the Books of Kings: A Contribution to the Debate about the Composition of the Deuteronomistic History. Berlin New York: De Gruyter, 1988.

Weinfeld, Moshe. Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School. Eisenbrauns, 1992.

Weippert, Helga. “Die ‘Deuteronomistischen’ Beurteilungen Der Könige von Israel Und Juda Und Das Problem Der Redaktion Der Königsbücher.” Biblica 53, no. 3 (1972): 301–39. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42610051


Can we salvage history from beneath Josiah’s reforms?

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

by Neil Godfrey

My interest in these posts is in reviewing the basis for some historical fact behind the Biblical narrative of Josiah’s reforms. Other questions about the textual problems in 2 Kings 22-23 and difficulties with identifying in that passage the discovery of the book of Deuteronomy will come later.

So after discussing the evidence of seal images and amulet inscriptions, Christoph Uehlinger (UC) clarifies the question he is addressing:

Within the limits of this article, we may cut down the historical problem to the following question: Does 2 Kings 23 list measures that are most plausibly understood against the background of the political and religious situation of Judah during the latter part of the seventh century BCE than at any other period? (CU, 300 — all bolded highlighting is mine)

UC’s answer to his question:

At least two measures appear to be directed against cult practices or institutions whose introduction in Judah must have been originally connected with the Assyrian expansion and the accompanying reception of Assyro-Aramean traditions of astral cults:

    • the removal of the horses and chariots of the sun-god
    • and the suppression of the כמרים priests.

(300 – my formatting)

Horses and Chariots of the Sun God

Assyrian horse associated with temple of Sun God Shamash: Wikimedia Commons

2 Kings 23:11 (NIV)

He removed from the entrance to the temple of the Lord the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun. They were in the court near the room of an official named Nathan-Melek. Josiah then burned the chariots dedicated to the sun.

The Hebrew word for “official” in that text (סָּרִ֔יס — saris) is understood to be an Assyrian civic title, not a local religious or priestly one.

The horses are probably living animals, not crafted statues, given that the Hebrew uses the word for “dedicated” or “ordained” as with priests (v.5) and not the word for “made” that is used in connection with roof top altars that were removed (v.12). Further, they appear to require the care of an official.

The connection between horse and sun-god has no tradition in Palestine itself but is typical of Assyria, especially during the late eighth and early seventh century (the time of Sargon and Sennacherib), when the horse was repeatedly represented as the symbolic animal of the sun-god.


The Assyrians used horses dedicated to the sun god for divination purposes. But as UC acknowledges, the Assyrians were no longer a presence in Judah at the time of Josiah, having been replaced by the Egyptians. At most, UC can suggest that since Assyria was long gone, the “time was ripe to come back to local [Yahwistic] custom”. He adds that removing cult horses would also have a cost-saving benefit.

“Idolatrous Priests”

2 Kings 23:5 (NIV)

He did away with the idolatrous priests appointed by the kings of Judah to burn incense on the high places of the towns of Judah and on those around Jerusalem—those who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and moon, to the constellations and to all the starry hosts. 

The word being translated as “idolatrous priests”, kemarim (כְּמָרִ֗ים), is of Syrian origin and associated with the moon god. Given the rarity of the term in the Hebrew Bible it may be inferred that these priests were no longer present after the exile, and if so . . .

It is therefore scarcely conceivable that their dissolution by King Josiah was only an invention of a post-exilic redactor. (305)

Roof Altars

2 Kings 23:12 (NIV)

He pulled down the altars the kings of Judah had erected on the roof near the upper room of Ahaz, and the altars Manasseh had built in the two courts of the temple of the Lord. He removed them from there, smashed them to pieces and threw the rubble into the Kidron Valley.

Zephaniah 1:5 and Jeremiah 19:13 link roof-top worship to astral deities.

The passages quoted from the books of Zephaniah and Jeremiah, which assume that worship on the roofs continued after Josiah’s reform, therefore do not contradict the historicity of Josiah’s measures, since they remained confined to the temple and, again, affected a specific cult practice, namely sacrifice. (305)

Conclusion — and my response

CU thus suggests that the end of the seventh century “offers the most plausible religious-historical background for the three reform measures discussed above.” That may be so, but are we still not a step away from establishing whether or not any reforms took place at all?

UC underscores the following points:

  1. All three purges (horses/chariots, idolatrous priests, roof altars) relate to “practices that have lost their plausibility in view of the changed political climate with . . . lessened contacts with northern Syria and Assyria.”
  2. All three focus on the Jerusalem Temple.
  3. All three are associated with astral worship.

On the other hand, one may be inclined to think that points 1 and 3 had little relevance by the time of Josiah given that they are more closely associated with Syrian and Assyrian practices and those powers had lost their influence over Judah by Josiah’s time.

UC is seeking a midway between “minimalists” who rely on the archaeological witness to the exclusion of textual narratives that cannot be established as existing until generations later, and “maximalists” who rely on the textual narrative unless it can be proven in error. I am not so sure that a mid-way can be justified. Yes, UC can point to historical data that coheres in varying degrees with the biblical narrative, but by interpreting that data through the biblical narrative — even allowing for modifications to that narrative to make it fit the known historical and archaeological details — is still fundamentally a method that relies on a late text to through which to interpret much earlier data.

But how would/does UC respond to my misgivings? Here are five pertinent passages with my responses.


However, ‘methodological minimalists’ should not take their task too easily. Measures possibly taken under king Josiah in order to redesign the Judahite state cult cannot simply be dismissed because they are not explicitly mentioned as such in primary sources: such a conclusion would proceed from an argumentum e silentio which should be inadmissible for maximalists and minimalists alike. (285f)

“Simply be dismissed because …. not explicitly mentioned” can be taken as a pejorative put-down of the methodology of the “minimalists”. Rather, I don’t see any question of “dismissing” information that is “not explicitly” clear in the sources. Instead of “dismissal” of the “non-explicit” there is an attempt to examine each type of evidence in its own right. One might justifiably prefer to examine primary or archaeological sources independently of any other kind of evidence as the first stage of research. The second stage would be to examine the secondary narrative sources independently as far as possible against their verifiable provenance. In other words, the secondary sources for Josiah should, as far as possible, be studied as primary sources for the time and place from which they originate. Where we cannot be certain about their provenance, it is reasonable to see how the narratives might be explained in the context of the earliest period for which we can establish their existence. If nothing makes sense in that independently confirmed context, then we can test the narratives against earlier and more hypothetical periods of origin.

There is no argumentum e silento. The arguments are attuned to the voices of each type of evidence within its own verifiable context. Nor is this taking a “too easy” route. One might even say that the problems to be solved are doubled since we are grappling with two types of evidence, each on its own terms, instead of rationalizing them into a third source that is of our own making and that means we have to fudge the edges of both sources to make them fit with each other.


No serious historian should dismiss secondary sources on the sole argument that they cannot be confirmed with utter precision. On the other hand, we must of course endeavor to build only upon such secondary sources that plausibly fit the primary framework based on primary sources. (307)

Again, I wonder if I am right to detect another slight pejorative in the expression “with utter precision”. “Utter precision” might seem to imply that there can be room to fudge our data to make it fit a hypothesis. I don’t see anything wrong with accepting date ranges for known data (astral seal images, the influence of Assyrian cult in Judah, the silver amulets) and working with where they lead – whether stopping short of Josiah’s time or extending either side of it. Let the data speak without trying to refine it more precisely than it is.

When UC calls for using secondary sources “that plausibly fit the primary framework”, I think this and earlier posts have shown that his method is problematic. Rather than take the biblical narrative about Josiah’s cult centralization or purification or renewal, he has not UC actually changed the biblical narrative so that we come to imagine Josiah merely discarding practices that were no longer relevant in his time (e.g. Assyrian astral worship) or even undertaking a cost-saving measure? By reimagining the narrative to “plausibly fit” the primary evidence, has not UC actually replaced the biblical narrative with a new and different account that exists nowhere except in the historian’s imagination? Certainly, we can hypothesize that the author changed the facts before him to create a new narrative of more significant theological import, but why not simply hypothesize that the author drew upon known customs and traditions to create a historical fiction in a manner not very different from historical novelists do today?


The minimalist approach becomes extremely maximalist when it approaches the sources with inappropriate expectations, just to drop them as soon as they do not respond to gross questions. . . . We can know so little about the past, that we should endeavor to interpret adequately what little we have. (307)

There is an implicit circularity here, I think. Yes, we “know so little about the past”. And by all means we certainly “should endeavor to interpret what little we have.” It is not valid to see how we can make disparate sources from variable provenances throw light on each other until we first establish a valid argument that they are related in the way tradition and orthodoxy have led us to believe they are related. If we make invalid assumptions about the genre and provenance of our written sources we will almost certainly not be advancing genuine historical knowledge if we try to relate them to the real history behind their surface narratives. We would be in gross error if we found ourselves using Walter Scott’s novels to reconstruct medieval England, or Geoffrey of Monmouth’s saga to reconstruct a historical King Arthur. But this returns me to my response to point #One above.


Nothing remains for exegetes interested in historical research but to take note of the new methodological hierarchy which implies the necessary subordination of non-archaeological, secondary documentation, including the biblical texts, to primary data. (308)

Yes and no. Certainly there is a hierarchy of sources about any given time and place in the past. Primary sources, those produced in the time in question, surely take precedence. That does not mean we accept them uncritically because we know kings like to stretch the truth when making public boasts. But sources that derive from a later time need to be assessed according to what their authors could have known and what they wanted their audiences to read and believe. Those things may not cohere with the realities of the past. If those later sources can, however, demonstrate that they themselves are drawing upon “primary sources” since lost to us, then we are indeed fortunate in having more witnesses about the past to help us in our research.

But what is not allowed, in my view, is using a hierarchy such as the following:

  1. Exhaust all we can from primary sources
  2. Finding that we still lack much desired information, turn to secondary sources
  3. Use secondary sources to fill in the gaps.

No, valid historical research is not that simple. Here is a valid approach:

  1. Exhaust all we can from primary sources
  2. Finding that we still lack much desired information, turn to secondary sources to see if they contain evidence of further primary sources otherwise lost to us, (or see if they contain information that is evidently reliant upon lost primary sources otherwise lost to us)
  3. Use the data from primary sources evident in the secondary sources.


In the interest both of historical and theological research, we should therefore neither overstrain this link with historicist or biblicist naiveté, nor simply leap over the gap with dismissively minimalist assumptions. (308)

I hope my above responses have demonstrated that a valid “minimalist” approach is not “dismissive” of any justifiable source material.

Next post, I’ll consider another argument to explain the existence of the Josiah reform narrative in 2 Kings 22-23.

Uehlinger, Christoph. “Was There a Cult Reform under King Josiah? The Case for a Well-Grounded Minimum” In Good Kings and Bad Kings: The Kingdom of Judah in the Seventh Century BCE, edited by Lester L. Grabbe, 279–316. London: T&T Clark, 2007. https://www.academia.edu/19958547/Was_There_A_Cult_Reform_under_King_Josiah_The_Case_for_a_Well_Grounded_Minimum_2005_