Did King Josiah Change the Course of History?

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by Neil Godfrey

A ChatGPT image of a young King Josiah ordering the destruction of pagan cult centres

Finally I am catching up with where I left my earlier discussion about the historicity of the reforms of King Josiah.

King Josiah — a sixteenth-generation, descendant of King David — declared all traces of foreign worship to be anathema, and indeed the cause of Judah’s current misfortunes. [He] embarked on a vigorous campaign of religious purification in the countryside, ordering the destruction of rural shrines, declaring them to be sources of evil. Henceforth, Jerusalem’s temple, with its inner sanctuary, altar, and surrounding courtyards at the summit of the city would be recognized as the only legitimate place of worship for the people of Israel. In that innovation, modern monotheism was born. . . .

Such an ambitious plan would require active and powerful propaganda. The book of Deuteronomy established the unity of the people of Israel and the centrality of their national cult place . . . .

(Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman pp. 2, 283 — all bolding in quotations is my own)

Josiah’s reform was nothing less than the beginnings of the religion from which Judaism and Christianity emerged, according to Finkelstein and Silberman:

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

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

(F&S, 276)

What makes the reform of Josiah so controversial is the fact that Josiah has no mention in any extra-biblical sources. Although several Judahite kings are recorded, either by name or at least by office, Josiah is completely absent from the Assyrian texts so far, in spite of his alleged importance for Judah. Extant Egyptian records do not record Josiah’s death, even though Pharaoh Necho II is well known from both Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources. We are thrown back on the biblical text and archaeology for information about Josiah’s rule and his supposed religious activities. There is also the central question of the law book allegedly found in the Jerusalem temple and shown to Josiah. Since archaeology does not seem to give us a great deal of help, we rely more on the text than we would like, and a number of scholars are sceptical of the text’s story. (Davies, 383)

What is the evidence for this widely accepted scenario? The same authors concede in the same 2001 book, The Bible Unearthed,

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

(F&S, 287)

If we had no Bible to tell us about Josiah’s reforms, would we know that there was definitely some kind of religious change in Josiah’s time from the archaeological evidence alone?

The importance of the question extends beyond the views of the two scholars just mentioned:

The reform accounts have had considerable impact on Biblical Stu­dies and the study of ancient Israel, its history and religion.

Many his­tories of Israel and introductions to the Hebrew Bible refer to the re­forms as important events that took place in the late 8th and late 7th centuries BCE. Many central or even defining concepts of later Ju­daism, such as cult centralization, exclusive worship of Yahweh, idol criticism and law-based religion, would have been introduced by one of the reforming kings. The reforms have also had considerable impact on the study of Biblical books. For example, because of the evident similarities between the Deuteronomy and 2 Kings 22-23, the dating of Deuteronomy is often connected with Josiah’s reform. Some scholars who have questioned the historicity of most events in 2 Kings 22-23 have still connected the Deuteronomy with King Josiah or the late 7th century BCE. The Deuteronomy would then be a witness to the reli­gious changes that took place during this time.

(Pakkala, 202)

In 2001 an article in Journal of the American Oriental Society by another scholar, Lisbeth S. Fried, concluded:

There is no archaeological evidence consistent with the assumption that Josiah removed cult sites from the Iron Age II cities of Judah, Samaria, Megiddo, or the Negev. Except for sites under the control of Edom and beyond Josiah’s reach, there were none to be removed. All had either been destroyed by Egyptian or Assyrian kings, or purposely buried in anticipation of such destruction. None was rebuilt. Neither the reforms of Josiah nor those of Hezekiah against the bāmôt [=”high places”] should be considered historical.

(Fried, 460)

Map from Wikimedia Commons; Israel Museum Model of Arad temple from Aharoni, p 26.

That reference to “purposely buried in anticipation of such destruction” is a reference to the discovery of a temple site at Tel Arad in southern Judah. (You read that correctly: Jerusalem did not possess the only temple in the kingdom of Judah during this era. Another temple from this time has been discovered at Moza, about seven kilometers northwest of Jerusalem). Of the Arad finds, Uehlinger explains,

. . . it is impossible to relate the archaeological evidence [of the Arad temple finds] to the biblical testimony about Josiah’s reform. The shrine’s cancellation is . . . an emphatically careful treatment of cultic paraphernalia within the building proper: two horned incense altars and a massebah [=sacred pillar] were all laid on their sides at their respective positions, a measure which seems to indicate an intention to preserve and not to destroy them. . . . While we cannot know the precise reasons of [sic] the cancellation, protective measures at a time when the southern border of Judah came under military pressure and Judahite defensive control could not be guaranteed anymore to provide the most reasonable scenario. This may have occurred during the years of Hezekiah’s revolt against Sennacherib, although other explanations are equally valid. . . . ‘In any case, the careful burial of the symbolic objects expresses the desire or hope for a restoration of cultic activities in the future’. This interpretation certainly does not fit the biblical report of a violent defilement of high places throughout the country—whether such a defilement took place under Hezekiah, or Josiah, or both.

(Uehlinger, 290)

Why might anyone seek to carefully hide cult items in this way? Citing Mordechai (Morton) Cogan’s Imperialism and Religion: Assyria, Judah and Israel in the Eighth and Seventh Centuries BCE, Lisbeth Fried points to a possible explanation:

Mordechai Cogan describes the effect of Assyrian attack on cult sites. During these attacks the sacred images were either destroyed, or most often, taken to Assyria or to other cities to pay homage to the Assyrian gods. Cogan reports numerous cases in which shrines were not restored until the image was returned . . .

(Uehlinger, 460)

But why was it not restored after the threat of foreign invasion was over? Fried suggests that by 701 BCE every other cult site in Judah had been destroyed by the Egyptian pharaoh or Assyrian kings leaving only the temple at Jerusalem standing.

The Temple’s miraculous survival in 701 after the demise of every other cult site may have given rise to the belief that the Temple in Jerusalem was the only place in which YHWH had caused his name to dwell. All other sites were anathema.

(Uehlinger, 461)

That sounds plausible but is also speculative and in fact surely begs the question: Why would not those associated with the hidden altars and sacred pillars have declared their own cult site divinely protected, too? No matter the answer, the fact of hiding sacred items for the sake of preservation does not testify to the violent destructions carried out by Josiah according to 2 Kings 23. Seeking to hide the presence of a temple from outside invaders is quite a different matter from any possibility of hiding it from one’s own community and authorities.

I will continue with Christoph Uehlinger’s discussion, however, because despite its setting aside the evidence of the Arad temple’s remains, in other ways it advances the strongest case I have been able to find for religious reforms by Josiah.

Uehlinger seeks a position that he might classify as mid-way between “minimalists” on the one hand who would rely exclusively on what the archaeological remains tell us, and “maximalists” on the other hand who would accept the Biblical account as reliable except where it is positively disproven.

‘Josiah’s reform’, regardless of whether exposed by ‘maximalists’ or ‘minimalists’, is essentially a scholarly construct built upon the biblical tradition; without that tradition no one would look out for a ‘cult reform’ when studying the archaeology of Judah of the Iron Age II C [=700-586 BE].

(Uehlinger, 279)

So the question becomes: To what extent, if at all, does the archaeological evidence provide reasonable grounds for the historicity of Josiah’s reforms. If it is true that . . .

without the biblical text, no archaeological findings or non-Biblical ancient text would have given any reason to assume a cult reform in Judah

(Pakkala, 218f)

. . . is it nonetheless the case that there is enough archaeological evidence to lend some credence to the biblical narrative and for a Josianic reform to remain a viable hypothesis? After examining that question it will be time to consider a literary analysis of the Bible’s story of Josiah’s reforms.

Next post will set out some of the evidence that gives Christoph Uehlinger reason to believe we should not discard the reasonableness of believing a major reform led by Josiah did take place.

Aharoni, Yohanan. “Arad: Its Inscriptions and Temple.” The Biblical Archaeologist 31, no. 1 (February 1968): 2–32. https://doi.org/10.2307/3211023.

Davies, Philip R. “Josiah and the Law Book.” In The Hebrew Bible and History: Critical Readings, edited by Lester L. Grabbe, Annotated edition , 391–403. New York: T&T Clark, 2018.

Fried, Lisbeth S. “The High Places (Bāmôt) and the Reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah: An Archaeological Investigation.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 122, no. 3 (2002): 437–65. https://doi.org/10.2307/3087515.

Pakkala, Juha. “Why the Cult Reforms in Judah Probably Did Not Happen.” In One God – One Cult – One Nation: Archaeological and Biblical Perspectives, edited by Reinhard G. Kratz and Hermann Spieckermann, 201–35. Berlin ; New York: De Gruyter, 2016.

Silberman, Neil Asher, and Israel Finkelstein. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Free Press, 2001.

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.

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20 thoughts on “Did King Josiah Change the Course of History?”

  1. I find the Josiah story is very inconsistent with the overall narrative of the Old Testament, and even with itself.

    In one account (2 Chronicles), it seems that Josiah embarks on his reforms before the book is discovered, making the book discovery an unnecessary McGuffin.

    The narrative prior to Josiah is all based on “bad King, bad King, good King”. The ‘good’ Kings obviously tried to undo what the ‘bad’ Kings did, which was always some sort of religious reform. There is no indication that somehow the books of law have been lost and that the ‘bad’ Kings are ignorant of the requirements. Similarly, we would assume as the reader that the ‘good’ Kings are in possession of the law books and are enforcing it.

    Josiah’s reforms then become an over the top repeat of the pattern with a plot development that makes the previous several seasons of “bad King, bad King, good King” require re-interpretation.

    The finding of the book appears as a story that needs to be inserted somehow, even if it makes the events surrounding it make less sense.

    1. If you accept Callum Carmichael’s thesis regarding the connection between the laws and narratives of the Primary History, the story of Josiah makes perfect sense. Deuteronomy 17:17-20 required Solomon to transcribe his own copy of Deuteronomy to ensure his descendants would continue to rule Israel. As the scroll was found in the temple, it appears to be the original, and Solomon does not appear to have maintained his covenant with God, which is what ultimately led to Israel’s downfall. There is nothing Josiah could have done to undo Solomon’s “original sin” of not following the laws.

      P.S. I don’t view Chronicles as an alternative account but as an attempt to rewrite the story to remove the connection between Solomon’s original sin and Israel’s downfall. Chronicles is a “revisionist” non-history.

      1. I think I should make it clear that I am only commenting on the narrative here, and making no assumption about there being any historicity to any of it. I would extend this to Solomon also.

      2. What if the King-passage in Deuteronomy 17 (instructing the king to write out the law) was not part of the original text of Deut but a later addition from a time when there was no king?

  2. I think that becasue Israel was no more, leaving Judah as the only “power” of the Jews, Josiah decided that a power grab was in order. Make the Jerusalem temple the only place to worship formally and milk that cow for all of the money they could. They sent, according to the Bible, troops into the hinterlands to destroy the altars, Asherah “poles” aka trees, etc. But this was still going on into the CE so it was not an overnight transition. It think this was the part of the movement to monotheism and so it makes sense that books for the Bible showing Judah’s glorious Yahweh-worshipping monotheistic past were in order and so the Temple got on with drafting those. I tend to think the Conquest of Canaan was an allegory of the victory of Yahweh worship over all of the others. Yahweh was part of the Canaanite gods, so the others: El, Asherah, Ba’al, etc. had to go or get folded into Yahweh. Interestingly in Canaan Yahweh was a son of Asherah, but she got converted into Yahweh’s consort before being vanished, an Oedipus story if ever there was one.

    1. Your perspective overlaps somewhat with that of Finkelstein and Silberman (The Bible Unearthed). Others dispute the notion that Josiah undertook any territorial expansion at all.

  3. By the way, unlike David, and Solomon, Rehoboam, Josiah likely was an historical person that was attested to records held in Mesopotamia (not Egypt) during the Hellenistic Era.

  4. Keep in mind the book of Jeremiah: I think many a keen student of the Bible has been somewhat puzzled that Jeremiah indicates the time of Josiah to be a time of unmitigated faithlessness against Yahweh. One may even detect an oversight by the redactor/s of the “good king Josiah” narrative where 2 Kings 23:32, 37 revert to lumping Josiah among the “bad kings”.

    See Gmirkin: https://www.academia.edu/82084563/The_Manasseh_and_Josiah_Redactions_of_2_Kings_21_25

    1. If the only reason to suppose that Josiah’s reforms occurred because they are mentioned in 2 Kings and Chronicles, then I think Jeremiah and Zephaniah fairly much negate this as ‘evidence’. Why would this ‘history’ be passed down to some writers and not others?

      Gmirkin does a good job of applying Occam’s razor here and I think his reconstruction is probably right, but it does not allow much probability for a historical document being part of the process. Even if a more convoluted model is applied, I don’t see how it would make historicity more plausible. We have to recreate the story of finding a lost history book to the reconstruction here! what an irony.

      It seems strange that anyone would build theories on this event given the bible’s inconsistencies here.

      I was not aware of these inconsistencies until I read the above – so I am surprised how so much scholarship could have been built upon this soft sand.

      1. Yes, and as Russell G points out, the past tendency has been to try to construct a historical solution to a literary problem, rather than seeking a literary solution to a literary problem.

      2. By way of explanation for the search for a historical solution to a problem in the Bible, Wajdenbaum writes:

        As an anthropologist, I will question how such legends and theories about the Bible have come to survive. The answer seems simple: they help maintain the Bible’s sacred character. Most scholars still view the Bible from â theological perspective. We could even say that as long as modern society, which claims to be secular, has not recognised the Hellenic character of the Bible, that secularisation is not complete. Behind a so-called liberty, the biblical monument remains untouchable. Anything said about it must contribute to its mystique. ‘To uncover its nakedness’ would be the most terrible assault on Judeo-Christian decency.

        from p 29 of Argonauts of the Desert And the Bible is par excellence a religion-book of historical consciousness.

  5. So in the original version of 2 Kings Josiah was just as sinful as all the other kings descended from Manasseh. This leaves Hezekiah as the last reformer king, and Manasseh as the most sinful king, whose misdeeds condemned Jerusalem and its temple. Was there any reason why these two were chosen by the authors for these roles (besides the obvious, that the most sinful king had to be the one following the reformer in order to have the reforms undone at the earliest opportunity)? Is there any evidence for any kind of reform by Hezekiah or for Manasseh’s alleged crimes?

    1. I can quote a possible explanation for the choice of Josiah from Philip R. Davies (referencing Joseph Blenkinsopp):

      Why Josiah? This brings us back to another question already raised: Was Josiah commemorated for having done anything to earn the reputation?

      The core element of the story of Josiah’s reform (2 Kgs 23) concerns his destruction of Bethel, and this act is echoed in 1 Kgs 12.25–13.34 (cf. 2 Kgs 10.29) as well as in Exodus 32 (see Blenkinsopp 1998, 2003). If Josiah were executed for some offence against the pharaoh, the destruction of Bethel, signalling Judaean control over an area adjacent to Jerusalem itself, might have constituted such an act. Over a century later, when Jerusalem was being reinstated as the major sanctuary of the Persian province of Judah, perhaps at the expense of Bethel (see Blenkinsopp 2003), such an act would easily have identified Josiah as a righteous figure, and provided the context for the retrospective introduction of Deuteronomy into the earlier history of Judah. Indeed, the ‘Deuteronomic reform’ of 2 Kings 22–23 should then be seen, not as a historical event, but as a disguise for a new Jerusalem-centred community to seek to impose its definition of ‘Israel’, its god and its religion, and specifically its written law, on an ‘idolatrous’ indigenous population. (p. 402)

      Davies, Philip R. “Josiah and the Law Book.” In The Hebrew Bible and History: Critical Readings, edited by Lester L. Grabbe, Annotated edition , 391–403. New York: T&T Clark, 2018.

      Blenkinsopp, J. 1998. ‘The Judean Priesthood during the Neo-Babylonian and Achaemenid Periods: A Hypothetical Reconstruction’, CBQ 60: 25-43.

      Blenkinsopp, J. 2003. ‘Bethel in the Neo-Babylonian Period’, in O. Lipschits and J. Blenkinsopp (eds.), Judah and the Judean in the Neo-Babylonian Period (Winona Lake, In: Eisenbrauns): 93-107.

      1. Thank you for explaining why Josiah, though I asked about Hezekiah and Manasseh. I guess Hezekiah was originally picked as the last ‘good’ king of Judah, and better than almost all those before him (as the one who removed the ‘High Places’) because the authors found a way to spin the outcome of the Sennacherib campaign as being in favor of Judah, or at least Jerusalem. So they could write a dramatic story where Jerusalem was almost saved by a righteous king, but then his son went and ruined everything by being worse than any previous king of Judah, and similar in sinfulness to Ahab of Israel, resulting in the full condemnation of Jerusalem and its temple. Then in version 2 they upped the drama by adding Josiah’s repentance – bit alas, it could only buy the city and the temple a temporary reprieve, due to Manasseh being so terrible.

        1. Adding to the previous comment: I found the publication, Reevaluating Bethel.

          From there:

          Bethel is mentioned in the list of towns of Benjamin (Josh 18:22), which dates to the late
          7 th century 130
          , and appears prominently in the description of King Josiah’s cult reform (2 Kgs
          23:15). Josiah reigned between 639 and 609 and his actions at Bethel could not have been
          carried out before the Assyrian retreat in the 620s B.C.E. 131 . The late 7 th century B.C.E. in Juda is already characterized by the Lachish II assemblage. One could argue that the decline of
          Bethel was the result of Josiah’s actions, but the archaeological evidence makes it difficult to
          accept this interpretation. It is more reasonable to assume that in Josiah’s time Bethel was
          already in decline. In other words, it seems that Josiah did not act in a prosperous city.

          1. Sorry I couldn’t answer your initial question — would take me too far afield in other readings and refreshers than I’d like for now — so I gave an alternative answer to a potentially related question simply because that’s from the area I’ve been studying lately. I thought it worth noting with general readers in mind, some of whom may find it of interest.

            As for Josiah and Bethel, I don’t think we have any way of knowing if a king by that name historically had anything to do with Bethel. The narrative comes to us without any indication that it relied on primary sources or traditions from the late seventh century. As it comes to us it is simply an “unprovenanced” story with likely theological agendas if we accept its appearance within a generation or two of our earliest independent evidence that the books of Kings existed. As the passage I quoted from Davies says, the demolition of the altar at Bethel was part of a general “Yahwistic-cult reform” program, a program that otherwise finds no clear support in the archaeological evidence. The narrative is arguably (and most simply) a historical fiction to justify third century contests between cult centres.

          2. Supporting your find is Lisbeth Fried’s The High Places (Bāmôt) and the Reforms of Hezekiah, p. 461:

            By 701 every cult site in Judah and southern Israel had been destroyed-except for one, the Temple in Jerusalem.

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