Why Josiah’s Reforms “Must Have Happened” – part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

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

Rainer Albertz is disputing the arguments of Philip R. Davies that the book of Deuteronomy could not have been written as early as the time of King Josiah.

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Argument 1:

According to Davies, since Deuteronomy uses the name “Israel” to refer to all of the people of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, it would not have made sense in the time of Josiah. The reason? In the time of Josiah “Israel” referred only to the northern kingdom, not to Josiah’s kingdom of Judah in the south. See the map. Furthermore, the northern kingdom of Israel had already been overcome by the Assyrians so it no longer existed in Josiah’s time. Deuteronomy’s Israel is a fully united people of all twelve tribes, Judah included — an anomaly in the seventh century BCE.

Albertz’s rebuttal is as follows:

1. — The name “Israel” in the books of Samuel and Kings can sometimes refer exclusively to the northern kingdom of Israel but it can also refer more generally to the kingdoms of Israel plus Judah — 2 Samuel 5:12; 6:20-21; 8:15; 19:22; I Kings 1:34; 4:1; 11:42.

2. — Isaiah 8:17 “clearly contradicts Davies’ hypothesis”:

[I]n Isa. 8.17 the prophet Isaiah could call the Southern and Northern Kingdom ‘both houses of Israel’. Here the term ‘Israel’ explicitly embraces the two states ( בתים ). This means that unless one wants to question Isaiah’s preaching during the Syro-Ephraimite crisis 734-732 BCE, the inclusive meaning of the name ‘Israel’ is already common during the eighth century. (31)

3. — The Book of Nehemiah,

which we can date with a high degree of probability in the second part of the fifth century, does not lay any emphasis on the term ‘Israel’. . . . Thus it seems to me extremely difficult to explain the inclusive usage of the term ‘Israel’ in Deuteronomy from a fifth century background.” (31f)

4. — The biblical record speaks of the two kingdoms, north and south, sharing “common moral and religious values.”

‘No such thing ought to be done in Israel’, said the Judaean princess Tamar to Amnon who wanted to rape her in Jerusalem. The God Yhwh is always named the ‘God of Israel’, never the God of Judah, even when he was venerated in Jerusalem. (32)

Argument 2:

Another reason Davies cannot accept Deuteronomy being a product of seventh century Judah is the book’s call to destroy the religious icons of the “nations” of the land, even to wipe out those peoples themselves. Such a call in seventh century Judah, a kingdom that consisted of a number of population groups and most likely different religious customs, would have been a call to civil war against a huge swathe of the king’s population. Much more likely, in Davies’ view, is that Deuteronomy was addressing an ideological conflict between immigrants and the indigenous population.

Albertz’s response:

Philip Davies thinks that the sharp distinction between Israel and the foreign nations presented by the Deuteronomy would make no sense in a reform under a king whose subjects include a plurality of cultures or population elements . . . . Interpreted as a contrast between the immigrants and the indigenous population it would fit much better in the conflict between the returnees and the ‘people of the land’ in the Persian period. It can be admitted that there are material parallels between the concepts of Deuteronomy and Ezra/Nehemiah. Nevertheless, there is the problem that the terminology in Deuteronomy and in Ezra/Nehemiah is completely different . . . .

Albertz notes the different terminology used by Deuternomy and Ezra/Nehemiah for “foreigners” and “people of the land” and “nations in the land”.  Ezra/Nehemiah, of course, is in Albertz’s view most probably from the Persian era when Judeans were returning in Persian times to their homeland from their Babylonian exile.

Thus it is not possible to bring Deuteronomy and Ezra-Nehemiah into a literary coherence. (33)

For Albertz, the differences in terminology and character of the two works — Deuteronomy and Ezra/Nehemiah — testify to the unlikelihood of them both coming from the same time in the relatively small population province of Persian Yehud. The works are too different for us to imagine them coming from the same place and time, especially given the small size of that place at that time.

Further, we must accept that when Ezra/Nehemiah speaks of a reading of the Law, it is referring to the reading of Deuteronomy (Neh 13:1-2; Deut 23:4). Hence Deuteronomy must have existed “a long time” prior to Ezra/Nehemiah (33).

Besides, Albertz continues, in the time of Josiah the multiple population groups within the kingdom of Judah would have merged more or less into a single cultural entity, so Josiah’s call for religious reform would have been aimed at the remnants of idolatry that had crept in when the Assyrians had dominated the area. The Assyrians had by Josiah’s time since left, leaving Judah a newly found independence, Albertz suggests.

Argument 3: 

Philip Davies followed S.A. Geller (2000: 273-319) who stated that Deuteronomic legislators support an individual concept of covenant that would constitute a close parallel to the book of Nehemiah. Geller thinks that a new examination of Deuteronomy would conclude ‘that the collectivity of the covenant community barely masks the fact that it is a radically new type of association of individuals’ (2000: 300). Geller and Davies have rightly pointed out that many laws of Deuteronomy stress the responsibility of the individual, like Deut. 13.7-12. (33)

That is, Deuteronomy and the “evidently” Persian era Nehemiah share the same concept of a covenant between the individual and God as distinct from the supposedly pre-Persian notion of a collective national covenant.

Albertz replies:

Yes, Deuteronomy does contain the idea of an individual responsibility but this does not negate the notion of collective responsibility. Thus, for instance,

the rule of Deut. 24.16 that a son should not be punished for the sins of his father and vice versa is only valid for human jurisdiction. If God’s jurisdiction is involved, then Deuteronomic legislators know a collective responsibility for appeasing God’s anger (e.g. Deut. 21.1-9). And the same is valid for the Deuteronomic concept of covenant: in all passages where it is unfolded in some detail (Deut. 26.16-19; 28.69-29.28) it is always a collective ‘you’ who enters into the covenant with YHWH. (33f)

Deuteronomy, Albertz reminds us, has often been thought to have been influenced by the Assyrian vassal treaties that hold a king and his subjects collectively bound in loyalty to the Assyrian king.

This collective shape of the Deuteronomic concept is a heritage of the Assyrian vassal-treaties, which gave the model. A closer comparison between the shapes of covenant in Deuteronomy and Ezra/Nehemiah reveals a decisive difference: what had been a collective covenant in accordance with the vassal-treaties in Deuteronomy became in Ezra 10 and Nehemiah 10 an individual commitment according to private contracts; no longer God but only the community made the agreement, and all leaders of the families of the different groups of society signed personally that they were going to commit themselves to specific moral and religious duties. Not by chance does a different terminology for such a self commitment ( אמנה instead of ברית ) occur in Neh. 10.1. These differences in the covenant concepts are so fundamental that it is unlikely that both could come from the same post-exilic period. In my view, the parallels between the Deuteronomic concept of covenant and the Assyrian vassal-treaties make a dating in the seventh or at latest in the sixth century more probable.25

Argument 4: 

Then there is the law in Deuteronomy that neuters the king of all his privileges and traditional powers.

Davies mainly pointed out that the radical limitations of monarchical power made in 17.16-20 were completely unrealistic: ‘There are no plausible explanations why a king should accept a reform that deprives him of the essential powers of monarchy, justice and warfare’ . . .  (34)


Admittedly, the law of kings sounds unrealistic to us; the question remains whether a later date would make its utopian concept more realistic. Moreover, there is no hint in the text that its author was looking forward to the restoration of an idealized kingship (cf. Nelson 2002: 223), in contrast to many exilic and postexilic prophetic texts. Every attempt to date Deut. 17.14-20 in the Persian period is confronted with the problem that this law still held on to the divine election of the king according to the Davidic theology (Ps. 89.4,20), whereas the Davidides disappeared from the political stage after the failure of Zerubbabel 519/518 BCE. (34)

29. Cf. Rüterswörden 1987: 102-105, who pointed out that the deprivation of the king’s power as seen in Deut. 17 has some similarities in the Greek history of polity.

30. The strange prohibition of bringing back the people to Egypt in order to multiply horses motivated by an oracle of YHWH (Deut. 17.16aβb), which seems to be inserted into its context, can easily have reference to the military alliance between Zedekiah and Psammetichus II in the years between 594 and 591 BCE. That alliance probably included the supply of Judaean mercenaries for Egypt, cf. Albertz 2002: 27. If this reference is accepted, we would have a terminus ad quem for the Deuteronomic law of kings.

Albertz appeals further:

What the Deuteronomic legislators intended with their radical law was nothing else than the creation of what was called later a ‘constitutional monarchy’. The measures may have been impractical to some degree and somewhat utopian like other archaic reform models of the ancient world,29 but the goal was very concrete and — as we can see in the later history of humankind — with other measures definitely realizable. But why should such a far reaching constitutional reform be conceptualized at a time when the legal limitation of monarchic power was completely irrelevant for Judah? In my view, the most probable period for dating the Deuteronomic law of kings are the reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah, when the alliances with Egypt became a new threat for Judah (17.16) and when the Shaphanide scribes, who are the best candidates for having written the Deuteronomic law, resisted the ruling kings (Jer. 26.24; 36.9-26).30 (35)

Argument 5:

Philip Davies suggested that the centralization of the cult was a problem of the early Persian period, when after the reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple its claim to be the only authorized temple of YHWH had to be carried through against the claim of other cult places like that in the former capital Mizpeh. (36)

Here is Davies’ argument. Yes, the prophetic books of Isaiah and Ezekiel do presuppose a centralized cult at Jerusalem, but

. . . the realities of life in Judah during the neo-Babylonian period [inform us that] the capital was at Mizpeh. We do not know whether Jerusalem had any kind of sanctuary at this time, but evidence does suggest that several sanctuaries in the vicinity of Mizpah functioned: Gibeon, Mizpah itself, and especially Bethel. How, and when, Jerusalem was reinstated as capital is not clear; the process of building the Persian period temple is itself unclear, and it is unthinkable that the change of capital from Mizpeh to Jerusalem was achieved without some resentment, nor the reinstatement of Jerusalem as the central sanctuary. Indeed, the replacement of Bethel by Jerusalem as the chief sanctuary of Judah in the mid-fifth century explains a great deal about the Josiah tradition, as I shall now suggest. (Davies, 75 in Grabbe, Good Kings and Bad Kings)

Albertz finds Davies’ argument entirely speculative. There is no evidence for the existence of rival temples in Gibeon, Mizpah or Bethel. No other biblical texts indicate that there were rival sanctuaries to YHWH worship in particular.

Thus, we cannot rule out that there were again rivalries between different YHWH sanctuaries in the post-exilic time, but we can say that cult centralization was no serious problem of that period. (36)


On the basis of the above rebuttals to Davies’ arguments for positing that the date of Deuteronomy better fits the Persian era than it does the time of King Josiah, Albertz writes:

Thus we can conclude: None of Davies’ arguments that Deuteronomy 12-26 should be better dated into the fifth century is convincing. There might be some doubts on a seventh century dating, but the Deuteronomic legislation fits rather less well the socio-political conditions and the literature of the Persian period. (36)

As for my own view, I find some of Albertz’s criticisms limited in their focus. His criticism in Argument 1 relies on dating Ezra/Nehemiah to the Persian period and on the assumption that those works reflect genuine history. See for an alternative view my series of five posts on fallacies of historical method and literary criticism that lie at the heart of common interpretations of Nehemiah.  Albertz also relies on a face value acceptance that the early chapters of Isaiah were written in the monarchic period.

His Arguments 2 and 3 responses hang entirely upon the assumption that works with quite different terminologies and depictions of local scenarios must be from different periods. But different literary schools from the one region are not so implausible if we stretch our view to the Hellenistic period, a time of increasing population and cultural and social developments.

Argument 4 is evidently one that Albertz himself admits to having some difficulty. He acknowledges that Deuteronomy’s law for the king is “unrealistic to us”. The footnote #29 reminds us of another discussion that does place Deuteronomy’s law in a Hellenistic setting:

Pentateuchal legislation did, however, envision a day when the children of Israel would ask for a king, and the Torah of the King (Deut. 17.14-20) speci­fied the qualifications required of that office. The description of the office of king contains many problematic elements inconsistent with the biblical monarchy in Samuel-Kings or indeed with kingship as practiced in the Ancient Near East. The king of the Ancient Near East was a ruler over subjects, with authority passed down within a dynastic royal line, and whose dominion was an expression of raw power. Ancient Near Eastern kings exercised supreme military, judicial, economic, executive and (as patrons of temples) cultic powers. Although these features of Ancient Near Eastern kingship generally cohere with the picture of kingship in Samuel-Kings, they do not correspond to implicit and explicit fea­tures of kingship in Deuteronomy. For instance, the Deuteronomic king appears to have been appointed by his fellow-citizens, that is, by the citizen assembly; the king’s rule was to be subject to written laws, from a copy prepared under priestly supervision; the king was assigned no military, judicial, cultic or executive responsibilities, and indeed the duties of his office are entirely unclear in the Torah of the King. Although the title is that of king, in actuality the envi­sioned office of kingship appears to resemble that of other Ancient Near Eastern kings in name only. Nor did the Deuteronomic kingship resemble the Judean mon­archy of biblical historiography. The commands against accumulating horses, wealth and wives – especially foreign wives – were a conscious contrast to king Solomon’s reign. The famous speech of Samuel against the kingship at 1 Sam. 8.11-18 also implicitly contrasted the Deuteronomic ideal with the actual mon­archy of Judah, which Samuel pictured as quickly descending into a tyranny in which the creation of a standing professional army (8.11-12) and the indulgences of oligarchic luxury of a ruling class (8.13-17) were predicted to result in oppres­sive taxation and the creation of a poverty-stricken underclass (8.15-18). It is thus difficult to understand the office of king in Deut. 17 as describing any biblical Judean or Israelite king or even as broadly compatible with the institution of kingship as known in the Ancient Near East.

Rather, the office of king as described in the Torah of the King appears to have been conceived along democratic Greek lines. Kingship, when it existed among the Greeks, was often an elected position. Dynastic royal lines were mainly a feature of the legendary past (Aristotle, Politics 3.1285a), with a few exceptions in the historical period, such as at Sparta and Cyrene. The evidence that Athens was ever ruled by a true king is inconclusive. In those city-states that possessed an office of king, the idea of kingship varied from polis to polis. At Sparta there were two kings from different royal houses who presided over the gerousia, and whose equal power provided a check against each other.  By Spartan law, their kings functioned as generals and religious leaders only (Aristotle, Politics 3.1285b). At Cyrene, a reform of the kingship deprived the royal line of Battus of most powers, including military command, leaving them with only the priesthood (Herodotus, Histories 4.161; cf. Hagedom 2004: 152; Berman 2008: 190 n. 23). At Mytilene and at Chios there was a panel of kings. At Athens there was a sin­gle elected king, the Archon Basileus (described earlier) whose duties, other than supervision of homicide cases, belonged mainly in the ceremonial and religious realm. The Athenian offices of king and military commander (Polemarch) were distinct since at least the Archaic Era (seventh century BCE) . According to Aris­totle, the most stable monarchic governments were those in which the functions of the king were most limited. The absence of military duties for the office of king in Deut. 17 is highly reminiscent of elected kingship as practiced in Athens (Hagedorn 2004: 152; Berman 2008: 190 n. 23).

A striking feature of kingship as described in the Torah of the King was its sub­ordination to written law. The book of the law was entrusted to the levitical priests (Deut. 17.18). The king was directed to make a copy of this law under priestly supervision (Deut. 17.18), to refer to it constantly and obey its every precept, in order that his tenure as king be long and happy (Deut. 17.19-20). The requirement that the duties of the king should be performed in strict conformity to written law is a characteristically Greek notion. The creation of a copy of the law for royal reference is strikingly reminiscent of the publication of Athenian laws at the Royal Stoa. The subordination of royal rule to either written law or priestly super­vision, as in the Torah of the King, ran contrary to Ancient Near Eastern notions of kingship, but had at least three parallels in early Hellenistic literature. In the Aegyptiaca by Hecataeus of Abdera, it was claimed that the ancient pharaohs of Egypt were directed in their royal activities by priests who ensured their obedi­ence to the strictures of Egyptian law (Diodorus Siculus, Library 1.70-71). In the same text, it was claimed that Darius the Persian not only made a copy of all the ancient laws of Egypt, but studied Egyptian laws with the priests (Diodorus Siculus, Library 1.95.4-5). Finally, in the foundation story of the Jews also writ­ten by Hecataeus of Abdera, it was claimed that Moses selected the most capable men of the nation, appointed them as priests and judges, “and entrusted to them the guardianship of the laws and customs” (Diodorus Siculus, Library 40.3.4-5). None of these three Hecataean traditions can be credited as ancient or factual, but instead reflected Greek political notions foreign to both Egyptians and Jews of pre-Hellenistic times. In all three, the priests functioned as nomophylakes or Guardians of the Laws, and in the first two they additionally acted as supervisors and legal advisors to the kings of Egypt. The office of nomophylakes was found in many Greek city-states, including Athens (Aristotle, Athenian Constitution 4.4; 8.4; cf. Stanton 1990: 30-3, 68-73). Their primary responsibility was to ensure the magistrates obeyed the written laws of the polis. Secondarily, the nomophylakes supervised public behavior, ensuring that those violating public decorum were reported to the proper authorities for prosecution. In the Torah of the King, the requirement that the king, as an elected magistrate, should become knowl­edgeable in the written laws and perform his office in strict accordance with those laws (Deut. 17.18-20) was unequivocally a reflection of Greek political notions. The explicit role of the levitical priests as guardians and public advocates of the written laws that were to be obeyed by the magistrates and people alike, and implicit responsibility for educating the king in his duties of office via these writ­ings and enforcing the written statutes upon the king, casts the levitical priests in the distinctively Greek office of nomophylakes, the same office given the priestly successors to Moses in the Jewish foundation story by Hecataeus. (Gmirkin, 34ff)

Continuing in part 3


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

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by Neil Godfrey

Ranier Albertz

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new era was ushered in with Josiah:

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

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

Reforms followed:

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

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

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

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

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

And the evidence for all of this revolutionary development?

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

Albertz rightly responds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Messiah Mode – understanding Israel today

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by Neil Godfrey

There was a time when I felt reasonably confident that the views of the Zionist extremist Meir Kahane would never become dominant in Israel. Surely, they would always be confined to the margins. 

Then Netanyahu formed government with the religious extremists. How on earth did it turn out this way?

I failed to understand that Kahane was as much against the idea of Diaspora Jews as he was against anything else, and how propaganda and activism towards this end would play out.

David Sheen explains it well. His presentation in 2019 effectively predicted the events unfolding in Gaza and the West Bank today, including scenes captured in videos that I had naively believed the West had buried in 1945.

Sheen begins with the views that have been preached by government appointed rabbis to Israel’s military. Those views even openly align with the racist and genocidal proclamations of Hitler — with the only difference being that Hitler was mistaken in identifying the master race with the Aryans.

The video explains “the four types” of Jews as they are aligned with the Jewish sacred books, the Torah and Talmud.


Torah laws need reform to align it with modern values.

God gave Jews the land of Palestine,
therefore they have an obligation to take it.
Traditionally held that God would give Jews the land
and make the gentiles willing slaves of the Jews;
not for Jews to act but to wait for God to do it.



The video explains how the middle two, the nationalist and the religious (supremacist) have joined forces under Netanyahu.


Before “Biblical Israel” there was Yahweh

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by Neil Godfrey

Barkay, Gabriel, Marilyn J. Lundberg, Andrew G. Vaughn, Bruce Zuckerman, and Kenneth Zuckerman. “The Challenges of Ketef Hinnom.” Near Eastern Archaeology 66, no. 4 (December 2003): 162–71.
Image is deceiving. The scroll on the left measures 27 X 97 mm while that on the right is less than half that size, only 11 X 39.2 mm.

The headline looks decisive. But proceed with caution. I have not yet read in any scholarly publication that the silver scrolls, originally dated by their discoverer, Gabriel Barkay, circa 650 BCE, are evidence that any part of the Bible was known so early. What the inscriptions indicate is that a couple of passages in our Bibles drew on a source that went back so far. [See below for more information on the dates of the plaques.]

Nonetheless, a critic of the Hellenistic origin of the Hebrew Bible (a theme I have been dwelling on in recent posts) frequently threw up the challenge on another forum with this kind of rebuttal:

The late, great Ada Yardeni wrote … that the silver plaques do not prove the existence then of the Pentateuch. (Nor disprove of course.) Oddly, she wrote that “Only a discovery of biblical scrolls or even a fragment of a biblical scroll could serve as such a proof.” So writing on parchment or papyrus would count, but not writing on silver?

I did not think it worth investing much time to engage with that kind of protest. In short, I could have said:

  1. We have material evidence (the Dead Sea Scrolls) that books of the Bible existed in the third century.
  2. We have material evidence (the silver ‘plaques’) that a passage in the Bible was also known in the seventh century.
  3. The simplest explanation is that the third century source knew of a saying that existed as early as the seventh century.
  4. We might even think it perverse to claim that the earlier source was proof that some form of a later source must have existed before the earlier one!

No bigger than a cigarette filter tip

But let’s look at those “silver plaques”. They are interesting in their own right and for what they indicate about the background to the religion of the Bible. They were discovered in 1979 in Jerusalem. The image above shows them unrolled. That’s not how they were found, though:

At first viewing, they appeared to be tiny, some­what corroded metallic cylinders, no bigger than the filter tip of a cigarette. On closer examination, it was realized that they were, in fact, tightly wound up “mini­ scrolls,” that, as later testing revealed, were made from almost pure silver. (Barkay 2003, 163)

There has been widespread agreement among commentators that the priestly blessing in Numbers 6:24-26 is a quotation from a much older source that has been inserted into the biblical narrative. ...[T]here neither has been nor can be much doubt felt that it was not composed by [the biblical author] and that it is, consequently, of earlier origin than the date of its incorporation [into Numbers].” (Gray, p. 71) — “It may well belong to the traditions handed down from the earlier period and its simplicity of expression would even argue for great antiquity.” (Noth, p. 58)

Magic in the words

What makes them of special interest to historians is that they contain the same words we read in Numbers 6:24-26

24 Yahweh bless thee and keep thee;
25 Yahweh make His face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee;
26 Yahweh lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

Before we look at how those words appear in the silver artefacts it is worth taking a closer look at the magic they contain even in the Hebrew Bible:

Among the verses from the Bible cited on some of those amulets and incantations the priestly blessing is represented many times. The priestly blessing is appropriate for use in magical contexts because of its inner structure. It is built up of three verses in a pyramid-like structure, the number of words increasing from 3 in the first verse to 5 in the second and to 7 in the third. The name YHWH is repeated three times. The number of the letters is 60 — all these numbers have a magical connotation. (Yardeni, 185)

Pre-biblical Yahwists

The first scroll (according to the 2004 Barkay reading, simplified) is inscribed with these words:

the Eternal … blessing more than any snare and more than Evil. For redemption is in him.
For YHWH is our restorer and rock. May YHWH bless you and may he keep you.
May YHWH make his face shine…. 

The second scroll consists of these words:

May [the name of the person wearing the scroll] be blessed by Yahweh, the warrior [or helper] and the rebuker of Evil:
May Yahweh bless you, keep you.
May Yahweh make his face shine upon you and grant you peace.

The principal difference between the biblical blessing and those in the silver scrolls is that the former is a collective blessing for the nation while the latter is a blessing for the individual.

Jar from Kuntillet ʻAjrud inscribed with a blessing later adapted in Deuteronomy

Those silver scrolls were found in Jerusalem. There is another site on the Sinai border that was established about 100 years earlier with artwork and inscriptions expressing devotion to YHWH and his wife:

I have blessed you by YHWH of Teman and His asherah. May He bless you and may He keep you . . . 

So calling on Yahweh to bless and keep his worshipers extends back long before there is any hint of the Biblical religion.

There’s more. The first scroll additionally has a passage echoed by Deuteronomy 7:9

Deuteronomy 7:9 First scroll
Know that Yahweh your God is God, the faithful God who keeps His gracious covenant loyalty for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commands. … who loves the covenant and mercy for those who love him and keep his commandments

Protection against evil

What were those silver inscriptions? They were rolled up and most likely worn around a person’s neck. Throughout Phoenicia and North Africa archaeologists have unearthed amulet cases — some of wood, others of silver and gold — that held small inscribed scrolls that served to protect the wearer from evil.

Barkay, Gabriel. “The Priestly Benediction on Silver Plaques from Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem.” Tel Aviv 19, no. 2 (September 1992): illustrations on pp 23-24.

The Ketef Hinnom inscriptions are therefore the earliest known artifacts from the ancient world that document passages from the Hebrew Bible. (Barkay 2003, 163)

Time to rethink

We think of Yahweh being merciful and keeping covenant with his people and blessing those who keep his commands as uniquely biblical. The covenant and commandments surely took on a different meaning with the later biblical narrative.

The finds described above give us quite a different perspective of the roots of the religion of YHWH.


Dating questions

The majority of scholars date the plaques to a time before the Babylonian exile but Nadav Na’aman disagrees. I quote his discussion because, despite being a minority voice, he offers a helpful overview of the question. (I have some difficulties with details of Na’aman’s perspective on this matter and tend to agree with the majority opinion, though that’s a separate discussion. There are no doubt more recent views that I have yet to read.)

On the basis of the palaeographic evidence, Barkay (1992: 169–174) originally dated the plaques to the second half of the seventh century BCE, whereas Yardeni (1991: 180) dated them to the early sixth century BCE. Most scholars who dealt with the plaques accepted either the mid-seventh-century or the late seventh–early sixth-century date (see literature in Berlejung 2008a: 211, nn. 41–42). Cross (2003: 23*, n. 23) dated the plaques to the late sixth century BCE, and Renz (1995a: 449–452) dated them to the Hellenistic period. The team dated the plaques to the seventh–sixth century BCE (Barkay et al. 2004: 52b). They examined Renz’s arguments in great detail and made it clear that only eight late Hellenistic vessels were unearthed in the repository, all located in its uppermost layer (Barkay et al. 2004: 43b). The team further demonstrated that no letter forms in these inscriptions point to a Hellenistic date (Barkay et al. 2004: 44–52), thus concluding that dating the plaques to this late period is highly unlikely. 

. . . 

7 For an earlier discussion, see Barkay 1992:174–176; Keel and Uehlinger 1998:366.

In two recent articles, Berlejung (2008a: 211–212; 2008b: 45–47) suggested an early Persian date for the plaques, emphasising that amulets and stamps made of silver and gold are rare in Iron Age Palestine and that small objects of this kind appear only in the Persian period.7 Moreover, text amulets written on rolled papyrus, silver, or gold lamellae appear in large numbers in the Phoenician–Punic world in the sixth–fifth centuries BCE (Lemaire 2003 [link is to PDF]: 2007; Berlejung 2008b: 53–56, with earlier literature; 2010: 5–11; Smoak 2010: 427–429). The Persian period date of the manufacture of silver plaques strongly supports the date established by the orthographic analysis.

In sum, the archaeological and palaeographic data do not supply a firm date for the plaques; thus, the decision should be made on the basis of other considerations, in particular the orthographic data. In my opinion, the pre-exilic date for the plaques, originally suggested by Barkay and Yardeni and supported by the majority of scholars, cannot be maintained. Dating the plaques to the late sixth or early fifth century BCE is preferable, and is in keeping with all the available data. This dating corresponds with the conclusions I present in the final part of this article, which are drawn on entirely different grounds . . . .

Barkay, Gabriel. “The Priestly Benediction on Silver Plaques from Ketef Hinnom in Jerusalem.” Tel Aviv 19, no. 2 (September 1992): 139–92. https://doi.org/10.1179/tav.1992.1992.2.139.

Barkay, Gabriel, Marilyn J. Lundberg, Andrew G. Vaughn, and Bruce Zuckerman. “The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom: A New Edition and Evaluation.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 334 (May 2004): 41–71.

Barkay, Gabriel, Marilyn J. Lundberg, Andrew G. Vaughn, Bruce Zuckerman, and Kenneth Zuckerman. “The Challenges of Ketef Hinnom.” Near Eastern Archaeology 66, no. 4 (December 2003): 162–71.

Chicago Tribune. “Newly Deciphered Silver Scrolls Take Bible Back 4 More Centuries” July 5, 1986. https://archive.md/fgrx4.

Gray, George Buchanan. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Numbers. New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1903.

Meshel, Zeev, Shmuel Aḥituv, and Liora Freud. Kuntillet ʻAjrud (Ḥorvat Teman): An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah-Sinai Border. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2012.

Noth, Martin. Numbers: A Commentary. Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1968.

Waaler, Erik. “A Revised Date for Pentateuchal Texts? Evidence from Ketef Hinnom.” Tyndale Bulletin 53, no. 1 (May 1, 2002).

Yardeni, Ada. “Remarks On the Priestly Blessing On Two Ancient Amulets From Jerusalem.” Vetus Testamentum 41, no. 2 (1991): 176–85.


Responding to a Critic of the Hellenistic Era Hypothesis for the Hebrew Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

On the “Academic Discussion” section of the earlywritings forum where I first typed my recent posts I was pleased to hear from a regular critic of mine there, Andrew Criddle. You can find his complete response to my arguments here. For now I will only repost the responses I made to specific points:

Andrew noted, I replied:

My question: Do we have any evidence at all, even ambiguous evidence, for a pre-Hellenistic existence of the Pentateuch? I am, of course, referring to independent material evidence (not the Pentateuch itself). More to the point, what circumstances — political/structural, economic and cultural — do we find in any era prior to the Hellenistic one that would explain the narrative content and genres of the literature we see in the OT? (I am aware of Silberman and Finkelstein’s view about Josiah’s time — they describe a great literary flourishing but fail to explain its antecedents or origins, iirc. — though I’m open to further discussion.)

Andrew wrote:
I should have been more direct in my original reply. I should have asked, “WHY should we take seriously the idea that the Pentateuch was … redacted in the Persian or later period but effectively created then”? If we have no evidence in the Elephantine papyri for the Pentateuch, why treat that papyri as evidence for an otherwise unknown setting for anything about the Pentateuch?

Here is the next part of our exchange:
My reply:

Yes, understood entirely. That has long been the one major sticking point. It was even addressed back in the early 1900s by a few brave souls [e.g. Friedländer] who even then were suggesting a Hellenistic provenance for major sections of the biblical literature (not just Ecclesiastes or Daniel).

We have become so habituated to conceptualizing the OT as having “all the signs of a long process of development and a combination of different sources”. The Hellenistic hypothesis does not dispute the “combination of different sources” but, as you know, proposes a different explanation for the data that has long been assumed to have had a gradual accretion over centuries.

In another thread I attempted to address, as one example, lengthy arguments relating to the evolution of the story of Noah’s flood. As I saw it, our differences came down to our inability to move beyond the idea that differences implied long time of adaptation. My impression was that my interlocutor could not imagine any explanation other then long-term development. The notion of a collaborative effort of different schools appeared to be incomprehensible (that was my interpretation — he may differ.) In a recent conference I was interested to hear one specialist repeat his observation that there was a time when Samaritans and Judeans did [look to] a common text cooperatively, [a common text that enabled them to maintain] their differences within the one narrative.

Even the nature of Old Hebrew has been called into question. Yes, there was an Old Hebrew, but we also know that Hebrews were not the only ancient peoples who chose to write in archaic styles for certain literature to give an aura of antiquity. That’s not a conspiracy theory — it’s how ancient peoples sometimes worked (scholars notice major periods of widespread love of antiquity in antiquity!). Old languages have been preserved for various types of texts even into relatively modern times, e.g. Latin.

[I could have pointed out that there were dialects of Hebrew in Canaan, and that authors drew on both diverse dialects and anachronistic Hebrew to shape their epic narratives, so we need to keep that in mind before jumping to the idea that differences mean evolution over a long period of time. I hope soon to post about some of the published information on the crafting of certain narratives from anachronistic language and multiple dialects.]

One other point I have not addressed in any serious way so far is thinking through historical changes. The conquests of Alexander the Great dramatically changed the peoples he conquered -economically, socially, politically, culturally, in the world of literature and ideas and ideologies.

We have seen even in “modern” times how histories and traditions are invented wholesale when major changes take place to the status of a people. And these false histories are embraced and win out despite the contemporary critics who try to alert their peers and others to the fact that they are forgeries. Where manuscripts are controlled under archival authorities it is hard for those naysayers to win the day. If recent history did not look promising for providing material that could be glorified to magnify one’s identity or authorize a new power elite, then distant past events and characters are invented, and enthusiastically embraced. I’m thinking in particular of references in Hobsbawm’s Invention of Tradition. In that light, here is an interesting remark found in an introduction to Geoffrey of Monmoth’s History of King Arthur and co:

In some ways the History of the Kings of Britain, this strange, uneven and yet extraordinarily influential book written in Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth and finished c.1136, may be said to bear the same relationship to the story of the early British inhabitants of our own island as do the seventeen historical books in the Old Testament, from Genesis to Esther, to the early history of the Israelites in Palestine.

Preface to: Geoffrey, of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966. p. 9

We should not be surprised to see some unprecedented flourishing of a new historical consciousness among certain priests or elites in particular in Egypt, Syria (as we do), nor elsewhere.

The creation story in Genesis, even the prose history of Genesis to Judges, is an anomaly when set against other “Near Eastern” literature of 1000-500 BCE. The circumstances that arose in the wake of the 330 BCE conquests do open up plausible explanations that place the Pentateuch and following books in a more explicable matrix.

One can understand being overwhelmed with incredulity at the suggestion of such a late provenance of the OT, but if we consider the extant evidence (and absence of it), even if we don’t like the idea, can we not say that “logically” it is plausible, even a “technically reasonable” hypothesis on the basis of the material evidence alone — but not if we give more weight to traditions of scholarship that have given us an entirely different concept of the Bible?



I suggest that the strongest argument against the view that the OT literature was composed over a long period of time is that this view hinges upon some core historicity to the larger historical narrative within the OT itself. If there had been no migration of “Hebrews” into Canaan, if there is no united kingdom of Israel, if we only catch glimpses of Jerusalem emerging as a significant power after around 700 BCE when the Kingdom of Israel has been taken out of the picture by the Assyrians, and no independent verification exists for a distinctive biblical-theological-historical motive before the Hellenistic period, then how can we justify the development of a demonstrably unique literary tradition across those centuries?



What Hellenistic Hebrew Bible origins explains more simply than the traditional view

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by Neil Godfrey

Alexander with the horns combining the Greek Zeus with the Egyptian Ammon (World History Encyclopedia)

The Old Testament has traditionally been thought to have evolved in fits and starts over centuries, usually said to be from around the tenth to the third century, under the influence of Canaanite, Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures.

One problem with that conventional view is that there is no material evidence for it. Prior to the third century we have no record of any of the biblical texts nor even for most of the major events that the Bible talks about. [The only exception is the biblical account of the later historical period involving the defeats of the northern and southern kingdoms at the hands of Assyria and Babylon.]

The advantage of the Hellenistic era hypothesis for the “OT” is that it explains

  • all of the cultural influences we find in the Bible — the Canaanite/Ugaritic, Egyptian, Mesopotamian…

and also explains

  • why we would not expect to find any earlier evidence for either the biblical texts themselves or for the major events they write about.

[The traditional hypothesis explains the lack of evidence for any biblical writings before 300 BCE by assuming the stories were passed on orally or in disparate texts that did not survive. In other words, the traditional hypothesis must speculate on why it does not have the evidence for its model of how the texts came to us. That’s fine, but if there is a simpler explanation that does not require trying to explain a lack of supporting evidence, then we might prefer that one.]

In this context, notice this observation from a conference paper by Jonathan Ben-Dov (not that I suspect Ben-Dov himself has anything to do with the Hellenistic era hypothesis):

As argued above, the metaphor of influence dictates that the source culture remains unaffected by the act of the contact. Like a candle, which can light other candles without diminishing its own flame, so the great source culture is not changed by the nation which received its cultural capital. . . .

This image, however, is not necessarily true. I would like to suggest an example from the field of Hellenism, which is close in its geographical scope and not too far away in time. People often talk of ʻHellenistic Influenceʼ on Judea, Syria or Egypt. However, the very essence of Hellenism is its being an amalgam of Greek culture with the rich and ancient cultures of the East. The Hellenistic kingdoms in Syria and Egypt were by no means Greek; they combined Greek cultural elements with the ancient traditions of the hosting countries. Hellenism was a cultural entity in constant progression.

Ben-Dov, Jonathan. “The Inadequacy of the Term ʻInfluenceʼ in Biblical Studies.” Tel -Aviv University,. Accessed February 21, 2024. 

Serapis — a new god created in the Hellenistic era from Greek and Egyptian characteristics: neither Greek nor Egyptian but Hellenistic.

That is also the essence of what the Hellenistic era hypothesis for the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) in particular is all about. [It explains why our biblical literature is not exclusively and distinctively Syrian-Mesopotamian nor exclusively and distinctively Greek. It is a blend of both. That’s Hellenism.]

[The Old Testament is often said to be unique in various ways (ideologically and as literature) in pre-Hellenistic “Near Eastern” culture. But it is not so unique or  entirely revolutionary if we think of it in a Hellenistic context. In this setting a ready explanation for its “uniqueness”, its distinctive features, come to the fore. It is a blend of Judean/Samarian and Greek.]

The Pentateuch and Primary History are as unique as Hellenistic era Egypt and Hellenistic era Syria. None is “Greek”. Nor are any of them traditional “Egyptian” or traditional “Syrian”. They are each distinctive culturesk that have been created by the Egyptians and Syrians themselves. Ditto for the Judeans and Samaritans, I suggest. The Pentateuch is not Greek, but nor is it a product of the pre-Hellenistic Syrian Yahwist cult. Rather, what we find in the Pentateuch are many echoes of Greek literature and ideologies and many references to the Yahtwist ideas found throughout Syria-Canaan area.

The main body of the above post was originally posted on another forum (21st Feb). Passages in square brackets are additions I have made to that original post.

All posts in this series are archived at Dating Biblical Texts



Why (to me) the Old Testament “Feels” Hellenistic

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by Neil Godfrey

In this post I will explain “my personal reason” for strongly suspecting a Hellenistic origin of the biblical literature — though I am sure I have come across the same ideas throughout different books and articles over the years. It follows on from #5 in the preceding post. When I wrote that I was expecting to follow up with detailed discussions from interpretations of the archaeological finds but have decided now to put that off for later.

The reason I feel a particular “vibe” with the Hellenistic era origin of the first Bible texts is “the nature of the biblical literature itself.” (These thoughts follow on from my point 5 in the preceding post. — They were also written before The Problem with an Early Date for the Hebrew Bible which is a more developed argument, or approaches it from a slightly different slant. Passages in square brackets are revisions to my original post on another forum.)


My “personal vibe” that is in sync with the Hellenistic era is reflection on “the nature of the biblical literature itself”. The Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) is not the kind of literature that arises sui generis from a vacuum. One expects to see antecedents over time that lead to that kind of work. And the closest antecedents we find are in the Greek literature, not in that of the Syria-Mesopotamian regions. Assyrian vassal treaties, the epics of Gilgamesh, of Baal, and so forth, simply fall short by comparison.

But what kind of society produces that kind of literature? It takes more than a scribal elite responsible for administrative and trade records, or even engaged in cultic verses and prayers and spells for cures, etc. The kind of literature in our Bibles required reasonably prosperous and complex societies with a literate class that engaged with the kinds of stories and ideas that had relevance to their class, ethnic and regional identities. They had to have a reasonably widespread audience to engage with those ideas and stories and whose interest or vulnerabilities or needs encouraged their literary development. The social groups must have been somewhat extensive and complex because of the various competing and related ideas found in that literature.

In other words we are talking about fairly advanced societies in economic growth and social complexity, and who also have comparable antecedent literature.

The archaeological record does point to some kind of growth of Jerusalem and surrounds in the eighth and seventh centuries after the fall of Samaria to the Assyrian army, but [Finkelstein and Silberman are unable to point to any archaeological evidence pointing to political-social-economic revival in Josiah’s time]. Besides, what kinds of antecedents were available at or up to that time to mushroom into what we find in the Bible?

This was the slide archaeologist I. Finkelstein presented to illustrate what has been found of Judea/Jehud in the Persian period (From a 2022 conference)

The Persian era in Judea is by all accounts that I have seen one of relative decline. Persian “liberal” rule that allowed Judeans and Samarians to “do their own thing” is more easily understood as administrative neglect, not caring at all about their development — only collecting levees for the army and taxes for the king. (Witness the Xenophon’s ability to march his Greek army untouched through the empire!)

The economic revival, with its related social growth in complexity and size, came with the arrival of the Greeks. So did the antecedent literature.

Herodotus’s Histories has a remarkably similar structure to the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings): opening with world history, having a close look at Egypt as a follow up, and finally getting down to the narrow view of the conflict between two powers — AND all told within the framework of a theological interest: the lesson of the deciding hand of the god through his earthly sanctuary. And all told in a series of books in prose, both frequently with competing accounts of the same event.

Mandell, Sara, and David Noel Freedman. The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History. Atlanta, Ga: University of South Florida, 1993. (Primary History = Genesis to 2 Kings. Note that Mandell and Freedman were not suggesting the Primary History originated in Hellenistic times — though at the moment I do!)

There are some very specific correlations that we simply could not charge to a commonality of thought. For example,

  • both Herodotus’ History and Primary History are national epics;
  • both had been divided into nine books at some time in their history;
  • and both are about the same length.
  • Both works begin with a prehistory that includes myths, fables, folk-tales, and legends that are treated as factual, and they continue in this vein well into historical time.
  • And significantly the basic format of both works changes concomitantly and rather abruptly under similar circumstances: in Primary History, it does so at the point where the Sons of Israel are about to enter the Land, and in Herodotus’ History, at the point where the Persians are about to fight on the Greek mainland.
  • Once the “homeland” becomes the locus of action, the narrative takes on at least the semblance of an historical narrative, albeit one that includes miracles, marvels, and divinities who act in or at least guide history.
  • Notably, then, in both Herodotus’ History and Primary History; historic causation is intimately tied to the will of the divinity.

We think that these parallels may have been noted in antiquity although there is no extant work in which they are described. We believe that the (Alexandrian) Hellenistic Grammarians named and “numbered” Herodotus’ History the way they did because they were aware of the presence of some form of relationship between it and Primary History. (p. x – list formatting is mine)

This diagram is derived from another study comparing the two works, one by Wesselius:

[this box section was not part of the original post]

I am not denying the obvious differences when saying that. What I’m trying to do is to draw attention to the “equally obvious” similarities. Did those similarities really emerge independently? Did the Hebrew literature really inspire that of the Greeks? Were the Judeans and Samarians in the poverty-stricken, underdeveloped Persian era really hosting a literate class devouring Greek literature? . . . .

And then we have the ideological content of the literature. How do we explain the sudden introduction of stories of Exodus, Joshua’s Conquest, Judges, David and Solomon’s united kingdom and empire, if those — as the archaeological record tells us — never happened? [Finkelstein and Silberman explain the purpose for composing Deuteronomy and the Primary History of Israel was for King Josiah to unite his people and propagandize them into supporting his hopes for expansion to the north where the northern kingdom of Israel had been crushed by the Assyrians. But it is difficult to see how such a program explains so much of the content of those books, especially the ethical codes for social welfare relating to slaves, women and the poor.]

At this point it is worth looking at the propaganda use the biblical works were put to in the Hasmonean period. Were not the Hasmoneans seeking to justify their conquests by appeals to a historical heritage? In a time of Greek conquest do we not expect indigenous populations to seek redress by counter-narratives that place themselves in positions that challenge or make themselves equal to the great powers? These are more than rhetorical questions.

As for the divisions found even within the literature — [Jerusalem is not always depicted as the obvious choice for God’s temple; sometimes we find indications that a Samaritan/Mount Gerizim point of view dominates] — have not scholars long since identified these differences underlying the multiple points of view (and sometimes outright conflict) within the biblical literature?

[After reading Argonauts of the Desert by Philippe Wajdenbaum] I was prompted to read Plato’s Laws (as well as, again, Timaeus and Crito) and was completely thrown back in my chair when I saw (and wondered how I had not seen it before) the striking similarities between Plato and the Pentateuch’s law-giving narrative. Of course all those sacrifices and cultic rituals are of Levantine/Syrian/Canaanite origin, but the Pentateuch is a lot more than cultic regulations forbidding to seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.

The creation, the merging of humans and gods, the flood and annihilation, the wandering of the new generation, the coming together ….. and so forth. And then the laws about holiness, godliness, sacred feasts, marriage and sexuality, the judges and tribes, etc etc etc etc : Did Plato really twig to all of that from his reading of the Pentateuch? (One scholar has addressed the relationship of a scene in Plato’s Symposium with the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and others have suggested that the Hebrew work had an influence on the form of Herodotus’s Histories.)

And further yet — there are strong similarities between the biblical Yahweh and the Greek Dionysus [see, for example, Amzallag]. I have read the comparisons a number of times. Surely pre-Hellenistic Yahwism was distinctively Levantine, with no appreciable differences between the Yahwism of Samaria, Judea, Negev, Canaan, Syria…. So what gave him the Greek overlay in the Bible? [A caveat I should have added here: the Greeks did understand Dionysus to be a foreign god from the east.]

These are my generally subjective responses to how I read the literature of the OT with my knowledge of Greek literature in mind. I have not presented a systematic argument. But for what it’s worth, I thought it might be of some point to note how I have come to read the literatures of the Hebrews and Greeks and the conclusions that seem to present themselves prima facie to me as a result.

All posts in this series are archived at Dating Biblical Texts


Hellenistic Era Bible Hypothesis continued

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by Neil Godfrey

I was glad to move on from the discussion of circularity underlying the conventional dating of the biblical texts when I posted the following to point out other relevant questions. I have only slightly edited and added here to what I posted to the earlywritings forum on 20th Feb. (All posts in this series are archived at Dating Biblical Texts.)

The following copy of my forum post is only a list of 5 headers that introduce questions that need to be discussed more fully in order to fruitfully explore the Hellenistic era provenance for the Hebrew Bible. Nothing more, only brief summary notes introducing the need for further thought.


There is more to the Hellenistic provenance thesis than the simple fact of the circularity of the methods of dating the OT books by the past conventional scholarship — -[the circularity is something that] so far not even [my critic] has denied. . . .

Archaeology reveals . . .

I recently added quotes from scholars setting out the findings of archaeology relevant to the story of Joshua’s invasion of Canaan in a discussion post here.

1. The archaeological evidence of pre-Hellenistic Judea-Samaria has demonstrated that major moments of biblical history are fictions. The “invasion” of Canaan by an “Israelite” ethnic group never happened. The most that can be said about the “Kingdom” of David and Solomon is that it was little more than a village incapable of extending dominance over any area of note. (Jamieson-Drake saw evidence of development from a “lower-order society” to a “chiefdom” in Jerusalem, which falls far from the level of “a state”.)

Why write fiction?

2. The question must arise, then, why such stories were told? Were the stories derived from historical memories? Archaeology has suggested that is unlikely. A fundamental and inescapable fact of any literature is that it must reflect the ideas and beliefs and understandings that are part of its own cultural matrix. One specific feature of the narrative of David is that it shares on the one hand anachronisms that belong to the Persian kingdom and on the other hand Judean territorial ambitions of the Hellenistic era. One might therefore wonder if the stories were told to express hopes for imminent greatness, or at least as an attempt to identify with other great powers, whether of the past and/or present.

But what kind of fiction?

3. The literary structure and style of the Primary History (Genesis-2 Kings), as other scholars (not those arguing for a Hellenistic origin, by the way) have shown, is comparable to the Histories of Herodotus. The closest genre to the Primary History is found in the Greek world. Another comparable genre is the autobiographical narrative. Some scholars have attempted to explain this observation by speculating that Greek works were well known to the subjects of the Persian empire or that even the biblical books were known to the Greeks and influenced the Greeks. One needs to look for the explanation that raises the fewest difficulties or questions.

Nothing uniform — why?

4. There are widely variant styles among the biblical books. One can explain this fact by positing a long period of evolution and various cultural influences over centuries. One can also explain the same fact by positing contemporary regional differences. As one scholar noted, imagine if all we had about Socrates were the writings of Plato and Xenophon. Would we have to assume that there was a vast time gap between the two accounts since they are so different in both content and style?

What kind of society?

I addressed this question in more detail in my post of little over a week ago: The Problem with an Early Date for the Hebrew Bible

5. One ought also to look at the kind of socio-cultural-economic society that would be required to produce the biblical literature. Here again the archaeological evidence can be interpreted in favour of the Hellenistic period. But this is a much larger topic of its own. The argument emerges from other hypotheses.

The scholars I have had in mind while setting out the above five points, with one exception, have not been advocates of the Hellenistic origin of the biblical literature. The archaeological evidence that discounts the historicity of “biblical history”, the comparisons with Greek literature and Persian royal ideologies, — all of these are found in works of scholars who never entertained a Hellenistic time setting, as far as I am aware. Philip Davies himself (with whom I began in the opening post) always argued for the Persian era for the Primary History and Prophets. But there are also problems with a Persian era setting that disappear if we move the compositions of the books to the third century.


October 7

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by Neil Godfrey

. . . .

The Israelis responsible even had the intelligence that the Hamas attack was imminent (they even had the Hamas plans and saw them running to the fence barrier on the morning of the 7th) but dismissed it all thinking it incredible.

The failure of the Israeli defence forces was astonishing. Hamas expected to suffer 80% casualties and that only 20% of them would return alive. In fact the figures were reversed. And it was the Israeli military posts they attacked that suffered the incredible losses. Hamas had no plans for the unexpected situation they found themselves in.

Hamas crimes, yes, but no evidence of rape, no beheaded or oven-burned babies.

The mutilated bodies, those stabbed and burned and run over, appear to have been Palestinian, not Israeli.

Israeli tanks and Apache helicopters fired into houses and cars killing Israelis as well as Hamas.

Like the propaganda following Germany’s 1914 invasion of Belgium – stories of bayoneting women and children . . . .

Like the 1939 lie by Hitler that Poland had attacked Germany . . . .

Like the Gulf of Tonkin lie to justify the Vietnam war . . . .

Like the lie of Iraqis in Kuwait throwing babies from incubators prior to the 2003 Gulf war . . . .

Like the lie of weapons of mass destruction to justify the 1993 Iraq war . . . .

. . . . The October 7 dehumanizing lies serve to justify the slaughter under way in Gaza (and of course to deflect from the utter failure of the Israeli defence force on that morning.)

A brief extract:


Most Ways of Dating the Old Testament Older than 300 BCE are Flawed

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues a series I began with The Hebrew Bible - Composed only 300 years before Christ

In my opening post setting out the initial grounds for thinking that the biblical literature was no older than 300 BCE I noted with only minimal explanation that the current mainstream view of the far greater antiquity of the Bible was logically invalid — it was grounded in circular reasoning. I mentioned that simple fact only as an introductory explanation for why a new approach to dating the biblical texts was warranted. I wrongly assumed that there would be little need for a fuller discussion to justify the claim of circularity. But one of the forum members picked it up and challenged it. So I found myself setting out a more detailed justification for the claim that the primary mainstream way of dating the Bible’s books was indeed logically invalid. I began by quoting at length from P. R. Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel.

Before I post my forum reply here I want to add another scholar’s observations about serious flaws in much of conventional biblical scholarship. His words sum up a point I have made often over the years on this blog. There is too often precious little in common between the fundamental methods of biblical historians and historians of “non-biblical” inquiries:

Modern scholarly histories of Israel are written for two main purposes: in order to understand the place of Israel within the actual history of the ancient Near East or in order to understand better the Hebrew Bible. The second reason has predominated, and it is no accident that many authors of the standard histories of Israel have also written biblical commentaries. Large-scale histories of Israel are not typically written by individuals whose primary training is in general historical method or in ancient Near Eastern history. It should not be surprising, then, that biblical histories show so little agreement with the canons of modern historiography, especially concerning the use of evidence, specifically the evaluation of source material before using it for reconstructing the past. (Brettler, pp 140f – my bolded highlighting in all quotations)

Amen to that. The same applies to New Testament studies, both with respect to the gospels and to the epistles. Approach those sources by the same “canons of modern historiography” and one soon finds oneself with very little in common with the reconstructions of most historians of Christian origins.

Here is the initial reply that I posted to justify my point that the ways of dating biblical texts are logically invalid. I have added subheadings in underlined italics to my original post to enable quick scanning.


Here is what Davies wrote in 1992, and I think it deserves a response:

So far, historical research by biblical scholars has taken a different and circular route, whose stages can be represented more or less as follows:

Assume the authors were doing their best to write a real history

1. The biblical writers, when writing about the past, were obviously informed about it and often concerned to report it accurately to their readers. A concern with the truth of the past can be assumed. Therefore, where the literary history is plausible, or where it encounters no insuperable objections, it should be accorded the status of historical fact. The argument is occasionally expressed that the readers of these stories would be sufficiently knowledgeable (by tradition?) of their past to discourage wholesale invention.

Assume a story set in a particular past originated in that particular past

2. Much of the literature is itself assigned to quite specific settings within that story (e.g. the prophetic books, dated to the reigns of kings of Israel and Judah). If the biblical literature is generally correct in its historical portrait, then these datings may also be relied upon.

If we can link some details in a story to a historical time created by the story,
then we can use that story setting to interpret the story

3. Even where the various parts of the biblical literature do not date themselves within the history of its ʻIsraelʼ we are given a precise enough account in general to enable plausible connections [to] be made, such as Deuteronomy with the time of Josiah, or (as formerly) the Yahwist with the time of David or Solomon, Psalms with a Jerusalem cult. Thus, where a plausible context in the literary history can be found for a biblical writing, that setting may be posited, and as a result there will be mutual confirmation, by the literature of the setting, and by the setting of the literature. For example, the Yahwistʼs setting in the court of Solomon tells us about the character of that monarchy and the character of that monarchy explains the writing of this story.

I’ll interject here to add to what I originally wrote.  Contrast the assumption of a historian of ancient times (that we must acknowledge the readiness of ancient writers to make things up) with that of the biblical historians (that we must assume they had reliable sources).

Where did [ancient historians] find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit – irrespective of possible reliability – we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention. 

The ability of the ancients to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated. . . (Finley, p. 9)

If it is clear that an editor lived in more recent times it is assumed that his knowledge of past events was derived from sources originating at the time of those early events

4. Where the writer (ʻredactorʼ) of the biblical literature is recognized as having been removed in time from the events he describes or persons whose words he reports (e.g. when an account of the history of ʻIsraelʼ stretches over a long period of time), he must be presumed to rely on sources or traditions close to the events. Hence even when the literary source is late, its contents will nearly always have their point of origin in the time of which they speak. The likelihood of a writer inventing something should generally be discounted in favour of a tradition, since traditions allow us a vague connection with ʻhistoryʼ (which does not have to be exact) and can themselves be accorded some value as historical statements of the ʻfaithʼ of ʻIsraelʼ (and this will serve the theologian almost as well as history).

Each of these assertions can be encountered, in one form or another in the secondary literature. But it is the underlying logic which requires attention rather than these (dubious) assertions themselves. That logic is circular. The assumption that the literary construct is an historical one is made to confirm itself. Historical criticism (so called) of the inferred sources and traditions seeks to locate these in that literary-cum-historical construct. The placement of sources and traditions in this way is then used to embellish the literary account itself. This circular process places the composition of the literature within the period of which the literature itself speaks. This is precisely how the period to which the biblical literature refers becomes also the time of composition, the ʻbiblical periodʼ, and the biblical literature, taken as a whole, becomes a contemporary witness to its own construct, reinforcing the initial assumption of a real historical matrix and giving impetus to an entire pseudo-scholarly exercise in fitting the literature into a sequence of contexts which it has itself furnished! If either the historicity of the biblical construct or the actual date of composition of its literature were verified independently of each other, the circle could be broken. But since the methodological need for this procedure is overlooked, the circularity has continued to characterize an entire discipline—and render it invalid. The panoply of historical-critical tools and methods used by biblical scholars relies for the most part on this basic circularity. (Davies, pp. 35-37)

Some cynicism was expressed in response so I gave specific examples to illustrate how even notable names like Julius Wellhaussen and William Dever do exactly what Davies described — use the setting in the  story’s narrative to date the narrative, thus turning a narrative setting into a historical one to explain the narrative! (You are forgiven for feeling dizzyingly confused.)

Here is what Julius Wellhausen wrote in Prolegomena:I.II.2

The Jehovistic Book of the Covenant lies indeed at the foundation of Deuteronomy, but in one point they differ materially, and that precisely the one which concerns us here. As there, so here also, the legislation properly so called begins (Deut. xii.) with an ordinance relating to the service of the altar; but now we have Moses addressing the Israelites in the following terms: “When ye come into the land of Canaan, ye shall utterly destroy all the places of worship which ye find there, and ye shall not worship Jehovah your God after the manner in which the heathen serve theirs. Nay, but only unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes for His habitation shall ye seek, and thither shall ye bring your offerings and gifts, and there shall ye eat before Him and rejoice. Here at this day we do every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes, but when ye have found fixed abodes, and rest from your enemies round about, then shall the place which Jehovah shall choose for His habitation in one of your tribes be the one place to which ye shall bring your offerings and gifts. Take heed that ye offer not in every place that ye see; ye may not eat your holy gifts in every town, but only in the place which Jehovah shall choose.”

The Law is never weary of again and again repeating its injunction of local unity of worship. In doing so, it is in conscious opposition to “the things that we do here this day,” and throughout has a polemical and reforming attitude towards existing usage. It is rightly therefore assigned by historical criticism to the period of the attacks made on the Bamoth by the reforming party at Jerusalem. As the Book of the Covenant, and the whole Jehovistic writing in general, reflects the first pre−prophetic period in the history of the cultus, so Deuteronomy is the legal expression of the second period of struggle and transition. The historical order is all the more certain because the literary dependence of Deuteronomy on the Jehovistic laws and narratives can be demonstrated independently, and is an admitted fact. From this the step is easy to the belief that the work whose discovery gave occasion to King Josiah to destroy the local sanctuaries was this very Book of Deuteronomy . . .

In a later response I explained the reasoning behind assigning the Book of Deuteronomy to the period of King Josiah and I will elaborate on that in another (next?) post.

William Dever even appeals to archaeological finds of the presence of pagan objects to “support” the biblical story of Josiah getting rid of pagan objects!

First, Dever reminds us of the importance of archaeology in assessing the historicity of the biblical accounts:

[A]rchaeological data are primary because an external witness is required to lend support to the historicity of the biblical narratives, if possible, and archaeology is, by definition, the only candidate (including, of course, the texts that it may recover). Archaeology is primary because it provides an independent witness in the court of adjudication, and when properly interrogated it is often an unimpeachable witness. (p. 18)

Agreed 100%.

But then compare that noble statement with how he actually uses archaeological data to “confirm” a biblical narrative:

It is the reign of Josiah (648–609) that is best correlated with the archaeological evidence that we now have. His reputation as a reformer, a restorer of tradition, comports especially well with the more favorable situation that we know obtained with the decline of Assyria . . . (p. 611)

Correlation is not a proof. Dever lists in a table what is explicitly proven by archaeology at the time of Josiah:

“Poly-yahwism”; Asherah cult; Yahu names; Philistia attacked (p. 609)

In the same table he lists as “Probable; Evidence Ambiguous”

Josiahʼs attempted reforms; consulted temple scroll; maintained Judah even if vassal; Josiah slain in battle, (p. 609)

So archaeology, according to his own analysis, does not confirm the historicity of the Joshua narrative. Nonetheless, he proceeds to set forth a list of correlations with the biblical account — as if correlations can ever be anything more than correlations. (Compare the correlations with historical data of any historical novel.)

He begins on page 11:

It is the reign of Josiah (648–609) that is best correlated with the archaeological evidence that we now have. . . .

Numerous studies of these intriguing reform measures attributed to Josiah have been published, but few have paid any attention to possible archaeological correlates—that is, to a possible real-life context in the late seventh century. Most scholars have focused on whether the reform was successful, many assuming that the reforms claimed are simply too fantastic to be credible. The fact is, however, that we have good archaeological explanations for most of the targets of Josiahʼs reforms. For instance, we know what high places (bāmôt) are, and we have a number of examples of them, perhaps the most obvious example being the monumental one at Dan.

No-one denies the biblical authors were familiar with the various popular cults of the day. Simply finding evidence of these brings us no closer to finding any support for the historicity behind the narrative of Josiah and the discovery of Deuteronomy.

We have many altars in cult places and private homes, large and small. We even have an example of the altar on the roof in the debris of a building destroyed at Ashkelon in 604.

The sacred poles and pillars are easily explained, even in the Hebrew Bible, as wooden images or live trees used to represent the goddess Asherah symbolically. The tree iconography has now been connected conclusively with the old Canaanite female deity Asherah, whose cult was still widespread in Iron Age Israel, in both nonorthodox and conformist circles (above).

The weavings, or perhaps “garments” or even “curtains,” for Asherah (Hebrew bāttîm) remain a crux. Renderings by the Septuagint, the Targumim, and later Jewish commentaries suggest a corrupt Masoretic Text, but woven garments for deities and tent-like hangings for sacred pavilions are well known in both the ancient and modern Middle East.

The phrase “heavenly hosts” needs no archaeological explanation, since it clearly refers to the divine council well documented at Ugarit and in the Hebrew Bible. The reference to the “horses and chariots of the Sun” recalls examples that we have of terra-cotta horse-and-chariot models from the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. In the Ugaritic texts, Baal is the “Cloud Rider” who flies across the heavens daily as the great storm god, imagery that is even applied to Yahweh in Psalms.

The Topheth in the Kidron Valley (a rubbish dump and place of abomination in any case) is readily explained by the famous sanctuary of Tanit at Carthage, where infant sacrifice was the usual rite, and there the Phoenician god was indeed Molech.

Of the various “pagan” deities condemned—Baal, Asherah, Ashtoreth of Sidon, Kemosh of Moab, and Milkom of Ammon—all are well known, as is their iconography and to some degree their cult practices.

It is not only the description of the specifics of the religious situation in Josiahʼs time that is realistic in the light of the current archaeological data. The general context of cultural and religious pluralism in the seventh century is an amalgam well illustrated by the archaeological data that we have summarized above, beginning already in the eighth century. That context helps to answer the question raised above about whether the Deuteronomistic Historiansʼ original version fits in the actual historical-cultural setting of the seventh century in Judah. It can be shown in many ways that it does but in other ways that it does not, even though the written version could have been almost contemporary (the question of an older oral tradition cannot be resolved).

It is instructive to set the central themes and ideals of the Deuteronomistic program as summarized above alongside a general description of the realities of life in seventh-century Judah as illuminated by the archaeological evidence here. (pp. 612f)

And that’s it. All Dever’s archaeological evidence has managed to do is to tell us that there is no evidence for Josiah’s reforms as per the biblical narrative. No-one has questioned the polytheistic/poly-Yahwist cult prevalent throughout Judah/Samaria/Negev/Syria. The biblical narrative assumes that most of the population did not practice “biblical Yahwism”. The whole point of the narrative is to give some historical context to the book of Deuteronomy.

One may reply that the biblical narrative was exaggerated and the reforms were not so successful after all, but it won’t really do to imagine all sorts of reasons why we still do not have the evidence for the historicity of the narrative. We will always need independent evidence to confirm the narrative. Until we have it we cannot validly work on the assumption that we will one day find the evidence we know “must be there somewhere” to justify our dating of the sources.

Dever’s words above are a classic instance of the very problem Davies was addressing. The archaeological evidence is interpreted through the assumption that there is a historical core in the biblical narrative. Without the biblical narrative there is simply no grounds in any of the evidence cited by Dever that would lead anyone to suspect the event of Josiah’s reforms.


Unfortunately there were no critical responses worth mentioning here. The only responses were summary assertions to the contrary and constant attempts to avoid addressing the problem illustrated by Wellhausen, Dever and countless other unnamed scholars in between. In other words, the only response was to attack by means of blanket assertion and denial, not to actually engage with the specific  arguments presented.

But soon another forum member entered the discussion (the moderator himself, no less!) and then things got “pretty wild”. That’s for another post.

By the way, I titled this “Most Ways”. There are some other methods used to tie some texts to pre-Hellenistic eras and I’d like to address those, too. But the fundamental point of this post even applies to some extent in those cases. The independent evidence introduced usually is deployed to “verify” an invalid construct as per above.

Brettler, Marc Zvi. The Creation of History in Ancient Israel. London: Routledge, 1998.

Davies, Philip R. In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.

Dever, William G. Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah. SBL Press, 2017.

Finley, M. I. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. ACLS History E-Book Project, 1999.

Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. Blackmask Online, 2002.


Were Jews in Babylonian Exile Pining for Home in “Israel-Judah” and a Reformed Religion?

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by Neil Godfrey

By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion.

Thus opens Psalm 137. Does it reflect a realistic situation of captives who had been deported from the kingdom of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar in the seventh century BCE?

The conventional narrative for the beginnings of modern Judaism is that the Babylonian captivity enabled deportees from Jerusalem and its surrounds to reflect at leisure upon their past sins and the warnings of the prophets and to resolve to “behave” in future, eliminating all pagan idolatry from their religious practices and be true to Yahweh as Moses had originally commanded them. The literate class among them decided to write about their past history of sin and waywardness and to inculcate the need to be genuine monotheists as per the Ten Commandments and other laws beginning with Abraham.

Wikimedia Commons

But what do we know — for facts — about ancient deportations of populations in that part of the ancient world? Does what we know lend credence to the above narrative? Let’s begin with

  • Oded, Bustenay. Mass Deportations and Deportees in the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert, 1979.

Oded’s book is a mass of quotations from ancient documents.

What was the purpose of mass population deportations?

The use of deportation as a punishment, either for breach of treaty or for some other misdeed, was not only an Assyrian practice, but one that was common to all the peoples of the ancient Near East. (p. 43)

The intent was “to weaken national and political centres” . . .

to weaken their national spirit and their link with their homeland. It also reduced the possibility of a national revival.

Oded refers readers to a 1970 article in the Harvard Theological Review by John Holladay citing the evidence that ancient Assyrian kings understood that the policies of kings were understood to be the result of pressure from their population: it was the people who were responsible for their king’s rebellion.

Oded continues:

The exchange of populations and the dispersal of ethnic and national groups in various places was a way of breaking up separate nationalistic entities. (p. 44)

Oded further points out that deportees from Syria and the wider Levant living in Mesopotamia were convenient hostages. Any persons left behind in the land conquered who had close ties with any of the deportees would have to be careful not to take any action that would endanger the lives of their associates now in captivity.

Deportees were the most loyal to their conquerors

Let’s come to the crux. Those who were deported were taken to live among strangers. Those “strangers” did not appreciate having to give up their own lands and living areas to foreigners, the deportees. The deportees who were resettled in their new lands were therefore depending upon their erstwhile enemy power to protect them — from the locals.

These minority groups inclined to be loyal to Assyria, since their right to settle in the country to which they had been deported derived from the king of Assyria, who had them brought there. The indigenous population naturally did not welcome the intrusion and settlement of foreign elements in their cities and villages, by order of the conquering king, particularly as their own fellow-citizens had, in many cases, been deported to make room for the newcomers. They looked upon these newcomers as usurpers, who had taken possession of their compatriots’ property, not by right, but by order of the conquering king. The fields and vineyards which Rabshakeh promised to give the people of Jerusalem in a country like their own land — to which he would deport them if they surrendered were presumably the property of other people who had themselves been deported. The hostility between the deportees and the local population increased, whenever the national sentiment of the local population, and their desire to east off the Assyrian yoke, grew. The deportees did not share the national aspirations of the local population. Liberation from Assyrian rule could only be detrimental to them, since they had been brought to the country and settled there by the king of Assyria. . . .

The Assyrian king then became the protector of these deportees from persecution by the local population . . . (p. 46)

The conquerors were especially protective of those they deported:

The deportees were chosen mainly from among the leaders of the community and from the artisans. . . And they were deported to countries which had been depleted by deportation, of their own elite, so that the new arrivals formed a separate national and professional stratum in the population, foreign to, yet living in the midst of the indigenous inhabitants. This not only had the effect of sharpening the difference between the deportees and the local population, but it also meant that, in all the Assyrian provinces, the part of the population best qualified to serve the imperial Assyrian administration was composed mainly of deportees. . . . This explains the favourable treatment the deportees generally enjoyed, and the great concern shown by the Assyrian rulers for their welfare. (p. 47)

The deportees thus depended for their safety on the king who had captured them, and in such a position, their conqueror king found them useful as a counterweight to his own native population who may not have been happy with him:

The intention behind this policy may have been, inter alia, to provide a counterweight to local urban elements hostile to the king. (p. 48)

The jobs of the deportees

They were conscripted into the army.

Many such conscripts were not assigned as fighters but as service personnel to support the needs of the camps and fortresses of the army.

They were used to settle older cities as well as new and rebuilt city areas.

They were used to populate deserted and barren regions that were strategically important.

They were settled in a way that would

provide and increase reliable sources of food, and to enrich the state treasuries. (p. 67)

They were deployed in building projects, in the royal court as scribes, as singers and musicians, as physicians and diviners, as smiths — ironsmiths, goldsmiths — leatherworkers, ivory workers, carpenters. Those who were literate were used in businesses relating to loans and purchases, and as merchants and traders who could contribute to the wealth of the state.

To sum up

To sum up we can conclude that the socio-economic and legal status of the deportees was not uniform and their conditions were not identical. There were masters and dependants, full freemen and chattel slaves, soldiers and civilians, labouring freemen and labouring dependent persons, townsmen and villagers, free peasants and dependent farmers, free land holders, tenants and glebae adscripti. The rights and duties of the individual deportee were determined by a wide range of circumstances. The position of any particular deportee also depended on his occupation, on the employer, on the function he was singled out to perform, on his personal ability, and on the specific conditions prevailing in the place where he lived. (p. 115)

Now have another look at Psalm 137 and see how naively romantic such a picture is compared with reality. In the light of the above, can we imagine deportees seeking to revive ideas that led to them being conquered in the first place and that would indicate to their captors that they were not fully loyal to them? Can we imagine the captors allowing those they deported to take with them their scrolls and tablets that were records of their cult and chronicles? If priests were to be useful they would serve the Babylonian cult as scribes and as temple and sacrifice support persons, or as literati in the court.


Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Invalidate a Hellenistic Origin of the Hebrew Books of the Bible?

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by Neil Godfrey

I am posting here on my blog what I had posted in the “Academic Discussion” of the EarlyWritings Biblical Criticism & History Forum and I hope soon to post specific criticisms or responses that were made in that space. I am collating both those criticisms and my own responses as far as I can find them to make them all accessible here. The reason for doing this is that on that forum some of my comments were removed (without notifying me) to other places outside the Academic Discussion area and replies made to them without my being aware of what was going on. To the extent I have tracked those down I will post them here. (I may have more to say about the range of discussion that is permitted on that forum — and enforced by means of ridicule and insult directed at those who dare to question the fundamentals of core biblical studies models and methods.) I will, of course, also be posting other scholarly arguments that have been used to date the books of the Hebrew Bible to the Persian period and earlier.

Here is one of the earlier criticisms. It is from Stephen Goranson:

My reply (originally posted on the earlywritings forum):

Michael Langlois has the scholarly professionalism to acknowledge when others have interpretations that differ from his own, noting what is possible outside his own preferences and where another specialist has disagreed with him.

He writes in relation to 4Q46 (p. 270):

4Q46 would thus be at home in the fifth or fourth centuries BCE; an earlier date is not impossible but lacks clear parallels, whereas a date in the third century is possible but unnecessary.

In relation to 4Q12: (p. 271):

. . . would also be at home in the fifth or fourth centuries BCE, perhaps in the third century should the development of the script be slow. McLean dates 4Q12 to the “middle of the second century” BCE; 64 such a late date is unnecessary.

On 2Q5 (p. 271)

. . . this manuscript could be at home in the fourth or third centuries. McLean dates it to ca. “150 to 75 BCE” 65 which seems unnecessarily late.

On 6Q2 (p. 271)

Overall, 6Q2 may also have been copied around the fourth or third centuries BCE. McLean acknowledges the affinities between 6Q2 and 2Q5 and ascribes them both the same unnecessarily late date between 150 and 75 BCE.

On the 1Q3 fragments (p. 272)

Although a date in the fourth century is possible, 1Q3 is probably more at home in the third century, like 4Q11. McLeanʼs dating between “150 to 75 BCE” 67 is, once again, probably late, while Birnbaumʼs dating “ca. 440 B.C.E.” 68 is too early, flawed by his methodology.

And on the 6Q1 fragments (p. 272)

… may have been copied around the third century BCE. McLean dates 4Q101 “between 225 and 150 BCE,” 69 and 6Q1 and 4Q123 to the “last half of the second century” BCE 70 ; these ranges are possible but too narrow and a bit late.

  • Langlois, Michael. “Dead Sea Scrolls Palaeography and the Samaritan Pentateuch.” In The Samaritan Pentateuch and the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by Michaël Langlois, 255–85. Contributions to Biblical Exegesis and Theology 94. Leuven ; Bristol, CT: Peeters, 2019.

As has been noted elsewhere [in earlier discussions on the Early Writings Forum], Langlois “does not point to any palaeographic feature that positively indicates a 5th or 4th century as opposed to third century BCE date”.




The Difference between Magpies and Chooks

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by Neil Godfrey

I have moved to a new residence and am thrilled to see that we still have magpies as company. I know we are not supposed to feed wildlife but, well, we are not supposed to eat much chocolate, either. Once in a while I was so taken by the magpies where we lived that I could not resist the occasional giving them a handout of a few crumbs. A few were so bold as to approach me within touching distance and when I held out my hand with some bread crumbs they looked at me “just to be sure I knew what I was doing” before crocking their heads sideways so that their beaks would pick up the crumbs with a sideways approach. Thus they avoided the risk of punching my hand with the sharp end of their beaks.

I was reminded how as a child I fed chooks and how they would just peck peck peck away into the palm of my hand without any thought of the punches they were inflicting.

Magpies? No, not like that at all. They would carefully turn their heads sideways to be sure that they lifted a crumb from my hand without any risk of their beak’s sharp end poking me. Magpies — humane, thoughtful, aware. Chooks — thoughtless, dumb.



The Hebrew Bible – Composed only 300 years before Christ?

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by Neil Godfrey

Below is a revised version of a post I submitted to the earlywritings forum. It is the first in a series setting out the foundational arguments for the Old Testament books being written as late as only 300 years before Christ, no earlier. The case being proposed is that our earliest books of the Bible did not have a heritage traced back to Bronze Age times, not even as far back as the kingdoms of Israel and Judah — nor even the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Judeans who were transported to Mesopotamia by Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BCE. Rather, the proposition advanced here is that they were the creations of a time after Alexander the Great swept across “Asia” and just prior to the Hasmonean and Maccabean eras. The argument to be advanced is that the earliest books of the Bible originated in the Greek era, only a couple or so centuries before the Roman conquest and time of Jesus.

When we apply the fundamentals of historical methods as practised by historians in fields other than biblical studies we quickly see logical flaws at the heart of the conventional understanding that the sources for various biblical books (in particular the stories in Genesis and Exodus) go back as far as the times of David and Solomon.

Multiple sources and circularity

Several times I have engaged in the EarlyWritings Forum on the question of the how the Hebrew Bible came about over long centuries of accumulated writings and editings [i.e. the Documentary Hypothesis] and every time, it seems to me, the argument submitted to prove that the stories came about over long spans of time is the same: the evidence clearly shows us that different stories were combined into one. The classic illustration of this is the Flood story of Genesis. There can be little doubt that two different flood narratives are combined here. Sometimes the account says Noah brought in the animals two by two but in another place it tells us that there were seven of each kind! There are many more indicators to verify the point.

My response has been each time that I have no doubt that different sources were mixed to create the Genesis Flood account, but it does not necessarily follow that those different stories arose and came together over a long time period.

Think of it for a moment: An editor sees before him a story which says that the animals went into the ark two by two. That editor has in mind another story that he has acquired, one that says there were seven of each kind of animal. Now what is that editor likely to do if he wants to create a new single narrative? Would he be likely to keep the two by two account alongside the new one with the sevens? Or should we rather expect that he would delete the two by two references and replace them with what he prefers as the more valid story about the sevens?

What we have is a case of the editor deciding to combine details, even though contradictory, into one new narrative.

To me, that sounds like the editor had two different stories before him and he saw his role as being required to blend the two together, preserving the details of each, to create a single new authoritative story.

If that was the case, there is no reason at all to suppose that the Flood story as we have it is evidence of composition involving the accumulation of different sources over a long time span. It is no less reasonable to think that two interest groups created their own account and an editor was tasked with the job of making them one so that there was one narrative that all could respect as reflecting their own views. Such a project is conceivable as taking place from start to finish within months or even weeks, not necessarily centuries or even decades!

So how did the conventional notion of a centuries long evolution of the Bible come about? Biblical scholars, it is no secret to anyone, not even to themselves on the whole, do have interests that go beyond pure historical research. Even Julius Wellhausen, to whom we tend to attribute the modern notion of the “Documentary Hypothesis”, has been criticized for allowing his Protestant (anti-legalistic) bias to subconsciously influence his model of the “Documentary Hypothesis”. (The criticism has been directed at the widespread idea that “legalistic” texts were a late addition to the original “spiritual” and “prophetic” narratives found in the biblical canon.)

When hypotheses become facts

So much in biblical studies that passes for facts are actually hypotheses, or “theories” of a certain kind. But they are repeated so often it is hard to notice that they have no basis in the hard evidence. Look at this passage from Wellhausen:

With regard to the Jehovistic document [i.e. one proposed “early source” in the Bible], all are happily agreed that, substantially at all events, in language, horizon, and other features, it dates from the golden age of Hebrew literature, to which the finest parts of Judges, Samuel, and Kings, and the oldest extant prophetical writings also belong, the period of the kings and prophets which preceded the dissolution of the two Israelite kingdoms by the Assyrians. About the origin of Deuteronomy there is still less dispute; in all circles where appreciation of scientific results can be looked for at all, it is recognised that it was composed in the same age as that in which it was discovered, and that it was made the rule of Josiah’s reformation, which took place about a generation before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Chaldaeans.


That’s from

His assertion of relative dating is grounded entirely in scholarly consensus, not in the evidence itself. No doubt those scholars who make up the “consensus” believed they had serious evidence for dating the book of Deuteronomy to the days of King Josiah — but we will see that really they did not. They relied entirely upon “what the Bible says”.

There does happen to be archaeological evidence indicating that prior to the Hellenistic era Judeans and Samaritans had no knowledge of the biblical laws. I am referring to the finds in a Judean colony in Egypt, the Elephantine papyri. (I have not posted nearly enough about this find and what various scholars have had to say about it, but hope to make up for that lack very soon.) The Documentary Hypothesis, it has been pointed out by at least one scholar in the biblical field, might well never have got off the ground had the Elephantine remains — indicating that Persian era Jews knew nothing of the Pentateuch — been discovered earlier and had more time to gain traction and wider and more focused attention than it had before the time of Wellhausen’s work.

None of this is to say that biblical scholars are unprofessionally “biased” or “unscholarly”. Of course they are scholarly and their biases are generally known and admitted and taken into account. But their work tends to be picked up by others and over time taken for granted as fact.

Independent evidence is critical

The fact remains that there is no independent evidence that the OT was composed prior to the Hellenistic era. That datum alone does not prove it was a Hellenistic product. But it does at least allow for the theoretical possibility that it was created in the Hellenistic era, and given that our earliest independent evidence for a knowledge of the Pentateuch is situated in the Hellenistic era, it is entirely reasonable to begin with that era when searching for the Pentateuch’s origins.

It also is a fact that scholarship has only cursorily (by comparison) begun noting echoes of Hellenistic literature and thought within the Pentateuch itself. Those are facts. Another fact is that Documentary Hypothesis is not without its inconsistencies and problems – another point I can post about in more depth.

Those facts do not prove that the Pentateuch was created in the Hellenistic era. But they do at least make it possible to ask the question. It makes it all the more necessary for anyone proposing an earlier date to ground their reasons in supporting independent evidence of some kind.

The meaning of “Hellenistic”

The Hellenistic provenance of the Pentateuch does not deny any use of pre-Hellenistic literature or sayings or concepts. Hellenization even means a uniting of Greek and Asian cultures, not a replacement of one by the other. So one should expect in any Hellenistic era hypothesis for the Pentateuch clear allusions to non-Greek (i.e. local Canaanite and Syrian) sources. Yes, we can identify where passages in the Pentateuch are borrowed from ancient Ugaritic (Canaanite) or Syrian sources, but employing local literature does not contradict the Hellenistic era hypothesis for the Old Testament.

The fateful year of 1992

My own understanding of the history of the scholarship in this area informs me that the floodgates to a more widespread acceptability in questioning the “deep antiquity” (pre-Persian era) origin of any of the OT books were opened by Philip R. Davies in 1992 with his publication of In Search of Ancient Israel. The irony was that Davies was only collating various criticisms and doubts about the conventional wisdom of “biblical Israel” that had been available to scholars for some decades. But by bringing these questions and doubts all together in one short publication (only about 150 pages of discussion) Davies’ work started something of an academic “kerfuffle”. [The above sentences are a paraphrase from memory of a review of Davies’ book but, apologies, I cannot recall their source.] Davies himself argued at length for a Persian era provenance of many of the OT books, but those who followed the evidence he set out could see that the way was also open for an even later period. Some scholars identified stronger links between the Pentateuch and Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) and Hellenistic literature than to anything earlier. One French scholar has even argued that the entire Primary History was composed by a priest in the Hasmonean era.

Davies certainly established the circularity of the arguments that much of the OT literature was composed in the times of King Josiah and the Babylonian captivity. He also brought together the archaeological evidence that indicates the very notion of “biblical Israel” (along with a kingdom of David and empire of Solomon) is as fanciful as King Arthur and Camelot.

The basics of historical inquiry

I opened this post with a reference to the methods of historians in nonbiblical fields. In short, those methods are nothing other than any journalistic or forensic or “common sense” method of trying to find out “what happened” — minus the theological provenance from which the quest is embarked upon. Start with what we know to be the most secure “facts” on the basis of collating independent evidence and working from there. Assuming that what we read in the Bible is a pathway to “the historical facts” is not safe: we need the support of independent evidence. Unfortunately, our cultural heritage has taught us too well that certain narratives about the past are “facts” (or at least based on facts) so that we find it very difficult to remove these from our minds when trying to see clearly the material evidence before our eyes.