2024-04-20

Comparing Samaria and Judah/Yehud – and their religion – in Persian Times

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

by Neil Godfrey

Recent posts have focussed on the case for the earliest books of the Bible being composed as late as the Hellenistic era, that is less than 300 years before Christ. The longstanding conventional wisdom has understood the first biblical narratives go back to the time of King David (around 1000 BCE) or at least to the time of the Babylonian captivity (circa 600 BCE) and that much editing of these earlier works and creation of some new ones all took place under the benign rule of the Persians (late 500s through to 330 BCE).

The very idea of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament covering creation, the patriarchs, the exodus, the giving of law) and later books depicting the conquest of Canaan, the united kingdom of David and Solomon not having at least some roots in the historical past (however much real events may have been mythologized) of the “Near East” is very hard to accept for many of us. A long held assumption has been that the thought of the Near East is in many ways so opposed to Greek or Hellenistic thought and intellectual and ethical culture that it is inconceivable to imagine the early books of the Old Testament being products of Hellenistic times and culture. Recent posts here have attempted to demonstrate that such conventional assumptions need to be questioned. New scholarship has been drawing attention to a symbiosis between Hellenism and Near Eastern cultures and I will be addressing more of that work in future posts.

Meanwhile, it is surely necessary to understand as much as possible about the various settings and cultures that are being proposed as the birthplace of the Bible. In this post I am continuing to write up what I have been learning about Persian era Samaria and Judah (known as the Persian province Yehud). Do we find in either of these places the conditions that make the production of the biblical works likely?

The beginning of Persian era Palestine

The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE and the southern kingdom appears to have come to its end at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The long term results of the respective conquests were very different from each other. Let’s compare how each region fared in the wake of their respective conquests.

I have adapted the Persian era map from Michael Wolffsohn’s Whose Holy Land? to include the eighth century BCE site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (discussed below), the site of Wadi Daliyeh and the estimated “borders” of Yehud according to archaeological finds (blue line based on article and map by Frevel and Pyschny). The original map shows the Yehud according to Ezra-Nehemiah.

Samaria from Assyrian conquest into the Persian period

In the north, the city of Samaria was made the provincial capital of the new Assyrian province. The entire region of Samaria did suffer significant population decline in the wake of Assyrian deportations of much of the population but the archaeological evidence also informs us that there was significant continuity of settlement. Assyrian destruction was not all encompassing. Large areas remained untouched, perhaps the result of surrendering rather than attempting resistance. New ethnic groups were brought in by the Assyrians but these coexisted with indigenous populations. There was no population replacement. After the Assyrian conquest much of (northern) Samaria continued to increase in population and prosperity (Knoppers 2004). Major recovery for southern Samaria had to await the Hellenistic era (Knoppers 2006).

This growth continued into the Persian period. Newly built major and minor roads no doubt facilitated this expansion:

The Achaemenid [= Persian] Period witnesses an unprecedented number of sites in the northern region, suggesting that this was a time of considerable demographic expansion. . . . Almost all of these Iron Age [= kingdom of Israel before 722 BCE] rural sites exhibit continuity into the Persian Period . . . . The western area of Samaria was intensively settled during the Achaemenid era. (Knoppers 2006: 268)

The city of Samaria itself was in the forefront of this expansion:

In Samaria, unlike in Jerusalem, one finds a fundamental continuity of settlement from the beginning of the Iron III period to the Achaemenid era. . . .

The areas around the town of Samaria were thickly settled during the Achaemenid era. . . .

The city of Samaria prospered and grew during much of the Persian era. . . . Stern (2001: 424) thinks, in fact, that Samaria was one of the most important urban areas in all of Palestine during the Achaemenid era. (Knoppers 2006: 270f)

The city’s population and material growth peaked in the Persian period with descendants of deportees from Assyrian times returning:

Surveys indicate that about half of the Iron II Israelite settlements in Manasseh, including the city of Samaria, continued to exist into the Persian period . . . ; in the Persian Period the area around Samaria was more densely populated than at any other time in history . . .

It also appears that deported Israelites or their descendants later returned to their homeland in significant numbers (Barmash 2005: 229-231).  (Leith 273f)

Judah/Yehud from Babylonian conquest into the Persian period

The destruction of Judah by the Babylonians was punitive and “fateful” — in unmistakable contrast with how Samaria fared at the hands of the Assyrians.

The immediate results of the Babylonian conquest of Judah are clear. Much of the country, especially in the west, south, and east and in the immediate envi­rons of Jerusalem, was destroyed by the foreign invaders. Archaeological exca­vations at many Judean sites show evidence of destruction that scholars have related to Nebuchadrezzar’s campaigns. Evidence for destruction extends from Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish) in the west, to Arad and environs in the south, to En-gedi and Jericho in the east. This is not to suggest, however, that every Judean city was left in ruins. Primarily those cities that served as fortress towns and where anti-Babylonian sentiment was high would have been the most likely targets for the Babylonians. One area, however, is the exception to the rule. Cities north of Jerusalem, in the traditional territory of Benjamin, suffered little or no destruction. . . . 

The destruction of most Judean cities meant a disruption in the governmen­tal apparatus as well as in the industry and economics of the country. Because soldiers profited from the spoils of war, plundering was the conqueror’s priv­ilege and the conquered’s fate. Thus one must assume that much of the peo­ple’s possessions became Babylonian spoils of war. Many cities, like Jerusalem, that had once been thriving centers were left as depleted, subsistence-level vil­lages if occupied at all. The primary economy of the country was probably reduced to a purely agricultural base.

A significant percentage of the manpower and leadership was killed off. There is no way to estimate the number of casualties who died at the hands of Babylonian troops, but it certainly would have been a sizable portion of the population, even though the Babylonians had no reputation for needless destruction and excessive killing. Nebuchadrezzar had taken a lenient attitude toward the country in 597, but no ancient ruler was very hospitable to a rebel­lious subject on the second military visit. (Miller and Hayes 479f)

Persian rulers did not improve the situation for Yehud (the name of the Persian province for the erstwhile kingdom of Judah):

The Jerusalem of the Achaemenid era has been described as a village with an administrative center. (Knoppers 2006:272)

Yehud was essentially irrelevant to the major interests of Persia:

One has to face the reduced extent of Yehûd against the background of the broader development in the Southern Levant in the 5th/4th century BCE. The marginal international importance is likewise true for the Persian period, when Yehûd achieved the status of a Persian province (at the latest) in the mid-5th century. . . . At least until the upheavals in Egypt and the loss of the control of Egypt by the Persian authority, the province of Yehûd was politically and economically more or less irrelevant. (Fravel and Psychny 4)

Transition to the Persian period is often unclear

With reference to the archaeological remains. . . .

. . .  we are still largely unable to distinguish clearly between material remains of Iron Age III (the period of Babylonian overlordship) and those of the early Persian period (in turn, this might indicate a very smooth transition from one to the other, with Persian administration remaining in fact ‘Babylonian’ for quite some time). (Uehlinger 136)

Most histories of this period focus on Palestine’s relations with Persia and to some extent Greece as the rival power to Persia. The economic impact and cultural influence of Phoenician cities is also recognized. Yet there was evidently a strong Egyptian influence in the area given the number of scarab amulets, Egyptian-style bronze statuettes and Egyptian deity representations on coins in Palestine during this same period.

In this respect, the impact of Egypt on Palestine during the 5th and particularly the 4th century . . . is too often disregarded in historical treatments of the period. (Uehlinger 136)

Evidence of Persian interest (or lack of it) in Samaria and Yehud

Images on seals and coins functioned as imperial propaganda to remind subject populations of Persian power. By comparing the locations of these finds and the particular styles of iconography archaeologists are informed about the areas of main interest to the Persians. Persian royalty appears to have little interest in stridently imposing its presence in Palestine until very late in the Persian period.

The bulk of seals and sealings discussed belongs to the second half or even last third of the Persian period, which makes the potential for Persian impact in the late 6th and earlier 5th centuries BCE even slimmer. . . .

In great contrast to other imperial administrations that had ruled in Palestine during earlier periods (Middle and New Kingdom Egypt and to some extent Assyria), the Achaemenid imperial administration apparently did not interfere in any way in the local seal production, certainly not in the engravers’ choices regarding the composition of their figurative repertoire.

Two main reasons may explain this contrast: basically, Persian interest and involvement must have been much more intense in Asia Minor than in far-off Palestine which was ‘Third World’ to the Achaemenids not worthy for investment. . . . To the extent that the physical presence of people of Persian origin was probably limited to military officers and administrators, Persian culture remained a largely foreign element in Palestine. Granted that we interpreted the incomplete evidence correctly, we could even observe a certain reluctance or reservation on behalf of Phoenician seal engravers to adopt Persian Achaemenid (even royal) figurative models, an attitude which is in strong contrast to the same craftsmen^ openness to integrate schemes from Egypt, Cyprus or Greece. (Uehlinger 171f)

Most of the seals and coins promoting Persian power that do appear come from Samaria, not Yehud.

Achaemenid iconography and other ‘Persianisms’ figure much more prominently on coins from Samaria than from anywhere else in the country. . . . It is striking that except for one item from Jericho, Yehud is not represented at all in our survey on iconographical Persianisms. (Uehlinger 173)

There is little evidence that the Persian administration was interested in interfering with local religious practices as a rule. The indication for this is the absence of specifically Persian religious or cult images on coins and seals.

We may notice in passing the total lack of specifically ‘religious’ subject matter other than ‘heroic combat’ or ‘encounter’, such as cult (worship or offering) scenes, representations of deities, divine symbols or the like, which contrasts neatly with Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian glyptic and their respective influence on Palestinian glyptic in earlier periods. This observation confirms the commonly accepted opinion that the Persian administration generally did not interfere with the religious beliefs of their subjects, certainly not by imposing nor even publicizing the worship of Persian deities, but rather aimed at favouring cultic normality in pacified provinces . . . . The one common notion which is emphatically stressed by a great proportion of seals and sealings is the heroic character of Persian kingship. (Uehlinger 175)

When we come to the fourth century BCE (note Persian rule over Palestine commenced in the late sixth century BCE) it is Samaria, the northern province, that is the leading representative of imperial power.

Yehud coinage, generally of rather poor minting quality, shows very few ‘Persianisms’, but also no particular dependency on Phoenician models. . . . In contrast, Samarian coinage is literally full of ‘Persianisms’, surpassing by far any other mint of the region in this respect. This confirms and emphasizes our conclusion based on the glyptic evidence, namely that Persian iconographical models and Achaemenid royal ideology had a particularly strong impact on 4th-century Samaria. (Uehlinger 177f)

Was this because Samarians were inherently more loyal to Persia? Or might the explanation be somewhat more complex?

Obviously these depictions are not all an expression of Samarian loyalty to the Achaemenid king and to the Persian imperial administration. One should rather suspect that the unusual emphasis betrays propaganda which may have intended to cover particular tensions in real life. The many ‘portraits’ of Persian officers point to a strong Persian military presence at Samaria. Many of these issues must have been minted by order of Persian officials stationed in the province, or of some higher authority such as Mazday the satrap. . . .

In sum, one cannot ignore that more than any other repertoire of the area, the coins of Samaria emphatically claim strong allegiance of the province to the Great King and his representatives. (Uehlinger 178f)

Comparing Samaria and Yehud culture and religion

If the archaeological evidence indeed supports such disparity between Samaria and Judah, there is no comparison, only contrast, between Samaria and Yehud (the name of the Persian province) in the Persian era. Yehud became a backwater under Persian rule.

I distinguish between ‘Samarian’ and ‘Samaritan’ studies, the latter having long been a subset of biblical studies, addressing the Jewish sect that continues to worship on Mt. Gerizim to this day. (Leith 268)

The two regions shared a common language and scripts.

The language of the [Samaria] papyri is a conservative version of Official Aramaic. The language used is virtually identical to the language employed in the fifth-century Elephantine papyri . . . . 

The hundreds of short inscriptions found in Samaria dating to the late Persian and Hellenistic Periods suggest that the Samarians wrote and spoke the same language as the Judeans did during this time. Aramaic evidently was employed, as it was in other provinces in western Asia, as the language of governance and international diplomacy. Hebrew was employed, but not restricted to, certain official or sacred purposes. The scribes of both communities employed a similar system of scripts, an Aramaic script for diplomatic and commercial activities and a Hebrew script (the so-called palaeo-Hebrew) for certain religious purposes . . . Both the Judeans and the Samarians used the two scripts as late as the Hellenistic era. (Knoppers, 273f)

The names of persons between the two provinces are similar, both pointing to a religious affiliation with Yahweh worship.

The linguistic and religious features of onomastica can be used to provide some indication of their bearers’ religious identities. One may begin by observing the large number of proper names shared with Judah. . . . 

In addition to the Yahwistic nomenclature found within the Samaria papyri, Yahwistic names have also been found on the legends of fourth-century Samarian coins. (Knoppers 2006: 275f)

There are also non-Yahwistic names, names with links to other deities, though some scholars would prefer to date these to the early Hellenistic era. Even so, one notes that they are Samarian and not from Yehud.

In contrast with the Samarian coins bearing Yahwistic appellatives, there are a few Samarian coins featuring non-Yahwistic theophorics. One Samarian coin type with the divine name ‘Zeus’ (ΙΕΥΣ) is attested, along with an image of this deity . . . On the reverse of this coin is the name ׳Jeho’anah’ (yhw’nh). On yet another coin one finds the face and short form of the name of the god ‘[Hera]cles’. . . . The appearance of these Greek deities may indicate a stronger western cultural influence in Samaria than in contemporary Yehud . . . . (Knoppers 2006: 277)

But the Yahwistic names are far more numerous:

Neither did Samaria post 722 become a majority non-Yahwistic province; the names of Samarians mentioned in the fourth-century Samaria Papyri in the fourth century are overwhelmingly Yahwistic. (Leith 274)

As for the material evidence of religious developments in these two areas, there is nothing to indicate any difference from the pre-Assyrian and pre-Babylonian monarchic periods of Israel and Judah.

There was no “religious revolution” in Yehûd or in Samaria that can be drawn from the account of the material culture. Even if there was a ‘material otherness’ of the Yehûdite material culture, Judaism was not the outcome of a revolution and a deliberate distinctiveness. (Fravel and Psychny 19)

The message is that there was cultic or religious continuity from the time both regions were independent kingdoms through to the time they became separate Persian provinces.

What did that common and long standing religious life look like?

Yahweh worship in the Kingdom of Israel continues through the Persian era

In the above context one should take special note of the evidence for the continuity of religious practices of the people of the Kingdom of Israel through to the Persian province of Samaria. We had a glimpse of aspects of the Samarian cult in an earlier post so I won’t repeat what I posted there but supplement it a little.

Around 800 BCE an Israelite settlement (from the northern kingdom of Israel) of what appears to have been a group of Israelites sent by the king of Israel to establish within the southernmost borders of the kingdom of Judah. The site is known to us as Kuntillet Ajrud (meaning “the isolated hill of the water sources”). The Kingdom of Judah had earlier established a fortress at Kadesh Barnea but this had been abandoned at the time of the Kuntillet Ajrud settlement.

Evidently, the founders of Ajrud did not want to occupy the fortress because of its Judean identity. They preferred to found a new site, in a less comfortable location with a meagre water source, 15 km off the main road, rather than settle in a place associated with a Judean tradition. (Meshel 67)

How do we know it was a distinctively (northern) Israelite site and not a (southern) Judahite one? Some of the clues:

  • Inscriptions at the site specifically document “YHWH of Samaria”
  • the site’s personal names use the Samarian “yw” as opposed to the Judean “yaho” to refer to YHWH
  • the pottery is Samarian style
  • the script is Phoenician (as used in Israel)

The site was short-lived, being abandoned by around 750 BCE.

The artwork at Kuntillet Ajrud is clearly related to the images on Samarian coins and therefore throws more light on Samarian religion of the Persian era. The images in the left column are from eighth century Kuntillet Ajrud and their comparable Samarian Persian coin images on the right.

1. Cow and calf: coin inscribed with “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah” – Symbol of mother goddess;
2. Ibexes [goats] flanking blossoming tree (see below);
3. Bes, Egypto-Phoenician dwarf deity of life and prosperity;
4. Harpist on chair; Samarian coin of nude harpist with Egyptian goddess Hathor’s headdress in front;
5. Lion – frequent image in Israelite coins; an image of Yahweh? or a goddess “mistress of lions”? (Images and notes from Leith)
Referring to the second from the top, a pair of ibex flanking a tree, Leith writes:

This motif was a common one throughout the ancient Near East for centuries, but is not a known coin motif anywhere except fourth-century Samaria. The uniqueness of the coin image and the inscribed letters Š-M-R (abbreviation for ‘Samaria’) on the coin reverse suggest this particular coin was specifically designed to communicate Samarian identity. . . .  The goat and tree motif is plausibly linked with the goddess Asherah. (Leith 276)

Here is a photo of the original image:

For clarity, here is a sketched outline of that tree:

And here is a copy of Russell Gmirkin’s recent comment:

A key aspect of the Iron II cult of Asherah was a pole or rod. A contemporary representation of this rod appears at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, where a picture of a stylized sacred tree flanked by ibexes appears on Pithos A where it is thought to represent Asherah as a fertility goddess (Leith 2014: 276; Asherah is associated with flocks of sheep or goats at Deut. 7:13; 28:4, 18, 51). This sacred tree corresponds in great detail to the blooming rod of Aaron, the symbol of his priesthood, with its buds, blossoms and almonds (Num. 17:8), which was laid up in the sacred ark in the tabernacle (Num. 17:10; cf. Heb. 9:4).

“It is difficult to imagine a more precise pictorial representation of the object described verbally in the Pentateuchal account than this drawing. The central element of the drawing plainly resembles a staff. It is adorned with six buds alternating with eight blossoms. And at the top are two elements shaped like almonds in the shell and speckled with dots that match the pockmarks typical of these shells.” (Eichler 2019: 36.)

It would appear that the Priestly author, perhaps along with Ezekiel, did not find the Asherah objectionable, and included this flowering staff among the most precious contents preserved in the sacred ark (Eichler 2019: 40-41). This sacred staff later featured in the account of Moses striking the rock to obtain water in Num. 20:1-13 (Eichler 2019: 41-45). The sacred tree flanked by rampant goats is an image that also uniquely recurs in fourth-century BCE Samarian coinage, along with other imagery also depicted at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (Leith 2014). This seems to indicate the persistence of the Asherah as revered sacred tree at a late date in Samaria.

It would appear that if we are looking at a Hellenistic provenance for the Hebrew Bible, the biblical tropes themselves go back much earlier.


Eichler, Raanan. “The Priestly Asherah.” Vetus Testamentum 69, no. 1 (January 21, 2019): 33–45.

Frevel, Christian, and Katharina Pyschny. “A ‘Religious Revolution’ in Yehûd? The Material Culture of the Persian Period as a Test Case: Introduction.” In A “Religious Revolution” in Yehûd?: The Material Culture of the Persian Period as a Test Case, edited by Christian Frevel, Katharina Pyschny, and Izak Cornelius, 1–22. Fribourg: Academic Press, 2014.

Knoppers, Gary. “In Search of Postexilic Israel: Samaria After the Fall of the Northern Kingdom.” In In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar, edited by J. Day, 150–80. JSOTSup 406. London: T. & T. Clark Continuum, 2004.

Knoppers, Gary N. “Revisiting the Samarian Question in the Persian Period.” In Judah and the Judeans in the Persian Period, edited by Oded Lipschits and Manfred Oeming, 265–90. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2006.

Leith, Mary Joan Winn. “Religious Continuity in Israel/Samaria: Numismatic Evidence.” In A “Religious Revolution” in Yehûd?: The Material Culture of the Persian Period as a Test Case, edited by Christian Frevel, Katharina Pyschny, and Izak Cornelius, 267–304. Fribourg: Academic Press, 2014.

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.

Miller, J. Maxwell, and John H. Hayes. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. 2nd edition. Louisville, Ky. London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Uehlinger, Christoph. “‘Powerful Persianisms’ in Glyptic Iconography of Persian Period Palestine.” In The Crisis of Israelite Religion: Transformation of Religious Tradition in Exilic and Post-Exilic Times, edited by Bob Becking and Marjo C. A. Korpel, 134–82. Brill, 1999.



2024-04-15

Samaria in the Persian Period

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

by Neil Godfrey

Our quest is to test the thesis that the earliest books of the Bible were written or at least heavily redacted and supplemented in the Persian period. To that end we have been trying to understand what Persian era candidate “biblical” societies were like. We’ve looked at Judeans in Persian times according to the evidence in both the Persian province of Yehud and their “brethren” in Egypt, so for the next stop we will have a look at the “Samarians”. Samarians may seem unusual against our more familiar Samaritans . . .

The Samarians (no “t”) of the Persian period are not to be confused with the Samaritans of the first century CE. (Betlyon 27)

We are talking about the people who inhabited the “biblical northern kingdom of Israel” after the biblical united kingdom of David and Solomon divided between “Israel” in the north and “Judah” in the south. After the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom they established in its place the province of “Samerina”, but in subsequent Persian times we speak of the Samarians.

Samaria, though subservient to imperial overlords, continued to be a major administrative centre.

When Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, Cyrus and his successors retained Samaria as the administrative center in the “Province Beyond the River [Euphrates]” and placed it under the governorship of Sanballat. Excavators have discovered a large garden area (.25 m-thick; 45 x 50 m) that surrounded the district governor’s palace there. A fifth-century Athenian coin, three Sidonian coins from the reign of Abdastart I (370-358 BCE), fourteen Aramaic ostraca, plus significant quantities of pottery imported from Aegean centers during the late sixth to late fourth centuries BCE . . . all attest to the solvency of the Ephraimite economy . . . . (Tappy 583)

Coins

Ancient coinage in general can provide significant information not only about the economic, but also the political, cultural and religio-historical state of affairs of a city or province. Coins were commissioned by those in power, were often used to communicate specific values and ideas and served as mass medium in Antiquity. Accordingly, the images appearing on them were not randomly chosen but selected with great precision and reflect a certain ‘spirit’. (Wyssmann 222)

The sampling here is taken from Wyssmann’s study and were selected on the basis of having been more probable than not minted in the province of Samaria itself. The inscriptions on Samarian coins were in Aramaic, Paleo-Hebrew and Greek letters. Greek gods appear along with names of Persian satraps and Samarian governors.

These images have been selected from Wyssmann, Patrick: “The Coinage Imagery of Samaria and Judah in the Late Persian Period” 2014.

Man wearing Persian dress with bird’s tail and two pairs of wings. A “human-headed bird deity”?
Crowned bearded man on throne reminds us of the Persian king. But the adjacent inscription ZEYΣ (=ZEUS). Some scholars claim ‘Zeus’ refers to the Greek name of Baal or Baalshamen and Yhwh respectively who were already equated in Samaria in pre-Persian times.
Draped bearded man on throne holding blossom. This is an adaptation of Baal of Tarsos. The name behind him is Hananyah. A Samarian governor with a theophoric name (including Yah [=Yahweh]) thus had no trouble being associated with Baal.
The inscription between the two figures = Jeroboam (a Samarian governor). Some scholars have interpreted the scene as Jeroboam (right) being blessed by the (naked) god on the left. Or it might be a scene of worship of a local god (Yhwh?)
Some interpret the woman to be Aphrodite, others a city goddess, Tyche.
Common female heads were Athena, Arethusa and Gorgo Medusa.
Heracles, who was connected with the Phoenician god Melqart.

The Wadi Daliyeh finds

The Samaria papyri from Wadi Daliyeh provide us with precious information regarding some of the inhabitants of Samaria, including some of its officials.  (Dušek 2020, 2)

The cache of papyri, coins, jewelry, pottery were deposited in a cave in Wadi Daliyeh by people fleeing from Samaria as Alexander the Great was on his way back there after the city had rebelled against his recent conquest by burning his appointed governor alive (according to Josephus). Those who hid in the cave were probably found and suffocated by a fire Alexander’s troops lit at the cave’s entrance.

Wadi ed-Daliyeh in relation to Samaria: From researchgate

The following notes are taken from Dušek 2007:

  • Names on the papyri contain theophoric elements relating to Yahweh (mostly) but also El, Ab, Nabu, Shamash, Sahar, Šalman, Bel, Baga, Sîn, Baal, Isis, Ilahi et Qôs.
  • Clay seals include images of Hermes, Heracles and Perseus.

The following images are from Lapp, Paul W., and Nancy L. Lapp, eds. Discoveries in the Wadi Ed-Daliyeh. American Schools of Oriental Research, 1974.

Possibly the Greek hero Jason
Heracles, nude, with club on the left and fighting a lion.
Scarab with goddess wearing crown of Egyptian goddess Hathor, incense altar, Horus hawk, papyrus flower.

According to the onomastics of the Wadi Daliyeh manuscripts, the population of the province of Samaria would have been quite diverse: most of the names are Yahwist; in the other names, the theophoric elements El, Ab, Šamaš, Sahar, Bel, Baga, Sîn, Nabu, Šalman, Ba’al, Isis, Ilahi and Qôs refer to West Semitic, North Arabic, Aramaic onomastics, Hebrew, Babylonian, Phoenician, Egyptian, Persian and Idumean. We also identified a possible Assyrian name and a name expressing ethnic origin. As we have suggested, not all of these people were likely inhabitants of the province of Samaria; in certain cases it may have been merchants who were traveling, or slaves sold in Samaria, but originating from other provinces. The variety of the population of the province of Samaria can be explained on the one hand by the great prosperity of the region and by political stability which favored settlement in the territory of the province, and on the other hand by the deportations of populations in the province of Samaria before the Persian era. (Dušek 2007, 601 – translation)

Mount Gerizim

One of the most astonishing discoveries was unearthed by a team of archaeologists led by Yitzhak Magen, who excavated a site in Samaria at Jabal al-Tur, one of the three peaks of Mount Gerizim, from 1982–2006. They identified a Yahwist sacred precinct active from the 5th century BCE until its destruction in the mid–late 2nd century BCE.4

4 It is unclear if this sacred precinct included an actual temple building, despite the suggestions of the excavators in Magen, Mount Gerizim Excavations Volume II . For further discussion, see Pummer, “Was There an Altar?”. (Economou 155)

That’s another topic, though.


Betlyon, John W. “A People Transformed Palestine in the Persian Period.” Near Eastern Archaeology 68, no. 1/2 (2005): 4–58.

Dušek, J. Les Manuscrits Araméens Du Wadi Daliyeh Et La Samarie Vers 450-332 Av. J.-C. Leiden ; Boston: BRILL, 2007.

Dušek, Jan. “The Importance of the Wadi Daliyeh Manuscripts for the History of Samaria and the Samaritans.” Religions 11, no. 2 (January 29, 2020): 63. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11020063.

Economou, Michael. “The Aramaic Inscriptions from Mount Gerizim: Production, Identity, and Resistance.” Journal of Ancient Judaism 15, no. 1 (October 16, 2023): 154–73. https://doi.org/10.30965/21967954-bja10032.

Lapp, Paul W., and Nancy L. Lapp, eds. Discoveries in the Wadi Ed-Daliyeh. American Schools of Oriental Research, 1974. http://archive.org/details/discoveriesinwad0041delb.

Lemche, Niels Peter. “Samaritans in History and Tradition.” In Samaritans and Jews in History and Tradition, by Ingrid Hjelm. Taylor & Francis, 2024.

Tappy, Ron E. The Archaeology of Israelite Samaria. Volume 2: The Eighth Century BCE. Brill, 2001.

Wyssmann, Patrick. “The Coinage Imagery of Samaria and Judah in the Late Persian Period.” In A “Religious Revolution” in Yehûd? The Material Culture of the Persian Period as a Test Case, edited by Christian Frevel, Katharina Pyschny, and Izak Cornelius, 221–66. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 267. Fribourg: Academic Press, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/9216977/The_Coinage_Imagery_of_Samaria_and_Judah_in_the_Late_Persian_Period.



2024-04-12

No Evidence Jerusalem/Judea had a “Writing Culture” in Persian times — Israel Finkelstein

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

by Neil Godfrey

I have transcribed the last ten minutes of the archaeologist Israel Finkelstein’s December 2022 Conference presentation because it dovetails with my recent posts and discussion points about the evidence relating to the composition of biblical texts in the Persian era.

If Jerusalem — nor the whole of Judea — had a “Writing Culture” in Persian times, we need to take a few steps back from the conventional view in biblical studies that it was in the Persian period that our principle biblical books were taking shape.

Scholars have long relied upon the texts of Ezra-Nehemiah and some chapters of the prophets to conclude that priests and scribes connected to the Jerusalem temple were busily shaping the biblical material (especially the Pentateuch) during this time.

Next to the biblical sources that are set explicitly in the Persian period, scholarship generally dates several other writings or parts of biblical books to this period. From the plethora of the material we will simply look at one (significant) example: the completion of the Jewish law in the form of the Pentateuch, the Torah of Moses, a document of which more than half was written or composed in the post‐monarchial period, i.e. during neo‐Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic times. Especially the multiple‐layered literary stratum, commonly called “Priestly Writing”, is best explained in reference to the second temple period. (Kratz, Biblical Sources 141)

Do archaeological finds support or cast doubt on that scenario? To ask a disturbing question: Is it more likely that the biblical narratives were completely unknown until after the conquests of Alexander the Great opened the way to Greek cultural domination of the “Near East”? But Israel Finkelstein does not broach that question. His conference presentation was limited to what the archaeological evidence can tell us about Jerusalem and Yehud (the Persian province name for Judea) in the Persian time slot.

The minute-and-second markers are approximate. I have used square brackets and dots to substitute for words I could not pick up from the soundtrack of the video. The images I have added were used by Finkelstein in his slide presentation but I have taken them from other publications where possible. The video presentation is available at the University of Haifa’s Yahwism under the Achaemenid empire site – scroll down to select the Prof. Israel Finkelstein (University of Haifa) : Archaeology’s Black Hole: Jerusalem and Yehud/Judea in the Persian and Early Hellenistic Periods link.

My transcript:

23 min:40 sec

As I have already suggested, Yehud was ruled from the small temple village in Jerusalem which was located on the temple mount and which had a limited population. Still, its status as the capital of the province . . . I mean we have to admit it’s clear from the Elephantine papyrus, from the seal impressions, and seemingly also from the high level of silver in the Yehud coins which seems to be related to the role in the temple economy. 

Based on the interpretation of the literary sources, the population of Persian period Yehud had been estimated to have numbered up to 150,000 souls.

24:30

More reasonable archaeology-based studies have estimated a population of the province to have been between 20 and 30,000 people. Yet the latter number, too, seems to be somewhat inflated. Scholars use too big density coefficients, that is to say people per built up hectare, to be estimates for the population of Jerusalem that is not realistic archaeologically, and too big estimates for the extension of Yehud.

I repeat, my own figures are based on scrutiny of the archaeological data per se yet limiting it to the area from north of Beth Zur to Mizpeh and from the Dead Sea to the border between the Highlands and the Shephalah.

Finkelstein, Israel. “The Territorial Extent and Demography of Yehud/Judea in the Persian and Early Hellenistic Periods.” Revue Biblique (1946-) 117, no. 1 (2010): 39–54.

As far as I can judge, and you can see on the screen, the total bit of area in Yehud is estimated around 60 hectares. 

25:30

Employing a density coefficient of about 200 people to one built-up hectare the population of the entire province of Yehud in the Persian period including Jerusalem would be about 12000 people, comparable to the population of Jerusalem alone in the late Iron II [i.e. the period of the presumed biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah before the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE] and the late Hellenistic period. 

This comes to about 15%, only, of the population of the Highlands part of Iron IIB and C Judah. These demographic estimates work against scholars who tend to belittle the scope of the catastrophe that befell Judah in 586 BC. At the same time they contradict the notion of massive waves of returnees to Yehud. They also seem to lessen the importance of the population of Yehud relative to the elite deportees in Babylonia. In the production of exilic and post-exilic biblical texts and in shaping the nature of early post-exilic Judaism.

26:30

Material Culture

So let’s turn to material culture.

The demographic deterioration which I have just described and the poor state of the population of Yehud find expression in two items of material culture. 

First, the disappearance of elaborate rock cut burials, especially in Jerusalem, but also in the countryside of Judah. These indicate that compared to the Iron II c elite groups shrink dramatically. 

Second, the evidence for scribal activity. Probably even more important.

Faigenbaum-Golovin, Shira, Arie Shaus, Barak Sober, Yana Gerber, Eli Turkel, Eli Piasetzky, and Israel Finkelstein. “Literacy in Judah and Israel: Algorithmic and Forensic Examination of the Arad and Samaria Ostraca.” Near Eastern Archaeology 84, no. 2 (June 1, 2021): 148–58. https://doi.org/10.1086/714070.

So, whilst scribal activity in late monarchic Judah is demonstrated by the corpora of ostraca of […] Arad, Lachish, Uza, Malhata, Kadesh-barnea and other places. The spread of literacy is also attested in the proliferation of the inscribed seals and seal impressions.

27:30

The most striking evidence for the dissemination of literacy in Judah comes from the work of the Digital Epigraphy team at the Tel Aviv University which has been directed by Eli Piasetzky and me. Algorithmic based comparison of handwriting identified five authors in sixteen Arad ostraca with enough data for analysis representing the entire echelon of the Judahite military system down to the assistant quartermaster of the fort.

Faigenbaum-Golovin, Shira, Arie Shaus, Barak Sober, Yana Gerber, Eli Turkel, Eli Piasetzky, and Israel Finkelstein. “Literacy in Judah and Israel: Algorithmic and Forensic Examination of the Arad and Samaria Ostraca.”

Now forensic examination by the entire chief handwriting expert of Israel’s police extended the number of authors of these sixteen ostraca even farther. This shows that the recognition of the power of writing spread in the Judahite administration far beyond temple and palace. 

28:30

Late monarchic Judah became what I can describe (all of us can describe I suppose) as a “writing society”. This was probably the end outcome of the century when Judah was dominated by Assyria and was incorporated into the sphere of the Assyrian global economy, administration and culture. 

This impressive evidence for scribal infrastructure in Judah disappeared – I repeat – disappeared after the 586 BC destruction. In the Babylonian and Persian period the southern highlands show almost no evidence of Hebrew – underline Hebrew – inscriptions. In fact, the only meagre evidence comes from a few letters on a few Yehud coins which date to the fourth century. And coins can hardly attest in my opinion to general scribal activity. 

29:30

This means that not a single linguistic inscription is known for the period between 586 and 350, not an ostracon, nor a seal, not a seal impression, nor a bulla. 

In short, there is no evidence for Hebrew writing culture in Yehud

One could argue for production of literary works on papyri in the temple. (I put in this picture only as an example.)

This is possible of course, though I find it extremely difficult that nothing of this activity leaked to other media of writing. I’m not suggesting here that the knowledge of writing Hebrew disappeared altogether, because such a statement would contradict the revival of Hebrew in the second century Hasmonean state. But scribal activity declined dramatically. This should come as no surprise. 

30:30

The destruction of Judah brought about the collapse of the kingdom’s bureaucracy and the deportation of many of the educated intelligentsia, the literati. The vinedressers and [ploughmen] who “remained in the land” (to use the biblical expression) were hardly capable of producing written documents.


Excursus: Bethel

Before I close I wish to briefly refer to Bethel – outside the territory of Yehud. Since Bethel has been mentioned in scholarly discussions as the “repository” of biblical texts, mainly northern ones in the Babylonian and Persian period. And I refer for instance to a very important article by Knauf [I am deducing that the link points to the article Finkelstein is referencing.]

A few years ago Lily Singer-Avitz and I revisited the finds with … site. All the published reports and the unpublished in storage in Jerusalem and in Pittsburgh. We actually went to Pittsburgh to look at the pottery. 

31:30

The results of our investigation indicated that the settlement history of this site was not continuous as held by the excavators based on an uncritical reading of the biblical text by the excavators. Rather it was characterized by oscillations, with two periods of strong activity in the Iron I, Iron IIB and Hellenistic periods; two periods of decline, in the Late Iron IIA and Iron IIC, and two periods of probable abandonment in the Early Iron IIA and more significantly in the Babylonian and Persian periods. 

This evidence cannot be brushed aside as stemming from deficiencies in the excavations, as significant sectors of this small mound, bigger than [. . .?]  have been excavated. They did not yield Persia period finds.

32:30

So, the meaning of this:

The data presented here, the archaeology of Jerusalem, the settlement and demographic situation in Yehud and the poor evidence for scribal activity cast doubt on the notion of major activity of composition of biblical texts in Jerusalem in the Persian period. 

My humble advice is twofold.

First, to try to date as much material as possible to periods in Judah-Judea that demonstrate widespread scribal activity and literacy in all media and all forms of inscriptions – that is, the later phases of the Iron Age and the late Hellenistic period after 200 BC, perhaps even later [….?] For lack of time I refrain from dealing with this question in detail.

33:30

My second advice is that for the era between 600/586 and 200 BC, especially the Babylonian and Persian periods to place the compilation of as much material as possible in Babylonia and in Egypt. This has recently been advocated by Thomas Römer my friend in the footsteps of others and others.  Of course I accept that there must have been some continuity in the production of literary works in […?]  One can imagine for instance a secluded, educated priestly group near the temple. But even this is not an eloquent solution, as I mentioned before would have expected something from this scribal activity to leak to daily life, and nothing did. In short, I too am tantalized by this fact and can only urge scholars not to ignore the archaeological evidence despite the fact that at times it is mainly negative and even if it threatens to shatter fad-driven theories. 

34:30

And what about the armies under the Achaemenid empire? As I said in the beginning of my talk, with evidence coming solely from military texts (mostly) and with no clue from archaeology I would only advise that we be exceedingly cautious in addressing this thing, too.

—o0o—


2024-04-11

Questioning the Hellenistic Date for the Hebrew Bible — continuing

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by Neil Godfrey

I am continuing here with my responses to criticisms raised on the earlywritings forum. The next objection raised was:

I can’t help feeling that proponents of a Hellenistic origin of the Old Testament must postulate conditions in the early Hellenistic period for which (at least IMO) we have no direct evidence and which (at least IMO) are prima-facie improbable, but which are necessary in order for the Old Testament to be produced at that time.

My response:

I think the reverse is actually the case. The Hellenistic era hypothesis is grounded in the normative approach to evidence that we expect to find among historians of any other field.

1. No independent evidence for….

There is no independent evidence, archaeological or literary, for the existence of the biblical literature prior to the Hellenistic period. There is no “postulate” there — it’s the reality, as we know. (Of course that fact alone does not disprove the existence of biblical literature prior to the Hellenistic era, but nor is it a fact that should be ignored.)

2. Evidence exists for….

The independent evidence prior to the Hellenistic era (including the Persian era) that we do have actually witnesses against knowledge of any of the biblical literature (e.g. Elephantine). I suggest that the circularity enters when one begins with the assumption that there was some Pentateuchal type literature and that the persons who left us the pre-hellenistic evidence probably had it in mind — only did not see fit to inscribe it in the data that has come down to us. Or the surviving evidence was written by a person (Herodotus) who unfortunately wrote a few years too soon before the Pentateuchal cult developments were under way in Palestine.

To interrupt my reply for a moment…. I have been posting some of that evidence in the past few days. Here is another quotation from Reinhard Kratz that elaborates on the above point. It begins by pointing out that the idea of “biblical Judaism” simply must be seen as an anomaly in the light of existing evidence:

Contemporary scholarship often considers the Judean colony at Elephantine an exception that proves the rule. Some contend this religious diversity first emerged in Egypt, where military service brought Jews into close connection with Arameans who venerated the god Bethel (cf. Jer. 48:13) as well as the Queen of Heaven, also attested in pre-exilic Judah (cf. Jer. 7:18; 44:15ff.). Others, by contrast, assert the Judeans of Elephantine preserved and transmitted an older, pre-exilic form of syncretistic Yahwism imported from northern Palestine, where—as the Hebrew Bible contends—Israelite Yhwh devotion alloyed with elements of Canaanite and Aramean religion. Yet a different explanation seems far more reasonable to me: rather than Elephantine and the Judeans of Egypt, it was the Hebrew Bible and biblical Judaism that were the exception to the rule, even into the Persian period. Accordingly, the situation at Elephantine would typify Judaism of the Persian epoch, a standard manifestation not only in the Israelite–Samarian region but also in Judah itself.

Despite drawing that conclusion from the data/facts available, Kratz still finds a place for “biblical Judaism” — surely a speculative notion given the absence of evidence, and an unlikely one at that given that we have no way from the available evidence to see how such an anomaly could have arisen:

Biblical Judaism, then, would stand as one specific faction’s ideal. By no means presupposed by all Judeans or Yhwh-devotees during the post-state period, this ideal would have developed slowly and alongside other forms in pre-exilic and post-exilic times, achieving general acceptance only in the Hellenistic-Roman era. Accordingly, the situation at Elephantine would typify Judaism of the Persian epoch, a standard manifestation not only in the Israelite–Samarian region but also in Judah itself. Biblical Judaism, then, would stand as one specific faction’s ideal. By no means presupposed by all Judeans or Yhwh-devotees during the post-state period, this ideal would have developed slowly and alongside other forms in pre-exilic and post-exilic times, achieving general acceptance only in the Hellenistic-Roman era.

Kratz returns to underscoring the evidence that stands against his speculation:

Objections to this interpretation of the evidence might consider the archives of Elephantine, largely documents from daily life, incomparable to the biblical literature in terms of genre, which could then prohibit any broader conclusions on Judaism at the time. However, the conceptions and norms of biblical literature — had they won validity in the first place — would have certainly found reflection in one way or another in the realm of everyday life and therefore in the practical texts of everyday life, especially in the sphere of religion and cultic practice. As already shown above, they reflect no such norms and concepts. Moreover, not only practical but also literary texts have surfaced among the papyri from Elephantine. Though only two in number, these literary texts fully compete with biblical literature in terms of genre and literary quality. Concerning personal conduct and its compatibility with the demands of biblical literature, common divine veneration provides an unambiguous instance. In Egypt, as in Palestine, Yahu/Yhwh was undoubtedly the highest god, i.e., the “God of Heaven.” Nevertheless, the documents from Elephantine clearly show that other divine beings and even deities received veneration alongside Yahu himself. Communication with the deities of other peoples developed easily and informally as well. (Kratz 143)

Gard Granerød likewise continues to maintain the existence of the religion, or at least a “dimension” of the Judean religion, despite the evidence:

Again, what was Judaean religion in the Persian period like? Indeed, its centre was the god YHWH/YHW/YHH. However, the Judaean religion had many facets, that is, it had many dimensions, above all because it was directed towards multiple places. Thus, from a religio-historical point of view, poly-Yahwism continued to be a characteristic of Judaean religion even in the Persian period. (Granerød 339)

Es gibt im Judentum von Elephantine nicht nur keinerlei Hinweis auf die Existenz einer »Bibel«, es gibt im Gegenteil deutliche Hinweise auf die Nicht-Existenz einer Bibel. Als es die Tora dann als solche gab, macht sie sich auch bemerkbar: seit ca. 375 ist die Münzprägung von Yehud/Jerusalem anikonisch, das Bilderverbot ist in Kraft. Die Münzen von Samaria bleiben ikonisch, denn auch die Tora ist noch nicht so eindeutig monotheistisch, wie ihre Rezeptionsgeschichte es nahelegt. Als Kompromiß vereinigt die Tora den impliziten Monotheismus der P-Tradition (es gibt nur einen Gott, aber er hat verschiedene Namen bei und verschiedene Beziehungen zu der Menschheit insgesamt, den Abraham-Völkern und Israel) mit dem programmatischen Henotheismus der D-Tradition (die nachdrückliche Forderung, Jhwh allein zu verehren macht nur Sinn in einem Kontext, in dem die Verehrung anderer Götter eine reale Möglichkeit darstellt). Aber damit beginnt ein ganz neues Kapitel der Religionsgeschichte Israels. Das weitere Geschick der vor biblischen Juden von Elephantine ist uns unbekannt; ihre Geschichte endet hier.  (Knauf’s original text)

Ernst Knauf, however, is surely right to draw conclusions that the evidence alone will justify:

Not only is there no indication in Elephantine Judaism of the existence of a “Bible,” there is, on the contrary, clear evidence of the non-existence of a Bible. When the Torah existed as such, it also makes itself felt: since about 375 the coinage of Yehud/Jerusalem is aniconic, the prohibition of images is in force. The coins of Samaria remain iconic, for even the Torah is not yet as clearly monotheistic as its reception history suggests. As a compromise, the Torah unites the implicit monotheism of the P tradition (there is only one God, but he has different names with and different relationships to humanity at large, the Abrahamic peoples, and Israel) with the programmatic henotheism of the D tradition (the emphatic demand to worship Yhwh alone makes sense only in a context in which the worship of other gods is a real possibility). But with this a whole new chapter of Israel’s religious history begins. The further fate of the pre-biblical Jews of Elephantine is unknown to us; their story ends here.  (Knauf 187 – translation)

Resuming my initial reply on the earlywritings forum….

3. The conventional eras and the “hermeneutic circle”

The conventional model of the Documentary Hypothesis has been demonstrated to be based on invalid reasoning. This error came about as a result of the bias of assuming from the outset that there was some historical core behind the OT narratives and then seeking to place strands of the OT in a diachronic order that matched that presumed historical core. (e.g. Wellhausen placed the P source last because it represented a “legalistic” response to a more “spiritual” religion of an earlier time, mirroring the general Christian assumption at the time that “good Judaism” degenerated over time into “Pharisaic legalism”.) Indeed there are many arguments based on testing biblical literature with pre-hellenistic scripts and language and so forth, but these all arise from the above fallacy, I suggest.

4. Evidence also exists for….

Our earliest independent evidence (both archaeological and literary) for the existence of any of the biblical literature is in the Hellenistic era. The scrolls found in the caves of Qumran.

5. Conclusion:

It is prima facie reasonable to begin our investigation into conditions in the Hellenistic era to see if they can explain the appearance of the biblical literature (not only its physical existence but its genres, languages, ideas, narratives, laws, etc.) and how these conditions compare with those extant in earlier times. — Always balancing those inquiries into earlier times against #2 and #3 above.

I followed up the above reply with an extract from a article that compares the methodological errors of Pentateuchal study with something similar that once occurred in Classics:

Concerning Pentateuch research, Eckart Otto has recently posed the question: “What went wrong in the last two hundred years . . .?” . . . . It is of greatest importance when somebody who belongs to the most important Pentateuch researchers asks such a fundamental question. . …

Something similar has happened to the scholarship of Roman Law. After decades of hunting interpolations of the classical Roman Law in the Corpus Iuris Civilis, about 30 years ago the legal historians became aware that there was something wrong in the foundations or, to be more precise, in the methods and assumptions. . . .

Nowadays everybody asks themselves how such brilliant scholars could have fallen into the trap of arbitrariness and uncontrolled subjectivity in this field of research.

In my opinion, a similar turning point has come for Pentateuch research now.

Armgardt, Matthias. “Why a Paradigm Change in Pentateuch Research Is Necessary – The Perspective of Legal History“, in: Matthias Armgardt, Benjamin Kilchör, Markus Zehnder (Eds.), Paradigm Change in Pentateuchal Research, 2019, P.79.


Granerød, Gard, and Granerod. Dimensions of Yahwism in the Persian Period: Studies in the Religion and Society of the Judaean Community at Elephantine. Berlin ; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016.

Knauf, Ernst Axel. “Elephantine Und Das Vor-Biblische Judentum.” In Religion Und Religionskontakte Im Zeitalter Der Achämeniden, edited by Reinhard G. Kratz, 179–88. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlaghaus, 2002.

Kratz, Reinhard G. Historical and Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah. Translated by Paul Michael Kurtz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.



2024-04-10

Judah and Samaria in Persian Times — the Evidence (and a way out of a quandary)

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

by Neil Godfrey

Having surveyed what the archaeological evidence tells us about religious practices of the Judeans in Elephantine (see the previous post) let’s now compare the evidence for Judah and Samaria in the same period. This time I am quoting only two sources, a chapter by Reinhard G. Kratz in A Companion to the Achaemenid Empire and a refreshingly new perspective from Annette Yoshiko Reed in her book Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism.

We saw in the Elephantine post the slide that sums up all that archaeology has given us and it’s nix. But Kratz finds a few epigraphical sources before turning to the biblical literature.

Epigraphical Sources

Inscribed stamps and seals attest to some external trade. They inform us that the region was called Yehud (yh, yhd, yhwd). Names of some governors are preserved. Samaria and Elephantine were fortress centres (p. 136) so Kratz suggests we can assume the administrative centre of Yehud was also a fortress. (He may be nudged to make that comparison because that is what Nehemiah 2:8; 7:2 attests.) On the basis of the Elephantine letters we can conclude that Jerusalem had a high priest and other priests as well as nobles and other officials.

There is a coin depicting a deity on a winged wheel. Not quite what we expected to find from the land of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Meshorer, Ya’akov. A Treasury of Jewish Coins. Amphora Books, 2001. p.2

We learn something of the ethnic makeup of the population from ostraca inscribed with personal names. There are names containing a form of Yhwh and El, as well as Aramaic, Phoenician, Edomite and Arabian personal and divine names. Three temples or sanctuaries are also mentioned: The Temple/House of Uzzah, … of Yahu, … of Nabu.

Apparently the cultic worship of the Judean‐Samarian deity Yahu was not limited to the “place that Yhwh will chose” (Deut. 12) during the fourth century BCE. The historical constellation represented in the epigraphic material appears not to differ from the one of the Judeans at Elephantine … or from the (Israelite) worshippers of Yhwh in the Province of Samaria. (Kratz 135)

North of Jericho have been found papyri that are . . .

. . . private deeds that first and foremost deal with the selling of slaves . . . The clay bullae and coins are of interest because of their iconography. Here too, the minting shows different (Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, and Greek) cultural influences and motifs, amongst them representations of deities and naked men. Especially significant is a coin that shows a portrait and inscription of the god Zeus on one side and has a Yahwistic name on the reverse . . . (p. 135)

In Samaria….

Here we have – especially amongst the owners, contractual partners, and slaves – mostly Israelite‐Judean names; next to them and especially amongst the witnesses for the deeds and the officials there exists a plethora of Aramaic, Phoenician, Edomite, Akkadian, and Persian names. . . . [T[he situation is reminiscent of the situation in Judah and Elephantine and implies the same historical constellation: we learn of a coexistence and cooperation of several ethnicities within the political structures of the Persian Empire. These ethnicities do not define their identity by a strict separation from each other; rather, they live side by side . . .  (pp 135f)

How can we know if “Samaria” was known as such?

The name Samaria is attested in its long form (šmryn/šmrn) as well as in abbreviations (šmr, šm, šn, š). The Persian satrapy of Transeuphrates is the superordinated political unit. Its satrap Mazaios/Masdaj is mentioned by its full name or in abbreviated form (mz) on coins: “Mazday who resides over Ebir‐nari and Cilicia” (mzdy zy ʿl ʿbr nhra wh. lk). Samaria itself had the status of a province (šmryn mdyntʾ) and was ruled by a governor (ph. t šmryn/šmrn). The capital is called a “fortress” (šmryn byrtʾ). In accordance to this terminology, the papyri are written “in the fortress Samaria (that is) in the Province of Samaria.” Coins mention a prefect (sgnʾ) and judges (dynʾ) as subordinate officials. (136)

And that’s about it for the epigraphical evidence relating to Judea and Samaria in Persian times on the basis of epigraphical sources.

Literary Sources

Reinhard G. Kratz

Kratz next turns to literary sources. It’s not looking good for those of us who are looking for independent evidence of the biblical narrative:

Literary sources that are attested archeologically in the Achaemenid period are only known to us from Elephantine: Here we have the “Words of Ahiqar” and an Aramaic version of the Bisitun inscription …. Otherwise we have to rely entirely on the biblical tradition and on the tradition dependent on it, such as the Jewish Antiquities of Flavius Josephus. (137)

While the literary sources from Elephantine fit well with what is dug up in Judah and Samaria, the biblical writing become something of an outlier:

In contrast to the literary works from Elephantine that fit well into the picture reflected by the epigraphic material, the biblical tradition contains a series of particularities. (137)

Everything we read in the Bible about this period appears to be at war with what we find in the ground:

Rather, the Bible seems to be highly critical toward the historical situation and even rejects it by creating its own religious counter‐world, a world that centers on the Torah of Moses and/or the biblical prophets . . . (137)

So what can the scholar honestly say about the facts of the Persian period Jehud and Samaria?

Here, one has to accept that one will hardly ever reach beyond a well (or less well) argued hypothesis. (138)

Kratz divides up the literary sources into two groups:

1. Writings set in the Persian period but not necessarily written so early:

  • Ezra-Nehemiah
  • 1 Esdras
  • Esther
  • Isaiah 44-45
  • Haggai
  • Zechariah
  • Daniel

In these writings the roughly 200 years of Persian rule over Judah and Samaria are condensed to three – if we add Esther, four – events:

(i) the end of the Babylonian exile and the rebuilding of the temple under Cyrus and Darius (2Chron. 36; Ezra 1–6 and 1 Esd.; Isa 44:28–45:13; Hag.; Zech. 1–8; Dan. 1;6 and 8–11);

(ii) the mission of Ezra under Artaxerxes (Ezra 7–10; Neh. 8; 1 Esd.);

(iii) the mission of Nehemiah under Artaxerxes (Neh. 1–13);

(iv) the rescue of the Jewish people under Xerxes (Esther).

(138 – my formatting)

Kratz claims that two of the above events find a point in actual history:

  • the rebuilding of the second temple
  • the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem

However, Kratz provides no evidence to support his declaration that these events at this time are “actual history”. As far as I can see he has relied entirely on the assumption that the unprovenanced biblical narratives relate genuine historical events.

Kratz again:

Two – possibly authentic – prophetic oracles from the time of the reconstruction of the temple have come down to us and are now incorporated into the book of Haggai: Hag 1:1.4.8 and 1:15–2:1.3.9a. (138)

But he is surely aware of the thin ice on which he stands:

Both prophetic books [i.e. Haggai and Zechariah] contain some Persian flavor, but we cannot derive reliable historical information from them. Even the role of Serubbabel and Joshua remains unclear as they both appear only in secondary, i.e. later, passages . . . . The same has to be said of the figure of Sheshbazzar, who is mentioned only in Ezra 1:7–11 and Ezra 5:14–16 (6:5?) and who cannot be placed historically . . . . (138)

Kratz assigned other writings such as sections of Isaiah to the Persian period. What historical value do they have?

The oracles in Isaiah 44–45 . . . , the narrative in Ezra 1–6 and 1 Esdras . . . , as well as the literary reflexes on the beginnings of Persian rule in the book of Daniel . . . , have to be seen as later literary creations that have little historical value. (138)

What about Ezra 5-6 that seems at face value to be “so historical”?

A comparison of the Aramaic narrative in Ezra 5–6  –  which is the literary nucleus of Ezra 1–6 where we find the older variant of the two versions of the famous edict of Cyrus (Ezra 1,1–4; 6,1–5) – with the papyri from Elephantine shows that this narrative appears to work with general historical knowledge and contains quite a bit of the flavor of the time. This, however, does not imply that the material has to be regarded as historical. Rather, Ezra 5–6 are written in the spirit of the biblical tradition and they are indebted to the Chronistic view of history (Kratz 2006). (139)

What about Nehemiah?

All the other passages of the book of Nehemiah, including those designating Nehemiah as “governor” (Neh. 5:1419; 12:26), are secondary literary supplements that were added to the building report in order to integrate Nehemiah into the (biblical) sacred history of the people of Israel, i.e. the people of God. Their historical appraisal stands on very shaky ground. (139)

Kratz acknowledges the crux of finding a way to prise history from Ezra-Nehemiah.

The evaluation of the mission of Ezra, reported in Ezra 7–10 and Neh 8–10, is most difficult . . . . His mission too is dated to the reign of a king called Artaxerxes. Scholarship generally identifies this king with Artaxerxes II since Nehemiah does not seem to presuppose Ezra. Such a dating operates on the premise that the Ezra memoir existed independently and is historical. This approach blends the historical and literary levels of the narrative. The historical fiction of the biblical tradition emphasizes that the same Artaxerxes is meant here. Ezra and Nehemiah are supposed to be contemporaries in order to complete the restitution of the people of Israel in the Province of Judah in accordance with the Mosaic law . . . Only in literary‐historical terms Ezra is younger than Nehemiah. (139)

We would love books that look like history to yield genuine history but we can’t always have what we want:

Historically, however, we can say little about Ezra. The Aramaic rescript in Ezra 7 forms the literary kernel of the Ezra narrative: Apart from bringing donations to Judah, Ezra is ordered to ensure the execution of the law (dat) of the Jewish God, that is identical to the law (dat) of the king, in the territory of Transeuphrates. The Hebrew narrative in which Ezra executes this order (Ezra 8–10; Neh. 8–10) is dependent on this rescript. The authenticity of the Aramaic rescript that once again is a mixture of Persian period flavor and biblical topoi continues to be disputed since the time of Eduard Meyer and Julius Wellhausen . . . . Despite the ongoing debate the authenticity is unlikely (Schwiderski 2000; Grätz 2004). The text reads like a foundation legend of the legal status of the Torah of Moses in Judaism and is comparable to the Letter of Aristeas reporting the origin of the Greek translation of the Torah in Alexandria under Ptolemy II. The historical background of the Ezra legend is probably the experience of the growing dissemination of the Torah as binding commitment in Judah and Samaria; this dissemination possibly started during the Persian period but came to full effect only in Hellenistic times. (139f)

What history can be gleaned from the book of Esther?

The book of Esther displays an extraordinary familiarity with details of the Persian court  –  commentaries generally quote the corresponding parallels from Herodotus and Xenophon. This general knowledge is supplemented with all kinds of fantastic details such as the marriage of the Xerxes to the Jewess Esther and woven into a narrative that portraits – in recourse to the biblical tradition  –  the situation of the Jews in the eastern diaspora . . . . (140)

In brief: it is a romantic novel that echoes Greek writing.

Kratz reminds us of what we should not need to be reminded. The fact that he says it at all is a regrettable commentary on so much traditional biblical scholarship:

The book of Esther is an instructive example that one should not use the flavor of a time to argue for the historicity of the events narrated or to deduce from it a date for the literary origin of the story. (140f)

That principle, Kratz notes, should also be applied to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Yet by far most discussions of Ezra-Nehemiah that I have encountered assume without question that those narratives are Persian era documents with historical underlay.

The example of Esther should also be used in the interpretation of Ezra‐Nehemiah. In both cases the Greek versions . . . . show that the legends about Israelites and Judeans during the Persian period  –  legends on which the self‐understanding of Judaism rests – were still relevant during Hellenistic times and were spun out further. (141)

To be a little more precise, it would be better to remove the qualifier “still” from “relevant” in the above. There is no evidence that they were ever relevant in the Persian era. The evidence we have surveyed testifies against the stories of Ezra-Nehemiah having any relevance in the Persian period.

2. Biblical sources dated to Persian times

This dating is a scholarly construct. It is not based on material evidence.

[S]cholarship generally dates several other writings or parts of biblical books to this period. From the plethora of the material we will simply look at one (significant) example: the completion of the Jewish law in the form of the Pentateuch, the Torah of Moses, a document of which more than half was written or composed in the post‐monarchial period, i.e. during neo‐Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic times. Especially the multiple‐layered literary stratum, commonly called “Priestly Writing”, is best explained in reference to the second temple period. (141)

Here we surely have an enigma. So far we have seen nothing at all in the evidence from the ground that would lead us to suspect anything like the biblical literature being a product of this time and place. On the contrary, what little we do see in epigraphical and the related archaeological evidence bluntly resists any compatibility with the themes of the Pentateuch. One has to imagine the authors of the Pentateuch shutting themselves off from society at large and writing in a way that is contrary to all that exists around them — and then shelving their work until it eventually takes root and is accepted in Hellenistic times.

As Kratz notes, the Pentateuch has the appearance of “multiple-layered literary strata”. When we read of “compromise between several rival groups”, should we necessarily assume this compromise was worked out over centuries?

The literary development has been interpreted as a compromise between several rival groups within Israel . . . (141)

Scholarship seeks an explanation within the Persian period:

. . . a compromise prompted by an initiative of the Persian authorities or as part of the Persian legal practice called imperial authorization. (141)

Again, we are entirely in the realm of unsupported hypothesis:

The historical hypothesis lacks any evidence and cannot be supported by the texts themselves. The literary development is undeniable but it can be shown only in a relative chronology of the literary strata. It is further undeniable that we have Pentateuchal manuscripts amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, which attest for the period around the middle of the third century BCE several different versions of the texts, including the proto-Samaritan version. To this evidence we have to add the Septuagint that attests the dissemination of the Pentateuch amongst the Greek‐speaking Jews in Alexandria, and Ben Sira, who canvasses the biblical tradition around 200 BCE in Judah. . . . It is equally unclear in which circles these documents were copied, studied, and adhered to and what status the Torah had in Samaria (Mt. Gerizim), Judah (Jerusalem), and Alexandria during the Persian and early Hellenistic period. (141)

So it all comes down to speculation.

We have to admit that we know far less about the history and status of the Pentateuch as Torah during the Persian period than we would like to and we are forced to rely on speculation. The Maccabean revolt during the reign of Antiochus IV during the middle of the second century BCE may provide a historical starting point. Here the Torah is no longer a document of marginalized groups such as the religious community from Qumran but has started to play a significant role in the quarrel over political and economic influence between rival groups within Judaism. During the reign of the Hasmoneans it became (for the first time?) a political and legally binding document for entire Judaism. This is, however, a different story for which we would have to assess the sources for the Hellenistic period. (141f)

Why not assess the sources for the Hellenistic period?

Annette Yoshiko Reed

Sometimes scholarly wheels turn very slowly. Let’s farewell Kratz and say hello to Annette Yoshiko Reed sees  a “Near East” that is imbued with a more active cultural role in the Hellenistic era. Reed remarks on how slow certain ideas are sometimes picked up and their worth acknowledged.

Scholars of Biblical Studies have habitually treated Near Eastern “influence” as an emblem of pre-exilic antiquity, while interpreting post-exilic sources in terms of resistance or assimilation to Greco-Roman culture – with divisions of periodization, selections of comparanda, and conventionalized reading-practices thereby naturalizing the notion of the two as mutually exclusive. Due in part to the structurally embedded persistence of old dichotomies like Greek/Near East in the study of antiquity, and “Hellenism”/“Judaism” in research on Second Temple Judaism, studies of Hellenistic-era Jewish sources have tended to neglect Near Eastern comparanda from the Hellenistic period, either treating their Jewish echoes as survivals from the pre-exilic past or dismissing them as akin to the return of the repressed. 

Reed laments that calls to change our perspective were made by two scholars (J.J. Collins and J.Z. Smith) way back in 1975!

We can no longer consider Israelite tradition and Hellenistic syncretism as mutually exclusive alternatives.” What we see, rather, is how “the conquests of Alexander had a profound impact on the eastern civilizations” and how this “impact included an unprecedented circulation of ideas among the various peoples” as well as changes in the “conditions of life” and a resultant “transformation of attitudes.”

Both articles have been widely cited. Puzzlingly, however, their calls for attention to Hellenistic-era Near Eastern comparanda have gone largely unheeded.

(From the Introduction in the ebook edition of Reed’s Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism)

Perhaps the first attention to Hellenistic-era Near Eastern comparanda for the Pentateuch is Russell Gmirkin’s Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch.


Kratz, Reinhard G. “Biblical Sources.” In A Companion to the Achaemenid Persian Empire, edited by Bruno Jacobs and Robert Rollinger, 133–48. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2021.

Reed, Annette Yoshiko. Demons, Angels and Writing in Ancient Judaism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020.



2024-04-09

Questioning the Hellenistic Date for the Hebrew Bible: Elephantine ‘Jews’

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by Neil Godfrey

I am continuing here with my responses to criticisms raised on the earlywritings forum against the proposal that the first biblical texts were composed as late as around 270 years before Christ. (I had looked forward to continuing the discussion on that forum until I lost confidence in the sub-forum’s promise to be an “academic discussion” for reasons which included the removal of some of my responses without notice.)

The next criticism I addressed was as follows:

In the [opening post] it was claimed that Elephantine remains indicated “that Persian era Jews knew nothing of the Pentateuch.” Not so. Rather, *some* Egyptian Aramaic writers asked *others* for advice about Torah. That does not necessarily indicate that there was no Torah, anywhere, then, though it does suggest that that minority, on an island in Egypt, did not have a written copy of Hebrew Torah and also the ability to read and interpret it.

So let’s look at those “Elephantine remains”.

One of the strongest items of evidence that I believe refutes (it is more than an “argument from silence”) the existence of any form of practised Judaism or Biblical religion as we understand it before the Hellenistic era is a cache of documents from a Jewish, or more correctly Judean, military colony settlement in Egypt during the Persian period. We are talking about the island of Elephantine, 400s BCE.

According to the Bible’s narrative the Persian period was the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the return of Jews from Babylon to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. If during the Babylonian exile the Jewish people had begun to turn away from idolatry and pine for a return to their homeland it was under the Persian rulers that their wishes materialized — according to the conventional wisdom. It is almost universally understood that the Jewish religion that we meet in the time of the Maccabee wars against the pagan Syrian domination and then again in the time of Jesus all took shape under the benign, even supportive, rule of the Persians.

That’s the prevailing view of the origin of Judaism. When the exiles returned to Jerusalem and the Persian province of Jehud they soon enough set about rebuilding the temple and keeping the Torah laws of sabbath observance, shunning mixed marriages, refusing any images of god, keeping Passover and other festivals, animal sacrifices and so on.

That is the Bible’s portrayal of what happened.

What, however, does the archaeological evidence tell us?

That was the slide archaeologist Israel Finkelstein presented to illustrate what has been found in the Persian province of Jehud (Judea) for evidence of a literate culture (From a 2022 conference).

If there is zero evidence from the Persian province of Jehud (Judea) for a “writing culture” we do have evidence from the Egyptian colony of Elephantine that informs us about more than just the local observances of the “Jews”. It gives us information about the religious outlook of their ethnic cousins in Judea as well. (In a future post I’ll explain in more detail why I write “Jews” in quotation marks: for now I will say only that the term is misleading insofar as it brings to mind people who practised some form of Biblical religion when in fact the people being discussed practised a religion that was far removed from anything biblical.)

The first question that is likely to come to mind is this: How relevant can the evidence from a Judean settlement in southern Egypt be as a source for what was practised in Judea?

Good question. Following are some answers:

Elephantine was not an isolated outpost that was out of touch with the culture and religion of Jerusalem.

Elephantine is representative of Persian era “Jewish” religion

[T]he Elephantine community stood in contact with Jerusalem. Although Elephantine was located on the traditional southern border of Egypt, it was not an isolated outpost on the fringe of the world. The Nile was navigable all the way from the Nile delta to Elephantine. A journey from Elephantine to Jerusalem might take approximately one month. In comparison, according to the Bible it took Ezra around four months to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem. In terms of travel time, the Judaeans in Elephantine were much closer to Jerusalem than was the priest-scribe who is often accorded great importance in the (re-)formation of Judaean religion in the Persian period. Whereas this may indicate potential contact and demonstrate that the historical-geographical conditions for travelling between Elephantine and Jerusalem were more favourable than those between Babylon and Jerusalem, it is also evidenced by documents from Elephantine that there was actually a two-way contact between Jerusalem and Judah (and Samaria). Not only did the Judaeans in Elephantine know the names of the tenuring governors of Judah and Samaria (in this case, even the names of the sons of the governor) and the high priest in Jerusalem…, they also wrote letters to them and even got a reply …. (Granerød 4)

and translating Knauf:

Elephantine was neither marginal nor exotic in 5th century Judaism. The Elephantines called themselves “Jews” (yhwdy’) and were called so by the Persian, the semi-autonomous Jerusalem and Samarian authorities. No one questioned their Jewishness at that time, simply because they had no Bible and knew no biblical traditions. For the other Jews were no different. (Knauf 182)

The Bible speaks of Jerusalem-Babylonian ties in the Persian era but Jerusalem-Egypt ties were no less significant:

[T]he two biggest settlements of the Judean population outside the province of Yehud in the Persian Empire were located in Babylon and Egypt. . . . [T]ogether with Jerusalem and Babylon, Egypt, in the Persian period, was one of the three key locations of those people whose geographical and religious roots were in Judah. (Siljanen, 3f — I hope to post some of the detail from the evidence we have of the Babylonian “Jews” later.)

Accordingly, we learn more about the practiced religion of Judeans from Elephantine than we do from the Bible:

[T]he Elephantine documents are contemporary sources and probably even more representative of the lived and practiced Yahwism of the Persian period than are the biblical texts. . . . [T]he biblical sources are centred around the Jerusalem temple. They presuppose a centralisation of the cult of YHWH, or to put it differently, they seem to take a form of mono-Yahwism as the norm. This kind of mono-Yahwism centred around the temple in Jerusalem has also quite often in the scholarship been taken to be the default manifestation of Yahwism in this particular period. However, from a historical perspective the big question is to what extent the biblical sources reflect Judaean religion beyond the milieus of the authors and the milieu of those who passed on the biblical tradition. (Granerød 5)

Another scholar confirms the view that “the situation at Elephantine [is] actually representative of many — if not most — portions of contemporary Judaism”:

[T]he texts discovered on the island cover the entire spectrum of official and private life and even encompass “aesthetic literature,” which demonstrates their recipients were fully integrated into broader social structures and dominant cultural and political circumstances. Such integration of the conditions at Elephantine into the larger cultural and political context of the ancient Near East around 400 BCE suggests a commensurability with or even analogy to the Judaism outside Elephantine rather than an exception to the rule — an assumption based on the biblical literature, especially the testimony of Ezra–Nehemiah. (Kratz 145)

and

[O]ne document . . . mentions Khnum [= god of local Egyptian] priests harboring enmity against the Judeans of Elephantine ever since a certain man by the name of Hananiah began to sojourn in Egypt. This Hananiah, a Judean ambassador, seems to have obtained from the Persian administration the official status of “Jewish garrison” for the Judeans on the island of Elephantine, whom he calls his “brothers”; this move may have aroused a certain rivalry with the local priests of Khnum. . . . . 

[T]he mission of the ambassador Hananiah bears witness to close contact between the Judeans of Elephantine and those residing outside Egypt. In a certain sense, he constitutes living proof for the situation at Elephantine being actually representative of many — if not most — portions of contemporary Judaism. Although Hananiah was himself a Judean, coming from Judah or perhaps even the Babylonian diaspora, and should therefore represent biblical Judaism of the post-state period (to follow the usual scholarly explanation), he called the thoroughly unbiblical Judeans of Elephantine his “brothers” without any reservation whatsoever. Two conclusions proceed from this state of affairs. First, the Judaism of Elephantine existed not at the edge of the world but in close contact with its Jewish brothers even outside Egypt, as evident in the correspondence concerning reconstruction of the temple and in the mission of Hananiah. Second, the Jews in the motherland, i.e., Yhwh-devotees in Samaria and Judah, raised no objection at all to their brothers at Elephantine — at least as far as we can see — nor did they distinguish themselves from them in either essence or kind. (Kratz 139, 145)

Notwithstanding the views of these scholars who have studied and published in depth on the evidence from Elephantine, it remains the fact that “contemporary scholarship often considers the Judean colony at Elephantine an exception that proves the rule” (Kratz 143). The power of conventions and traditions!

You may have noticed in the above quotation the reference to “reconstruction of the temple” at Elephantine. The evidence culled from Elephantine informs us that the temple that the Judeans had built at Elephantine had been destroyed by local Egyptians. The correspondence produced in order to have the temple rebuilt has survived and has become a window through which we can observe the religious world of Judeans at that time.

Did Elephantine Judeans know of the Pentateuch?

I will allow quotes from various scholarly publications to answer that question. In the various quotations that follow there are different representations of the main god of these Judeans but it should be obvious when they refer to the more familiar Yahweh or YHWH.

** Judeans on Elephantine operated a temple that should not have existed according to the Pentateuch:

Biblical law, the Torah, permits but a single cultic place for Yhwh, namely the temple in Jerusalem (Deut. 12). According to this law, all other sanctuaries inside or outside of Judah are regarded as impure and devoted to other gods, which then warrants their destruction. The Judeans of Elephantine, however, did not bother themselves with this law. They operated a temple that should never have existed according to the Torah. (Kratz 138)

and

A few years later a letter was written from Elephantine to Samaria and Jerusalem requesting the rebuilding of the temple of Yahô after the priests of Khnum destroyed it . . . .

In Elephantine there was a temple dedicated to the veneration of Yahô. This temple is first referred to in the prescript of an early fifth-century letter written by Oshea to his brother Shelonam: “[. . . . . to the (?) t]emple of Yahô in Jeb.”  (Becking 27, 34)

It was a “real temple” in every sense of the word, not a makeshift substitute for another supposedly “real” one in Jerusalem:

In short, the area in Elephantine set aside for the god YHW was a temple in all meanings of the word:

– it was a place where YHW’s immanence was thought to be found so that we may cautiously borrow a much later (and perhaps anachronistic) rabbinic term and say that the Judaeans in Elephantine believed the Shekinah (“dwelling”) of YHW was in his temple in Elephantine, and

– it was a place where it was also possible for humans to communicate and interact with YHW by means of sacrifices. (Granerød 107)

In case there remains any doubt…

The temple of Yaho was at the heart of the Jewish neighborhood, whereas the Babylonian Arameans had their houses in proximity to the temples of Nabu and Banit, and the Syrians lived around the temples of Bethel and the Queen of Heaven. (Toorn 95)

** The Judeans at Elephantine were not monotheists (Yahô is a form of the name YHWH or Yahweh):

The cult of Yahô was not, however, completely monotheistic. The deities Eshem-Bethel and Anat-Bethel are referred to in the so-called collection account for the Temple of Yahô. Comparable divine names are Anat-Yahô and Ḥerem-Bethel. . . . The inscriptions from Elephantine also refer to many other deities, such as Khnum and Nabû, El and Shamash, Bêl and Nergal, that were not part of the cult of Yahô itself.

In addition, several letters have been found that are written by people with theophoric names containing Yahô and still use a blessing formula with plural gods: “May all deities seek your well-being at all times.” . . .

This text implies that two deities, Eshem-Bethel and Anat-Bethel, were connected to the temple of Yahô in Elephantine. (Becking 34, 39, 40 — notice that the second quote above is informing us that people had names that included a form of “Yahweh” [theophoric names] — e.g. EliJAH, AdoniJAH, IsIAH, NehemIAH — so we can conclude that YAHweh was a favoured god of these people.)

and

several documents clearly show that Judaeans in Elephantine were by no means “monotheists” (Granerød 4)

“Logically”, it is argued, the Elephantine Judeans could not have been monotheists before they entered Egypt, either:

The Jews of Elephantine were not monotheists. This statement holds true even if ‘Anat-Yhw/Bethel and Herem(-Bethel)/Ishim-Bethel had not been brought with them from their Palestinian homeland, but had been adopted only in Elephantine . . . . Certainly, the triad of Elephantine could have been formed only in Egypt; but the presupposition to see in Yhwh a god among other gods, who can have a goddess for a wife and another deity as a child, must have been a preservation of the Elephantines and not merely acquired in Egypt. The opposite would be quite improbable in terms of religious psychology: monotheists usually consider themselves intellectually and/or morally superior to polytheists. (Knauf 184 translation)

And one more quote just to be sure:

the Elephantine Judaeans had no problem in recognising the cults of other deities for non-Judaean people. (Lemaire 62)

** Though some scholars insist that the Elephantine Judeans did not make images of their god Yahu (YHWH) there is no doubt that they did erect stone pillars to represent the deity and his wife:

In the letter to Bagohi requesting restoration of the temple of Yahô, Yedoniah mentions the demolition of the ʿmwdyʾ zy ʾbnʾ, “stone pillars that were there.” This detail has given rise to the assumption that the Israelite deity was represented by one or more standing stones in the temple at Elephantine. It should be noted that the Aramaic noun ʿmwdyʾ is in the plural, and therefore the pillage of several standing stones is implied. . . . 

Both Anat-Yahô/Bethel and Ḥerem-Bethel would thus be interpreted as a female or male cult object, each regarded as a representation of Yahô/Bethel, a visible sign and a taboo object. The Yahô/Bethel cult in Elephantine was therefore not strictly aniconic. The form and nature of these images are unclear. (Becking 42, 47)

Further,

Mostly the divine presence materialised itself in divine cult images such as statues and standing stones. The cult images functioned as the terrestrial locus of divine presence. . . . 

As far as Elephantine is concerned . . . the stone pillars (‘mwdy’ zy ,bn’) as a matter of fact referred to . . . an aniconic cult with each one of the standing stones representing a deity. . . .  (Granerød 91, 110)

One scholar, however, is convinced that there were images of the deities as well:

This raises the question whether the cult of Elephantine could have been aniconic. . . . A strong argument for the existence of images of the gods before the destruction of the temple in 410 B.C. is provided by the donation list. . . . Because it was about Yhw’s temple, he is the addressee of the donations . . . But then Yhw gets only 126 shekels of the total amount, 70 go to Ishim-Bethel and 120 to ‘Anat-Bethel. It can hardly be a question of contributions for their livelihood – from an ancient oriental cult enterprise one can expect that it supported itself; also the amounts are much too high for that. Nor is it about the costs of the common roof; so it is most probable that the donations are intended for the restoration of the cult images. Then it becomes understandable why the ‘Anat, who is mentioned least in the documents, receives almost as much money as her husband: which god likes to have a dwarf as a wife? (Knauf 185 translation)

** Contrary to Pentateuchal laws that document in minute detail the procedures required for various kinds of animal offerings, they did not offer animal sacrifices:

Though common before the destruction of the temple and announced for the future in the petition, burnt offerings are explicitly excluded in later documents. Whether this limitation derived from the centralization commandment in Deut. 12, which prohibits any kind of offering to Yhwh apart from in the chosen cultic place, or whether it stemmed from Persian reservations remains unclear thus far. On the whole, the Judeans of Elephantine lived as Jews among the nations, untouched by biblical Judaism and its holy scriptures. (Kratz, 140f)

The evidence is not debated:

the Judaeans in Elephantine explicitly refrained from offering animals such as sheep, oxen and goats as burnt offering
……

the Elephantine leaders wrote that animals “will not be made” … as burnt offering. . . .

[T]he official correspondence reflecting the attempts to get permission to rebuild the (second) temple of YHW [on Elephantine] after it was destroyed in 410 BCE … show that the Judaeans of Elephantine accepted the ban on animal offerings in the rebuilt temple. (Granerød 131, 132. 206)

But see the note on Papyrus Amherst 63 below that appears to come from a time after Persians had lost their influence. Animal sacrifices were understood to be an ideal at that time.

** The sabbath was a market or work day:

[O]ther ostraca refer to the Sabbath. However, these documents again evince no clear connection to the strictly biblical command for Sabbath (Exod. 20:8–11; Deut. 5:12–16), which the prophets supposedly demanded (Amos 8:5; Jer. 17:19ff.; Isa. 58:13–14) and Nehemiah reportedly established by force in Judah (Neh. 10:32; 13:15ff.). To the contrary, the ostraca provide no indication such stipulations were even known in Elephantine: individuals schedule various appointments on the Sabbath to pursue their labors and continue with their commerce. (Kratz 141)

This is not a secret among scholars:

… the Judaeans did not understand sbh (“Sabbath”) as a day of rest that fell on the last day of a seven-day week. (Granerød 208)

again

This ostracon indicates that on the day of the Sabbath, there obviously existed some trade in vegetables. (Becking 29 — although Becking here tries to save the biblical command by speculating that this might have been an emergency case)

Nonetheless, he does find other “emergency cases” and cannot deny the evidence:

A fragmentary letter that mentions bread also reads: “And now, bring to me on the Sabbath.” This inscription, too, seems to imply that (economic) activities could take place on a Sabbath. . . . . There are no indications that the Sabbath was the weekly day of rest. (Becking 30)

** The Pentateuch forbids Israelites to marry non-Israelites, but mixed marriages were normal in Elephantine:

Elephantine exogamous intermarriage was accepted. Various texts refer to such marriages. . . . 

In Elephantine “mixed marriages” were accepted. (Becking 32, 52)

There is more than one scholarly witness on the record:

it is clear that the Judaeans practised and thus accepted intermarriage. (Granerød 49)

** So did these “Jews” of the Persian period know of the Pentateuch? Knauf is quite explicit in his answer to this question. The correspondence he refers to was occasioned by Egyptians in 410 BCE destroying the YHW temple and the Elephantine Judeans requesting help from Jerusalem:

What is not attested at all in Elephantine, neither in the form of fragments nor in the form of mentions, is religious literature: rituals, cult legends, cult songs and prayers. This is all the more striking since the archive of the temple head is known. If, however, sacred scriptures were not kept there, but in the temple, then they are again missing from the list of losses. In this case, the Jerusalemites would have felt flattered if they had been asked for a replacement. The Elephantines, however, did not ask for new religious literature, and this in all probability because they had not had any old ones either. Priestly knowledge was obviously passed on orally; whether there were less profane reasons for this than the fact that perhaps no one in Elephantine could (any longer) write Hebrew, which might have been the language of the cult, must remain open. The fact is: in Elephantine they not only did not have a Bible, they also had no idea of and no need for one. (Knauf 185f, translation)

Papyrus Amherst 63

There is a papyrus from the Elephantine colony that contains a hymn in which Yahu is shown to love copious amounts of wine and the sacrifices of lambs. This papyrus (Papyrus Amherst 63) was purchased on the open market rather than being found in situ in Elephantine and was not translated until the 1980s, the problem being that its script was Egyptian while its language was Aramaic. The Papyrus is thought to date from the late fourth century, perhaps during the known hiatus in Persian control over Egypt. Recall that under Persian supervision animal sacrifices had been forbidden.

Biblical scholars have been aware of the existence of this mysterious papyrus since the 1980s, when two teams of scholars identified a song to Yaho in the compilation that seemed to be almost a copy of Psalm 20. Other parts of the papyrus prove to have references to the gods Nabu, Nanay, Bethel, and Anat. As experts already suspected in the 1980s, this compilation consists of literary traditions from the Aramaic-speaking diaspora communities in Persian Egypt. In Elephantine and Aswan, there had been temples for Yaho, Bethel, and Nabu — the very gods who are addressed in the ritual songs of the Amherst papyrus. . . .

At Elephantine, finally, Yaho was believed to be a deity with a Dionysian side. He drank wine in large quantities and liked to hear music. The sacrifice of fine lambs pleased him. In the three Yahwistic psalms of the Amherst papyrus, Yaho is depicted as a bachelor. At Elephantine, however, he had a partner called Anat (Anat-Bethel or Anat-Yaho . . .), also known as the Queen of Heaven. In view of the love lyrics between Nanay and Herem-Bethel in the Amherst papyrus, the relationship between Yaho and his consort was hardly platonic. (Toorn 2, 107)

Toorn’s translation of the relevant section:

Hear me, our God!
Fine lambs (and) sh[ee]p
We will sacrifice for you among the Gods.
Our banquet is for you
Among the Mighty Ones of the people,
Adonai, for you,
Among the Mighty Ones of the people.
Adonai, the people will bless you.
Your annual offerings we will perform.
From the pitcher, saturate yourself, my God!

Let it be announced forever:
“The Merciful One exalts the great,
Yaho humiliates the lowly one.”
They have mixed the wine in our jar,
In our jar, at our New Moon festival!
Drink, Yaho,
From the bounty of a thousand bowls!
Be satiated, Adonai,
From the bounty of the people!

Singers wait upon the Lord,
The player of the harp, the player of the lyre:
“We will play for you
The song of the Sidonian lyre,
And our flutes resoundingly,
At the banquets of humankind.”

The Amherst papyrus further indicates that the Judeans at Elephantine were at least a mix of Judeans and Samarians or Samaritans, and both worshiped Isis or Ishtar alongside Yahweh:

Interestingly, there is only one section on the papyrus with an explicit emigration scenario: the “Samarian-Judean arrival” poem in col. xvii. In lns. 1–6, a band or troop of Samarians arrives before a king, who asks from whence they and their language have come. A young man replies, “I come from [J]udah; my brother has been brought from Samaria; and now, a man is bringing up from Jerusalem my sister.” In van der Toorn’s view, this passage describes the arrival of a troop of Samarians led by a Judean . . .

In addition, the “Throne of Yahō” that is asked to bless “from the South” in col. viii may be a reference to the temple of Yahō at Elephantine . . . . Finally, the remarkable importance given in the anthology to Nanay – the goddess worshiped across the Near East especially by Arameans, and identified with both Ishtar in Mesopotamia and Isis in Egypt – and the strategic placement of compositions about her, may have been a means to demonstrate the unity of a diverse Aramean community in an Egyptian context. (Holm 330)

–o0o–

There is much more to the evidence we have from Elephantine than I have covered above. I did not touch on the Passover or new moon festivals here. I hope to post more in the near future.


Becking, Bob. Identity in Persian Egypt: The Fate of the Yehudite Community of Elephantine. University Park, Pennsylvania: Eisenbrauns, 2020.

Granerød, Gard, and Granerod. Dimensions of Yahwism in the Persian Period: Studies in the Religion and Society of the Judaean Community at Elephantine. Berlin ; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016.

Holm, Tawny. “Papyrus Amherst 63 and the Arameans of Egypt: A Landscape of Cultural Nostalgia.” In Elephantine in Context: Studies on the History, Religion and Literature of the Judeans in Persian Period Egypt, edited by Reinhard G. Kratz and Bernd U. Schipper, 323–51. Mohr Siebeck, 2022. https://www.academia.edu/79082488/Papyrus_Amherst_63_and_the_Arameans_of_Egypt_A_Landscape_of_Cultural_Nostalgia_in_Elephantine_in_Context_ed_Kratz_and_Schipper_FAT_155_Mohr_Siebeck_2022.

Knauf, Ernst Axel. “Elephantine Und Das Vor-Biblische Judentum.” In Religion Und Religionskontakte Im Zeitalter Der Achämeniden, edited by Reinhard G. Kratz, 179–88. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlaghaus, 2002.

Kratz, Reinhard G. Historical and Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah. Translated by Paul Michael Kurtz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Lemaire. Levantine Epigraphy and History in the Achaemenid Period (539-322 BCE): Lectures for 2013. Oxford: Oxford University Press UK, 2015.

Siljanen, Esko. Judeans of Egypt in the Persian Period (539-332 BCE) in Light of the Aramaic Documents. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Helsinki, 2017.

Toorn, Karel van der. Becoming Diaspora Jews: Behind the Story of Elephantine. Yale University Press, 2019.



2024-04-02

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

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 


2024-04-01

Why Josiah’s Reforms “Must Have Happened” – part 3 (conclusion)

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

The Deuteronomistic History (DH) is a modern theoretical construct holding that behind the present forms of the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings (the Former Prophets in the Hebrew canon) there was a single literary work. In the late 19th century, some scholars conceived of the DH as a loosely edited collection of works, written in reference to some of the standards espoused in the book of Deuteronomy. Oxford Bibliographies

Rainer Albertz is disputing the arguments of Philip R. Davies that the book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History could not have been written as early as the time of King Josiah. Part 2 addressed Deuteronomy itself; part 3 looks at the dating of the Deuteronomistic History.

We saw in Part 1 that Finkelstein and Silberman defaulted to the view that Josiah’s reforms had to have been historical despite the lack of unambiguous archaeological evidence. Albertz points out that there is wide acceptance of this view:

The suggestion that the report of Josiah’s reform was contemporary with the events, which is advocated by most scholars of the Cross school, has led I. Finkelstein and N.A. Silberman, among others, to believe that the DtrH is completely reliable on this point. (37)

What is the Cross school? It is the viewpoint aligning with much of the work of Frank Moore Cross, in particular beginning with Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. There we read:

We are pressed to the conclusion by these data that there were two editions of the Deuteronomistic history, one written in the era of Josiah as a programmatic document of his reform and of his revival of the Davidic state. In this edition the themes of judgment and hope interact to provide a powerful motivation both for the return to the austere and jealous god of old Israel, and for the reunion of the alienated half kingdoms of Israel and Judah under the aegis of Josiah. The second edition, completed about 550 B.C., not only updated the history by adding a chronicle of events subsequent to Josiah’s reign, it also attempted to transform the work into a sermon on history addressed to Judaean exiles. (Cross, 287)

As we saw in Part 1, that was exactly the view F&S were following.

But Cross is not given the last word when it comes to the date of the Deuteronomistic History in which the narrative of Josiah and the discovery of the scroll of the Law is found.

But recently Th. Römer, who sympathizes with the Cross school, has shown convincingly that 2 Kings 22-23 ‘should be dated from the exilic period’ (Römer 1997: 10). (37)

Römer lays out a fascinating list of episodes that reflect the literary trope we find in the account of the discovery of the book of Deuteronomy in 2 Kings. Some extracts from Römer’s article:

There may be quite a consensus in critical scholarship about the seventh Century B.C.E. as the starting point of deuteronomism. . . . (2)

Scholars have often used II Reg 22 to reconstruct the »historical circumstances« of the Josianic reform. But a positivist historical reading of the book-finding event does not help much to understand the text. Speyer has demonstrated that the [motif] of book findings in temples or holy places is a quite common literary motive in Antiquity which is mostly used »um einem gerade angefertigten Werk den Schein höheren Alters und großer Heiligkeit zu verleihen« [=”in order to give a newly created work the appearance of greater age and great holiness”]. . . .

The discovery-reports are often variations of the following diagram:

1. An important person wants to change or to »restore« important features in society.
2. He is afraid of Opposition.
3. He or one of his loyal servants is sent to a holy place.
4. There he discovers a Book or written oracles which are of divine origin.
5. This discovery gives divine impulse to the projects of the hero. (7f – my list formatting)

[I]t is clear that the authors or redactors of II Reg 22—23 resort to the same literary convention . . . . (9)

46Cf. for instance M. Rose, Der Ausschließlichkeitsanspruch Jahwes. Deuteronomistische Schultheologie und die Volksfrömmigkeit der späten Königszeit, BWANT 106, 1975. Even if Rose brings too far his Interpretation of the archeological data, it is quite clear that the kingdom of Judah became important only in the Vllth Century B.C.E. — 106 may be a typo: see pp 157ff

If II Reg 22—23 is to be read as the foundation myth of the dtr. group and as an ideological or theological attempt to have the end of monarchy accepted, then this text can hardly be used for a reconstruction of the historical circumstances, of the so-called Josianic reform. We should follow scholars like Würthwein, Davies and others and consider II Reg 22—23 above all as a literary and theological construct. This does not mean that no »reform« under Josiah ever existed, we may have even some archaeological support for it46, but it is methodological circularity to claim that such a recognization [sic] of politics and cultic affairs under Josiah has been caused by the »discovery« of Deuteronomy. It may also be still possible to reconstruct a Josianic Urdeuteronomium, even if there is no consensus about this reconstruction in recent attempts. II Reg 22—23 should be dated from the exilic period. (10)

So we return to where we began — with Philip Davies’ pointing out the circularity of using the 2 Kings account of the discovery of the book of Deuteronomy to date the book of Deuteronomy and verify the historicity of Josiah’s reforms. Further, the entire narrative should rather be dated from the exilic period, the time of the Babylonian exile, Albertz concurs. (Of course, I am proposing that it could be dated even later — to the Hellenistic period. The point here is that there is no immovable anchor that binds the origin of the narrative to the seventh century.)

The Deuteronomistic History concludes with the deported king of Judah being shown mercy in Babylon and restored to a comfortable life in the royal court. 2 Kings 25:27-30

27 In the thirty-seventh year of the exile of Jehoiachin king of Judah, in the year Awel-Marduk became king of Babylon, he released Jehoiachin king of Judah from prison. He did this on the twenty-seventh day of the twelfth month. 28 He spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat of honor higher than those of the other kings who were with him in Babylon. 29 So Jehoiachin put aside his prison clothes and for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table. 30 Day by day the king gave Jehoiachin a regular allowance as long as he lived.

Römer further observes that that conclusion to the Deuteronomistic History

shares literary conventions with the stories of Esther and Joseph which Meinhold called »novels of the diaspora«. Yoyakin’s fate is similar to that of Mardochai and Joseph. In all three cases an exiled person among others becomes second to the king (II Reg 25,28; Est 10,3; Gen 41,40), and the accession to this new status is symbolized by changing clothes (II Reg 25,29; Est 6,10-11; 8,15; Gen 41,42). These accession stories transform exile into diaspora. The land of deportation changes into a land where the foreigner is welcome. One can live very well outside eretz yisrael and manage interesting careers. It is then not so astonishing that the »hope for return« is quite discreet in the DH. It is enough to know how to pray towards the temple (I Reg 8,48).

Why, then, do we not see any hints of a Persian period in the text if it was really written during that time?

51 See for a similar literary strategy the end of Luke’s Acts, and on this topic, P. Davies, Expository Times 94 (1983), 334-335.To add to R’s footnote: What a rewarding surprise to find the same view I proposed in a 2007 post. But I cannot deny Davies noticed it first.

We may still ask why are there no direct allusions to the Persian period in DH. Probably because the Dtrs. of the postexilic times were quite »modern« historians: if you write a historiography you do not include your own present51.

The question then becomes, “Is it possible to define a latest possible date” for the composition of the Deuteronomistic History?

To answer this question Albertz notes that in every reference to the exile in the Deuteronomistic History (as in Solomon’s prayer and the conclusion of 2 Kings) there is no hint that the author is aware that the Babylonian exile will come to an end. There is no hint of awareness that the Babylonian empire will fall.

In other prophetic works — Jeremiah 29:10-14 and Isaiah 40:1-2 — Albertz points out that the authors foresaw the collapse of the Babylonian empire with the advancing power of the Persians. He finds other references to the return from exile (Deuteronomy 4:29-31, 30:1-11, Jeremiah 31:31-33; 32:37-41; etc — being written from the perspective of early days in the return from exile.

In the event that the DtrH emerged largely between 562 and 547 and its later parts followed until the year 520, then several conclusions can be drawn which are of some importance for the assessment of the Josianic reform. First, we get another important confirmation that the book of Deuteronomy could not have emerged in the later Persian period but must have been written earlier. Since Deuteronomy 4 presupposes not only the Deuteronomic core in chs. 12-26 [in Part 2 we saw how Albertz dated this work to Josiah’s time], but also includes its admonitory frame in Deut. 4.44-30.20, the book of Deuteronomy must have been largely finished by 540. Second, since most of the DtrH was composed during the 15 years following the release of Jehoiachin (562), their authors were not too far away from the period when Josiah’s reform was carried through (622-609 BCE).

they could not invent . . . . they could not lie

This brings us to what I call might call a “classic” argument so often used in attempting to date biblical narratives close to the time of the events they describe:

This would mean that the Deuteronomistic Historians had to be aware that there were still some eye-witnesses alive and that there were a lot of people among their audience whose fathers or grandfathers had participated in Josiah’s government. So they could not invent fabulous fairy tales, whatever religious ideology they wanted to promote. They could overstate some measures and they could ignore others — and they did both: they generalized the cult reform, but they ignored the social and national reform attempts — nevertheless, they could not lie. This means that the reliability of the DtrH for the events of the late seventh and early sixth century can be assessed as good, if we take its ideology into account.

The same logic is used to argue for dating the gospels to the generation who “eye-witnessed” the events related, the book of Acts to the late first century, and to date Paul’s letters to the mid-first century. I do not recall ever encountering this type of reasoning to verify historical source material in any relatively modern discussion of historical events in other (non-biblical) fields of enquiry. However, I have seen incredulous remarks of other historians about the methods of their “biblical” peers. See The Bible – History or Story for Davies’ response to this kind of argument.

The very notion that one should give a priori  credence to a narrative whose author(s) we do not know, whose time and place of composition we do not know, and whose source materials are equally opaque, is unheard of, I suspect, in other fields of historical inquiry.

In every historical work, whether ancient or modern, the reader can find out from what temporal perspective it was written.

Thus the entire discussion is a weighing of the extent to which biblical texts can be assigned with plausibility to either the seventh or sixth centuries, the time of Josiah or the time of captivity and soon afterwards. The ultimate justification for defaulting to the early Persian era as the “latest most probable” is the silence about any later period in those texts. In this respect, Albertz may have appeared to have overlooked Römer’s point:

We may still ask why are there no direct allusions to the Persian period in DH. Probably because the Dtrs. of the postexilic times were quite »modern« historians: if you write a historiography you do not include your own present.

But he did not overlook it at all. In fact, he found it inadequate as an explanation for the silence:

But [Römer’s] answer, that the Deuteronomistic Historians — like modem ones — avoided including their own present, is not convincing. The present can be excluded or not, but in every historical work, whether ancient or modern, the reader can find out from what temporal perspective it was written. (Albertz, 38)

If we agree with that statement — that a “historical work” cannot avoid betraying (however implicitly) the time perspective from which it is written — then we may argue that the stronger case for the origin of the story of Josiah’s reforms is actually in the Hellenistic period. It is in the Deuteronomistic History that one finds the model of Greek historiography, and even in the Book of Deuteronomy itself as we saw again in the previous post, we see striking correspondences to Greek thought. We also find a historical context in the fluctuating relationships between the Judean and Samaritan peoples and contest over the place of Jerusalem in the Yahweh cult of the early Hellenistic era.

Finally,

The Historical Evidence

The final point of Albertz’s discussion is “the historical evidence”. For Davies, there was no time when the kingdom of Judah was free from the domination of great powers. After the Assyrians retreated Judah became a vassal of Egypt. Accordingly, there was no period during which Josiah was free to undertake any kind of expansionist policy to try to incorporate the erstwhile northern kingdom of Israel into his control — which, recall, has been claimed to be the reason for Josiah’s propaganda of the Deuteronomistic literature. It was to unite Judah in support of a “single Israel” under one cult based in Jerusalem.

Finkelstein and Silberman accept the reconstruction that has Egypt immediately filling in the space left by the Assyrian withdrawal. In order for them to allow Josiah to undertake his reforms, though, they have to limit the active area of interest of Egypt to the coastal fringes of Canaan. Albertz responds that the evidence is simply too sparse for us to draw any firm conclusions. The argument falls back on a majority view of scholars:

Whatever concrete scenario one might imagine, however, it is interesting to notice that even most of those scholars who think that the domination over Palestine passed uninterrupted from the Assyrians to the Egyptians do not want to deny the possibility of the Josianic reform. (42)

Why Josiah’s Reforms “Must Have Happened”?

There is no evidence in the historical record that they did happen.

But the authors of the biblical literature evidently needed to assign to those texts a history that would lend them credibility.

The literary tradition of discovering lost texts or other sacred artefacts was as old as time, at least as old as ancient Pharaohs and Mesopotamian kings. The motif continued through to Greco-Roman times and beyond. One may even suggest the discovery of Deuteronomy in Josiah’s time has the same level of credibility as Joseph Smith’s discovery of the Book of Mormon. But if the discovery is to have any import, it cannot be told as a simple pedestrian event. Some response that speaks to the extraordinariness of the find is required.

The narrative of Josiah’s reforms in the wake of the discovery “must have happened”. They were as necessary and inevitable as the thunder, lightning, thick cloud and trumpet blast that accompanied the voice of God on Mount Sinai.


Albertz, Rainer. “Why a Reform like Josiah’s Must Have Happened.” In Good Kings and Bad Kings: The Kingdom of Judah in the Seventh Century BCE, edited by Lester L. Grabbe, 27–46. London: T&T CLARK, 2007.

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

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

Silberman, Neil Asher, and Israel Finkelstein. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Touchstone, 2002.

Gmirkin, Russell E. Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Römer, Thomas C. “Transformations in Deuteronomistic and Biblical Historiography On »Book-Finding« and other Literary Strategies.” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 109, no. 1 (January 1, 1997): 1–11.


 


2024-03-31

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)

Albertz:

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)

Conclusion

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


2024-03-30

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.


2024-03-26

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.

–o0o–

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.



2024-03-25

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?

—o0o—

Afterthought

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?

—o0o—


2024-03-24

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

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

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


 


2024-03-23

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

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

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.)

—o0o—

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