More about Second Temple Judaism

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by Neil Godfrey

The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. constitutes, in most analyses, a watershed event for the Jews of antiquity. The elimination of the center, source of spiritual nourishment and preeminent symbol of the nation’s identity, compelled Jews to reinvent themselves, to find other means of religious sustenance, and to adjust their lives to an indefinite period of displacement. That trauma has pervasive and enduring resonance.

But it tends to obscure a striking fact.

Jews faced a still more puzzling and problematic situation prior to the loss of the Temple. Diaspora did not await the fall of Jerusalem. (Gruen: 66)

Erich Gruen

More Jews were scattered throughout the Levant and Mediterranean kingdoms and city-states than were living in Judea throughout the four centuries before the fall of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E.

  • What did these diaspora Jews (or as some scholars prefer in the interests of consistency, diaspora Judeans) think of Jerusalem, the Temple, the “holy land”, and their relationship to them?

A popular idea that may have prevailed among many of us brought up in the Christian West is that those scattered Judeans felt somehow dislocated, homeless, and that they really belonged in Judea. After all, doesn’t the OT pronounce “exile” as the ultimate punishment from a wrathful deity on the Jewish people for their sins? If Judeans repented then ought not they want to “return” to Judea and live beside Jerusalem and the Temple?

Erich Gruen proposes another look at this viewpoint, a look that I think is more deeply grounded in the realities of human experience:

Yet that convention ignores a grave implausibility. It is not easy to imagine that millions of Jews in the Diaspora were obsessed with a longing for Jerusalem that had little chance of fulfillment. It seems only logical that they sought means whereby to legitimize the existence that most of them inherited from their parents and would bequeath to their descendants.¹⁴⁵ Large and thriving Jewish communities existed in numerous areas of the Mediterranean, with opportunities for economic advancement, social status, and even political responsibilities.¹⁴⁶ Did their members, as some have claimed, take recourse in the thesis that the nation is defined by its texts rather than by its location?¹⁴⁷

The dualism is deceptive. The Jews of antiquity, in fact, never developed a systematic theory or philosophy of Diaspora. The whole idea of valuing homeland over Diaspora or Diaspora, over homeland may be off the mark. Second Temple Jews need not have faced so stark a choice.

145: I. M. Gafni, Land, Center, and Diaspora (Sheffield, Engl., 1979), 19–40

146: J. Juster, Les juifs dans l’empire romain, 2 vols. (Paris, 1914).
       E. Schürer, History of the Jewish People, vol. 3.1, 1–176;
      J. Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora, 19–81, 231–319; and
      I. Levinskaya, The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1996), 127–93.

147: See, esp., G. Steiner, “Our Homeland, The Text,” Salmagundi 66 (1985): 4–25.
On the ambivalence of exile and homecoming in recent Jewish conceptions, see the comments of S. D. Ezrahi, “Our Homeland, the Text … Our Text, the Homeland: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination,” Michigan Quarterly Review 31 (1992): 463–97.

(Gruen: 67-68)

We too easily conflate our biblical knowledge with Judeans per se, wherever and whenever they are. The whole idea of being scattered throughout “the nations” was a biblical one directed at sinners in Palestine or the Kingdom of Judah and ordained to be executed by the Assyrians, first, then the Babylonians. Judeans living in various city-states in later times could scarcely relate to anyone exiled by an Assyrian or Babylonian. Look more closely at some Second Temple texts: Continue reading “More about Second Temple Judaism”


How Second Temple Jews Related to their Greco-Roman World

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by Neil Godfrey

From E. Gruen's chapter 2, Hellenistic Judaism, available online at DOI: 10.1515/9783110375558

Greek towns dotted Palestine along the Mediterranean coast, in the Lower Galilee, and on both sides of the Jordan. Even Jews in Judea could not isolate themselves completely from Hellenism. Many Jews, especially those in the Diaspora, even lost touch with Hebrew.

Judaism is a very elastic term. It is a mistake to imagine two types of Judaism, a Palestinian Judaism that is “pure” and “Torah” based on the one hand, and a Hellenistic Judaism on the other hand. Rich diversity was found in both.

Diaspora Jews did not confront daily angst over whether or how much to assimilate with their surroundings. They were Greek-speaking and integrated into their local communities and institutions.

Jews used Hellenistic media to express their own traditions and self-definitions.

Jewish works in Greek genres

— they wrote tragic drama modelled on the plays of Greek playwrights — Ezekiel the Tragedian (2nd C bce) wrote a play about Moses that introduced incidents that are more familiar to Hellenistic drama than the biblical story.

— they wrote epic poetry modelled on Homer — Theodotus (2nd C bce) composed a poem about the rape of Dinah and destruction of Shechem, whitewashing the biblical story but demonstrating how everything worked out according to the divine will.

Joseph and Aseneth: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_and_Asenath_(San_Marco).jpg

— they wrote novels in the vein of Greek romances — the most well known to us being Joseph and Aseneth. This novel promotes the virtue and power of Joseph and the respect Egyptians have for him, and how those who scorned him at first came to stand in awe of him and even convert to worshipping his god. Even Pharaoh prays to Joseph’s god. Relations between Jews and Egyptians is harmonious but only because Egyptians recognize the superiority of Joseph’s character and faith.

— they wrote histories modelled on Greek histories — Demetrius (late 3rd C bce) rewrote much of the biblical history but with an attempt to explain and reconcile contradictions and loose ends in the biblical narrative. Eupolemus (2nd C bce) wrote a glorification of the reign of David having him conquer everything from the Euphrates to the Taurus mountains in the north and the Gulf of Aqaba in the south. Solomon, in his account, repays foreigners who helped him build his temple by given them assistance with building their own temples to their pagan deities.

— Another text, the Letter of Aristeas (2nd C bce), presents the Egyptian king marshalling extensive resources just to have the Jewish Scriptures translated into Greek and added to the great Alexandrian royal library. The king, Ptolemy, reveres the Jewish customs and is overwhelmed by the wisdom of Jewish scribes. The Jewish scribes in fact express the noblest of Greek philosophy by speaking of moderation, avoiding extremes, etc. Greek philosophers are inferred to be inferior.

The notion of a barrier that had to be overcome between Jewish and Hellenistic cultures casts precisely the wrong image. The Jewish intellectuals who sought to rewrite their past and redefine their traditions grew up in Diaspora or even Palestinian communities suffused with Hellenism. For them it was their culture. Their ideas and concepts expressed themselves quite naturally in Greek forms. But this in no way compromised, diminished, or undermined their sense of Jewish identity. On the contrary, Jewish thinkers and writers showed little interest in the Trojan War, the house of Atreus, the labors of Heracles, the customs of the Scythians, or the love of Cupid and Psyche. They mobilized the Hellenic crafts of epic, tragedy, philosophy, romance, and historiography to reproduce the record of their own people, to convey their conventions, and to enhance their achievements. (p. 40)

Jewish Construction of Greek Culture and Ethnicity

Continue reading “How Second Temple Jews Related to their Greco-Roman World”


Bible Heroes in Heaven Before They Came to Earth

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by Neil Godfrey

Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Alexander Leloir

Looking beyond the books of the Bible and into other ancient Jewish writings containing some very different views of biblical heroes can be a most interesting experience.

Have a look at The Prayer of Joseph (1st or 2nd century CE):

[1] “I, Jacob, who is speaking to you, am also Israel, an angel of God and a ruling spirit.

[2] Abraham and Isaac were created before any work.

[3] But, I, Jacob, who men call Jacob but whose name is Israel am he who God called Israel which means, a man seeing God, because I am the firstborn of every living thing to whom God gives life.

[4] And when I was coming up from Syrian Mesopotamia, Unel, the angel of God, came forth and said that I had descended to earth and I had tabernacled among men and that I had been called by the name of Jacob.

[5] He envied me and fought with me and wrestled with me saying that his name and the name that is before every angel was to be above mine.

[6] I told him his name and what rank he held among the sons of God.

[7] ‘Are you not Uriel, the eighth after me? and I, Israel, the archangel of the Power of the Lord and the chief captain among the sons of God?

[8] Am I not Israel, the first minister before the face of God?

[9] And I called upon my God by the Inextinguishable Name.”

Even Moses appears to have had a pre-existence in heaven before he appeared on earth to deliver the Israelites from Egypt: Continue reading “Bible Heroes in Heaven Before They Came to Earth”


Divine human-like figures in Hellenistic Judaism

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

by Neil Godfrey

Damiane. The Ancient of Days. A fresco from Ub...
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If we rely on the Gospels and Josephus for our understanding of Jewish religious beliefs of the first century we would miss some of the most colourful and relevant details that were the background to the emergence of Christianity. Summing up Jewish religion in terms of a neat threefold division of Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes probably had more to do with Josephus’s interest in portraying Judaism as a respectable, even superior, counterpart to non-Jewish philosophical systems of his day. Alan F. Segal lists some of the varieties of beliefs that appear to go back to the time before rabbinic Judaism established itself after the destruction(s) of Jerusalem and throughout the second century. I bypass his arguments for the pre-rabbinic (pre 70 CE) provenance of these beliefs in this post and simply list here some of the ideas making up the rich constellation of “Judaism” at the time.

Four “Dangerous” Scriptures

Later rabbinic evidence points to four Scriptural passages in particular at the centre of beliefs that proved to be heretical at least to those later rabbis.

It is worthwhile to point out that many of these dangerous exegetical traditions may never have been entirely separate at any point in their development. Biblical scholars have recently noticed the relationship between all works describing the divine warror figure (including both Exodus 15 and Daniel 7) and ancient Near Eastern mythology. (p. 184) Continue reading “Divine human-like figures in Hellenistic Judaism”