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Where did the Bible’s Jews come from?

Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? 

2012-02-16 by Neil Godfrey

This post is based primarily on a few pages in The Mythic Past by Thomas L. Thompson. It is slightly supplemented by fewer notes from a different but complementary discussion on the biblical meanings of “the people of God” in The Israelites in History and Tradition by Niels Peter Lemche. (All bold fonts for emphasis or highlighting key points for ease of reading are mine.)

I conclude with my own thoughts on what all of this means for the first of our Gospels.

The biblical tradition informs us of the meaning and understanding that the biblical authors’ contemporaries attributed to the past. Archaeological evidence points to a different reality of the past.

The religious understanding of Israel’s origin myth

The primary biblical referent for Israel’s ethnic and family identification is found in the stories and metaphors of “exodus”, “wilderness”, “exile” and “return”. Even in the Books of Kings the narrative is couched in the suspense of threats and promises of exile from the land. These themes centre on the motif of the children of Israel as the “people of God”, as Jahweh’s “first-born” and God’s “inheritance”.

These stories all are solidly rooted in the self-defining, grand epochal line of a God without a home or a people [and who was] searching for a people without a home or a God. It is in this metaphor that we find the foundation and matrix for the ethnographic metaphor of all Israel. This metaphor gives voice to the ‘new Israel’ with its centre in Yahweh’s temple of the ‘new Jerusalem’. This is an identity that is formed from the perspective of the sectarian theology of the way. (pp. 255-56,Our Mythic Past by Thomas L. Thompson)

Compare Niels Peter Lemche’s observation of the nature of Israel’s origin myth:

As a foundation myth, the exodus myth therefore constitutes the Israelite people not as a normal people like any other around, but as a separate, elected people of God. The origin myth is simply that of a religious community, whether people or a congregation. It is not a normal myth of origin of a secular entity; it is the kind of mythology that follows other religious communities of this world, including Christianity. It is not history but beyond history, phrased in historical terms; it is the origin myth of a religious history of the chosen people, the holy congregation of God, who having sinned passed the judgment in order to reclaim their land and their God. (pp. 92-93 of The Israelites in History and Tradition, Niels Peter Lemche)

Continuity and otherwise in Palestine’s history

But the biblical motif of a people exiling and returning in order to forge their identity is not what we find in the material remains of Palestine. Rather, there is a solid continuity of peoples in Palestine that the biblical narrative knows nothing about.

We find the first settlers in Palestine in the Neolithic period. The earliest villagers and farmers adopted the Semitic language and structured their own version of a Mediterranean economy.

The social and cultural continuities of Palestine’s population from that time are marked and unequivocal. We see them in the material remains and particularly in the styles of pottery from cooking pots and storage jars, as well as in the later developments of lamps and common ware. We find them in the structures of the economy, the political structures of patronage, the types of settlement, even the continuity of the trade routes. The establishment of empire, first with the Assyrians, which was to continue until modern times, changed few of these structures. (p. 254 of Our Mythic Past)

The same holds true, says TLT, for religious developments:

The development of religious beliefs was also progressive, involving as much a reinterpretation of the old as an introduction of the new. The foundations of biblical thought were centred in an inclusive monotheism, which was based on a reinterpretation of Palestine’s religious past. The characteristic of the Bible as a collected tradition confirms continuities it created. Judaism and Christianity, though themselves later than the writings taken up in the Bible, clearly understood themselves as heirs to this intellectual tradition. (pp. 254-55)

But what happened afterwards to “the people of the land”?

As Judaism gave way  to the dominance of Christianity in the Byzantine period in the course of the fourth century CE, and when both Christianity and Judaism gave place to Islam in the seventh, changes took place in the religious thoughts of the population, but such changes were both developmental and incremental. (p. 255)

But what of those migrations into the land?

Here we have the ideology of continuity. That is, even outsiders who migrate to settle in the land embrace an ideology that their presence is itself  seen as an act of continuity with the land:

Even the great displacements of the twentieth century, leading to the establishment of the state of Israel, have been understood in terms of return. They are spoken of in the language of continuity.

And it was always thus, though to detail it all would require more space than a single post:

Even the disruptions of imperial population policies had been reinterpreted in favour of continuities. Indigency was given the immigrants as their birthright. (p. 255)

But what is the historical fact? Is there on-the-ground continuity at the tangible historical level, too?

Historical continuities were also in fact greatAlthough deportation and exile, and subsequent changes to identity and self-understanding, have been the fate of many during the history of this region, continuity has played a countervailing role.

The state of Israel ceased to be in the year 722 BCE, but the people and many of the villages and towns of Israel continued and the historical continuities of this highland population with the medieval and modern Samaritan communities around Nablus can be confirmed through continuities of the agricultural population in the Shechem valley and elsewhere in the central highlands. Economic and cultural continuity can be traced back to the Early Bronze Age. One must not imagine the Assyrians creating a tabula rasa of the highlands in 722. They had a territory to administer and to draw taxes from. While the generic mix of the population must have been substantially altered by these changes, many remained in the region and provided the language, culture, religion and way of life for the varied ‘returnees’ who were brought to the land from Arabia, Elam and Syria. Not all went into exile; nor did all go to Egypt. The archaeological continuities are marked, as are the continuities of language, culture, religion and way of life. ‘Race’ in the modern discriminatory sense is not an issue during this period.

The year 586 BCE disrupted and changed political life in Jerusalem. That was politics. The lives of most people were picked up again and continued along old lines. The end of Palestine’s regional states brought the population into an imperial context. National identity with the formation of ethnicity had failed.

(p. 255, reformatted for easier reading)

The historical Yahweh

The distinctive feature of biblical Judaism is the worship of Yahweh. But what does the historical record tell us?

The Bible’s portrayal of the god Yahweh as understood through the period of the Iron Age is anachronistic. The biblical narrative was from a time long after the settings of its narratives in the ages of the patriarchs and united kingdom. So what do we know of Yahweh worship in the region during the Iron Age from the historical evidence itself — as opposed to late theological narratives?

In brief outline here, the earliest references to Yahweh appear as a place-name in Egyptian texts of the fourteenth to thirteenth century BCE.

Further, we have much evidence of a plurality of Yahwehs from the Iron Age: Yahu or Yau of Nebo; Yahwehs of Teman and Samaria, graphic depictions of them from Kuntillat Ajrud (a ruin in northern Sinai). These references could well indicate the existence of cult places and temples for the worship of this deity.

We also have personal names containing Yah or Yau or Yahu, indicating a name meaning related to the god. These names are spread across a wide geographic area in the West Semitic world. These include royal names in the far north Hamat in Syria:Azriyau and Yau/Ilubidi.

Such well-known evidence reflects a number of societies that variously identified such central divine functions as fertility and weather with a deity whose name was Yahweh. Ba’al and Hadad are better-known names for this same divine function among West Semites. (p. 256)

In later periods, too, we find attachments to this god. There is Yahw in Elephantine of the Persian period and Yao in the writings of Philo of Byblos. Eusebius refers us to the god Ieuw in northern Syria.

In the Persian period we find coins with Yahweh’s image and symbols.

In both the Persian and subsequent Hellenistic era there are Yahweh temples at Elephantine, Jerusalem, Arad, Samaria (near Mount Gerizim), Leontopolis, Araq-el-Amir and Cyrenaica.

On the strength of assumed similarities to the biblical Yahwey temples excavated at Arad (Iron Age) and Beersheva (Hellenistic) are also claimed as Yahwist.


The Bible’s theological views of Jahweh thus bear no comparison with the historical Yahweh of Palestine. What we read in the Bible is a late theological narrative that anachronistically imputes its own view of Yahweh into its imaginary (theological-creative) view of the past.

Compare the Bible authors’ treatment of Canaanites, Amorites, Hebrews, Philistine, even the name Israel as a kingdom, as outlined in an earlier post. The authors — probably in the Persian and Hellenistic eras — have taken ancient names whose original contexts and meanings had largely been lost to them to weave a new identity narrative, more myth than history, for a religious community.

Many Judaisms

As with the names of peoples and god above, the “Judaism” of the authors was anachronistically projected back into the past as part of their theological myth-making.

First of all, the historical Judea:

The name Judea — Jaudáa — is a geographical term (referring to the highlands south of Jerusalem) in Assyrian period texts.

The same name — Yehud — becomes a political term in the Persian era.

[These names] were no more reflective of a people than were any of the other names for regions of the empire. Moreover, the geographical spread of people referred to as Yehudim is so great that it would be rash to assume that this name refers to their place of origin.

There is no evidence that the term had ethnographic associations.

Nor should we continue to understand this term as ethnographic, without evidence. By the beginning of the rabbinic period in the second century CE, the term yehudim is clearly religiously descriptive, and neither ethnic nor geographic. Folk-etiologically, the term yehudim has been associated with the divine name Yahu. It defines Yehudim as adherents of Yahu.It is this religious association that seems most constant in the spread of the use of the name Yehudim in the Roman empire. (p. 257)

The Elephantine texts of Egypt

Here we find the name Yehud applied to people who lived in a military colony and who who seem to have had a particular religious affiliation. The term is not used in a geographic sense. The word Yehudim might be understood as a label for a people who had an affiliation with the god Yahweh.

These ‘Jews’ are not residents of Judea. Nor is it likely that they originally came from Judea rather than some other region of the south Levant. They are members of a religious association of those who centre their lives in Yahweh. These texts are well worth looking at more closely.

407 BCE, a letter from Yedoniah, a priest of the military colony at Elephantine, sent to the governor of Judea. The letter was sent on behalf of Yedoniah’s fellow priests and the ‘Jews’, the citizens of Elephantine:

  • Yedoniah asked for administrative permission to rebuild their temple, dedicated to the god Yaho.
  • Yedoniah also referred to an earlier explanatory letter he had sent to the sons of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria.
  • . . . . and to another previous letter to the high priest in Jerusalem that was never answered.
  • Yedoniah accuses the priests of the temple of Khnub of conspiracy in the temple’s destruction, which had been carried out by troops from the fortress of Syene.
  • Yedoniah claims that the temple and military colony of the Jews had been in Elephantine since pre-Persian times.
  • He claims a religious kinship with temple community and ‘Jews’ of Jerusalem. (Is the sentiment reciprocated?)

The term ‘Jews’ makes no implicit reference to a place of origin in the Persian province of Yehud. The only indicators in the letter to places of origin are found in the words ‘Aramaean’ and ‘Egyptian’.

It is likely that the ‘Jews’ of Elephantine are originally from the south of Levant on the basis of

  • the dominance of West Semitic, especially Yahwist-theophoric, personal names
  • many Hebraisms in the Aramaic of the texts —
    • but the implied use of Hebrew language does not of itself indicate any specific ethnicity or ideology

And to that last point must be added that the texts also inform us that the Jewish garrison here also supported a range of other gods, too — Yaho, Ishumbethel, Anathbethel — thus indicating broader Syrian, probably south Syrian, origins.

It is impossible to conclude that these ‘Jews’ consist a single ethnic unit:

Other deities — of international origin — are honoured by Elephantine’s Jews. An oath is sworn to the goddess Sati, and greetings are given in the name of Bel and NabuShamash and NergalYaho and Khnub. The nexus of religion and family makes it difficult to conclude that the ‘Jewish’ religious associations of the Elephantine community, suggested by their names and that of their deity, are to be translated with any confidence in terms of ethnicity. Ethnicity is difficult enough to identify in the best of circumstances. Far from the relative homogeneity of a provisional homeland, émigrés are, ethnically speaking, notoriously promiscuous. (p. 258)

Mibtahiah, daughter of Mahseiah the son of Yedoniah (Yahwist names all) is presented as “a good case for understanding Jewish associations in the diaspora.”

Her grandfather, Yedoniah, is described as an Aramaean or Syrian of Syene.

Her father, Mahseiah, in another text is described as a ‘Jew’.

So, being a Jew clearly did not exclude one from also being an Aramaean.

Further, in a contract for her third marriage, her father is this time described as a Aramaean of Syene (as his father, Yedoniah, is also described).

  • Mibtahiah’s first husband has a Yahwist name, Yezaniah, as well as a Yahwist patronym: ben Uriah.
  • Her second husband has an Egyptian name, Pi’, with an Egyptian patronym: Phy. He was a builder in the fortress of Syene.
  • Her third husband, also a builder, has the Egyptian name Ashor, with an Egyptian patronym: Seho. He later adopts the common Hebrew name Nathan. “Whether this was done for family or for religious reasons is a moot point.”

The Persian province of Yehud

In biblical traditions Yehud of Persian times is identified with the region of Judea and consists of a small temple society centred around Jerusalem and to the north of Judea.

It is undoubtedly in this Persian period that Jerusalem first becomes identified as the city of the Jews, of the Yehudim, but it is not clear that this has any geographical significance in the biblical texts. (p. 259)

The personal name of Yehudah also makes its first appearance during this period. It is found in the Bible as the eponymous ancestor of the biblical tribe of Judah/Yehudah, and as a cue-name for the one (Ehud)  who in Judges conquers the highlands of Yehudah.

Religious self-understanding: Elephantine texts, Book of Psalms, Josephus

The self-understanding implied of a religious Judaism (as in the texts of Elephantine) is found in the authorial voice of biblical texts such as the Book of Psalms. These texts look back upon ancient Israel as lost. They create a ‘new Israel’, centred in the study of the torah, given to them by the long forgotten God of Israel past. Like Israel’s troops in the story of Joshua 24, they reject the past to choose a new way, the way of Yahweh. This is also the perspective of the stories in Josephus about John Hyrcanus. He is seen as re-establishing a new Israel throughout the newly conquered lands of Palestine. (p. 259)

Eretz Yisrael, the ‘land of Israel’ — and the ‘true’ Israel 

It is a striking fact that the concept of “the land of Israel” is nowhere established through ethnic identification with the land, but always through religious conversion.

This is again the understanding of a ‘true’ — not an ethnic — Israel that is given to the founding figure in the Damascus Covenant: the ‘teacher of righteousness’. We have seen that this language reflects a sectarian perspective. The true Israel is understood to refer to those who hold to the way of truth.

In just such a context, Josephus presents the Pharisees as Jews for the ‘new Israel’. In contrast, the Hasmonean-anchored Sadducees are presented as adhering to the old Israel and the temple. However, the historically indistinguishable sadiqim(‘the righteous’) stand solidly in just such a sectarian-define path of righteousness as the ‘new Israel’.

This is a profoundly theological, not an ethnic definition. It is, moreover, a perception and self-understanding that must force the historian to avoid speaking of Judaism and Israel as a people of God.

Jews, Idumeans, Galileans and Samaritans, as well as Essenes and Pharisees, the writers of the gospels as well as the early rabbis of the Talmud, all understood themselves with the self-defining term benei Yisrael [= children of Israel]. The gospels — with all of their seemingly anti-Semitic abuse of the term ‘Jew’ — are thoroughly ‘Jewish’ works that are centred in this same sectarian and biblical view of the ‘new Israel’. They see Judaism, as do the rabbis, from a religious perspective. (my formatting)

Niels Peter Lemche stresses in his discussion of the dual concept of Israel in the Bible the stories of blood purity — especially as found in the stories from the Patriarchs to the returnees of Ezra with their strident declamations against mixed marriages. This is to preserve the religious purity of the ‘children of Israel’:

The image of Israel in the Old Testament is ambivalent. On one hand it is the people of God, the elected one, God’s own possession, the light to the nations. On the other, it is a depraved people, a people who cannot understand, who have been warned, but nevertheless are following in the footsteps of their fathers, forgetting their God, a people to be swept away and punished. Before the Babylonian exile we see a people of sinners and transgressors, but after the exile a purified community of believers . . . . (p. 86 of The Israelites in History and Tradition)

The Gospel of Mark — implications for interpretation

It is from the likes of Thompson and Lemche drawing my attention to this refrain throughout the Jewish Scriptures that has been the source of my own interpretation of the Gospel of Mark. I have long seen this Gospel as being very much in the same tradition of biblical literature and the theology of the biblical books: Jesus is founding a new Israel, but the twelve chosen ones fail just as did the “Old Testament’s” original Israel fail. Like the “old Israel” they, too, failed to understand through their hardness of hearts, forgetting the great works of Jesus, and in the end failing by deserting Jesus. The lesson is for the true new Israel — the Christian audience of the gospel. And just as the biblical history of the old ‘Jews’ ended in ambiguity — exile, but with some glimmer of hope for the future with the restoration of the king to sit with in the Babylonian royal court — so does the Gospel of Mark end in ambiguity. Such a conclusion is the licence for the readers/hearers to fulfil the hope held out at the end in their own lives.

Paul himself said the stories of the ‘old Israel’ were written for the spiritual benefit of ‘new’: 1 Cor. 10:1-6. That a new chapter was called upon to be written for the new Israel that was preserved out of the old Israel with the destruction of the Temple in 70 would seem to be the most logical next step in the theological-literary tradition.

To be continued:

Will conclude this with a second post addressing in depth what the term ‘Jews’ meant to Josephus, Philo and others



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Over a week ago I posted Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1 — a discussion drawn principally from Thomas L. Thompson’s The Mythic Past: Biblical archaeology and the myth of Israel. That first post covered the evidence that “Jewishness” originated as a religious rather than an ethnic label:

  1. the origin myth of Israel being unlike any other national or ethnic origin myth in that it is an etiology of a religious cult
  2. the fact that there has been far more continuity of the population of Palestine than commonly understood
  3. the worship of Yahweh was not unique to any one people in the ancient Near East, nor was Yahweh the sort of god often depicted in the Bible
  4. Jewishness was not a concept that was limited to a particular ethnic group or even “the Jerusalem cult” exclusively, as witnessed by the surviving evidence from diaspora groups
  5. the concept of Israel in the Bible’s narrative is theological and not political or ethnic (prohibitions on mixed marriages were a safeguard for the preservation of the religious cult rather than an ethnic group)

Thompson argues that modern readers have tended to overlook the literary character of the biblical stories and traditions, and the fact that Israel in these stories is a theological (not historical) construct or metaphor. The same misreading applies to the New Testament, too.

This post addresses the second part of Thompson’s argument, the evidence from Josephus and to a lesser extent from Philo.

In book 12 of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus recounts an etiology of the Jews of Egypt from deportations under Ptolemy ‘from the mountains of Judea and from the places about Jerusalem, Samaria and near Mount Gerizim.‘ These he describes as ‘two groups’ — nevertheless Jews all — who dispute about whether they should send their tribute to Jerusalem of to Samaria (Ant. 12.1.1). (p. 259-60, The Mythic Past, my emphasis)

What is the significance of this? It shows that in Josephus’ mind it was quite acceptable to think of a single functioning Jewish community in the diaspora that was made up of Jews of disparate origins and loyalties. (Thompson, p. 260)

In his next chapter (12.2.1-3) Josephus presents a tradition that the Egyptian ruler, Ptolemy Philadelphus, had set free 120,000 people who had once been deported from Jerusalem to be enslaved in Egypt. What was the origin of this etiological tale of “Jews” having been deported from Jerusalem? Was it not based on Josephus’ understanding of “Jew”? Josephus uses the word “Jew” to describe those people in Egypt who had certain religious affiliations. He did not define them in terms of geography or origins but in terms of religious affiliation.

And what of the Persian name for the province, Jehud? The old name of Judea had referred to the highland region to the south of Jerusalem. Thompson suggests the Persian name of Yehud to refer, rather, to the province of Jerusalem may be related to the same religious association.

Inconsistency over the Samaritans

English: s' pilgrimage on , .

So in the above we see that Josephus implicitly associates the Samaritans with the diaspora Jerusalemites.

Later, however, Josephus polemicizes against the Samaritans and attempts to define them as non-Jews. Yet his polemic acknowledges that the Samaritans had identified themselves as Jews, following the same laws of sabbath observance and such. Josephus despises the Samaritans and so presents them as now denying that they are Jews. In attempting to refute the Samaritans’ claim to be Jews as a lie, he argues that they were in fact Sidonians — but then in the same context claims they were Medes and Persians. He even accuses them of demonstrating their “non-Jewishness” by having their temple renamed in honour of the Greek god Jupiter.

When the Samaritans saw the Jews under these sufferings, they no longer confessed that they were of their kindred, nor that the temple on Mount Gerizzim belonged to Almighty God. This was according to their nature, as we have already shown. And they now said that they were a colony of Medes and Persians; and indeed they were a colony of theirs. So they sent ambassadors to Antiochus, and an epistle, whose contents are these: “To king Antiochus the god, Epiphanes, a memorial from the Sidonians, who live at Shechem. Our forefathers, upon certain frequent plagues, and as following a certain ancient superstition, had a custom of observing that day which by the Jews is called the Sabbath. And when they had erected a temple at the mountain called Gerrizzim, though without a name, they offered upon it the proper sacrifices. Now, upon the just treatment of these wicked Jews, those that manage their affairs, supposing that we were of kin to them, and practiced as they do, make us liable to the same accusations, although we be originally Sidonians, as is evident from the public records. We therefore beseech thee, our benefactor and Savior, to give order to Apollonius, the governor of this part of the country, and to Nicanor, the procurator of thy affairs, to give us no disturbance, nor to lay to our charge what the Jews are accused for, since we are aliens from their nation, and from their customs; butlet our temple, which at present hath no name at all be named the Temple of Jupiter Hellenius(Ant. 12.5.5)

But earlier, Josephus himself had spoken positively of identifying the Jewish god with Jupiter.

for both these people [Jews], and we [Egyptians, Greeks] also, worship the same God the framer of all things. We call him, and that truly, by the name of GREEK, [or life, or Jupiter,] because he breathes life into all men. (Ant. 12.2.4)

Clearly such a renaming of the temple thus hardly involves apostasy. But note in particular that the Samaritans identified themselves as the children of Israel — observing the sabbath, the Jubilee year, proper sacrifice, understanding themselves to be Hebrews — “whatever the truth of the claim that they were Sidonians, Medes or Persians might be.” (p. 260, The Mythic Past)

Josephus gives us further evidence that the Samaritans understood themselves to be Jews despite his own loathing of them. In Antiquities 11.8.7 he informs us:

Now when Alexander was dead, the government was parted among his successors, but the temple upon Mount Gerizzim remained. And if any one were accused by those of Jerusalem of having eaten things common or of having broken the sabbath, or of any other crime of the like nature, he fled away to the Shechemites, and said that he was accused unjustly.

So one having been accused of violating the Jewish laws fled to the Samaritans and claimed he was accused unjustly — thus implying that the Samaritans were themselves observing the same traditions.

Everybody can be a Jew

We find that Egyptians are Jews, Syrians are Jews, Samaritans are Jews. Josephus refers to ‘Jews throughout the inhabitable earth, and those that worshipped God, even of Asia and Europe’. The specifics themselves are impressive:

  • he refers to Jews having been carried captive beyond the Euphrates.
  • Citing Strabo, he speaks of a large portion of Alexandria taken up by the Jews,
  • of Jews living in many of the cities of Egypt,
  • as well as in Cyrene and Cyprus.
  • He describes Jews as controlling Cleopatra’s army (Ant. 13.10.4 and 14.7.2). Their great power in Egypt he explains by their having been themselves originally Egyptian.
  • He writes in connection with a revolt in Cyrene, of ‘our people, of whom the habitable earth is full’, and of Jews in every city. ‘It is hard,’ he writes, ‘to find a place . . . that has not admitted this tribe of men and is not possessed by them’.
  • He also speaks of the Jews of the diaspora much in the manner of Philo: model citizens of the empire.
  • He tells of many nations, imitating the Jews and, having learned from them, supporting ‘great bodies of these Jews’, and becoming prosperous using their laws. (Ant. 14.7.2; 15.2.2; 18.9.1; 18.3.5)
  • This picture of the ‘Jews’  of the diaspora is matched by his description of the ‘Jewish’ cities of Palestine at the time of Alexander,
  • including the cities of the Transjordan, of Idumea, Phoenicia and even ‘the principal cities of Syria’. (p. 261, my formatting)

What Josephus is doing is describing Judaism as being made up of “all who believe in the almighty God.” This is what underlies his understanding of “Jew”.

Thompson accepts part of Josephus’ description of Christians as being original to Josephus and as making the same point:

Even his more limited description of the followers of Jesus, among who he includes both those he calls Jews and Gentiles, forms part of his comprehension of Judaism (Ant. 18.3.3)

Philo had a different view

Josephus tended to consider all those among the growing adherents to monotheism as Jews. Not so Philo.

Philo, the Jew of Alexandria, identified himself as a Greek (“we Greeks”) when comparing his standing with ‘Barbarians’, the Orientalists.

But when seeing himself as distinct from fellow Egyptians he did call himself a Jew (“we Jews”).

Jews stand against the godlessness of the ethneAny argument against understanding early Judaism as an ethnic group or nation could hardly be stronger than Philo’s own. (p. 261, my emphasis)

A literary world, not an historical one

Philo’s understanding of “Jew” stands completely in accord with the theological meaning found in the Bible’s theology of “the way”. As does the Bible, Philo pits the way of the godly, those who are dedicated to observance of the torah, against the way of the ungodly. The biblical concept of ‘new Israel’ refers to the living generation who are expected to learn the lesson of the literary old Israel. (Compare Paul himself calling on his readers to learn from the failings of Israel of old.) The old Israel is always the theological failure and instructor of the new.

[Philo] historicizes the godlessness of the biblical tradition’s ‘old Israel’ with reference to the uncivilized nations of the Orient of his own time. Philo’s historicization of such ideological metaphors is fully comparable to what we have seen of Josephus’ literary techniques. Chronicles gives Hezekiah’s reform a rhetorical balance with the use of a three-fold Samaritan ancestry: Ephraim, Manasseh and Asher. With this same literary manner, Josephus presents the Samaritans (whom he identifies as being Sidonians as well as Persians and Medes) as claiming descent from the tribes of Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim. Similarly, Josephus elsewhere identifies Judaism itself in terms of the three-fold literary division of Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. Such efforts to historicize essentially literary concepts and metaphors are commonplace throughout our literature of Judaism. Only a Weberian sociology would derive a description of ancient society from these literary fictions. Whether they are found in the New Testament, in Philo or in Josephus, they reflect a literary world not an historical one. (p. 262, my emphasis)

The next paragraph is also worth quoting in full:

In ignoring the literary character of biblical stories and traditions, whether of the Old or the New Testament, we have ignored the collector’s world in which the traditions were first interpreted. We ignore the author’s world, centred in the religious sectarianism of true faith over against a false faith of the past. This sectarianism is not a religion of reform, but one of transformation and reinterpretation. In closing the Book of Kings, the tradition rejected that past world of kings and men, and with it that Jerusalem of old Israel with its temple that had been built by men’s hands. The New Israel comes out of the desert, out of exile. The land is the empty land of Nehemiah 1-4 and of Leviticus 26. It is Jeremiah 4:23’s tohu wa bohu. It is 1 Maccabees 1:37’s variant of creatio ex nihilo. The New Israel begins at the creation. It is a celebration not of an ancient nation but of new life. Ancient Israel — from the garden story of humanity’s search for wisdom to the end of God’s patience in 11 Kings — belongs not to the creation’s acts of God, but rather to the acts and to the world of men, where Jerusalem with its walls and its tower was indeed Genesis 11’s Babylon. This Babylon is the Jerusalem where the kings of David’s house, Yahweh’s messiahs all, had done what was right only in their own eyes. (p. 262)

Problems for scholarship’s historiographical interpretation

Recent scholarship tends to assume Judaism originated according to a literal or historical reading of the narrative traditions in Ezra and Nehemiah — as a people forming and reviving an old religion of Yahweh worship. But this model raises two problems:

  1. We must embrace the historicity of the exclusiveness of the Jerusalem temple’s claim: “an assertion that has no historical or literary warrant.” To assert such a thing would mean we would have to defend the Jerusalem cult’s legitimacy and orthodoxy against such literary constructs as ‘the people of the land’ and the Samaritans of Ezra and Nehemiah;
  2. Historians would have to ignore the many other communities and that were associated with Yahweh temples and cults. This problem might be solved by the “many Judaisms” approach, but that leaves unresolved the problem of rabbinical Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism of the second century can hardly be explained as the heir to any such temple Judaism.

Rabbinic Judaism cannot be found as a historical or social reality in any period prior to the second century CE. There is no centre or unity before then that can be described as such a Judaism. What one finds, however, is a Judaism that reaches out “embracing the whole of the classical world’s monotheistic inclusiveness.” Before the second century Judaism refers (as we have seen with Philo and Josephus) to religious and philosophical traditions. And those religious and philosophical traditions “all . . . share the common structure and self-understanding of the theology of the way.”

The significance of the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE

Thompson believes that the idea of the Jerusalem Temple ever being the “centre of Judaism” — as has been often argued in reference to the Hasmoneans, to John Hyrcanus’ attempts to force conversions, and to various historicized New Testament versions of a Jerusalem in Jesus’ time — such a role “came to it definitively only as a direct result of the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.”

It was at that time that the role of the temple, as expressing the divine presence on earth, was recast in the form of the metaphor of a future and heavenly Jerusalem.

This was not the rabbi’s torah Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism focussed on “the spiritual heart of the tradition” and can hardly be said to be heir to a temple tradition.

Rabbinic [Judaism] is hardly well defined as a religion in any strict sense of the word, any more than are the Tanakh traditions from which it springs. It is hardly like other religions of the ancient world, centred as they were on cults and sacrifices and the service of the gods. All such traditions are — as in Philo — transposed and reinterpreted in philosophical terms. (p. 263)

(Now this flies in the face of my own past interpretation of the Gospel of Mark and the religion that we would recognize as some form of Christianity (as opposed to Paul’s mystical attachment to an entirely mystical Christ). I have tended to think of Christianity as we know it as the end-result of various responses to the demise of the Jerusalem Temple cult in 70 CE. Does anything Thompson is saying here mean a qualification of that view is required?)

Has the hypothesis of ‘multiple Judaisms’ had its day?

Scholarship has focussed on the presumed historicity of the written traditions and proposed that there were “multiple historical Judaisms” to explain the diversity of these.

These many Judaisms living in this essentially metaphorical world are the Judaisms of Elephantine, as well as of the many variant historical forms of benei Yisrael [Children of Israel] Judaism that dotted the Palestinian landscape and the shores of the Mediterranean. They include the Shomronim of Samaria, as well as the Samaritans and Jews of Josephus and the Hellenist Jews of Philo in far-off Alexandria. Among such Judaisms surely belong the Zadokites and the Nazirites, the Essenes, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. (pp. 263-64)

But each of these Judaisms are essentially “literary Judaisms”. Their self-identities have been defined by the tradition.

Other Judaisms have not been so defined as Jewish except by modern scholars. Scholars have constructed “hypothetical groups of Jews living in various hypothetical societies and communities” that are implied by various “sectarians” of:

  • the Damascus Covenant
  • the Dead Sea Scrolls
  • the Apocrypha
  • the Pseudepigrapha

of many variable Old Testament traditions such as

  • Ezra
  • Nehemiah
  • Deuteronomy
  • Exodus
  • Ben Sira

as well as by the voice of

  • the gospels
  • the letters of Paul

The basis this conception of many Judaisms, however, is literary rather than historical. These multiple Judaisms are fictive entities. They reflect various ideologies, identifiable only in limited ways with any people who lived in the ancient world other than the authors who created them. (p. 264)

I am restraining myself from commentary here. There is a lot being said that needs to sink in and really register before discussion begins.

What is behind the multiple variants of this literature? Regional differences and chronology have no doubt had some influence but they are not the primary reasons for their variations. What makes them both a collective and a multiplicity of views?

They distinguish themselves from each other according to literary patterns of perceiving. They represent one of other variant of the defining motifs of the ‘new Israel’ and of the ‘new Jerusalem’, of the ‘way of righteousness’, and the ‘way of the torah‘. (p. 264)

This returns us to the central theme running through them all. It is a theological theme: “Old Israel” is a metaphor and an exemplar for the benefit, the contemplation, of the people of God in the here and now, those who identify themselves as the “new Israel”, the people of the “new Jerusalem”, those who have chosen the way of the Lord and turned their backs on the way of the ungodly. The literature consists of multiple ways of perceiving this theological theme or single religious idea.

So what do we do with the various “historical Judaisms”? Thompson is saying the communities behind this varied literary corpus are defined by their intellectual outlook and not any historical ethnicity.

Historically, however, we have a decidedly different taxonomy — one in which the terms Jewish and Judaism are hugely anachronistic, having merely a referential and accidental quality, not a defining one. In this taxonomy, no coherent unity pertains other than those shared intellectual features common to an interrelated geographical area. Here we find people living in




and Samaria and its region

the Galilee

and the cities of Palestine

together with associated populations in the Transjordan




Here we find the many West Semites of Egyptian military colonies such as that of Elephantine and Herontopolis.

We have any number of religiously comparable groups, including the members of the synagogues of the great cities of the empire from Rome to Babylon. (my formatting)

And let’s not forget those well-known assemblies of people who eschewed the distinction between Jew and Gentile yet at the same time identified themselves as a “new Israel” and related concepts.

In all of the above we find “priests and official cult functionaries of the various Yahweh temples”, and even supporters of the temples and who yet belonged to a variety of religious and philosophical associations.

They wrote in Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew.

Today we tend to classify their works as Jewish:

the many anonymous and often pseudonymous works of the Tanakh; the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea scrolls, the gospels and epistles, as well as the works of such authors as Josephus, Philo of Alexandria and Philo of Byblos.For such people, the terms ‘Jew’, ‘Jewish’, and ‘Judaism’ are historically highly equivocal.

Beyond the history of Judea and Samaria

Historians have too easily fallen into the trap of paraphrasing the 1 and 2 Maccabees and declaring it to be the history of the south Levant during the Hellenistic period. Thompson thinks something more is required:

[W]e need to write a history for the whole of this region. Our history should be more than a history of Judea and Samaria. We need to think about the towns of the lowlands and of the coast. We must especially think of Beth Shan and the towns of the Jezreel, and we mustn’t forget the Galilee. If the Bible remains our focus, we can no longer neglect the great intellectual centres of Alexandria and Babylon as we have. (p. 265)

Historians have tended to treat the religious ideas and texts of the Greco-Roman period as something of an anti-Hellenistic religious reaction emanating from Palestine’s “least Hellenized ‘Jews'”. Thompson suggests reversing that perception and thinking of this literature

more as an intellectual and philosophical movement within Hellenism itself.

Consider the “Jewish” temples of Jerusalem, Samaria, Elephantine, Leontopolis and Beersheva. Are these testimony to religious coherence or to religious and political factionalism and special interests? We know, for example, that many of the early “Jewish” texts such as the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls “do not see the temple as the core of their religion, though they recognize its political and cultic value.” Recall in the previous post the evidence that for the community at Elephantine there was no clear religious primacy for either the Jerusalem or the Samaritan temple. If the Jerusalem temple really were the central idea of Jewish religious affiliation, then the Samaritans would have been excluded by definition, as well as other ethnic and geographic centres of Judea itself. Note, also, the relationship of Idumean power and its relationship with the Jerusalem temple at the time of Herod.

Consider also the various groups of the Galileans.

If Idumeans and Galileans can be understood as Yehudim, what of the people of the Transjordan from Philadelphia to Damascus? (p. 265)

Where did all the Jews come from?

Could all who adhered to such a religion understand themselves as ‘Jews’? Or, like the Samaritans, as benei Yisrael? The early Greek translation of the Bible is associated with the ‘Jews’ of Alexandria. Were such ‘Jews’ transported to Egypt from Alexander’s Samaria? Or were they ‘Jews’ because of their biblical faith? And where did the Jews of the later Jerusalem Talmud come from: those ‘Jews’ centred in the schools and synagogues of Tiberias and Zevad? This is to say nothing about the Jews of Acco, of Byblos and of the diaspora throughout the Roman empire. What does it mean to be a Jew in Palestine — or indeed in the diaspora — under the Roman empire? Why is it that the rabbinic traditions of the Talmud — arguably reflecting traditions of the second to fourth centuries CE — know so little of the immense world of the Jewish diaspora: a Judaism that was so wholly Hellenized and Greek-speaking? And how was this international culture — so well reflected in the Septuagint and in many of the pseudepigraphic traditions — eventually lost to the Jewish world? Lest we be distracted by such questions, what were the non-rabbinic components of the complex region of the Syrian fringe in the Greco-Roman period? Are they to be understood as non-Jewish, anachronistically identifying Judaism as a product of the later Mishnah? What hidden historical societies does the Bible give voice to? Is the Bible itself expressive of Judaism or is it an anonymous voice for an entire region’s intellectual tradition? (pp. 265-66)

And who owns the Bible historically?

Judaism lays claim to the Bible. Christianity lays claim to the New Testament and the Septuagint. They both make this claim out of theological necessity. Both assert a linear, chronological or historical continuity with those books, but that assertion is a religious necessity, ideologically motivated.

Historically, the Bible, and the books that make it up are products of the whole south Levant’s world-view. Those who identified with it as their own tradition were those who emerged in the course of the first or perhaps better early second century CE as Samaritans, Jews and Christians. They were both Greeks and Hebrews. They were both indigenous and people of the diaspora. While all would identify their own heritage with the ‘land of the Jews’, this was a religious assertion, not a statement of historical fact. Just such associations to Judaism were created in Egypt, in Babylon, and in all of the great cities of the Grec0-Roman world. (p. 266)

The myth of exile — what really came to an end in 70 and 135 CE

After Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE, and again in 135 CE, the people of the region “picked up their lives and continued” on. Under the Byzantine period Palestine became Christian and still there was no large deportation.

What came to an end was not the indigenous population of the land.

[W]hat ended was Jerusalem’s and its people’s self-understanding as Jewish.

In the fourth century Monophysites, and in the seventh century the Muslim religion ruled the region.

Though many churches became mosques, the indigenous population continued with a transformed understanding of itself and its religion.

Today’s historical distortion

Today we look back on the history of Judaism through the perspective of a Jewish-Christian dichotomy. This perspective, Thompson writes, is an anachronistic distortion from the second century CE. (Contrast the way many scholars of early Christianity attempt to stress Christianity as originally an entirely Jewish cult.) But this perception, says Thompson,

manipulates and historicizes the theology of the way, from which Judaism and the Christianity of the second century have taken their departures. It corrupts and distorts the tradition. (p. 266)

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