Vast review finds no evidence that the Torah laws were commonly observed before the second century B.C.E., says Prof. Yonatan Adler. Not all agree
Third-century synagogue, Talumdic period, Anim, southern IsraelCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
When was Judaism born? Tradition says it emerged more than 3,000 years ago at Mount Sinai, when God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and the rest of the laws contained in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.
Most researchers have long dismissed the Exodus and the revelation at Mt. Sinai as foundation myths – leaving us with the question of how and when the first major monotheistic religion developed. And now a new theory springs a shock.
A broad review finds no historical or archaeological evidence that the ancient Judeans, whether in the Holy Land or in the diaspora, observed or were even aware of the laws of the Torah until the second century B.C.E., says Yonatan Adler, a professor of archaeology at Ariel University and author of the new book “The Origins of Judaism,” published Tuesday by Yale University Press.
This would suggest that Judaism as we know it became a mass religion relatively late, possibly only when Judea was ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty, less than two centuries before the birth of Jesus.
Holding the Torah by the Western WallCredit: Josh Evnin
The genesis of the Bible
The roots of Judaism, and by extension of Christianity and Islam, have been the subject of critical investigation at least since the 19th century. Much of this research has focused on ascertaining the historicity of the biblical narrative, a question that continues to spark major debates, as well as understanding when the various texts included in the Old Testament were written.
While these studies give us precious insight into the genesis (no pun intended) and subsequent editing of the biblical texts, they suffer from a critical flaw by assuming that once religious law was written down it was automatically known to the people and widely respected, Adler says.
In his book, Adler took a different approach to studying the roots of this religion. He collated information from extrabiblical texts and archaeological digs to understand when the Judeans first began observing en masse the commandments of the Torah.
“It is possible that the principles of Judaism were much older, that the texts that became scripture were much older, but I am asking here what were people doing,” Adler says. “Maybe the Torah was sitting on a shelf somewhere for centuries, but most people didn’t know it existed. People were not observing it until a very late time.”
His investigation involved scouring ancient texts and the archaeological record for signposts of Judaism as we know it: monotheism; rejection of figural art; respect for dietary and purity rules; and observance of festivals like the Sabbath or Passover. Compiling previous research with his own findings, Adler’s study focuses mainly on the Persian and Hellenistic periods, that is, from the end of the Babylonian exile in the late sixth century B.C.E. onwards.
That’s partly because most scholars already agree that the religion the ancient Israelites practiced in the First Temple Period, up until the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., was very far removed from Judaism as we know it today. Yes, the Israelites worshipped the chief deity known in the Bible as YHWH, but they also honored other gods, made tons of human-shaped figurines, and seemingly ignored the biblically-sanctioned centralization of cult at the Temple in Jerusalem.
Given this, many scholars have concluded that Torah law only became widely known to the Judeans in the Second Temple Period, under Persian rule, and this is primarily because the Bible itself tells us so in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The story goes that the Judeans were ignorant of the Bible until the scribe Ezra brought it from Babylon to Jerusalem and read it to the people. (Nehemiah 8:1-2)
But as the George and Ira Gershwin song put it: “The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so.” In fact there is little or no evidence that the Judeans of the Persian Period, and even the Early Hellenistic Period were following the prescriptions of scripture, or were even aware of them, Adler notes.
Brought to you by Johanan the Priest
When it comes to monotheism, pretty much the cornerstone of Judaism as we know it, it seems that Judeans in the Persian period continued to worship a pantheon of gods, headed by the biblical YHWH. Texts written in the fifth century B.C.E. by Judean communities at Elephantine in Egypt and in Babylon often invoke the blessings of “all the gods” (“elahaya kol” in Aramaic).
These deities included Anatyahu, possibly the semitic goddess Anat as a consort of YHWH, and a god named Eshembethel, likely linked to a cultic center in Bethel, north of Jerusalem. There is even a letter that accounts for monetary donations made by the Judeans of Elephantine to YHWH and these two other deities.
Judean coin from Persian PeriodCredit: CNG
Back in Judea itself, figurative motifs abounded on coins, with some money sporting winged lions, a portrait of a bearded man, a seated deity (possibly YHWH himself) and even a representation of the Greek goddess Athena, Adler recounts in his book.
Mind you, these coins were not minted by the Persian overlords, but were signed by Judean officials with Yahwistic names, such as “Johanan the priest” and “Jehezekiah the governor.”
Figurative imagery disappears from Judean coins only in the second half of the second century B.C.E., with money minted by the Hasmonean leader John Hyrcanus I.
It would seem that up until that time, the fundamental prescriptions of the first and second commandments of the Torah (adoring YHWH exclusively and making no graven images, respectively) were wholesale unknown or ignored. And this is a leit motif for most of the hallmarks of Judaism that Adler examines. Previous research by the archaeologist had already shown that Judeans consumed non-kosher fish at least up to the Persian Period. Mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths) and synagogues appear only from the second century B.C.E. onward and before that period there is no clear textual evidence of observance of the Sabbath or Passover.
There is one letter from Elephantine that discusses a festival that is celebrated in spring, but the biblical rites of Passover are never actually mentioned, Adler argues in the book.
The ‘Passover Papyrus’ from ElephantineCredit: Egyptian Museum of Berlin
The archaeologist is cautious about his conclusions, and doesn’t rule out that small groups, undetectable in the archaeological and historical record, may have been following some form of Torah law in the Persian or Early Hellenistic periods.
“I can’t swear on the Bible there was no Judaism before, I can only say there is no evidence for it, and I can say we have some counterevidence for it, especially in the Persian period, so it’s less likely, while the second century B.C.E. is the more probable setting for the birth of Judaism,” he tells Haaretz.
Those clever Hasmoneans
This later period saw the Judeans, led by the Hasmonean priestly dynasty, revolt against the rule of the Hellenistic Seleucid empire. This conflict, commemorated during the festival of Hanukkah, is remembered as a victory against those who wanted to force the Jews to abandon Torah law and assimilate into the dominant Hellenistic culture.
But given that no one seems to have been observing the Torah before the revolt, Adler suspects that the conflict was more about the Hasmoneans seizing power and asserting Judah’s independence. It was only in hindsight that they spun it as a holy war, to unite the Judeans under a common identity forged by the laws and origin narratives of the Bible, Adler speculates.
The Bible’s territorial claims over the entire Holy Land as God-given to the people of Israel also provided a useful justification to later Hasmonean expansionism, particularly under John Hyrcanus, who gained control over regions, such as Idumea, that were not inhabited by Jews, Adler notes.
This does not mean that the state-sponsored religion of the Hasmoneans had no link to the previous practices and beliefs of the Judeans, and it is likely that Torah law incorporated many early traditions of the ancient Israelites, the archaeologist qualifies. One example could be circumcision, which was practiced centuries earlier not only by the Israelites but by many of their neighbors, including the Egyptians, Adler says.
Ruins in Jerusalem from the Hasmonean periodCredit: Emil Salman
“There was an ancient Judean religion before the second century B.C.E.,” he says. “They used Aramaic and Hebrew, there was a Temple, there were priests and sacrifices. But were they sacrificing according to the rules of the Torah? Were they following Torah laws? There is no indication that they were.”
Of course, the Bible is full of stories about the ancient Israelites transgressing God’s laws and falling into sin. Could it be that the Torah was in fact the law of the land much before the Hasmoneans, and the archaeological and historical evidence simply reflect this widespread misbehavior?
“From a historical perspective we have no evidence that the Judean masses knew about the Torah before the second century B.C.E.,” Adler responds. “The biblical story itself is that the people never observed the law. That story is essentially correct but it is being told from the perspective of people who think the Israelites should have been observing the Torah.”
The writers and editors of the biblical text thus compiled a narrative that fit their agenda, interpreting certain historical events, like the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, as divine punishment by a jealous god.
Hankering for a biblical past was certainly one element of Hasmonean ideology, says Prof. Israel Finkelstein an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa. Finkelstein, one of Israel’s leading biblical archaeologists, agrees with Adler that Judaism as we know it today originated in Hasmonean Judea.
While we have evidence that parts of the biblical text were already composed in the First Temple period, “they cannot be described as representing Judaism, but rather Judahite theology and royal ideology,” Finkelstein says.
Composition of biblical texts in Persian-period Judea seems to have been far more limited than most scholars thought, while the Hasmonean influence over several parts of the Old Testament is clear, especially the books of Nehemiah and Chronicles, he notes.
For example, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah express concerns over the Judeans marrying foreign wives and non-Jews living in the country. “There were no ‘others’ in small Persian Period Judea, but indeed there were many ‘others’ in the territory of the expanding Hasmonean kingdom starting in the middle of the 2nd century B.C.E.,” Finkelstein says. In other words, the stories of intermarriage in the Persian period reflect much later concerns projected anachronistically onto a distant, mythical past.
Other colleagues of Adler are less supportive of his conclusions.
“He is being very minimalist,” says Prof. Aren Maeir, an archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University. “While the First Temple-period religion of the Israelites is very different from what we know from later periods, I think the origin of Judaism is a process of ongoing development, not a sudden cutoff.”
For example, while Judeans used imagery in their coinage during the Persian period, during that time there is an almost complete disappearance of the figurines that were ubiquitous during the preceding Iron Age, in what could be an early sign of opposition to figurative art, Maeir notes.
“What we see is a slow transformation,” he says. “The Judaism we know only emerges in the Hellenistic period but there were foundational undercurrents that may go back to the First Temple period and that underwent huge transformations over time, especially with the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians.”
Whenever Judaism developed, critically studying the historical roots of the Torah and its observance is not an exercise in diminishing the value of the biblical text, Adler stresses.
“The fact that we have the Torah, and not just a faith, but a living identity we practice day and night from cradle to grave, could explain how the Jewish people survived for so long where other cultures have disappeared,” Adler says. “That’s why it’s so important to know when people first started keeping the Torah.”
Additionally, the quest for the roots of Judaism is key to understanding the other monotheistic religions that grew out of it, namely Christianity and Islam, he notes.
“The beginnings of Judaism set in motion the next 2,000 years of history, even though Jews make a very small percentage of the world’s population,” Adler says. “If we want to understand the history of humanity in the last 2,000 years, we need to know how it all started.”