CJL: Archeological, historical and literary views of the Bible

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Scholarly works about the Bible can approach the text in a variety of ways. Some are interested in when the work, as we know it, came into being. Others are fascinated by the various strands they see in the text and attribute them to different authors. Two recent works offer different approaches. In “The Origins of Judaism: An Archeological-Historical Reappraisal” (Yale University Press), Yonatan Adler is not interested in the origin of the text, but rather when the actual practice of Judaism began. Ronald L. Eisenberg, on the other hand, does focus on the text, but offers a different slant: “In the Beginning: Parallels between Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Accounts” (KTAV Publishing House) compares religious/civil legal writings from other Near Eastern cultures of the time to see what influence they might have had on the biblical text.

Adler, an associate professor in the department of Land of Israel Studies and Archeology at Ariel University in Israel, is interested in the practice of Judaism, rather than the text that describes those practices. He notes that “the aim of the present book is to investigate when and how the ancestors of today’s Jews first came to know about the regulations of the Torah, to regard these rules as authoritative law, and to put these laws into actual practice. My interest here is to investigate when and why adherence to the Torah became the way of life of the Jewish population at large: the farmers and craftsmen, the men, the women, and the children.” What he does not explore is when these laws were gathered and written down: rather it’s the practice of rituals and laws that interests him. He calls his work a “social history, focused on the behavior of a society at large.” 

“The Origins of Judaism” discusses a variety of Jewish practices, including dietary restrictions, ritual purity laws, rulings against figurative art and the development of the synagogue as an institution, among others. Although Adler mentions what the biblical text says, he explores when Judaism developed as a religion through the use of archeological evidence in order to determine when specific behaviors became widespread. The author does note that a lack of evidence doesn’t mean that a specific behavior wasn’t practiced; it just means it’s impossible to claim it was accepted behavior. Adler also believes that there was never universal adherence to any of these practices. What he is looking for is widespread practice, meaning a large section of the population followed specific behaviors. 

To determine when Jewish practice as mentioned in the Bible developed, Adler begins in the first century C.E., when there is historical evidence of these practices, and then looks back in time to find the earliest archeological evidence of widespread adherence to the practice. The author notes that written texts cannot necessarily be trusted: when writing about the past, writers were attempting to offer plausible descriptions, ones their readers will accept. That does not mean they are accurate ones. Adler also believes that later explanations of phenomena does not mean those explanations were the original reason for a practice. Additional meanings could – and probably were – added later. He sees this as particularly true of rabbinic writings, such as the Mishnah and the Talmud. The author notes that one should not use the rabbinic discussions to define what practices took place before the rise of the rabbinic class.

The detailed evidence Adler uncovers makes it difficult to summarize his findings, but they include pinpointing the beginning of several practices. For example, he suggested the biblical dietary restrictions were in place in the early first century B.C.E. and possibly in the second century B.C.E. However, there exists no physical evidence prior to that of the restrictions. He sees something similar when looking for evidence of the practice of ritual purity: no evidence exists suggesting those rules were practiced before the second century B.C.E. When discussing pictorial art on coins, Adler notes that during the fourth century B.C.E., Judean coins featured images of humans and animals. It was only during the late second century B.C.E. that those depictions lessened.

The discussion of the Sabbath is particularly interesting: Adler notes that until the second century B.C.E., there is no evidence that the seven-day week was observed by anyone, let alone there being a specific day of rest. In fact, he believes a universal observance of a Sabbath most likely did not take place during biblical or rabbinic times. He writes, “While the authors of certain late biblical texts clearly advocated observance of Sabbath prohibitions (weekly or otherwise), their own writings together with anecdotal evidence from Elephantine and Babylonia suggest that the masses were not heeding their call. In fact, there is little reason to suspect that the general populace was even aware that anybody was sounding such a call in the first place.”

Adler offers a general summary of his findings that suggests that Judaism as we think of it may have emerged during the second century B.C.E. during the time of the Hasmoneans. It’s impossible in a short review to do justice to the details of his theory, but he posits that Hasmonean leadership “legitimized their sponsorship of the Pentateuch as the authoritative law... by fashioning themselves as the ‘restorers’ of an ancient system of divine law.” In simpler terms, revolutionaries pretended they were not doing something new, but rather restoring something from the communal past that had been ignored.

“The Origins of Judaism” is fascinating, even though Adler’s writing is dry and to the point. He tries to be extremely careful in suggesting what occurred, basing his thoughts on the archeological evidence that is available, rather than what authors who wrote centuries later believed. Adler’s work belongs on the shelves of anyone interested in the history and development of early Judaism.

While Adler’s work focuses on archeological evidence and ritual practice, Eisenberg explores the connections between the Bible and other written texts from the ancient Near East. He writes, “There are numerous examples of parallels between the Bible and pre-biblical ancient Near Eastern narratives, laws, and customs. Did the Bible consciously ‘borrow’ from these ancient Near Eastern traditions? Or were these traditions simply part of a shared culture of the Fertile Crescent, which stretched from Egypt to Mesopotamia, one the Israelites could understand?” Eisenberg recognizes that parallels between the texts do not necessarily mean that there was a direct connection/influence. However, he believes looking at these parallels can give one a greater appreciation of the Hebrew Bible.

In addition to exploring the biblical text (with an emphasis on the books of Genesis and Exodus), Eisenberg writes about religious practice, theology and law. He sees parallels in the creation story found in the biblical text and the Babylonian creation myth in “Enuma Elish.” In both creation stories, there are divisions between higher and lower spheres. Both see humans as being the final step of creation, although there are differences in why humans were created. The biblical text portrays humans are being “the culmination of Creation. Human beings were created to fill the earth and rule over it.” In the Babylonian tale, “the great gods, weary of the task of furnishing their own sustenance, initially force the lesser gods to labor for them, but the lesser gods rebel and humankind are created to relieve them of their labors.”

Some parts of the Bible do seem to have direct parallels in other groups’ cultural practices. For example, the Israelites were not the only ones to have portable shrines. There is an Egyptian bas-relief that shows an object similar to the Tabernacle described in the Exodus. Eisenberg notes that the Hebrew word keren, which is used to describe Moses’ appearance after receiving the Tablets of Law, has been translated as “a ray of light” or “a horn.” The author wonders if horns might actually be the correct translation since “in Mesopotamia and Canaan, horns were associated with the gods, who were often portrayed with horned helmets... There also was a connection between ‘radiant’ and ‘horned’ in the Sumerian and Akkadian prayers to the moon, which was portrayed as shining and crescent-shaped like the horns of an ox.”

The similarities between the laws in each culture were the most interesting section, particularly the discussion on how the biblical law of an “eye for eye” may have actually been a cultural advancement. Babylonian law offered a variation that allowed punishment for someone’s family. For example, if a man killed a second man’s son, the second man was allowed to kill the son of the first man. Babylonian law also featured differing punishments based on a person’s social status and the class to which an injured person belonged. The biblical text treats all equally under the law. 

Readers of “In the Beginning” may argue about whether Eisenberg takes his parallels too far, but the author admits that the texts did not always influence each other. Still, it’s interesting to compare the stories and laws of the different cultures. The prose is generally easy to read and is filled with quotes from a variety of ancient sources. Those interested in literature and history of ancient times should find much of interest.