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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Biblical Religion

Revolution or Reform?

The complexes of traditions in edited texts that form the evidence for biblical religion date, for the most part, from the 7th to 5th centuries BCE: the Torah, the historical works, the beginnings of the compilation of the prophetic books, the chief wisdom books. Embedded in these works are materials that reflect older stages of biblical religion—its prehistory, as it were—and many traditions of Israelite‐Judean religion that have, in the main, been altered to reflect later viewpoints.

A key question is whether biblical tradition is merely a later, more developed stage of Israelite‐Judean religion, continuing the same basic religious ideas and tendencies, a viewpoint that posits essential continuity; or whether, conversely, biblical religion marks a basic shift in religion, a reinterpretation of older traditions so radical as to be revolutionary. Continuity or revolution?

The Bible claims continuity from Moses on, with no meaningful development. This single authentic tradition was constantly violated by apostasy, but was also restored in a series of “reforms” by figures such as Josiah and Ezra. Modern critical scholarship overturned the traditional viewpoint by emphasizing the principle of change and development. The classic late 19th century synthesis of Julius Wellhausen posited discontinuity between older Israelite and later biblical traditions. The former was a “nature” religion, not essentially different from the cults of surrounding ancient peoples; the latter was a new kind of faith, rooted in prophetic inspiration. Later, according to Wellhausen, it became a fossilized text‐centered religion dominated by Priestly ritual and petty legalism. Such value judgments, reflecting Social Darwinist prejudices, seemed to invalidate Wellhausen's synthesis to many 20th century scholars. William F. Albright and his students tried to show that archeology could demonstrate substantial continuity between Israelite and biblical religions. For example, the covenant traditions were held to go back to recently discovered second millenium models. Some of the patriarchal traditions were demonstrated to have had early roots. Monotheism was related to trends in the late Bronze Age Near East, and so on. A similar attempt at demonstrating essential continuity was made by the Israeli scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann, who attacked Wellhausen's synthesis and tried to show that Israel's religion reflected the same basic ideas from beginning to end. By the end of the 20th century a revisionist reaction against the claims of continuity set in, with claims of discontinuity much stronger than those made by Wellhausen. Some claimed that biblical religion was mainly a product of the Persian and even Hellenistic eras, and that the existence of Israelite‐Judean religion, and even of “Israel” itself was chimerical. Some revisionist scholars were justly accused of having political goals.

Which approach is the most justified, on the basis of the biblical and extrabiblical evidence, including archeology? This is not a matter in which one can simply allow the “facts” to speak for themselves, because interpretation plays a key role at every stage of the discussion. But it is possible to list a few major differences between what scholarship generally considers to be typical of earlier vs. later religion:

  • 1. Monotheism. Older, especially poetic, texts portray the deity as seated among the assemblyof divine beings, who are sometimes, as noted above, called bene ʿel(im), (“sons of gods”), kedoshim (“holy ones”), among other terms. Statements of divine incomparability echo those commonly found also in extraℐ biblical hymns; for example “Who is like you among the gods?” (Exod. 15.11 ). Now, monotheism is really a complex philosophical idea that is very hard to express in biblical language, but later texts, especially Deuteronomy, do seem to be struggling to make overt statements about God's oneness and uniqueness, most famously in Deut. 4.35 : “It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the LORD alone is God; there is none beside Him.” and (depending on one's interpretation) in the Shema: “Hear, Israel, the LORD, our God, the LORD is one” (Deut. 6.4 ). In the Bible, key ideas are generally expressed peripherally, especially by concrete, often ritual actions. A probable sign of real monotheism is the active polemic against idolatry one finds in Deuteronomic texts and in late prophets, like Jeremiah and, especially, Second Isaiah. It (mis)repℐ resents other ancient religions as mere fetishism, the foolish worship of images of “wood and stone.”

  • 2. Centralization of worship. A potent ritual expression of absolute monotheism is the attempt to reflect God's oneness by insisting on one legitimate shrine, the Jerusalem Temple. This is a cultic development of the Deuteronomic movement, perhaps first attempted by Hezekiah in the late 8th century (1 Kings ch 18 ), and later effected by Josiah in his famous “reform” in 621 BCE (2 Kings chs 22–23 ). Earlier religion tolerated a multiplicity of altars, a fact obscured by the Deuteronomic editing of most of the historical books. But actions speak louder than words. The fact that Josiah, the paragon of militant piety, did not kill the priests of the “high places” (except for Bethel, the main rival of Jerusalem), but rather allowed them to share the Priestly income of the Jerusalem shrine (2 Kings 23.9 ) is a tacit admission that local shrines had been considered quite legitimate before. In the context of ancient religion, centralization of worship, which is also reflected in the contemporary Priestly writings (despite some signs of earlier decentralization), was an extremely radical step that deserves to be viewed as revolutionary in the extreme.

  • 3. Myth vs. history. It is often said that biblical religion broke with the kind of mythical thinking characteristic of the religions of the ancient Near East in favor of history. God was praised for His great acts of national redemption, such as the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of Canaan (“salvation history”). It is true that biblical religion has ousted most of the mythology of the ancient world, with the exception of a few stock themes, like creation, the garden of Eden and YHVH's cosmic battle in primeval times with the sea. Especially the sexual aspects of mythology, involved with the birth and procreation of the gods, have been eliminated (except for a few relics like Gen. 6.1–4 ). Indeed, it can fairly be stated that the processes of demythologization and desexualization of religion are related to each other and go handℐinℐhand in biblical religion.

    But it is less certain that biblical religion broke with the concept of myth itself. If one defines myth as narrative that expresses a culture's deepest attitudes and emotions about the origin and nature of the world in which it lives, it is correct to say that biblical religion created new but potent myths of its own. And it is certainly incorrect to hold that biblical religion is historical in any modern, scientific sense. Rather, the unique creation of biblical religion is a blend of history and myth that might best be termed typology, the cyclical recurrence of a few historical patterns, such as national apostasy and repentance, which serve as the basis of a vital historiography. Events are made to reflect, anticipate, and explain each other typologically. For example, the patriarchal narratives foreshadow later Israelite settlement in many ways (a fact the Rabbis recognized and expressed in the principle that “the deeds of the fathers prefigure what will occur to their descendants” (maʾase ʿavot siman levanim). Disparate events areunited by extended and intertwining typologies of creation and redemption. So, the return from exile in Babylonia is viewed as a second exodus from Egypt; the exodus itself is described in such a way as to evoke creation typology, as is the Sinai theophany, and so on. History is valued not for the unique, but for the recurrence of these repeated patterns. It is in this sense that biblical religion may be termed a historical faith.

    Was Israelite‐Judean religion already historical in this sense? The answer depends on the dating of the texts. Numerous typical ancient Near Eastern mythological themes are, however, prevalent in creation accounts outside Gen.ch 1 . Moreover, texts that reflect the royal theology of Judah, which are mostly very old, are also replete with language and themes drawn from ancient mythology. Indeed, that tradition does not even shrink from calling the king the “son of God” (albeit adoptive). Such facts lead one to suspect that the characteristic use of historically rooted typology is likely a feature of biblical, not earlier, religion.

  • 4. Individualism. Older religion viewed the individual as a member of society: family, clan, tribe, and nation. Corporate, transgenerational responsibity for sin was the rule, as in the Decalogue (“punishing children for the crime of their fathers to the third, even the fourth generation” [Exod. 20.5 ]). This notion is often evident even in Deuteronomy, where the Hebrew text often refers to the plural rather than the singular Israelite, suggesting that he or she will be punished or rewarded with the larger group (see e.g., Deut. 11.13–21 ). Evidence of an overt challenge to this doctrine first appears in the prophets of the late 7th and 6th centuries BCE, Jeremiah and, especially, Ezekielch (Ezek. ch 18 ). In late texts individual responsibility for sin has become the standard doctrine, as in the book of Chronicles. The belief in individual responsibility for sin went along with an elevated position for women and a new formulation of the nation Israel as a community of committed believers (ʾedah, kahal).

    The change was also reflected in new models of piety. Older psalms remain more or less on the level of similar compositions from the ancient Near East. But a new inwardness, focused on individual relationship to God, appears prominently in later psalms, like Pss. 139 and 119 . A new concept of the religious individual, totally devoted to God, is especially a feature of developed Deuteronomic religion, and is linked to the new emphasis on the oneness of God. It will be remembered that the Shema continues: “You shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and all your life” (Deut. 6.5 ). Another sign of the new individualism is a much heightened concern with the problem of individual suffering and the concomitant theological issue of theodicy. It finds expression mainly in later texts such as the “confessions” of Jeremiah (e.g., Jer. 11.18–12.6 ) and, above all, the book of Job.

  • 5. Text religion and canon. The older forms of Israelite religion probably were mainly oral, especially prophecy (at least before the 7th century). But Deuteronomic religion introduced a new text‐centeredness by insisting on the unchangeability of the written form of the torah (“instruction”) given to Moses on Horeb (Sinai). More than any other Torah book, Deuteronomy emphasizes the sefer or written document. Nothing may be added or taken away (Deut. 4.2; 13.1 ). This is the beginning of the notion of immutable canon, an approach to sacred texts quite at variance with the liberal attitude toward textual transmission of most ancient cultures. Indeed, despite this injunction, even biblical traditions remained astonishingly fluid for several centuries after Deuteronomy. But eventually the process of codification, standardization, and canonization set in, beginning with the Torah (probably in the 5th century) and extending gradually to the Prophets and the Writings, a development that was completed by the 1st century CE (or several centuries earlier, according to several scholars). Along with the increasing textualization and literariness of biblical religion went an intertextual aspect of internal commentary and inner‐biblical interpretation.

  • 6. Forms of piety. A new kind of piety also arose, fostered especially by Deuteronomy, focused on prayer and study. Ritual was not ignored, but it became secondary to teaching and meditation. Attitudes and themes native to the older wisdom tradition were adapted to this new piety, which emphasized study of the written record of divine revelation. It should be noted that biblical religion makes no claim for Mosaic authorship of the Torah as a whole, but only of Deuteronomy (Deut. 31.9 ). In addition, the older liturgical tradition was revised to make it compatible with strict monotheism, resulting in the type of prayer found in most of the book of Psalms (see discussion below).

These developments fit the general historical and cultural context of the centuries between about 800 and 400 BCE. It was a time of extreme change and uncertainty in the Near East, marked by the rise of a radically new form of political organization, the empire, first of the Assyrians, later of the Neo‐Babylonians and the Persians. These world empires made imperial religious as well as political claims, and the policies of mixing of populations through exile and resettlement weakened the old polities of the region. The chief gods of the imperial states were raised to supremacy over other deities. Henotheism, if not true monotheism, and syncretism were tendencies of the age. But uncertainty led to its opposite: cultural, including religious, conservatism, a focus on ancient traditions, and an attempt to present the new as authentically old. The typical literary production of the time is the pseudonymous fraus pia, a document that claims to have been written by a sage in hoary antiquity, but which actually fulfills some current need. The “finding” of the book of Deuteronomy in the Temple in 621 BCE, corresponds nicely to this contemporary model. In sum, biblical religion fits the period in question in a general way, and sometimes very specifically.

To return to the original question: Do all of these new developments of the 7th to 5th centuries BCE mark a radically new departure, or only a later stage in the development of Israelite religion? The explosion of new features in the period in question is undeniable, from the scholarly point of view. But at what point does a difference in degree become a difference in kind? At what point is one justified of speaking of something as revolutionary, as radically new, especially if the tradition in question keeps insisting it is really very old, and merely being stripped of later accretions, “reformed”? Probably the claims of continuity vs. discontinuity cannot be judged only on the basis of logic. Rather, one must choose the answer one judges to be best supported by the evidence one accepts, and, it must be admitted, one's private religious convictions. To me, it seems clear that biblical religion possesses such a cohesiveness, even in its disparity of traditions; so clearly reflects the needs of its times; and, above all, so evidently represents a heightening and sharpening of traditional ideas, that it deserves to be viewed as revolutionary. The following discussion reflects this judgment.

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