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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Hymns and Prayers.


Prayer is one of the elementary forms of religious life and was probably always a feature of the worship of ancient Israel. However, there are grounds for thinking that late Second Temple Judaism witnessed a remarkable flowering of prayer and liturgy, stimulated, perhaps, by the intensification of national and religious life that followed the Hasmonean revolution. A substantial proportion of the surviving literature from the period consists broadly speaking of hymns and prayers. These are found both embedded in literary texts (e.g. in apocalyptic works such as 2 Apoc. Bar.: ANTH E.6) and in liturgical collections—prayer-books for various occasions. The most important of these collections is the biblical book of Psalms. While many of the Psalms go back to the pre-exilic period, it has long been suspected that a proportion is post-exilic in origin (some being possibly as late as the Hasmonean period), and that the collection as a whole was not put together till fairly late in Second Temple times. The numerous copies of the Psalter from Qumran show how fluid the collection still was even in the first century BCE. Though the copies are in broad agreement as to content, they differ significantly as to the order and the text of the individual Psalms, and they contain Psalms which are not found in the standard synagogue and church psalters.


The Dead Sea scrolls have yielded a particularly rich harvest of prayerbooks. There was a tendency among early researchers to regard these all as sectarian compositions and as reflecting, therefore, the peculiar practices of one, possibly atypical, community. It has become increasingly clear, however, that there is nothing distinctively sectarian about many of these texts and that they probably reflect liturgies in more general use. And even those that contain sectarian language may involve the adaptation of common prayers to sectarian worship.


It is far from clear who composed the numerous surviving hymns and prayers, and when, where, and by whom they would have been used. Prayers and hymns of various kinds must have been part of the temple service from time immemorial (cf. Sir 50:18–19 ). Many of the Psalms presuppose great cultic occasions in the temple and were probably chanted by levitical choirs. The priests in the temple blessed the people, using from time to time the famous Priestly Benediction (Num 6:24–6 )—an ancient and influential liturgical text, adaptations and echoes of which can be detected in other prayers (ANTH E.4). And worshippers made confession over the offerings they brought to the temple and may have received words of absolution or encouragement from the priests.


Another locus of prayer was the synagogue. The origins of the synagogue are obscure. As an institution it is first attested in Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy III (Euergetes), 247–221 BCE. It may have been a Diaspora invention which was later imported into the Land of Israel. Certainly by the early first century CE there is evidence of synagogues in Palestine, at least in Galilee. From the outset it was recognized that the synagogue was liturgically subordinate to the temple. It could not be a place of sacrifice, since only in Jerusalem could sacrifices be offered to God. It was a place for prayer and the public reading of the Torah. It is no longer possible, however, to reconstruct with any certainty its order of service in the pre-70 period. Some sectarian groups, as the Dead Sea scrolls clearly prove, developed their own elaborate liturgies for their own sectarian assemblies. Finally, there is evidence to suggest that private prayer at fixed times of the day (morning and evening), was becoming an important part of individual piety in late Second Temple times.


It is not easy to match the surviving Second Temple prayer-texts to the various life-settings in which prayer may have been offered. The present-day tradition of prayer in the synagogue is rich and varied, and elements of it may go back to the Second Temple period. The Eighteen Benedictions, or Amidah, which, together with the Shema and its blessings, forms the core of the current synagogue liturgy, is very old (ANTH E.1, 5; for texts of the Amidah and the Shema see Singer (1962 ); on the synagogue liturgy see Idelsohn (1932 ); Elbogen (1993 ); Reif (1993 )). Its use was already well established when the Mishnah was compiled (c.200 CE), and, although in its current forms it presupposes the destruction of the temple, a version of it may have been in use before 70 CE. Parallels between the Amidah and parts of Ben Sirach have long been noted (cf. Sira 36:1–17; 51:12 i–xvi (Heb.): though the latter passage may not be genuine Ben Sirach, it is probably, nevertheless, a genuine Second Temple period composition). However, the text is inescapably political in content, and calls explicitly and implicitly for the overthrow of the existing political order. It is hard to envisage on what occasion such a prayer could have been publicly recited before 70 in either synagogue or temple.


The growth of sectarian liturgies is clearly illustrated by the Dead Sea scrolls. Qumran may have been a forcing-house for the development of liturgy, because its members had withdrawn from worship in the Jerusalem temple, which they regarded as controlled by an illegal priesthood and polluted. Instead the community followed a rigorous regime of prayer and study, reminiscent of later Christian monasticism (ANTH E.2; see further Falk (1998 )). Every year the members reaffirmed their commitment to the community. The basic order for this ceremony of the renewal of the covenant is contained in the opening columns of the Community Rule (on which see MAJ GEN F.2). Its use of adapted versions of the Priestly Blessing is noteworthy (ANTH E.3).


One of the most interesting hymnic texts from Qumran is the Scroll of Thanksgiving (Hôdayôt) from Cave 1 (ANTH E.4; text: García Martínez and Tigchelaar (1997: i. 146–205); tr.: Vermes (1997: 243–300); commentary: Mansoor (1961 ); see further Kittel (1981 )). This fine collection of Hebrew hymns strikes a note of intense, personal piety, but it is uncertain whether one or several authors were involved in its composition, or the occasion for which it was composed. It is possible that it was intended for use at the Qumran sect's annual festival for the renewal of the covenant. The large Cave 1 Scroll of the Hôdayôt is palaeolographically dated to the late first century BCE. Fragments of other hôdayôt-like hymns have also been found at Qumran.


A striking motif, widely attested in Second Temple liturgical texts, is the idea that matching the temple on earth is a temple in heaven, in which the angels worship God. There are, of course, antecedents to this notion in earlier Jewish tradition, notably in Isa 6:1–5 , but it seems to have received renewed attention in late Second Temple times. One of the most elaborate expressions of this idea is to be found in the Qumran work known as the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (4Q400–5; 11Q17), the surviving Hebrew texts of which date palaeographically between the mid-first century BCE and the early first century CE (text: García Martínez and Tigchelaar (1997: ii. 806–37, 1212–19); tr.: Vermes (1997: 321–31); see further Newsome (1985 )). Though fragmentary, it is possible to see that this text must originally have described the celestial liturgies in considerable detail, though how the author or authors acquired this knowledge, whether by revelation or by deduction from the terrestrial liturgies, is far from clear. The Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice envisage the praying community on earth joining with the angels in heaven to worship God. There is a marriage of earth and heaven. Terrestrial worship is given an added solemnity because the angels are present in the congregation. This same idea lies behind an old element of the synagogue service known as the Qedushah (ANTH E.5), which describes in exalted language the worship of the angelic choirs. The antiquity of the Qedushah is suggested by the fact that a version of it forms part of the Christian eucharistic service. It was probably taken over from the synagogue service early in the history of the church. Such a direct borrowing at a later date would be most unlikely. Similar ideas about the worship of the angels are found in the Hekalot texts of the Talmudic period, which contain some strong and interesting parallels to the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice. It is unlikely that the Hekalot mystics borrowed directly from the Qumran texts: Hekalot mysticism, for all its peculiarities, belongs firmly within the tradition of rabbinic Judaism, whose Second Temple forerunners were the Pharisees, whereas the group that produced the Qumran texts was almost certainly the Pharisees' opponents, the Essenes. Rather, both traditions probably originated in the speculations of priestly circles in the Jerusalem temple in late Second Temple times. These priests were probably attempting to reach a more theological understanding of prayer, and to deepen the spirituality of temple worship. The same general motivation may lie behind the emergence of a sacramental theology of sacrifice which linked the binding of Isaac (ANTH A.6) with the Temple Mount, behind which was the idea that the great temple sacrifices were efficacious to atone for sin because they were a re-enactment of the offering of Isaac.


It is hard to identify for certain purely private prayers among the surviving Second Temple period prayer texts. Unquestionably the Amidah in the second century CE was prayed both as a private prayer and with the congregation. It is also hard to know how to contextualize some of the prayers and hymns embedded in the literary texts. Were these composed purely for literary effect, or were they intended for actual liturgical use, or so used? 2 Bar. Apoc. (on which see MAJ GEN C.6) illustrates the problem. It contains a number of very fine laments for the destruction of the temple (ANTH E.6). Might these, or similar texts, have been used as part of a special litany for the destruction of the temple? There is evidence later in Judaism for groups, known as the Mourners for Zion (᾽abĕlê siyyôn), who dedicated themselves to special liturgies commemorating the fall of the temple.

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