BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

The Origins of Judaism

When did the laws of the Torah become the norm?

Origins of Judaism

Public ritual bath from the Herodian fortress at Masada, and the origins of Judaism. The massive emergence of similar pools across Judea, in accordance with the purity laws of the Torah, corresponds with the origins of Judaism in the mid-second century BCE. Photo by Talmoryair, CC BY 3.0.

Where can we situate the origins of Judaism? If we were able to travel back in time, would we find ancient Israelites and Judeans following the laws of the Torah during the First Temple period? Almost certainly not, claims Yonatan Adler in his recent scholarly book and a popular article that was just published in the Winter 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. So, what about during the Babylonian Exile (sixth century BCE), which is when many biblical scholars date the completion of the Torah? In his article “The Genesis of Judaism,” Adler asserts that even at this later date, most ordinary Judeans were not yet following the laws of the Torah. What does this mean for the origins of Judaism?


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The Genesis of Judaism

For millennia, Jewish identity has been closely associated with observance of the laws of the Torah. The biblical books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus give numerous prohibitions and commandments that regulate different aspects of Jewish life—from prayers and religious rituals to agriculture to dietary prescriptions and ritual bathing. It stands to reason that the moment when people in ancient Judea recognized these laws as authoritative would mark the origins of Judaism.

As Adler discusses, however, even the Bible itself presents a somewhat different picture:

Ancient Israelite society is never portrayed as keeping the laws of the Torah. The Israelites during the time of the First Temple are never said to refrain from eating pork or shrimp, from doing this or that on the Sabbath, or from wearing mixtures of linen and wool. … Nor is anybody ever said to wear fringes on their clothing, to don tefillin on their arm and head, or to have an inscribed mezuzah on the doorposts of their homes. Whatever it is that the biblical Israelites are doing, they do not seem to be practicing Judaism!

So, when can we date the actual origins of Judaism? Or, as Yonatan Adler puts it: “When did ancient Judeans, as a society, first begin to observe the laws of the Torah in their daily lives?” To answer this question, Adler looks at the archaeological evidence for widespread observance of the laws of the Torah. He suggests that our inquiry begin in the first century CE, where we have plenty of evidence. He then goes backward in time, until he reaches a point when we can no longer see material traces of typical Jewish religious and ritual practices.

contract

The Judean community on Elephantine, in southern Egypt, produced a wealth of documents in Aramaic, including this adoption contract from October 22, 416 BCE. They provide clues also about observance (or not observance) of the laws of the Torah. Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Theodora Wilbour, from the collection of her father, Charles Edwin Wilbour.

In particular, Adler traces archaeological imprints of the biblical laws addressing dietary prohibitions, ritual purity, graven images, tefillin and mezuzot, and Sabbath observance. In every instance, the trail of archaeological evidence ends in the mid-second century BCE—moving the origins of Judaism several centuries later than even the most critical scholars previously thought.

Surprisingly, textual sources from Babylon and Egypt, including this letter from the island of Elephantine, reveal that fifth-century BCE Judeans did not celebrate Passover at a set date, were not aware of a seven-day week or the Sabbath prohibitions, and that they sometimes prayed to deities other than Yahweh.

Widespread observance of the ritual purity laws, as attested through ritual baths (later known as mikva’ot) and the use chalk vessels, is strong in the first century BCE but gradually disappears as we look further back in time past the late second century BCE.

When it comes to the biblical command against graven images (Deuteronomy 5:8), we can see that during the Persian period even the high priests were issuing coins with depictions of human and animal figures. The pictured silver coin from around 350 BCE bears, on its obverse, a crude depiction of a human head. The reverse features a standing owl with the feathers of the head forming a beaded circle. The Hebrew inscription reads “Hezekiah the governor,” referring to the governor of the Persian province of Yehud (Judea).

coin

Persian-period Yehud coin, from c. 350 BCE. The presence of graven images contradicts the laws of the Torah. Photo by Classical Numismatic Group, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Only a century later, in the Hasmonean and Herodian periods, Judean leaders consciously refrained from using figurative imagery, which they replaced with decorative elements and more extensive texts—apparently adhering to the pentateuchal prohibition against graven images. Instead, the pictured bronze prutah of John Hyrcanus I from the late second century BCE features, on the reverse side, two cornucopias adorned with ribbons, and a pomegranate between them. Its obverse bears a lengthy Old Hebrew inscription inside a wreath that reads, “Yehohanan the High Priest and the Council of the Judeans.”

coin

Hasmonean coin of John Hyrcanus I, from the late second century BCE. The absence of any human or animal figures seems to signal widespread acceptance of the laws of the Torah and to herald the origins of Judaism. Photo in public domain.

In sum, the archaeological evidence for observance of the laws of the Torah in the daily lives of ordinary Judeans seems to situate the origins of Judaism around the middle of the second century BCE.

To delve into the intricacies of the textual and archaeological evidence for widespread observance of the laws of the Torah and the origins of Judaism, read Yonatan Adler’s article “The Genesis of Judaism,” published in the Winter 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Subscribers: Read the full article “The Genesis of Judaism” by Yonatan Adler in the Winter 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


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9 Responses

  1. Charles Chi Halevi says:

    David Holland said >>Wondering if the rise of the Pharisaic movement was related to the forces driving the revolt<<

    I wasn't alive in those days (contrary to what my kids say), and can only say they were the people's choice and party of the common people at least as early as Alexander Yannai ("Jannæus"). But I do know one thing:

    The Pharisees were not happy that after the battles were history, the Khasmonayeem ("Hasmoneans") had both the kingship and the priesthood. Previously there was a balance of power: Kings were of the Davidic line, and priests were descendants of Aharon" {Aaron").

    Now the priests, labeled "Sadducees" (derived from the ancient high priest Tzadok) controlled both powerful positions. Clashes were inevitable.

  2. Dennis B.Swaney says:

    The monotheism of Judaism developed the same way as that of Islam by evolving from a polytheistic belief in many gods. Originally both Yahweh & Allah were only one of many different gods in Canaan & Arabia but eventually Yahweh was selected as the sole god to be worshiped just as Mohammed selected Allah to be the sole god when he formed Islam (using tenets and history from Judaism as a guide). This evolutionary path is glimpsed in the Bible when it had been reduced to one male god and one female goddess, Yahweh and Asherah, before Asherah was eliminated by, IIRC, King Josiah.

  3. Can’t help but think about the Maccabean Revolt when presented that suggested dating. Wondering if the rise of the Pharisaic movement was related to the forces driving the revolt, or perhaps a separate but related response to Hellenistic pressures.

  4. Dr. Eric Rice says:

    As a believer (of which BAR has no understanding), I will state the obvious as found in the Bible. God does not change, therefore the laws of God were extant even before man was created. Avraham knew and understood the entirety of the statutes, commandments, and law (Gen. 26:5 …and Avraham kept my keeping, my commandments my stautes and my laws.) From that time on the law was observed. Since the commandments, statutes, and law were considered holy, you would not find extra biblical sources relating to it.

    Jump to the time of Yeshua and it is clear the rabbinics had removed God from the law. The law was now on equal footing as the rabbinics and was being manipulated by the rabbinics, hence Yeshua’s issue with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. This why you will find extra biblical documents regarding the law just pior to and from this time forth. I think that maybe BAR scholars (as they call themselves) need to wake up a bit.

    1. David Semenza says:

      And that’s why he fornicated with Hagar.

      1. Ellen Sewall says:

        He and Sarai were apparently following a known Babylonian law that called on the sterile wife to provide her husband with a servant to produce a child. The consequences of the situation make it clear it was a terrible idea. But one of the fascinating things about the Bible is that the heroes of the People of God actually make all kinds of mistakes and commit all kinds of infidelities, while God keeps trying to teach them and set them right, and is always faithful.

  5. Bob says:

    Interesting article but the Bible is clear that many did not follow the practices laid down by God to the people of Israel. Even kings are recorded as violating Gods laws. While finding graven images is evidence of those who did not follow Judaism, it is not proof that others were not following Judaism or not making graven images for religious reasons. And a lack of written material during this time stating their beliefs is understandably absent since any kind of writing except on clay or stone carvings is almost non-existent. Therefore, finding evidence that these laws were violated is not necessarily evidence that the laws did not exist during that time.

    1. Charles Chi Halevi says:

      It’s funny that even scholars conveniently ignore the next words of the 10 Commandments. The prohibition against graven images is immediately followed by its rationale: “You shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” Ergo, it does not follow that Jews were prohibited to make coins that had a face carved into them, just as long as they didn’t worship them.

    2. Kenny Lemon says:

      Well said. The Mt Ebal Curse Tablet appears to reinforce the Biblical events referred to in Deuteronomy and Joshua regarding the Israelites worshipping at Ebal, uttering the curses in the Law of Moses. It seems to date from the 1400s BCE (nice knowing ya, Ramesside Exodus theory), mentions Yahweh by name 4 times, written in Proto-Sinaitic script. Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron’s recent translations of the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions also support the historicity of Exodus-related events.

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9 Responses

  1. Charles Chi Halevi says:

    David Holland said >>Wondering if the rise of the Pharisaic movement was related to the forces driving the revolt<<

    I wasn't alive in those days (contrary to what my kids say), and can only say they were the people's choice and party of the common people at least as early as Alexander Yannai ("Jannæus"). But I do know one thing:

    The Pharisees were not happy that after the battles were history, the Khasmonayeem ("Hasmoneans") had both the kingship and the priesthood. Previously there was a balance of power: Kings were of the Davidic line, and priests were descendants of Aharon" {Aaron").

    Now the priests, labeled "Sadducees" (derived from the ancient high priest Tzadok) controlled both powerful positions. Clashes were inevitable.

  2. Dennis B.Swaney says:

    The monotheism of Judaism developed the same way as that of Islam by evolving from a polytheistic belief in many gods. Originally both Yahweh & Allah were only one of many different gods in Canaan & Arabia but eventually Yahweh was selected as the sole god to be worshiped just as Mohammed selected Allah to be the sole god when he formed Islam (using tenets and history from Judaism as a guide). This evolutionary path is glimpsed in the Bible when it had been reduced to one male god and one female goddess, Yahweh and Asherah, before Asherah was eliminated by, IIRC, King Josiah.

  3. Can’t help but think about the Maccabean Revolt when presented that suggested dating. Wondering if the rise of the Pharisaic movement was related to the forces driving the revolt, or perhaps a separate but related response to Hellenistic pressures.

  4. Dr. Eric Rice says:

    As a believer (of which BAR has no understanding), I will state the obvious as found in the Bible. God does not change, therefore the laws of God were extant even before man was created. Avraham knew and understood the entirety of the statutes, commandments, and law (Gen. 26:5 …and Avraham kept my keeping, my commandments my stautes and my laws.) From that time on the law was observed. Since the commandments, statutes, and law were considered holy, you would not find extra biblical sources relating to it.

    Jump to the time of Yeshua and it is clear the rabbinics had removed God from the law. The law was now on equal footing as the rabbinics and was being manipulated by the rabbinics, hence Yeshua’s issue with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. This why you will find extra biblical documents regarding the law just pior to and from this time forth. I think that maybe BAR scholars (as they call themselves) need to wake up a bit.

    1. David Semenza says:

      And that’s why he fornicated with Hagar.

      1. Ellen Sewall says:

        He and Sarai were apparently following a known Babylonian law that called on the sterile wife to provide her husband with a servant to produce a child. The consequences of the situation make it clear it was a terrible idea. But one of the fascinating things about the Bible is that the heroes of the People of God actually make all kinds of mistakes and commit all kinds of infidelities, while God keeps trying to teach them and set them right, and is always faithful.

  5. Bob says:

    Interesting article but the Bible is clear that many did not follow the practices laid down by God to the people of Israel. Even kings are recorded as violating Gods laws. While finding graven images is evidence of those who did not follow Judaism, it is not proof that others were not following Judaism or not making graven images for religious reasons. And a lack of written material during this time stating their beliefs is understandably absent since any kind of writing except on clay or stone carvings is almost non-existent. Therefore, finding evidence that these laws were violated is not necessarily evidence that the laws did not exist during that time.

    1. Charles Chi Halevi says:

      It’s funny that even scholars conveniently ignore the next words of the 10 Commandments. The prohibition against graven images is immediately followed by its rationale: “You shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” Ergo, it does not follow that Jews were prohibited to make coins that had a face carved into them, just as long as they didn’t worship them.

    2. Kenny Lemon says:

      Well said. The Mt Ebal Curse Tablet appears to reinforce the Biblical events referred to in Deuteronomy and Joshua regarding the Israelites worshipping at Ebal, uttering the curses in the Law of Moses. It seems to date from the 1400s BCE (nice knowing ya, Ramesside Exodus theory), mentions Yahweh by name 4 times, written in Proto-Sinaitic script. Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron’s recent translations of the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions also support the historicity of Exodus-related events.

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