Queries & Comments

More Queries & Comments Summer 2023

The Genesis of Judaism


I WAS SURPRISED, to say the least, with what I learned from Yonatan Adler’s article “The Genesis of Judaism” (Winter 2022) and his timeline for the religion’s development. In my opinion, the one defining sign of being Jewish is circumcision, which was missing from the article. Does Adler have thoughts on this subject?

Jacob Arzenn
Calabasas, California

YONATAN ADLER RESPONDS: Indeed, in the writings of first-century-CE writers—Judeans and non-Judeans alike—the Judean practice of male circumcision was one of the primary identity markers of a Judean. For first-century Judeans, however, the practice of circumcising every eight-day-old male child was much more than just a cultural or ethnic identity marker—the act was a fulfilment of a divine commandment enshrined in Torah law. While the Judeans were not the only group to practice circumcision—Egyptians, Arabs, and Ethiopians were also said to do so around this time—Judeans were certainly unique in that they were the only ones known to have practiced circumcision out of deference to a statutory law.

Prior to the second century BCE, I know of no evidence—outside the Pentateuch—for the notion of circumcision as fulfillment of a divine commandment, as in any way legally mandated, or otherwise as associated with any framework of law. That early Israelites were generally thought to be circumcised we learn tacitly from numerous passages in the Hebrew Bible that disparagingly refer to Philistines as “the uncircumcised” (e.g., Judges 14:3; 1 Samuel 14:6), thereby implying that Israelites were conversely imagined to usually be circumcised. There is no indication, however, that any of the biblical writers harbored a notion that Israelites were the only group to regularly practice circumcision; as a matter of fact, the practice appears to have been common concurrently among other West Semitic groups as well as among Egyptians.

While scholarly theories abound as to when, where, and why the practice of circumcision might have first arisen, there is no evidence that any of the groups that practiced it—including the Israelites—ever viewed circumcision as somehow commanded by force of any sort of law. It appears that circumcision was an early cultural practice whose origins are lost in the mists of time, and which may well predate the formation of any kind of distinctly “Israelite” identity. This primordial West Semitic practice eventually came to be taken up into Pentateuchal legislation—and only some time thereafter came to be adopted by Judeans as a salient component of a widely observed Torah law.


YONATAN ADLER’S ARTICLE on timing the initial popular observance of Torah law is an interesting attempt to deal with one of the most fascinating and important questions of Jewish history. However, I found his generalization that “outside the Pentateuch…ancient Israelite society is never portrayed as keeping the laws of the Torah” to be too broad. While Adler discusses the accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah, I believe there are a few prophetic quotes from earlier biblical books that indicate that the people practiced various types of Sabbath observance. I refer to Amos 8:5 (“When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?”); Isaiah 58:13 (“if you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests or pursuing your own affairs”), and Jeremiah17:21–22 (“Thus says the Lord: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your ancestors.”).

While Adler may counter, as he does with Ezra, that this is only “evidence about the beliefs and ideologies of the biblical writers,” clearly these prophetic statements would have no meaning to the people unless they were familiar with the practice of not conducting business on the Sabbath or, in the case of Jeremiah, the very specific rule of not carrying from one premise to another on the Sabbath.

Michael Sperling
Jerusalem, Israel


I ENJOYED THE EVIDENCE presented by Yonatan Adler. However, his claim that in “all the books of the Hebrew Bible outside the Pentateuch … ancient Israelite society is never portrayed as keeping the laws of the Torah” is incorrect. There are several references to Sabbath observance in the prophetic books (e.g., Isaiah 58:13–15; possibly 2 Kings 4:23), and it is fairly obvious that the reason Daniel avoids meat and wine in Babylonia (Daniel 1:8) is because he keeps some form of the dietary laws.

Ben Zion Katz
Skokie, Illinois

YONATAN ADLER RESPONDS: The question at the center of my book (and of my BAR article in which I summarized it) is when Judean society at large first began to keep the laws of the Torah on a wide scale basis. In searching for evidence of widespread observance of the Sabbath regulations against “work” legislated in the Pentateuch, we find that the Hebrew Bible (outside the Pentateuch) contains no narratives at all about Judeans or Israelites who abstained from this or that activity in deference to a prohibition against engaging in “work” on the Sabbath. Although several passages in the Hebrew Bible outside the Pentateuch refer to a “Sabbath” (oftentimes together with the “New Moon”) as some kind of holiday, they almost never refer to any sort of Sabbath prohibitions.

The only three passages outside the Pentateuch that do refer explicitly to Sabbath prohibitions (Jeremiah 17:19–27; Nehemiah 10:32; 13:15–22) are all presented against a backdrop where the general populace is in fact said not to be observing these prohibitions. Isaiah 58:13–14 is prescriptive in adjuring its listeners to honor the Sabbath; it is not descriptive of a reality wherein Judeans at large were in fact doing this or that on Sabbaths. 2 Kings 4:23 implies that Israelites generally observed New Moons and Sabbaths as some sort of (cultic?) festivals, but nothing is said of adherence to any kind of prohibited activities on these days.

I would agree that the story in Daniel 1:5–16 is the closest we get to characters in the Hebrew Bible who observed some sort of restriction on their diet. However, I question whether anything about the Torah’s dietary prohibitions is implied here. According to the story, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar assigned Daniel and his colleagues a daily ration “of the royal portions of food [mīpatbag hamelekh] and of the wine of his banquets,” but Daniel “resolved that he would not defile himself [ʾăšer lōʾ yītgāʾal ]” by consuming these. (Nothing is said of “meat”; the food is identified only as being of the king’s patbag, apparently from the Old Persian patibaga, which passed into Greek as potíbazis, meaning “portion”). It is hard to know what the author of this story might have considered to be “defiling” about the royal rations of food and wine; perhaps he regarded any food or drink from the table of a Gentile (or of Nebuchadnezzar specifically) as somehow defiling, or else he wished to portray Daniel as practicing an ascetic ideal of sustaining himself on simple food and drink. The fact that not only the royal food but also the king’s wine was regarded as problematic mitigates against the possibility that Pentateuchal dietary prohibitions might be at stake, as these include no sweeping proscriptions against wine or other beverages.


I ENJOYED Adler’s article very much. Moving backwards in time was a very nice approach, and the two possibilities for adoption were ones I have never heard before. The Hasmonean answer was amazing. Overall, a great read. Only one question I would like to ask, what did Persian and Babylonian Jewry look like between the time of Ezra and Nehemiah until the first century BCE?

Albert Bunick
Brooklyn, New York

YONATAN ADLER RESPONDS: Our data from the mid-sixth through the mid-second centuries BCE is rather limited, and so the most we can do is paint a picture in broad strokes, and even then only with a hesitant hand. That said, it seems that several elements characteristic of the cult and culture of Iron Age Judea continued to characterize Judean communities in the centuries following the fall of the Iron Age kingdom of Judah—including acknowledgement (if not outright worship) of various deities alongside YHWH.


AN EXCELLENT ARTICLE, tracing evidence of Judaism to the second century BCE. I wonder, though, why Adler does not attribute the assembly of the parts that would become Judaism to the Judean arrival of the Pharisees at that same time. I have always thought that Judaism was the product of the Babylonian exiles, with a preliminary report coming with Ezra, and the finished product with the Pharisees.

Rabbi Joe Klein
Rochester, Minnesota

YONATAN ADLER RESPONDS: Many scholars date the initial splintering of the well-known late Second Temple-period sects—the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, the Qumran community, etc.—in the mid- to late second century BCE. Scholars commonly recognize that the rupture of these sects was triggered primarily by legal disputes over practices enjoined by the Torah rather than by differences over matters of belief. All these groups regarded the Torah as authoritative; the question was only the precise details surrounding how the laws of the Torah should be interpreted and put into practice. Considering this, it seems likely to me that the splitting of the sects came only after Judean society at large had already adopted the Torah as binding law and began to observe its rules and regulations on a wide scale basis. The Pharisees were most likely a product of the emergence of Judaism, rather than its progenitors.


YONATAN ADLER’S ARTICLE makes for interesting reading. The emphasis on dietary laws as an index of the observance of Torah law may correspond with another article previously published in BAR: Lidar Sapir-Hen, “Pigs as an Ethnic Marker? You Are What You Eat,” November/December 2016. While both articles seem to say or imply that the Hebrews/Israelites were not following the Torah in their dietary habits, I think the evidence of pig bones suggests that during Iron Age I, the peoples of the Judean hill country and the northern part of what became Israel did not consume pork. Not everyone around them did, mostly just the Philistines. So it is not conclusive that the reason they weren’t eating pork was due to following the Torah, but it is consistent with them following the Torah. Then during Iron Age IIB (780–680 BCE), the cities and towns in the Northern Kingdom appeared to be eating pork (evidenced by pig bones in their garbage pits) and the Southern Kingdom of Judah did not. This fits well with the biblical narrative of the Northern Kingdom of Israel departing from the worship of Yahweh and the Southern Kingdom hanging on and at least going through the motions of Yahweh worship until the captivity. I think it would be unwise to dismiss the idea of adherence to Torah food regulations during the Iron Age due to the discovery of some fish bones.

David Young
Fresno, California


Calculating Christmas


I RECENTLY READ the article on calculating Jesus’s birthday (T.C. Schmidt, “Calculating Christmas: Hippolytus and December 25th,” Winter 2022). I found it interesting but somewhat misleading.

Even though there may have been no official Feast of Sol celebration until much later, the ancient pagans, going back hundreds and maybe thousands of years before Jesus and Christianity, knew that the daylight hours get shorter and shorter as the calendar approaches the winter solstice (around December 25th) and then get longer and longer after that time. The pagans did not have much science, but they did know the sun, moon, stars, and earth and figured out their astronomical movements long before the Romans, the Greeks before them, and maybe the Egyptians before them. Thus, to explain this annual progression, they believed that the sun god was dying as the days got darker and then was “reborn” as they got lighter, creating a “birthday” at the time of the winter solstice long before the Romans made it into some official holiday.

So, the longstanding explanation of Jesus’s birth being set to an already established pagan tradition seems true even though Hippolytus’s writing may predate the Feast of Sol. We will probably never know for sure whether the early Christians deliberately fixed Jesus’s birthday to December 25th, in order to attract more Romans to Christianity and end the persecutions, or whether it was done by Roman emperors for political reasons, or whether it was done by early Roman converts to Christianity who simply brought some of their traditional pagan beliefs with them and applied them to their new God (some ancient mosaics depict Jesus as a sun god, complete with rays of light emanating from his head, in true pagan tradition), or whether it was all of the above.

Kenneth Wachtell
Jersey City, New Jersey


Destruction of the Canaanites


IN HIS REVIEW of Charlie Trimm’s book The Destruction of the Canaanites (Winter 2022), Ronald S. Hendel writes that Jericho was not inhabited at the time of the Israelite invasion of Canaan. Presumably, this reflects findings of archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon seen in light of the commonly held view that the Exodus (if there was one) occurred in the 13th century BCE.

However, Kenyon also wrote that archaeological finds in Jericho suggest that the town was occupied in about 1400 BCE, and abandoned again about 1325 BCE. This additional information becomes relevant to the question of biblical historicity because the Exodus may have occurred in the 14th century BCE, during the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep III (c. 1391–1353 BCE). His reign was followed by his son Akhenaten’s revolution, a short-lived period of theological terror and an experiment in monotheism that may have been prompted by God’s victory over Egypt’s traditional gods (Exodus 12:12). And substantial findings of Canaanite material culture in early Iron Age Israelite settlements would be explained if the settlements were preceded by prolonged, semi-nomadic interaction with the Canaanites in pursuit of the Israelite mission of conquest.

Ira Friedman
Teaneck, New Jersey


RONALD S. HENDEL’S REVIEW of the book The Destruction of the Canaanites makes some bold claims. Just because dates between archaeological evidence and biblical narrative don’t match doesn’t mean the Bible is fiction. Did the compilers of the biblical chronology aim to deceive people? Why would they do that? And the people received this narrative with no source reliability? Nothing in the text gives any clue that it’s simply “for teaching.” The straightforward implication is that it’s narrative history, so to say that these events are fiction makes the narrative lies.

A few things: First, Kathleen Kenyon based her dates for the destruction of Jericho on the lack of any imported bichrome pottery form Cyprus, so she dated the destruction of Jericho around 1500 BCE. But not finding something does not mean it doesn’t exist. Bichrome pottery has been found there in poorer sections that faked their own in that style contemporaneously. Second, Egyptian scarabs and seals have been found in a cemetery nearby with date ranges from 1505 to 1349 BCE. This range suggests that Jericho was actively burying people in the time of the conquest of the Israelites. Third, Kenyon herself found a carved snail shell dated to 1485 BCE. Last, Lorenzo Nigro, current director of the Jericho excavations, said that he found clay administrative texts from the Late Bronze Age, suggesting “the city still had a political role, a palace, a ruler, and even an archive.” So many times, our understanding of biblical chronology has been modified because of new finds, whereby we have to reevaluate previously accepted hard timelines. To say that something “cannot be historically accurate” is not the same as fiction.

Dave Hart
Latham, New York


I APPRECIATED RONALD HENDEL’S REVIEW of Charlie Trimm’s book The Destruction of the Canaanites. Hendel quotes Trimm as thinking that his fourth option, that the mass killing of the Canaanites be justified, would “practically associate God with genocide.”

Neither Hendel nor Trimm mentions that God commanded genocide on two other occasions. The killing of the men, women, children, and animals of the Midianites (Numbers 31) and the similar slaughter of the Amalekites by Saul (1 Samuel 15:3). In both cases, God is upset that his orders were not explicitly carried out.

These episodes indicate the Canaanite destruction would not have been a “one off” exception and that according to the Bible, God was indeed associated with genocide.

David Morse
Asheville, North Carolina


In the Beginning


THE ARTICLE “IN THE BEGINNING, Was There a Word?” (Winter 2022) was well written and thought provoking. The author made his point well by the creative way he manipulated the script to help us understand the differences between the spoken and written word. There is one more possibility for the absence of spacing between ancient written words. Perhaps the writing material—worked stone, clay tablets, and especially, papyrus and vellum—were just not around in great abundance. If so, wasting, say, 20 percent of the writing surface with empty spaces would seem a little impractical.

Mike Lucas
Houtzdale, Pennsylvania


“Innocent Pilfering”


Students in introductory anthropology and archaeology courses, as well as visitors to world archaeological sites, are informed that removal of any cultural object is theft. Katharine D. Scherff’s keepsake from a trip to the ruined fresco in an Italian church is her heartwarming reminder of her journey (Strata: “Sacred Souvenirs,” Winter 2022). Taken from its context in Italy, perhaps lovingly placed on an office shelf, it is evidence of the unauthorized removal of a piece of a Romanesque church in Catalonia.

Taking only photographs, leaving only footprints, each of my students would caution readers that objects from historical and archaeological sites ought not be subject to impulsive thievery.

Roger A. DeWitt
Greeley, Colorado

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