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Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period

Abstract and Keywords

For all Jews in this period, in both diaspora and homeland, the Jerusalem Temple was the central religious institution. The wide dispersal of Jews prevented many from regular participation in Temple worship, but no religious Jew seem to have ignored the significance of the sacrificial and other offerings in Jerusalem. The second pillar of common Judaism was the Torah. It was during these centuries that the biblical text took a form resembling that of the present day and acquired something close to its later authority. Most of the debate about the relation of Jews to the surrounding culture has concentrated on the Hellenization of Judaism. The motivation of Christian scholars for investigating the relationship of Judaism and Hellenism has naturally been very different and more concerned with the origins of ideas found in the early Church.

Keywords: Judaism, Jerusalem Temple, Second Temple, Torah, Hellenism, Christian

After the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 bce and the inhabitants of Jerusalem carried off into exile, it was many years before a new building was erected on the sacred site, and in its first incarnation the new building was not particularly impressive. But by the time of its destruction by Roman legionaries in 70 ce, the Second Temple had become one of most magnificent edifices in the civilized world, and in retrospect its demise marked a watershed in the history of Jews and Judaism.

Hence the custom to give the name of the Second Temple to the whole period during which it stood. The nomenclature is politically correct but not universal. Particularly in the older literature, other names for Jewish history in these centuries are more common. Accurate, but somewhat demeaning to the Jews, is definition of the era by reference to the superpowers under whose rule Jews lived: these years are thus designated as the Persian, Hellenistic, and (early) Roman period. Or these centuries can be classified in relation to earlier and later religious developments: so, for Christians, either ‘Late Judaism’ (Spät Judentum, by implication a decline in religious values compared to the earlier religion to be found in the Hebrew Bible) or ‘intertestamental’ (that is, between the Old and New Testaments). Neither of these Christian designations makes much sense for Jews, for whom ‘late’ Judaism is ‘early’ (p. 37) compared to rabbinic Judaism, and there is only one ‘Testament’. One proposal for avoiding this terminological trap is to describe the Judaism of this period as ‘Middle Judaism’, as advocated by Boccaccini (Boccaccini 1991), but the practice he advocates has not been widely adopted.

Regardless of the terminology used, the history of the Jews from 587 bce to 70 ce was to a large extent shaped by the behaviour of the superpowers who controlled the Levant. Exile in Babylonia after 587 bce was revoked, for those who wished to return to Judah, by the benevolent policies of the Persian kings who conquered Mesopotamia in the mid-sixth century. The Persian state in its turn fell to the Macedonian Alexander the Great in the course of his extraordinarily rapid campaign after 331 bce. Alexander's successors divided up his kingdom only after much warfare. The two greatest successor states, both reliant on Graeco-Macedonian elites favouring Greek culture, were those of the Ptolemies, whose kingdom was based in Egypt, and the Seleucids, based in Mesopotamia and northern Syria. These two powers disputed control of the southern Levant, including Judaea, in six Syrian wars in the third century bce, until in 198 bce the Seleucids gained control. It was a temporary victory. The demise of both kingdoms began from the early years of the second century bce. The prime cause was increasing interference by Rome, an exceptionally aggressive state, which had conquered the western Mediterranean coastal region in the third century bce and from 200 bce turned to Greece and the East.

As Seleucid and Ptolemaic power weakened, an independent Jewish state emerged in the land of Israel. The immediate cause was traumatic. The Jews of Judaea were galvanized into revolt in 167 bce after an attack on the Temple cult by the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The priestly leaders of the rebellion, the Maccabees, in time established themselves as rulers over Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Using a dynastic name, ‘Hasmonean’, which referred back to an earlier ancestor, they presided over a distinctively Jewish state until they too were finally deposed by Rome.

Direct Roman interference in Judaean politics began in 63 bce, ostensibly in support of one Hasmonean ruler against a rival. In 37 bce Roman troops deposed the Hasmoneans altogether, installing Herod the Great, an Idumaean, as a client king in their place. Herod ruled with ruthless magnificence, but his sons had less success. In 6 ce Judaea was taken under direct Roman rule. This too proved a failure, for in 66 ce Jerusalem revolted. After four years of independence, the rebel state was crushed and the Temple burned to the ground.

Thus for some of this period Jews enjoyed political independence in their homeland. At the same time the Jewish diaspora increased in size and influence. The descendants of the Jews who had been carried off into Babylonia in the early sixth century bce retained a distinct Jewish identity throughout the Second Temple period, although little is known about them. But from the third century bce Jews also began to be found in large numbers in Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, and (p. 38) many other countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean. The political history of most of these communities is less easy to recover than that of Judaea, but something can be known about their social organization and religious life.

For all Jews in this period, in both diaspora and homeland, the Jerusalem Temple was the central religious institution. The wide dispersal of Jews prevented many from regular participation in Temple worship, and some Jews sometimes reacted unfavourably to the way in which the Temple cult was administered by the priests, but no religious Jews—not even those who established a temple of their own in Elephantine in Egypt in the fifth century bce or those who built a shrine for worship in Leontopolis in the Egyptian delta in the mid-second century bce—seem to have ignored the significance of the sacrificial and other offerings in Jerusalem.

The second pillar of common Judaism was the Torah. It was during these centuries that the biblical text took a form resembling that of the present day and acquired something close to its later authority. Alongside the formation of a canon (or something like it), and building upon it, went biblical interpretation, the evolution of new religious ideas by commentary on an accepted text. To some extent such interpretation was primarily a literary phenomenon (see Chapters 4 and 27), with novel religious tendencies (such as the approbation of asceticism, an emphasis on physical purity as a metaphor for spiritual purity, and a belief in life after death) justified through selective citation of biblical passages, but in other cases it may have been a force for religious change in itself.

The evidence on which historians rely for this period comes in the main from medieval manuscripts copied by two continuous religious traditions which preserved quite separate bodies of material. The rabbinic tradition, all in Hebrew and Aramaic, preserved the biblical texts from the Persian period but no documents from, and only scant information about, late Second Temple times. The absence of information about this period in the schematic account of Jewish history from Moses to the present to be found in Mishnah Abot Chapter 1 is telling. The rabbis had little to say about the politics of this period beyond generalities and a few romantic tales.

The Christian tradition preserved far more Jewish material from this period, all in Greek or translation from the Greek, including the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, produced originally by Jews in the third and second centuries bce. The religious texts of the early Christian communities in themselves provide useful testimony, not all of it from a favourable perspective, about Jews and Judaism in the first century ce. But for Jewish history much the most important writings copied and thus preserved by Christians were those of the Alexandrian philosopher Philo Judaeus and the historian Flavius Josephus. Philo's voluminous writings provide an insight into the Judaism of at least one Jew deeply imbued with Greek culture: they may not show what Judaism was generally like, but they do demonstrate what was possible. Josephus’ historical works provide the narrative (p. 39) framework for the whole period of Jewish history from the Maccabean revolt to the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce. Historians rely almost entirely on this framework: it is hard to imagine what a history of the Jews in these centuries would look like if an account like that written by Josephus had not survived. This reliance in itself may constitute a danger, as Maclaren has argued (Maclaren 1998), since it is difficult to avoid the hindsight which permeates all of Josephus’ extant works. Josephus had himself participated in the great war against Rome and saw all previous Jewish history as a prelude to the disaster of 70 ce.

Without the literature preserved by rabbinic Jews and by Christians, knowledge of Jews and Judaism in this period would be only sketchy. (For an estimate of what would be known, see Goodman 1998.) Pagan Greek and Latin authors wrote a little about Jews, sometimes using sound information but more often simply relaying prejudice (see the texts in the classic collection by Menahem Stern: Stern 1974–84). Archaeological findings, prominent among them the Dead Sea scrolls and other manuscript finds from the Judaean desert, give an insight into some aspects of private behaviour and religious thought, but without the context provided by the medieval rabbinic and Christian manuscript texts such material would have been immensely difficult to evaluate.

The scholars who have engaged in study of this subject have rarely been disinterested. Much of the work on the Persian and early Hellenistic periods has been motivated by an interest in the context of the later books of the Hebrew Bible and the social, religious, and political pressures which led to the eventual delimitation of the biblical collection (e.g. explicitly, Davies 1998). Many students of the later Second Temple period have been interested primarily in the background to Jesus and early Christianity (e.g. explicitly, Schürer 1901–11). For the luminaries of the Wissenschaft des Judentums the challenge was to conjure up out of disparate evidence a coherent political and religious narrative which would justify their portrayal of the Jews as a nation with a political history and literary culture similar to that of other people (see discussion in Shavit 1997). For some more recent Jewish scholars the overriding issue has been the topic of Jewish identity in a non-Jewish world, with questions about citizenship and civil rights paramount in the first half of the twentieth century in the writings of Viktor Tcherikover (Tcherikover 1959) and questions of self identification in a pluralistic society more important in American scholarship (e.g. Cohen 1999). For many historians the origins during these centuries of a general Jewish acceptance of converts to Judaism and even, as some would argue, a positive desire to increase their number (see Feldman 1993 and Goodman 1994 for opposing views) make particularly pertinent the debated issue of the location of Jewishness in this period in either race or religion (see e.g. Schiffman 1985).

For Israeli historians, and diaspora Jews committed to Zionism, the most fascinating aspect of the period has generally been the model of Jewish self-rule under the Hasmoneans and Herodians and the leaders of the rebellion against Rome. The (p. 40) names of many streets and places in contemporary Israel recall the great figures of Second Temple times. Archaeological sites such as Masada and the remains of the Temple itself in Jerusalem bear a deep symbolic significance on both religious and nationalistic planes as relics of a previous era of Jewish independent statehood.

Students of the wider Hellenistic and Roman worlds have also frequently made use of the Jewish evidence for these centuries, if only because native Jewish writings survive in much greater abundance than those of most other subject peoples, simply because of the preservation of texts by rabbinic Jews and Christians. So, for instance, the books of Maccabees and parts of Josephus’ history provide invaluable evidence about the Seleucid state (see Shipley 2000). If only a few classicists have chosen to specialize in study of the Jews, the most obvious reason is that use of much of the evidence requires knowledge of Semitic languages with which most classicists are unfamiliar, but the reluctance of some of the great Jewish historians of classical antiquity in the twentieth century to delve into Jewish history is less likely to derive from a linguistic barrier. They were perhaps unwilling to be labelled as parochial in their interests, preferring a larger canvas for their historical investigations (see discussion in Goodman 1999). For the attitude of classicists as a whole, two other factors may also be adduced. In many European universities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries study of Jews in the Graeco-Roman world lay clearly in the province of the theological faculties, and duplication of effort by classicists may have seemed otiose. The other factor was more insidious. For classicists concerned to celebrate the glories of Greece and Rome, the Jewish contribution to and participation in the culture of ancient Europe could easily be seen as marginal, in much the same way as contemporary Jews were being marginalized in twentieth-century Europe.

Scholarship in this field may rarely have been objective, but it has been voluminous, and much progress has been made over the past century. A good insight into some of the changing trends in the twentieth century up to the 1980s can be gained by a comparison of the fourth edition of the classic Geschichte des jüdischen Volkes in Zeitalter Jesu Christi (Schürer 1901–11) with the new material in the revised English edition (Schürer 1973–87; see the studies in Oppenheimer 1999).

Most obvious among the changes has been the impact of new archaeological discoveries. In the land of Israel, excavation of sites with material from this period has been intense for the past half-century. Much archaeological effort has been expended on uncovering impressive remains that can be directly related to evidence in the written texts (Josephus and the New Testament in particular), a technique which attracts much popular interest but does not always add greatly to knowledge (see discussion in Chapter 33, below), but there has also been work on settlement patterns, pottery distribution and manufacture, stoneware vessels, and other such material which reveal information about the economic and cultural life of the period which could not usually be derived from texts (see e.g. the New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (Stern 1993), and the periodicals Eretz (p. 41) Israel and Qadmoniot, both in Hebrew). In any case the most significant archaeological material emerged not by excavation but by accident. The chance discovery in 1947 of the Dead Sea scrolls opened up a new era in the study of late Second Temple Jews and Judaism (see e.g. Vermes 1997). Further important documents have been unearthed from further south in the Judaean Desert and Jericho (see Cotton 1998), while in the diaspora the most important new material has been documents on papyri. Aramaic papyri from Elephantine, by the first cataract on the Nile, illuminate dramatically the life of a Jewish garrison there in the fifth century bce (Porten 1996), and publication of later Greek papyri by or about Jews has enabled much to be written about Egyptian Jews in later periods, from the third century bce on (Tcherikover, Fuks, and Stern 1957–64). In the course of the twentieth century many Jewish inscriptions on stone have also been published (see now Horbury and Noy 1992; Noy 1993–5), encouraging extensive study of the history of some diaspora communities (e.g. Trebilco 1991 on Asia Minor and, more generally, Barclay 1996), although since most of this epigraphic evidence dates to after 70 ce its use to illuminate the Second Temple period is not straightforward. Similarly debated is the value as evidence for the period before 70 of the later synagogues excavated at diaspora sites, such as the third-century building at Dura-Europus, found in the 1930s (Kraeling 1956), or the huge fourth-century synagogue discovered in the 1960s in Sardis (Hanfmann 1983). The issue is unresolved within the burgeoning discipline of synagogue studies (see Levine 2000; below, Chapter 33).

Other factors encouraging progress have been changes within the different disciplines concerned with the history of Jews and Judaism in this period and an erosion of some of the demarcation lines between them. As classicists have increasingly come to see their subject as the study not only of elite culture but also of ordinary people in the ancient world, so the value of the Jewish evidence has been more widely appreciated. As some biblical scholars have adopted an increasingly sceptical view of the historicity of biblical narrative, so use of archaeological evidence for the Persian period has become more common (cf. E. Stern 1982). Perhaps the most productive development of the past half-century has been the widespread (but not yet universal) recognition by specialists both in New Testament and in Jewish studies that the history of Jewish Christianity is part of the history of Judaism. Hence the plethora of studies of Jesus the Jew (classically Vermes 1973b; more recently, with bibliography, Fredriksen 1999) and, in more recent years, of the Jewish aspects of Paul (Segal 1990; Boyarin 1997). A number of important studies which cross traditional boundaries in this way have been written by scholars working in departments of religious studies rather than either Christian theology or Jewish studies. It is likely that the tendency in such departments to look at a number of religious traditions will encourage more progress in this direction.

Not that widening the field in this way is unproblematic. So, for instance, use of Jewish evidence by classicists raises the question of how marginalized Jews were in the Graeco-Roman world (compare Feldman 1993 to Schäfer 1997; cf. essays in (p. 42) Goodman 1998); if Jews were always seen as outsiders by themselves and others, it may be hard to learn much about the wider history of ancient society from Jewish evidence. So too the incorporation of some early Christian studies into Jewish studies raises the contentious issue of the date and cause of the eventual ‘parting of ways', about which there is no consensus at all (see e.g. Dunn 1992). Both these areas of disagreement can be categorized under the two main themes which have generated most current debate: the relationship of Jews and Judaism to the societies and cultures which surrounded them in this period; and the issue of whether it is a priori preferable to treat separately each disparate item of surviving evidence about Jews and Judaism unless there is strong reason to conflate it with another item of evidence, or to conflate evidence unless there are strong grounds not to do so.

Most of the debate about the relation of Jews to the surrounding culture has concentrated on the Hellenization of Judaism. Since most Jews after the conquest of the Near East by Alexander the Great lived under regimes in which Greek was the prestige language for political and intellectual discourse, the possible impact of Greek culture on Judaism is a reasonable issue to investigate for its own sake, but the motivation for research has mostly been complex. For the Jewish scholars Viktor Tcherikover (Tcherikover 1959) and Elias Bickerman (Bickerman 1937), the underlying question seems always to have been the extent to which Jews in antiquity responded to the cultural attractions of Greece by formulating a ‘civilized’ Judaism much like that of many European Jews in their own day. Hellenistic and Roman societies were generally tolerant, in the sense that in principle anyone willing to adopt the prestige culture could thereby gain access to social prestige and political power, and to a large extent the experiences of Jews in the later Second Temple period could thus be seen as similar to those of European Jews after the Enlightenment. Particular examples of assimilated behaviour or thought by ancient Jews might thus act as models for either imitation or avoidance (see Shavit 1997). So, for instance, it is highly likely that the increase in interest in Philo among German Jews in the nineteenth century was connected to the emergence of Liberal and Reform Judaism. Studies of Philo still divide into those which portray his philosophy as essentially Greek (classically, Goodenough 1935) and those which emphasize the continuities between his Bible interpretations and those in rabbinic literature (especially Wolfson 1947); the truth lies probably between these extremes.

The motivation of Christian scholars for investigating the relationship of Judaism and Hellenism has naturally been very different, and more concerned with the origins of ideas found in the early Church. It is universally agreed that Christians adopted many ideas found in the surrounding pagan Greek-speaking world, and some have seen this fact as evidence of a sharp break between Christianity and Judaism. But if it can be shown that Palestinian Judaism was itself thoroughly Hellenized, as Martin Hengel has tried to do (Hengel 1974), the Hellenized church could be seen as an continuator of authentic Jewish traditions.

(p. 43)

The problem with all such studies of cultural influence is to decide what should count as evidence of Hellenization. That the Greek language was widely used by Jews in this period in the homeland as much as in the diaspora is widely agreed. So too were Greek art and architecture and (probably to a lesser extent) Greek literature and philosophy. The old distinction, regularly found in studies in the first half of the twentieth century, between a Semitic Palestinian and a Hellenistic diaspora Judaism is generally recognized to be too crude. But language, art, and architecture do not always affect ways of thought—a useful comparison may be the contemporary spread of American consumer goods and the English language to societies which retain largely unwesternized cultures under the surface. Only in one major political episode in Jewish history, the revolt of the Maccabees against Antiochus Epiphanes in the 160s bce, did the protagonists portray their struggle as a contest between ioudaismos and hellenismos. By contrast, the later Hasmonean rulers behaved much like other Hellenistic monarchs in many of their actions, despite being political heirs of the Maccabean rebels. One Hasmonean monarch could even portray himself as a ‘philhellene’ (Jos. Ant. 13. 318; on the whole issue of the impact of Hellenism, see recently the chapters collected in Collins and Sterling 2001). It is salutary to note, in confirmation of the suspicion that scholarly emphasis on the issue of Hellenism has been prompted by concerns in the modern world, that, although the spread of the Aramaic language at the expense of the national language Hebrew among Judaean Jews from c.300 bce was an even more striking phenomenon than their partial adoption of Greek, there have been few studies of the Aramaization of Judaism to set alongside the many volumes on the influence of Greek (for one exception, see Wasserstein 1995).

Debate on the political relationship of the Jews to their surrounding societies has mostly focused on two episodes of rebellion in Judaea: the revolt of the Maccabees and the great revolt against Rome in 66–70 ce. The main issue in both cases is an assessment of the correct balance in establishing the causes of events between the internal pressures within Jewish society and the wider policies of the great powers with which they came into conflict. Hence debate over whether the ending of the Temple cult by Antiochus IV was encouraged, perhaps inadvertently, by Jewish Hellenizers (Tcherikover 1959; Bickerman 1937), or should be explained more by the geopolitical ambitions of the Seleucids (cf. Millar 1978). Hence also disputes over the extent to which the destruction of the Temple was brought upon the Jews by their own internal divisions or as a by-product of the ambitions of the new Roman imperial dynasty, or both (cf. Goodman 1987; Price 1992). Such issues are not easily resolved by straightforward perusal of the main narrative sources for either event. The two books of Maccabees and the works of Josephus describe Jewish history essentially from a Jewish perspective, even though Josephus seems primarily to have had in mind a non-Jewish readership for his writings. Jews accustomed to the mode of historical explanation to be found in the Deuteronomistic history looked instinctively for the causes of disaster not in the ambitions of others but in the (p. 44) sins of Israel and the divine punishment they could be expected to elicit. Accordingly, the narratives must be read with considerable sophistication. Many of the most influential studies of the history of the period have been in large part historiographical analyses of these sources (Bar Kochva 1989; Doran 1981; D. R. Schwartz 1990; S. J. D. Cohen 1979; Rajak 1983; on earlier scholarship on Josephus, see Feldman 1984). Such analysis is helped a great deal by the chance that 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees covered some of the same ground, and that Josephus on a number of occasions wrote a second version of a narrative already given in an earlier work, so that the different emphases of the versions are manifest from the sometimes striking differences between them (on Josephus, see Bilde 1988; Mason 1998).

The second underlying cause of debate is the question of when it is justified to conflate evidence to produce a fuller—but perhaps misleading—picture of Jewish society and Judaism. The problem is whether references to people, events, and institutions preserved in different languages by different groups for different purposes should be expected to illuminate each other. The optimistic view is that connections should be posited wherever possible. The pessimistic view is that links are only probable in the case of notably public figures and events. Thus no one doubts that the ‘King Agrippas’ to whom the Mishnah refers in M. Bikk. 3: 4 must be either Agrippa I or II, the grandson or great-grandson of Herod, both well known from Greek sources including Josephus. But there is far less agreement, for instance, over whether the Pharisees in the time of Herod to whom Josephus referred as ‘Pollion and Sameas’ (Jos. Ant. 14. 172–6; 15. 3) should be identified with any of the proto-rabbinic sages in the Mishnah, and, if so, which (Schürer 1973–87: ii. 362–3).

Conflation is at the heart of the narratives of this period written by the great scholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums. The postulation of congruity between the rabbinic traditions and the Greek sources gave respectability to the rabbis as chroniclers. Conflation was eased by the earlier infiltration of Josephus’ writing into rabbinic thought through the work of Josippon, who produced in the ninth century a Hebrew paraphrase of Josephus’ Jewish War. Conflation of the rabbinic stories still remained an apparent aim in the immensely learned but poorly argued studies of Louis Finkelstein in the middle of the twentieth century (e.g. Finkelstein 1962), but an increasingly sceptical view of the likely historical veracity of those rabbinic stories about the Second Temple period which derive from sources compiled after c.200 ce has become widespread since the early 1970s, and justifiably so, since they can often be shown up as fabrications (cf. esp. Neusner 1970), although a backlash against automatic discounting even of very late traditions has been discernible in recent years (cf. e.g. Schäfer 1998). On the level of religious ideas, particularly in biblical interpretation, much scholarship has demonstrated that some notions which appear first in the rabbinic tradition only very late are likely to have much earlier origins because they can be paralleled in the writings of Josephus, Philo, or the Dead Sea scrolls (Vermes 1973a).

(p. 45)

The same scholarship that demonstrated the extent of the historical unreliability of late rabbinic texts also showed that early (i.e. tannaitic) rabbinic teachings and sayings about the Second Temple period are far the most likely to be valuable (Neusner 1971): to put the argument in its negative form, it is possible to demonstrate that named sayings in later rabbinic sources are often pseudepigraphic, but pseudepigraphy cannot be similarly shown for named sayings in tannaitic texts. Cautious use of this tannaitic evidence to understand, for instance, the way that the Temple was administered before 70 ce is therefore common (Sanders 1992), and only a few historians can be found who rule all rabbinic material out of court on the grounds that it was composed too late. Practice thus varies considerably, but it is now rare to find historians making indiscriminate use of late rabbinic stories in a way still widely practised as late as the mid-1970s (Safrai and Stern 1974–6).

The argument about conflation affects not just the use of rabbinic texts but that of all the ancient evidence. Some specific examples may be helpful to show the extent of disagreement. One classic case is the continuing debate about the role of Zealots in the political history of first-century Judaea. In a great work of compendious scholarship, Martin Hengel in the 1960s collected all the evidence that might demonstrate that an attitude of religious zeal manifested in political action against Rome was common among Jews in this period (Hengel 1961); all this disparate material together provided a picture of Die Zeloten. Other scholars retorted that in the primary extant source for knowledge of the political history of this period, the history of Josephus, it is specifically stated that the Jewish revolutionaries were divided into a number of different groups of which only one was called ‘Zealots’ (Jos. BJ 7. 260–7; Smith 1971; Horsley and Hanson 1999). The issue matters, because if every anti-Roman act is taken to be the product of religious ideology, the causes of revolt become much easier to explain than they otherwise would be.

A second example is the history of the Pharisees, a subject about which agreement has been little in evidence. The image of the Pharisees carries a heavy ideological load for both Jews and Christians. Christians have tended to see the Pharisees through their depiction in the Gospels as a powerful and hypocritical religious group with which Jesus came into contact and conflict. Jews, aware that Rabban Gamaliel, ancestor of Judah haNasi and descendent of Hillel, was described in the New Testament as a Pharisee, have generally seen the Pharisees as proto-rabbis, encouraging apologetic responses to the hostility of Christian accounts. But even without such tendentiousness, agreement on the numbers, teachings, social position, and influence of the Pharisees would have been hard to achieve, simply because the information in the extant sources (the New Testament, Josephus, and rabbinic texts) is not at all easily compatible (cf. the summary of the debate in Goodblatt 1989). At one extreme, everything attributed to rabbinic literature is taken as Pharisaic (e.g. Maccoby 1989). At the other extreme, any connection between the Pharisees and the rabbis is doubted on the grounds that the rabbis (p. 46) never called themselves Pharisees—they prefer to term themselves talmidei hakhamim—even though they did refer to the Pharisees as a group (Schäfer 1991; Goodman 2001). It is noticeable that on every halachic issue about which both the Pharisaic and the rabbinic attitude is known the two turn out to be identical, which suggests much common ground, but it will always require fine judgement to decide how much to use rabbinic literature to understand the Pharisees.

Conflation has been even more rampant in the use by historians of Judaism in this era of the sectarian texts found among the Dead Sea scrolls. From soon after the accidental discovery of the scrolls in 1947, the sect which preserved them has been identified with almost every Jewish religious group of the period already known from the medieval manuscripts preserved by rabbis and Christians. Apart from maverick suggestions, arguments have been put forward by responsible scholars for designating the sect as Pharisees, Zealots, Christians, Sadducees, and Essenes (see summaries of views in Schiffman and Vanderkam 2000). Different arguments have been put forward for each hypothesis. The purity concerns of the group suggested Pharisees (Rabin 1957), hostility to Rome suggested Zealots (Roth 1958), eschatological interests pointed to Jewish Christians (Eisenman 1983), adoption by the sectarians of some halachic views identical to those ascribed to Sadducees in early rabbinic texts encouraged the view that they were Sadducees of some kind (Schiffman 1990). The most common hypothesis, which identifies the sectarians with Essenes, is based primarily on similarities of organizational structure and communal rules (Vermes 1997: 46–9). Each conflationary model is possible, but each requires a certain amount of conflicting evidence to be explained away either as the product of misunderstanding or exaggeration in one or other of the sources of evidence or as testimony to the existence of a number of different groups with the same name. One example will suffice to demonstrate. In the descriptions of Essenes by outsiders such as Philo and Pliny, one of the most striking facets of the group is said to be their avoidance of money, but some of the sectarian rules preserved among the Dead Sea scrolls clearly envisage the use of money (see discussion in Schürer 1973–87: ii. 577): either Philo and Pliny idealized too much, or there were two (at least) types of Essene. Those unwilling to conflate unnecessarily interpret the same sectarian writings as evidence of a sectarian group unknown before the discovery of the scrolls (e.g. Goodman 1995). Such a hypothesis is not unreasonable. No other ancient source apart from Josephus refers even to all the different groups already mentioned (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Christians, and Zealots), and Josephus himself, whose histories followed Graeco-Roman models and whose apologetic work stressed not variety but unity in Judaism (Ag. Apion 2. 179–81), made no claim to provide a complete ethnography of the Jewish religious parties of his time (Goodman 2000).

Outside religious history, analysis of the administration of Jewish society in this period can also be divided into those which conflate the evidence and those which (p. 47) do not. Early rabbinic sources refer to a ‘great court’ which sat in the Temple under rabbinic control. Josephus and the New Testament refer to Jewish courts and councils under the leadership of High Priests and (occasionally) Jewish kings (Hasmonean or Herodian). Some scholars amalgamate all this evidence as best they can to produce a unified picture of the operations of ‘the Sanhedrin’ (e.g. Schürer 1973–87: ii. 199–226). Others posit two or even more contemporaneous courts with different remits and personnel (e.g. Mantel 1961), despite the lack of ancient evidence that more than one court coexisted. Yet others suggest that the existence of conflicting evidence about the composition, competence, and procedures of the Sandhedrin shows that it was never a regular formal institution (Goodman 1987:112–16), a view itself open to the objection that some sources presuppose that some types of political behaviour were only acceptable if sanctioned by the authority of ‘the’ Sanhedrin (Sanders 1992: 472–88).

As a final example, consider the impact of messianism in this period, an issue much in debate particularly over the past two decades. An influential study published in 1987 argued against the common assumption that messianic expectation and its impact were rife among Jews in the first century ce (Neusner et al. 1987). The authors pointed out that the extant literature of the period rarely refers to any individual, present or future, as a messiah. The general tendency to conflate into a single narrative all the disparate references that might (but also might not) refer to the expected actions of a messianic figure was condemned as a product of the importation of Christian concerns into the understanding of Judaism (although in fact, among the best examples of such conflation was the book on The Messianic Idea in Israel by the Zionist historian, Joseph Klausner: Klausner 1956). It is better, the authors suggested, to consider each document, or at least each type of Judaism, separately, as a result of which the evidence for messianic beliefs appears much less impressive. Such scepticism has been countered since the mid-1990s by a series of studies claiming that, especially in the light of the eschatological and messianic material in the scrolls of the Dead Sea sectarians which survive quite independently of the Christian tradition, the traditional view should be upheld (Collins 1995; Horbury 1998). The discussion of messianism has thus become an offshoot of a wider question about the legitimacy of generalizing to the rest of Judaism from the views expressed by the Dead Sea sectarians (on which see, for an extreme view, Stegemann 1998).

It is a reflection of the historiographical origin of this debate as a matter of contemporary theological, rather than historical, concern that the question of the relation between indulgence in speculation about a messianic future and political action predicated on a messianic hope is rarely discussed. It is left to students of the political history of Judaea to try to interpret the curious silence of Josephus about messianic movements among first-century Jews (e.g. Rajak 1983). Ascription of this silence to a desire to hide the truth from his gentile readers (e.g. Hengel (p. 48) 1989) encounters the obstacle that, far from concealing the existence of a messianic hope, Josephus positively asserted its importance for the Jewish rebels as an element in motivating resistance during the siege of Jerusalem (Jos. BJ 6. 312–14).

The discussion of messianism is in this respect symptomatic of a general problem in study of Second Temple Judaism. Perhaps because they began as students of biblical texts (Old or New Testament), many experts in this field write as if the study of a religion is the study of the theology of texts: they write about the Judaism of 2 Maccabees, or Wisdom of Solomon, or (even) the Jewish Sibylline Oracles. This procedure is hard to avoid when the texts are all that survive, but also hard to justify when one of the more striking facets of Second Temple Judaism was the ability of Jews to accept a common text (the Pentateuch) as totally authoritative, but then interpret it in radically different ways.

What, then, could be done differently? Texts provide a hint about how ancient people thought and practised their religion, but understanding how that religion worked requires the use of a plausible model into which the textual and other evidence can be fitted. From where, then, will that model come? Imaginative empathy is essential but runs the risk of importing anachronistic concerns; here a useful control lies in awareness of the plentiful evidence for the religious lives of non-Jews in the same period (see e.g. Hopkins 1999). More problematic is the systematic application to Judaism of a structural analysis of how other societies and religions work: at best such procedures provide real insight into implicit relations within ancient society which would remain hidden if historians looked only at what ancient people said explicitly about themselves, but at worst they can create an impression of knowledge that is largely illusory (for use of sociological models, see e.g. Saldarini 1988 and, more successfully, Baumgarten 1997). Perhaps the best hope in the study of Jews is that increasing knowledge of their normal, everyday life may make it easier to find a proper context for the theological writings which have dominated study up to now. As more documents emerge from the Judaean desert (on their value for historians, see Cotton 1998), it will become easier to discuss marriage, divorce, property-ownership, and all the other minutiae of everyday life in a way not previously possible. The Jews of the late Second Temple period may come to be seen less as actors in a great drama of portentous significance under divine direction, and more as a small people with an interesting and unique culture in the Mediterranean world.

On the other hand, no one who works in this field would want normalization of Jewish history to go too far. One of the enjoyable aspects of researching and teaching about Jews and Judaism in this period is precisely the interest it engenders among both Jews and Christians because of its implications for the present. Enthusiasm has its dangers but also an undeniable value.

(p. 49) Suggested Reading

Grabbe (1992 and 2000) covers the whole period, with an analysis of many of the issues under debate. The standard textbook for the second half of the Second Temple period is Schürer (1973–87). For good general introductions see Cohen (1987), Schiffman (1991), Boccaccini (1991), VanderKam (2001). For a fine attempt to depict the practicalities of Second Temple Judaism, see Sanders (1992).


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