By John Collins
In the second century BCE, the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes issued a decree proscribing the ancestral laws of Judea. The Jerusalem temple was taken over and renamed for Zeus Olympios. People were forbidden to practice traditional Jewish customs such as circumcision on pain of death. According to 2 Maccabees, chapter 6 “it was impossible either to keep the Sabbath, to observe the ancestral festivals, or openly confess oneself to be a Ioudaios.”
My new book takes up the question, what was it that one could not confess oneself to be? There has been debate in recent years as to whether Ioudaios should be translated “Judean” or “Jew.” Most people in the ancient world were designated by terms that indicated their homeland – Romans, Moabites, Egyptians, etc. Each had their traditional customs and ancestral laws, corresponding in part to what we would call religion. In the case of Judaism, the ancestral laws were identified as the laws allegedly given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. These were the laws proscribed by Antiochus Epiphanes. Their observance was indicated especially by practices that had symbolic value as ethnic markers, such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, and religious festivals. It is clear that Epiphanes was not forbidding people to say where they were from. The decree presupposed a normative understanding of what it meant to be a Ioudaios: to observe the Law of Moses, at least in its distinctive practices. What Epiphanes tried to do was to suppress the distinctive identity of the people of Judah, by proscribing the traditional formulation of their way of life.
The Law of Moses was well established by second century BCE and for some centuries before that. According to Jewish tradition, the Law was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Modern scholarship places its development many centuries later. The first attempt to formulate a (somewhat) comprehensive Law is found in Deuteronomy, which appears to have originated in the late seventh century BCE, in the reign of King Josiah, although in view of its restriction of the power of the king it is unlikely to have been promulgated by Josiah. During the Babylonian Exile, Deuteronomy was expanded and combined with other traditional material, including the Priestly Laws, to make up the Torah as we know it. This Torah plays no part in the Judean restoration after the Exile. It appears to have been unknown in Judah prior to the arrival of Ezra, which is usually dated to 458 BCE. (According to the Book of Ezra, the people in Jerusalem were unaware of the festival of Sukkoth).
The Law was also unknown to the Judeans of Elephantine in the south of Egypt, although an attempt was made to inform them of the dates of the festival of Unleavened Bread, according to the Priestly legislation. Ezra secured the backing of the Persian king to establish the Torah as the official ancestral Law of Judah. He attempted to implement it by forcing people to divorce their foreign wives and observe the festivals. His reforms appear to have been short-lived, but he established the status of the Torah as the normative expression of the ancestral law of Judah. Even after the time of Ezra, however, the Torah plays no part in the wisdom tradition of the Hebrew Bible (Proverbs, Job, Qoheleth), or in tales from the Diaspora (Esther, Daniel 1-6). Other corpora of literature, especially those composed in Aramaic, drew mainly on the narratives of Genesis and treated the Torah as a source of wisdom rather than law. The Enoch literature drew heavily on the early chapters of Genesis, but cast Enoch rather than Moses as the mediator of revelation, and paid little attention to the Law of Moses.
The official status of the Torah after the time of Ezra did not entail that it was closely observed. Rather, it had iconic importance, in the sense that people revered it even if they did not pay much attention to its content. This iconic importance can be seen in the Book of Ben Sira, in the early second century BCE. Ben Sira declares that all wisdom is the Torah of Moses, but he does not engage it in any detail.
Attitudes to the Torah changed, however, after the attempt by Antiochus Epiphanes to suppress it. The Maccabees, and their descendants, the Hasmoneans, were not especially pious, but they insisted on the observance of those aspects of the Law that had symbolic importance. During the century of Hasmonean rule, we see a “halakic turn” in the emergence of literature such as the Temple Scroll and Jubilees, that engages the legal aspects of the Torah in great detail. We also see the rise of sectarianism, fueled by disagreements over the details of the Law, as can be seen especially in the Dead Sea Scroll called the Halakhic Letter (4QMMT).
The archeological record also shows an increasing concern for purity in this period, attested by the spread of miqvaoth and stone vessels. Scholars have rightly argued for a “common Judaism” in this period, based on the observance of the distinctive aspects of the Torah, but this must be qualified by the rise of sectarianism, as can be seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Moreover, even Jews who accorded basic importance to the Torah often felt the need to supplement it by appeal to a higher revelation. This, too, can be seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and also more generally in apocalyptic literature. 4 Ezra, written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, has Ezra restore 24 “public” books (those we know as the Hebrew Bible) but also 70 others, in which is “the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge.”
The Greek-speaking Diaspora, primarily in Egypt, does not show a “halakic turn” of the type found in Jubilees or the Scrolls, but it certainly accords central importance to the Torah of Moses. Usually, however, the literature of the Diaspora focuses on matters where Jews could hope to find common ground with enlightened Gentiles. So it focuses on monotheism, avoidance of idolatry and certain issues related to sexuality, but seldom dwells on the more distinctive laws, such as the food laws or circumcision. When Diaspora authors address these subjects, as in the Letter of Aristeas or the writings of Philo, they interpret them allegorically, as symbolizing virtues that a philosopher could appreciate. Some scholars have argued that the Torah was recognized as the practical law in Jewish communities, but this claim is not supported by the papyri.
The early Christian movement related to the Torah of Moses in various ways. The Gospel of Matthew has Jesus say that not one jot or tittle of the Law will pass away. The apostle Paul, in contrast, takes a polemical attitude towards “the works of the Law,” although he can also maintain that the Law is holy and just and good. Paul was not a universalist. He held that his Gentile converts were grafted into Israel, the “seed of Abraham.” But for Paul the “Israel of God” was not defined by the Torah of Moses. Rather it was a new creation, based on faith in Jesus Christ as the messiah of Israel. He did not object to the continued observance of the Law by those born Jewish, but he undermined its significance to a great degree. The Law survived, however, as the undisputed basis of Jewish identity in the rabbinic tradition.
John J. Collins is the Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism & Interpretation at Yale Divinity School.
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