Did the Jews of ancient Israel, say 2,500 years ago, know about and practice a Judaism that looked similar to the Judaism of today with, for example, dietary laws, tefillin, circumcision, and mikveh? Prof. Yonatan Adler of Ariel University, an erudite researcher and experienced field archaeologist, seeks to answer this in his new book, using archaeological finds and ancient texts.
The Origins of Judaism is an engrossing read, well written and extensively documented. Adler observes that for most of the past 2,000 years, Jews have followed the myriad laws of the Torah, and although there were some small fringe groups, the dominant mode of practice has been “rabbinic Judaism.” As Adler explains, he is not addressing when the text of the Bible was written but rather what the evidence suggests about when rank-and-file Jews became aware of the biblical laws and began following them.
Adler presents a treasure trove of ancient texts (e.g., Josephus, Philo, Letter of Aristeas, Septuagint, Dead Sea Scrolls, assorted papyri) and archaeological findings related to a variety of commandments. The sources are enlightening, intriguing, sometimes surprising and, as he explains, prove without a shadow of a doubt that by 2,100 years ago, Jews in the Land of Israel practiced Judaism in a manner similar to today.
But what about a few hundred years earlier? Adler’s thesis is that it all started only about 2,100 to 2,200 years ago. Overall, he tackles about a dozen religious practices and tries to show that they only emerged in the first/second centuries BCE. His data are impressive, his conclusions less so.
For example, Adler presents evidence that he claims demonstrates that the Torah’s kosher dietary laws regarding forbidden species were not observed before the first century BCE. He provides abundant evidence for kashrut observance in the first/second century BCE. That alone is fascinating – for 2,100 years Jews have been keeping kosher! He reluctantly concedes that even earlier, pork was not widely eaten by Jews but refuses to attribute it to a religious taboo. He then states that substantial numbers of non-kosher fish bones were found in and around Jerusalem in periods earlier than the second century BCE – proof, he says, that the Torah’s dietary laws were not part of Jewish consciousness.
Adler summarizes: “Significant frequencies of scaleless [i.e., non-kosher] fish (especially catfish) have been found in Jerusalem and throughout Judea in all [emphasis added] assemblages available for analysis which date to the Iron Age II (ca. 950-586 BCE).”
“Significant frequencies of scaleless [i.e., non-kosher] fish (especially catfish) have been found in Jerusalem and throughout Judea in all [emphasis added] assemblages available for analysis which date to the Iron Age II (ca. 950-586 BCE).”Yonatan Adler
Surprisingly, while referencing sites with small numbers of fish bones, such as Area G (195 fish bones) and Ramat Rahel (48 bones), he inexplicably ignores the mother lode. The largest number of identifiable fish bones (a whopping 5,385) of any site in Israel from any period were found in the heart of the City of David, biblical Jerusalem, in the “rock-cut pool,” with over 96% kosher fish! Dated to the late ninth century BCE (Iron Age II), these bones strongly suggest that Jews in Jerusalem 2,900 years ago followed the biblical dietary laws, dining on breams, mullets, Nile perch and tuna.
Even if non-kosher fish bones prove lack of observance of the dietary laws, they do not necessarily prove lack of awareness. Persian-era Nehemiah (13:16) sharply criticizes Judea’s Jews: “And the Tyrians [who] abode therein were bringing fish and... selling [them] on the Sabbath....” Thus non-kosher fish (whose remnants were found in a Jewish area) perhaps were eaten by the non-Jewish merchants or purchased by non-observant but fully aware Jews.
Similar to today, when, despite widespread knowledge of kashrut laws, there are non-kosher restaurants in Israel, the prophet (Isaiah 66:17) castigated ancient Jews for consuming non-kosher. A lack of adherence does not prove lack of knowledge, as seen by the high percentage of non-kosher fish bones archaeologists find in Byzantine and early Islamic Jerusalem, periods well after the time that Adler concedes widespread knowledge of the dietary laws.
Furthermore, non-kosher remains could have explanations other than non-observance; e.g., future archaeologists may find remnants of pigs that Jews used to produce lifesaving heart valves or American footballs or other legitimate uses for non-kosher species.
ADLER DEVOTES a captivating chapter that tries to show that the biblical prohibition against depicting living creatures even when not intended as idolatrous became widely implemented only in the second century BCE. He asserts this based on findings from earlier periods – images of rulers and animals found on coins and seals, as well as figurines.
His argument falls apart if one travels forward in time. Israel is blessed with numerous ancient synagogues adorned with mosaics full of graphic depictions of humans and animals. The northern Huqoq synagogue (fifth century) has depictions of Samson, Jonah, Moses, and of Yael killing Sisera. The third-century Ein Gedi synagogue features geese and peacocks, while the sixth-century Beit Alpha synagogue shows the biblical scene of the binding of Isaac and a zodiac full of animals. Such depictions do not prove that third-to-sixth-century CE Jews were unfamiliar with biblical laws relating to figural art. They may have interpreted it differently than first-century BCE Jews, who interpreted it differently than fourth-century BCE Jews. Or it can indicate a waxing and waning of observance or a change in aesthetic preferences.
Did ancient biblical Jewish rituals really exist?
Adler uses lack of evidence to “prove” that certain rituals did not exist, such as not finding evidence of tefillin earlier than the second century BCE. Much more exciting, it seems to me, is that there is evidence of tefillin in the first century BCE. Organic leather boxes with parchment do not survive in most climates. All agree that tefillin were worn during the last 2,000 years in Europe, North Africa, and Babylonia, yet there are no remnants of “old” tefillin from those regions. That any tefillin survived for over 2,000 years is remarkable, and only thanks to the unique climatic conditions in the Judean Desert. For Adler to argue that the absence of even older tefillin proves their nonexistence is fallacious. After all, these Judean Desert tefillin were only found a few decades ago, and yet prior to their discovery even Adler would not have argued that observance of tefillin began only a few hundred years ago. Lack of evidence is simply not evidence of lack.
Adler provides copious notes and references, many to his own scientific papers, attesting to his expertise and long-standing interests, and these are wisely placed in the back of the book to keep the text flowing.
He addresses and attempts to discredit any hint of a question to his thesis. For example, fifth-century BCE texts from the southern Egyptian island of Elephantine mention Passover twice and the dates 15th to the 21st of the month, the days when Passover is observed in Nisan. As understood by almost all scholars, this is an amazing 2,500-year-old reference to Passover observance. In Adler’s reading, this is not explicit enough and therefore cannot be considered textual evidence for such early Passover observance.
As illustrated, his arguments often suffer from major flaws, and his many intriguing sources and artifacts often provide little support for his thesis. Finding a suggestion of lack of observance is not definitive proof of ignorance of the laws nor of lack of observance among other contemporaneous Jews. Even a cursory reading of the Bible paints a picture of the masses not always following the Torah’s rules; thus it is not surprising to discover evidence of laxity among the Iron Age II or Persian-era masses.
The examples brought in this book can edify but will likely not convince anyone one way or the other. Those believing that the biblical laws have been observed for over 3,000 years will be impressed by, for example, tefillin from over 2,000 years ago that resemble modern tefillin and a 2,500-year-old mention of Passover, and will find responses to Adler’s “proofs.” And a “non-believer” may accept Adler’s arguments that Judaism as practiced for the last 2,000 years was “invented” a mere 2,100 years ago.
This extensively researched, clearly written book is thus an interesting read, but one needs to be able to think for themselves and enjoy the information while being healthily skeptical about the author’s conclusions.
The Origins of Judaism By Yonatan AdlerYale University Press398 pages; $44.98