The Ori­gins of Judaism: An Archae­o­log­i­cal-His­tor­i­cal Reappraisal

Yonatan Adler

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By – February 27, 2023

When did Judaism begin? 

What seems like a straight­for­ward ques­tion is actu­al­ly quite com­plex. For starters, what do we mean by Judaism? And once we have a def­i­n­i­tion, how do we actu­al­ly go about deter­min­ing the ori­gin? How do we know when we’ve found it? Even for schol­ars who have stud­ied Judaism their entire lives, these are not easy ques­tions. In The Ori­gins of Judaism, Yonatan Adler sets out to pin down some answers.

First, Adler nar­rows his focus to a spe­cif­ic def­i­n­i­tion of Judaism, one that empha­sizes prac­tices over beliefs. Where­as it is impos­si­ble to deter­mine what peo­ple believe, Adler argues that it is pos­si­ble — even if it is not easy — to deter­mine whether peo­ple adhere to any of the com­mon prac­tices described in the bib­li­cal texts. He is not con­cerned with find­ing the ori­gins of the Torah as a text, which most schol­ars sug­gest coa­lesced in the Baby­lon­ian and Per­sian peri­ods. Nor is he con­cerned with the ori­gins of the Judeans as a peo­ple, which like­ly took place in the Iron Age. Instead, Adler homes in on when and how these Judeans, as a well-estab­lished col­lec­tive, first began to adopt the Torah as the cen­tral reg­u­lat­ing prin­ci­ple of their shared way of life.” This, for him, is the def­i­n­i­tion of Judaism. 

To deter­mine the when and how, Adler turns his atten­tion to sev­er­al prac­tices, includ­ing dietary restric­tions, rit­u­al puri­ty, pro­hi­bi­tions of fig­ur­al art, tefill­in and mezu­zot, the sab­bath, and fes­ti­vals. His search begins in the first cen­tu­ry CE, because there is an abun­dance of lit­er­ary and archae­o­log­i­cal evi­dence that, at that time, Judeans con­sid­ered the Torah author­i­ta­tive and fol­lowed these prac­tices. From this base­line, he works back­wards in time, look­ing at the archae­o­log­i­cal remains and lit­er­ary sources until there is no evi­dence of a par­tic­u­lar prac­tice. Such a method is known as a ter­mi­nus antes quem—the time before which some­thing must have been cre­at­ed. After exam­in­ing the his­to­ry of each of the prac­tices, Adler con­cludes that the evi­dence for a wide­ly prac­ticed Judean way of life gov­erned by the Torah nev­er pre­dates the sec­ond cen­tu­ry BCE.”

Adler’s con­clu­sion is not as shock­ing as it might seem at first glance. In fact, ear­ly in the book, he dis­cuss­es sev­er­al schol­ars who have made sim­i­lar argu­ments about the sec­ond cen­tu­ry BCE being foun­da­tion­al for the devel­op­ment of Judaism and Jew­ish law. And in 2015, Michael Sat­low, a Jew­ish Stud­ies pro­fes­sor at Brown Uni­ver­si­ty, pub­lished How the Bible Became Holy (Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press), which sim­i­lar­ly argues that the laws in the Torah were not wide­ly con­sid­ered author­i­ta­tive until the sec­ond cen­tu­ry BCE. The Ori­gins of Judaism does, how­ev­er, make an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to our under­stand­ing of ear­ly Judaism: it lays out archae­o­log­i­cal and lit­er­ary evi­dence in a way that is acces­si­ble to lay audi­ences and schol­ars alike. 

But does the book iden­ti­fy the ori­gins of Judaism? Not exact­ly. The prob­lem might be that Adler’s def­i­n­i­tion is too nar­row, pre­clud­ing beliefs and prac­tices that can’t be shown to direct­ly relate to the laws found in the Torah. Indeed, in the final pages of the book, Adler dis­miss­es evi­dence of Judean prac­tices from the Iron Age and Per­sian peri­od — includ­ing cir­cum­ci­sion, ven­er­a­tion of YHWH as the deity, cul­tic wor­ship of YHWH, and the cel­e­bra­tion of Passover at Ele­phan­tine — as Judean cul­tur­al norms rather than Judean adher­ence to some kind of Torah law.” A def­i­n­i­tion of Judaism that pri­or­i­tizes the Torah to the exclu­sion of cul­tur­al and eth­nic com­po­nents of Judaism, how­ev­er, is too lim­it­ing if we want to tru­ly under­stand the devel­op­ment of Judaism through­out history. 

This brings us back to the dif­fi­cul­ty of find­ing ori­gins of some­thing like Judaism, which has been con­tin­u­ous­ly devel­op­ing for thou­sands of years. While one could argue that Adler’s book doesn’t find the ori­gins of Judaism per se, it does do a won­der­ful job of iden­ti­fy­ing the ear­li­est evi­dence of wide­spread adher­ence to spe­cif­ic laws found with­in the Torah. Which would of course be a ter­ri­bly ver­bose name for a book. 

Chad Spigel is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Trin­i­ty Uni­ver­si­ty in San Anto­nio and is the author of sev­er­al schol­ar­ly pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing The Jew­ish Minor­i­ty of Dura-Euro­pos” (Jour­nal of Ancient Judaism, 2019) and Ancient Syn­a­gogue Seat­ing Capac­i­ties (Mohr Siebeck, 2012).

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