Scribes, Visionaries, and the Politics of Second Temple Judea. By Richard A. Horsley


Pp. x, 262 , Louisville/London , Westminster John Knox Press , 2007 , $24.95 .

This is a superlative introduction to the literary productions of Second Temple Judea, notably Ben Sira, 1 Enoch, and the book of Daniel. What sets it apart is its grounding in the socio-political context (to which these writings were all responding), its stripping away of later institutions that ‘Biblical Studies’ tends to read back anachronistically into the period (notably, ‘the Bible’ and ‘Judaism’), together with its questioning of the utility of projecting separate genres of ‘wisdom’ and ‘apocalypse’ for what was being written. Horsley sees all these works produced by various circles of scribes, the only literate class, now squeezed between an aristocratic priestly class increasingly compromised by the blandishments of the Hellenistic empire on which they were dependent, and an increasingly impoverished peasant majority for whom, as custodians of the particularist covenant the priests were abandoning, the scribes felt responsible. The author traces an increasingly severe attitude toward the Temple and the priesthood in the three writings mentioned, stopping just short of the abandonment, withdrawal and condemnation one finds, for example, in the Qumran sectaries. Horsley combines a vivid recreation of the social stress and political tension that characterized the fluid and increasingly fractured Second Temple society with responsible and sensitive attention to the evidence these texts, archaeological data, and the study of neighbouring cultures have left us. ‘The past is a different country’; the texts we have taken as typical of this society were produced by a tiny (and persecuted) minority. One thing it could not be claimed this society was evolving naturally towards was ‘Judaism’. ‘Judaism’ rather is the name for a particular amalgamation of the disjecta membra left when the tension identified by this study reached such a pitch of intensity that it burst the Temple and destroyed the state in this minor tributary Temple-State of Judea. As Josephus pointed out, in 70 CE the Romans were merely the catalyst; classical Judaism self-destructed.

A helpful part of the book is Horsley's discussion of orality and the role of writing in ancient societies, which was different from what it is in modern print cultures. Writings were typically deposited in temples and seldom consulted; they had an iconic or monumental significance lending authority to traditions (passed on orally, but constantly interacting with new circumstances) and legitimacy to a regime: ‘The continuing composition of new, alternative texts of Torah, such as Jubilees and the Temple Scroll, suggests strongly that the pentateuchal books had no monopoly on authority among texts of Mosaic torah. In fact, both the Temple Scroll and Jubilees claim higher authority than the pentateuchal books claim. The Temple Scroll has God speak in the first person, dictating the prescriptions for the temple and its sacrifices to Moses, who serves merely as God's amanuensis. In Jubilees the revelation disclosed to Moses on Sinai had already been written on heavenly tablets and was dictated to Moses by the angel of the (God's) presence. The book of Jubilees thus claims to be a transcription of the ultimate in numinous writing, which has the power to make history happen. It also has much of the legal contents of the pentateuchal books revealed to patriarchs from the heavenly tablets, including in writing, long before they were revealed to Moses on Sinai, according to Exodus. Thus in the antiquity of their revelation, they have authority prior to the Mosaic legislation… These books of alternative Torah thus relativize the authority of the pentateuchal books and downgrade the role of Moses.’ (p. 118) Many texts, including those eventually included in the Hebrew Bible, were in continuous development; as said, a growing ‘atmosphere of crisis’ during this period seems to have empowered creative learned scribes to compose books of alternative torah that claimed a higher authority than the pentateuchal books. The later attempt to canonize the literary development at the time of the Pentateuch and, indeed, to fix a ‘canon’ at all (a desperate response to the ‘definitive crisis’ of loss of both Temple and Jerusalem) constitutes a sharp retraction and reversal of the momentum in the tradition and on allowing texts so critical of the central institutions and sanctioning rebellion against oppressive regimes to become foundational. This is closer to ‘disembowelment’, ‘castration’, or ‘embalming’ than ‘fulfillment’.

Ben Sira is the least innovative, staying mostly within the ‘instructional’ wisdom segment of the scribal cultural repertoire. He is loyal to the priesthood and the current high priest, Onias III, but aware of the oppression of the peasantry and dares to speak out. The scribes who produced the texts included in 1 Enoch are more critical. The story of the generation of destructive giants by rebellious ‘watchers’ through earth women is not intended as a rival (and exculpatory) account of the origin of sin from that of Adam and Eve in the garden, but more limitedly to explain the rise of the oppressive Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires that harass Judea in the fourth century BCE, and to assure their audience that God is ultimately in control and will bring them to judgment. The maskilim who composed Daniel are grappling with the attacks by Antiochus Epiphanes on Jerusalem and the Temple. They use mantic (dream) wisdom to interpret Judean history under a sequence of empires which, however, may now inspire subversive activity, for which some have been martyred. They are most critical of the dominant priestly aristocracy that has betrayed the covenant by making common cause with the Hellenizing program of the Seleucid ruler, and project a ‘new Jerusalem’ where God rules directly, dispensing with both Temple and cultic priesthood.