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Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV

The historian acknowledges that answers are not contained in the questions and effects in the causes. There is in history an indefinite space for freedom and surprise, where human genius and blind fate…exercise their power above any deterministic constraint. Yet, thoughts and ideas cannot be understood historically apart from the social setting in which they were born and apart from the people who produced them.
Gabriele Boccaccini, Roots of Rabbinic Judaism

Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV

Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV

Midway between Fargo and Grand Forks North Dakota is a roadside billboard advertising the Bible as “Complete, Unchallenged, Settled.” The very idea that a collection of texts, some related and some quite distinct from one another and redacted into a normative collection that is revered by some but not all between 2,500 and 1,800 years ago, is totally settled, completely unchallenged and a perfectly complete statement of the world and everything in it is, on its face, nonsensical. Bronze Age manuscripts tell the story of a particular people living at a particular time, subject to political and social pressures unique to themselves and their times. They do not reflect the Truth or even the truth for all time prior to and to still be realized. To be completely understood they must be understood in the context (political, social and economic) in which they came to be in the first place. Because the collection of texts that form Scripture are often contradictory it is crucial to understand these contradictions in terms of the chronological order in which they came to be as well. To blindly accept these collections of stories, rules, diatribes and histories as the revealed work of a deity is to turn a blind eye to the politics and social structure that created them.

Now I don’t claim any special knowledge of or expertise in Biblical scholarship; what I do claim is the ability to read and comprehend what Biblical scholars have written, the arguments they make and the ability to make rational judgments as to the reasonableness of the arguments put forward. The application of rationality to the myriad of problems posed by Scriptural texts is necessary if one ever hopes to understand the motivations of those writing the texts in the first place. Understanding motivations as a product of the times when the documents were produced goes a long way to understanding the intellectual history of the documents themselves.

Boccaccini, in his 2002 book, Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History, From Ezekiel to Daniel, makes a strong case for the development of the Rabbinic Judaism we are familiar with today has its roots in the Babylonian diaspora and the return of a group of exiles to Jerusalem in the priestly followers of Zadok, the Zadokite priests, who re-formed normative Judaism through textual and political innovations that overturns the very notion that Rabbinic Judaism was well formed at the earliest phases of the Second Temple. In Boccaccini’s analysis, the revolution he attributes to the Zadokites begins in exile after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon and gathers steam as the Zadokite priests rebuild the Temple along completely new organizational principles. This revolution continues through the Maccabean period, strongly influenced by the mediation of the Pharisaic movement that gains momentum during the Roman occupation of Palestine. By the time of the Roman destruction of Herod’s Temple, there were many Judaisms, the two most prominent being Rabbinic Judaism and Christian Judaism with the final schism occurring at around the time of Constantine.

Boccaccini analyzes contradictions in texts, especially contradictions in priestly lineage, that all tend to revise the contradictions into a tight historical lineage giving the appearance of being more-or-less continuous. At one point he writes that there is no better way to convince people to join in the revolutionary efforts than to convince them that this is the way things always have been.

Far from being the revealed word of YHVH, Rabbinic Judaism’s Scriptures are cleverly redacted to serve the priestly class that wrote them, complied them from multiple sources and reflect the political, social and economic realities of the times in which they were written. Understood in this way, it is easier to read the documents for what they are, a manifesto proclaiming the emergence of a priestly cult that, over time, adapted itself to life without the place of priestly sacrifice into a cult that relies on the combination of prayer and adherence to a specific code of practice which acts as the simulacrum of Temple sacrifice.

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4 thoughts on “Understanding Context: Thinking In Jewish XV

  1. As always an insightful read.

  2. Pingback: The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIII | Surviving In This Very Moment...

  3. Pingback: The Utopianism of Jewish Religious Thought: Thinking In Jewish XXIV | Surviving In This Very Moment...

  4. Pingback: Paying Attention to Language: Thinking in Jewish XXVI | Surviving In This Very Moment...

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