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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Second Temple Judaism

From Joshua to Caiaphas: High Priests After the Exile by James VanderKam (Augsburg Fortress Publishers) For a relatively thorough account of Second Temple Judaism, VanderKam’s work is likely to become a well regarded version of this seminal period in Jewish and Christian studies of origins.

Excerpt: The plan to write a history of the Second-Temple Jewish high priests took shape in the 1980s. Reading the literature from and about that period discloses that the high priests were prominent actors in events—think of the Has­moneans like Jonathan and Simon, for example. Modern scholars often write that the high priests were not only the religious leaders of the Jewish nation but were also its civil heads. With the disappearance of rulers from David's line after Zerubbabel, we are told, a political vacuum resulted, and the high priests came naturally to fill the void. There were exceptions (for example, when Nehemiah was governor), but, in time, the high priests became the heads of state.

It was surprising to discover that, though the high priests were undoubt­edly central figures in Second-Temple times, the full list of them has rarely if ever been the subject of a comprehensive history. There are, of course, studies of individual high priests or of several of them, but no one, to my knowledge, has surveyed the information about all fifty-one of them. The distinguished historian of the Seleucid Empire, Edwyn Bevan, may seem to be an exception. He wrote a short book entitled Jerusalem under the High Priests, but, as the subtitle says, it consists of Five Lectures on the Period between Nehemiah and the New Testament.' These lectures he considered introductory in nature and directed to a wider audience,' and in them he has little to say about the high priests. The title of his book defines a historical period, not the content. Some standard handbooks offer information about many of the high priests; an example is Emil Schürer's invaluable The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ. The chronological limits of Schürer's coverage were, however, from 175 BCE to 135 CE; as a result, he did not deal with the high priests from the first three and one-half centuries of the Second-Temple era. Similarly, Joachim Jeremias's Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus includes much helpful information about high priests but only from the general time in which he was most interested.

Failure to treat the subject of the Second-Temple high priests could at one time have been attributed to the general neglect of the so-called intertesta­mental period, but the situation has not changed even with the tremendous surge of interest in early Judaism during the last half century. In view of this fact and the relative importance of the subject, it seemed appropriate to write such a history.

Work on the project began in the late 1980s, with the first results being a series of articles on smaller topics (see the bibliography). Although a consid­erable amount of progress was made during that period, circumstances were soon to dictate that the project be shelved from 1991 until 2002. With all the turmoil surrounding the glacial pace at which the Dead Sea Scrolls were being published and my appointment to the editorial team, work on the nonbiblical texts from Qumran for publication in the Discoveries in the Judaean Desert series had to take priority.

It was not possible to return to the history of the high priests until the spring term of 2002, when I offered a doctoral seminar on the subject—an occasion that jump-started the delayed research and allowed me to revisit what I had done about a decade earlier. It also provided the opportunity to update, revise, and present my findings and to receive suggestions and critiques from a talented group of younger scholars.

Researching and writing the history has surfaced a host of challenging problems. Foremost has been the key question in any historical work—the nature and extent of the sources. The character of the surviving material may, in fact, supply the reason why scholars have not written a history of these high priests. Of course, no ancient writer composed what would qualify as a work of scientific historiography today, and therefore one has no choice but to make do with what is available, realizing that the texts were probably not written to answer our sorts of questions. While that is a general problem for historians, the range and difficulty of the sources available for the Second-Temple high priests are daunting indeed. There are texts in the Hebrew Bible (narratives and lists in Ezra and Nehemiah, prophecies in Haggai and Zechariah), novel-like books such as Judith, documentary papyri from Elephantine, the Letter of Aristeas, the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach, the books of Maccabees, frag­mentary scrolls from Qumran, the New Testament Gospels and Acts, rabbinic works (Mishnah, talmuds, Tosefta), inscriptions and citations from ancient authors, not to mention archeological data such as bullae and coins. But most of all there is Josephus, who alone covers, in a fashion, the entire period inso­far as his limited sources and his purposes permitted. The Flavian historian is both fascinating and frustrating, but without his writings it would not be pos­sible even to attempt the history contained in these pages. Josephus wrote a lot, and there is an immense amount of secondary literature on him and his histories, The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities. His major biases are familiar, but how far they affected his treatment, especially of the pre-Herodian period, is debatable. Nevertheless, for better or for worse, Josephus is a huge part of this history. Shaye Cohen once referred to Schürer's The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ and some more recent histories as "paraphrases of Josephus with footnotes." I hope not to have written another of those paraphrases, but it is difficult to be entirely innocent of doing so when working with this period.

To deal adequately with the complexities of the sources would require at least a book of its own. In the present work, I have not entered into extended analyses of the nature of the individual sources, although the issue surfaces regularly. Often, as it turns out, we lack an adequate basis for determining the historical reliability of what we are told. Yet, much can still be said about the period. I have endeavored to be fair and sensitive to the character of the texts and artifacts—to evaluate them for what they seem to be—and have tried not to dismiss too quickly the claims made about high priests in texts that appear to be nonhistorical in genre. Historical facts can turn up in strange places. It would be wonderful if all assertions in the sources could be assessed against another source or two, but for sizable stretches of our period we lack infor­mation altogether, and for much of it we have only Josephus's writings. Then, too, having more than one source does not necessarily solve our problems. When War and Antiquities disagree, the more likely claim may not be obvious. Even familiar sources, ones that have been endlessly researched such as the Gospels, may leave one puzzled. An example is the expression "the high priest-hood of Annas and Caiaphas," in Luke 3:2. What can this mean when other texts give us no reason to think individuals shared the office?

The primary purpose of this history of the high priests in the Second-Temple age has been to gather and assess all of the available information about each one of them, from Joshua in the late sixth century BCE to Phannias dur­ing the Jewish revolt against Rome (66–70 CE). A secondary aim has been to investigate the status of these high-ranking officials—specifically whether they also wielded civic authority. Since we are dealing with a span of some six centuries when circumstances changed many times, distinctions must be made. In some periods, we have evidence for the presence of both high priests and governors (or the like); for others, we do not. We can summarize the results as follows. 
1. Persian period (538 or 516–15 to 330 BCE): At several points, the sources name high priests and governors who served at the same time (other than the first term of Nehemiah, we do not know how long any of these offi­cials held office):

  • Joshua and Zerubbabel

  • Joakim

  • Eliashib and Nehemiah

  • Joiada

  • Johanan and Bigvai/Bagohi

  • Jaddua and Hezekiah (?)

So, for these centuries (or rather, parts of them), it is likely the high priest, whatever the extent of his responsibilities, did not exercise supreme polit­ical control. The case of Jaddua is more complicated, but Hezekiah (known from coins) may have been the governor during some of his high priesthood.

2. Early Hellenistic period (330–152 BCE): For these years, we have no firm evidence of a Jewish or foreign governor alongside the high priest. The few surviving texts regarding the third century picture the high priest in contact with foreign monarchs; he conducts affairs of state besides carry­ing out his cultic functions. Unfortunately, our evidence for the period is such that caution is strongly advisable. It is difficult to know, for instance, what value to attribute to claims about the Areus (a Spartan king)-Onias (a high priest) correspondence. We may safely say that there is no indication of an office of governor in Jerusalem and some evidence, however shaky, for high priests who ruled the state.

3. The Hasmonean period (152–37 BCE): When the Hasmonean family assumed the high priesthood, the offices of high priest and head of state were undoubtedly unified in one person. This was the case from Jonathan's appointment (152 BCE) until the death of Alexander Jannaeus (76 BCE). For most of the reign of Salome Alexandra (76–67 BCE), the offices were separated: she was the queen and her son Hyrcanus II was the high priest. Late in her reign, the two crowns were reunited when Hyr­canus became king. His brother Aristobulus II soon took both offices from him (in 67 BCE), only to lose them when Pompey captured Jerusalem and Rome imposed a new order (63 BCE). The great general reinstated Hyrcanus in the high priesthood; the latter also ruled in vari­ous civil capacities, including that of ethnarch, in the following twenty-four years despite the growing power of the Antipatrids. From 40 to 37 BCE, Antigonus was both high priest and king, but after his execution no one ever again combined the two offices.

4. The Herodian period (37 BCE to 70 CE): During this time, a series of rulers, whether from the family of Herod or other Roman officials (prefects, procurators, and legates), ruled the state and appointed high priests who, while at times influential in political affairs, held no governmental office. 

This is the picture that, in my estimation, emerges from the sources. Deb­orah Rooke, in her recent book, Zadok's Heirs: The Role and Development of the High Priesthood in Ancient Israel, has reached rather different conclusions. For her, the postexilic high priests were more insignificant figures who did not rule the Jewish state. She thinks the situation changed in 175 BCE, when high priests assumed governmental responsibilities, but even the Hasmoneans, she argues, regarded themselves as rulers first and high priests second—a surpris­ing inference, judging, for example, from their coins, which consistently list the high priesthood first. I do believe she has raised important questions regarding the common view of high priests as rulers throughout long stretches of the Second-Temple period but finally think she has overstated her case and misconstrued some of the evidence.

It is worth emphasizing what this book is and is not. It is a history of the Second-Temple high priests; it is not a history of the priesthood. As a result, there is no discussion of thorny issues such as the origin of the Aaronides. Also, I do not examine First-Temple phenomena (Rooke, for one, analyzes the evidence about the leading priests in Solomon's temple). The book is not pri­marily a history of the Second-Temple period, although the history regularly impinges on the narrative and provides the organizing principle of the pre­sentation.

Passion, Vitality, and Foment: The Dynamics of Second-Temple Judaism by Lamontte M. Luker (Trinity Press) In the past Old Testament scholars have characterized Hebrew religious practices of the postexilic period as a time of priestly legalism. Viewed in this way, the developments of this period paled in light of the First Temple period. However, as the essays in this collection demonstrate, the postexilic period was actually an age in which "it all came together," an age of robust religious vitality that gave birth to Rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity.

The contributors to Passion, Vitality, and Foment focus on the range of religious advances in this time period, from the Sabbath and the synagogue to the vitality of feminine spirituality, wisdom traditions, and apocalyptic visions, all of which demonstrate the richness of Second Temple Judaism. Contributors: Niels-Erik A. Andreasen, Andrews University; Jon Berquist, Chalice Press; Toni Craven, Brite Divinity School, TCU; Kathe Pfisterer Darr, Boston University School of Theology; John C. Endres, S.J., Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley; Walter Harrelson, Vanderbilt Divinity School; Leo G. Perdue, Brite Divinity School, TCU; Paul L. Redditt, Georgetown College; Will Soll, Sanford-Brown College and Eden/Webster Library of Webster University and Eden Seminary; and Marti J. Steussy, Christian Theological Seminary

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