Davies and Post-Exilic Israel

I’m rereading Philip Davies’ Scribes and Schools.  Here are three items:

1. On pages 63-64, Davies argues that scribal activity continued in Judah during the exile—since “Taxes, records, and correspondence were still needed”—but that the scribes in Judah were overwhelmed by the scribes returning from exile claiming to be the new Israel.  In Babylon, there were probably Judahite scribes who “became scribes and officials in Babylon, serving other kings and, indeed, other deities”.  We can tell that the scriptural canon reflects the ideology of the returnees, for the canon “reflects an experience of coming into Judah from elsewhere as a pure race, under threat of contamination from the indigenous population”.  My impression is that Davies believes that the shape of the Hebrew Bible occurred in the post-exilic period, under the auspices of these returnees, who were backed by the Persians.  One reason that Davies does not think that “a substantial corpus of classical literary works” emerged in Israel’s monarchic period was that there was “imperial surveillance by the Assyrians, to which scribal activity was no doubt subject for most of the time.”

This may be relevant to certain debates within biblical scholarship.  When biblical writings talk about the threat of exile, what is their Sitz im Leben?  Are these exilic or post-exilic writings that are talking about an exile that has occurred, or are they pre-exilic writings that are expressing anxiety about the threat of a future exile?  When biblical literature (such as First Isaiah) criticizes the Assyrians, is that literature from the actual time of the Assyrians, or is it a post-exilic reflection on the time when the Assyrians were a threat to Israel?  If the Assyrians were monitoring Judahite scribal activity in the pre-exilic period, then they probably wouldn’t tolerate literature that criticized them.

2.  On page 85, Davies says that Deuteronomy very well might be “the earliest official writing in the extant Judean canon.”  And, on pages 93-99, Davies talks about what he believes is the date of Deuteronomy.  Davies states that the terminum ad quem for Deuteronomy is 100 B.C.E., by which time there was a schism between the Jews and the Samaritan community.  A generation earlier, John Hyrcanus “destroyed the Gerizim temple”.  The Pentateuch of the Samaritans “does not differ in any structural way from the Judean one”, and Davies’ assumption here is probably that the Samaritans would have borrowed the writings of the Judeans before the schism.  After the schism, the Pentateuch was already a significant part of Samaritan culture, and so the Samaritans retained it.

Many scholars date Deuteronomy to the time of Josiah in the seventh century B.C.E., but Davies disagrees.  One reason is that Deuteronomy’s stigmatization of the native Canaanites and promotion of war against them would not make sense in the monarchical period, for “states do not create a civil war among the king’s taxpaying subjects.”  Deuteronomy presents immigrants coming into Canaan and settling—even as they are surrounded by a socially distinct indigenous population—and, for Davies, that fits the post-exilic period.  Another reason that the seventh century B.C.E. is not an appropriate context for Deuteronomy’s origin is that Deuteronomy presents the priests judging and supervising warfare, even as it severely limits the authority of the king—who becomes someone who merely reads scrolls and avoids accumulation of wealth.  How would that fit the monarchic period—in which kings judged, led battles, and accumulated wealth?  According to Davies, Deuteronomy 17’s insistence that the king be an Israelite rather than foreign is a reference to the Persian emperor, and the “king” stands for the “considerably weakened colonial governor, subject to the authority of the priesthood and servant of their temple and their god.”  For Davies, Deuteronomy reflects a time when the Persians took the place of the monarchy, and so a Jewish community viewed the priests as its leaders.

Davies calls the story of the discovery of the scroll under Josiah as well as the Josianic reform a “complete fiction”, for monarchs ordinarily did not intervene in popular religion.  The story of Josiah served to give Deuteronomy antiquity, and to present Deuteronomy as the book that predicted the exile, meaning that post-exilic Israel could find security by obeying the laws of Deuteronomy.

3.  A criticism of biblical minimalists (such as Davies) is that they are skeptical about the historicity of the parts of the Hebrew Bible that narrate Israel’s pre-exilic history, even as they accept the parts of the Hebrew Bible about Israel’s post-exilic history—such as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.  But pages 99-102 present a different picture.  Davies argues that Ezra and Nehemiah represent separate and different traditions about the origin of Judaism.  Ezra highlights the importance of the law of Moses, whereas Nehemiah is a political leader.  At some point, the traditions were merged—for, in Nehemiah 9, both Ezra and Nehemiah participate in the covenant ceremony.

What is the evidence that Ezra and Nehemiah reflected separate origin traditions?  First of all, the two characters only appear together in Nehemiah 9.  Second, Ben Sira and II Maccabees—both from the second century B.C.E.—mention Nehemiah but not Ezra.  Davies concludes that the combination of the traditions, therefore, “is no earlier than the second century B.C.E.”  Davies thinks that the figure of Ezra does not reflect the fifth-fourth centuries B.C.E., but rather a scribe such as Ben Sira in the second century B.C.E., who studied the law of the Most High.  Regarding Nehemiah, Davies dates that tradition to the fourth-second century B.C.E.  Because the Book of Nehemiah is so anti-Samaritan, it may post-date “the separation of the Judean and Samarian Yahwistic communities and the building of the Samari[t]an temple.”

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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2 Responses to Davies and Post-Exilic Israel

  1. Rev. Terry Teigen says:

    I googled “Deuteronomy as Exilic or post-Exilic literature and was led to this entry. When I went to seminary back in the day, it was pretty much assumed that Dtr at least the earlier strands, and much of what we Christians have received as canon was what prompted Hezekiah’s reforms. In a Bible Study yesterday,however, I posited the idea that the material may have been redacted and influenced by the experience of Babylonian exile. This was more a feeling that I’ve had than anything I have researched.
    How interesting to discover your notes on the work of Philip Davies. Thanks much.


  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comment, Terry. Your Bible study group sounds cool.


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