The Place of the Law in the Religion of Ancient Israel

The Place of the Law in the Religion of Ancient Israel

The Place of the Law in the Religion of Ancient Israel

The Place of the Law in the Religion of Ancient Israel

Synopsis

Over a hundred years ago, Wellhausens revolutionary aim in his Prolegomena" was to prove that the Priestly legal sections of the Pentateuch reflect postexilic Judaism and must be considered a deviation from the prophetic religion which preceded it. The present study points out the biased assumptions underlying Wellhausens theory and the fallacies in this thesis. A strong case is made for the antiquity of the Priestly Code and its antedating the Book of Deuteronomy in light of many parallels between the Priestly Law and ritual texts from the Ancient Near East, and an examination of the mythic outlook in P which distinguishes it from both Deuteronomy and Second Isaiah."

Excerpt

One hundred and twenty years have elapsed since the appearance of Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels in 1883, which was essentially a second edition of his Geschichte Israels (vol. I) of 1878. The great impression made by the Prolegomena at the time of its publication renders it a sort of milestone on the road traveled by biblical scholarship.

Wellhausen’s revolutionary aim in the Prolegomena was to prove that the main legal sections of the Pentateuch: Exod 12, 25–31, 35–40, all of Leviticus, and the legal material in Numbers, which comprise the Priestly Code (P), are in fact a reflection of postexilic Judaism and must therefore be considered a deviation from the prophetic religion which preceded it. The Priestly Code, he maintained, is the “constitution” of Judaism, which arose as an entirely new phenomenon after the return from the Exile.

So convincing was Wellhausen’s thesis that his conclusions became normative and have predominantly remained unchallenged. Nearly the entire community of Western scholars agreed with Wellhausen’s argument; even the great orientalist Theodor Nöldeke, though he had originally rejected the Grafian positions maintained by Wellhausen, finally consented to the dominant view and accepted the lateness of P. Similarly, the English scholar Samuel Rolles Driver, who

Citations will be made from the English translation (Wellhausen 1885 [here
after: E.T.]), when referring to the original they are from the sixth German edi
tion (Wellhausen 1905). For a full bibliography of Wellhausen’s works see Rahlfs
(1914), and for an evaluation of the impact of the Prolegomena on biblical scholar
ship see the articles in Knight (1982).

This was the prevalent view of 19th-century German scholars. Thus, for exam
ple, E. Meyer who entitled his book on the Judean community of the Persian period
(Meyer 1896). The “constitution” of this community according to his view—the
Priestly Code (ibid. 222–224).

Nöldeke (1869: 127–129) touches upon the very foundations of Wellhausen’s
thesis (cf. Nöldeke 1908: 202–203). The argument he adduced from the plea of the
Elephantine community for the restoration of their temple and its cult carries lit
tle weight. Their appeal to the Jerusalemite high priest was unanswered (Aramaic
Papyri 1923: No. 30/31) and even the approval eventually received from Bagoi
and Deliah to construct the temple stipulated that only meal and frankincense were
to be offered (No. 32), not, as originally requested, meal, frankincense and burnt

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