Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature

Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature

Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature

Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature


Until very recently, the idea of ancient Jewish sciences would have been considered unacceptable. Since the 1990's, Early Modern and Medieval Science in Jewish sources has been actively studied, but the consensus was that no real scientific themes could be found in earlier Judaism. This work points them out in detail, and posits a new field of research: the scientific activity evident in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Early Jewish Pseudepigrapha. The publication of new texts and new analyses of older ones reveals crucial elements that are best illuminated by the history of science, and may have interesting consequences for it. The contributors evaluate these texts in relation to astronomy, astrology and physiognomy, marking the first comprehensive attempt to account for scientific themes in Second Temple Judaism. They investigate the meaning and purpose of scientific explorations in an apocalyptic setting. An appreciation of these topics paves the way to a renewed understanding of the scientific fragments scattered throughout rabbinic literature. The book first places the Jewish material in the ancient context of the Near Eastern and Hellenistic worlds. While the Jewish texts were not on the cutting edge of scientific discovery, they find a meaningful place in the history of science, between Babylonia and Egypt, in the time period between Hipparchus and Ptolemy. The book uses recent advances in method to examine the contacts and networks of Jewish scholars in their ancient setting. Second, the essays here tackle the problematic concept of a national scientific tradition. Although science is nowadays often conceived as universal, the historiography of ancient Jewish sciences demonstrates the importance of seeing the development of science in a local context. The book explores the tension between the hegemony of central scientific traditions and local scientific enterprises, showing the relevance of ancient data to contemporary post-colonial historiography of science. Finally, philosophical questions of the demarcation of science are addressed in a way that can advance the discussion of related ancient materials.


Jonathan Ben-Dov and Seth L. Sanders

1. the Idea of Ancient Jewish Science

Sometime after the end of the Judahite monarchy, Jewish writers opened their eyes to the universe in an unprecedented way. a new interest in the cosmos and its patterns appears in late-Persian and Hellenistic apocalyptic literature. For the first time in Jewish literature, we find astronomy and cosmic geography—secrets lying beyond the traditionally understood and immediately visible world—in the Astronomical Book of Enoch and the Book of Watchers. Texts like the Aramaic Levi document and the Qumran physiognomies extend these interests from the stars to the measurement of materials and the human body. in these sources we find precise new ways to divide up and understand the world. the knowledge they present is of a sort unprecedented in Jewish sources because it contains detailed, systematic rules and observations about the physical world—what scholars of Greece and Babylon have long studied as ancient science.

But how did a type of science emerge in early Judaism when the Bible shows no interest in it, apparently prohibiting even inquiry into the stars (Deut. 4:19)? Why does this new Jewish science appear in such complex forms, intertwined with stories of biblical patriarchs and

the present book and hence also this introduction address the systematic representation of scientific themes in literature from the Persian and Hellenistic periods. By doing this we leave aside the discussion of the themes of Nature and Creation in the Hebrew Bible. While mid-twentieth century scholarship downplayed the intensity of this involvement, highlighting instead the idea of divine involvement in history, it is now clear that some biblical authors entertained a comprehensive Weltbild, including an interest in the regularities and irregularities of nature. See Das biblische Weltbild und seine altorientalischen Kontexte (ed. B. Janowski and B. Ego; fat 32; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001); J. Ben-Dov, “Is there a Worldview in the Hebrew Bible?,” Shnaton 15 (2005): 297-307 (Hebrew). Baruch Halpern argues for the existence of explicit cosmological paradigms in the Hebrew Bible resembling pre-Socratic cosmologies in idem, “The Assyrian Astronomy of Genesis 1 and the Birth of Milesian Philosophy,” in From Gods to God: the Dynamics of Iron Age Cosmologies (FAT 63; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009) 427-442.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.