Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism

By Berrin, Shani | Shofar, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism


Berrin, Shani, Shofar


Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism, by Jonathan Klawans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 372 pp. $74.00.

This thorough and stimulating survey of purity, sacrifice, and the Temple follows upon the author's highly acclaimed Impurity and Sin (Oxford University Press, 2000), and it maintains the same high standard of style, comprehensiveness, methodological rigor, and originality.

In his introduction (p. 3), Klawans states that "the thesis of this book is the claim that scholarly understandings of Jewish cultic matters have been unduly influenced by various contemporary biases, religious and cultural." Klawans sets out to correct this "undue influence" and with his trademark historiographical acumen proceeds to survey and critique academic interpretations of "purity and sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible" (part I) and of "ancient Jewish views of the temple cult in Jerusalem" (Part II).

In part I, Klawans contrasts the sophistication of biblical scholarship on purity with that on sacrifice, particularly in regard to acknowledgment of symbolism. The title and sub-titles of the book indicate his proposed corrective for this error, which is (1) to treat purity and sacrifice as inter-related phenomena, as does the Hebrew Bible itself and (2) to introduce the significance of symbolism as a means to understanding biblical sacrifice. In this manner, Klawans aims to divert an entrenched academic tendency to denigrate biblical sacrifice and to initiate an alternative trend that aims to explain sacrifice on its own terms. He demonstrates conclusively that prevalent evolutionist debates over theoretical origins of sacrifice have obstructed and overshadowed the search for the meaning of the practice in its biblical context.

Following his review of theoretical approaches to sacrifice in chapter 1, Klawans addresses the rituals themselves in chapter 2. His model places two key "organizing principles" at the center of the sacrificial system, the symbolic value of Imitatio Dei and the functional concern for "attracting and maintaining the Divine presence" in the sanctuary. These innovative suggestions are well-argued, but they are rather preliminary. I suspect that the author, as well as this reviewer, awaits interaction from other scholars so that this model can be further developed and modified.

In chapter 3, Klawans discusses prophetic critiques of the Temple and cult. He argues effectively that prophetic objections to improper cultic activity should not be equated with rejection of sacrifice. This chapter prepares the reader to recognize how these texts were later used to fuel an anti-sacrificial bias that is not found in the texts themselves.

In part II, Klawans surveys attitudes to purity, sacrifice, and Temple in key post-biblical corpora. This part of the book begins in chapter 4 with a general discussion of these concepts in ancient Judaism, continuing the integrated treatment of purity and sacrifice from part I, and interweaving the Temple into this analysis. Specifically, Klawans addresses ancient Jewish descriptions of the Temple as a "representation of the cosmos" or an earthly analog of a "heavenly Temple." He argues that these beliefs do not reflect negative assessments of the Temple, as others have claimed (positing "desacralization of the Temple" or "spiritualization of the cult"), but are rather extensions of the earlier symbolisms that he posited with respect to sacrifice in the Bible: Imitatio Dei and the attraction of the Divine presence.

Chapter 5 explores criticism and rejection of the Temple in the Dead Sea Scrolls, arguing that the Community opposed the Jerusalem establishment, but maintained a belief in the value of the Temple cult itself, and anticipated the restoration of proper service. …

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