Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Gabrielle Boccaccini, Roots of Rabbinic Judaism: An Intellectual History, from Ezekiel to Daniel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), pp. xvii, 230. ISBN: 0-8028-4361-1, $ 24.00 (paperback)


Gabrielle Boccaccini is one of the most consistently interesting minds currently engaged in the project of reconstructing the early history of Judaism as a coherent set of religious ideas embodied in concrete social systems. The present volume is part of an ongoing project in the history of Judaic ideas. It builds upon themes first set out in Middle Judaism: Jewish Thought, 300 B.C.E. to 200 C.E. (Minneapolis: Fortress , 1991) and Beyond the Essene Hypothesis: The Parting of the Ways Between Qumran and Enochic Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman's, 1998), and constitutes a transition to a forthcoming study currently planned under the working title "The Origins of Rabbinic Judaism."

Boccaccini has in mind a fresh reconfiguration of extant and well-worked-over literary materials--the canon of Hebrew Scriptures, the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek writings of the Second Temple period broadly conceived (including the Qumran scrolls), the Josephan corpus, and the writings of the early Christian communities. He hopes to render obsolete inherited scholarly paradigms about the nature of Post-Exilic Judaism, particularly in the wake of the Hasmonean ascendancy, and its relationship to Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Current "textbook narratives," for example, are often plotted more or less as follows: a Second Temple Judaism consisting of the Torah-religion of Temple Priests and their scribal civil servants, generating several sectarian offshoots (Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes), is forever destroyed in the wake of the Destruction of 70, and succeeded by an ascendant post-70 Rabbinism from which departs the new messianic religion of Christianity. In place of this narrative, Boccaccini in the course of his last three books offers a revised plot with a new cast of characters, some entirely unknown to modern historiography, and others with familiar names but with new personalities.

In Middle Judaism he posits Middle Judaism as "the creative phase of Judaism between the third century B.C.E. and the second century C.E." that "encompasses several different species of Judaisms: Pharisaism, early Christianity, Essenism, apocalyptic and others" and issues forth in such other Judaisms as Samaritanism, Karaism, and the Falashas (Middle Judaism, p. 20). In Beyond the Essene Hypothesis, Boccaccini refines his model of Middle Judaism to include two priestly Judaic traditions, the Zadokite and the Enochic, the former inaugurating a trajectory that issues, after various transformations, in the post-70 emergence of Rabbinism and the latter serving as the matrix of the Essene movement, its Qumranian offshoot, and, ultimately, of early Christianity. From this perspective, Christianity ceases to be regarded as a new religion distinct from, but indebted to, earlier movements in Judaism; rather, it is the continuation and culmination of the Enochic tradition, with a Judaic pedigree no less authentic and ancient than that of the Rabbinic movement's rootage in the Zadokite tradition.

The present volume offers some refinement at the earlier end of the historical trajectory. The Persian period sees the simultaneous emergence of three quite distinct Judaisms: Sapiential Judaism (as evidenced in such works as Ahiqar, Proverbs, Job, Jonah, and Qoheleth), Zadokite Judaism (embodied in a textual trajectory that moves from Ezekiel and includes the compilers of the Pentateuch and the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles), and Enochic Judaism (a priestly counter-tradition to the Zadokite ideology, embodied in such works as the Enochic Book of the Watchers, Aramaic Levi, etc.). From the Persian through the Maccabean Period (at which point the current study concludes), Enochic Judaism retains its sovereign isolation from both Zadokite and Sapiential Judaisms. During the Ptolemaic and Seleucid periods, however, one strand of Sapiential Judaism wanders off into Greek and becomes the foundation of Hellenistic Judaism in the Diaspora, while the Hebraic branch in Palestine merges slowly with the Zadokite tradition, the two engendering both the Sadduceism and the Pharisaism of the Maccabean period. In Boccaccini's view, the "roots" of Rabbinic Judaism are to be found in the Zadokite tradition as modified by Sapiential Judaism and given expression in the Maccabean period's book of Daniel. Boccaccini identifies these conceptual roots as the point at which "the scriptural idea of covenant developed to include the idea of afterlife retribution and the Mosaic Torah acquired cosmic dimensions thanks to its connection with heavenly wisdom" (p. xvii). The "origins" of Rabbinic Judaism, the subject of the forthcoming volume mentioned above, are then to be sought in the Pharisaism that emerges out of the Maccabean period, when "the ideas of covenant and afterlife retribution were supplemented by the ideas of the preexistence of the Torah and of the oral Torah" (e.g., p. xvii).

Boccaccini's is a fascinating narrative, displaying a fine mastery of the social-historical and literary-historical research of the field. He tells a gripping story of ideologically diverse elite populations, with competing social and theological agendas, struggling for hegemony over the Jerusalem Temple and its High Priestly perquisites, the patrimony of a rich scribal culture, the patronage of international powers, and the wealth of the land itself. He offers deeply insightful readings of a host of texts, enabling him to organize them into plausible and unanticipated ideological trajectories that seem to presuppose coherent social communities as their producers, bearers, and interpreters. Historians of the period will find much here that will require them to at least reconsider conventional pictures of the period. At least one, Seth Schwartz, has already begun to weigh in with criticisms of Boccaccini's reconstructions and an alternate proposal (S. Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. [Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001], pp. 49-99, esp. 81). Whether or not the research community ultimately accepts Boccaccini's reconstructions, the task of criticizing them will enrich discourse in the field. In any case, the present work represents a project of historical revision that cannot be ignored.

I would like, in conclusion, to record a modest response to the role some of my own work, particularly my book, Early Judaism (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997) plays in Boccaccini's discussion. In the introduction to his work, which spells out some of the theoretical principles that support his overall project as an historian of ideas, Boccaccini addresses four scholarly constructions of ancient Judaism. Each, in his view, marks useful progress towards an appreciation of the diversity of the early Judaic tradition, but each ultimately falls short of satisfactorily theorizing the issue (pp. 8-14). I am flattered to be included with Shaye Cohen as the representative of one such model. In Boccaccini's terms, this model holds that "outside the Jewish people, there is no Judaism; all Judaisms, in order to be defined as such, must share the feature of being ethnically Jewish" (p. 13).

I imagine that Cohen will speak for himself on this issue, but I would want to pressure Boccaccini's assertion that, in my view, a religion can be Judaism only "if it is born within the Jewish people and is the product of the 'Jewish Mind'" (p. 33). First of all, the term "Jewish Mind" appears nowhere in my book, and I regard it as hopelessly old-fashioned. My habit is to speak of "Judaic imagination." But this is a quibble. More importantly, I believe that Boccaccini misinterprets the theoretical basis of my own understanding of the ethnic dimension of Judaism. I do hold that "Judaic worlds may be sought where communities construct disciplined ways of life that serve to heighten awareness of the personal, communal, and, indeed, the cosmic implications of constituting the direct physical descendants of God's people, Israel" (Early Judaism, p. 15). But an immediately following paragraph of explication must be noted: "The stress on physical descent is crucial. It is possible, as in Christianity or Islam, to recognize a spiritual kinship with ancient Israel as worshippers of the same God . . . . But part of what makes a religion Judaism is this stress on physical, ethnic continuity. This is not to say that Judaism is comprised solely of direct physical descendants of ancient Israelites. No existing community of Jews can verify such a claim. Rather, Judaism is comprised in part by people who insist on making it" (p. 15).

The portion here italicized is crucial. Jews as biological creatures may or may not have some genetic connection to ancient Israel. I leave this to geneticists to establish. But ethnicity is a fact of imagination, not of biology. Any religion is a Judaism if its adherents insist that they have such an ethnic connection to the imagined entity, "the Jews," even if they are, from the perspective of historical or genetic critique, entirely mistaken. I would argue that the "ethnic" mode of claiming continuity with biblical Israel is a fundamental characteristic, distinguishing all forms of Second Temple Judaism from what became orthodox Christianity--including the Enochic Judaism from which Boccaccini sketches out the origins of Christianity.

This is not merely a quibble about terms. Ultimately, Boccaccini wants to clear a rhetorical space for classifying Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity as forms of Judaism. The problem, in my view, is greater than the simple fact that real Jews and Christians do not see themselves as inhabiting the same religion. Scholars of religion, I believe, are free to reconfigure taxonomies in sovereign freedom from the claims of faith communities. But in the present case, I see no value in forcing Christianity into a taxonomic cubby hole that violates centuries of historical usage. It would be wiser, in my view, to create a broader taxonomic category that might include, for example, all religions claiming to possess revelations from the God who first made himself known to "ethnic" Israel. The term, "Abrahamic religions," is already of wide currency. In my own recent work, I propose the term "elective monotheism" ("One God, One Revelation, One People: On the Symbolic Structure of Elective Monotheism," JAAR 69/4 [2001]). Be that as it may, I doubt that Boccaccini will have much success in convincing scholars of Judaism, Christianity, or Comparative Religions that post-Nicene Christianity is in reality a form of Judaism.

Having gotten this off my chest, let me reiterate my earlier evaluation of Boccaccini's book and the project of which it is a part. His is one of the truly creative recent efforts to productively reconceive the narrative of the history of Judaism from 520 BCE-300 CE. Boccaccini's work should be required reading wherever graduate students in this field are trained, and general readers and scholars alike will be stimulated by his proposals.

Martin S. Jaffee
University of Washington