The Invention of Judaism

Torah and Jewish Identity from Deuteronomy to Paul

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John J. Collins
Taubman Lectures in Jewish Literature
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , February
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this collected and revised publication of a series of his lectures, John Collins addresses the perennial question of the relationship between the Torah of Moses and the essence of Jewish (or Judean) identity in antiquity. In the style of his other hallmark works, such as The Apocalyptic Imagination (Eerdmans, 3rd ed., 2016) and Beyond the Qumran Community (Eerdmans, 2010), Collins takes a broad approach to the subject under review, collecting a range of scholarly opinions, weighing them against one another, and offering his own conclusions as balanced reflections on the evidence itself and its implications.

The monograph consists of a preface, introduction, eight chapters, and an epilogue. Collins claims that his study, in the non-exhaustive form of “a series of probes” (viii), will explore what it means to be a Jew, or Judean, or Ioudaios in the Second Temple period. He opens his introduction with several terminological considerations, including a survey of different models for understanding the concept of Jewish or Judean identity in this period. Chief among these are the primordialist approach, which prioritizes ethnic (and genetic) relationship; the instrumentalist or constructivist approach, which establishes (often ethnic) borders between the “self” and the “other”; and the constitutional model, which emphasizes the cultural (even religious) rather than ethnic dimension of an identity. Collins, for his part, adheres to Shaye Cohen’s description of Hellenistic Judaism as a synthesis of ethnicity and culture, an “ethno-religion,” but also advances the role of the Torah of Moses as a kind of collection of “ancestral laws” (patrioi nomoi) for the people who submitted to it. Collins’s innovation comes in when he extends this classically Hellenistic concept of the ancestral laws (see Josephus’s Antiquities) to an earlier time, at least “the Persian, and arguably to the Neo-Babylonian, period” (19). He returns to these terms, especially the ancestral laws, throughout the study.

In chapter 1 (“Deuteronomy and the Invention of the Torah”), Collins assents to the majority opinion that the most basic form of the Torah—indeed, the book described in the narrative of Josiah’s reform (2 Kings 23)—was Deuteronomy in some form, most likely a revised version of the Covenant Code, which has analogies with other ancient Near Eastern law codes, most notably the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon. The signature theologies of Deuteronomistic monolatry and Priestly circumcision and Sabbath were then combined in an early form of the Pentateuch as an ancestral law that incorporated religion into an ethnic identity. Chapter 2 (“Torah in the Persian Period”) emphasizes that “Judean identity was not always formulated with reference to the Law of Moses” (44), but rather included a range of other sources of authority, including most notably priestly prescription, as in the book of Haggai and the Aramaic papyri from Elephantine. In contrast, the use of the Torah by Ezra “subordinates the text of the Torah to the perceived need for a clearly articulated Judean identity,” but simultaneously relies on this very text as a source of (ancestral) authority (59).

Collins continues this line of inquiry into alternative sources of authority in chapter 3 (“The Persistence of Non-Mosaic Judaism”), taking as prime examples the Israelite wisdom tradition, Enochic Judaism, and the Jewish writings of the eastern diaspora (such as Esther and Daniel 1-6). While these traditions may acknowledge sources within the Torah (especially Genesis narratives), none of them grant the Torah the kind of authority noticeable in Ezra’s reform. Identity is rather derived from wisdom instruction, revelation of the figure Enoch, and local diasporic customs. Chapter 4 (“Torah as Narrative and Wisdom”) is almost an excursus on this conclusion, extending the analysis to the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) Aramaic corpus (e.g., Genesis Apocryphon, Aramaic Levi Document) and important wisdom texts such as Ben Sira, 4QInstruction, and the book of Tobit. Collins’s conclusion is roughly the same: this material is not opposed to the Torah of Moses, and in fact reveals knowledge of it, but ultimately relies on the Torah as a source of instruction or advice rather than ancestral law.

Chapter 5 (“Torah as Law”) shifts to the period following the Maccabean revolt, when concern for Torah interpretation and halakhah erupts into sectarian division. A heightened concern for purity—recognized in Hasmonean purification practices (see 1 Macc 4), the appearance of stepped pools (miqvaot) in the archaeological record, and the composition of sectarian texts like the Temple Scroll—points to an interest in the Torah of Moses as not only an ancestral law, but an interpretable law. Chapter 6 (“Torah and Apocalypticism”) largely treats the apocalypticism of the DSS movement, with a brief excursus into Enochic literature, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch. Collins asserts that the dualistic apocalyptic worldview of the sectarians is not, as Seth Schwartz has argued, in contradiction with covenantal ideology; rather, the two systems are “juxtaposed,” but even more so, “integrated in a way that has its own coherence” (127).

Collins turns an eye beyond Palestinian Judaism in chapters 7 (“The Law in the Diaspora”) and 8 (“Paul, Torah, and Jewish Identity”). Here he argues that while the Torah of Moses remains a central feature of diaspora Judaism, “it is most often construed as wisdom or natural law, rather than positive law” in diaspora literature, such as the Sibylline Oracles, Philo and Josephus, and the Egyptian legal papyri (150). This is a refreshing approach against a tendency to assume the importance of the Torah of Moses merely on the basis of its presence in the literature. Paul’s gentile mission serves as a kind of denouement to Collins’s study since the apostle’s writings combine essential characteristics already explored, including the Greek audience familiar to the diaspora context; received revelation (albeit here via Jesus Christ) necessary to apocalyptic movements; and consideration of ethnicity, which for Paul meant ignoring “appeal to blood and land, the staples of primordialist views of ethnicity” (180).

Since this monograph is born of a series of lectures and papers (viii–ix), there is some repetition in presentation and interpretation of evidence, as in the use of Josephus’s description of gentile interest in Jewish practices in Ag.Ap. 2.282 (139, 166). Collins’s study is, by his own admission, limited. Fascinating topics, such as the status of the Samaritan Pentateuch are simply beyond the scope of the book (viii). But in a few places, Collins incorporates tantalizing comparison between a given text (e.g., DSS or legal papyri) and the later corpus of rabbinic literature, especially in the context of Torah interpretation. This forces the question of whether treatment of the rabbinic relationship to the Torah of Moses deserves its own chapter, in a way similar to Collins’s treatment of Pauline Christianity. Indeed, the status of Torah in post-70 CE Judaism is a significant development over against the sectarianism of the late Second Temple period. Then again, such an issue could likely constitute a separate study altogether. In those cases where Collins finds a lack of the Torah of Moses (e.g., the Enochic tradition or eastern diaspora literature), do we still have Jews or Judeans? Do we defer to another marker of identity (place of origin?) as the key factor in linking this group to fellow, if also different, Jewish groups? While Collins focuses on the role of the Torah of Moses in ancient Jewish identity, it must not be forgotten that identity, somewhat like literary genre, consists of a range of elements that in some combination constitute a form of the overarching identity. Some elements might be missing in a given individual or group claiming a given identity. Is the Torah of Moses merely another (and not a necessary) element on the range that constitutes ancient Jewish identity? Further study must bear this matter out, but Collins has here laid the levelheaded and thorough groundwork for anyone wanting to explore Jewish identity in antiquity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick J. Angiolillo is a doctoral student at the Skirball department of Hebrew & Judaic studies at New York University.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John J. Collins is professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School. His books include Introduction to the Hebrew BibleThe Dead Sea Scrolls: A Biography and The Apocalyptic Imagination. He is general editor of the Yale Anchor Bible Series.


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