Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Concept of Exile during the Second Temple Period: Part 1


A popular approach to the Second Temple period in respect to Pauline literature is to understand the Jews of this time as still experiencing in some aspects the ramifications of the exile.[1] Within this approach it is common to draw a bitter and doleful picture of the Judaism(s) of the Second Temple period.[2] The Jewish existence of this period is often described as both one of despair and as one of continuingly conjuring up the distant dream of restoration.[3] This perspective is often over generalized by insisting that whenever Jews were away from the Promised Land and whenever the land was not under the independent rule of a Jewish king, they would perceive themselves to be 'captive debtors' regardless of their actual status in the diaspora or in the land; economically, politically, or socially.[4] The thesis of a continuing exile has most often been applied to those Judaism(s) that found themselves in the diaspora, but recent proponents have gone so far as to declare that even for those Jews living in Palestine the experience of exile still persisted. N.T. Wright a proponent of this view, succinctly describes it in terms of worldview:

Most Jews of this period, it seems, would have answered the question 'where are we?' in language which, reduced to its simplest form, meant: we are still in exile. They believe that, in all the senses which mattered, Israel's exile was still in progress. Although she had come back from Babylon, the glorious message of the prophets remained unfulfilled. Israel still remained in thrall to foreigners; worse, Israel's God had not returned to Zion.[5]

This new twist has led scholars to re-evaluate the evidence of both diaspora and Palestinian Judaism(s), calling into question the notion of whether the themes of exile and return where prolific enough to capture the imaginations of the various Judaism(s) of this period. Thus it is our intention in this section to listen carefully to what these critics are saying about the subject of exile, in an effort to discern whether or not the themes of exile and return were still evocative enough for the various Judaism(s) to use in order to make sense of their present condition. We will further investigate whether there is traction in viewing these themes as either simple narratives of the past, thus being static and concrete, or whether these themes were more open narratives, being more fluid and open to different interpretive conclusions.

In re-examining the narrative possibilities of the exile we will look at the most recent project on the subject undertaken by N.T. Wright.[6] According to Wright most if not all Jews would consider themselves still in the exile as the quote above details, but it is posited that no ‘faithful’ Jew would ever imagine that the exile could last forever; God certainly would not allow his people to suffer under pagan oppressors without end. If he did, then the problem of the exile would have been answered in the negative, yhwh was indeed only one tribal god among many, and he had truly lost the last battle. The texts of the Second Temple Period however betray a hope, a hope based upon the ‘historical’ actions of yhwh in the past, which according to Wright predicate a future restoration. Until then Israel was to wait in faith and hope, if not puzzlement and longing.[7]

Wright explains this hope to be based largely upon the faithfulness of Israel’s God to fulfill his covenant, which would ultimately result in re-establishing the divinely intended order in the cosmos. Israel's present plight of exile was to be explained, within the terms of this divine covenant faithfulness, as the punishment for her sins. The apparent inactivity of god at the present moment to act was explained by the fact that he was delaying in order to give more time for his people to repent. The obligation of the covenant people was therefore to be patient and faithful, to keep the covenant with all their might, trusting that he will vindicate them in the future. [8]

Not until yhwh acted decisively to change things and restore the fortunes of his people would the exile come to an end. At the present time, the covenant people themselves were riddled with corruption, still undeserving of that redemption.[9] It was the prophets of old who had warned that the nation was accumulating a large onus of debts, which she would not be able to repay, and as a result she would be taken into captivity until she had paid double for all her transgressions.[10] As we have seen in the previous chapter, Isaiah 40-55 looks forward to a ‘second exodus,’ a return that in many ways would outdo the first. And despite the return of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Zerubbabel, to the land and the rebuilt Temple, there was still a sense in which the exile was yet ongoing, in which the words of Isaiah 40-55 still resonated.[11] This is evident from the speech attributed to Ezra, where he declares: “From the days of our ancestors to this day we have been deep in guilt, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been handed over to the kings of the land, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as is now the case.”[12] Note that here Ezra includes his own time and circumstances in the desolate period that the people had brought on by their sins. Thus it is likely that the author envisioned the audience as still in captivity, albeit in a different sense then for those who remained in the lands of the dispersion.[13] So despite the return to the land, Wright maintains that the ‘exile’, as a period of history with certain characteristic features, not merely geographical reference, was still in fact pertinent. The texts that declared a ‘second exodus’ spoke of the return from exile in a more eschatological manner. These texts remained unfulfilled, unless they are relegated to mere fanciful metaphors.

But recent studies of diaspora Judaism(s) which have sought to approach the literature on its own merits, and not for what it might have to contribute to the study of the New Testament, have concluded that the texts themselves betray a much more complex situation then the one Wright reveals.[14] These studies of the diaspora have looked at the life of various Jewish groups in a much more holistic manner, arguing for a much more sympathetic view of the role these various Jewish communities played in the wider world.[15] No longer is it effective to view Jewish existence in relation to only religious ideas and themes, rather we must take into account how these communities interacted within the wider society. In the recent research on the diaspora there has been a concerted effort to dispense with the common either/or dichotomy between assimilation and faithfulness for a both/and framework which is said to better fit the evidence of the texts in question.[16] The implication drawn from this new perspective is that the Jews would have had little reason to seek restoration, for they were on the whole content with their role in society and by in large with the status quo. So if the Jews of the diaspora where contented and contributed to the maintenance of the societies they lived in, then in what ways could the narrative of exile and return evoke meaning for them? And more pointedly does a diaspora Judaism that is both assimilated and at the same time equally committed to a Judaic religion, then completely undermine Wright’s basic thesis of exile and return? Does the conception of restoration naturally infer that the Jews have to be ‘wallowing’ in exile in order to long for restoration?[17] In order to determine whether or not this thesis can still be maintained in light of the new data, it will be helpful to rehearse some of the texts that speak of the exile during the Second Temple period itself.


[1] This thesis is of course not limited to the Pauline corpus, but to the wide spectrum of Judaism(s) of the First Century, including that of Primitive Christianity. See for example on the Jesus traditions, Craig A. Evans, "Aspects of Exile and Restoration in the Proclamation of Jesus and the Gospels," in Exile: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Conceptions, ed. James M. Scott (JSJSup 56; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 299-328; N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 126-27, 203-04; D. J. Verseput, "The Davidic Messiah and Matthew's Jewish Christianity" (paper presented at the Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 1995), 102-16.

[2] I use the plural noun Judaism(s) instead of the singular noun, more for effect, as I feel the plural jars a reader into recognizing what Barclay describes as, ‘the different nuances given to the term “Judaism,” which can be viewed primarily as a web of beliefs, with multiple variants, or, perhaps more realistically, as an ethnic community whose shared symbols were powerful and enduring precisely because they were open to diverse interpretation.’ See John M. G. Barclay, "Diaspora Judaism," in Religious Diversity in the Greco-Roman World, ed. Dan Cohn-Sherbok and John M. Court (BS 9; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 56. Although he himself hesitates to use the plural noun, it is my opinion that the singular noun is unfortunately deficient in conveying the ‘web of beliefs’ that Barclay wishes it to convey, primarily because it can be read without causing the reader to question the ideas of orthopraxy and orthodoxy of the various Second Temple Judaism(s). However, Neusner’s view that all texts should be taken as evidence for distinct Judaic systems seems to be a bit extreme. See Bruce Chilton and Jacob Neusner, Judaism in the New Testament: Practices and Beliefs (London: Routledge, 1995).

[3]W. C. van Unnik, Das Selbstverständnis Der Jüdischen Diaspora in Der Hellenistisch-Römischen Zeit, ed. Pieter Willem van der Horst (Leiden: Brill, 1993), 89-147., Unnik gives credence to such attitudes, by stating that the very term diaspora usually connotes negative connotations of sin and punishment, both in its biblical usage and in its later Second Temple contexts. Erich S. Gruen, Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 232, in a re-examination of the texts argues that this view is unrepresented by the actual participants of history.

[4] George Wesley Buchanan, Revelation and Redemption: Jewish Documents of Deliverance from the Fall of Jerusalem to the Death of Nahmanides (Dillsboro: Western North Carolina Press, 1978), 7.

[5] N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 268-69.

[6] See especially,Wright.

[7] Wright, People of God, 270-71.

[8] Wright, People of God, 271.

[9] Wright, People of God, 272.

[10] See, for example, Deut 15.8; Jer 16.18.

[11] cf. Ezra 9.8-9; Neh 9.36-37

[12] Ezra 9.6

[13] James C. Vanderkam, "Exile in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature," in Exile: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Conceptions, ed. James M. Scott (JSJSup 56; Leiden: Brill, 1997), 89.

[14] In fairness, much of this could be due to the nature of Wright’s project: a synthesis of Second Temple Judaism in order to explain the New Testament. It is likely that any synthesis that reads the texts in order to gain a composite picture of the times, as a consequence will overlook the variegated nature of the Judaism(s) which it seeks to explain. Yet it does not necessarily follow that such a broad interpretation is completely without merit, it just may be that it only tells part of the story.

[15] See John M. G. Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora: From Alexander to Trajan (323 Bce - 117 Ce) (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996); Barclay, "Diaspora Judaism", 47-64; Gruen, Diaspora, 232-52.

[16] See especially Gruen, Diaspora, 232-52.

[17] No where to my knowledge does Wright insist that the Jews necessarily had to be wallowing in their exile, it is rather an implication by critics, who undoubtedly fail to recognize the fallacy of the excluded middle, that to yearn for restoration is to necessarily bemoan exile.

2 comments:

dan said...

Hey Bryan,

It is good to see you writing again -- and it is especially good to see you writing on this topic! I look forward to the rest of the series.

Grace and peace.

metalepsis said...

Thanks Dan,

I am desperately trying to wrap up my thesis and just started a new job, so it has been a wee bit hectic around these parts. This is a chapter in my thesis, so any comments would be appreciative.

cheers