Years ago, I was sitting with a group of young married couples, most of whom were Jewish. One of the non-Jewish spouses in the group said something to the effect that he had considered converting to Judaism but decided he could not. Someone asked, “Why not?” To which he replied, “Oh, I can’t convert to Judaism. I don’t believe in God.” Someone else present immediately slammed his hand on the table in objection, “And what does that have to do with it?”
I don’t remember anything else about the conversation, but what I’ve related here suffices to illustrate an important and common view about Judaism: that it’s primarily about what one does—not what one believes. (This of course is in contrast to one common understanding of Christianity—that it is primarily about what one believes.) Whether true or not (and for the record, I am not so sure), this view is widely held among contemporary Jewish intellectuals and can be traced back to one of the greatest modern Jewish intellectuals of all time, the German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786). For him, Judaism is a religion of revealed law. It is for this reason that Jews have expended much more effort delineating practices, producing works like the Mishnah and the Shulkhan Arukh, and comparatively less time developing fixed creeds—which have indeed been a priority for many Christians.
What does any of this have to do with the Bible? Well, it happens that a quasi-Mendelssohnian perspective reigns supreme in the modern study of ancient Judaism: A common scholarly presumption is that Jews of the Second Temple period—including Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes—were not all that concerned with theological matters but were primarily (if not exclusively) focused on laws and practices—just as many modern Jews are (or at least are perceived to be).
To be sure, there can be little doubt that ancient Jews did disagree about matters of law and practice. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, we find rather strong evidence for disputes with other Jews on matters including calendar, diet, purity rules and sacrificial procedures. The New Testament confirms that the Pharisees held distinctive (and controversial) views about hand washing, purity and vows (Mark 7:1–23). And Rabbinic literature too testifies to the general Jewish interest in legal matters and adds to the evidence suggesting that the Pharisees and Sadducees in particular debated about these matters during the Second Temple period.
So what’s the problem? While we can be confident that matters of law were of importance to many ancient Jews, that only represents half of the picture. Many of our sources also testify that matters of belief were also of great importance to ancient Jews.
According to Josephus, the Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed on questions concerning the afterlife and fate (The Jewish War 2.162–166). The Pharisee-Sadducee debate on the afterlife is attested also in the New Testament (Mark 12:18–27; Acts 23:6–10) and rabbinic literature (Avot de-Rabbi Natan A5). The deterministic approach to fate attributed to the Essenes by Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 13.172) is paralleled in many Dead Sea Scrolls, especially the Community Rule III:13–IV:26. Even for those who continue to deny that the Scrolls can be associated with the Essenes, the Scrolls nevertheless confirm that some Jews did in fact hold the view that Josephus attributes to the Essenes. Similarly, the Wisdom of Ben Sira (also known as the book of Ecclesiasticus) includes an extended discussion of the fate and free-will problem (Ben Sira 15:11–20). Ben Sira denies that God could ever preordain a human being to commit evil, so he falls squarely on the side of free will, just like what Josephus says about the later Sadducees (The Jewish War 2.164). This is virtually the opposite of what we find in Qumran’s Community Rule, where the human Sons of Darkness and their evil deeds are under the coercive powers of a divinely appointed heavenly Prince of Darkness. The basic contours of the ancient theological debates described by Josephus are therefore verifiable.
If we know that ancient Jews differed on matters of theology as well as law, then two important caveats follow. First, we cannot continue to assume that ancient Jewish sectarian disputes were primarily (let alone exclusively) legal in nature. Beliefs 074 mattered too. Second, we cannot discount the possibility that matters of belief were, at least at times, the prime cause of some such disputes.
I have nothing against the modern academic rationalism Moses Mendelssohn represents. In fact, I am a modern academic rationalist—at least most of the time. But I also believe that our job as scholars is to resist the temptation to project ourselves back into the ancient sources in front of us.
It’s not up to me to decide whether my table-slapping acquaintance is correct about the relative unimportance of belief to modern Jews. But I have come to believe that an overwhelming amount of evidence contradicts any one-sided understanding of ancient Judaism. Far be it from me to downplay the importance of purity or the Temple for ancient Jews, but why do so many downplay the importance of theology for ancient Jews? Neither baby should be thrown out with any bathwater here. There’s plenty of room in our discussions of ancient Judaism for both theology and law.
Years ago, I was sitting with a group of young married couples, most of whom were Jewish. One of the non-Jewish spouses in the group said something to the effect that he had considered converting to Judaism but decided he could not. Someone asked, “Why not?” To which he replied, “Oh, I can’t convert to Judaism. I don’t believe in God.” Someone else present immediately slammed his hand on the table in objection, “And what does that have to do with it?” I don’t remember anything else about the conversation, but what I’ve related here suffices to illustrate an […]