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Israel in the Persian Period: The Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C.E.

Israel in the Persian Period: The Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C.E. BY ERHARD S. GERSTENBERGER, TRANSLATED BY SIEGFRIED S. SCHATZMANN. Biblical Encyclopedia, vol. 8. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011. Pp. xviii + 575. $65.95 (paper).

This is volume 8 of SBL's new Biblical Encyclopedia series, a series comprising English translations of all the volumes in W. Kohlhammer Verlag's Biblische Enzyklopadie, plus a new overview volume to be published in English (SBL) and German (Kohlhammer) covering the entire biblical period. Each volume is intended to provide the reader with a thorough background in the period under consideration. Gerstenberger succeeds in presenting to the reader a history of the Persian period (550-330 B.C.E.) as well as a critical evaluation of those biblical texts he believes to have been written or redacted then. A problem with the English translation, however, is its publication only in 2011, whereas the original German appeared in 2005. The lag in translation unfortunately rendered the English version somewhat out of date by the time of its appearance. I suppose this can be interpreted as a testament to progress in our field.

The first brief section of the book gives a portrait of the period as provided in the biblical text. The second section presents archaeological and extra-biblical evidence for the period. The third section is a long discussion of that biblical literature which the author assigns to the Persian period, and the fourth and final section is a study of the theological significance of the biblical writings for the modern reader. According to this last section, the origin of every theological thought in present-day Judaism, Christianity, and Islam(!) can be found in the biblical writings of the Persian period.

For part 2, the history of the period, Gerstenberger has relied on E. Stem's 1982 Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period 538-332 B.C., as well as C. E. Carter's 1999 Emergence of Yehud. In citing Stem, Gerstenberger concludes (p. 41) that the cities of northern Judah and the coastline prospered during the Babylonian period. Gerstenberger was evidently not aware of Stem's 2001 book, which clarifies the latter's position that the land of Judah, as well as the coast, experienced a settlement gap, and was virtually depopulated during the Babylonian period and so did not prosper. If Gerstenberger had realized the settlement gap that existed in Judah under the Babylonians, had recognized just how impoverished Judeans were under the Persians, and had acknowledged just how small an area Judah actually encompassed, would he still have assigned the composition of so much of the biblical text to this period?

Gerstenberger dates Ezra-Nehemiah to the Persian period and maintains that though fictitious, these books "yield historical aspects of a general sort, ... trends rather than individual facts." According to Gerstenberger, "from the historical perspective, the biblical Ezra tradition deals with the consolidation and partly the new formation of the Jewish (i.e., confessional) community in the process of coming into being" (p. 97). This conviction that the construction of confessional communal worship began in the Persian period (pp. 227, 442) is based on his reading of Nehemiah 8-10, and colors his discussion of the period and of the entire Bible. Those of us who see Nehemiah 8 as fictitious and as a reflection of early Hellenistic political thought (not Persian) will have difficulty following him here.

Gerstenberger defines a "confessional" community as "a nonofficial religious fellowship based on personal decision" (p. 238) and as a "private religious entity that, in principle, is not controlled by ethnicity" (p. 442). He asserts that the Jewish confessional community came about in the Persian period after the loss of sovereignty during the exilic and post-exilic periods (p. 238). According to Gerstenberger, "the Hebrew writings, after all, did not originate as private records of scholars in studies and academic circles and for private reading material but instead in conjunction with gatherings and multilayered worship-related and civil acts of the community of Yahweh" (p. 386). He provides no evidence for this assertion beyond the appeal to Nehemiah 8 and his form criticism of the relevant texts. In fact, I think exactly that--that they were created by scholars in academic circles.

For Gerstenberger, the Bible was intended as a collection of materials for early Jewish community gatherings, both in Judah and in Babylon (p. 387). The post-exilic community in Judah was a "community of faith" (p. 98). Although the basic narrative behind Ezra-Nehemiah may be fictitious, the act of reading and teaching the Torah as described in Nehemiah 8 is not fictitious but "is a reflection of the practiced liturgy of the fourth century" (p. 162). Nehemiah 8-10 "attests to the extant, complete Torah, ... culminating in a concrete self-obligation of all believers in YHWH to cooperate actively in maintaining the community and the temple" ... "when Nehemiah and Ezra literally constituted the community of YHWH in Jerusalem" as a confessional community (p. 384).

In part 3 Gerstenberger discusses those biblical books that he assigns to the Persian period plus older biblical writings that he sees as having been revised at that time. In his view this encompasses the entire Hebrew Bible except for Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Daniel. He begins with Chronicles (pp. 143-59) and interprets what he sees as the Chronicler's concern as that of those who wrote the Hebrew Bible as a whole (p. 144). This concern was for the creation of a mechanism for community confessional worship as opposed to worship confined to the temple sacrifices. The description of Jehoshaphat's prayer for victory, for example (2 Chron. 20), is interpreted by Gerstenberger as a description of a community confessional worship service (p. 154).

Gerstenberger understands the majority of the biblical texts (including the Deuteronomistic history and the prophetic texts) as liturgy for a confessional church. The psalms and wisdom literature (Proverbs and Wisdom) for example "did not originate in scholarly environments but had its actual, deep, indeed archaic roots in everyday life" (p. 253). They were read to a gathering assembly in the public square, as is shown in Nehemiah 8. To Gerstenberger, the collection of Proverbs "would hardly have become part of the canonical writings of the Judean community had they not been used regularly in communal expressions of life" (p. 269).

Gerstenberger dates the Deuteronomistic history to the Persian period because it was the time when prayer was considered more important than sacrifice. Only in the Persian period could Samuel castigate Saul for sparing Agag, for only then was "to obey better than sacrifice" (1 Sam. 15:22, p. 299). The prophetic writings should also be understood as excerpts of synagogue worship services (p. 313). These are liturgies, and since communal worship began only in the Persian period, these texts must at least have been redacted then. These texts are "inconceivable" prior to the exile, "because, from a sociological perspective, a confessional community of Yahweh did not yet exist" (p. 313). Thus to Gerstenberger, the community and communal worship were the driving forces for the collection and writing of Torah (p. 422).

The final section of the book is dedicated to outlining the theological relevance of the Persian period to the present reader of the Bible (p. 428). According to Gerstenberger, the period under the Achaemenids provided the impetus for "systematizing the annual cycle of festivals, introducing the Sabbath and circumcision as public confessional acts." These were not part of YHWH-worship before the exile. It was only because the new rulers granted their subjects freedom of worship that the "the reorganization of the temple establishment and the new formation of a confessional community of Yahweh truly begin." In my opinion these very nice thoughts perhaps describe the Hellenistic period, when Ezra-Nehemiah was written, not the Persian era.


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Author:Fried, Lisbeth S.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2015
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