Monthly Archives: June 2016

Rabbinic legislation: takkanot and gezeirot

Rabbinic legislation: takkanot and gezeirot

Gezeira d’rabanan. A rabbinic fence law, aimed at deterring one from doing something that is prohibited.

For example, one may not place food directly on a fire before Shabbat in order to keep it heated during Shabbat. This is a fence around the law against cooking on Shabbat. To prevent the gezeira from being violated, a metal cover, called a blech in Yiddish, is placed on the stove top before Shabbat with the flame (turned to a low setting) under one section and the pot with food placed on the blech. This blech serves as a fence, allowing heating of the food without any danger of violating the law. Note that a “gezeira dirabanan” becomes binding only if it is accepted by the community. From the Soc.Culture.Jewish.Faq

A Takanah is rabbinic legislation. The term often refers to directives aimed at imposing a duty to perform a particular, act. Some are rulings not to engage in particular acts e.g. the 2 famous takkanot of Rabbeinu Gershom (c. 1000 CE – not marrying more than one woman, not opening another’s mail).



Changing halakhah

The Mishnah says that once a law (takknakah or gezeirah) is legislated by the proper authorities and accepted by the Jewish community at large, it can never be rescinded, with the exception that “One Bet Din cannot annul the decree of another Bet Din unless it is greater in both wisdom and numbers.” (Avodah Zarah 36a, and Eduyot 1:4).

Many people assume that all later courts are to be judged inferior to the earlier ones, based on the following Talmudic proverb: “If the earlier scholars were sons of angels, we are sons of men. If the earlier scholars were sons of men, we are like asses.”
– Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 112b; Talmud Yerusahlmi Demai 1:3, 21d; Talmud Yerushalmi Shekalim 5:1, 48c-d.

As Rabbi David Golinkin points out, however, this proverb refers only to self-sacrifice in the observance of mitzvot. In legal matters, our sages had the opposite approach, as expressed by Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanus in the Mishnah:

“Then Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy eldars of Israel ascended” (Exodus 24:9) And why were the names of the eldars not listed? To teach that every three [judges] who have served as court of law are equal in authority to the court of Moses. [Rosh HaShanah 2:9]

The Tosefta adds: “The court of Yerubal was as great in the eyes of God as the court of Moses. The court of Yiftah was as great in the eyes of God as the court of Samuel. To teach you that whoever is appointed a leader over the community – even the most worthless – must be considered like the mightiest of the mighty.”

– Rosh HaShanah 1:18, Lieberman edition, p.311-312, and cf. Bavli Rosh HaShanah 25b.

Are Mishnaic and Talmudic laws always binding?

No. Many Mishnaic laws are not accepted by the Talmud; similarly, many Talmudic rulings never were codified in later codes of Jewish law.

Examples of changing halakhah

Modern Orthodox Rabbi Mendell Lewittes writes about the ways that the classical sages modified or changed halakhah.

“the Sages themselves found the key to unlock the gates of burdensome restriction. Thus Rabbi Gamaliel and his Bet Din cancelled the pre-Sabbatical year restriction imposed by Bet Shammai and bet Hillel. When some Amoraim questioned this cancellation…the answer, given after a moment’s hesitation, was that those who made the gezerah originally did so on the condition that if a later authority sees fit to cancel it, they may do so. (Moed Katan 3b).” [Lewittes, p.96]

Here are 2 examples from R. Lewittes

1. “Another method of easing the burden was to limit the scope of its application. Thus Rava excluded a “noble person” from the gezerah against readin by the light of a lamp on Friday night since such a person does not adjust the light by himself even on a weekday. (Shabbat 12b and Rashi ad loc.)” [Lewittes, p.96]

2. This rule was construed as applying to a court only in its exercise of actually legislating the law, however later courts were allowed to interpret this law, and through so doing could thus arrive at a different conclusion through an alternative interpretation of a biblical passage or ancient halakhah. [Lewittes, referencing Mishneh Torah, Mamrim 2:1]

Here are more examples from the Encyclopedia Judaica, articles on Takkanah.  Halakhah can be changed …

(1) If at the time of making its enactment, the court expressly prescribed that it could be annuled by any court wishing to do so. (Talmud Bavli, Moed Katan 3b)

(2) When an enactment once believed to have spread among all of Jewry is later found not to have spread among the majority of people. (Mishneh Torah, Mamrim 2:7).

(3) Whenever the original reason and justification for the enactment ceases to be valid. (Bezah 5a, 5b; Hassagot Rabad on Mishneh Torah, Mamrim 2:2, by Abraham ben David of Posquieres).

(4) “If circumstances require that it is seeming for the bet din to uproot even such matters (enactments and decress of other courts) – even though it be of lower standing than the earlier bet din – so that such decrees shall not be of greater stringency than the laws of Torah itself, since even the laws of the Torah may be uprooted by any bet din as an emergency measure”. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Mamrim 2:4)

Encyclopedia Judaica, and Mendell Lewittes “Jewish Law: An Introduction”, Jason Aronson Judaica.



Judaism (יהדות) – the religious civilization of the Jewish people. Judaism is distinguished from other faiths by reading the Bible through the lens of our oral law – Torah she’be’al peh תורה שבעל פה. This distinguishes Judaism from Biblical fundamentalism. The oral law is recorded in:

* Mishnah, מִשְׁנָה. The first major written redaction of Judaism’s oral law,  edited in final form shortly after 200 CE.

* Tosefta תוספתא, “supplement”. A parallel to the Mishnah, it contains almost the same texts, but with variations, and also containing an extensive commentary. Seen as a supplement to the Mishnah, it contains some early material left out of the Mishnah, yet also later commentary, perhaps written a few decades after the Mishnah was completed, circa 250 CE., although some scholars date some material in it to as late as 400 CE

* classical Midrash מדרש compilations (most edited between 100 CE and 800 CE) Rabbinic commentaries, sermons and homilies on the all parts of the Bible, by several authorships.

* Talmud Yerushalmi (תַּלְמוּד יְרוּשָׁלְמִי, Jerusalem Talmud) (mostly edited by 450 CE) An authoritative summary of 250 years of rabbinic discussion on the Mishnah and other parts of the oral law, from the great rabbinic academies in the Land of Israel.

* Talmud Bavli ( תַּלְמוּד בבל Babylonian Talmud) (redacted by 550 CE, but further editing continued into the 800s) An authoritative summary of at least 350 years of rabbinic discussion on the Mishnah and other parts of the oral law, from the great rabbinic academies in Babylon (modern day Iraq.)

* Halakha, הֲלָכָה: Hebrew word meaning “the way to go”. Jewish laws, and the system of interpreting and applying them.

* Aggadah, אַגָּדָה – Non-legal parts of rabbinic literature, especially in the Talmud and Midrash. Folklore, historical anecdotes, moral exhortations, and allegories.

* Kabbalah,קַבָּלָה – Esoteric Jewish mysticism. It’s earliest forms are the (non-canonical) apocalypses; later mystism existed during the 2nd Temple period, and Kabbalah entered its modern form with the Zohar. See the following:

Apocalypses of the 2nd Temple period (which are non-canonical) – See Apocalyptic literature (Wikipedia)

After the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Jewish mysticism further developed in the Hekhalot/Merkabah literature – works about mystical ascents to the heavenly realms. See Hekhalot literature (Wikipedia) and Merkabah mysticism (Wikipedia)

Kabbalah in it’s modern sense developed with the publishing of the Zohar in the 13th century. This book is the basis for all forms of Hasidic Judaism, and is also accepted by many Orthodox groups that are not Hasidic. However, there is also opposition to the Zohar, as historians have shown that the Zohar is a medieval work, and contains some Gnostic beliefs. See  Zohar and Kabbalah, from the Jewish Virtual Library.

* Mitnagdism, מתנגדים – The opposition to Hasidic Judaism, and many beliefs and practices related to Kabbalah, within European Judaism.

Philosophy terms

* Jewish philosophy (פילוסופיה יהודית) is the attempt to fuse the fields of philosophy with the religious teachings of Judaism. This worldview is called philosophical rationalism.

* Theism – belief in a God that is in some ways transcendent, while in other ways immanent. Most theists hold that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, although this belief raises questions about God’s responsibility for evil and suffering in the world.

* Deism – belief that God is wholly transcendent: God exists, but does not intervene in the world. In this view, God is not anthropomorphic, and does not literally answer prayers or cause miracles to occur.

* Pantheism is the belief that god is the universe, and the universe is god. There is no transcendent nature to God, no Mind.

* Panentheism (note spelling difference) God is the universe, and the universe is god – but here nature is just one aspect of divinity. God maintains a transcendent character, and is viewed as creator and the source of morality. This view of God is in Kabbalah, and also in process theology.

In the synagogue

Synagogue –  בית כנסת‎‎ Bet Kenesset, “house of assembly”, or בית תפילה Bet Tefila, “house of prayer”, שול shul, אסנוגה esnoga or קהל kahal). A Jewish house of prayer. Often called a “Temple”.

Bimah, בימה.  elevated platform from where the prayer leader sings.

The Torah Ark, Aron Kodesh ארון קודש, or heikhal—היכל [temple] by Sephardim, is the cabinet in which the Torah scrolls are kept.

ner tamid (נר תמיד), Eternal Light – a light that is always on,  used as a reminder of the original menorah that was in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Jewish holy places

Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל . Also called the Promised Land, Holy Land, and Palestine.  Refers to the ancient land of Israel in the Hebrew Bible. According to the Bible, it’s area changed dramatically in different periods of time; the precise extent in each era is not known. This land includes the ancient united kingdom of Israel, and after the Jewish civil war, the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

The State of Israel, Medinat Yisrael, מְדִינַת יִשְׂרָאֵל‎, is the modern day Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael.

Jerusalem, Yerushaláyim, יְרוּשָׁלַיִם – the ancient and modern capital of Israel.

The Western Wall, HaKotel HaMa’aravi – or just ‘Kotel’,  הַכֹּתֶל הַמַּעֲרָבִי . This is second holiest site in Judaism. This wall is the last remaining part of a once larger retaining wall; it was built as part of the expansion of the Second Jewish Temple. It is the location closest to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem that Jewish people traditionally had access to for the past 2,000 years, and has been a site of pilgrimage and prayer ever since.

The Temple in Jerusalem, Beit HaMikdash, בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ. The central point of ancient Jewish worship, located on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. These successive Jewish temples stood at this location. For 2000 years all siddurim have included prayers asking for the rebuilding of the Temple.

The Temple Mount, Har Habayit, הַר הַבַּיִת‎‎. The place where the Holy Temple in Jerusalem once stood. It’s Hebrew name literally means “Mount of the House [of God].” This is the holiest site in Judaism.

The Cave of the Patriarchs, also Cave of Machpelah, מערת המכפלה. This is located in Hebron,  חֶבְרוֹן , in the West Bank.  This is third holiest site in Judaism. According to tradition, this is where the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs are buried: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah.

Early medieval rabbis

Sa’adiah Gaon. Egypt 882/892, d. Baghdad 942 CE. Rabbi, Jewish philosopher, and exegete of the Geonic period.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki ) (1040-1105 CE) – author of a comprehensive commentary on the Talmud, and commentary on the Tanakh (Bible)

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1167) Spanish rabbi. Excelled in philosophy, astronomy/astrology, mathematics, poetry, linguistics, and bible commentary.

Rambam = Maimonides = Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, 1135-1204 CE. Considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of Judaism.

Ramban = Nachmanides = Rabbi Moses ben Nachman . 1194–c. 1270) Spanish Sephardic rabbi, philosopher, physician, kabbalist, and biblical commentator.

Levi ben Gershon (1288–1344), aka Gersonides or the Ralbag, was a philosopher, Talmudist, mathematician, physician and astronomer.

Moshe de Leon – 13th century Spanish rabbi. Claims to have discovered the Zohar; historians believe that in large part he was actually it’s author.

Later medieval rabbis

Isaac (ben Solomon) Luria Ashkenazi (1534- 1572) better known as the Ari (the Lion) . Leader of the Jewish community of Safed (Syrian controlled Israel) The father of contemporary Kabbalah.

Joseph Karo (1488 – 1575) Author of the Beth Yosef (בית יוסף), a massive, authoritative study of halakhah, and it’s condensed, edited version, the Shulchan Aruch (שולחן ערוך), which for many Orthodox communities became seen as a binding code of Jewish law (although this position was not without significant controversy) Even today Conservative and Orthodox Jews often refer back to the Shulchan Aruch as part of their decision making process.

Hasidic Rabbis

Yisroel (Israel) ben Eliezer, often called Baal Shem Tov, or the Besht (1700-1760) founder of Hasidic Judaism.

Dov Ber of Mezeritch (~1705 to 1772), the Maggid of Mezritch. A disciple of the Besht. Regarded as the first systematic exponent of the philosophy underlying the teachings of the Besht, and the main architect of the movement.

Shnuer Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the Alter Rebbe. Founder of Chabad Lubavitch Judaism.

18th century-mid 20th century rabbis

Abraham Geiger (1810–1874) German rabbi and scholar, founding father of Reform Judaism. Emphasizing its constant development along history and universalist traits, Geiger sought to reformulate received forms and design what he regarded as a religion compliant with modern times. He founded influential German Jewish journals, and began the process of creating a distinctly Reform Jewish liturgy. He advocated what he saw as moderate reforms, which he saw as a a recovery of the Pharisaic halakhic tradition.

Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) Modern Orthodox rabbi, theologian, and educator

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888) German Rabbi, founder of the Torah im Derech Eretz school Orthodox Judaism, aka neo-Orthodoxy, aka Modern Orthodoxy.

Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), first chief rabbi of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine, founder of Yeshiva Mercaz HaRav Kook. He was known as a heterdox Orthodox Kabbalistic philosopher, who worked to unite secular and religious Jews in Israel.

Zechariah Frankel (1801-1875) a founder of the historical school of Judaism (studying how Judaism developed within it’s historic context) This school of thought was the intellectual progenitor of Conservative Judaism.

Emanuel Rackman (מנחם עמנואל רקמן‎‎) (1910-2008) American Modern Orthodox Rabbi, serving as president of the New York Board of Rabbis, and later as president of the Rabbinical Council of America. He helped draw attention to the plight of Refuseniks in the then-Soviet Union and attempted to resolve the dilemma of the Agunah, a woman who cannot remarry because her husband will not grant a Get.

Solomon Schechter – Professor, Rabbi, first major leader of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and founder of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

Joseph Soloveitchik (1903 – 1993) One of the most important Orthodox rabbis and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century, author of Halakhic Man. He was a scion of the Lithuanian Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty. As a Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York City, he ordained close to 2,000 rabbis over the course of almost half a century.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972) Polish-born American rabbi raised as a Hasidic Orthodox Jew, briefly taught at a Reform Jewish seminary, and soon joined the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Conservative.) He is considered one of the leading Jewish theologians & philosophers of the 20th century.

Isaac Klein – (1905 – 1979) A prominent rabbi and halakhic authority within Conservative Judaism, also Major U.S. Army. Author of “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice”

Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was in line to become the next (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. His acceptance of the validity of historical study of the Torah led to the Jacobs Affair, which created a schism in Britain’s Orthodox community. Those who held by Jacobs became the British Masorti (Conservative) Movement

Modern day rabbis

Ovadia Yosef (עובדיה יוסף ,1920-2013) was an authority on halakha, and spiritual leader of Israel’s ultra-orthodox Shas party. Born in Iraq, he was the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel from 1973 to 1983. His responsa were highly regarded within Haredi and Mizrahi communities. Although generally having a Haredi approach, he also allowed for significant reforms and leniencies.

José Faur (יוסף פאור) is a Sephardi Hakham (rabbi), teacher and scholar. He was a Rabbi in the Syrian-Jewish community in Brooklyn for many years . He was also a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, and Bar Ilan University, and is currently Professor of Law at Netanya Academic College.

Aharon Lichtenstein (1933 – 2015) was a noted Orthodox rabbi and rosh yeshiva. Yeshivat Har Etzion, Israel

Page of Talmud





Maimonides on resuming sacrifices

Professor Amitai E. Halevi illustrates how Maimonides (Rambam) was ultimately against animal sacrifices, even though he listed laws about them in his Mishneh Torah (12th century Code of Jewish law)

Question: I find the idea that [the Guide alone expressing Maimonides’s real views] uncomfortable in this case…  It is not so much that it is impossible that Maimonides would adopt such a position; but that I find it difficult to see why in that case he would codify the halacha of sacrifice in such positive language …given that he is (I believe) unusual among post-Talmudic halachic codifiers in treating this area at all, and that it was not of practical significance at the time.

Please remember that in Mishneh Torah Maimonides undertook to codify the entire Halakha, and make it unnecessary to consult the Talmud or later commentaries on any point of law. As he writes in the final paragraph of his introduction: “To summarize, in order that a man will need no other composition on Jewish Law whatsoever, [this work is] a compilation of the entire Oral Law: including all of the ordinances, customs and decrees that were promulgated since the days of Moshe Rabbenu and through the Gemarah, as interpreted for us by the Gaonim in all of the compositions that they wrote after the Gemara. For this reason, I have entitled my composition Mishneh Torah, so that if a man reads the written law and then this work he will know the entire Oral Law without having to read any book between the two”.

This being so, though he was no less aware than the Ro”Sh and Ba`al Ha-Turim that the halakhot of sacrifice and Temple service had no practical significance, he was obliged – unlike the other codifiers – to include them for completeness.

The Temple Altar


This engraving by Otto Elliger depicts King Solomon supervising construction of the altar outside of the Temple. At the bottom right is shown one of the movable bronze stands with a basin.

For the most part Maimonides kept his philosophical views out of the Mishneh Torah. Wherever his “real” views conflicted with those expressed in the Talmud, his reservations – stated subtly – almost invariably refer to matters that are relevant to practical life (medicine and hygiene, contemporary science, marital relations, etc…) There was no reason for him to express his reservations about  halakhot that might only become relevant “at the end of days”, so  he simply codified them faithfully without comment.

As to The Guide: I pointed out in my previous post that Maimonides does not deny that animal sacrifices are part of halakhah; having devoted an entire section to them in Mishneh Torah – to say nothing of the fact that they are spelled out in the Written Law – how could he? He explains God’s rationale as a concession to the psychological needs of a primitive people just emerging from idolatry. In Ch. xlvi of Part III he gives animal sacrifice a positive slant (for the era in which it was instituted):

“Scripture tells us, according to the version of Onkelos, that the Egyptians worshipped Aries, and therefore abstained from killing sheep … Some sects among the Sabeans worhipped demons, and imagined that these assumed the form of goats … For this reason, these sects abstained from eating goats’ flesh. Most idolators objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animals in great estimation… In order to eradicate these false principles, the Law commands us to offer sacrifices of these three kinds… Thus the very act is considered by the heathen as the greatest crime, is the means of approaching God, and obtaining His pardon for our sins”.

Maimonides leaves us in no doubt that he considers animal sacrifice to be anachronistic. Not pretending to be a prophet, he does not presume to predict whether or not the practice will be reinstituted in the days of the Messaiah. However, he cites the written law, as well as the prophets, to make the point that even in biblical days, animal sacrifice was at best a second-rate sort of mitzvah. “In addition to the teaching of truths, the Law aims at the removal of injustice from mankind. We have thus proved that the first laws do not refer to burnt-offering and sacrifice, which are of secondary importance (Part III, Ch. xxxii)”.

Maimonides is never explicit about such delicate matters in the Guide for the Perplexed; if he were, he would have been excommunicated – if not stoned – by his contemporaries.

In Chapter 32 of Part III, he writes:

“But the custom which was in those days general among men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up consisted in sacrificing animals … It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God … that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used; it would _in those days_ have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present [12th Century] if he called us to the service of God and told us in his name, that we should not pray to Him nor fast, nor seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve him in thought, and not by any action.”

It should be is obvious from the above that Maimonides does not deny that the various animal sacrifices are divinely ordained, but that he regards them to be a holdover from the idolatrous practices of the time. In his view, God’s decision to allow their continuation, mutatis mutandis, was no more than a concession to the conservatism of the primitive Israelites to whom the Torah was given.

Anyone who is concerned enough about the issue to read this chapter through should follow the advice proffered at its very end. Citing Psalm 50, in which animal sacrifice is trivialized, Maimonides writes “Wherever this subject is mentioned, this is its meaning. Consider it well and reflect on it”.

The last sentence is the code that author uses whenever he urges the discerning reader – the only one he cares about – to read between the lines. Such a reader may even find a hint of relief that animal sacrifice has been discontinued until the days of the Messiah, who may find the Jewish people of his day to be sufficiently sophisticated that the distasteful practice need not be reinstituted.

Myth of the Kosher mafia

Examining an anti-Semitic claim: The Kosher Nostra, also called The Kosher Mafia:

Does the presence of certain symbols [hekshers] on a variety of food products indicate that a secret tax has been paid to Jews?


On Snopes.Com researchers David and Barbara Mikkelson write:

Folks search for proofs of their darkest imaginings everywhere, including on the shelves of grocery stores. Packages bearing marks whose meanings aren’t readily apparent to the average shopper have been interpreted by those always on the sniff for a Jewish conspiracy as signs that Big Business is in league with the Jews.

The rumor that the presence of those mysterious markings signifies that the manufacturers of those products have paid a secret tax to the Jews of America has been afoot for decades; the e-mail quoted on this webpage {click the link} is merely a recent manifestation of this age-old canard.

The claim is wholly false, and we wonder at the twisted minds that would advance such a slander. There is no “Jewish Secret Tax” and never has been.

The markings pointed to in the rumor are real; however, their purpose is entirely different from the one asserted by the rumormongers. They do not signal that a secret tax has been paid or that corporations have succumbed to blackmail; they are there to indicate to members of a particular faith that such items have been vetted as having met the strictures their religion imposes.

If the notion of a religion imposing dietary requirements upon its followers sounds like an outlandish proposition, keep in mind that only in recent times have Catholics taken to eating meat on Fridays, and that Muslims still eschew pork.

As to what those markings mean… read on

{On a separate note, religious Jews do sometimes use the phrase “kosher mafia” to criticize the lack of sufficient free market competition among producers of kosher red meat. That’s a legitimate subject of discussion, and it is not anti-Semitic to point out problems in the kosher meat industry. These issues have raised the price of red meat, and perhaps even contributed to it’s decline in availability. But that issue is not related to the urban myth cited above. The urban myth has to do with hekshers that appear on a wide variety of foods, while kosher red meat is rare, and often only found in speciality shops in Jewish communities.} , also known as the Urban Legends Reference Pages, is a website covering urban legends, Internet rumors, and hoaxes. It is a well-known resource for validating and debunking such stories.

Ground Rules for a Christian Jewish Dialogue

Ground Rules for a Christian Jewish Dialogue

Excerpted from chapter 4 of “The Root and the Branch”, Rabbi Robert Gordis, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962.

We have seen that the ideal of religious liberty has deep roots within the Jewish tradition. It is an even more pronounced feature of the spiritual landscape of American life. It is noteworthy that the First Amendment to the Constitution is dedicated to safeguarding freedom of religion, even before all other rights are set forth.

This emphasis upon religious liberty, imbedded deeply in the law of the land, has developed the unique American doctrine of the separation of church and state. It informs and complicates every discussion of the status of religion in society and of the extent and limits of the rights of organized religion in such fields as education and public morals.

Upon this platform of religious freedom, the American people has sought to build a structure of religious understanding and mutual respect. No phenomenon on the social scene is more characteristic of the optimism and basic good will of the American people than the “interfaith movement.” Thirty years have elapsed since the interfaith movement was launched with genuine idealism and high hopes, and in the interim it has grown in prestige, program, and personnel.

Yet, today, one seems to detect a widespread recognition that much more needs to be done, that there has been too much concern with the shadow rather than with the substance of intergroup relations. It will not do to content ourselves with affirmations of good will and mutual admiration. It is not enough to stress “the things that unite us,” genuine though they be, unless we also come to grips with the controversial issues – which is to say, the live issues – that divide Americans of various religious persuasions and of none. If our religious and ethical tradition is to prove a blessing and not a curse, we cannot evade the problems, both ideological and practical, that bedevil intergroup relations in twentieth-century America.

The conviction that a new approach is needed is now widespread. Some of the leading agencies in the area of interfaith work are therefore reaching for new goals and new techniques. From all sides, the American people is being called upon to cease repeating avowals of brotherhood and to begin practicing it in the field of ethnic relations, both at home and in our relations with other nations abroad. In the area of religious differences, a Christian theologian has expressed the growing recognition “that Christians need to reopen discussions with the ancient people of God as well as with the other great faiths of the world.”

There undoubtedly exists a genuine need for a fruitful dialogue between Christianity and Judaism, the two religions of the Western world that are linked together in a unique embrace of kinship and difference. It has been repeated time without number – and yet it remains true – that there are substantial areas of agreement between these two faiths, which share a common historical background and revere the same Scriptures as the Word of God. No theological subtlety should obscure the similarity of outlook between Judaism and Christianity with regard to the nature of God, the duty of man, and many other aspects of their respective world views.

It is, however, necessary to recognize that similarity is not identity. As we have already noted, each tradition possesses a varying emphasis, a difference in timbre that gives even to the elements they have in common a well-marked individuality. Hence what is dominant in one religion is frequently recessive in the other, and biblical texts of unassailable sanctity in both traditions occupy widely different positions in the hierarchy of values in each.

There is no need to add further examples. The Christian-Jewish dialogue, if it is to be fruitful, must reckon with the elements of similarity and of difference – and with the subtler and more significant aspects that partake of both. The enterprise therefore requires high resources of mutual sympathy, insight, learning, and candor.

It is this last-named quality that suggests the importance of some ground rules, if we are to have a true dialogue between the participants and not merely a monologue moving in one direction. In order to advance this significant enterprise, it is essential to keep in mind five principles that should be self-evident but all too often are ignored.
1. The time is overdue for abandoning the well-worn contrast constantly being drawn between “the Old Testament God of Justice” and the “God of Love of the New Testament.” Every competent scholar, Christian and Jewish alike, knows that the Old Testament conceived of God in terms of love as well as of justice, just as Jesus’ God manifested himself in justice as well as in love, for justice without love is cruelty, and love without justice is caprice. Professor J. Philip Hyatt of Vanderbilt University has been particularly articulate in emphasizing the attribute of love in the Old Testament conception of God.

It is, of course, not enough to use a biblical concordance to find the word “love” and to use the statistics of its occurrence as a proof. Often it is necessary to penetrate beneath the vocabulary to the meaning. Thus, in pleading with God for the wicked Sodomites, Abraham calls out, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?” (Genesis 18:25). The term that is used as “justice,” not “love,” but the God who is prepared to spare the sinful city of Sodom for the sake of ten righteous men is manifestly a God of love.

In the Decalogue itself, God is similarly described as punishing evildoers to the fourth generation but as showing mercy to his loved ones to the thousandth (Exodus 20:5-6; Deuteronomy 5:9-10). Central in the Hebrew tradition is the theophany which follows upon God’s forgiving the Israelites for the grievous sin of the Golden Calf. In phrases echoed throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is praised as “merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,” and the same distinction is drawn: “He keeps mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; and not destroying utterly, though He visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).

When we move from the Mosaic age to the period of the later prophets, the emphasis is even stronger. The prophet Hosea had suffered a deep personal tragedy; his affection for his wife and trust in her were cruelly betrayed by her unfaithfulness. But his love triumphed over his indignation, and he saw in his relationship to his erring wife a prototype of God’s love for his people, which he expressed in the language of the marriage covenant:

And I will betroth thee unto Me forever,
Yea, I will betroth thee unto Me in righteousness and justice,
In loving-kindness and compassion.
And I will betroth thee unto Me in faithfulness;
And thou shalt know the Lord [Hosea 2:21-22].

God’s love for his wayward children finds expression both in his affection as well as in his exasperation:

When Israel was a child, then I loved him,
And out of Egypt I called My son….
I drew them with cords of a man,
With bands of love….
And I fed them gently [Hosea II: 1-4]

O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee?
O Judah, what shall I do unto thee?
For your goodness is as a morning cloud,
And as the early morning dew [Hosea 6:4].

Amos is conventionally described as the stern prophet of the God of justice. That he stresses divine justice is true, but that he ignores divine love is not. One has only to penetrate beneath the surface of his prophetic soul to sense the love that he knows God feels for his sinful children:

Hate evil and love good,
And establish justice in the gate.
Perhaps the Lord, the God of hosts,
Will have compassion on the remnant of Joseph [Amos 5:15]

O Lord God, forgive, I beseech Thee;
Now shall Jacob stand, for he is small?
The Lord repented concerning this;
“It shall not be,” saith the Lord [Amos 7:2, 51.

That same spirit lives in Amos’ vision of national forgiveness and restoration:

In that day will I raise up
The tabernacle of David that is fallen,
And close up the breaches thereof,
And I will raise up his ruins.
And I will build it as in the days of old [Amos 9:11]

And I will turn the captivity of My people Israel,
And they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them;
And they shall plant vineyards, and drink their wine;
They shall also make gardens, and eat their fruit [Amos 9-14].
To cite one more instance, the Book of Jonah reaches its poignant climax in God’s own words to the Hebrew prophet, spoken with reference to the capital city of the archenemy of Israel, the Assyrians:

And the Lord said: “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not labored, neither made it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night; and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?” [Jonah 4:10-11].
Finally, the Hebrew word for “righteousness,” zedakah, is frequently joined in the Old Testament to that most tender of all divine and human virtues, hesed, the full depth of which eludes the most skillful translator. Even the renderings “loving-kindness” and “steadfast love” seek in vain to transmit its meaning. No wonder that zedakah, “righteousness,” became the Hebrew term for “charity” as well.

In order that the dialogue be genuine, let it be remembered that the God of both components of the Judeo-Christian tradition is the God of justice and of love.
2. Closely related to this unwarranted distinction is the widespread practice of contrasting the primitivism, tribalism and formalism of the Old Testament with the spirituality, universalism, and freedom of the New, to the manifest disadvantage of the former.

This contrast between the Testaments is achieved by placing the lower elements of the Old Testament by the side of the higher aspects of the New, but the process is as misleading as would be the results of the opposite procedure. Thus, one of the most sympathetic and appreciative students of the New Testament, Claude G. Montefiore, writes in an eloquent passage in his Synoptic Gospels (11, 326):
Such passages as Matt. XXV: 41 should make theologians excessively careful of drawing beloved contrasts between Old Testament and New. We find even the liberal theologian Dr. Fosdick saying: “From Sinai to Calvary – was ever a record of progressive revelation more plain or more convincing? The development begins with Jehovah disclosed in a thunder storm on a desert mountain, and it ends with Christ saying: ‘God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth’; it begins with a war-god leading his partisans to victory, and it ends with men saying ‘God is love; and he that abideth in love abideth in God, and God abideth in him’; it begins with a provincial Deity, loving his tribe and hating his enemies, and it ends with the God of the whole earth worshipped by a ‘great multitude, which no man could number, out ot every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues’; it begins with a God who commands the slaying of the Amalekites, ‘both man and woman, infant and suckling,’ and it ends with a Father whose will it is that ‘not one of these little ones should perish’; it begins with God’s people standing afar off from His lightnings and praying that He might not speak to them lest they die, and it ends with men going into their chambers, and, having shut the door, praying to their Father who is in secret.” (Christianity and Progress, p. 209.)

Very good. No doubt such a series can be arranged. Let me now arrange a similar series.

“From Old Testament to New Testament – was ever a record of retrogression more plain or more convincing? It begins with, ‘Have I any pleasure at all in the death of him that dieth,’ and it ends with, ‘Begone from me, ye doers of wickedness.’ It begins with ‘The Lord is slow to anger and plenteous in mercy’; it ends with, ‘Fear him who is able to destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.’ It begins with, ‘I dwell with him that is of a contrite spirit to revive it’; it ends with ‘Narrow is the wav which leads to life, and few there be who find it.’ It begins with, ‘I will not contend for ever; I will not be always wroth’; it ends with ‘Depart, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire.’ It begins with, ‘Should not I have pity upon Nineveh, the great city?’; it ends with, ‘It will be more endurable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for that city.’ It begins with, ‘The Lord is good to all, and near to all who call upon him’; it ends with, ‘Whosoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, there is no forgiveness for him whether in this world or the next.’ It begins with, ‘The Lord will wipe away tears from off all faces; he will destroy death for ever’; it ends with, ‘They will throw them into the furnace of fire; there is the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.”‘

And the one series would be as misleading as the other.

3. Another practice which should be surrendered is that of referring to Old Testament verses quoted in the New as original New Testament passages. Many years ago, Bertrand Russell, whose religious orthodoxy is something less than total, described the Golden Rule “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” as New Testament teaching. When the Old Testament source (Leviticus 19:18) was called to his attention, he blandly refused to recognize his error. This, in spite of the fact that both the Gospels and the Epistles are explicit in citing the Golden Rule as the accepted Scripture. Jesus refers to it as “the first and great commandment written in the law” (Matthew 22:38; Luke 10:27), and Paul describes it as “a commandment comprehended in this saying” (Romans 13:9).

In an excellently written tract (“I Believe in the Bible,” published by the Congregational Christian Churches, p.7), the author contrasts the God who “orders Agag hewn to pieces before the altar” with the God “who taught through St. Paul, ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him’ (Romans 12:20).” If Paul were citing chapter and verse in his labors, would he have failed to point out that he was quoting Proverbs 25:21 verbatim?
4. Moreover, the dialogue between Judaism and Christianity can be mutually fruitful only if it is always kept in mind that Judaism is not the religion of the Old Testament, though obviously rooted in it. To describe Judaism within the framework of the Old Testament is as misleading as constructing a picture of American life in terms of the Constitution, which is, to be sure, the basic law of the land but far from coextensive with our present legal and social system. Modem Judaism is the product of a long and rich development of biblical thought. It possesses a normative tradition embodied in the Mishnah and the Talmud, as well as the Responsa and the Codes of the post-talmudic period. By the side of this dominant strand are the aberrant tendencies, sectarian and heretical, that were never without influence and cannot be ignored. These include the apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature, recently enriched – and complicated – by the sensational discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Middle Ages, building upon their biblical and talmudic antecedents, created the strands of philosophy, mysticism, legalism, and messianism, all of which contributed to the character of modern Judaism.

In the modern era, as every informed observer knows, the various schools, conventionally subsumed under the headings of Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and Reform, do not begin to exhaust the variety of religious experience and approach which are competing for attention in the market place of ideas in the Jewish community.
5. Finally, it is necessary for modern Jews to rise above the heavy burden of historical memories which have made it difficult for them to achieve any real understanding, let alone an appreciation, of Christianity. It is not easy to wipe out the memories of centuries of persecution and massacre, all too often dedicated to the advancement of the cause of the Prince of Peace.

Theological discussions inevitably raise the ghosts of the compulsory religious disputations so beloved of the medieval church. In these debates, the Christian defender was often a convert from Judaism, deeply hostile to his ancestral faith, and generally ignorant of its contents. Eager to display the proverbial zeal of the neophyte, he attacked Judaism with all the weapons of malice and ignorance at his disposal. The Jewish protagonists, on the other hand, were often rewarded with exile or other punishment for statements that could be construed as critical of Christianity.

More than medieval memories enter into this heritage. The extermination of six million out of the seven million Jews living on the European continent was actively carried out by Hitler, but the process was not actively opposed by the free nations of the world who fought him in the name of Christianity and the ideals of Western civilization. Moreover, there are cynics who maintain that anti-Semitism is not yet totally dead in the free world almost two decades after Hitler. It is therefore no easy task for Jews to divest themselves of the heavy burden of group memories from the past, which are unfortunately reinforced all too often by personal experiences in the present.

Nevertheless, the effort must be made, if men are to emerge from the dark heritage of religious hatred which has embittered their mutual relationships for twenty centuries. There is need for Jews to surrender the stereotype of Christianity as being monolithic and unchanging and to recognize the ramifications of viewpoint and emphasis that constitute the multicolored spectrum of contemporary Christianity.

Christian dogmatics are perhaps at the furthest possible remove from the viewpoint of Jewish tradition and are totally unacceptable to the committed devotee of Judaism. Yet the Jew should see in Christian doctrine an effort to apprehend the nature of the divine that is worthy of respect and understanding. Moreover, he should recognize that the dogmas of the Christian church have expressed this vision of God in terms that have proved meaningful to Christian believers through the centuries. These have ranged from the most simple-minded to the most profound, and each has found it possible to find his spiritual home within the framework of Christian thought.

The Jew will not surrender the conviction that the emphasis upon the Unity and Incorporeality of God which is basic to Judaism must ultimately prevail. At the same time, he should seek to understand the complexities of life and human destiny which have led Christianity to evolve such doctrines as the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Passion, and the Resurrection. The Jewish alternatives cannot fairly be presented to the world unless the Christian understanding of the human situation is fairly grasped. It should be added that the full Christian tradition, like its Jewish counterpart, includes those whom the church stigmatizes as heretics and not merely those who are glorified as its heroes.

Moreover, there are basic emphases in Christianity that can perform a highly useful function for Judaism. For they compel a perpetual re-examination of the content of Judaism and an unending vigilance against the perils that are inherent in its world view, as in any other. The dialogue between the two faiths might well address itself to the tension between law and freedom, the relationship of the material and the spiritual, or the dichotomy between the letter and the spirit, issues with regard to which there is a difference of emphasis in Judaism and in Christianity.

The Christian doctrine of Original Sin, particularly as reinterpreted by such contemporary thinkers as Reinhold Niebuhr, has already influenced the thought of many exponents of Judaism. It has served to reveal the dark depths within the human soul, which an easy and superficial optimism has tended to overlook. In the area of human relationships, the Christian stress upon universalism vis-a-vis particularism, or the ethics of self-abnegation as against the ethics of self-fulfilment, which will be discussed below, can contribute significantly to the spiritual health of Judaism by helping to guard it against the exaggerations which threaten every valid human insight. Contrariwise, the Jewish approach to these issues, as the present work seeks to make clear, can be of inestimable value to the Western world, the roots of which are Christian and, by that token, Hebraic in substantial degree.

Thus a rational dialogue conducted on the basis of knowledge and mutual respect between the two components of the religio-ethical tradition of the Western world can prove a blessing to our age.

But the dialogue can be fruitful only if it is fair. It is true that if we reckon with the full dimensions of Judaism and Christianity, the substance of the dialogue between the two faiths is immeasurably complicated. Yet without such an understanding the enterprise is stultifying. Men were not promised that the truth would be simple – only that the truth would make them free.

Missing years in the Hebrew calendar

There is a serious chronological discrepancy between the Seder Olam (Rabbinic Jewish) dating system and the archaeologically proven historical record. The dating problem appears after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, in 423 BCE – which is traditionally recorded in the rabbinic calendar as having occurred in the year Hebrew 3338 (3338 years after the creation of the world.) This discrepancy results in a large discrepancy between the two systems for all periods before the Persian period.

Among the right wing Orthodox, it is believed that Jews must use the Seder Olam chronology, and that all historical and archaeological records must either be wrong, or grossly misinterpreted.

However, there is actually no consensus in rabbinic Judaism as to which chronology to adopt. Many Artscroll books and other right wing works follow the Seder Olam chronology. However, other Orthodox works use the conventional system, such as: The Soncino edition of the Bible, the J. H. Hertz Pentateuch, the  Da’at Mikra edition of the Bible (published by Mossad ha Rav Kook in Jerusalem), and Adin Steinsaltz’s edition of the Talmud.

How did this discrepancy come about? Mitchell First writes:

“..the chronology of the Sages can be completely explained. What happened is that the Sages saw [what they thought was] a prediction in the book of Daniel [9:24-27) that a certain time period would span 490 years. The beginning and end points of the 490 year period referred to are ambiguous. For various reasons, the Sages interpreted the beginning and endpoints to be the destruction of the First Temple and the Destruction of the Second Temple. Once they adopted this interpretation…and believed that the prediction must have come true, they were constrained by other data known to them regarding the length of period from the destruction to the rebuilding (70 years), and the total length of the Greek, Hasmonean and Roman periods (386 years). This forced them to state a length for the period from the rebuilding under Darius until the beginning of Greek rule that was shorter than they otherwise should have..”

Comparison of the Seder Olam (Rabbinic) chronology with the conventional (archaeological and historical) chronology.

Event  Seder Olam chronology  Conventional historical chronology
  King David captures Jerusalem and makes it his capital  867 BCE  1000 BCE (+/- 5 years)
 Building of the First Temple  831 BCE  965 BCE
Josiah repairs First Temple 458 BCE 622 BCE
 First Temple destroyed  421 BCE  586 BCE
 Beginning of Persian rule in Israel  368 BCE  539 BCE
 Reign of King Ahasverosh , according to Book of Esther. Compared to the historical King Xerxes.  366-362 BCE  486-465 BCE
 Commencement of the rebuilding of the Second Temple  351 BCE  520 BCE
 End of Persian rule. Beginning of Greek rule in Israel.  317 BCE  332 BCE
 Destruction of the Second Temple  70 CE  70 CE

All dates after this point are identical in both systems.

The best book on this subject is Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology by Mitchell First.

“According to Seder Olam Rabbah, the work that forms the basis for almost all rabbinic chronology, the period from the defeat of the Babylonians by the Medeo-Persians until the beginning of Greek rule, encompassed 52 years and spanned the reigns of three Persian kings. According to the chronology that is universally accepted by historians today (conventional chronology), this period of Persian rule over the land of Israel encompassed 207 years (539 to 332 BCE) and during this period more than ten Persian kings reigned. This discrepancy between the traditional Jewish chronology and conventional chronology has not gone unnoticed. The purpose of this study is to collect and categorize the variety of Jewish responses to this discrepancy, both by Jewish scholars and rabbinic authorities. Part I provides an introduction to the discrepancy. Part II contains the earliest Jewish responses to the discrepancy. In the major part of the study, Part III, the responses to the discrepancy from the time of Azariah de Rossi (16th century) to the present time are collected and categorized. This unified collection and categorization of the many responses will enable students and scholars to have easy access to what has been written by Jewish scholars and rabbinic authorities about the discrepancy and will facilitate scholarly evaluation of the responses.”

Below is an amazing debate between an ultra-Orthodox Jew, who believe that the dating system of Midrash Seder Olam is historically correct, and a Jewish secular trained historian, who has a masterful understanding of the primary historical sources. This debate took place on a Usenet newsgroup – for younger readers, Usenet was a worldwide, massive bulletin board system, the first major set of discussion forums on the internet

Subject: Re: 3761 B.C.E.? March 3, 1996
Subject: Re: Historicity of Aggadah June 4, 1996
From: D S Levene (
Newsgroups: soc.culture.jewish

Lisa Aaronson wrote:
: Well, the Babylonian destruction was 490 years before the Roman
: one (70 years of exile and 420 years for the Second Temple), and
: since the latter was in 70 CE and there’s no year 0, the former
: was in -420, or 421 BCE. The difference is in the duration of the
: Persian period (and the very beginning of the Greek period).
: Jewish sources have Alexander conquering Persia 52 years after the
: Persians conquered Babylon. And a total of 4 Medean and Persian
: kings during this period. The Greeks gave the same period a total
: of 208 years and 10 kings.
: A lot comes down to who you consider more reliable. The Greek
: stories were collected folklore, basically. Lots of hearsay from
: people in foreign lands. Herodotus actually admits that he heard 4
: different and conflicting stories of the coming to power of Cyrus
: the Great, only bothering to tell the one he thought most likely.
: Greek stories that didn’t fit the consensus synthesis are
: considered, a priori, to be unreliable. For example, Xenophon
: records the rise of Cyrus in a way almost identical to the Jewish
: version, but since this contradicts Herodotus, it is dismissed as
: “an early historical novel”.

This is, I’m afraid, almost total nonsense. We do not get the standard Persian chronology from “Greek stories”: it is the one overwhelmingly supported by *all* sources – Persian, Babylonian and Greek alike. The rabbinic chronology, by contrast, is attested only centuries later, and is utterly unsustainable against the Babylonian and Persian documentation.

(1) Let’s start by setting out the basic picture from the king-lists.  The most comprehensive one is the so-called Royal Canon, which gives  astronomically tabulated dates for all the Persian kings. The fullest version of this that we have is very late; but it derives from earlier material, and its dates are confirmed by cuneiform lists of earlier periods. See, for example, the so-called Saros Tablet (in ZA 7 (1892)), which lists the whole period by eighteen-year intervals.

Lists like these enable us to construct our basic chronology for the period, as follows (all dates B.C.E.; for the sake of familiarity I use the Greek names of all these kings):

Nabonidus 556-539 (he was the last king of Babylon before the Persian conquest)
Cyrus 539-530 (he had reigned in Persia for 20 years  before capturing Babylon)
Cambyses 530-522
Bardiya 522
Darius I 522-486
Xerxes (Ahasuerus) 486-465
Artaxerxes I 465-424 (*) See note below
Darius II 424-404
Artaxerxes II 404-359
Artaxerxes III 359-338
Arses 338-336
Darius III 336-331
In 331 Alexander the Great captured Babylon and overthrew the Persian empire.

(*) Note: There were a few months of conflict following the death of Artaxerxes I; two of his sons, Xerxes II and Sogdianos, briefly tried to seize the throne before being killed, and a third son, Darius II, took over. This had an interesting consequence which I discuss below.
(2) That is the basic picture: can we confirm it? Indeed we can, comprehensively and overwhelmingly: there is a mass of supporting documentation. Astronomical data is especially important. We have a large number of Babylonian astronomical records for the Persian period. For example, we have a record of virtually every lunar eclipse in the period, dated by the king’s reign; we have dated records of solar eclipses and planetary conjunctions and observations; we even have “astronomical diaries” – dated diaries in which astronomers recorded their day-by-day observations. The dates of these can be checked astronomically – and comprehensively confirm the total correctness of the standard chronology. There are numerous Babylonian astronomical records, for example – I’ll just mention a few briefly:

Astronomical texts for the period are assembled and described in T.G. Pinches & J.N. Strassmaier, “Late Babylonian Astronomical and Related Texts” (Providence, 1955).

BM 36910+36998+37036 records by date lunar eclipses from Darius I to Artaxerxes II.

The so-called Saros Canon (in ZA 10 (1895)) lists every year from Artaxerxes II onwards, recording every lunar eclipse in the period.

BM 36754 records solar eclipses in the reigns of Artaxerxes III and Darius III.

LBAT 1411-1412 records conjunctions of Saturn and Mars with the Moon for the reign of Darius II and the start of the reign of ArtaxerxesII.

LBAT 1387-1388 records observations of Venus for the reigns of Artaxerxes I and Darius II.

BM 36823 records observations of Jupiter for the reign of Darius I.

LBAT 1394-1395 records observations of Jupiter for the reigns of Artaxerxes II and Artaxerxes III.

Strassmaier, “Cambyses” No. 400 is a record of various astronomical data for the last year of Cambyses’ reign.

The dates of all these can be checked astronomically (and there are many other such documents also). They all demonstrate the absolute correctness of the standard chronology.

(3) Moreover, a large number of other contemporary Babylonian and Persian documents together confirm this chronology (mostly various sorts of  business records). Once again, I give just a very few examples here  (many hundreds more could be adduced).

Cyrus’ capture of Babylon from Nabonidus is confirmed by the Cyrus Cylinder and the Nabonidus Chronicle.

The Behistun Inscription confirms the Cyrus-Cambyses-Bardiya-Darius I sequence of kings.

A text of Darius II (in JAOS 72 (1952)) confirms the Darius I-Xerxes-Artaxerxes I-Darius II sequence.

The length of reign of Darius I is confirmed by VAS V 110, dating itself to the 36th year of Darius’ reign.

The length of reign of Xerxes is confirmed by one of the Persepolis Treasury texts (in JNES 24 (1965)), dating itself to the 20th year of his reign.

The length of the reign of Artaxerxes I is confirmed by BM 33342; also BE X 4. These documents, unusually, are double-dated by both the 41st year of Artaxerxes I and the accession year of Darius II, a result of the uncertainty surrounding the opening of Darius II’s reign (see above).

The length of reign of Artaxerxes II is confirmed by VAS VI 186, dating itself to the 46th year of his reign.

[By the way, I should just point out in passing that all these kings are attested in Babylonian sources as kings *in Babylon*, thus reconfirming that their reigns post-dated the Persian conquest of Babylon.]
Even more data:

(i) There are documents from Persian kings, describing their own relationships to their predecessors. Thus in the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, Cyrus describes his capture of Babylon from Nabonidus (we also have an independent description of the same events in the Nabonidus Chronicle). The Behistun Inscription of Darius I recounts how Darius seized the throne from Bardiya, who illegitimately (or so Darius claims!) took it from Cambyses, who inherited it from his father Cyrus. A letter of Darius II (first published in “Journal of
the American Oriental Society” 72 (1952)) describes Darius’ inheritance of the throne from his father Artaxerxes I, who inherited it from his father Xerxes, who inherited it from his father Darius I.

(ii) Especially revealing are archives which provide us with sequences of documents. Two of the most famous are the Persepolis Tablets and the Murashu Archive. The former gives us several thousand palace administrative documents, mostly dated; most come from the
reign of Darius I, but some carry on through the reign of Xerxes and into the reign of Artaxerxes I. The latter is the complete – and dated – records of a large Babylonian business in the reigns of Artaxerxes I and Darius II. The dates in these confirm the lengths of the reigns and (when we can sequence them) their order.

(iii) There are other sorts of documents that confirm the order and length of reign of various of the Persian kings. With the start of the reign of Darius II, one finds documents which are, unusually, double dated by the 41st year of Artaxerxes I *and* the accession year of Darius II: this is the result of a brief period of uncertainty surrounding the accession of Darius, who was one of three claimants to the throne. This confirms both the length of Artaxerxes’ reign and the identity of his successor. There are also various other examples of business and private documents from the reign of one king that refer back to previous events or documents in the reign of an earlier king. Finally, of course, there are thousands of other dated contemporary documents that, by their dates, guarantee that the king ruled at least that length of time (if a document is dated “the 19th year of Xerxes”, it shows that Xerxes ruled at least 19 years).

All of this material simply provides additional confirmation for what was already known from the king-lists and astronomical texts.  Moreover, there are simply no gaps into which “unknown” kings like those in Daniel could be slotted. The material described above, that directly provides sequences for the reigns of kings, proves this point. For much of the Persian period our evidence is so full that we can date reigns not merely year by year, but month by month, and sometimes even day by day – to the point that even with kings who were not recognised by their successors (as is the case with Bardiya, and the claimants calling themselves “Nebuchadnezzar III” and “Nebuchadnezzar IV” in the first years of the reign of Darius I), documents nevertheless survive that are dated by their brief “reigns”.

A (small) selection of the documents that are relevant for dating in the period are discussed by R.A. Parker & W.H. Dubberstein, “Babylonian Chronology 626 B.C.-A.D. 75” (Providence, 1956).

(4) Please note that these are not “Greek sources”, but Persian and Babylonian – and often contemporary ones at that. All are independent of one another; many provide astronomically checkable dates. This is, as I say, only a tiny proportion of the evidence that I can introduce, but no more should be necessary. This alone is enough to demonstrate  conclusively and overwhelmingly the correctness of our standard chronology, and the utter impossibility of the rabbinic one.

(4) All of this is sufficient to prove the absolute correctness of the standard chronology, and the absolute impossibility of the rabbinic one. But if we need an entirely independent check, one is easily forthcoming from Greece – or more specifically Athens.

Athenian chronology is extremely well attested, on grounds totally independent of Babylonian and Persian chronology. We have complete lists from the early 5th-century BCE until far into the Roman period of Athenian archons – the annual magistrates at Athens whose names provided the year’s official date. We can confirm the accuracy of this by cross-checking against our substantial (though less complete) lists of other Athenian officials, and documentary material of other sorts – annual tribute lists, for example.

From the early 5th-century BCE onwards, Athens had considerable involvement in Persia, and there are numerous references in Athenian writers to contemporary Persian events – well-known examples include Aeschylus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. Needless to say, these contemporary references are exactly what would be expected from the evidence above: they confirm comprehensively the total correctness of the standard chronology derived from our Persian and Babylonian sources.

(5) But I cannot resist a little bit of Greek material as well, not least because Lisa has been so scathing about it.

Thucydides, who was a general in the Peloponnesian War, records at 2.28 a solar eclipse at Athens in the first year of that war; the eclipse can be dated astronomically to August 3, 431. Later (8.58), he quotes a treaty between Darius II and the Spartans at the end of the 20th year of the war – i.e. (dating from the eclipse) spring 411 (Thucydides’ years run summer to spring). He quotes the date on the treaty as the 13th year of Darius II – and, sure enough, if we cross-check the data from our Babylonian sources, we find that the 13th year of Darius indeed began Nisanu 411.

The total correctness of the standard chronology (and, incidentally, of Thucydides’ chronology) is, as always, confirmed by an independent contemporary source.

Lisa Aronson wrote:
: The Jewish version was transmitted generation after generation by
: Sages living in the place where the events actually unfolded.

In other words, it is an oral tradition. Oral traditions are notoriously unstable at the best of times, and they are *especially* poor at preserving chronology – see the study by D.P. Henige, “The Chronology of Oral Tradition”. You could hardly have a weaker basis on which to  found a chronology; it cannot stand for a second against the innumerable documents that demonstrate the contrary.

Lisa wrote:
: Probably the most amusing thing about this whole issue is that the
: documentary hypothesis, which claims that the Bible was composed of
: several disparate and conflicting sources which were eventually
: redacted into the Bible we have today, has no basis in fact. No
: “source” has ever been discovered or is mentioned in the Bible.
: Whereas all of the arguments for this silly theory actually *are*
: true about the Greek accounts of the Classical period. The various
: “historians” (they were actually entertainers who chose the most
: exciting stories so that their patrons would keep patronizing them)
: *do* mention the various conflicting sources, etc.

Oh come now, this is ridiculous. Who was Thucydides’ patron? Who was Xenophon’s? Who indeed was Herodotus’? There is not the slightest evidence for the “patron” theory, and a fair bit against it (what we know of the backgrounds of these writers suggests that they were independently wealthy). The fact that you say this (I suspect retrojecting anachronistically from other genres and later periods) speaks volumes for your ignorance of ancient history.

As for your account of their methodology, all I can say is that it doesn’t work even for an instant for Thucydides, who was mostly writing contemporary history, and is notorious for not citing variants. As for the rest, what Herodotus (say) is doing when he gives an
alternative version is far removed from the “redacting disparate sources” that is alleged by the Documentary Hypothesis for the Torah: it is much closer to a modern historian citing variant sources in a footnote, and trying openly and critically to assess their value.

The point is that (a) in the one case (allegedly) one has actual pre-existing documents which are stitched into something new with only minimal alterations in the originals’ wording; while (b) in the other case you have someone collecting source data – but not necessarily in document form, and not simply taking it over as it stands, but using it actively and critically to create a work that is entirely one’s own.

All good modern historians do (b); but as for (a), while one finds a few examples of it in Greece and Rome at later periods, I cannot think off-hand of a 5th- or 4th-century Greek historian (and certainly not Herodotus, Thucydides or Xenophon) who has written this way –  they are much closer to (b).

Lisa wrote:
: A scholar in Jerusalem came up with a theory about 13-14 years ago
: which successfully fits the Greek tales into the Jewish
: chronological framework. The resulting reconstruction adds
: tremendous depth to our picture of the history of this period. I’m
: working on turning his paper into a book (in English; the paper is
: in Hebrew). God willing, it’ll be available by next year.

Heaven preserve us.

David Levene
Department of Classics
University of Durham