Tag Archives: history

Peshat and Derash

Jews study the Tanakh (Bible) on multiple levels: The two basic levels of Tanakh study are termed peshat and derash.

The first is the פְּשָׁט‎ “peshat”, taking the story of the text at face value. It should not be translated as “literally”, as the peshat level of analysis takes into account idioms, metaphors, personification, etc. The peshat is the message that the original author intended to get across to the original audience.

The second level is the distinctively Jewish דְּרַשׁ “derash” method: the way that Ḥazal (חז”ל‎‎) – the rabbis of the Mishnah, Midrash and Talmuds – interpreted the text: In derash we ask why the text is phrased the way that it is: we uses rabbinical literary techniques to plumb the depths of the text to find new meaning, or bring out connections and lessons that may not have been intended by the original authors. Sometimes the results are imaginative, and not the meaning intended by the original author. Indeed, some parts of the midrash literature are clear that the authors knew this. They were teaching lessons and writing Biblical homilies.

In the Mishnah and Talmud itself, some discussions show that rabbis felt that the derash was the original meaning of the text, while other discussions clearly understood the derash as filling-in-the-blanks, and creating meaning, laws and structure.

Even during the medieval era both schools of thought continued: Some meforshim (classical Bible commentators) such as Rashi, often accepted the derash as literally and historically true, while others (Rashbam, Ibn Ezra) felt otherwise.

Conflating the derash with the peshat later became a defining characteristic of more fundamentalist versions of rabbinic Judaism. Understanding that they are not identical became characteristic of non-fundamentalist versions of rabbinic Judaism.

Ari Marcelo Solon writes “Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir) clearly
distinguished between peshat and derash. His terminology relating to the peshat category is well-defined. Rashbam consistently interpreted in accordance with the peshat method; that is to say, he limited himself to the text itself, interpreting it according to its vocabulary, syntax and context, in relation to biblical parallels, according to common sense as well as derekh eretz (what is customary). Unlike Rashi, Rashbam did
not integrate biblical text and Midrash. It was Rashi who paved the way towards a clear distinction between peshat and derash in the writings of his successors. Yet in his commentaries, such a distinction still remains unrevealed.”

Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) may deny that there is any difference between peshat and derash, and they characterically teach that we are obligated to accept the derash as if it is the literal, original and only interpretation of the Bible. They may refer to any other approach as heretical.

In contrast, rabbis who appreciate great medieval Bible commentators such as Ibn Ezra and Rashbam, or who follow philosophical rationalism, often have exactly the opposite approach: Such rabbis are found within much of Modern Orthodoxy and non-Orthodox Judaism.

Modern Orthodox Rabbi Shalom Carmy (Yeshiva University) explains the difference between peshat and derash like this

1. Peshat–what text meant for first generation audience. Derash- what it may mean in retrospect. (Rabbi D.Z. Hoffmann says this).
2. Peshat– what’s in the lines; Derash- what’s hinted at between the lines, OR
2′. Peshat–what’s in the text; Drash- “filling in gaps” of what’s not explicit in text.

The relations between these levels is complicated & function differently in Halakhic and narrative contexts.
There are also ambiguities–what’s written in the first chapter of a book often has one meaning when you read the book the first time and another meaning when you get to the end. Likewise what a pasuk means in Shemot may appear different after you have reached Dvarim.


Correctly Construing Biblical Verses Upon which Halakhot Claim to be Based, Professor Rabbi Marty Lockshin

Ibn Ezra vs. Rashbam –  Can The Torah Contradict  Halacha (Jewish Law)?


Does Halakha Uproot Scripture? Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin

Peshat and Derash: Plain and Applied Meaning in Rabbinic Exegesis” by Rav Prof. David Weiss Halivni (Oxford U. Press 1991)

The Religious Significance of the Peshat, Uriel Simon. Tradition 23 (2), Winter 1988 also here at http://www.lookstein.org/articles/simon_peshat.htm

Book: Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra: Studies in the Writings of a Twelfth-Century Jewish Polymath, Edited by Isadore Twersky and Jay M. Harris. Chapter Abraham Ibn Ezra as an Exegete, by Nahum M. Sarna

What do we do when a verse in the Torah says one thing but halakha, Jewish law, attributes a very different meaning to it? Some people engage in fundamentalist wordplay to conclude that there’s no difference between the peshat of the Torah, and Halakhah. But such differences exist; Even the Talmud notes this:

In the nineteenth century, Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal; 1800-1865) developed a new way of solving the peshat-halakha dilemma, suggesting that midrash halakha (rabbinic interpretation of biblical legal texts) often represents rabbinic legislation, and NOT biblical commentary. He makes his clearest and most detailed statement on the topic in his commentary on Parashat Tzav…. Shadal’s approach to the peshat–derash issue is novel and simple: Whenever the peshat says one thing and the midrash says something very different, Shadal says that the peshat is what the Torah means and the midrash represents rabbinic legislation, not biblical interpretation…. From a halachic point of view, this approach may be problematic: these laws that were connected to biblical verses by means of a derashah were standardly considered by the rabbis to be of Torah, not rabbinic, origin (דאורייתא, not דרבנן), as Shadal’s approach apparently implies. Remarkably, for Shadal, the classical rabbis were religious reformers who changed the laws of the Torah, making them less stringent. Shadal lived in the early days of Reform Judaism and took issue with its innovations. Accordingly, he takes pains to distinguish the motivations of the classical rabbis from what he understood to be the motivations of his more liberal contemporaries [Classic German Reform Judaism]

Peshat vs. Halakha Dilemma: Shadal and Tradition

Influence of Arab Islamic thought on Maimonides


Perhaps the most imporant book on Jewish philosophy ever written in Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed (מורה נבוכים, Moreh Nevukhim.) Yet it is also one of the most misunderstood Jewish books.

The Guide of the Perplexed

Maimonides’s arguments can’t be followed at all, unless one is first familiar with the Hebrew Bible, and the relation of it to classical rabbinic literature (Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud.) Next, one must understand that all of his philosophy relates to Aristotle, and the contemporary neo-Aristotelian literature discussed by that era’s Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars.

One doesn’t need to be an expert one’s self in all these philosophers, but one does need to know Maimonides brought these ideas into his own work (it is standard for philosophers to read each other’s works, and share and critique ideas.) In particular Maimonides references the ideas of:


Abu Bakr al-Razi (850-925 circa)

“As for Maimonides’ harsh judgement of al-Razi as a philosopher, it was clearly based upon the knowledge of the general contents of his metaphysics and theology as found in al-Razi’s Book of Divine Science as found both in his Guide of the Perplexed (Dalalat al-ha’irin) and in one of his letters to the “official” translator of his work, Samuel Ibn Tibbon. ”

al-Farabi, Abu Nasr (c.870-950)

“As for logic, al-Farabi even exerted a stronger influence over Medieval Jewish philosophy… According to Maimonides, there was no need to study logical texts, apart from those by al-Farabi, since “all that he wrote… is full of wisdom, and… he was a very valid author.” Surely, al-Farabi’s logical (and also non-logical) works influenced the Treatise On the Art of Logic (Maqala fi sina‘a al-mantiq) usually ascribed to Maimonides, and probably written around 1160”

“…According to Pines, although al-Farabi’s former work is not explicitely quoted in the Guide of the Perplexed, it was surely among the main sources of Maimonides’ doctrine about the different roles played by the philosopher and by the prophet. Al-Farabi’s idea about the relationship between philosophy and religion, according to which the former is in a substantially higher position with respect to the latter, as found in his Book on Letters (Kitab al-huruf) and Book on Religion (Kitab al-milla), strongly influenced Maimonides’ ideas about this; moreover, the Book on Letters was later employed as a source for Falaquera’s treatment of linguistics in his Beginning of Science. According to Davidson, Maimonides explicitly quoted and employed al-Farabi’s Political Regime under the title The Changing Beings (al-Mawjudat al-mutaghayyira) for discussing the question of the world’s eternity in part two, chapter 74, of the Guide”

Avicenna (real name: Ibn Sina, Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn) (980-1037)

“. Although clear echoes of Avicennian doctrines about the distinction between essence and existence, between necessary and contingent beings, as well as the well-known Avicennian proof of the existence of God, have been found in the Guide of the Perplexed (see Moses Maimonides 1962, 1:xciii-ciii), the explicit judgement of Maimonides about Avicenna’s thought appears to be substantially cool (for a different interpretation of this judgement, see however Dobbs-Weinstein 2002). In his letter to Samuel Ibn Tibbon, he affirms that “Avicenna’s books, although they are subtle and difficult, are not like those by al-Farabi; however, they are useful, and he too is an author whose words should be studied and understood”

Abu Bakr Ibn Bajja aka Ibn al-Sa’igh (d. 1138),

“…Maimonides had the highest esteem of Ibn Bajja: he affirmed that “he was a great and wise philosopher, and all his works are right and correct”, and possibly appreciated him as a commentator of Aristotle too (Marx 1934–1935, 379). In some cases he was surely influenced by Ibn Bajja’s thought: in the Guide of the Perplexed, he explicitly refers to some of his philosophical and scientific ideas”

The above is a short excerpt from the article “Influence of Arabic and Islamic Philosophy on Judaic Thought” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.



Jews and whiskey during prohibition

Who knew that prohibition was good for the Jews?!

The Prohibition, in the United States, was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages, from 1920 to 1933.

Prohibition loopholes

“The first was that [alcohol] enabled the farmer to preserve his fruit … which is to say, to take the fruit crop and preserve it over the winter, which literally meant take the apple. Turn it into hard cider. And the hard cider into apple jack, which was legal in the farm districts across the country. Interestingly, the farm districts were the ones that most supported Prohibition.

“The second one was medicinal liquor. I have a bottle on my shelf at home — an empty bottle — that says Jim Beam, for medicinal purposes only. In 1917, the American Medical Association — supporting Prohibition — said there was no reason at all to use alcohol as a therapeutic remedy of any kind. Then they realized with this loophole that there was an opportunity to make some money. And capitalism abhors a vacuum. Within two or three years, you could go into virtually any city in the country and buy a prescription for $3 from your local physician and then take it to your local pharmacy and go home with a pint of liquor every 10 days. And this is really how many of the large distilleries in Kentucky and the middle of the country stayed in business throughout the Prohibition years.
“The third loophole is sacramental wine. Among the groups who opposed Prohibition were the Catholics and the Jews — very avidly — and not necessarily for religious reasons; I think more for cultural reasons. … Tangentially to that, there was the reality that wine is used in the Catholic sacrament for Communion. … ”

“The Jews needed their sacramental wine for the Sabbath service and other services. They were entitled — under the rules — for 10 gallons per adult per year. … There was no official way to determine who was a rabbi. So people who claimed to be rabbis would get a license to distribute to congregations that didn’t even exist. On the other side of that, one congregation in Los Angeles went from 180 families to 1,000 families within the very first 12 months of Prohibition. You joined a congregation; you got your wine from your rabbi.”


Prohibition: Speakeasies, Loopholes And Politics. NPR Fresh Air


Prohibition allowed for rare exceptions, most notably in the case of religious or medicinal alcohol, and bootleggers took full advantage of the loopholes. Section 6 of the Volstead Act allotted Jewish families 10 gallons of kosher wine a year for religious use. (Unlike the Catholic Church, which received a similar dispensation, the rabbinate had no fixed hierarchy to monitor distribution.) In 1924, the Bureau of Prohibition distributed 2,944,764 gallons of wine, an amount that caused Izzy to marvel at the “remarkable increase in the thirst for religion.” Izzy and Moe arrested 180 rabbis, encountering trouble with only one of them. The owner of a “sacramental” place on West 49th Street refused to sell to the agents because they “didn’t look Jewish enough.” Undeterred, and hoping to prove a point, Izzy and Moe sent in a fellow agent by the name of Dennis J. Donovan. “They served him,” Izzy recalled, “and Izzy Einstein made the arrest.”

Prohibition’s Premier Hooch Hounds, Smithsonian.Com


The anti-alcohol movement, although politically based in a strange coalition of evangelicals, progressives and women’s suffrage advocates that had recently won women the vote, coincided with the arrival in the United States, between 1880 and 1920, of about 2 million Eastern European Jews, most with limited economic resources. These opposed Prohibition from the start, not least because alcohol was central to their culture. Also by the late 1800s, acculturated Jews were widely represented in the liquor industry. “At first,” said Marni Davis, author of the forthcoming “Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition”, “alcohol offered a way for American Jews to present themselves as the best sorts of Americans, as the ones who consume alcohol regularly but are not drunkards, who participate in the economy in ways that benefit communities and society at large.”

As Prohibitionists touted the evils of drink, it was the Jewish distillers, wholesalers and saloonkeepers who found themselves cast as outsiders. Attacking the liquor industry, “dry” politician John Newton Tillman said: “I am not attacking an American institution. I am attacking mainly a foreign enterprise.” To prove it, he listed distillers’ names: Steinberg, Hirschbaum, Shaumberg.

….Section 6 of the Volstead Act, which allowed Jewish families 10 gallons of kosher wine a year for religious use, left an especially large loophole. For unlike the Catholic Church, which got a similar dispensation, the rabbinate had no fixed hierarchy to oversee distribution. Infractions were rampant.

In 1924, the Bureau of Prohibition distributed 2,944,764 gallons of wine; the American Hebrew marveled at the “rapid growth of Judaism.” Prohibition agent Izzy Einstein — himself a Jew from New York City’s Lower East Side and able to spot a ruse — arrested numerous rabbis for dispensing “sacramental” brandy, crème de menthe, vermouth and champagne. The scam was as common among actual rabbis as among those only claiming to be such: Einstein also arrested rabbis of convenience, named Houlihan and Maguire, as well as African Americans who claimed, according to Okrent, to have recently “got religion in the Hebraic persuasion.”

… This, Okrent says, was bad for the Jews. Reform leaders believed that Section 6 gave the impression that they were not held to a common standard of law, and sought to abolish it. Doctrinal warfare over wine divided Jews by immigrant and economic status and denomination, pitting Orthodox against Reform. The result, as Davis put it, was a “shande for the goyim.”

Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent claimed that Jewish transgressions against Prohibition represented widespread conspiracy against American morals. “The Jew is on the side of liquor,” Ford wrote, “and always has been.” Part of what made this screed horrible was that it was partly true: Okrent estimates that half the bootleggers were Eastern European Jews; as a result, Jews were seen as delinquents who neither understood nor respected American culture. This despite the fact that, Davis says, bootlegging was so common that it could almost be seen as part of the Jews’ Americanization process.

…By the end of Prohibition, so many Americans were involved in producing, selling and consuming alcohol that Jewish participation seems unremarkable. Eventually, the public came around to the view that most Jews held all along: Prohibition, which had begun as anti-immigrant, was now widely seen as anti-American. The start of the Great Depression was the last straw. With the Repeal of Prohibition, passed in 1933, Jews were among those who rerouted their illegal operations into legal channels. Bronfman moved his business to New York, paid a fine for violating the Volstead Act and bought out Newark’s bootleg kings, Zwillman and Joseph Reinfeld. For him and other Jewish bootleggers, Prohibition had ended by providing a path to status and respectability.

The struggle for American Jewish identity was, at a time when both Jews and alcohol were cultural flashpoints, brought into sharper focus by drink. Ridiculous as the Prohibition experiment seems today, its lessons remain relevant. The issue pitted city against country, rich against poor, and immigrant against native born. Released in an America dividing along similar lines, PBS’s “Prohibition” deserves the notice of Jew and non-Jew alike.

‘Prohibition’ Tells Changing Story of Jews in America, by Jenny Hendrix

Movies, books and articles

Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition

by Marni Davis. New York and London: New York University Press, 2012. x + 262 pp.

Let Them Drink and Forget Our Poverty” : Orthodox Rabbis React to Prohibition, By Hannah Sprecher, American Jewish Archives 43,2 (1991) 135-179

PROHIBITION is a three-part, five-and-a-half-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed. http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/

Rupture and Reconstruction

Page of Talmud

Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy

Published in Tradition, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer 1994).

The author asserts that contemporary Orthodox Jewish religion and practice has undergone a major and profound change in nature during his lifetime. Where observance of Jewish law was once organic and transmitted through family tradition as much as by text and rabbinic literature, it has now become disconnected from family practice and connected only to the written word, the author explains. He explores the contours, sources and implications of this shift as pertains to Jewish (especially Orthodox Jewish) culture, philosophy, spirituality, education and relationship to the surrounding world.


This essay is an attempt to understand the developments that have occurred within my lifetime in the community in which I live. The orthodoxy in which I, and other people my age, were raised scarcely exists anymore. This change is often described as “the swing to the Right.” In one sense, this is an accurate description. Many practices, especially the new rigor in religious observance now current among the younger modern orthodox community, did indeed originate in what is called “the Right.”

Yet, in another sense, the description seems a misnomer. A generation ago, two things primarily separated Modern Orthodoxy from, what was then called, “ultra-Orthodoxy” or “the Right.” First, the attitude to Western culture, that is, secular education; second, the relation to political nationalism, i.e. Zionism and the state of Israel. Little, however, has changed in these areas. Modern Orthodoxy still attends college, albeit with somewhat less enthusiasm than before, and is more strongly Zionist than ever. The “ultra-orthodox,” or what is now called the “haredi” camp is still opposed to higher secular education, though the form that the opposition now takes has local nuance.

In Israel, the opposition remains total; in America, the utility, even the necessity of a college degree is conceded by most, and various arrangements are made to enable many haredi youths to obtain it. However, the value of a secular education, of Western culture generally, is still denigrated. And the haredi camp remains strongly anti-Zionist, at the very least, emotionally distant and unidentified with the Zionist enterprise. The ideological differences over the posture towards modernity remain on the whole unabated, in theory certainly, in practice generally.

Yet so much has changed, and irrecognizably so. Most of the fundamental changes, however, have been across the board. What had been a stringency peculiar to the “Right” in 1960, a “Lakewood or Bnei Brak humra,” as—to take an example that we shall later discuss shiurim (minimal requisite quantities), had become, in the 1990’s, a widespread practice in modern orthodox circles, and among its younger members, an axiomatic one.

The phenomena were, indeed, most advanced among the haredim and were to be found there in a more intensive form. However, most of these developments swiftly manifested themselves among their co-religionists to their left. The time gap between developments in the haredi world and the emerging modern orthodox one was some fifteen years, at most. It seemed to me to that what had changed radically was the very texture of religious life and the entire religious atmosphere.

the full article is here http://www.lookstein.org/links/orthodoxy.htm

Rabbi Haym Soloveitchik teaches Jewish history and thought in the Bernard Revel Graduate School and Stern College for Woman at Yeshiva University

Oral law

The Written law [Tanakh] makes it clear that it was being transmitted side by side with an oral tradition. Many terms and definitions used in the written law are undefined. Many fundamental concepts such as shekhita (slaughtering of animals in a kosher fashion), divorce and the rights of the firstborn are all assumed as common knowledge by text, and are not elaborated upon. The Oral Law, then, is a legal commentary on the Torah, explaining how its commandments are to be carried out. – Wikipedia, Oral Torah

Pages of Talmud

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes:

Common sense suggests that some sort of oral tradition was always needed to accompany the Written Law, because the Torah alone is an insufficient guide to carrying out the laws in practice. For example, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, ordains, “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy” (Exodus 20:8). From the Sabbath’s inclusion in the Ten Commandments, it is clear that the Torah regards it as an important holiday. Yet when one looks for the specific biblical laws regulating how to observe the day, one finds only injunctions against lighting a fire, going away from one’s dwelling, cutting down a tree, and plowing and harvesting. Would merely refraining from these few activities fulfill the biblical command to make the Sabbath holy? Indeed, the Sabbath rituals that are most commonly associated with holiness – lighting of candles, reciting the kiddush, and the reading of the weekly Torah portion – are found not in the Torah, but in the Oral Law.

The Torah also is silent on many important subjects. The Torah has nothing to say concerning a marriage ceremony. To be sure, the Torah presumes that people will get married “Therefore shall a man leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24) – but nowhere in the Torah is a marriage ceremony recorded. Only in the Oral Law do we find details on how to perform a Jewish wedding. {Telushkin}

Without an oral tradition, many of the Torah’s laws would be incomprehensible. In Deuteronomy, the Bible instructs: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes” (see Deuteronomy 6:4).

“Bind them for a sign upon your hand,” the last verse instructs. Bind what? The Torah doesn’t say. “And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” What are frontlets? The Hebrew word for frontlets, totafot is used three times in the Torah – always in this context (Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18) and is as obscure as is the English. Only in the Oral Law do we learn that what a Jewish male should bind – tefillin.

Despite its name, the Oral Law today is a written law, codified in law collections known as the Mishna and the two Talmuds. It used to be passed along orally, but after many centuries it was finally written down so that information wouldn’t be lost.

Strangely enough, the Oral Law today is a written law, codified in the Mishna and Talmud. Orthodox Judaism believes that most of the oral traditions recorded in these books dates back to God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai. When God gave Moses the Torah, Orthodoxy teaches, He simultaneously provided him all the details found in the Oral Law. It is believed that Moses subsequently transmitted that Oral Law to his successor, Joshua, who transmitted it to his successor, in a chain that is still being carried on (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1).

Given this chain of authority, one might wonder why the Mishna and Talmud are filled with strong debates between rabbis,who have very different understandings of what the law shoud be. Shouldn’t they have all been recipients of the same, unambiguous tradition Orthodox teachers respond that the debates came about either because students forgot some of the details transmitted by their teachers, or because the Oral Law lacks specific teachings on the issue being discussed.

– Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History. William Morrow and Co.


Who are the Kararites? What is their religion (Karaism)?
In what ways is Karaism similar to Judaism, and in what ways is it different?
Do Karaites claims to be Jews?
Do Karaites claims to be modern-day Sadduccees?
Do all Karaites accept that Anan Ben David was the father of their movement?


Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd edition, 2006.

The name “Karaites” was not applied to the sect until the ninth century; the precursor of the sect was known as “Ananites,” from the name of its founder, ʿAnan b. David. The sect appears to have come into being as the result of a combination of factors: the amalgamation of various heterodox trends in Babylonian-Persian Jewry, which clashed with the efforts of the heads of the Babylonian yeshivot to consolidate their position as the exclusive and central authority of Jewish law; the tremendous religious, political, and economic fermentation in the entire East, resulting from the Arab conquests and the collision of Islam with world religions.

The Karaite sect absorbed both such Jewish sects as the Isawites (adherents of *Abu ʿIsā al-Iṣfahānī) and *Yudghanites, who were influenced by East-Islamic tendencies, and other anti-traditional movements.

The Karaites themselves, however, trace their origin to the first split among the Jewish people, at the time of *Jeroboam; the true law had subsequently been preserved by the descendants of Ẓadok, who had discovered a portion of the truth. The process of this discovery of the truth was then continued by the exilarch ʿAnan (thus al-Kirkisānī and others).

The unhistorical, fanciful, and biased Karaite sources also influenced the reports of Arab authors. Rabbanite sources, on the other hand, give their own one-sided version of the emergence of the Karaite schism, ascribing it exclusively to ʿAnan’s personal ambition and the injury his pride suffered when his younger brother Hananiah was elected exilarch.

The absorption by ʿAnan’s movement of many elements of an older, extra-talmudic tradition was pointed out particularly by A. Geiger and R. Mahler.

As a matter of fact, ʿAnan’s system included many laws that are quoted from old rabbinic authorities in the Mishna, the Talmud and other tannaitic and targumic sources but were not accepted (e.g., the lex talionis, i.e., the literal interpretation of “an eye for an eye” principle in the criminal law).

Anan cannot, however, be described as a “reformer” of Judaism in the modern sense; far from easing the “yoke of traditional law, he made it more difficult to bear:

he did not recognize the minimum quantities (shi’urim) of forbidden foods fixed by the rabbis; he introduced more complicated regulations for the circumcision ceremony; he added to the number of fast days; he interpreted the prohibition of work on the Sabbath in stricter terms; etc. He was particularly severe with regard to the laws on marriage between relatives, ritual cleanliness, and relations with non-Jews.

In his interpretation of Scripture, he made use of the 13 hermeneutic principles of R. *Ishmael b. Elisha, adding to them the principle of analogy (hekkesh, Ar. qiyās; the latter, perhaps, under the influence of Abu Ḥanīfah, the founder of the Ḥanafite school of Muslim jurisprudence).

The dictum quoted in Anan’s name by *Japheth b. Yeli (commentary on Zech. 5:8), “Search well in the Torah and do not rely on my opinion,” is composed of two clauses: the first in Aramaic, and the second in Hebrew. The second clause, though, is not found in the oldest MS of Japheth’s commentary and seems to reflect a somewhat later development. The first half was possibly designed to uphold the Holy Scriptures as the sole source of the law through a process of thorough investigation; notwithstanding, the fragments of Anan’s Book of Precepts contain several references to the definitive authority of Anan’s own interpretations of Biblical verses.

In the wake of Anan’s activity, numerous groups and parties were formed, mainly in the eastern parts of the Caliphate. Some of them shared the designation “Karaites,” and soon, as related by Kirkisānī, it became impossible to find two Karaites who held the same opinions on all religious issues.

Anan’s adherents, in the stricter sense, called themselves Ananites (Arabic ʿanāniyya, sometimes applied by Muslim authors to Karaites in general) and remained few in number (in Iraq, Syria and Spain). They seem to have disappeared some time during the 11th century.

Anan’s descendants, who, like Anan before them, were given the honorific title of nasi (“prince”) by their contemporaries, lived first in Jerusalem, and then, from the early
11th century, for the most part in Egypt. The names of his son, *Saul b. Anan, and his grandson, Josiah b. Saul b. Anan, are known from the prayer for the dead in the Karaite Sabbath and festival liturgy; neither seems to have had any role in the further development of the sect. Saul is also mentioned in Sefer ha-Kabbalah, by Abraham ibn Daud, and Josiah in Eshkol ha-Kofer, by Judah Hadassi, and in Gan Eden, by Aaron b. Elijah the Younger of Nicomedia. Karaite traditions about Anan’s emigration to Jerusalem and his settlement there refer possibly to his great-grandson, whose name was Anan.

As the non-Rabbanite, proto-Karaite movement did not recognize any single leader, it was not long before many groups arose in its midst, in opposition to the Ananites. Thus, in the first half of the ninth century, the ʿUkbarites, whose founder was *Ishmael of ʿUkbara, came into being in ʿUkbara, near Baghdad, at the time of the caliph al-Muʿtaṣim (833–842).

Ishmael was violently opposed to Anan, “often denouncing him as a fool and an ass.” Nothing of Ishmael’s writing has been preserved, and the little known about him and his school derives almost exclusively from the reports of al-Kirkisānī, at whose time (second half of the tenth century) the group was probably no longer in existence. In his teaching, Ishmael rejects, inter alia, the Masoretic variants (keri and ketiv, the reading of certain words in the Bible in a manner that differs from their spelling).

….It follows that in the 9th century and the beginning of the 10th, the Karaite movement was a conglomeration of various anti-Rabbanite groups, some of which had sprung up after Anan’s death. Al-Kirkisānī gives a vivid description of the countless differences on questions of religious ritual obtaining among the various Karaite groups, some of which still existed in al-Kirkisānī’s time.

In order to counter the Rabbanite arguments in polemics with the Karaites, based upon these heterogeneous views, al-Kirkisānī concludes his description with a characteristic observation: the Karaite readers of his work, he states, had no reason for concern, for in this respect there was a great difference between them and the Rabbanites:

“They [i.e., the Rabbanites] believe that their laws and regulations have been transmitted by the prophets; if that was the case, there ought not to exist any differences of opinion among, them and the fact that such differences of opinion do exist refutes their presumptuous belief. We, on the other hand, arrive at our views by our reason, and reason can lead to various results.”

The many sects which had come upon the proto-Karaite or early Karaite scene after Anan disappeared as fast as they had sprung up, without leaving any noticeable trace upon the
movement. By their gradual self-liquidation, however, they prepared the ground for the consolidation of a well-defined, uniform doctrine which has subsisted to this very day as Karaism.

The outstanding representative of the new movement in the ninth century was Benjamin b. Moses *Nahāwendī (from Nehavend, Persia; c. 830–860), who laid the groundwork for
the new development of Karaite doctrine and was also the first Karaite writer to employ, according to some sources, the term Kara’im (Benei Mikra).

Rabbanite scholars, such as Saadiah Gaon and Judah Halevi, regard Anan and Benjamin as the fathers and founders of the Karaite sect; Arabic and Karaite authors also refer to Karaites as Aṣḥāb ʿAnān wa-Binyāmīn (i.e., followers of Anan and Benjamin). The Karaites themselves put Benjamin almost on the same level as Anan, and in the memorial prayer (zikhronot) Benjamin’s name follows immediately upon those of Anan, Saul, and Josiah.

It was Benjamin, in particular, who turned the free and independent individual study of the Scriptures into a basic principle of Karaism. In theory it became possible for Karaism to tolerate differing interpretations of the Bible. Benjamin also differed from Anan in making no special efforts to maintain a hostile attitude to the Rabbanites and stress a fundamental opposition to them. He sought to base each law upon the Bible (without differentiating between the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa) and freely borrowed from the Rabbanites (although he declared such regulations as not binding upon Karaites). Furthermore, he advised his coreligionists to adopt the Rabbanite view in cases where the Bible did not provide a clear prescription.

Benjamin is also the first Karaite to whom Karaite sources ascribe statements concerning dogmas and religious philosophy. Seeking to remove all taint of anthropomorphism
from the conception of God, he embraced in his exegesis of the Bible ideas that are reminiscent of *Philo’s theory of the Logos (which he may have known in Arabic translation or by the way of the Maghāriyya – the cave dweller – sect, mentioned by al- Kirkisānī; see also *Sects, Minor). Accordingly, the creator of the world, its builder, and its guide, was an angel created by God to represent His will; it was this angel who performed the miracles, revealed the Law, etc., and it is to this angel that the anthropomorphic passages in the Bible refer.

*Daniel b. Moses al-Qūmisī, who lived toward the end of the ninth century, seems to have been the first eminent Karaite scholar to settle in Jerusalem. He was the first to make the“mourning in Zion” a basic tenet and a hallmark of Karaism. In an epistle ascribed to him he fervently urged Karaites in the Diaspora to immigrate to Ereẓ Israel. In the same epistle he also expounded his particular positions on halakhic issues and, perhaps for the first time in Jewish history, proposed a set of normative, binding beliefs (“articles of faith”). He opposed Benjamin’s method of Bible exegesis and denied the existence of angels, interpreting the term malakhim as natural forces employed by God to serve as His emissaries (cf. Psalms 78:49; 104:4).

Opposing also Benjamin’s leaning toward Rabbinic halakhah, he called for strict adherence to the literal sense of the Scriptures. This may also explain his fight against Anan, whom he had at first revered as “first among the sages” (“rosh ha-maskilim”), only to denounce him later as “first among the fools” (“rosh ha-kesilim”). Yet in his commentaries there are cases of alternative and homiletic interpretations.

It may be assumed that it was his attitude to Anan that caused al-Qūmisī’s exclusion from the Karaite memorial prayer, in spite of the great respect in which he was held by later Karaite writers. al-Qūmisī wrote commentaries on several books of the Bible, but of his commentaries only the one on Minor Prophets survived almost complete. He also taught that, in case of doubt, the more rigorous interpretation of the law should be accepted.


In the tenth century, when Karaism was already fairly consolidated, the movement adopted an aggressive attitude, designed to spread its doctrine. This was also the golden age of Karaite literature (with most of the Karaite works of this period being written in Arabic). Karaite attempts to gain mass support for their beliefs among the Rabbanites (which, however, seem to have attracted only a few converts of no particular distinction) brought forth, on both sides, an apologetic and polemic literature.

There were in this period (ninth and tenth centuries) a considerable number of outstanding Karaite theologians, religious teachers, grammarians, lexicographers, and biblical exegetes. Rejection of secular sciences, which Anan had advocated, was not followed by all Karaites. Some Karaite scholars became active participants in the flourishing Arabic culture. Others (e.g. al-Qūmisī, Salmon ben YeruIim ) prohibited any
engagement in “foreign” books and sciences as leading to heresy.

In view of the special significance attached by Karaism to the study of the Bible, the Karaites dedicated themselves with great zeal to massoretic and grammatical exegetic studies and must have had a stimulating influence upon Rabbanite scholars. The view of Jewish historians (such as J. Fuerst, S. Pinsker, H. Graetz) that some of the first and most appreciated Jewish massoretes and grammarians (notably Aharon ben Asher), and biblical exegetes had been Karaites, has been discussed again in recent research and probably proven correct.

The greatest Karaite mind of the tenth century was Abu Yūsuf Yaʿqūb al-Kirkisānī, whose work on religious law, Kitāb al-Anwār wa-al-Marāqib, particularly its opening chapter, represents one of the foremost sources for the history of the Karaite sect.

*David b. Boaz, a descendant of Anan, attained great repute as a biblical commentator, and is also said to have composed a work (in Arabic) on the basic doctrines of religion. In the second half of the tenth century, David b. Abraham *Alfasi, a native of Fez (Morocco) who emigrated to Ereẓ Israel, became known as a lexicographer and biblical exegete. At the end of the century *Japheth b. Eli in Jerusalem translated the entire Hebrew Bible into Arabic and added his extensive commentary, becoming the most important Karaite Bible commentator. Japheth’s son, Levi b. *Japheth, in addition to Bible commentary, also wrote an important book of precepts (extensive fragments of the Arabic original and the medieval Hebrew translation survived).

One of the most active opponents of Rabbanism, and especially of Saadiah Gaon, was *Salmon b. Yeruḥim (mid-tenth century). In a similar vein was the work of *Sahl b. Maṣliaḥ ha-Kohen, a skillful and eloquent Karaite missionary who wrote a commentary on the Pentateuch and was a religious teacher; his Hebrew introduction to his Arabic-language book of precepts contains important information on the Karaite community in Jerusalem.


The decline of Karaism in the East began in the 12th century. No original writer of any significance came to the fore there after the first half of that century, even in the field of religious law. The only exception was in Egypt, where the Karaite communities (mainly in Cairo and Alexandria) still numbered members who possessed considerable financial means and had good political connections, or belonged to the intellectual or professional elite. When *Maimonides took up residence in Cairo their influence, social and religious, decreased, as well as their public standing. Notwithstanding, the Karaite community in Egypt remained the largest in the Islamic east until modern times. Also living in Egypt at this period was Moses b. Abraham *Darʿī, the outstanding Karaite poet of his time.

Other Karaite writers who lived in Egypt (mainly in Cairo) in the 12th to 15th centuries, such as *Japheth al-Barqamānī, Japheth ibn Naghīr, *Israel ha-Ma’aravi, and *Samuel b. Moses *al-Maghribī, played no independent role in the further development of Karaism.

In the Byzantine Empire, on the other hand, Karaism succeeded in gaining a firm foothold. A massive Karaite literature of translation came into being here, produced mainly by former disciples of Jeshua b. Judah who, for the most part, were residents of Constantinople. The most eminent among them was *Tobias b. Moses ha-Avel (known as “ha-Oved” [the worshiper] and also as “ha-Maʿtik” [the translator]) whose major work was the translation of the Arabic writings of Jeshua, as well as of Joseph b. Abraham al-Baṣīr. He also wrote a commentary on the Pentateuch, Oẓar Neḥmad, based primarily upon the works of David b. Boaz and Japheth b. Ali. The only other name to be preserved is that of *Jacob b. Simeon, one of the most prominent Karaite translators of this period.

To this period belongs also the work on Hebrew linguistics entitled Meʾor ʿAyin, by an anonymous author. It seems to have been based on Arabic works of the Golden Age. It survived in a single MS, copied in 1208 (published by M. Zislin, 1990). Prominent religious scholars and biblical exegetes active in Byzantium in the 12th century were Jacob b. Reuben, author of a Bible commentary, Sefer ha-Osher, which consists largely of excerpts from Hebrew translations of works of earlier Karaite authors, especially those of Japheth b. Ali (part of the commentary on the Prophets and the entire commentary on the Writings was printed at the end of the edition of Mivḥar Yesharim by Aaron ben Joseph, 1836); Aaron b. Judah *Kusdini (from Constantinople), of whose works there survives only a responsum on marriage laws; and Judah b. Elijah *Hadassi, author of Eshkol ha-Kofer, an encyclopedic summary of Karaite theology, one of the most important works of Karaite literature and, undoubtedly, the outstanding Karaite work in Hebrew. Most Byzantine Karaite translations and original works of that period contain a considerable number of Greek glosses, or other phrases, which constitute very important evidence of early Medieval Judeo-Greek.

….In the second half of the 13th century, Karaism in the Byzantine Empire entered a period of spiritual florescence. It was in this period that *Aaron b. Joseph ha-Rofe (“Aaron the Elder”), one of the most important Karaite biblical exegetes, was active; highly revered by his coreligionists, he was given the title of “ha-Kadosh” (“the Saint”), most probably for his work in arranging the hitherto unstable Karaite liturgy into an organized ritual, valid to this day. His commentary on the Bible, Sefer ha-Mivḥar, is regarded as the classic Karaite work in Bible exegesis; it shows the influence of Abraham ibn Ezra’s commentary.

*Aaron b. Elijah of Nicomedia (“the Last Aaron”), a codifier, biblical exegete, and religious philosopher who lived in the first half of the 14th century, was regarded by the Karaites as the “Karaite Maimonides”; he was the author of Gan Eden, a systematic code of Karaite law and belief, corresponding in its significance for Karaism to the Turim by R. Jacob b. Asher; of Keter Torah, a Bible commentary which has enjoyed, for many centuries now, a status and prestige comparable to that of Rashi’s commentary among Rabbanites; and of Eẓ Ḥayyim, which attempts to refute the Aristotelian views of Maimonides by a religious philosophy, which, while familiar with Aristotelian terminology and concepts, is basically committed to Muʿtazilite Kalām.


A new epoch in the history of the Karaites was opened by the incorporation of Lithuania and Crimea (1793 and 1783, respectively) into Russia. Until then, the external history of the Karaites had been similar, and parallel, to that of the Rabbanite Jews; both considered each other as Jews and regarded even the most violent polemics between them as an internal Jewish quarrel. Wherever the Karaites had taken up residence, they had been treated as Jews. For example, a decree issued by Grand Duke Witold in 1388 describes the Karaites of Troki as “Judaei Trocenses” and grants them the same special legal status as that accorded to Jews of Brest-Litovsk and other Lithuanian communities.

The decree was reconfirmed by King Sigismund I of Poland in 1507, for both Karaite and Rabbanite Jews in Lithuania. In 1495, Grand Duke Alexander expelled both Jews and Karaites from Lithuania, and both were admitted into Poland by his brother, King John Albert. John’s successor, Alexander, in turn permitted the return of both Jews and Karaites to Lithuania. During the Chmielnicki persecutions, hardly any difference was made between the two groups.

In Lithuania, Poland, and Volhynia, the state taxes payable by Jews and Karaites had to be remitted in a lump sum; the Karaites would hand their taxes over to the Rabbanite Jews, and these would add their own taxes and transmit the whole sum to the government. Under the Tatar khans and the Ottoman Turks, Rabbanite Jews and Karaites in the Crimea also had the same legal status.

It was only at the end of the 18t century, when Russia conquered the Crimea, that a difference in status was made between Rabbanite Jews and Karaites under the law. In 1795, Empress Catherine II relieved the Karaites of the double tax imposed upon the Jews, and also permitted them to acquire land. Thus the 1795 law created a wall of separation between Jews and Karaites, each group enjoying civil rights to a different degree (although legislative decrees continued to refer to Karaites as “Jews”).

Inequality before the law of the two groups was further expanded in 1827, when the Crimean Karaites, like the Crimean Tatars, were exempted from the general military draft law enacted by Czar Nicholas I, a privilege that was not extended to the Jews. In 1828, exemption from military service was also granted to the Karaites of Lithuania and Volhynia. In their attempts to improve their legal status, Russian Karaite leaders had at first refrained from resorting to attacks upon Rabbanite Jews; this policy was changed in 1835, when the Karaites, in appeals and memoranda to the Russian government, began to stress their fundamental difference from other Jews, namely their refusal to accept the validity of the Talmud.

They also claimed to possess qualities which distinguished them from other Jews: that, contrary to the Rabbanites, they were industrious people, honest in their behavior and loyal to the throne. In 1835 they succeeded in having the Rabbanite Jews of Troki expelled from the town, on the basis of ancient Lithuanian privileges which granted them the sole right of settlement there.

They also achieved a change in their official designation; instead of “Jews-Karaites” they first came to be called “Russian Karaites of the Old Testament Faith” and eventually simply“Karaites. The special legal status accorded to Karaites, as compared with the other Jews, was also influenced by the difference in their social and economic situation.

Whereas the Jews in the Crimea were mainly peddlers and artisans, the Karaites were wealthy landowners, deriving their income from tobacco plantations, orchards, and salt mines, and maintaining good relations with the authorities. In 1840 the Karaites were put on an equal footing with the Muslims, and were granted an independent church statute. Two dioceses were established, each headed by a ḥakham, with residences at *Feodosiya (Crimea) and Troki respectively; the ḥakhamim were laymen, elected by delegates from all Karaite communities. Each community also elected its ḥazzan, who performed religious functions and served as an assistant to the ḥakham. Finally, in 1863, the Karaites were given rights equal to those of the native Russian population.

On Jan. 9, 1939, the German Ministry of the Interior expressly stipulated that the Karaites did not belong to the Jewish religious community; their “racial psychology” was considered non-Jewish. This decision was subsequently applied to France. In Eastern Europe the Nazi Einsatzgruppen during World War II received orders to spare the Karaites, who enjoyed favorable treatment and were given positions of trust and authority with the German occupation authorities. On Oct. 6, 1942, the ruling of Jan. 9, 1939, was extended to the Crimea and the Ukraine, where the majority of Karaites lived.

The Karaite question continued to be debated by the German authorities who queried the Rabbanite scholars Zelig *Kalmanovitch, Meir S. *Balaban, and Itzhak *Schipper on the origin of the Karaites. In order to save them, all three gave the opinion that the Karaites were not of Jewish origin. The behavior of the Karaites during the Holocaust period vacillated between indifference to the Jewish cause and some cases of actual collaboration with the Germans. No adequate study, however, has been made on this subject.

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 (D.S.Levene@durham.ac.uk)
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