Our Jewish odyssey

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Our Jewish odyssey

In his fascinating new study, A History of Judaism, Martin Goodman looks at how the oldest of the three Abrahamic religions came to be, as well as its longevity.

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

Jerusalem, which is special to the three Abrahamic religions.
Jerusalem, which is special to the three Abrahamic religions.

There have been many histories of the Jewish people, but few histories of Judaism itself. Now in his fascinating new study, A History of Judaism, Martin Goodman looks at how the oldest of the three Abrahamic religions came to be, as well as its longevity. In this extract, the author – who is professor of Jewish Studies at Oxford – looks at how Judaism’s ‘uniformity’ in practice and belief paved the way for variety and diversity.

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God… As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder…

This dramatic account of the divine revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai is preserved in the biblical book of Exodus. The history of Judaism comprises the continued and varied history of interpretation of this covenant by this ‘holy nation’ over some three millennia.

Over a thousand years after Moses is believed to have been vouchsafed, this revelation, the Jerusalem priest and historian Josephus inserted the earliest surviving theology of Judaism composed for a non-Jewish readership into his book Against Apion, a defence of Jewish traditions against the calumnies of gentile authors.

Josephus ascribed to Moses the creation of a new and perfect constitution for humankind, asserting that this constitution was so different from all others known in his time, such as monarchy, democracy and oligarchy, that it could properly be encapsulated only by inventing a new term in Greek, theokratia, ‘theocracy’, because Moses had insisted that God should be in charge of everything…

A History of Judaism by Martin Goodman

Views about Moses among the non-Jews for whom Josephus wrote his theology were markedly less enthusiastic.

That he was regarded by the Jews as their legislator was widely known among both Greeks and Romans, and in the late fourth century BCE, Hecataeus of Abdera considered him ‘outstanding both for his wisdom and for his courage’.

But others attacked him as a charlatan and impostor – Josephus’ contemporary, Quintilian, a Roman expert on rhetoric, could even use Moses as an example of the way that “founders of cities are detested for concentrating on a race which is a curse to others” without even needing to name the person he called ‘“the founder of the Jewish superstition”.

The more outsiders attacked Judaism, the more a pious Jew like Josephus would claim the excellence of his tradition, which has ‘made God governor of the universe’…

The contrast to other peoples was also what led Josephus to his assertion that, because all Jews are taught the laws that govern their way of life, so that “we have them, as it were, engraved on our souls”, they therefore agree in everything to do with their religion: …

“Among us alone one will hear no contradictory statements about God, such as is common among others…Nor will one see any difference in our living habits: we all share common practices, and all make the same affirmation about God, in harmony with the law, that he watches over everything.”

As will become apparent…the ‘unity’ and ‘uniformity’ in practice and belief that distinguished Jews from Greeks and other polytheists in the ancient world, with their multitude of deities, cults, myths and customs, left plenty of room for variety and diversity within Judaism, not only then but throughout its history.”

  •  A History of Judaism by Martin Goodman is published by Penguin, priced £12.99 (paperback). Available now.


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