John J. Collins. The Invention of Judaism: Torah and Jewish Identity from Deuteronomy to Paul. University of California Press, 2017.
The Invention of Judaism is as ambitious as its name. Originally delivered as a series of lectures at Berkley in 2013, Collins seeks to synthesize recent scholarly debates about the nature of ancient Jewish (or Judean) identity. In particular, Collins examines the role the Torah, or Law of Moses, played in the formation of a distinct religious and cultural way of life. The book traces the reception of the Torah from the Babylonian exile to the end of the Second Temple period in order to explore the range of its impact. Along the way Collins touches on broader questions: Was ancient Judaism an ethnicity or a religion? How did ancient Jews value Torah? When did the Law of Moses achieve normative status?
In the Introduction, Collins argues that a commitment to ancestral laws as a marker of Judean life goes all the way back to at least the Persian period. This commitment constitutes a distinct religious aspect of Judean identity. Here Collins is addressing the debate over the proper translation of ioudaios (represented succinctly in the 2014 Marginalia forum “Jew and Judean”). Those who favor a translation of “Judean,” exemplified by the work of Steve Mason, argue that there was no category of “Judaism” or “religion” so to speak in the ancient world. Rather, ioudaioi were understood as belonging to an ethnic group with distinctive customs tied to an ancestral place of origin. Shaye Cohen alternatively distinguishes three meanings for ioudaioi: as a geographical marker, a religious/cultural identifier, and as a political designation for citizenship within the Judean state. He contends that the religious sense of the term emerged within the second century BCE, as represented in 2 Maccabees, transforming Judaism into an “ethno-religion.” Yet Collins insists that the very framing of this debate misleadingly suggests that an ethnos could be so cleanly distinguished from a religion. He argues that since the Law of Moses was accepted as the ancestral laws of the Judeans already in the Persian period (contra Cohen’s second century dating), this religious and cultural aspect cannot be so easily separated from the ethnic character of Judaism.
Throughout the main chapters, Collins constructs a genealogy depicting how the Torah became authoritative. In chapter one, he begins with the earliest stratum of Deuteronomy, most likely a document revising the Covenant Code, and highlights how it emphasized monolatry as a key element of its proposed ethnic identity. This Deuteronomist monolatry was joined with the Priestly document’s emphasis of Sabbath observance and circumcision in order to establish boundary markers that would distinguish the Israelite exiles from the surrounding nations. As the composite sources of the Torah crystallized into a singular body, a commitment to mosaic law was elevated as a central attribute of Israelite distinctiveness. The various parties composing these strands, however, held unreconciled differences, and Collins insists “there was, then, a measure of religious pluralism built into the Torah” (43).
In chapter two, Collins notes that the Law of Moses is curiously absent from the literature of the restoration period and only introduced in the Persian period, as represented by the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The authors / editors of Ezra and Nehemiah regarded the Law of Moses as authoritative, and Ezra’s reforms, while not necessarily observed en masse by the general populace, installed the Law of Moses as a primary feature of Judean identity. Thus, for Collins, the Persian period represents an origin of sorts for the normative status of the Torah. Collins contends, “Henceforth, the Torah would at least have iconic status as the ancestral law of Judah, in the sense that it would be treated with deference and respect even when it was not observed in detail” (60). That said, chapter three nods at the persistence of non-mosaic Judaism in Enoch literature, Israelite wisdom tradition, and the writings of the eastern diaspora, which do not give the Torah a primary role in their identity.
Once the Torah’s status is anchored in the Persian period, Collins examines aspects of its Second Temple reception in narrative, in wisdom traditions, in legal texts, and in apocalyptic literature (chapters four, five, and six). These sections are not comprehensive; rather, they provide a sampler of Collins’ perspective of the relevant themes. Surveying snippets of literature in chapter four, largely from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Collins states that narrative and wisdom texts drew from older Torah scriptures without an explicit “halakic interest” (83). Narrative texts used the Torah as a resource for “literary imagination.” (83). Collins contends these texts, such as the Genesis Apocryphon and the Aramaic Levi Document, are more concerned with transmission of scriptural tradition than strict exegetical commentary. In a similar vein, Collins argues that wisdom texts fuse Torah with wisdom as a source of inspirational guidance rather than formal law. Torah provided a source of context for Jewish life in the form of “precedents and sapiential advice” (96). This fusion is emblematic of early Hellenistic literature, Collins argues.
Collins places the influence of Torah as law in the Hasmonean era (chapter five), sparked by the Maccabean revolt’s defense of the Judean’s right to live according to the Law of Moses. As (Judah) Aristobulus I expanded the Hasmonean territory through waves of conquest, the new inhabitants were compelled to be circumcised and live according to the laws of the Judeans. While Shaye Cohen cites this process as a diminishment of the role of ethnicity in Judean identity, Collins argues that the Hasmoneans undertook a “constructivist, or even instrumentalist, view of Judean ethnicity” that relied on an ideal sense of the traditional boundaries of Israel (98). In Collins view, Judean identity had always incorporated religious content alongside its ethnic component. Concerns for purity in the Hasmonean era, represented in the archaeological record by the presence of immersion pools (mikvaot) and stone vessels and in the “rewritten Bible” literature of the Temple Scroll and Jubilees, constituted a shift in perceiving the Torah as interpretable law. Collins contends that this heightened Torah scrutiny caused division among religious experts, generating sects who disputed exact interpretation of Torah.
One such sect represented in the Dead Sea Scrolls marked a break with the apocalyptic writings of the past, and Collin’s discusses them alongside Enochic literature, 4 Ezra, and 2 Baruch in chapter six. Typically, apocalyptic revelations were mediated through ancient visionaries, like Enoch or Daniel, but the Qumran community presented revelations in the form of interpretations of Torah facilitated by the “Teacher.” Collins disagrees with Seth Schwartz, who sees the community’s dualistic apocalyptic worldview in direct contradiction with Deuteronomist covenantal ideology. Instead, Collins argues that the Qumran community envisioned a new covenant that “in short, operated differently from Deuteronomy” by joining revealed Torah with higher revelation (128).
In the final chapters, Collins turns to situations when Jewish relationships to the Torah were formed and tested by Gentile contact. In the Hellenistic diaspora, Collins explains that the Law of Moses is often rendered as a work of philosophy directed toward a Gentile audience. This literature tends to focus on broader concerns for the Law as a way of life rather than as a code of rules, an often allegorical and metaphorical approach quite different from the halakhic focus of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Against this Hellenistic context, Collins addresses the apostle Paul’s attitudes toward the Law. Paul focuses on ethical issues in a way that resembles the common ethic of Hellenistic Judaism; however, Collins argues Paul did not abandon halakhic commitment for a Philonic type of Judaism. Rather, Paul’s revelation of Jesus Christ pushed him to elevate faith in Christ above commitment to the ancestral laws of the Judeans as the basis of identity. Collins disagrees with both Gaston and Gager that Paul envisioned two paths of salvation for Jews and Gentiles, with both Thiessen and Hayes that Paul held to a strict genealogical view of Judaism, and with both Betz and Boyarin that Paul discarded ethnic identity. Paul, in Collins’ view, envisioned a redefined Israel, situated in the story of Israel yet distinct from the historic commitment to Torah as ancestral Law. In Collins’ words, “Paul did not seek to dissuade Jews from keeping the commandments of the Torah, but he undercut the primacy of the ancestral law in defining the people of God” (186).
Ultimately, Collins sees the Torah as the dominant expression of Judean identity, though this Torah could manifest in a variety of ways. It could be a source of wisdom, a code of law, a fuel for apocalyptic revelation, or the ancestral customs to defend (as with the Maccabees) or redefine (as with Paul). Collins’ project fits nicely alongside the work of Eva Mroczek (The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity) and Michael Satlow (How the Bible Became Holy), who both complicate the development of the Hebrew Bible as an authoritative text. These works demonstrate how the Torah should be seen as a constantly changing instrument informed by particular contexts and concerns in the history of Judaism.
One difficulty with publishing a collection of lectures covering such a vast topic is that often Collins’ interjections feel like drive-by commentary. He references the work of other scholars in passing without fully representing their ideas [For example: “Whether Ben Sira can be said to exemplify ‘covenantal nomism’ in the manner of E.P. Sanders, however, is debatable” (89)]. Such a treatment requires the reader to have broad exposure to the issues at hand, and therefore the work serves less as a survey text and more like one has pulled up a chair to Collins’ desk.
Throughout the work Collins returns continually to his overarching point that the Torah as ancestral law was a distinctly religious aspect of ancient Judaism. What Collins does not provide is a theory of his concept of religion. In what way does commitment to ancestral law become something distinctly religious? As Jonathan Z. Smith insisted, “‘Religion’” is not a native term; it is a term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes and therefore is theirs to define” (“Religion, Religions, Religious,” 281). Collins has the habit of stringing the words “religious” and “cultural” together as if they were interchangeable terms. This pairing of ill-defined categories is endemic to the field of religious studies. Traditional practice and cult in the ancient world encompassed far more than internal belief or a set of rituals as the modern term religion often denotes, yet culture does not quite capture the object of our study. That said The Invention of Judaism masterfully constructs a history of Jewish identity throughout the Second Temple period, covering a vast range of texts and locales. Collins convincingly persuades the reader to see the Torah as a consistent defining feature of Jewish identity, if not inviting the reader to wonder precisely how Collins envisions that relationship as distinctly religious.
Krista N. Dalton is a PhD Candidate in Religion of Late Antiquity at Columbia University.