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Israel in the Persian Period. The Fifth and Fourth Centuries B.C.E., by Erhard S. Gerstenberger. Translated by Siegfried S. Schatzmann (Biblical Encyclopedia/Biblische Enzyklopädie 8; Atlanta: SBL, 2011). xviii, 575 pp.

The Biblical Encyclopedia series tries to combine a history of Israel with a history of the emergence of the Christian Bible; the volumes are organized according to a traditional view of that history (settlement, premonarchic Israel, “United Kingdom,” the Israelite and Judaean monarchies, Judah’s last 150 years, exile, Persian period, Hellenistic period, etc.). In recent scholarship, the Persian period plays a decisive role for the shape (and content) of the Hebrew Bible (Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai, but Ezra—and the men of the Great Synagogue—restored it [Sukkah 20a]). This development is well documented in Gerstenberger’s Israel in the Persian Period, translated from the 2005 German version, which follows the standard layout of the series. The section “Biblical Portrait of the Period” (1-32) is followed by “Known History” (33-139), “Biblical Literature of the Period” (141-425), and finally, “Theological Contribution” (namely, of that particular period to the cultural heritage of the West [427-535]). Indices of sources and “names and subjects” conclude the volume.

The “Biblical Portrait” chapter consists of return, the building of the Second Temple, the rebuilding of Jerusalem under Nehemiah, and the introduction of the Torah by Ezra, and is characterized as consisting mainly of gaps. This is rather a very modern reading of the Bible; I wonder whether Seder ‘Olam 28-30 is not closer to a “biblical” reading of the text. “Known History” again starts with biblical sources; surprisingly, “Sirach, Judith, Ahiqar and Balaam (= ?)” are listed as “other Jewish writings . . . possibly rooted entirely or in part in the Persian period” (35)—for Sirach (Ben Sirah) and Judith we know better, and Ahiqar is not Jewish. The archaeological evidence is summarized under “Artifacts and Architecture” (38-44), the Persian Empire (45-83) is discussed from the points of view of imperial structures, political history, religion, and daily life. The rest of this section covers “Judah in Trans-Euphrates” (84-121) and “The Diaspora in Babylon and Egypt” (121-39). Nehemiah is portrayed as a “popular political leader,” who “bravely moves toward self-determination” (94). It is, however, not “probable” (94), but certain, that he belongs “into the middle of the fifth century B.C.E.” (the dates in Nehemiah range from Artaxerxes [I] 20 = 445/4 B.C.E., Neh 2:1 to Artaxerxes 32 = 434/3, Neh 13:6), but it is indeed probable that Nehemiah preceded Ezra (94), who “remains a transfigured literary figure” (99).

Gerstenberger is in his primary field of competence in his historical-critical presentation of the biblical literature from the Persian period, which occupies 285 out of 535 pages, or 53.27 %. This is, of course, a field of much controversy; other authors like Ehud Ben-Zwi, Diana Edelman, and Philipp Davies would not consider any period other than the Persian and early Hellenistic eras as the background of all biblical books as we have them, and not care much about hypothetical predecessors of these (thus also Gerstenberger, 209). Placing Chronicles into the Persian period (143-59), the author joins forces with the majority of American scholars, whereas most Europeans (and some Israelis) put these into the Hellenistic bin. Concerning Ezra-Nehemiah (159-64), one must ask whether such a hackneyed account of the sequence of Persian rulers as given in Ezra 3-6 could have been written while the empire was still alive. “Priestly Writings” (164-87) deal with the P-source or layer in, or P-contribution to the Torah; for these, a Persian date is indeed much more likely than an “exilic” origin. “Novellas (Joseph, Ruth, Jonah)” (187-95) are more controversial. There is consensus as far as Ruth is concerned, but with Joseph, the case for an Assyrian date is not yet hopeless, whereas Jonah might well be early Hellenistic. Nobody will disagree that (at least, the bulk) of “Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi” (195-202) belong here, but “Trito-Isaiah” (202-09) would be relegated by me and a number of colleagues, some of them already mentioned, to the following section, “Revision of Older Writings” (274). That the “final form” of Joel, Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah is Persian (210) is a truism (especially after the introductory remark on 209), more precisely, one might state that of these books, only Nahum and Habakkuk contain a core of pre-Persian tradition. Of psalms, “psalms of Asaph and Korah, various Davidic collections, songs of pilgrimage, special songs of praise, and Yahweh-kingship psalms . . . most probably belong to the sixth and fifth centuries” (218). Again, there are champions (and more will join in the future) for earlier dates (e.g., for the YHWH-kingship psalms or at least some of them) as well as for later (e.g., for the Shirey ha-Ma‘alot). The same applies for various sections of Proverbs (255). Of the Megillot, Esther and Qohelet/Ecclesiastes are relegated to the Hellenistic period (270-71), in accordance with the vast majority of European scholars, but a pre-Persian origin of Lamentations (271) is far from being generally accepted.

Persian-period revisions of older writings include, according to Gerstenberger, the Deuteronomistic History (Josh-2 Kings, 278). Joshua is dependent on the finalized Torah (279)—I agree, but Josh 1:7-8 (279) serves as introduction to the whole corpus of Prophets. Gerstenberger’s in-depth treatment of Solomon’s prayer of dedication (1 Kgs 8:31-53) deserves attention (285-89), as does his attribution of most of the “prophetic stories” in Judg-2 Kgs to the fifth century; his first example, the anonymous of Judg 6:7-10, however, is probably much later, missing from a Qumran manuscript of Judge 6. More convincing is the Persian background for (most of) the prophet Samuel (297-99). “Elijah and Elisha seem to be altogether fictitious characters who have been written into the sequence of events of the history of the monarchy from the postexilic community’s perspective” (300). I agree, as far as Elijah is concerned, but in the case of Elisha, monarchical (e.g., 2 Kgs 13:14-19) as well as postmonarchical but still pre-Persian phases of the tradition can still be claimed.

Persian-period editing is identified in the Book of the Twelve (310-20), in Isaiah (320-27), Jeremiah (327-37), and Ezekiel (337-53), in the Psalter (355-64; but Ps 1 [357], containing the fully developed Pharisee program, cannot antedate the second century), and in Job (364-75), Job would rather belong to the section on original writings from the Persian period, and surprisingly, Proverbs (375-83) figures in both sections.

The most prominent book edited in the Persian period is, without doubt, the Torah (383-425)—this, again, is consensus in Europe (apart from a minority, hardly to be taken seriously, which opts for Hellenistic origins of all Hebrew scriptures). More controversial is the thesis of Persian religious influence on the Torah (416-18). Rather than the Avesta, put into writing in the sixth century C.E., and about which and the people who might have had access to that tradition in Achaemenid times we know positively nothing, Gerstenberger might have used the royal inscriptions of Xerxes (486-465 B.C.E.), where arta, “law, justice” joins Ahuramazda in the pantheon as  okhmah-Torah joins the creator in Prov 8:22-31. The author concludes with the undeniable fact that Judaism in Persian times was the first religion with “sacred scriptures,” a completely new kind of religion, copied by many in the 2500 years to come, but surpassed by none.

The section with the awkward title “Theological Contribution” (why not “Heritage” in English? German Protestant theologians use “theological” mostly in the sense of “meaningful” and “significant”) again revokes “Babylonian and Persian Spirituality” (429-34) and then looks for the “Genesis of Ecclesial Structures” (434-69)—the expression again is an awkward “Christianism” which I would not use in a discussion of the religious organization and religious life of ancient Judaism. Gender is considered in this context (449-58). The heading “On the Way to Monotheism” (468-94) might surprise readers who assumed so far that the Bible is nothing but monotheistic from its very beginnings, but is fully justified; just compare “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?” (Exod 15:11 NRSV; cf. also Ps 86:8) with “you alone are God” Ps 86:10. This section traces “Transformations of Ideas of God” (471-77), “Universalism and Particularism” (478-81), the “Creation of the World and of Humans” (482-89), and “History and the End of the World” (489-94). With “Ethos of Brotherliness in the Community of Faith” (494-513) and “Impulses for Shaping the World” (513-35), Gerstenberger comes from the past to the present and pays tribute to his own religious convictions as a “liberation theologian.” Much in the last section of the book is informed and inspired by his personal experiences in Latin America. This is not a bad thing, but the last chapters come close to “preaching to the already convince.” The section on “Global Society” (529-32) might have profited from the historical insight that Hebrew Scriptures are the local reponse to a process of globalization that had set in during the eighth and seventh centuries and culminated in the Roman empire.

The German original of this book appeared in 2005 and has, regrettably, not been updated for this edition. The new dating of the foundation of the Garizim temple in the first half of the fifth century B.C.E. is most important for the reconstruction of the relations between Judaea and Samaria in the fifth century B.C.E.; see E. Stern & Y. Magen, “Archaeological Evidence for the First Stage of the Samaritan Temple on Mount Garizim,” IEJ 52 (2002): 49-57. “Postcolonialism” had not yet entered the German biblical discourse seven years ago; see for that aspect J.-P. Ruiz, “An Exile’s Baggage: Towards a Postcoloniol Reading of Ezekiel,” in Approaching Yehud: New Approaches to the Study of the Persian Period, edited by J. L. Berquist, Semeia Studies 50 (Atlanta: SBL, 2007), 117-35; and J. L. Berquist, “Psalms, Postcolonialism, and the Construction of the Self,” in Approaching Yehud, 195-202. For Neh 5 and social history, see Ph. Guillaume, “Nehemiah 5: No Economic Crisis,” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 8 (2010): article 10; and Land, Credit, Crisis. Agrarian Finance in the Hebrew Bible.

The volume shares a handicap with the whole series Biblical Encyclopedia: I do not know for what kind of an audience it is written. For undergraduates, the volumes are much too detailed; for graduates in Biblical Studies or Ancient Judaism, they lack philological and historical depth and precision. But there can be no doubt that Erhard Gerstenberger has produced the best volume in that series by far.

Ernst Axel Knauf

Bern University

axel.knauf@theol.unibe.ch