John J. Collins on the Invention of Judaism

In ASOR’s publication, The Ancient Near East Today (August 2017, vol. 5, no. 8), John J. Collins provides a very informative summary of his new book:

The Invention of Judaism: Torah and Jewish Identity from Deuteronomy to Paul. Taubman Lectures in Jewish Studies 7. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017.

Notably, for Collins, there is something distinctly religious (in concept, if not in name) about being Jewish by the second century BCE:

“In the second century BCE, the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes issued a decree proscribing the ancestral laws of Judea…. According to 2 Maccabees, chapter 6 “it was impossible either to keep the Sabbath, to observe the ancestral festivals, or openly confess oneself to be a Ioudaios.”…  It is clear that Epiphanes was not forbidding people to say where they were from. The decree presupposed a normative understanding of what it meant to be a Ioudaios: to observe the Law of Moses, at least in its distinctive practices. What Epiphanes tried to do was to suppress the distinctive identity of the people of Judah, by proscribing the traditional formulation of their way of life.”

Collins then describes how the Jewish Torah (Law) was largely unknown before Ezra’s arrival in Judah (traditionally dated to 458 BCE), and even then its laws were not followed in any literal sense until “the attempt by Antiochus Epiphanes to suppress it”.

It’s a good summary of the early development of Judaism, Jewish identity, and Torah observance: read the article here.

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John J. Collins in the Huff Post: Dead Sea Scrolls are Great for Knowledge about Ancient Judaism, Even Better for Fueling Conspiracy Theories

John J. Collins writes a few thoughts about what we have learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls. He makes some points about how they have increased our knowledge of ancient Judaism, such as this one:

The Scrolls provide ample evidence that the kind of apocalyptic and eschatological speculations found in apocalyptic literature, and cherished by early Christians, were at home in Judaism around the turn of the era
– John J. Collins, “Dead Sea Scrolls: What Have We Learned?”, Huff Post Religion, 22 October 2012

And he laments how they have fueled speculations and conspiracy theories about Christian origins – a subject for which the pre-Christian Dead Sea Scrolls offer only secondary evidence:

The area of scholarship that has suffered most from wild speculation is the relevance of the Scrolls for Christian origins. Within a few years of the discovery, claims were made that a figure called the Teacher of Righteousness in the Scrolls was crucified and believed to have risen from the dead. These claims were swiftly discredited, but revived in the 1990s by the British authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, in “The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception,” who claimed that the truth had been suppressed by a Vatican conspiracy. These claims have no basis.
– John J. Collins, “Dead Sea Scrolls: What Have We Learned?”, Huff Post Religion, 22 October 2012

Vatican conspiracies and rival messiahs, John. That’s sooooo 1990s. We’ve moved on to far more adventurous conspiracy theories, as one of your commenters demonstrates:

Thanks to the dead sea scrolls we know a lot more about those giant Nephilim dudes mentioned in Gen 6:4 and their giant daddy’s “the sons of god”. who happened to be mentioned as giant white 6 fingered, 6 toed people in the Mayan, Hopi, Chinese, Babylonian , Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Caanaite, Olmec, Toltec, Aztec, in can traditions and many,many more. The name Goliath Ring a bell? Time to wake up and smell the aliens you religious people. God exists, just not the one(s) mentioned in the bible or any religious text for that matter.
– Kragen Millsap, commenter to John J. Collins, “Dead Sea Scrolls: What Have We Learned?”, Huff Post Religion, 22 October 2012

Time to wake up and smell the aliens.

"Thanks to the dead sea scrolls we know a lot more about those giant Nephilim dudes mentioned in Gen 6:4 and their giant daddy's "the sons of god". who happened to be mentioned as giant white 6 fingered, 6 toed people in the Mayan, Hopi, Chinese, Babylonian , Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Caanaite, Olmec, Toltec, Aztec, in can traditions and many,many more"
“Thanks to the dead sea scrolls we know a lot more about those giant Nephilim dudes mentioned in Gen 6:4 and their giant daddy’s “the sons of god”. who happened to be mentioned as giant white 6 fingered, 6 toed people in the Mayan, Hopi, Chinese, Babylonian , Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Caanaite, Olmec, Toltec, Aztec, in can traditions and many,many more” – Kragen Millsap

Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism on Giants

Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism
Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism

I just spotted on the shelf of ‘recent arrivals’ the enormous – even gigantic – door-stop of a book, The Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism (John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow, eds, 2010). Applying what is widely known as The Rephaim Rule (that you can judge a book on ancient Judaism by what it says about Giants), I turned to the entry on ‘Giants’ written by John C. Reeves.

Overall, the article provides a fine summary of biblical and other early Jewish texts, and their reception in Talmudic and even Islamic sources. There are brief discussions of Anakim, Rephaim, and King Og in Deuteronomy, Targums, and Islamic sources. No mention of the two Goliaths, though.

But is the following correct?

The Hebrew word usually translated ‘giants’ is gibborim, which usually means ‘strong ones.’ It is glossed in Gen. 6:4 as ‘the famous heroes of antiquity’ (‘ašer me’olam ‘anše haššem).

Well, gibborim certainly appears in Gen. 6.4, but it is translated as ‘mighty men’ in the 400-year-old King James Version (cf. ‘heroes’ in NRSV and the NIV). The word which is rendered as ‘giants’ in Gen. 6.4, rather, is nephilim. Moreover, the only place that the KJV renders gibborim as ‘giants’ apart from the related Num. 13.33 is the odd Job 16.14. By contrast, the KJV renders rapha/rephaim as ‘giant’/’giants’ 17 times (Deut. 2.11, 20 (x2); 3.11, 13; Josh. 12.4; 13.12; 15.8; 17.15; 18.16; 2 Sam. 21.16, 18, 20, 22; 1 Chron. 20.4, 6, 8) and Nephilim as ‘giants’ two times (Gen. 6.4; Num. 13.33) and the NRSV only employs  ‘giant’ or ‘giants’ to render rapha / rephaim. The LXX typically renders both nephilim and gibborim as “giants” in Gen. 6.4, but it is not a usual translation for gibborim in other passages. Moreover, it is not entirely clear (due to the ugly structures of each of Gen. 6.4 and Num. 13.33, which are possibly due to the presence of later redaction or glosses) whether the terms nephilim and gibborim refer to one and the same group of beings, or if they refer instead to fathers and sons. Therefore, I’d say instead: “The term ‘giants’ is usually a translation of the Hebrew word rephaim…”.

Reeves also explains that the understanding of the Anakim from Num. 13.33 as Giants has three grounds. The first two are relatively uncontroversial, being the context of the verse and the way the terms are rendered in the Greek and other versions. But his third ground made me raise an eyebrow:

That these [Nephilim of Num. 13.33] were deemed giants emerges from…the testimony of Qur’an 5.20-26 wherein v. [sic] 22 explicitly terms the promised land’s inhabitants ‘giants’ (jabbarin).

The problem with this reasoning is twofold. First, in what sense can we determine that the Nephilim ‘were deemed’ Giants in the late Persian or early Hellenistic period based on the Qur’an’s paraphrase of Exodus and Numbers in the sixth century AD (i.e. about a millennium later)? Now, what the Qur’an does with this tradition is interesting in its own right, but as an uncritical paraphrase of the meaning of  the biblical text it is of very little value for determining its original meaning. Second, like its ancient Hebrew cognate gibborim, the Arabic jabbarin can mean both ‘giants’ and ‘mighty ones’, and much besides. So does jabbarin refer to the strength of the human inhabitants (Canaanites, Amorites, etc) or to the ‘giants’ (Anakim, Nephilim)? Both groups are mentioned in Num. 13! So to which does jabbarin refer? The employment of jabbarin in Surah 5.22 doesn’t necessarly refer to Giants at all.

Lastly, Reeves provides a fine summary of the typical ideological connotations of the Giant:

The label ‘giants’ is typically applied in proto-ethnographic literature to those persons or peoples who are biologically, chronologically, and/or spatially distant from contemporary cultural norms. Giants are thus freaks and monsters who do not fit within the accepted parameters which govern society. There can even be some question as to whether they should be categorized as human. 

A good summary overall, but a couple of points about which to scratch your head just a little. As for The Eerdman’s Dictionary of Ancient Judaism as a whole, it’s a whopper. It covers the whole period of Second Temple Judaism (538 BC – AD 70), and includes compehensive overview essays on subjects ranging from Jewish History, the Dead Sea scrolls, and early biblical interpretation, before the main feature: a thousand pages of dictionary entries.