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The Shadow of God: Stories from Early Judaism




(Hendrickson Publishers, 2003) Essay on Historical Imagination as Applied to Early Judaism



By Leo Sandgren
Dept. of Religion & Jewish Studies
University of Florida
April 2004


When one writes a book that is commonly done in a given field of study, one has to justify why (besides publish or perish) one is writing yet another book to complement the others already out there. But when one writes a book that is not done, or rarely done, one has to justify why it should be done at all. The Shadow of God, which may be characterized as a work of "historical imagination," falls into the latter category, covering six centuries of Jewish history, from the Babylonian exile to the destruction of the Second Temple, in 15 stories, each centered on a historical event. What is the justification for this approach to a short history of early Judaism?

If not a source of justification, at least one of the early encouragements I had toward the project came in a statement of E. P. Sanders, one of the leading scholars of Early Judaism. In his book Judaism: Practice and Belief, Sanders sought to enlighten readers on what Judaism of the first century was really like, as opposed to how most such books pictured it. One example is the picture of the Pharisees, which over the years had given rise to its own adjective, pharisaical, a synonym for hypocritical: in short, a curt and unkind caricature. In this context he says: "We may be certain, for example, that the Pharisees believed in both providence and free will, as did the sectarians, but we cannot describe what they specifically said and how they thought about these topics. We miss their passion, their depth, their insight. We are left with propositions, theological opinions, which are quite important, but which are a long way from what we would like to have. I am sure that Paul was not the only first-century Pharisee with driving commitment, quick intelligence, and passionate devotion. If, by an act of creative reading, we could apply these qualities to the Pharisees' views, we would probably be closer to the essence of Pharisaism. I shall not attempt to write this way because I do not have this skill; perhaps the reader will make good the deficit." (Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE - 66 CE [Philadelphia: Trinity Press International] 1992, 415.)

Our sources give us some of the results from the deliberation of the Pharisees, but we have to imagine the emotional intensity and the thought processes that produced the opinions handed down. Emotions are basic to humanity and remain fairly stable from generation to generation, although the intensity of emotions varies by individual and circumstance. A thought process is more elusive but is subject to deductive reasoning, and therefore it is a worthy goal of scholarship. Sanders calls for "creative reading," and he might have tried his hand at "creative writing" but chose not to. In any case, the act of creative reading requires a good deal of historical knowledge if it is to be authentic, and not all readers have the time to equip themselves with this knowledge. Hence, there is a niche for creative historical writing.

More recently, another scholar highly esteemed in his field of Roman antiquities, Keith Hopkins, justified this creative approach to history in his book A World Full of Gods. Whether or not one appreciates his fictional style (and my approach is far less daring), his justification is sound when he states in the introduction: "But history is, or should be, a subtle combination of empathetic imagination and critical analysis. This history plays on several irreconcilable tensions. What was it like to be there? We don't and cannot know. And yet surely empathetic imagination should play its part. We have to imagine what Romans, pagans, Jews, and Christians thought, felt, experienced, believed. But, as with baroque music played on ancient instruments, we listen with twentieth-century ears. We read ancient sources with modern minds. ... We cannot reproduce antiquity. And religious history is necessarily subjective." (Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods: the Strange Triumph of Christianity [New York: Plume, 2001] 2.)

I have taken up this task of creative writing because I enjoy it, and I think there is a place for it in the study of history. The human factor in history is best re-enacted, rather than described. But since the re-enactment claims to imitate history, it is subject to the methods of studying history and of the historical imagination.

The phrase "historical imagination" is widely used today in works of history and goes back to post-enlightenment writing of history. In essence, the historical imagination is an attempt to relive the past, to stretch the common thread of human nature back into a world view of the past, or in the words of J. B. Mozley, "the habit of realizing past time, of putting history before ourselves in such a light that the persons and events...are seen as once living persons and events once present events." (J. B. Mozley, On Miracles, i. 2, Bampton Lectures, 1865.)

The phrase was refined by R. G. Collingwood in his inaugural lecture, "The Historical Imagination." (The Historical Imagination: An Inaugural Lecture, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935; the lecture is included in The Idea of History, 231-249.) Collingwood's grand task was to establish a philosophy of history, in which he argued that imagination plays an essential role in the writing of history. By imagination, he meant the mental process of filling in the gaps with those data we have called historical facts. In order to construct history, we must connect the dots of historical fact with historical imagination. Collingwood called this "a priori imagination...which, bridging the gaps between what our authorities tell us, gives the historical narrative or description its continuity." This "historical imagination is not properly ornamental, but structural. Without it the historian would have no narrative to adorn. The imagination, that 'blind but indispensable faculty' without which, as Kant has shown, we could never perceive the world around us, is indispensable in the same way to history: it is this which, operating not capriciously as fancy but in its a priori form, does the entire work of historical construction." (Collingwood, Historical Imagination, 13.)

Collingwood admits that the historian and the historical novelist are engaged in a similar pursuit, but the historical novel goes beyond a priori imagination. A novelist "composes a story where characters and incidents are all alike imaginary; yet the whole aim of the novelist is to show the characters acting and the incidents developing in a manner determined by a necessity internal to themselves. ... Here, and equally in all other kinds of art, the a priori imagination is at work." (Collingwood, Historical Imagination, 14.)

About the time that Collingwood was developing his philosophy of history in 1935, another historian, but also a novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger (author of the Josephus trilogy), was making his case for the serious historical novel. According to Feuchtwanger, the historical novel is a means of setting our present conflicts onto a more distant plane of history in order to view our own world from a more dispassionate perspective. But the novelist in no way attempts to write history. "I cannot imagine," he says, "that a serious novelist, when working with historical subject matter, could ever regard historical facts as anything other than a means of achieving distance, as a metaphor, in order to render his own feelings, his own era, his own philosophy, and himself as accurately as possible." (Feuchtwanger, "The Purpose of the Historical Novel," translated by John Ahouse, "Vom Sinn des historischen Romans," in Das Neue Tage Buch, 1935.)

The goal of novelist, by means of historical imagination, is to explain the present, while the goal of the historian, by means of historical imagination, is to explain the past. Given that distinction, the goal of The Shadow of God is that of the historian, to explain the past, and any relevance to the present may be laid to the fact that life has its constants: the more things change, the more they stay the same. On the other hand, like the historical novel, a short story uses historical facts to recreate the drama of life. I am not concerned with explaining events but with illuminating thought processes. How did people think about the problems they confronted, and how might they have expressed their thoughts in actions and dialogue?

The dialogue is fiction, and it is probably fiction even when I quote ancient dialogue, such as from Philo and Josephus, who themselves felt at liberty to recreate dialogue for the principle actors of their histories. The main critique of fictional dialogue is whether or not it is plausible. And the story plots are fiction, although some are tied very closely to the plot given us by ancient sources. Both dialogue and plot, however, are constrained by the limits of the historian: 1) the picture must be localized in space and time; 2) all history must be consistent with itself; 3) the historian's picture stands in a peculiar relation to something called evidence. (Collingwood, Historical Imagination 18.)

In short, I am not primarily concerned with what did occur but with what might have been possible responses to what probably did occur. By this means, the goal is to clarify how Judaism developed over six centuries. The emphasis is on the journey itself, not a description of the milestones. The journey is imagined, just as history is the imagined reconstruction of the past by a single subjective mind whose reconstruction may be critiqued by others, if and only if, they have an equally firm grasp of the data of the past. The stories in The Shadow of God are my reconstructions of Jewish history. And I echo the sentiments of Keith Hopkins: that to re-experience life in antiquity, "we have to combine ancient perceptions, however partial, with modern understandings, however misleading." (Hopkins, A World Full of Gods, 6.)

I had three structural goals for the project: 1) the development of key themes: the universalism of God and of Torah, the particularism of Jewish identity, and the development of Jewish Christianity; 2) a fairly complete portrayal of society: the major stereotypes, but including non Jews, men and women, servants and masters; and 3) anchoring the stories to significant historical events that in themselves demonstrate the growth of Judaism. Beyond these goals of content, I hoped to engage the reader with the plots, narrative, and dialogue, that is, to draw the reader into the world of the story.

Historical imagination strives for authenticity of the era in thought as well as setting. In recent times, filmmakers have gone to extraordinary lengths for historical accuracy in the settings and minutia. The description of the background and the minor details of daily life ought to reflect our best knowledge of the era. The reader should have a confident sense of being there, not being in a poorly furnished museum. But more importantly, the thoughts expressed must also be limited to the potential for thought during the era.

Here I should say something about anachronism. Like cholesterol, there is good and bad anachronism. Anything that does not belong, whether catus in first-century Palestine or codices and candles before they were invented, is bad for the historical setting and unnecessary because life was lived without them. If we are to recreate an accurate worldview in a distant time, we are helped by an accurate view of the world in which people lived. What people did not have could not influence them. What they needed to survive became life sustaining and highly valued, such as water and salt and herbs. We need only remember that today people in more primitive societies do see life differently from those in the opulent societies.

Some anachronism, however, is necessary because we are engaged in translating ancient thought into modern understanding. Good anachronism usually takes the form of idiom and dialect. We have a sense of the way provincials speak and act, so for the sake of economy, we may apply modern stereotypes to ancient stereotypes. The danger lies in a dialogue too easily identified with a modern locale or ethnicity that will draw the reader out of antiquity. We are on firmer ground when portraying the wealthy elite of antiquity for we have writings to help us along, but still, it is useful to use modern stereotypes, and when I think of high society, I think in a British accent. Humor is another potential area for good anachronism, so long as the joke works in antiquity. We have examples of ancient humor, but often it does not translate easily, and to have to explain it, even in a footnote, misses the humorous punch in the narrative itself. In my view, Yiddish humor, though clearly anachronistic, can be reworked for early rabbis and Pharisees.

In order to facilitate cohesion and the necessary historical background to each story, I use the voice of a named narrator, Leontius, who happens to be a scribe and librarian by training in the employ of Flavius Josephus. Leontius is the omniscient narrator of story telling, but because he is set within space and time, he is limited to what might be known in his space and time, the end of the first century of the Common Era. I doubt that I succeeded completely in keeping to this limitation, but I tried.

The dialogue then is fiction, but for the sake of the goal of historical imagination, we must try to limit our dialogue to that which might have been said, imitating and, when possible, quoting our historical sources. In The Shadow of God, I use ancient dialogue as often as I can, and I give the reference to my source whenever I feel it is warranted. For example, the first story, "Figurines of Clay," deals with the Jews exiled in Babylon, and the only historical character is the prophet Ezekiel. I use as many quotes from the book of Ezekiel as I could within the confines of the story, sometimes verbatim, other times in summary or condensed form. Ezekiel speaks his own words in a reconstructed setting which pits him against imaginary opponents whom we know existed because his preserved words were delivered against his opponents or to those in exile. In all of the stories, then, I describe people who must have existed, and in that sense it remains a priori imagination, and who say things people might have said, which is fiction.

Let me continue to expand on this approach by illustrating a few stories. The first story, set in 569 B.C.E., finds the Jewish people in the Babylonia settlement of Tel-Aviv, between the Tigris and Euphrates. They exhibit three basic responses to exile. One response is to remain faithful to Yahweh and hope for a return to Judah. But others of a more pragmatic bend of mind have rejected Yahweh and seek the blessings of greater gods, Marduk or the Queen of Heaven (as demonstrated in Jeremiah, chapter 44, by those Jews who fled to Egypt and rejected the call of the prophet Jeremiah to return to God). Others, perhaps the majority, hold a middle ground: they are uncertain about the power of Yahweh or that exile was a punishment for sin, so they live for the present and hope for the best. (This spectrum of belief is probably consistent across the centuries of human history: the devout, the apostate, and the vast majority between the bold extremes.) The task of the story is to give voices to each attitude and do so within a real life conflict setting, that is, a story plot.

The plot is simple. On the eve of Nebuchadrezzar's invasion of Egypt, the Jew Hattil, a soldier in the Babylonian army, visits his parents Eliakim and Marah before departing on a mission. During the Sabbath meal, Hattil expresses his confidence that the god Marduk will give the king victory, and this indiscretion leads to a dispute between father and son over the power and providence of Yahweh; the mother, Marah, quietly hides her own devotion to Astarte. The following afternoon, Hattil confronts the prophet Ezekiel in the village square. As a result of the confrontation in which Hattil publicly rejects Yahweh, Ezekiel condemns him to death, and the Jewish community is caught between the laws of God and the law of the land. They are powerless, for they cannot harm a soldier of the king, even though he is a member of their community subject to their traditional judgment. Thus begins the Jewish political tradition of exile where the laws of God are in uneasy tension with the laws of the king. The themes of Yahweh's universalism and the particularism of Jewish identity are also sown in the first story since Jews expect to worship God outside the land of Judah and keep themselves distinct from their non-Jewish neighbors.

By the time of Ezra (ca. 450 B.C.E.), mixed marriages among the returned exiles in Judah are a concern, and when Ezra rules that mixed marriages be dissolved and non-Jewish women and their children be sent away, the dilemma for many Jews would have been very real. Modern Jews (and for that matter, Christians and Muslims) may easily identify with the tension of marriage outside the faith, so the historical incident recounted in Ezra-Nehemiah becomes a good case for exercising the historical imagination. In the second story, "Uriah's Dilemma," Uriah has fathered six children by his Moabite wife, Orpah, and his dilemma is whether to send them away or be excommunicated in his own land. What is at stake is the identity of the Jewish people and the struggle to establish monotheistic Judaism.

The tension between universalism and particularism remains the central theme for the next story, "Great is Yah of Elephantin├ę," and reaches the historical breaking point of the Maccabean revolt in the fifth story, "The Lawless Ones." The phrase "lawless ones" is taken from the label applied to the Hellenists by the author of 1 Maccabees, so the story is told from the point of view of the Hellenists, mediated again through a middle position of a handmaid to a wealthy family. As Leontius explains, "the official tradition in the books of the Maccabees is inexcusably one sided, as histories written by victors invariably are, and it is our task to balance the tradition." At this point in the history of Judaism, we introduce the early attempts to "reform" the Jewish customs by means of allegorical interpretation of Torah, as well as the excessive rejection of traditions, and the inevitable backlash of the literalists.

The second objective, a fairly complete portrayal of society including the major stereotypes, begins with the Essenes in the sixth story, "The Pious Ones," and continues to the end. "A Fence Around Torah" describes the Pharisees as they adapt to Herod's rule (ca. 20 B.C.E.), and here I try to meet the expectations of E. P. Sanders for recalling the passion and piety of the Pharisees, as well as to introduce the oral Torah. In the story "Sacrilege," I take a short passage from Josephus in which he describes a band of Samaritans who, during Passover, defiled the temple precinct with human bones (ca. 8 C.E.). This setting provides the opportunity to describe daily temple sacrifice, the Passover sacrifice, Levites and priests, and also the essentials of the controversy between Samaritans and Jews. The last of the main groups, the Sadducees, is included in the most unusual story of the lot, "I See." The story is unusual because I give greater control to the narrator, Leontius, and he tells the story through the viewpoint of a blind man, Jokim. I chose this method because I introduce the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, and I wished to allude, tongue in cheek, to the entire modern quest for the historical Jesus, with a subtle play on historical imagination as blind imagination. Perhaps I overreached. On the book's dust jacket, the publisher describes this story as a fable.

The remaining stories introduce Diaspora Jews, in Rome and Alexandria, the start of Christianity with Paul in Athens, and Prisca in Ephesus, and Gentile converts to Judaism and Christianity. The final story, "Destinies," takes its basis from the legend of "The Flight of Johanan ben Zakkai," in which Johanan escapes from Jerusalem during the siege of Vespasian in 69 C.E. This last story is a prime example of the value and limits of historical imagination. Historically, the importance of the legend is that it gave rabbinic Judaism its legal legitimacy by means of Roman sanction on the founder of the academy in Yavneh (Jamnia) after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The legend comes to us in four accounts, representing two distinct traditions: 1) Babylonian Talmud Gittin 56a-b and Lamentations Rabbah 1.31; 2) Avot d'Rabbi Nathan A, chapter 4, and Avot d'Rabbi Nathan B, chapter 6. Scholarship has been reluctant to attribute a historical basis to the legend, though there is nothing inherently implausible in its basic statement. The encounter of a Roman general with a revered sage of Jerusalem no more strains credulity than Josephus' account of a similar encounter which led to his freedom. Few seriously question the tradition that Johanan ben Zakkai founded rabbinic Judaism at Yavneh. How he got there is the stuff of legends.

What I have tried to do is re-enact a possible scenario, using the best evaluations of the evidence by other scholars who have argued for a historical kernel, in order to elaborate the thought process of those actors who must have deliberated their predicament. Johanan realizes, belatedly, that Jerusalem is lost, and his final service to his people is a daring attempt to save the authoritative position of the sages for a future rebuilding of Israel without a temple. The imagined conversation with general Vespasian draws not only on the realpolitik of the moment from both the Roman and the Jewish points of view but also on the interpretation of a biblical prophecy (Isaiah 10:34 - 11:2) which is part of the legend. We can accept or reject the reasoning of the rabbinic tradition that the events are a fulfillment of divine prophecy, but we are on firmer ground when we accept that Johanan and all his compatriots wished to find divine providence in their lives. Assuming that a brief encounter between the sage and the general is historical, we can try to see the situation as they saw it and retell the story for our own benefit. In so doing, we can certainly make a full evaluation of what data of the period remains, describe the political situation, recount the sort of reasoning that is plausible, and put it into a fictional dialogue. We cannot, however, argue that Johanan actually obtained the authority he sought from Vespasian because our sources do not sustain such certainty.

Every ancient historical source that we have to work with does essentially the same thing as I have suggested. Josephus embellished the predicament of the Zealots on Masada, inventing dialogue for Eleazar ben Yair and perhaps doing the same with Johanan's scenario, but either he did not know of it, or he felt it was too similar to his own story of emancipation (and it has been suggested that he borrowed the story of Ben Zakkai to fashion his own, which he wrote after the war). In any case, he says nothing about it. That is left to his fictitious scribe, Leontius.

If works of historical imagination are to be taken seriously, they must be undertaken seriously. The value of historical imagination is to fill in what our sources have left out, but what we know must have been there. And we can expand from a few bits of historical memory into a fuller picture of ancient thought. A danger of historical imagination is that while using an art form of story telling and dialogue, we too easily project modern attitudes onto antiquity, but this is a danger for all historians and can only be guarded against by a careful comparison with our ancient sources. A second danger of historical fiction is that it can beguile the reader into thinking what might have occurred, did occur. Here, it is the responsibility of the historian cum story teller to help keep the known historical data separate from the fictional elaboration. Toward that end, I provide fairly complete endnotes to the sources, and a clarification of the historical and fictional characters in the chronology at the end of the book. Even so, I am aware of the potential for confusion, and such works of historical imagination are best read as supplements to more formal histories. It won't replace good old fashioned history as done by the German scholars, but it can breathe some life into their histories. Each contributes to the other.