Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Jewish History – the Missing Centuries


[studying the Talmud, but not history]

One thing which has always puzzled me is the lack of Jewish historical records.

The Hebrew Bible covers history from the creation of Adam up until just before the Greek invasion of Palestine – a period of about 3,500 years. After that, however, most Orthodox Jews have only a very vague idea of Jewish history. In the last twenty years or so a number of books have been published and I think some Orthodox girls’ schools teach Jewish history classes, however traditionally this topic has been pretty much ignored.

Jewish genealogy is also very sparsely documented. Some Jews can trace there lineage back to Rashi, however that’s as far back as anyone can go. Very few Jews know much about their ancestors beyond living memory – the past century perhaps. This is surprising considering that Jews have always been literate. One of my hobbies is genealogy and I know that many people, especially from Protestant families, can find quite a bit of information going back centuries.

I recently heard a tape by Rabbi Avigdor Miller obm. He says in tape #92 that Jews never recorded their remarkable history because they knew that doing so was unnecessary. They knew that God was recording everything; nothing is going to be forgotten. Imagine that a digital video camera is recording everything you do and say and even everything you think and it’s all being archived on YouTube forever. No other records are necessary.

I also have an impression that the immense emphasis placed by Jews on studying the Talmud meant that any other type of literature, including history, was basically considered to be an unnecessary distraction. If I remember correctly, the Steipler obm once said that as a child he realized that studying the Talmud was more important than reading inspirational stories about great rabbis.

23 comments:

BlackEyedP said...

JP - I love this post. In it you provide wonderful information without attacking anyone. Kudos.

jewish philosopher said...

P, I'm an amazing man. Just don't think anything inappropriate about me.

Anonymous said...

Actually, not much is known about the two-century long Persian period either. In fact, the Sages believed that the Persian empire lasted for only 45 years and that the first temple was destroyed in 421 BCE. Yet, the incontrovertible historical fact is that it was destroyed in 586 BCE. So, there is 165 gap in the traditional jewish historical account. Also, virtually nothing is known about jewish life outside of Israel during the period of the Exile and the second temple even though more jews lived in Bavel and Egypt than in Israel during those years. For example, the bais hamikdash in Elephantine in Egypt stood for four centuries if I'm not mistaken.

The Steipler's explanation is probably correct. Even today, no one in the charedi world shows much interest in preserving and collecting the events of our time and the recent past for posterity.

jewish philosopher said...

"the incontrovertible historical fact is that it was destroyed in 586 BCE"

I suppose you were there.

Anonymous said...

I understand that the confusion about the dates is due to what is written in the "Seder Olam" which is based upon one reading of the book of Daniel. But that passage in Seder Olam might have been added after the time of the Gemora. Our Seder Olam is not Chazal's. Josephus follows our Version of the Seder Olam. And most of what we know about Persian history comes from Herodotus, who was alwasy considered widely inaccurate. His own contemporaries called him the "father of lies". And the other records from the time are very spotty. There are no comtemporary accounts of Alexander the Great. Everything we know about him comes from stuff written centuries after his death.

Anonymous said...

Ok, "incontrovertible" may be overstating it, but I think it's accurate to say that (1) there is an enormous amount of archeological and historical evidence supporting the date of 586(2) there is no evidence apart from the later Rabbinic sources to support the date of 420 and (3) the date of 586 is not contested by a single historian. If the date were really 420 you would have to substantially rewrite the entire accepted history of the Near East, since the period of Nebuchadnetzer's rule over Babylon, during which the first temple was destroyed, was also a pivotal period for every other country in that part of the world. For example, it was his father who ended the Age of the Paraohs in Egypt at the battle of Kirkamush. The world is littered with archeological evidence of the Babylonian destruction of other ancient civilizations. To say that historians have placed his reign, not just in the wrong decade, but in the wrong century is not much different from asserting that the sun really does rotate around the earth. Is it possible that the ancient sages were right about that and Galileo and Keppler were wrong? Certainly. But is it likely? Not even the Catholic Church pretends to believe that, right?

alex said...

"Even today, no one in the charedi world shows much interest in preserving and collecting the events of our time and the recent past for posterity."

Anonymous goofed by saying "no one."
See: http://www.artscroll.com/Books/shnos.html

jewish philosopher said...

"there is an enormous amount of archeological and historical evidence supporting the date of 586"

In fact, there is almost none. Basically, Herodotus.

It think it's expectable that gentile chronicles, which are full of errors, will disagree with inerrant Biblical history.

onionsoupmix said...

Does Rabbi Miller think God is not recording Gentile history, then? That's why those silly goyim need history books, I guess, and Jews don't?

jewish philosopher said...

Of course God is. But the silly gentiles don't realize it.

Anonymous said...

>In fact, there is almost none. Basically, Herodotus.

That is a misconception. See here:

http://www.talkreason.org/articles/fixing1.cfm

jewish philosopher said...

I don't think it's really a big deal. Talkreason keeps mentioning "science" but since when is history "science"?

Anyway, I think it's all not much of a problem.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missing_years_(Hebrew_calendar)#Critiques_of_secular_dating

Most probably Jews, who mourn the destruction of the Temple annually, know better when it was destroyed than anyone else does.

Anonymous said...

I would urge you to take the time to read the article I referenced. It includes a fairly exhaustive discussion of the apologetic critiques of secular dating. It speaks for itself.

>Most probably Jews, who mourn the destruction of the Temple annually, know better when it was destroyed than anyone else does.

The date of destruction as the ninth of Av was certainly an important one in jewish ritual observance and should probably be trusted for that reason. However, the year of the destruction would not necessarily have been observed, especially once the Second Temple had been built. As you noted in your post, the jews did not pay too much attention to history.

Note also that the year of desctruction is hardly "inerrant Biblical history" as you claim (assuming Biblical history is inerrant). It is entirely from post-Biblical sources, as a commentator noted above. The Biblical accounts are arguably better reconciled with the earlier date which would more plausibly explain how six generations of high priests could have served between the destruction and Ezra and would also explain why Ezra and Nechemia seemed to be unaware of each other's existence and activities, among other things.

jewish philosopher said...

I did read it, however I fail to see why Greek chronicles are "scientific" and therefore Jewish chronicles are wrong.

jewish philosopher said...

I think this article gives some idea of the complexity of the chronological research of the period of the first Temple.

http://www.asor.org/pubs/jcs/52/boiy.pdf

It's not as if we have copies of the New York Times dated 586 BCE with the headline "Temple destroyed in Jerusalem today".

Anonymous said...

>I fail to see why Greek chronicles are "scientific" and therefore Jewish chronicles are wrong.

There is a lot of Persian, Babylonian, Egyptian and other archeological evidence that bears on the dates of events tied to the destruction of the temple. For example, we know from other sources when Nebuchadnetzer, Sancherib and Paraoh Necho lived and those dates don't make any sense if the the temple as destroyed in 420. Moreover, even the Greek chronicles should be viewed as more reliable than the Rabbinic traditions given their much earlier dates.

The article you mention deals with the Second Temple period rather than the First Temple period though that does not weaken your point about the general uncertainty of dates in ancient history of course. The article deals with pretty minor ranges of uncertainty though. It's on a different scale from shifting the date of the Babylonian empire back two centuries.

jewish philosopher said...

The article deals with some of the archeological evidence about the chronology of that period.

I understand that most people would consider Herodotus to more authoritative than the midrash because he was written earlier, however I doubt that the Jewish people would be wrong about the date of the Temple's destruction.

Ploni Almoni said...

Anonymous: Do you have a source for Seder Olam not being Chazal's? Preferably one not written by apikorsim? :-) I have read Seder Olam and according to the introduction printed with it (Jason Aronson ed.) it indeed is from that era. The only indications of it not being Chazal's is that Chazal quote from passages *missing*, not contradicting, our perhaps incomplete text - and these missing portions do not constitute records of the length of the Persian empire, which of course is extant in Seder Olam.

Anonymous said...

Chazal quote "Seder Olam". What I meant was that our version of Seder Olam might not be what Chazal had. It might have been corrupted after the Gemora was wrtitten. This could account for the problem with the Chronology.

defenestration said...

No one mentioned Rav Schwab's article on the "missing years."

Anonymous said...

I do not understand how you admit that there is virtually no record of Jews and Jewish life for thousands of years, while at the same time you base your entire argument of Jewish validity on Mass revelation.

How can you say that the Jewish people agreed on Torah being given at Mount Sinai while at the same time admitting that you know nothing about Jews for thousands of years?

DrJ said...

Regarding the final paragraph of your post, the Talmud is indeed the core of orthodox Judaism as we know it today.

However you must concede that, just as the Talmud is the creative interpretation and re-interpretation of the Bible, so are the rishonim and achronim living and evolving interpretations of the talmud. The talmud is not "frozen" and nor is halacha.

jewish philosopher said...

"How can you say that the Jewish people agreed on Torah being given at Mount Sinai while at the same time admitting that you know nothing about Jews for thousands of years?"

Why not? What we know we know, what we don't know we don't know. The average Jew today may not have any idea where his great-great-grandfather lived, nor does he really care, but he does know that God gave the Torah at Mount Sinai.