King Josiah changed the religion of Israel in 623 BC. According to the Old Testament account in 2 Kings 23, he removed all manner of idolatrous items from the temple and purified his kingdom of Canaanite practices. Temple vessels made for Baal, Asherah, and the host of heaven were removed, idolatrous priests were deposed, the Asherah itself was taken from the temple and burned, and much more besides. An old law book had been discovered in the temple, and this had prompted the king to bring the religion of his kingdom into line with the requirements of that book (2 Kings 22:8–13; 2 Chronicles 34:14–20).1 There could be only one temple, it stated, and so all other places of sacrificial worship had to be destroyed (Deuteronomy 12:1–5). The law book is easily recognizable as Deuteronomy, and so King Josiah's purge is usually known as the Deuteronomic reform of the temple.
In 598 BC, twenty-five years after the work of Josiah, Jerusalem was attacked by the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 24:10–16; 25:1–9); eleven years after the first attack, they returned to destroy the city and the temple (586 BC). Refugees fled south to Egypt, and we read in the book of Jeremiah how they would not accept the prophet's interpretation of the disaster (Jeremiah 44:16–19). Jeremiah insisted that Jerusalem had fallen because of the sins of her people, but the refugees said it had fallen because of Josiah. The king is not mentioned by name, but there can be no doubt what the refugees had in mind.2 Until very recently, they said, they and their ancestors in Judah and Jerusalem had worshipped differently and had prospered, but when they changed their manner of worship, disaster had followed.
They had worshipped the Queen of Heaven by offering incense, libations, and special loaves to represent her.3 Now the Queen of Heaven is not mentioned in the account of Josiah's purge, but the major item removed from the temple was the Asherah, which was dragged out and burned. Later Jewish texts4 described the Asherah as a stylized tree, and Deuteronomy had forbidden any such tree or any pillar to be placed beside an altar for the Lord (Deuteronomy 16:21). It was these spiritual heirs of Josiah who returned from Babylon to rebuild the temple, and their influence can be found in many of the texts we now read as the Old Testament.5 These texts do not tell the whole story.
The refugees who fled to Egypt were not the only ones who thought that Josiah's purge had been a disaster. By surveying the extrabiblical texts that still survive, we can begin to piece together what Josiah destroyed. Many of those texts imply that Josiah's purge was a disaster.
In 1897 a text that described a group of covenanters in the land of Damascus was discovered in an old Cairo synagogue. Fragments of the same text were later found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, showing that the text had been known in the time of Jesus. This Damascus Document,6 as it is called, describes the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem as punishment for the unfaithfulness of the people—Jeremiah would have agreed with that, but it also says that the whole Second Temple era that followed was the age of wrath. Far from restoring the true religion of Jerusalem, the people who returned from Babylon to rebuild the temple were led by false teachers who had not been chosen by God. Israel had gone astray in the hidden things; they had lost the truth. They did not observe the true calendar or the correct forms of worship, and they had corrupt priests. The Damascus Covenant group believed that they were the guardians of the true priestly traditions and that their reward would be to return to the glory of Adam and to be resurrected. They had kept a record of their genealogies and of what they had done.7
The book of Enoch known as 1 Enoch8 gives a similar account.9 Preserved within the fifth section of this text is an ancient and cryptic account of the history of Israel. Each period is described as a "week" and so the text is known as the Apocalypse of Weeks. In the sixth week, all those who lived in the temple forsook wisdom and lost their vision, and then the temple was burned. Those who returned in the seventh week to rebuild the temple were an apostate generation whose deeds were evil.10 Elsewhere Enoch records that those who built this second temple made impure and polluted offerings. The people who preserved the Enoch texts looked forward to the Lord destroying that impure temple and building a new and greater temple in its place.11 They also claimed that the words of scripture had been altered by godless people.12
On one of his heavenly journeys, Enoch saw the fragrant tree of life that would one day be planted again in the temple and its fruit given to the righteous. He also saw dismembered branches from the tree, flourishing in a blessed place.13 In another vision, Enoch saw the fragrant tree as a fiery form, the place where the Lord came when he was in paradise.14 Yet another text describes the fragrant tree as shining like the sun, and with fruits like clusters of white grapes.15 Now the book of Proverbs describes wisdom as the tree of life (Proverbs 3:13, 18) and those who are devoted to her as happy, a word play that sounds like the name Asherah.16 In this way, by piecing together fragments of tradition and folk memory, we can glimpse what Josiah must have removed from the temple. The Asherah must have been the stylized tree of life, the symbol of wisdom.17 When Moses was told to make the seven-branched lamp for the tabernacle, the menorah, he was told to make it like an almond tree (Exodus 25:31–39), and so it was probably the original menorah that Josiah removed and destroyed.18
The work of Josiah was not forgotten. Even mainstream Jewish texts from well into the Christian era record that great changes took place at that time and that the second temple was inferior to the first. The great commentary on the book of Numbers, known as the Numbers Rabbah,19 said that in the time of the Messiah, five things would be restored that had been in the first temple but not in the second: the fire, the ark, the menorah, the spirit, and the cherubim.20 In other words, the true temple that the Messiah would restore was the first temple, the one Josiah had purged. The mystery here is the menorah: there had been a menorah in the second temple, but it cannot have been the true menorah if this was deemed to be missing from the second temple. The Babylonian Talmud records that Josiah had hidden away the ark, the holy anointing oil, the jar of manna, and Aaron's rod.21 Most of these items—the ark, the cherubim, the oil, the manna, and Aaron's rod—had been kept in the holy of holies to which only the high priests had access. In other words, Josiah's changes concerned the high priests and were thus changes at the very heart of the temple.
Josiah had not been the first king who attempted to change the religion of Israel and Judah. King Hezekiah, in whose time Isaiah was a prophet in Jerusalem, removed hilltop places of worship, destroyed sacred pillars, and broke down the Asherah (2 Kings 18:4). When the Assyrian envoys came to demoralize the people of Jerusalem, they said that their Lord would no longer protect the city because the king had destroyed his places of worship (Isaiah 36:7). Hezekiah was not seen by his contemporaries as a reformer. Hezekiah's predecessor, King Ahaz, had followed the older religion: he had burned incense at the hilltop shrines and under sacred trees and had even sacrificed his son (2 Chronicles 28:3–4; 2 Kings 16:3). Isaiah had no word of condemnation for Ahaz on these matters; he only rebuked him for his lack of faith in the Lord when Jerusalem was threatened by enemies. Isaiah, it would seem, favored the older ways. He spoke of the great tree that had been felled but preserved the holy seed in its stump (Isaiah 6:13),22 and he compared the Servant of the Lord to a branch of the menorah, damaged but still able to give light (Isaiah 42:3).23
Almost everything that Josiah swept away can be matched in the religion of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had built shrines all over the land, wherever the Lord had appeared to them, and they had offered sacrifices under great trees (Genesis 12:6–7) and set up pillars to mark holy places (Genesis 28:18). In the Old Testament as we know it, the patriarchs before the time of Moses and the kings after him followed the religion that Deuteronomy condemned and Josiah purged. The custom of child sacrifice, which Josiah abolished, had been required in the oldest of the Hebrew law codes (Exodus 22:29), and only the later modifications permitted a substitute offering of five silver shekels or a Levite for temple service (Exodus 13:15; Numbers 3:40–48).
This change is reflected in the way the story of Abraham and Isaac is told in our Old Testament. Abraham had thought that the sacrifice of his son was necessary, but the Lord told him that a substitute should be offered (Genesis 22:12–13). Another version of this story survived for centuries—namely, that Isaac had actually been sacrificed and then resurrected.24 Echoes of this version of the story seem to appear in both Jewish and Christian sources—in the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and in the early Christian writings of Barnabas and Clement of Rome25—and it is probably implied in the New Testament in the Letter to the Hebrews (Hebrews 11:17–19; also James 2:21). The sacrifice of the Son lies at the heart of Christianity, and the emphasis of the Letter to the Hebrews is that in the case of Jesus, no substitute was offered (Hebrews 9:12). This shows that memories of the older religion and its stories survived for centuries, even though they do not appear in the biblical texts.
Abraham too had paid his tithe to Melchizedek, the priest-king of Jerusalem (Genesis 14:18–20), and so the Melchizedek priesthood must have been part of the older religion.26 A fragmented text about Melchizedek was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (11Q13).27 He was a divine figure, the Messiah, expected to return at just the time when Jesus began his ministry and to make the final great atonement.28 A damaged portion of the text seems to mention teachers who have been kept hidden and secret.29 Nothing of the Melchizedek tradition survives in the biblical texts, apart from the Genesis account and one text in Psalm 110, and so we have to ask: Who preserved these Melchizedek traditions?
One way to reconstruct the religion of Jerusalem before Josiah's changes is to note how many of the practices forbidden by Deuteronomy are permitted elsewhere in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy, for example, denies that any vision of God was seen when the Law was given: "You saw no form; only a voice was heard" (Deuteronomy 4:12), and yet the account in Exodus says that Moses went up the mountain with the leaders and elders of Israel "and they saw the God of Israel" (Exodus 24:10).30 Isaiah had seen the Lord "high and lifted up and his train filled the temple" (Isaiah 6:1). The vision of God must have been a part of the older faith; there are several accounts of the Lord being in or emerging from his holy place to bring judgment (Deuteronomy 32:43; Habakkuk 2:20; Zephaniah 1:7),31 and also prayers for the Lord to "shine" upon his people (Numbers 6:25).
Deuteronomy condemns regard for the host of heaven (Deuteronomy 4:19), the angels who were represented by the stars, even though an ancient title for the Lord was the Lord of Hosts. The heavenly host of angels must have been part of the older faith.32
Deuteronomy also taught that the Law was to be the wisdom of the chosen people, that the Law would make them wise (Deuteronomy 4:6). The book of Proverbs says that it is Wisdom herself who makes her disciples wise (Proverbs 9:1–6). Wisdom must have been part of the older faith.33
All these three—visions of the Lord, the host of heaven, and wisdom—feature in the accounts of Josiah's purge: Enoch says that the priests in the temple lost their vision because they abandoned wisdom, and the account in 2 Kings 23 describes how certain houses in the temple that had belonged to "cult prostitutes" were destroyed. Exactly the same Hebrew letters can be read as "holy ones," angels.34 What Josiah probably destroyed were the places for the angels, just as he destroyed the Asherah, which was the symbol of Wisdom, the Queen of Heaven. Isaiah saw the Lord among the angels, and he said he had seen the Lord of Hosts in the temple (Isaiah 6:1–5). Except for one mention in the archaic poetry in Deuteronomy 32:8, which scholars do not believe was original to the book, Deuteronomy in the Masoretic tradition does not mention angels.
Another way to reconstruct the older faith is to compare certain Old Testament texts with the parallel accounts elsewhere. To take just one example, let us compare the account of the creation in Genesis 1 with other accounts in ancient texts. According to Genesis 1:3, on day one God said, "Let there be light" and then separated light from darkness. Now in the pattern of temple symbolism, the six days of creation corresponded to the six stages by which Moses erected the tabernacle: thus the first day corresponded to the holy of holies, the second day to the veil of the tabernacle, the third day to the table for the shewbread, and so forth. Whatever we read about day one will have been a secret of the holy of holies, accessible only to the high priests.35 In Genesis we are told nothing except that God created light and separated it from darkness. However, the book of Jubilees36 (another text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and preserved by the ancient church in Ethiopia) gives a fuller account of day one, and thus of the holy of holies. On day one the Lord created the angel spirits who serve before him, and the ranks of the angels are listed.37 A similar list appears in the Song of the Three Young Men in the fiery furnace, which is found in the Greek version of Daniel 3, but not in the Hebrew. The young men call on all creation to praise the Lord, beginning with a detailed account of the angels described in Jubilees as the works of day one. It is not until almost halfway through their song that they call on the works of the visible creation to offer praise. The readers of the book of Jubilees and the readers of the Greek Daniel knew that the angels had been the work of day one—but we do not learn this from Genesis. It comes as no surprise, though, that the angels were located in the holy of holies, which is where Isaiah saw the heavenly host. Presumably, knowledge of the angels had been a part of what Josiah sought to eliminate. As mentioned earlier, Deuteronomy does not mention angels.
Deuteronomy does, however, warn against the secret things, presumably the knowledge of the holy of holies. "The secret things belong to the Lord our God" (Deuteronomy 29:29). Deuteronomy does not deny that such secret things exist, but all that was necessary was to obey the Law and keep the revealed commandments.38 The affairs of the holy of holies were the exclusive preserve of the high priests. They alone had charge of the affairs of the altar and the holy of holies (Numbers 18:3), and they alone were permitted to look at the tabernacle furnishings (Numbers 4).39
The great angels had been known as the sons of God. It is ironical that, in the first of the two great poems appended to the book of Deuteronomy, we are given the clearest picture of these sons of God. "When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God" (Deuteronomy 32:8). There was one guardian angel for each nation.40 The poem goes on to say that Jacob was allotted to the Lord—in other words, that the Lord, the God of Israel, was the Son of God Most High. The older religion had not been monotheism in the way that that word is usually understood today. The Lord, the Son of God, had been the angel of Israel, or, as Isaiah said, the Holy One of Israel, since a holy one is an angel. The Lord as the Son of God Most High became a sensitive matter, and so there were two versions of this text in Hebrew. The Masoretic text on which most English translations are based does not have "sons of God" at this point but "sons of Israel," giving, "He fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel." The Old Greek and the Hebrew texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, have "sons of God," showing that God Most High apportioned the nations among his sons and that the Lord, the God of Israel, was the Son of God Most High.41 The early Christians read the Old Testament in this way; whenever the Lord appeared, for example, to Abraham, they recognized that it was an appearance of the second person of the Trinity, the Messiah, the Son of God.42
Once we know that the sons of God were an important part of the first temple religion, other Old Testament texts begin to appear in their original setting. The holy of holies was the place of the angels, and so the rituals of the holy of holies must have been associated with the world of the angels.43 According to the books of Chronicles, there was in the holy of holies a golden throne in the form of a chariot of cherubim (1 Chronicles 28:18). It was concealed behind the veil of the temple, mentioned in 2 Chronicles 3:14. The account in 1 Kings, influenced by the Deuteronomists, mentions neither the chariot throne nor the veil, so these must have been important items in the older religion. You will recall that the cherubim had been in the first temple but not the second and were to be restored in the time of the Messiah.44 Chronicles also reveals that when Solomon was made king, he sat on this chariot throne, described as the throne of the Lord, and when he was enthroned, the people worshipped him (1 Chronicles 29:20–23). "The people worshipped the Lord, the king" is the literal translation of 1 Chronicles 29:20. The king "was" the Lord.45 He was enthroned in the holy of holies, and he was the Lord. One of his titles, according to Isaiah, was Immanuel, "God with us." A human being had entered the holy of holies and become an angel. Isaiah records the song of the angels in the holy of holies as the new angel is born as a son of God: "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6).46
The most complete picture of the first temple religion has been preserved in the Enoch texts.47 Ancient leaders such as Noah and Moses assumed angelic status while they still lived on earth.48 Enoch was himself a high priest figure who entered the holy of holies and was transformed into an angel when he stood before the throne and was anointed and clothed by Michael. "He anointed me and he clothed me, and the appearance of that oil is greater than the greatest light, and it is like sweet dew and its fragrance is myrrh, and it is like the rays of the glittering sun. And I looked at myself and I had become like one of the glorious ones."49 You will recall that the anointing oil had disappeared in the time of Josiah50 and that there is almost nothing about Enoch in the Hebrew Bible even though he was a major figure among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
All the Enochic visions of the holy of holies must have been memories of the ancient rituals: the high priest taking petitions into the presence of God, the high priest looking out from the holy of holies and seeing all history spread before him so that he knew the future, the blood of the Righteous One being offered before the judgment could begin. This latter must have been a memory of the ancient rite of atonement, when the blood of the royal high priest was offered in the holy of holies, presumably using an animal substitute.51 Daniel's vision of the Man ascending with clouds to the Ancient of Days says, literally, "He was offered before him," and then he was given dominion (Daniel 7). Atonement is missing from Deuteronomy; the festival calendar in Deuteronomy 16 describes Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles—but no Day of Atonement.52 The final form of the Pentateuch, compiled under the influence of Josiah's party, denies that atonement is even possible. After Israel had sinned and made the golden calf, Moses went back up the mountain to offer himself as an atonement for their sin. The Lord said to Moses, "Whoever has sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book" (Exodus 32:33). Why had Moses thought that his self-sacrifice could have been an atonement for sin? Presumably there had once been a time when such things were thought possible.
The older faith did not disappear. The people who preserved the Enoch traditions kept the older faith, the community of the Damascus Covenant seems to have kept the older faith, those who wrote the Qumran Melchizedek text knew the date at which the older faith would be restored, and it emerged as the framework of early Christianity.53 Jesus was proclaimed in the Letter to the Hebrews as Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:14–17, 22),54 and John, in his vision recorded in the book of Revelation, saw the ark restored to the temple (Revelation 11:19).55
Remnants of the older faith survived in many places, preserved by the descendants of those who fled from Josiah's purge. There were the mysterious sons of Rechab whose story was told in the History of the Rechabites.56 Beneath the layers of fantasy and folk tale in this widely known ancient text, we glimpse a group who described themselves as angels and who had fled from Jerusalem after the time of Josiah. Angels had released them from prison, and they had escaped to the desert and crossed the great sea to a paradise land of fruit trees, honey, and abundant water. Angels continued to inform them about events in their former world, and so they knew about the life of Jesus. Zosimus, who visited the Rechabites, brought back stone tablets with an account of them. Now Rechab is an interesting name; it can also mean a chariot, and so the angel sons of Rechab might have been the devotees of the chariot throne in the temple who fled from Jerusalem after Josiah's purge and settled somewhere across a great sea.
Aramaic papyri found at Yeb in the south of Egypt, the Elephantine Papyri,57 describe a group who worshipped Yahu, another form of the Hebrew name of the Lord, but they also had divine names with feminine forms. None of the names was Egyptian, so they were not the result of local syncretism. They had built themselves a temple and had a priesthood—so they did not accept that there could be only one temple—and they corresponded with the high priest in Jerusalem. Originally they had made no blood sacrifices, just offerings of wine, incense, and cereals, like the refugees who fled to Egypt with Jeremiah. Isaiah had prophesied that there would be an altar for the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt (Isaiah 19:19) and five cities speaking the language of Canaan and worshipping the Lord of Hosts.
To the south of Yeb (Elephantine) in Ethiopia are the Qemant, another people who have preserved the older faith.58 They observe the Sabbath and the Old Testament food laws, and they worship one God who can appear in human form, whom they name Adara, not unlike the Hebrew word for "glorious one." They acknowledge seven great angels and expect the day of judgment. They know of Abraham and of Adam. They set up stone pillars and anoint them, and their holy men pray to Adara by sacred trees. Some of them have been taken up to heaven and were never seen again. There is also the tradition that the ark was taken to Ethiopia before the destruction of the first temple.59 The Christian monks in the Lake Tana monasteries still tell of the time before their people became Christian and how they kept the ark for many centuries until it was taken to Axum.
In western China, bordering Tibet, are the Chiang Min, a people whose way of life was recorded at the beginning of the last century by a Christian missionary. Their religion was identified as that of the Old Testament before Josiah's purge. That missionary's son is Professor Thomas Torrance, the distinguished theologian at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He wrote thus: "I myself am convinced of [my father's] main thesis. . . . The religious observances of the Chiang seem to derive from a period in Israel's history . . . before the centralization of the cult in Jerusalem had been carried out, when high place worship was still prevalent."60 The Chiang Min worship on a high place, with an altar of unhewn stones, a sacred tree behind the altar, and a white stone set between them. God, whom they called Abba Malak, came to his people through the sacred tree. They had remembered that Abba meant father, but had lost the meaning of Malak, which is clearly the Hebrew for angel. They had a sacred rod in the form of a snake twisting round a pole, and they called their faith "the White Religion."61
The religion of Abraham was long remembered as distinct from that of the Jews, who also had teachings of Moses. The Qur'an asked: "Do you claim that Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes were all Jews or Christians?"62 This "religion of Abraham" must have been the older faith, before Josiah and the Deuteronomists made Moses the more important figure. The earliest account of the life of Muhammad was written by Ibn Ishaq in the middle of the eighth century AD, and so only about one hundred years after the time of Muhammad. Before the prophet appeared, he wrote, four good men set out to seek the religion of their father Abraham, which they believed their people had corrupted. They accepted neither Judaism nor Christianity but sought the Hanifiya, who had kept the faith of Abraham. One of them went as far as Syria, where a Christian monk told him there was nobody left who kept the faith of Abraham, but that a prophet would soon appear.
On the southwest coast of India are the so-called black Jews, a group that claims to have traveled to India after the destruction of the temple.63 There seem to have been trading links between Palestine and southern India in the time of the first temple, and early Christian writings say that the apostles Thomas and Bartholomew went to India as missionaries.64 Pantaenus, who became the head of the Christian academy in Alexandria in the late second century AD, had in his younger days traveled as a missionary to India. There he found that Bartholomew had left them the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew, showing that Bartholomew had preached to a Jewish community in India.65
Perhaps the most compelling evidence for large numbers of people leaving Jerusalem after Josiah's purge is to be found in the Jerusalem Talmud, which is a compendium of Jewish teaching and traditions compiled around AD 400. It describes how a large number of young priests sided with Nebuchadnezzar against Jerusalem and then went to Arabia, where they were denied hospitality by the sons of Ishmael. This is presented in the Talmud66 as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 21:13–15 that those who had been in the forest of Lebanon—that is, the temple complex known as the house of the forest of Lebanon (1 Kings 7:2)—had gone to what Isaiah called "the thickets of Arabia." Jeremiah records that King Zedekiah was more afraid of the people who had deserted to the Babylonians than he was of the Babylonians themselves (Jeremiah 38:19). The priests who supported the Babylonians against Jerusalem must have been those who could not accept what had been done to the temple by Josiah. What they took with them to Arabia must have been the faith of the first temple, the religion Josiah had sought to purge.
We can never know for certain what it was that Josiah purged or why he did it. No original versions of the actual texts or records survive from that period, but even the stories as they have come down to us in various sources show that this was a time of major upheaval that was not forgotten. A thousand years after the events themselves, even mainstream Jewish texts remembered that the temple had been drastically changed, that large numbers of people had left the land, and that the true temple would only be restored in the time of the Messiah.
Margaret Barker presented this forum address at Brigham Young University on 6 May 2003. We have added footnotes to some of the sources where Margaret Barker discusses its issues in greater depth. The English translations of the ancient texts in this presentation are by the author.