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The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism by Jason A. Staples

28 January 2022

Charles Middleburgh reviews of study of how the idea of a people called Israel developed

NON-JEWISH visitors to any synagogue pre-pandemic, listening to the liturgy, would hear the word “Israel” used many times, in Hebrew and in English. For Jewish worshippers it would be clear to what the word referred each time: the Patriarch Jacob, the Jewish people, or the State of Israel. For the guests, it would be confusing.

Most Jews would not be overly analytical about the development of the meaning of the word Israel, because they would have grown up with buzz phrases like “klal Yisrael”, all Israel, meaning all Jews, and “kol Yisrael areivin zeh bazeh”, meaning every Jew is responsible, one for another.

Jason Staples, in The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism, takes a fresh approach to aspects of this subject. He states that his purpose is to explore the concept, “examining how the concept of Israel was developed, appropriated, and contested in the period roughly between the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587/586 BCE and its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE”.

His impetus is drawn from the fact that the “concept is central to the development of Judaism and eventually Christianity, each of which claimed ‘Israel’ for itself, over against its rivals, yet few ideas have proven as complex and elusive”.

After an introduction, “Investigating the Idea of Israel”, Staples divides his book into three parts: Israel’s Disputed Birthright; Restoration Eschatology and the Construction of Biblical Israel; and Israel and Restoration Eschatology in the Diaspora. Each part is subdivided into further sections, and the third part has the most.

Staples traces the concept’s development through its early history, particularly as exemplified in the books of the Hebrew Bible and key apocryphal and pseudepigraphical books, such as Enoch and 1 and 2 Maccabees.

Arguably, it is in the final part, Israel and Restoration Eschatology in the Diaspora, that the meatiest part of the book may be found. Staples drills down into key post-biblical texts, the Septuagint and Josephus, Philo of Alexandria and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and further apocryphal and pseudepigraphal books, including the Wisdom of Ben Sira, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and 2 Baruch.

In the 12th and final chapter, “Israel, Hebrews, Jews and Restoration Eschatology”, Jason Staples draws together the many threads of the book. He makes it clear that the various terms in use at different stages during the Second Temple period — Ioudaioi, Yehudim, Hebrews, Israelites, Jews — were much more nuanced during the period than might be imagined to be the case in non-scholarly circles.

Staples states that, during the period, “the three terms and the concepts they represent are neither synonymous nor coextensive in the Second Temple period, with each having its own specific nuance, overlapping with but not identical to the meaning of the others”.

He adds that the “difference in terminology is therefore not due to an insider/outsider distinction but instead owes to the long historical and theological background of the terms and the over-arching impact of the biblically mediated social memory of a past twelve-tribe Israel of which Judah was only one part”.

The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism, a labour of love on which Staples invested twenty years of thought and research, is a meticulous and copiously annotated book; while its contents might not shake the faith concepts of the Jew in the pew, for Jewish and Christian clergy, and scholars of both faiths and none, it is a text rich in thought-provoking argument and analysis, for which we are in his debt.

Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh is Dean and Director of Jewish Studies at Leo Baeck College, in London.


The Idea of Israel in Second Temple Judaism: A new theory of people, exile, and Israelite identity
Jason A. Staples
Cambridge University Press £29.99
Church Times Bookshop £27

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