Deuteronomy and Hittite Treaties

There has long been one very good reason to consider dating Deuteronomy far earlier than the seventh century, and to the second millennium BCE: certain core elements of the book seem to be based on treaty forms most similar to the Hittite treaties known from the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE. That Deuteronomy relies on the form of a treaty is another well-established consensus position in biblical scholarship.

See Also: Allusive Keywords

By Aaron Koller
Associate Professor of Bible
Yeshiva University
September 2014

A recent exchange of essays in the Journal of Ancient Judaism has highlighted an issue that has long festered in biblical studies, and which has recently been the subject of articles in the most prestigious journals in the field. Professor Joshua Berman has argued, in two papers in the Journal of Biblical Literature as well as in other writings, that comparative evidence supports a date for Deuteronomy in the second millennium BCE rather than in Neo-Assyrian times. This elicited a response from Professor Bernard Levinson and Professor Jeffrey Stackert, to which Berman responded; Levinson and Stackert have now written a detailed response to the response.[1]

What makes this exchange especially interesting is that the dating of Deuteronomy has long been the linchpin on which much of the rest of the dates assigned to biblical literature hangs.

A word of background is important for understanding the significance of Berman’s claim and the responses. Biblical scholars have long been very interested in dating the alleged sources found within the Torah. There are two types of dating: relative dating, meaning sequencing the sources in order from earliest to latest, and absolute dating, meaning given a specific date – for example, the thirteenth century – for one or more of the sources. In order to arrive at any real historical scheme, both types of datings are needed.

Let us take an example from a different realm. Based on internal Egyptian sources, we can reconstruct the list of pharaohs from the various dynasties. This gives us only a relative dating, however: we may know that there was a king Amenemhat who ruled for 30 years, followed by Senwosret who ruled for 45, and so on, but we would have no way of situating these kings on a time line with actual dates. We need some other way of pinning this all on a time line, some data point that will enable absolute dating: we need something to enable us to say that Amenemhat came to the throne in 1991 BCE. Theoretically, only one data point is needed for this. With that in place, all the relative information can be used to situate everything else in an absolute scheme.

Scholars have often argued that the Torah is comprised of originally disparate sources. They have often disagreed about sequencing those sources on a timeline, however. What they have usually agreed on is the linchpin: the book of Deuteronomy is regularly dated to the seventh century BCE. If other sources are judged to be earlier than Deuteronomy, they are perforce earlier than the seventh century; if they are later than Deuteronomy, they are no earlier than the sixth century – namely, the period of the Babylonian Exile.

The view that Deuteronomy dates to the seventh century has been the prevalent one since at least Wilhelm M. L. de Wette, in the very beginning of the nineteenth century. De Wette’s argument was based primarily on a two-part argument: (1) Deuteronomy was the book found in Josiah’s eighteenth year (622 BCE), which provoked Josiah’s reforms; (2) the book was new at that time.

The first part of this argument goes back to long before De Wette,[2] and he himself was apparently only reflecting what he took to be the conventional view. The early Church Fathers – Jerome, among others – held this view,[3] as did the commentator printed as Rashi on Chronicles,[4] as well as Hobbes in the late medieval period.[5] The primary justification for this conclusion is the number of parallels between the narrative of Josiah’s reforms (2 Kings 22-23) and the book of Deuteronomy.[6]

Scholars have repeatedly returned to this point, to fortify it against opposing views. In the 1920s there was a push to down-date Deuteronomy to the period after the Exile. In 1927, the Journal of Biblical Literature held a symposium on the date of Deuteronomy, in the face of a strong push to date it post-exilically. Lewis Bayles-Paton wrote a thorough article there entitled “The Case For the Post-Exilic Origin of Deuteronomy,” whose point was to destroy that case. Bayles-Paton listed 27 features of the Kings narrative that were explicable only by assuming that the book found was Deuteronomy.[7] Other scholars pointed out that the same later author who wrote Deuteronomy could have rewritten the account of Josiah’s reforms to make it correspond to the laws he was legislating.[8]

The great Biblicist S. R. Driver fought hard against the opposite view: that Deuteronomy was composed before the seventh century. He was willing to allow a date as early Manasseh or the early years of Josiah, but no earlier, and for this he lists ten reasons.[9] These reasons basically boiled down to the fact that Josiah is the first king who is said to have fulfilled the precepts of Deuteronomy, thus making an earlier existence for the book doubtful.

The standard view was defended again in the 1960s by H. H. Rowley.[10] There have been some modifications and alternatives propounded, which remain within the same fundamental perspective. Thus, Moshe Weinfeld argued that the book developed from the late eighth century through the later seventh,[11] and others have argued for an early seventh-century date. Broadly, this approach remains the mainstream position, notwithstanding minimalistic attacks on the view that Deuteronomy – or any part of the Bible – was textualized before the Exile. In 1985, Norbert Lohfink commented, “Hardly any new perspective seems to have appeared…. The consensus continues to identify Deuteronomy [as the found book of 2 Kings 22] in some form or another.”[12]

There has long been one very good reason to consider dating Deuteronomy far earlier than the seventh century, and to the second millennium BCE: certain core elements of the book seem to be based on treaty forms most similar to the Hittite treaties known from the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE. That Deuteronomy relies on the form of a treaty is another well-established consensus position in biblical scholarship. The book has seven parts:

Preamble: 1:1-5

Historical prologue: 1:6-4:40

Basic stipulation of allegiance: 5-11

Covenantal clauses: 12-26

Invocation of witnesses: 4:26; 30:19; 31:28

Blessings and curses: 28

Oath-imprecation: 29:9-28

These seven parts find their parallels in the second millennium Hittite treaties.[13] There are also treaties known from the seventh century; these are Neo-Assyrian treaties, and they are somewhat different in form from the Hittite examples. In particular, there is no historical prologue, and the blessings for loyalty, if they exist at all, are much shorter than the curses for disloyalty.[14]

Because of this, conservative scholars such as Kenneth Kitchen have long argued that Deuteronomy most naturally finds its home in the second millennium, rather than the first millennium. As mentioned above, this has regularly been rejected. The arguments mustered for a later date lie in the details.

In both Deuteronomy 13 and 28, scholars have pointed to specific passages that are supposed to show direct dependence on the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon, composed in the early seventh century BCE. If such dependence could be indisputably shown, Deuteronomy in its current form could not antedate that time. The best argument regarding Deuteronomy 28 is in the comparison of Deuteronomy 28:26-33 and lines 419-430 of the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon (VTE).[15] Weinfeld outlined the following chart:

 Weinfeld outlined the following chartf

There is no obvious connection between the boils and scurvy of v. 27 and the darkness and unlawfulness in v. 28 within the Bible. In the Mesopotamian text, on the other hand, where the same conjunction exists, it is easily explainable: it is based on the hierarchy of the Assyrian pantheon.[16] The plague of leprosy is always associated with Sin, and the curse of darkness, symbolizing unlawfulness, is of course associated with Šamaš, whose inheritance is kittum. This shows, then, that the borrowing can only be one way: these verses in Deuteronomy seem to have been “incorporated as an independent literary unit,” “which in substance was borrowed from Assyrian treaty forms.”[17]

Regarding Deuteronomy 13, the conventional understanding is that political regulations have been translated into the religious sphere, or, to put it differently, religion has been conceptualized politically. This feature of Deuteronomy has been studied often, including a series of penetrating studies by Professor Bernard Levinson,[18] and the political text most often appealed to as background for Deuteronomy are the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon once again. Professor Berman published an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature arguing, however, that although there are similarities between Deuteronomy and the VTE, there are closer parallels to Hittite treaties of the second millennium BCE.[19] This article focused on the so-called “sedition clause.” In VTE, the text mandates that any individual who hears seditious thoughts from a close friend or family member turn that person in to the Assyrian authorities. In Deuteronomy, the same principle is applied to one whose friend or family member encourages the worship of gods other than the God of Israel. Berman claims, however, that there are equally relevant parallels in Hittite treaties, which establish very similar rules: “If anyone utters a malicious word before you [whether it is a border lord], or a commoner, or a Hittite or a Kizzuwatner, or his people, his own father, his mother, his brother, his sister or his son, his relative by marriage – whoever says such a word, no one is to h[id]e him, but shall rather seize him and expose him!”

Berman’s article received a a thoroughly critical response from Prof. Bernard Levinson and Prof. Jeffrey Stackert.[20] Levinson and Stackert argue that Berman’s argument cannot carry the weight assigned to it: the parallels between Deuteronomy and VTE are too strong to be dismissed; the parallels between Deuteronomy and the Hittite treaties are weak enough that they can be dismissed; there is no known historical way that the Hittite treaties could have made their way into Israelite consciousness, so although these are two ancient Near Eastern cultures, no dependence is possible.

I am not persuaded by many of Levinson’s and Stackert’s arguments. The third one raises weighty questions. It is worth noting that until 2009 it was not known that copies of the VTE were brought to the west, either, and yet scholars were prepared to accept that the Neo-Assyrian treates had influenced Deuteronomy. The difference is that here there is massive evidence for the diffusion of Assyrian influence on the Levant already in the eighth century.[21] More to the point is that there are clear examples where we just don't know how texts and ideas were transmitted, but there is no real doubt that they were. Within biblical studies, one of the most striking examples is the book of Lamentations, which is modeled on city laments known from Sumerian exemplars nearly a millennium and a half earlier (and 500 miles away).[22] Perhaps these texts were part of what the great Assyriologist Leo Oppenheim called the “stream of tradition”;[23] perhaps some of this material was actually Amorite or Canaanite originally, and was “borrowed” into Mesopotamia, where we happen to encounter it first;[24] perhaps we will never know precisely how texts and knowledge circulated around the ancient world, but we will be able to watch them move through the traces they leave.

To my mind, then, the real question is whether the parallels are judged to be compelling. If they are, then the “how” of the transmission can be left as a question, rather than a necessary pre-condition for analysis. In the case of Deuteronomy 13 in particular, there seem to be no “smoking guns” that reveal the influence of either the Vassal Treaties of the seventh century, or the Hittite treaties of the thirteenth century, on Deuteronomy. It is not clear that the biblical command, “do not add to it and do not subtract from it” is equivalent to the prohibition in the Vassal Treaties not to “remove it, consign it to the fire, throw it into the water, bury it in the earth or destroy it by any cunning device, annihilate it or deface it,”[25] but the formulaic injunction “not to alter” a text is attested throughout Mesopotamian and other Near Eastern literature. On the other hand, the Hittite text cited by Berman as parallel to the sedition clause later in Deuteronomy 13 is also very similar to clauses attested elsewhere in the treaty record, from both the second and first millennia. So nothing in this chapter appears to help us date the composition of the book based on comparative evidence.

On the other hand, it should be recalled that the basic structure of Deuteronomy is more similar to Hittite treaties than to the Neo-Assyrian treaties. It is true that there is a Neo-Assyrian treaty with the king of Qedar which apparently had a historical prologue, which weakens the need to appeal to the Hittite treaties for Deuteronomy’s context.[26] This strengthens Berman’s position in another way, though: somehow the form of the Hittite treaty was transmitted down to Neo-Assyrian times, although we have no idea what the mode of transmission was, which in turn raises the question of what else could have been transmitted through time in ways presently invisible to us.

The central question issue, of course, is whether there is in fact sufficient evidence to have confidence in the “traditional” 7th-century date of Deuteronomy. I am not convinced. Like everyone else, I am acutely aware of the inability I have to fully free myself of my own biases. My religious position in life, and my work teaching at Yeshiva University, certainly encourage certain biases. On the other hand, and more positively, such a position forces me to think carefully even about “consensus positions,” which I personally do not adopt simply because they represent the scholarly consensus. The evidence has to be examined carefully, since the stakes are quite high. There does not seem to be strong evidence that Deuteronomy dates to the 7th-century. On the contrary, whether or not the Hittite parallels are the closest ones, the point is that there are parallels to many of the features in Deuteronomy from literature from Old Babylonian through Neo-Babylonian times. These parallels are not helpful for dating purposes, therefore.[27]

To me it appears that the debate reflects the high stakes involved in this issue. If Berman is correct, and there are closer – or just as close, or even just more-or-less-equally-close – parallels between Deuteronomy and second-millennium Mesopotamian literature, then the single linchpin for absolute dating of all of the Torah falls apart. That Deuteronomy, at least in some form, dates back to the second millennium BCE appears to be a more tenable scholarly position than it did earlier.


[1] Joshua A. Berman, “CTH 133 and the Hittite provenance of Deuteronomy 13,” JBL 130 (2011), 25-44; Joshua A. Berman, “Histories Twice Told: Deuteronomy 1-3 and the Hittite Treaty Prologue Tradition,” JBL 132 (2013), 229-250; Bernard M. Levinson and Jeffrey Stackert, “Between the Covenant Code and Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty: Deuteronomy 13 and the Composition of Deuteronomy,” JAJ 3 (2012), 123-140; Joshua A. Berman, “Historicism and Its Limits: A Response to Bernard M. Levinson and Jeffrey Stackert,” JAJ 4 (2013), 297-309; Bernard M. Levinson and Jeffrey Stackert, “The Limitations of ‘Resonance’,” JAJ 4 (2014), 310-333. Professors Berman, Levinson, and Stackert, as well as my colleague Prof. Shalom Holtz, were all gracious enough to respond to my questions and suggestions, and this piece, though it does justice to none of their individual contributions, has been enriched by them all.

[2] See E. W. Nicholson, Deuteronomy and Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 1-7; M. J. Paul, “Hilkiah and the Law (2 Kings 22) in the 17th and 18th Centuries: Some Influences on W.M.L. De Wette,” in Das Deuteronomium: Entstehung, Gestalt und Botschaft (ed. N. Lohfink; Leuven: University Press, 1985), 1-10; Lowell K. Handy, “Historical Probability and the Narrative of Josiah’s Reform in 2 Kings,” in The Pitcher is Broken: Memorial Essays for Gösta W Ahlström (ed. Steven W. Holloway and Lowell K. Handy; JSOTSS 190; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 252-275, at 254-255.

[3] The Rabbis never, to my knowledge, indicate what the book was, although see the claim in b. Yoma 52b that the book was opened to Deuteronomy 28:36.

[4] Pseudo-Rashi ad 2 Chronicles 34:14.

[5] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (reprint in London: Dent, 1973), 204. The passage is in chapter 33: “But though Moses did not compile those Books entirely, and in the form we have them; yet he wrote all that which hee is there said to have written: as, for example, the Volume of the Law, which is contained, as it seemeth, in the 11 of Deuteronomie, and the following Chapters to the 27…. And this is that Law which…having been lost, was long time after found again by Hilkiah, and sent to King Josias, who causing it to be read to the people, renewed the covenant between God and them.”

[6] S. R. Driver, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy (ICC 5; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916), xlv. Driver makes the provocative observation that the passages which “principally influenced Josiah” were 6:4-5, 14-15; 12:2-7; 16:21-22; 18:9-15; and 28. He does not do anything with this observation, however.

[7] Lewis Bayles-Paton, “The Case For the Post-Exilic Origin of Deuteronomy,” JBL 47 (1928), 322-357, at 325-326.

[8] See the account of the history of scholarship in Nicholson, Deuteronomy and Tradition, 1-7.

[9] Driver, Deuteronomy, xlvi-xlviii.

[10] H. H. Rowley, “The Prophet Jeremiah and the Book of Deuteronomy,” in From Moses to Qumran: Studies in the Old Testament (New York: Association Press, 1963), 187-208.

[11] Moshe Weinfeld, “The Emergence of the Deuteronomic Movement: The Historical Antecedents,” in Das Deuteronomium, 76-98.

[12] Norbert Lohfink, “Zur neuren Diskussion über 2 Kön 22-23,” in Das Deuteronomium, 24-48, at 31 n. 35.

[13] See for example Kenneth A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1966), 96-97.

[14] See especially Moshe Weinfeld (“Covenant Making in Anatolia and Mesopotamia,” JANES 22 (1993), 135-139.

[15] Moshe Weinfeld, “Traces of Assyrian Treaty Formulae in Deuteronomy,” Biblica 46 (1965), 417-427.

[16] Weinfeld, “Traces,” at 420-423.

[17] Weinfeld, “Traces,” at 123. See also Hans Ulrich Steymans, “Eine assyriche Vorlage für Deuteronomium 28, 20-44,” in Bundesdokument und Gesetz: Studien zum Deuteronomium (ed. Georg Braulik; Freiburg: Herber, 1995), 119-141.

[18] See Dion, Paul, “Deuteronomy 13: The Suppression of Alien Religious Propaganda in Israel During the Monarchic Period,” in Law and Ideology in Moarchic Israel (ed. Baruch Halpern and Deborah Hobson; JSOTSS 124; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), 147-216; Bernard Levinson, “But You Shall Surely Kill Him! The Text-Critical and Neo-Assyrian Evidence for MT Deuteronomy 13:10,” in Bundesdokument und Gesetz: Studien zum Deuteronomium (ed. Georg Braulik; Freiburg: Herber, 1995), 37-63; Levinson, “Textual criticism, Assyriology, and the History of Interpretation: Deuteronomy 13:7a as a Test Case in Method,” JBL 120 (2001), 211-243; Levinson, “Recovering the Lost Original Meaning of ve-lo tekhaseh ‘alav (Deuteronomy 13:9),” JBL (1996), 601-620; Levinson, “The Neo-Assyrian Origins of the Canon Formula in Deuteronomy 13:1,” in Scriptural Exegesis – the Shapes of Culture and the Religious Imagination: Essays in Honour of Michael Fishbane (ed. Deborah A. Green and Laura S. Lieber; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 25-45; Levinson, “Esarhaddon’s Succession Treaty as the Source for the Canon Formula in Deuteronomy 13:1,” JAOS 130 (2010), 337-347.

[19] Berman, “CTH 133 and the Hittite provenance of Deuteronomy 13.” Prof. Berman later argued in another JBL article (“Histories Twice Told: Deuteronomy 1-3 and the Hittite Treaty Prologue Tradition”) that the Hittite treaties obviate the need for a source-critical approach to the contradictions between the narratives at the very beginning of Deuteronomy and other texts within the Torah.

[20] Levinson and Stackert, “Between the Covenant Code and Esarhaddon’s succession treaty: Deuteronomy 13 and the composition of Deuteronomy.”

[21] For discussion, see Shawn Zelig Aster, “Transmission of Neo-Assyrian Claims of Empire to Judah in the Late Eighth Century B.C.E.,” Hebrew Union College Annual 78 (2007), 1-44.

[22] See also my comments on this issue, regarding other examples, in History of Religions 51 (2012), 289. Stackert and Levinson do grant that this is true; the example they cite is the parallel between Laws of Eshnunna §53 and Exodus 21:35. This example has actually never impressed me as much, but the details need not detain us now.

[23] A. Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (rev. ed. by Erica Reiner; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 13-23.

[24] This is probably the case with regard to some motifs of the creation myths (see Thorkild Jacobsen, “The Battle Between Marduk and Tiamat,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 88 [1968], 104–108) and some principles of law, such as “an eye for an eye” (Samuel Greengus, “Biblical and Mesopotamian Law: An Amorite Connection?” in Daily Life in the Ancient Near East [ed. Richard Averbeck and David W. Weisberg; Baltimore: CDL Press, 2003], 63-81).

[25] Deuteronomy 13:1 and elsewhere; VTE §36.

[26] See Simo Parpola and Kazuko Watanabe, Neo-Assyrian Treaties and Loyalty Oaths (SAA 2; Helsinki: Helsinki University Press, 1988), 68, discussed by Noel Weeks, Admonition and Curse: The Ancient Near Eastern Treaty/Covenant Form as a Problem in Inter-Cultural Relationships (JSOT Sup 407; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2004), 47, to which my attention was drawn by Yitzhaq Feder, “The Significance of Hittite Treaties for Biblical Studies and Orthodox Judaism” (

[27] Markus Zehnder, “Building on Stone? Deuteronomy and Esarhaddon’s Loyalty Oaths,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 19 (2009) 341-374 and 511-535.

Comments (11)

Don't forget Hieroglyphic Luwian/"Neo-Hittite" traditions, which it seems were influencing (and influenced by) both Assyria and the Levant from the fall of Hattusa until the 8th century.
Honestly, the 7th century BC date of (some early form of) Deuteronomy is convincing to me not just because of the Assyrian parallels but also because of the historical-political situation it seems to presuppose (relatively centralized state structures and a relatively high degree of elite literacy). Archaeologically, these do not appear in Judah before the 7th c. BCE. The strongly monotheizing theology of Deuteronomy also reflects 8th-6th c. trends in Assyria and Babylonia (slightly later trends in Greece, Iran, and India may reflect the same general intellectual process), although Deuteronomy's monotheism is of course more extreme than in any of these cases. We also have a parallel to Josiah's "discovery" of a "lost text" in an inscription of the 8th c. Kushite pharaoh Shabaqo.
But I'm an agnostic, so my assumptions about the way history and culture work are by default naturalistic. If you don't share these working assumptions then of course you're going to interpret the evidence differently.
This opens up the issue of incommensurable paradigms, in which dialogue becomes difficult because ultimately those who take naturalism as a working assumption (and this includes most non-conservative and even some conservative religious scholars--by "working assumption" I mean the question of the divine is not explicitly denied but simply bracketed) are fundamentally asking different questions of the text than those who are not necessarily willing to bracket (not deny, but bracket) the question of divine intervention.

#1 - Robert M. Jennings - 09/04/2014 - 22:09

Thanks very much, Dr. Jennings. I don't think we have Neo-Hittite treaties, though, and the "Neo-Hittites" didn't speak Hittite, so I'm not sure they would be all that helpful in mediating the traditions under discussion.
More importantly, where is the evidence for the widespread literacy in Deuteronomy? I do agree that an inductive study of the social and economic worlds presupposed by the book would be very helpful in suggesting a setting.

#2 - Aaron Koller - 09/05/2014 - 03:27

I wasn't referring to Neo-Hittite treaties per se, but their material culture, art, and architecture had a huge influence on both Assyria and the Levant. The 'Ain Dara temple in Syria, which functioned between the 13th and 8th centuries BCE, is probably the closest parallel we have to the biblical description of Solomon's temple. The first person prose narrative style we see in Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions from the 9th c. onward (and which appears in Deuteronomy) has predecessors in Luwian monuments like those of the 9th c. Hamathite kings Urhilina and Uratami, as well as the 10th c. king Taita who ruled both Hamath and Pattin (Tell Tayinat). The Bit Hilani palace style originated around 900 BCE in the Neo-Hittite cultural zone, became standard in Assyria in the 8th c., and may also have influenced some of the 9th c. palaces at Megiddo and Samaria.
In terms of treaty form, we do have the Aramaic Sefire treaties between Mati'el of Arpad and Bar-Ga'yah of KTK, which date to the 750s BCE (almost a century before the Esarhaddon treaties), and also have many similarities to both the Esarhaddon treaty and Deuteronomy. And while we don't have treaties written in Luwian, it should be remembered that Luwian is still in the process of being deciphered, and most of the texts were probably written on lead (which does not usually preserve). But Aramaic culture in North Syria is known to have exhibited significant continuities with earlier Neo-Hittite culture, so Luwian is a likely vehicle through which Hittite treaty ideas could have penetrated into 1st millennium Akkadian and West Semitic literary culture.
The basic point is that we shouldn't necessarily be looking for an exact textual model so much as a basic literary culture. In terms of Deuteronomy, even if we forget the issue of whether it is formulaically closer to Hittite treaties or Esarhaddon (and I still think the Esarhaddon treaty has the upper hand here), the general literary-cultural milieu which it reflects is Neo-Assyrian (on this see esp. Seth Sanders' "The Invention of Hebrew" and my further comment below).

#3 - Robert M. Jennings - 09/06/2014 - 01:35

On the issue of widespread literacy, Deuteronomy insists that the king make repeated public readings of the text and prescribes private study of it on the part of individuals. Even if we assume the text is utopian (which it is), the very idea of studying texts like this is not imaginable in any West Semitic literary context before the 8th c., and in the Judean context more specifically in the 7th c. It presumes a developed scribal culture that has its own interests and identity apart from the bureaucratic interests of the state--a culture like the one reflected in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, in which scribes, scrolls, and writing are ubiquitous and symbolically powerful (cf. Ezekiel being told to eat the scroll and Jehoiakim cutting up Jeremiah's prophecies after having them read aloud). The 8th century prophets do not attribute this sort of authority and power to writing, and this is reflected in the structure of the collections that bear their names: Hosea, Amos, proto-Isaiah, and Micah have a relatively haphazard literary structure, with very little prose and organization mostly according to very general thematic criteria. Compare this to Jeremiah and Ezekiel, which are internally dated, prose-heavy, and show indications of planned structural integration--much like Deuteronomy, in fact. These books all reflect the centralization of cultural (and not just political) capital in Jerusalem--a process that archaeologically begins in the second half of the 8th c. when the population of Jerusalem explodes with the influx of refugees from Samaria, and increases further with evidence for centralization of bureaucratic power under Hezekiah and Manasseh. Prior to this period, Jerusalem was a royal hilltop stronghold of about eight hectares and seems to have supported itself via a patronage system vis-a-vis local lineage heads in the Negev and the Judean hills (see David Schloen's "The House of the Father in Fact and Symbol" as well as Bruce Routledge's "Moab in the Iron Age" for this type of governance. Also Baruch Halpern's article on "Jerusalem and the Lineages in the 7th Century").
Only from the time of Hezekiah's revolt onward do we see evidence for extensive state planning complete with a literate scribal culture (e.g. the lmlk seals). The evidence for this increases throughout the 7th c. when the state seems to have actively resettled people in economically productive regions in the wake of Sennacherib's destruction of the countryside. Almost all of our examples of pre-exilic Judean writing date from this period (e.g. the Arad and Lachish ostraca; ostraca from Mesad Hashavyahu and Kadesh-barnea; the Silwan inscription is slightly earlier, probably dating to the time of Hezekiah's revolt). We seem to have a situation in which most elites were at least functionally literate, and those who weren't could hire a scribe (non-elites were still largely illiterate, but the Bible is elite literature, like all written literature from the pre-modern world). This is the world of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. It's also the world presupposed by Deuteronomy with its commandments to meditate on the text day and night. This is the world of the 7th and perhaps the very end of the 8th c. BCE, and no earlier.

#4 - Robert M. Jennings - 09/06/2014 - 02:02

Aaron Demsky argues that literacy in Deuteronomy is far removed from that witnessed in the later "writing prophets. Isaiah speaks of a group of literate individuals with whom he wishes to share copies of his prophecies. Jeremiah tells of public reading of scrolls. Habakuk tells of inscribing his prophecies for other to see. Nothing like this is found in Deuteronomy. Texts like the so-called Song of Moses are meant to be taught to them by heart (lit. "put in in their mouths". Nowhere in Deuteronomy are Israelites told to read texts, or even engage them. The writing on the doorposts is of a totemic and small number of letters in total. References to the reading king we know from other ancient sources often meant trained scribes reading to the king, even when it says that "the king read." The same is true with the bill of divorce. A man "writing" a bill of divorce for his wife, would mean that he had one written up for him, but because it was through his agency, the verb is ascribed to him. The upshot of all this is that reading in Deuteronomy is far more limited that what we find in the prophetic books of the eighth century and on.

#5 - Joshua Berman - 09/07/2014 - 14:35

Deuteronomy still presumes an infrastructure of scribes to read to the king and to write on the doorposts. Even petty warlords like Abdi-Heba had scribes for "official" business, but the idea of writing on the doorposts assumes a world in which writing is far more ubiquitous than that. The "totemic" nature of the writing on the doorposts sounds like an ad hoc explanation to save a pet theory.
Also, the fact that Deuteronomy presumes a king in the first place would seem to speak to a monarchic date, no? Not to mention the various laws that assume Israelites living in towns, with local town leaders (shopetim) and elders (zeqenim) who are expected to enforce the law.
Texts reflect the social worlds of the times and places in which they were written. This is a basic principle of textual criticism going back to Hobbes and Spinoza. To implicitly claim (as you do) that the Israelites entered Canaan as pastoralists with a written, ready-made plan not only for sedentary settlement, but also for a monarchy amounts to asking the reader to violate the accepted conventions of textual criticism that have been in place since Hobbes and Spinoza. This is analogous to asking an astrophysicist to factor in Joshua's making the sun stand still into their calculations.
On a basic level, this argument has reached an epistemological impasse that ultimately has to do with whether or not we allow divine intervention to enter in as a factor in textual criticism. Trying to sneak divine intervention in through the back door by claiming to find closer parallels to Deuteronomy in a Hittite document than a 7th century one is a category error.
Here's an article by one Pervez Manzoor which argues against the very idea of textual criticism as applied to the Qur'an:
Personally, I find this article offensive because it is asking historians to exempt the Qur'an from any sort of textual scrutiny and accept its claims of divine intervention at face value. You may not realize it, but you are asking us to do the same with Deuteronomy. You're not as explicit and angry about it as he is, but you're still ultimately asking for the same thing: for the rest of the world to make an exception from the ordinary rules of historical method when dealing with your personal holy book.
Think about this, and then ask yourself if it really has a place in any sort of non-sectarian textual study.

#6 - Robert M. Jennings - 09/07/2014 - 19:42

I resent that last comment, Dr. Jennings. There is nothing about God or divine in the piece or in the comment of Dr. Berman's you were responding to; both are about the date of a text. To me it appears that your invoking the religious issues is a way of saying, "I don't really have to prove my point, because only a religious doctrinaire would disagree." But that begs the question: why is it so clear that the seventh century is the default date for Deuteronomy? The arguments you have mustered would seem to suggest 10th century - when we know of literacy in far-flung towns, there's a king, and so on. The argument for the 7th century relies on VTE and Josiah, neither of which stands up to scrutiny - in my opinion. So please do leave religion out of it.

#7 - Aaron Koller - 09/09/2014 - 01:50
To those who support Hittite Treaties of the second millenium as the underlying origin of the structure of Deuteronomy, one may add the names of Binyamin Uffenheimer and Israel Knohl, though each makes the point in a totally different context.
As for external textual evidence one should consult Kenneth Kitchen who worked for many decades on many ANE original texts (including ancient Arabian documentation) which in many cases can be set in absolute time frames. See the brief review of his latest three volume work, co-authored with Lawrence:
Everything is subject to criticism and refutation, but ignorance of concrete data should have no place in scholarship...
Uri Hurwitz

#8 - Uri Hurwitz - 09/09/2014 - 22:07

First: We don't know what's going on in the 10th century. There are probably kings, but we don't know who, where, or how many. The Gezer Calendar and the texts from Zayit and Qeiyafa are isolated examples, and in terms of Qeiyafa the reading is very uncertain. Rehov I believe has the highest number, but these are generally simply people's names.
The 10th century is a period of "incipient complex polity formation" in the Levant. Cross-culturally, incipient complex polities (or "chiefdoms" to use an older and more problematic term) generally do not have written literature at the level of complexity (including multiple vertabim intertextual allusions to earlier writings; cf. Joel Baden's "J, E, and the Redaction of the Pentateuch" for these) that we find in Deuteronomy.
The 10th century may have produced some of the short stories and inscriptions about Solomon, David, and Saul that were later incorporated into Samuel-Kings. A society like that of the 10th century could support that type of writing, and the Saul-David-Solomon cycle that ends in I Kings 2 seems to reflect genuine 10th century realities (albeit refracted through multiple layers of later editorial activity).
Highly complex legal texts like Deuteronomy, however, are not likely to belong to this horizon. Anthropologically what we have in the 10th century is a series of petty strongmen in the process of consolidating power; the concept of "law" in this environment is likely to be considered a joke. Centralized polities like 8th century Israel and 7th-6th century Judah are a much more likely context for what we find not only in Deuteronomy, but also in Leviticus and the Covenant Code. The story of Josiah in Kings is not a necessary component of the argument for a 7th century Deuteronomy, but it certainly strengthens it significantly, especially given the Shabaqo parallel in Egypt from about a century earlier ("ancient text" discovered in temple leads to cultic reforms).
I apologize if my invocation of religion came across as offensive, but it's an elephant in the room that we can't afford to ignore. We all go in with prior commitments regarding the divine nature (or lack thereof) of these texts, and to imagine that these are not influencing our dating of the texts is naive at best, and disingenuous at worst--Kitchen is a perfect example of this. He is certainly a very serious scholar with a breadth of philological knowledge that is unparalleled. While his data do make it very difficult to make the Davies-Lemche-Thompson case for a post-exilic date for the entire Bible, at the same time his argument for the pre-monarchical origins of the Pentateuch are a stretch at best. His Evangelical Christian background predisposes him to give far too much weight to small bits of evidence that can be interpreted as being in his favor over and against 350 years of critical scholarship. He and can look at the same data and draw completely different conclusions because of different starting assumptions.
It is best to be realistic and put our cards on the table before we attempt to do research on texts that some of us consider to be Holy Writ, and others do not. This does not mean excluding religious viewpoints; it means epistemological honesty. Plenty of biblical scholars (most, I would say) believe that the Bible is in some sense the Word of God and yet still manage to work within the standard humanistic/social science framework when it comes to dating texts. What this requires is bracketing the question of divine authorship when looking to do historical work--and this includes the understanding that texts develop within societies, not in a vacuum, and therefore engaging with current anthropological and sociological theory--and then bringing God back into the equation when doing theology--a type of theology that is informed and enriched by pre-theological textual criticism, not damaged by it. Richard Elliot Friedman and David M. Carr are my personal favorite examples of this.
You may note that while this method does not exclude religious assumptions per se, it DOES exclude certain types of religious assumptions--mainly, those that are exclusivistic rather than pluralistic. We live in an increasingly pluralistic world, in which claims to exclusive religious Truth with a Capital T are simply not viable. In this sense, some level of interdisciplinarity and intersubjectivity is necessary--if, for example our datings of texts would not be convincing to a general anthropologist of religion who happens to be a practitioner of contemporary Japanese Buddhism, for example, then we have a problem.

#9 - Robert M. Jennings - 09/10/2014 - 01:44

I have the feeling that we here have a kind of deja-vu. This discussion came up in 1955 when G.E. Mendenhall published a couple of article on the Hittite treaties and the Old Testament. And it went on until 1970 when L. Perlitt "killed" it. Isn't it like beating a dead horse?
However, for this parallelomania it is refreshing to review this evidence:
Isaiah 27:1:
On this day Yahweh will punish with his sword, the hard, big and strong one, / Livjatan the fleeing serpent, and Livjatan the winding serpent, / and kill the dragon which is in the sea.
KTU 1.5:I.1-2 is part of the Ugaritic Ba’lu epic cycle:
For you killed Latanu, the fleeing serpent, you finished off the winding serpent, the mighty one with seven heads.
It is virtually the same text, although the time span between the Ugaritic text and Isa 27 may be 1200 years (Isa 24-27 reckoned by most scholars to belong to the latest stratum in the book of Isaiah, perhaps from te 2nd century BCE).
Does the parallel date the Book of Isaiah? Or do we here have evidence of the tenacity of tradition? It certainly does not in any way date the book, of course not, as we in this book find references to events of the outgoing 8th century BCE.
It shows that traditions in many forms lived on the the ANE and it makes it a most hazardous thing to date anything based on parallels. A scribal culture like we have in the ANE may "remember" many things so-to-speak out of context.
Of course the argument by de Wette and his predecessors about the origins of Deuteronomy is a circular one, and does not say anything.
It is more important the have a look on treaties like the ones from Sefire (8th century BCE). When Esarhaddon's text is brought into the discussion, it should also be noted that some -- if not most -- assyriologist do not consider it a treaty but a vassal oath (I herad this first time some thirty years ago in a lecture by Liverani). So the Esarhaddon text may not at all be a treaty text.
But again: Beating a dead horse, new whip, same horse!

#10 - Niels Peter Lemche - 09/10/2014 - 07:32

Thanks, Dr. Lemche. Personally I'm not 100% committed to a Josianic date of Deuteronomy. The "final form," is in fact represented by modern, printed translations, as translating a text is itself work of literary creation.
Even leaving this aside however, I'm aware of the basic consensus that the form of the text ancestral to all of our extant Greek and Hebrew manuscripts has extensive interpolations from the Persian and Hellenistic periods, although as an archaeologist I do think the late 7th century provides the best context for a "proto-Deuteronomy" for reasons of the text's assumed historical geography, and the fact that the Josiah story in Kings makes better sense as contemporary propaganda than as propaganda released 200 years after the fact.
But again, the point I'm trying to make is really not about the date or influences of Deuteronomy per se. I'm perfectly willing to accept Hittite parallels (especially given the largely unacknowledged Neo-Hittite influence in the Levant and Mesopotamia well into the 8th century BCE).
I also agree with you that verbatim streams of tradition can be passed on over a very long period of time, and that Hittite treaty parallels do not really say anything about dates. My main issue with your Isaiah example is that Deuteronomy is prose, not poetry, and so the transmission process is going to very different and much more dependent on a continuous writing tradition than on the poetic parallels between the Ugaritic Baal epic and the possibly Hellenistic Isaiah Apocalypse.
The main issue I'm trying to deal with here is not this or that date within the 1st millennium BCE for a particular text. It's the basic issue of whether our default attitudes towards texts in an academic context is critical or devotional. These are not inherently mutually exclusive.
The issue I am talking about is the approach of Berman, Kitchen, et. al. which selectively rejects even the modernist critical traditions of the 17th century, let alone any "postmodern" metacritiques of the questionable assumptions behind some of those traditions.
Kitchen is such a great Egyptologist because he treats the Egyptian data critically, as a historian should. He is unwilling to extend that same critical eye to biblical texts. It's this selective blindness--the inability of even some of the most brilliant scholars to be sufficiently critical of their own traditions--that is fundamentally at issue for me here. I don't know if this was an issue of the Mendenhall debate in the 1950s, but that's the main issue for me. Not the idea of Hittite parallels, per se, but in the way they are being used, and what that says about the entanglement of politics, religion, and scholarship in the current state of biblical studies and Syro-Palestinian archaeology.
I hope that clarifies where my critique is coming from.
P.S. (to all parties concerned). I'm not a "Dr. Jennings" although I'm flattered by the assumption, and hope to go by that title sometime within the next seven years (fingers crossed). I'm a concerned PhD student in Syro-Palestinian archaeology with a historical-anthropological orientation who is trying to deal with the implications raised by biblical data and their political/social contexts (both ancient and modern) for the methodological and ethical conflicts within my own discipline.

#11 - Robert M. Jennings - 09/10/2014 - 20:34

Article Comments

Submitted by Andrew Simmonds on Thu, 02/23/2023 - 12:15


The Jewish covenants are very similar to the Hittite treaties, and parts of Deut are very like parts of VTE. And the Assyrian treaty tradition seems to derive from the Hittite. The problem seems to be that people/scholars assume the Bible must be from the Jewish people and the (literate, well organized) Jewish people are not before the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, or going back to Omri, or early in the 1st m, to David, Solomon. However, it may well be that the Exodus recalls the Hyksos-- hundreds of years of Canaanite immigration and settlement in the NE Nile Delta, starting out and continuing well but then turning bad, ultimately posing a threat to Egypt, hostilities and a relatively abrupt exit back to Canaan for the Hyksos rulers and some their people. In 2nd m. "proto-Israel" is a mouse between two cats, the Egyptian New Kingdom, and the Hittite Empire. This was a period when the little states between the two millstones were subjected to vassalage by Egyptians or Hittites (Amarna correspondence). As a result they would have known a lot about the Hittite treaty-covenant form. Then there was the invasions of the Sea Peoples, the Hittite Empire is completely destroyed and the Egyptians pull back letting loose their empire, going back to Egyptian proper. As the historical fog of the Sea Peoples lifted, with the cats, Egypt and Hittites, for the most part gone/much diminished, the mouse little Israel can flex its muscles and reveal its identity. That Deut resembles the VTE does not preclude it also looking in structure/form like the Hittite treaties. It has Hittite features that are not well explained by Assyrian influence. As for religion, I never assume scripture is divinely inspired, and, if God intervened in history, historians would be out of work, except perhaps in the style of Homer. But I would very much like to know when the Bible was written. Also, where does the story of Adam and Eve come from? Ideas about a universal need for foundation myths and national identity building never impressed me. As for literacy rates, way back in 2,300 BCE, men and women were writing plenty. I do not care when the Bible was written or began as an oral tradition. However, there are lots of things in the Bible that distinctly show or seem to show 2nd m. influence-- like the flood story from ancient Babylon, the Exodus story from the Hyksos, and Hittite influence on (some of) the covenants. On the other hand, there may be parts of the Bible that are remarkably late, like perhaps the Joseph story. I don't know, but the idea that 2nd m. influence would do terrible violence to a venerable scholarly consensus of how the Bible came about, does not impress me as a tragedy.

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