Rewriting Sacrifice in Second Temple Judaism

The subject of sacrifice is one that cuts to the heart of questions of Jewish identity and community. As early as the 7th century BCE, ancient authors were eager to make the case for a consolidation of ritual activity to a single location, a phenomenon known as cultic centralization. This theme reverberates throughout the Pentateuch and in numerous other biblical texts; in many ways, it is one of the major claims of the Hebrew Bible: one God, one Temple. Yet, as scholars have recently argued, this push for cultic centralization was about far more than a physical location—the heart of the centralization project is about the standardization of sacrifice.

In the fourth through first centuries BCE, there was an explosion of writing about sacrifice, temples, and ritual practice. The study of these writings has historically been tied to questions about their literary relationship to the Pentateuch, and discourses about “rewriting” and “legal revision” have dominated most analyses of this literature. Indeed, when they are read through the lens of Torah, these Second Temple writings can be understood as essentially buying into the centralization project while offering slight adjustments. Yet the authority, influence, and centrality of Pentateuch for the mid-to-late Second Temple period has long been taken as a given despite the fact that increasingly over the last two decades, pentateuchal scholars have been arguing for the uneven influence of this text until at least the Hasmonean period. Using these conclusions as my starting point, I will argue that by reading the literary works of the fourth through second centuries BCE through the lens of their relationship to Torah, the portrayal of legal and ritual thought, theorization, imagination, and literary expression in this period has been artificially flattened.

Instead, I suggest that when these texts are read as independent literary works, a very different picture emerges, one in which multiple communities of Jews in Israel and in the diaspora are actively thinking and theorizing about the purpose and procedures of sacrifice. What emerges is a portrait of Second Temple Jewish communities that are anything but homogenous, as talking about sacrifice is very much a means of talking about community. Questions of public versus private sphere, spatial organization of sacred areas, and access to different spaces are foundational to how people understand or envision communities functioning. Sacrifice is as much about horizontal relationships among human beings as it is about the vertical relationship between the people and their god.

This project is self-consciously structured in two parts. In the first part, I will re-examine writings about sacrifice from the fourth to second centuries as literature in their own right with their own ideas about sacrifice and ritual practice. I will be addressing a range of texts across temporal, geographic, canonical, and linguistic boundaries including (in alphabetical order) the Admonitions of Qahat, Aramaic Levi Document, Bel and the Dragon, Ben Sira, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Jubilees, Letter of Aristeas, Maccabees, Temple Scroll, and the Visions of Amram. In the second part of the book, I will consider what these writings share as a synchronic corpus and map the different ways in which their representations of sacrifice utilize or relate to the literary representations of sacrifice in the Torah.