A Bible Born out of Conflicts: a Literary and Socio-historical Study of the Aaronite/Zadokite and Levite Scribal Debates in the Persian Period

Recent progress of studies of Persian Yehud (late 6th – late 4th Century B.C.E.) has dynamically increased our knowledge of the period, which has often been regarded as a less known, “dark” period in the History of Israel. The studies have shown that the Judahite community in the Persian province of Yehud can be characterized by the existence of competing religio-political groups and social classes. These groups or classes had divergent religious ideas, economic and political interests, and different attitudes towards the Achaemenid authority. The biblical texts conceived in this period reflect such diverse ideas and interests, often resulting in conflicts and debates between different scribal circles. This project starts from an inquiry, whether such scribal conflicts and debates may be primarily observed around the temple of Jerusalem in the Persian period especially between the different clerical classes such as the Aaronide/Zadokite priests and Levites. In the Ancient Near East scribal activities were traditionally linked to temples, along with royal courts; so a similar phenomenon could be at stake in regard to the temple of Jerusalem. If there were competing scribal circles in the temple, the debates between them are assumed to have been more intense than those between more distant groups. Some clues for such struggles may already be found in the so-called priestly literature. For instance, Ezekiel 44 and Numbers 16, harshly criticize the Levites for their claim for priesthood, which the authors of those texts reserve exclusively for the Aaronide/Zadokite priests. In the course of time, also the Levites seem to have engaged in scribal activity, as one may observe in a number of pro-Levitical passages in the Books of Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah as well as in the Psalms attributed to clans of Levitical singers. The so-called ‘Levitical passages’ especially in Chronicles endeavor to significantly advance the cause of the Levites in the temple service. Since, however, other priestly texts regulate and perpetuate the lower status of the Levites and often harshly denounce them (Number 3-4;8; 16; Ezekiel 44), the Levites’ scribal struggle for the higher status should have engaged themselves in debates with priestly scribes. Against this background, the present project aims to examine the possibility to interpret the Levitical passages in Chronicles as the Levites’ scribal response against the priestly literature, and reveal the various aspects of the scribal debates between the two clerical groups in the temple of Jerusalem in the Persian period. The scribal debates will be understood in the socio-historical context of the period reconstructed based on various biblical and extra-biblical sources. The project will therefore comprise both literary-historical and socio-historical perspectives. The main subjects and the texts to be studied are as follows:

  1. A reconstruction of the successive phases of the inner-priestly and scribal struggle between Araonides/ Zadokites and the Levites through analyses of the priests texts such as Ezekiel 44; Numbers 3-4, 8, 16.
  2. An investigation of the Levites’ scribal response against the Aaronide/Zadokite scribal activities mainly through literary analyses of the pro-Levitical passages in the Books of Chronicles.
  3. A reconstruction of the socio-historical context of the scribal debates between the two groups in the context of Persian Yehud especially with a focus on the temple in Jerusalem.

This project aims to contribute to the advancement of current biblical scholarship by a comprehensive reconstruction of the priestly and Levitical scribal debates in their socio-historical contexts, a topic that has never been thoroughly addressed. In a broader sense, the project addresses the question of religious and social conflicts and resolutions. The different clerical classes in the Persian province of Yehud emerged from diverse social classes with different and often conflicting religious perspectives and political and economic interests. Simultaneously, however, they should have cooperated with each other to reformulate and to “reform” the traditional worship of Yahweh in a radically changing political environment. The project would highlight the influence of these conflict and coalition between the two classes on the formation of the Hebrew Bible.