Sunday 6 August 2023

440) Theologies of the Festivals as early models for Jewish survival

Sefer haYovelim (University of Notre Dame)


This article based extensively on the research by Professor Steven Weitzman[1] – looks at three sets of writings from the Second Temple Period that offer different perspectives on the reasons for the Jewish Festivals. We will examine how these theologies and ideologies of the Festivals may have been used as different models and strategies for Jewish survival. They also contain some colourful descriptions and eyewitness accounts of how the Festivals were observed and how they sometimes got out of hand. 

Festivals as a time of conflict

Festivals today are usually a time to spend with family and community and serve as important links to religious and social structures. People emerge either tired or inspired after a long Yom Tov. In Temple times, however: 

“the festivals were also often the stage for protest, assassinations, riots, even massacres” (Weitzman 1999:546). 

The early Jewish historian and military leader, Josephus, writes in his Antiquities of the Jews about an angry mob, who were upset with the Hasmonean Kohen Gadol Alexander Janneus, and over the Festival of Sukkot, pelted him with etrogim (citrons).[2] Matters must have gotten out of hand because Alexander Janneus had to resort to drastic measures and had six thousand protestors killed. He also built a huge wall around the Temple for protection.[3] This is an example of internal Jewish conflict. There are other examples of where the Romans were the target of Jewish insurgencies and these was also centred around the Festivals in the Temple. 

Josephus records how, one Pesach, a group of Jews in Jerusalem rose in rebellion against the Romans, as revenge for some of their members who had been executed, and three thousand Jews were massacred "just like sacrificial victims."[4] 

Again, over another Pesach festival, twenty thousand people are recorded as having been killed after a riot sparked by a Roman soldier who insulted the Jews.[5] 

In other cases, the Temple was the staging ground for Jewish and Samaritan rivalry. Once more, over Peasch, a group of Samaritans broke into the Temple and scattered human bones on the floor. This resulted in yet another conflict. And on another occasion, the Samaritans attacked a Jewish pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem and reprisal attacks ensued. 

The Tosefta records that the priestly group known as Boethusaeans (בייתוסים) built a large barrier of rocks to prevent the people from placing lulavim around the altar on Shabbat.[6] 

“Festival unrest became so common in this period that the Romans actually began planning for it, routinely ordering a company of soldiers to Jerusalem during festivals ‘to quell any uprising that might occur’” (Weitzman 1999:547).[7] 

Weitzman (1999:548) suggests one reason why the Temple Festivals sometimes erupted in violence, and that was the huge numbers of pilgrims that descended upon Jerusalem on those occasions. Archaeology shows that there were so many people in Jerusalem that streets needed to be widened and extra systems had to be set up to meet the demands for water by the visitors. It was also very difficult to contain the crowds. 

Against this backdrop, we now turn to three Second Temple Period writers who each developed very different theologies regarding the nature and purpose of the Festivals. As we shall see, the common denominator is that all three writers appear to have been motivated by political reasons.

1) Josephus

During the late Second Temple period, Josephus surprisingly writes that the Temple was a place of brotherhood and fellowship. He maintains that Jews had to travel to the Temple three times a year because: 

“it is good that…[the Jews] should not be ignorant of one another, being members of the same race and partners in the same institutions; and this will be attained…when through sight and sound they recall those ties to mind, whereas if they remain without ever coming into contact they will be regarded by each other as absolute strangers."[8] 

To understand why Josephus publicly promoted this notion of friendship and fellowship as the core purpose of the Temple Festivals (even though he had earlier chronicled many acts of violence taking place within its precincts) we need to examine the context in which he wrote these words. 

Josephus wrote about friendship and fellowship two decades after the destruction of the Second Temple. He continued to write about the sacrifices and Temple activity, in the present tense, as if these were still ongoing. He writes: 

“The priests are continuously engaged in His worship.... [and] offer sacrifices…”[9] 

It is possible that in one form or another, these practices were still perpetuated even after the destruction of the Temple by one group or another although there is little concrete evidence of this. 

Another reason could be that Josephus believed that the Temple legislation was still binding just like the other laws of the Torah were still binding and that soon all the Temple laws and practices would be restored. This was just a temporary lull in the Temple activities. All that was needed was permission from the Romans. Josephus was a man of influence in Roman circles and perhaps he could be instrumental in negotiating a deal to restore and return the Temple to the Jews. 

Seth Schwartz has postulated that Josephus intended to suggest to the Romans that the Kohanim be recognised as the legitimate leaders of Palestinian Judaism. As priests, they could be a “moderating force” and maintain peaceful relations between Jews and Romans. To motivate his proposition, it was in his interest to portray the Temple as a place of peace, harmony and fellowship (ignoring the violent events he had recorded earlier on as taking place in the Temple). 

Josephus had already noted that the main cause of the Jewish Revolt was internal dissension, with Jews fighting Jews. To allay the fears of the Romans of another revolt, Josephus presented the priests as a mitigating body capable of restoring harmony among the Jews, and he emphasised the Temple and the Festivals as incubators for unity and fellowship. 

Imagine if Josephus had been successful in his mission to get permission to rebuild and restore the Temple. He would have been regarded, not just as a historical chronicler, but as the Messiah himself! 

Let us now look at a very different theology of the Temple and the Festivals as presented in the Book of Jubilees. 

2) The Sefer haYovelim or Book of Jubilees

The Book of Jubilees is of unknown authorship and is a recounting of Genesis and the first part of Exodus. It is believed to have been composed in Palestine around the Second Century BCE. It “emerged from a religious ideology related to the kind of sectarian Judaism reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls” (Weitzman 1999:556). In this book, the Temple and the Festivals are not framed as a place of fellowship and harmony as per Josephus, but rather as serving an elitist sectarian and distinctly mystical function. 

The Book of Jubilees claims that the Festivals were known and observed by biblical personalities like Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, long before they were revealed at Mount Sinai. Ironically, although the Book of Jubilees falls outside of the official Canon of the Tanach, this view is later also promoted by the rabbis. According to the Book of Jubilees, Noah observed Shavuot after the flood, and Joseph’s brothers kept the fast of Yom Kippur. Sinai was thus, not a revelation of the laws and festivals for the first time, but rather a confirmation of earlier observances. 

Furthermore, not only did the early biblical characters keep the laws, but the laws and Festivals were originally kept and observed “in heaven” by the angels − from the moment of creation. The Book of Jubilees also mentions that the angels kept the Shabbat from the first week of creation.[11] The angels were even circumcised "from the day of their creation,"[12] and Abraham was the first to observe the Festival of Sukkot “on the earth,[13] and not as previously celebrated only by the angels in heaven. 

The Book of Jubilees writes about the Festival of Shavuot

“All of this feast was celebrated in heaven from the day of creation until the days of Noah…And Noah and his children kept it…until the day of the death of Noah. And from the day of the death of Noah, his sons corrupted it until the days of Abraham…But Abraham alone kept it. And Isaac and Jacob and his sons kept it…until [God] renewed it for them on this mountain.”[10] 

The Book of Jubilees is concerned about the Jews not observing the Festivals. By not observing the Festivals, the Jews were to be destroyed. Because the writer of the Book of Jubilees was a sectarian Jew, ostracised by the Jews and priests of the Temple, it was in his interest to show how their belief system was independent of Temple Judaism. They claimed that their breakaway Judaism was closer to the observances “in heaven” as well as those practised by the early biblical characters. They did not need the physical Temple, but they did need to observe the Festivals. The Festivals became their “replacement Temple,” and their superior practices were endorsed by the angels. 

For Josephus, the Temple Festivals were conduits promising political peace, stability and brotherly harmony. For the Book of Jubilees, the Festivals became the ‘Temple outside the Temple’ and they stressed not unity and brotherhood but, instead, sharp division, and the superiority of their sectarian breakaway sect. 

We now turn to a third theology of the Festivals, this time as presented by Philo. 

3) Philo of Alexandria

Philo regards the role of the Jewish Festivals not to promote unity and peace exclusively among Jews (as per Josephus), nor does he support any breakaway sectarian faction who considered themselves superior (as per the Book of Jubilees) but rather to serve a dual purpose: to benefit Jews and to benefit Gentiles. This is how he describes the Festival of Pesach

“Thus [unleavened bread] may be regarded from two points of view, one peculiar to the nation [i.e., Jews]…the other universal…in agreement with the general cosmic order [i.e., Gentiles].”[14] 

By keeping the laws of the Festival, the adherent contributes not only to the Jewish nation but to all of humankind as well. All the peoples of the world are benefited by the Jewish Festivals. Philo goes out of his way to show a universal component to the Jewish Festivals, unlike the narrower view of the Book of Jubilees that promoted the separation of superior Jews from inferior Jews. The Romans generally regarded the Jews as a nation that disliked non-Jews, and refused to include Gentiles in their Festivals. To counter this view of the Romans, Philo depicts the Jewish Festivals as being inclusive rather than exclusive. 

The alleged exclusivity of the Jews became a major political point of contention at the time. Some sources, however, do point to a degree of inclusivity of non-Jews in Temple services, but their participation is still somewhat limited. Gentiles could not gain access to the inner precincts of the Temple, but Jews could offer sacrifices on behalf of them. A Gentile could act only as an “interested spectator” and not as a real participant (Letter of Aristeas 92-96). “The degree of gentile participation was in fact a subject of debate among early Jews” (Weitzman 1999:560). 

Some sources maintain that non-Jews could also donate gifts to the Temple, but the issue of accepting gifts and sacrifices from foreigners became another major point of contention for the Romans. In fact, according to Josephus, the refusal of the Kohanim to accept offerings from Rome “laid the foundation for the war with the Romans.”[15] The notion of exclusion of Gentiles proved to be one of the greatest precipitators of violence against the Jews. 

This is why Philo went out of his way to create an impression that Jews and Jewish Festivals were inclusive and not exclusive. Jewish Festivals were for the good of, not just Jews, but all humankind. Philo wrote things like: 

“the laws [of the Jews] are ... desirable and precious in the eyes of all.”[17] 

Philo's writings can “only be fully understood when…situated in the context of Roman Alexandrian culture” (Weitzman 1999:561). 

The critical need to develop theologies of Festivals

The Festivals were not trivial celebrations in those days. They were occasions for simmering tensions between Alexandrian Jews and Greeks to reach boiling point. Developing a theology of Festivals was crucial for Jewish survival. Jews, Romans, Greeks and Samaritans were all bent on exploiting the Jewish Festivals either in favour of or in opposition to because the Festivals had become triggers for violence. 

The Festivals played a tremendous role in the day-to-day politics of the time. It seems that when a Jew went to the Temple, the whole world was watching. 

“In the two major Jewish rebellions against the Romans, the Jewish Revolt in 66-70 C.E. and the Bar-Kochba revolt in 132-135 C.E., the rebels minted coins featuring the Sukkot symbols of the lulav and the etrog” (Weitzman 1999:564). 

This symbolism is evidence of the significance of the Festivals, as conceived by the Jewish rebels. It is, therefore, understandable why it was critical to develop political theologies of the Festivals, that resonated with, and were appropriate to, those historically volatile occasions. 


We have examined three very distinct theologies of the role and purpose of the Jewish Festivals. 

1) Josephus emphasised the function of the Festivals in unifying Jews, keeping them peaceful and not as being a threat to the Romans. 

2) The Book of Jubilees saw the Festivals as intra-communal divisions, with the sectarian desert sect emerging as the correct and original version of biblical Judaism authorised by the angels. 

3) Philo saw the Festivals as a way to connect not just Jews to Jews, and certainly not to distance Jews from other Jews, but rather to bridge Jews to Gentiles, as much as Jewish law will allow. 


Echoes of these three theologies of the Festivals have trickled down through the ages and have manifested in various ways in today’s Hashkafot (worldviews) of Judaism in general. 

Some contemporary religious movements stress Ahavat Yisrael or brotherly love as they reach out to their fellow less observant Jews. Judaism is about unity and fellowship. Many of the so-called Kiruv (outreach) movements adopt an approach similar to that depicted by Josephus. 

Others choose to isolate themselves from their fellow Jews and erect barriers whilst maintaining an air of superiority and elitism, even rejecting geographical markers just like the ancient desert sects did. This is similar to the ideology of the Book of Jubilees. These are some of the ultra-orthodox on the far right of the religious spectrum. 

Still others seek to highlight inclusivity, not only amongst Jews, but all peoples. These would often be the more liberal organisations towards the left of the religious spectrum, adopting an approach similar to that of Philo. 

In one way or another, each of these ideologies has left its indelible trace on Judaism today.


[1] Weitzman, S., 1999, ‘From Feasts into Mourning: The Violence of Early Jewish Festivals’,  The Journal of Religion, vol. 79, no. 4,  The University of Chicago Press, 545-565.

[2] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 13. 372.

[3] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews,13. 373.

[4] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 17. 237.

[5] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20. 105-12.

[6] Tosefta Sukkot 3:1.

[7] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20. 106.

[8] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 4. 203-4.

[9] Josephus, Contra Apionem 2.193-99.

[10] Book of Jubilees, 6:18-19.

[11] Book of Jubilees, 2:17-33.

[12] Book of Jubilees, 15:27.

[13] Book of Jubilees, 16:23.

[14] Philo, The Special Laws, 2.150.

[15] Josephus, Jewish Wars, 2.409-17.

[16] Josephus, Contra Apionem 89-96.

[17] Philo, Life of Moses, 43.

No comments:

Post a Comment