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Persian Imperialism and the Religious Imagination in Early Judaism

Prof. Karel van der Toorn (University of Amsterdam)


This conference on Yahwism under the Achaemenid Empire is part of a trend. An increasing number of contemporary scholars looks at the Persian period as the time the Hebrew Bible and early Judaism were beginning to take shape. It was a formative era. Perhaps future generations of scholars will look back to us and say we overrated the significance of the Persian period: How about crucial developments in the monarchic era, the formative experience of the diaspora, and the cultural impact of Hellenism? Trends tend to follow fashion. But also if one takes into account the contributions of earlier and later periods, there is no denying that exposure to Persian imperialism left profound traces in the religious practices and concepts in Judah and the Jewish diaspora. This contribution focuses on the impact of Persian imperialism rather than Persian religion. Though entangled, the two are to be distinguished. I shall attempt to present a survey of those elements in the collective religious imagination of early Judaism that can be traced back to the historical experience of Persian imperialism. The two areas where Persian influence is most tangible are (1) the conceptions of God and the heavenly court; and (2) the transformation of torah into dāt, “law.” Because in both areas Judean religion responded to the impact of Persia, the Achaemenid Empire left an imprint that still resonates today.

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