An Altar on Mt Ebal or Mt Gerizim? – The Torah in the Sectarian Debate
Whose Torah Is It? Second Temple Jewish Polemics
Reading the Torah as part of the traditional Jewish chain of tradition, it is easy to remain unaware of the status of the Torah as Scripture for several other streams that also claimed to belong to the collective body of “Israel.” As James Kugel reminds us, the Bible should be read not only “as it is” but also “as it was.” In the Second Temple period, the books that now make up the Hebrew Bible were shared by several groups, most of whom claimed them, or at least the five books of Moses, to be exclusively theirs, thus unavoidably leading to intense polemic on the authority and method for interpreting the Bible.
The actual constituents of the Bible, i.e., which books should be included and what is the proper text of each, were still a matter for debate and negotiation. The specific shape – in words, letters, and layout – of the biblical text known as “the Masorah” or “the Masoretic Text” is indeed an ancient and for the most part outstandingly well-preserved one, but it was by no means the only one circulating in Eretz-Israel during the Second Temple period. Nor can we say that the Masoretic text (henceforth MT) always preserves the most original reading for any given word or verse.
As traditional rabbinic Jews, we sometimes read the Bible too easily as a natural predecessor of “our” Jewish identity. However, in Second Temple times the connection between biblical verses and what ultimately became the Talmudic approach to scripture was not at all intuitive. The very idea of anchoring one’s beliefs and practices in scripture took shape during the Second Temple period, and was the result of a complex process.
Most of the debate about the constitutive role of the Bible was related to matters of Halakha. According to Josephus (Antiquities XIII, 297 and elsewhere), the Pharisees did not base themselves on deductions from scripture (i.e., on Midrash Halakha), but rather on the “tradition of the Fathers.” This statement in many ways agrees with the rabbinic statement in Mishnah Avot 1:1, “Moses received the Torah at Sinai ('משה קיבל תורה מסיני וכו).” What binds the audience of this Mishnah is not strictly the Torah but rather the chain of tradition that mediates it to the present age.
The best known of these biblical-sectarian polemics became known eventually as the Jewish-Christian Polemic. A lesser known but no less significant sectarian debate was the earlier Jewish-Samaritan Polemic.
Deuteronomy and the Coexistence with the Samaritans
After the return from Babylonian Exile, Jerusalem was re-instituted as a temple city for the God of Israel. Not long after that, other worshippers of the same God were centered on a temple on Mt. Gerizim near Shechem. This situation continued for several centuries, as the two communities flourished side by side. Apparently, relations between those centered in Jerusalem and those centered in Samaria or Shechem were not always as antagonistic as they are, for example, in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
At some stage, however, the dynamic relationship between the two groups ceased and two separate religious communities were established: “Jews” and “Samaritans.” This official schism took place at a certain point under Hasmonean rule, and was likely finalized by the destruction of the Samaritan Temple in 128 BCE by the Judean king, Johanan Hyrcanus.
Before the “official split,” the Torah went through several centuries of joint custody when it constituted Scripture for Jews and Samaritans alike. It is astounding that the Torah “succeeded” in this difficult task. Luckily, the recurring sentence in Deuteronomy 'המקום אשר יבחר ה “the place that God will choose” does not specify the name of the chosen place, allowing each of the respective communities to think that their holy place was referred to in Deuteronomy.
The Only Named Cultic Site in Deuteronomy: Shechem
Deuteronomy can be very easily read as a Samaritan text. In fact, it is read so more easily than as a Jewish text! The only places within the Land named in Deuteronomy are in the area of Shechem, in the north. For example, Deuteronomy 11: 29-30 (Parashat Re’eh) orders a ceremony of blessings and curses be held on the mountains of Gerizim and Ebal respectively when the Israelites enter the land. The same ceremony appears in a slightly expanded manner in Deuteronomy 27:11-13.
The original reason for this surprising ceremony in Shechem lies with the even earlier history of the Book of Deuteronomy in the 8-7 centuries BCE. I will not develop it now in order to avoid confusion with the history of Deuteronomy in Second Temple times, the period which interests us here.
Deuteronomy 27:1-7 commands quite explicitly that an altar be erected on Mt. Ebal (near Shechem), constructed of designated stones upon which the entire Torah is written. Deuteronomy is thus very clear in mentioning only one cultic site by name: the mountains surrounding Shechem. If visitors from Mars were requested to read Deuteronomy and say which is “the place God will choose,” they would most probably conclude that that place is in Shechem.
Furthermore, the Samaritan Pentateuch (Henceforth: SP), as well as the old Greek translation (third century BCE) of Deuteronomy, have 'המקום אשר בחר ה, “the place that God has chosen,” in the past tense as the formula that refers to the temple. This means that according to Deuteronomy, the place had already been chosen well before the entrance into the land. The most likely place, the Samaritans would argue, is the very place where God commanded Israel to build an altar when they enter the land, on a mountain near Shechem.
A Hidden Biblical Jewish Response
Judeans apparently found ways to weaken the power of the problematic passages in Deuteronomy 11 and 27. Deuteronomy 27:4 orders the building of an altar on one mountain, but which one? Here the MT and SP differ: The MT places this altar on Mt. Ebal while the SP places it on Mt. Gerizim.
The Samaritan Torah was for many years considered a secondary source, constituting a later reworked version of an ancient text. For a long time, scholars thus believed the MT reading to be primary, while the SP reading was considered a tendentious correction by later Samaritan scribes. The latter clearly had stakes in having the Torah support an altar on their holy place on Mt. Gerizim. When the Israeli archeologist Adam Zertal found a cultic site on Mt. Ebal, interpreting it as the altar mentioned in Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8, the case seemed complete.
More recently, however, many scholars have contested this very convenient consensus.
First, discoveries in the Qumran caves revealed a number of ancient manuscripts which reflect what we know today as the text of the SP. These manuscripts do not reflect a Samaritan environment, but rather attest to a type of text that circulated among all sorts of Jews in the Second Temple period.
Second, it became apparent that the Old Greek text of Deuteronomy – i.e., not the LXX, the traditional Greek text used by Christians and some Jews, but rather a more pristine one – read Gerizim in Deut 27:4, just as the Samaritan text does. No reason exists to assume that this pristine version would be pro-Samaritan and anti-Judean, and to assume that it had corrected the original reading and inserted Gerizim instead. Rather, it seems at least possible that the Old Greek represents an early reading of Deuteronomy with Gerizim rather than Ebal in 27:4. In other words, the original Deuteronomy did not agree with the MT.
Interpreting the Archaeological Data on Mt. Ebal
The evidence from the cultic site on Mt. Ebal, which once seemed like conclusive evidence, now seems less clear cut. Many archeologists doubt that it includes an altar at all, and in addition, Zertal’s analysis requires several other assumptions, some of them rather far reaching. Even if the Ebal structure is an altar or a cultic site of some sort (which is a more reasonable observation), one cannot be sure of its Israelite identity and its connection to the account in Deuteronomy. Thus, it cannot be used as unequivocal evidence for determining the reading in Deuteronomy 27:4.
An Altar on Mt. Ebal, the Location of the Curse! Evaluating the Versions of the Text
Considering the question again with the eyes of biblical historians we may ask: How likely is it that the old Deuteronomy would require an altar be built on Mt. Ebal of all places? After all, this mountain was mentioned twice in Deuteronomy as the place where a curse is to be placed.
On one hand, if the original site mentioned in Deuteronomy 27 was Mount Ebal, it corresponds to the ancient altar discovered by Zertal that existed on the site. If this were the case, it seems reasonable that a Samaritan scribe would have adjusted it to Gerizim to fit with his tradition.
On the other hand, an equally plausible scenario suggests that the original Deuteronomy mentioned Gerizim, the mountain of blessing, as the place of the altar. This original reading was preserved in both the Old Greek Text and the Samaritan Torah. A Judean reader in Second Temple times, probably after the Samaritan schism, was not content with the mention of Gerizim in Deuteronomy, which seemed like an outright approval of the Samaritan position. That reader deleted “Gerizim” and replaced it with “Ebal.” Of course, the reading “Ebal” does not make any sense because nobody would place an altar there; but for that Judean reader, reading “Gerizim” seemed like an impossible reading. He would have preferred Ebal, because of the duty to oppose the claims of the Samaritans.
Rabbinic Accusations of Forgery
Curiously, a debate about the authenticity of the Samaritan Torah is reported already in Talmudic times (not as early as Second Temple times but early enough afterwards). Both Talmuds report (j. Sotah 7.3; b. Sotah 33b) a debate between the Samaritans and R. Elazar son of R. Shimon (in the Bavli: son of R. Jose) about the reading of Deuteronomy 11:30.
According to R. Elazar, the Samaritans read the word Shechem in that verse after the words Elonei Moreh (indeed the present-day SP adds מול שכם at the end of the verse). R. Elazar mocks the Samaritans: זייפתם תורתכם ולא העליתם בידכם כלום, literally, “you have forged your Torah but gained nothing by it.”
In other words, he is saying that while they changed the wording of scripture by adding words that are “not there,” (not in his text at least), they reached a conclusion that the Rabbis agree with anyway, even without the extra words in their biblical text. Claiming that the Samaritans falsified the text of the Torah seems to have been a common strategy of rabbinic Jews (cf. b. Sanhedrin 90b).
Could one turn this allegation on its head and apply it to the early authorities who produced the MT of Deuteronomy 27:4? Could they have possibly altered the biblical text in order to counter the Samaritan position? To be sure, those who created that reading and endorsed it were certainly not rabbis, since rabbis – in the sense known to us – did not exist in early Hasmonean times.
Although this accusation is not necessarily the only explanation for our current text, it is plausible that the traditional (Masoretic) Jewish text of Deuteronomy 27:4 results from a correction of a theologically problematic original text to counter the claim of the Samaritans. This case, thus, serves as a reminder of the poignant theological debates of Second Temple times, which occasionally found their way even into the biblical text itself.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 21, 2016
November 27, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Jonathan (יונתן) Ben-Dov is George and Florence Wise Chair of Judaism in Antiquity at the University of Haifa, and senior lecturer of Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Literature. He is co-editor (with Seth Sanders) of the book Ancient Jewish Sciences and the History of Knowledge in Second Temple Literature (ISAW and New York University Press).
Essays on Related Topics: