Reading this book is a little like entering a parallel universe, where events you thought you knew about didn’t quite happen in the familiar way, and people you thought you knew about did unexpected things. The author makes whole historical cloth out of a lot of literary strands; some of it is possible, much of it seems improbable. But in the end, the biggest criticism is that he does not deliver on his principal thesis that there was no Rabbinic Judaism or proto-Rabbinic movement prior to the destruction of the second temple. If, by this, the author meant to say that the practice of modern Judaism differs from that of second temple times, it would hardly be controversial; Judaism as we know it was essentially salvaged out of the ruins of the second temple’s destruction by Yochanan Ben Zakai and his successors. Boccaccini means more than this however; rather than a movement which tried to maintain – within the limits imposed by the absence of temple and sacrifices – continuity with earlier traditions, he sees Rabbinic Judaism as a totally new synthesis which borrowed from at least three different streams of Judaism which had emerged during the second temple period – Zadokite (covenantal) Judaism, Enochic (apocalyptic) Judaism, and Sapiential (wisdom-based) Judaism.

Zadokite Judaism gets its name from the so-called Zadokite priesthood, supposedly descendants of Zadok the chief priest in the time of King David. This priestly group, according to Boccaccini, took over the newly rebuilt temple after the return from the Babylonian exile, and ruled Judea for 350 years – until shortly before the Maccabean revolt. The fascinating story he tells of the Zadokite takeover is based on a very close reading of the books of Ezekiel – the prophet of the Babylonian exile – Hagai and Malachi – the last of the Biblical prophets – and the book of Ezra, the most influential leader of the returning exiles. According to the author, the Zadokites effectively created a three-level hierarchy; the high priesthood was the hereditary office of the Zadokite family – descendants of Aaron’s grandson Phineas, who in the Book of Numbers is rewarded for his zeal with an “everlasting priesthood”. They  presided over other Aaronite priests not descended from Phineas, who were in turn supported by the Levites who cleaned up the temple and provided the musical accompaniment to its rites.

To accept the full ingenuity of Boccaccini’s version of the  Zadokite coup, you do of course have to buy into the theory of the Documentary Hypothesis, of a separate priestly authorship of parts of the Pentateuch. According to the author, in order to justify their primacy, the Zadokites rewrote the Pentateuch, adding what we now know as the Book of Leviticus and parts of the Book of Numbers; however, most modern proponents of this hypothesis now accept that the author of “P”, as it is called, was certainly pre-exilic. So, even if “P” were a separate document written by priests, it came too early to be the work of the post-exilic Zadokite priests. This cloak and dagger elaboration is in any case hardly necessary, as no one argues with the fact that the Zadokite/Oniad line occupied the high priesthood until shortly before the Maccabean revolt. The rump of the Zadokite priesthood can be identified with the Sadducees (“Tsadukim”, meaning Zadokites, in Hebrew)  – one of the late second temple period sects described by Josephus.

So what was Zadokite Judaism ? It was very much what we might call Biblical Judaism – the covenant of God with Israel promised them that, if they kept faith with his laws, they would enjoy all the blessings of a people chosen to be witness of the love and justice of the One God; failure to do so would be punished severely, including the subjection of the Israelite nation to other peoples. The Zadokites believed firmly that each Israelite’s and the collective national fate was in their own hands. There was no need to expect an afterlife of the soul, as reward or punishment would come in the individual’s lifetime, rather than in a world to come. With the exception of this last, there is nothing that distinguishes the Zadokite beliefs, as described by Boccaccini, from the principles on which Rabbinical Judaism is based. The author in fact acknowledges this continuity of belief, but then chooses to replace the conventional narrative of the development of proto-Rabbinic/ Pharisaic Judaism as a popularizing non-priestly movement, with a tangled web of exotic versions of Judaism that vied with the Judaism of the Zadokite priesthood.

Enochic Judaism is named for the Book of Enoch, a series of pseudo-epigraphical books written, scholars believe, between 300 and 100 BCE. The section known as the Book of Dream Visions – is the one that Boccaccini focuses on. This consists of a history of Israel from the creation to a period that is believed to allude to the Maccabean revolt of 167 BCE. It is an apocalyptic history, in which ‘Fallen angels” rebel against God, hence introducing evil into the world and progressively worsening the lot of Israel. Nothing can be done to combat this state of affairs until the final triumph of good over evil at the End of Days. This is diametrically opposed to the covenantal philosophy attributed to the Zadokites; there is nothing that individual Israelites or the nation as a whole can do to avoid their fate; everything is determined by the various celestial forces arrayed against each other. Boccaccini tries to connect various unconnected strands – the Enochic literature, a number of priestly families who were “defrocked” because their genealogical credentials did not check out, and the eschatological writings found among the Dead Sea Scrolls – to create a narrative of  Enochic Judaism, whereby a group of dissident, or outlawed, priests formed an opposition movement to the ruling Zadokites which eventually coalesced as the Essene sect – the presumed authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Apart from the details, Boccaccini generally fails to make a case for an actual Enochic Judaism, as distinct from a body of literature.

Sapiential  is another way of referring to wisdom literature, a literary philosophy that appeared throughout the east during the period of the second temple. There was “Jewish” wisdom literature – or books that were canonized as part of the Jewish bible – such as Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon); there were books of Judaic origin which are to be found in the apocrypha (intertestamental literature) –  the Book of Wisdom  and Sirach. This genre is characterized by sayings of wisdom intended to teach about divinity and about virtue. Wisdom literature could be described as a kind of secular morality, in which the accumulated experience and traditions inherited from ancestors and wise men substituted for the covenantal imperatives of the Zadokites. It was secular only in the sense that it derived neither from divine fiat and certainly not from the priesthood, but was rooted in human experience of living the “good life”. It did not deny the role of the divinity in the world, but merely pointed out the futility of trying to understand God in human terms. Thus, in the sense that God cannot be regarded as being bound by a covenantal promise, this literature was opposed to the Zadokite worldview. Although there is no historical evidence that this represented a separate stream of Judaism, Boccaccini again tries to join diverse strands to create a history of Sapiential Judaism: Initially an opposition movement to the Zadokite priests, under the the Hellenising influence of Ptolemaic rule there is an alliance between the two which emerges at the beginning of the second century BCE in the Book of Sirach which, while clearly part of the wisdom tradition, explicitly praises the high priesthood of the time.

The book concludes with a lengthy description and interpretation of the Book of Daniel, which has much merit in its own right, but in my view, contributes nothing toward proving the author’s hypothesis. He sees it as a “third way” which, by introducing some of the apocalyptic elements of Enochic Judaism, squares the circle between Zadokite and Sapiential views of Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism is supposed to have emerged from this synthesis. Daniel is a very difficult book to understand; it incorporates some early traditions about Daniel as a historical figure at the courts of Babylon and Persia and a series of visions and prophesies that clearly relate to the much later time immediately preceding the Maccabean revolt. Although its final compilation was probably designed to inspire hope in the pietist Jews – amongst them the early Pharisees – who opposed the Hellenisers of that period, it does not provide the magic bullet that explains the emergence of “modern” Judaism between the time of the Maccabean revolt in 167 BCE and the publication of the Mishnah, the first Rabbinic text, in 200 CE.