The Deuteronomist and King Josiah

Here's just a brief introduction to the JEDP theory. The D stands for the Deuteronomist author/editor. That the Deuteronomist had a very unusual fondness for King Josiah, who ruled over Judah in the South from about 640-609 BCE, is found in many ways.

The Deuteronomist rates Josiah and him alone as the best king who ever reigned: “Now before him there was no king like him, who turned to Yahweh with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; nor after him did any arise like him” (II Kings 23:25). In fact, in the Deuteronomist’s history Josiah was not just good and important, he was someone to be compared with Moses himself.

In one instance the text "prophetically" names him three hundred years before he was born. His life was prophesied to Jeroboam, the very first king of the northern tribes (probably 922 to 901 BCE): “By the word of Yahweh a man of God came from Judah to Bethel, as Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make an offering. By the word of Yahweh he cried out against the altar: “Altar, altar! This is what Yahweh says: ‘A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who make offerings here, and human bones will be burned on you’” (I Kings 13:1-2). And surprise of surprises at the end of the Deuteronomist's history Josiah does exactly what had been prophesied earlier (II Kings 23:15-20). No other explicit prediction of a person by name 300 years in advance can be found in the Bible. [Isaiah's prediction of the rise of the Persian king Cyrus (44:28-45:1) was about 150 years earlier, which leads most scholars to say the first author in chapters 1-39 was not the same author of the other 27 chapters]. It is clearly something the Deuteronomist inserted into his edition. And why not? The Deuteronomist was writing his story to please King Josiah. Why is this not hard to understand? Scribes under the power and authority of a despot were instructed to highly praise their king or they would die. Or do you really suppose instead that they would write it as they see it?

There is surely something going on here, and the clue can be found in 2 Kings 22:8–13, which contains a very interesting story. The Deuteronomist tells us Josiah had just come to be king of Judah in the South. He wanted to repair the temple and told the High Priest, Hilkiah, to go through all the stuff and see how much money they had. While Hilkiah was looking around, we're supposed to believe, he found the “Book of the Law” and gave it to a secretary who read it to Josiah. When Josiah heard it, he tore his clothes because he realized that they had not been obeying God. Given the problems I just mentioned scholars think that instead of “finding” this book, this is when it was actually compiled, edited and/or written. It was a time in the kingdom of Judah when Josiah needed greater control over the people he was ruling over. It was written to support a reform that centralized all religion and political authority within Jerusalem, in order to keep a crumbling kingdom together in light of internal and external pressures. In order to legitimate these novel reforms, Josiah’s regime claimed the book was written by Moses himself. (This kind of forgery was common among regimes in the ancient Near East.) Some suggest that since Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry took place during Josiah’s reign (7th century BCE), he may have been the author of a large part of the Deuteronomistic history.

This may help explain why the Deuteronomist tells us that the Passover Meal was not celebrated for hundreds of years before King Josiah’s time. In 2 Kings 23:21–23 Josiah commanded the people to celebrate the Passover. And there we read, “Not since the days of the judges who led Israel, nor throughout the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah, had any such Passover been observed. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah, this Passover was celebrated to Yahweh in Jerusalem.” It’s likely, given what we know, that the Passover Meal was first celebrated during his reign. And if this is the case, it helps explain the lack of archaeological evidence for an exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, their wilderness wanderings and the conquest of Canaan. It was all a myth created in King Josiah's day.

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