Reformations, Plural

Over the next couple of years, we are going to be hearing a great deal about commemorating the European Reformation, which had its symbolic beginning with Martin Luther’s deeds in October 1517. In that sense, “the Reformation” was a specific series of events that occurred in Europe at a particular time, a historical moment like the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. I will be amused to see how, in late 2017, we will be marking that dual anniversary, as we discuss whether mainstream Protestantism has fared better or worse globally than Marxism-Leninism.

Yet events very much like the European Reformation have certainly occurred before in history, and may well represent a recurring cultural and religious phenomenon. Instead of The Reformation, we should rather be looking at reformations, rather like we think of political revolutions. Like revolutions too, we would expect each new reformation to be influenced by the historical example of its predecessors.

Reformations happen.

One obvious precedent for the European Reformation occurred in the Jewish world in the seventh century BC, under Judah’s king Josiah (641-609 BC). Around 620 BC, while the temple was being refurbished, the high priest reportedly found an ancient copy of the Book of the Law, which he brought to Josiah. The king was appalled by how far the Israelite nation of his time had fallen from the exalted standards laid out in this supposedly ancient text. Inspired, he launched a radical reform movement to restore the lost glories of Moses’s era, to recreate (or create afresh) the practices and customs described in the text. It is commonly believed that this Scroll was what we call the Book of Deuteronomy, which had been written not long before Josiah’s time.

Reputedly inspired by Deuteronomy, Josiah launched a religious purge that gave the Temple clergy everything they had asked in destroying rival shrines and cult practices, and establishing a rigid orthodoxy. In loving detail, the second book of Kings tells us how Josiah smashed altars and sacred images, desecrated shrines, cut sacred groves, and burned the bones in tombs. 2 Kings 23 gives a potent picture of the diversity of religious patterns and practices that prevailed in Judah around this time. Josiah “slew all the priests of the high places that were there upon the altars, and burned men’s bones upon them, and returned to Jerusalem.”

Josiah left a glorious memory in Jewish literature, and within Christianity. Early Protestants especially saw him as a glorious forebear and precedent for their deeds. This is especially a commonplace in scholarly histories of Calvinism. (See for instance Graeme Murdock, “The Importance of Being Josiah: An Image of Calvinist Identity,” Sixteenth Century Journal (1998), 1043-1059). Even today, some Bibles begin Josiah’s story with a loaded subheading concerning “Josiah’s Reformation.”

But the analogies go far beyond iconoclasm, and force us to consider the wider cultural dimensions of the religious transformation. One scholar who has made brilliant observations on this period is my former colleague Baruch Halpern, who was some years ago described in a Los Angeles Times book review as “among the most accomplished and distinguished scholars of his generation, or any generation.” He has published extensively, and one of the best resources for approaching his work is the collection of essays that appeared in 2009 with the off-putting title of From Gods to God: The Dynamics of Iron Age Cosmologies (edited by M. J. Adams. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).

Some books are stimulating. This one is hair-raising.

Amazingly, the index of this book contains no reference to the word Reformation, because in passing (eg pp. 3-5), Halpern offers comments on that topic that should be required reading for anyone interested in European history or religion. Beyond those incidental comments, his “Reformation” model reappears frequently and essentially throughout this whole book.

Halpern suggests that cultural and religious transformations occur after a long-closed society has for some decades been thrown into turmoil by a flood of foreign cultural and intellectual influences.

“The cause is often contact, and especially trade. That is to say, an explosion of the canon, an access of foreign or new materials, creates among elements of the elite – because of dissatisfaction ranging from the purely intellectual to the nakedly ambitious – a revolt against, a rejection of, tradition.”

A culture war ensues.

“Along with the rejection of tradition one experiences a wholesale rejection of the imagery, the iconography of the tradition. The iconography is depleted in its meaning, and exposed as empty symbol, as idolatry in the Reformationist’s vocabulary. (Your icon is of course my idol)…. In the course of the Reformation, the critique that seems most common is the baselessness of tradition as compared with the (true, and thus archaized and reformed) canon. The symbols associated with tradition are bagatelles, distractions. Reality is interior, not a mere epiphenomenon.”

All the old foundations and assumptions are challenged. Eventually, some thinkers begin to look for an absolute standard by which to live, which they commonly find in some idealized glorious past, which is illuminated by some newly exalted text or form of media. They give absolute value both to the mythic past, and the sacred text. The consequences can be far-reaching, even extending to the creation of a whole new religious system. Of course, that system portrays itself not in any sense as new, but rather as the pure and authentic form of a reborn ancient faith.

Halpern’s model of “reformation events” perfectly describes the Jewish world of the eighth and seventh centuries BC, which was subject to enormous influences from such politically powerful neighbors as Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt. Over and above the politics, each of these empires had ancient cultural and scientific traditions, manifested most directly in new understandings of the origin of the cosmos and the patterns of the heavens – Halpern’s “Iron Age Cosmologies.”

As in any society on the margins of power, Jewish attitudes to these ideas were mixed and contradictory. Yes, they wanted to absorb the latest forms of cutting edge sophistication, yet at the same time they resented the loss or contamination of older values, and the clearly marginalized role of their religious life. Looking at the relationship of the less powerful culture to its mightier neighbor, we might think of the classic economic distinction between Core and Periphery suggested by Immanuel Wallerstein. Judea, in this model, was definitely on the cultural periphery. Halpern clearly stresses these analogies throughout. Noting Deuteronomy’s ideas, for instance, he writes “This critique, like Protestantism, gathered momentum from cultural integration into a world economy” (417).

That all provides the context for the great monotheistic reform movement that began in the kingdom of Judah under its ruler Hezekiah (c.715–686), and that continued to shape Hebrew thought and religion until the exile to Babylon in 586. Jewish elites witnessed the political expansion of the rival empires, and the crushing of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BC. Jerusalem itself endured a frightening siege in 701.

Observing these disasters, Hebrew thinkers saw worship both as the cause and as the solution of the crisis. The nation was in danger because it had betrayed its covenant and worshipped other gods. It could be saved only by returning unconditionally to the exclusive worship of one God (whether or not such a creed had ever existed in reality) and annihilating all signs of rival faiths. This was the solution proposed by Hezekiah, when he successfully resisted the Assyrian onslaught.

But it was far from obvious that such a policy could be sustained: so much depended on the attitudes and quirks of individual kings. Hezekiah was reacting against the syncretistic policies of his father, Ahaz, and Hezekiah’s own son Manasseh in turn reversed the monotheist revolution and restored the pagan altars. Manasseh’s grandson was that Josiah who restored the monotheist ideal. In Josiah’s time, around 620, it was a wide-­open question whether strict monotheism would survive indefinitely, or if it would prove to be a historical blind alley.

Halpern goes far beyond the immediate political crisis to explore other far-reaching changes in progress in the Israelite world at this time, and which contributed to this transformation, and accompanied it. He notes how the movement towards monotheism demanded an utter repudiation of tradition, in term of intellectual assumptions as well as ordinary religious practice. He actually goes beyond this to suggest that such a systematic rejection of precedent laid the foundation for the scientific mindset, but that is a different issue. This is bold stuff.

New to me was his analysis of the aftermath of Hezekiah’s wars, with their urbanization and centralization, and the shredding of traditional social patterns. Halpern’s chapter on the subject (pp. 339-424) is the germ of one of the truly great modern books on the Hebrew Bible. Significantly for present purposes, it features in a section entitled “The State’s Rejection of Religion: Revolution and Reformation.” Under Hezekiah, he says, older structures of clan and kinship suffered, as did their forms of collective devotion centered on ancestors and tombs. Through the grim practical demands of defense, the kings were unconsciously laying the groundwork for cultural and religious transformation, for the “Reformation” of the post-650 era. “Industrialized urbanized Judah of the seventh century was as receptive to the monadic critique as, later, Cromwell’s England or Roman Greece were to be” (418).

Halpern links religious change to a radical new idea of individualism and individual moral responsibility, for which he sees evidence in archaeology – notably burial practices – as in texts. Halpern offers “a simple observation” (!) namely “that the Decologuic god, and that of much of the First Testament, who rewarded or punished descendants was replaced, partly in the Deuteronomic code, but especially in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, by one who rewarded or punished individuals.”

Such notions were startling at a time when guilt and sin were seen as a collective matter for the family and the clan. No, said the prophets, each individual must bear full responsibility for fulfilling God’s covenant. Perhaps in the 580s BC, Ezekiel quotes God as mocking the traditional idea that the child will suffer for the sins of his ancestors. Why, asks God, do you quote the proverb, “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? No, “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.”

Individual humans confronted a solitary God, who judged their individual sins. Such an unprecedented concept subverted all older religious notions, and opened the door for revolutionary change.

In the century after 650 BC, priests and scribes engaged in a massive revision of the Jewish faith, writing and re-editing many of the scriptures that we today know as the core of the Hebrew Bible. The classic tales of Moses and the Exodus were completely rewritten, and gained a massive new importance. It was probably during this period that Judaism became resolutely monotheist, something it had never been before, while the Jerusalem Temple acquired its position as the only central shrine of the religion.

Halpern places within this picture the prophetic tradition, which reached its height in the time of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Second Isaiah: “ ‘Classical’ (ie literary) prophecy is another sign of the new situation, with its daring critique of the traditional cult, and its movement toward a distinctive aniconic [ie image-less] monotheism” (420).

Although these were revolutionary innovations, the reformers never admitted that they were introducing any new practice. They claimed throughout that they were just restoring things the way they should have been, and they produced scriptures to prove it. The book of Deuteronomy was a scripture invented afresh in order to give a faux-ancient basis to the innovations. Josiah’s image-breaking was thus the outward and visible sign of an inward cultural revolution that had already occurred.

Part of this story is the extensive rewriting of history demanded by the revolutionary paradigm. When Jewish reformers were attacking those shrines and sacred groves, they were in fact attacking ancient manifestations of the religion of the land and people. As history was rewritten, though, those practices had to be reinterpreted as syncretistic borrowings from foreign paganism. Or to quote one of Halpern’s reviewers, “Later monotheism arose not from the rejection of alien deities, but by the rejection of the gods of traditional culture.” Halpern himself remarks that the new order “successfully defined traditional culture as un-Israelite, as pagan, as inferior, a position that Western literary religions have continued to maintain ever since” (424).

If this view is correct, then historic Judaism itself was created from a “reformation” movement. The world of Josiah and Jeremiah illuminates that of Luther and Calvin, and vice versa.

Next time, I will pursue the analogies with later and better known reformations, up to the present day.


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  • MesKalamDug

    My take on the matter is that Jeremiah had been Josiah’s house prophet and not
    only were all his sayings disowned when Josiah’s enterprise crashed but he barely escaped with his life almost completely losing his reputation in the process.

    I hope you at least acknowledge the Reformation that led to Islam. From a base of
    Judeo-Christianity IMO.

  • philipjenkins

    I take your Islam comment very seriously. I wish though that we knew more about the origins and prehistory of that movement, because so much of what we think we know depends on scholarly reconstructions which may or may not be correct.

  • MesKalamDug

    Whether there is a controversy remains controversial. But the fact
    that thoughtful people disagree IMO proves that we cannot be sure. It is ironic that Muhammad – once thought of as much more historically documented than Jesus – is now seen (by some of us) as less well documented. Almost everything we imagine we know about him is a scholarly reconstruction (of the second Islamic century to be sure – but a reconstruction).

    I wish this was the place to go into details.

    And, so far as I know, the whole Judeo-Christian foundation matter has never been given a definitive formulation.

  • candide

    There was in the 16th century considerable Catholic support for many ideas of Luther and Calvin, but the papacy was more interested in maintaining its power against the monarchies of France and the Habsburgs than in reform. Erasmus understood this and ended up supporting the Catholic position because he understood the dangers in the unrestrained violence of the Protestant doctrines and practices. It was the resultant Council of Trent which upheld the papacy’s understanding of the Faith in most respects and actually ended up creating the modern Catholic church, rather different theologically and in practice from the church of the medieval period. Had Luther and Calvin been less fanatical and the popes less power hungry a compromise would possibly have been found; this was the hope of the emperor Charles V and even of the French. Even the English could have returned to the Catholic fold had the Council of Trent been less intransigent and the Protestants less hateful of anything Italian.

  • Guthrum

    There seems to be a reformation, a realignment, a shifting going on now. The mainline denominations are in a state of crisis and collapse. This is the result of their leaving the great tradition of Biblical authority. The people are moving to independent churches that preach and teach the Bible as the authority, not culture, psychology, or some seminary philosophy.
    The church members and leaders have come to feel ignored and alienated by the denominational leaders as they increasingly moved further away from Biblical teachings and theology, to the point of apostacy. The members strived to keep their denominations Biblically faithful, but watched as anti Biblical policies and positions were approved in stacked, rigged assemblies and conventions: the so called “social gospel” (it isn’t social, and it certainly is not Gospel). Decisions by the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church US, and the ELCA giving approval to a false redefining of marriage, and the abomination of abortion on demand. So now the members have fled, heading to groups and churches that are Biblically faithful. We pray for a Biblical reformation and revival in all the denominations and churches. We pray that many of them will return to God’s Word.

  • Liberal Kuhn

    You left a Christian church for a post-Christian church? Why?
    The mainlines are spiritually dead. God left them a long time ago, and the Christians headed for the exit. Check the numbers.