The Lord is one: Reflections on the History of Judaism in Light of the Shema Text from Halbturn, Austria

Shema Yisrael

Shema text,

The discovery in Halbturn, Austria in 2000 of a golden plate with the words of Deut. 6:4 in the third-century CE grave of a young child of 18 months, has raised a series of philological and historical questions.  These issues, because of the significance of this particular verse in Jewish tradition, open up virtually all the questions that constitute the subject of this symposium.  These issues are not original to me but, rather, are raised in a series of articles in Journal of Ancient Judaism 1, 1-2 (2010).  Perhaps I was bitten with gold-Shema fever, since I actually had the privilege of holding this item in my hand.  Let me admit my Tendenz in advance: for a committed Jew to hold this item in his hands concretizes millennia of Jewish faith, but also of tragedy and martyrdom.  I hope that this reality will not impinge upon the academic character of my presentation.  As you will see, my intention here is not to directly contribute to the clarification of the problems raised by the discovery, but to use it as a jumping off point for a series of wider considerations.  Further, the discovery is of such great interest that we will not be able to deal with all of the ramifications of this find.


The text immediately raises the issue of the history of monotheism.  It is certain that by Second Temple times, Judaism, at least that of the groups we encounter in the preserved literature, was essentially monotheistic.  This is the case as well for the rabbinic materials.  Jews no longer saw independent gods as having power, even if they may have in First Temple times.  But this statement ignores the fuzzy edges.  Apparently, this monotheism permitted evil, semi-Antichrist figures, like Belial, or demonic and angelic hosts.  In fact, monotheism may be evaluated on a scale.  I would argue, against many colleagues, that for most Jews in Late Antiquity when the “Son”–Jesus was identified with the “Father”–God a line had been crossed that most but not all Jews recognized. The arguments against the line I have suggested also relate to magic to which I will return.  But for now we should observe that virtually all of the New Testament evidences the dominant model of monotheism that I suggested.  Further, the notion of a sort of second, parallel “theology,” put forward by E.R.  Goodenough, is based on the seeping of Jewish ideas into the wider Mediterranean culture, and is not evidence of a large-scale, alternative Jewish theology.  The presence of the Shema in our text, even in Papponia in Roman Austria, where only the smallest Jewish community is documented, shows that even if identity is attenuated, the Shema, the profession of monotheism, was the verse to accompany this young child to the grave.  This strongly confirms my view, as does the evidence, for example, of the Roman Jewish catacombs, about the commonality of Jewish monotheism even if it might sometimes have fuzzy edges.  The fact that some–or even–many Jews may have crossed what I regard as the normative II use that word on purpose) barrier or borderline, in no way refutes my view.  Societal reality has always been that way.  My model of “normativity” of monotheism, then, allows for semi-divine figures, forces and powers of evil, permeability and even boundary crossing–all in the context of ancient Judaism.


For this reason, the possibility that this gold plate, placed originally in a silver envelope and most probably placed on the child’s neck, may be an amulet, in no way compromises my approach.  The use of Deut.  6:4 In This way would constitute a refined form of magic in which God is conjured to convey the dead child to the next world (perhaps across the River Styx) in peace.  But the wearing of texts conjuring the God of Israel, in the form of Tefillin, was a regular part of observance for some Jews in the religious elite, certainly for Pharisees and Qumran sectarians.  This form of white magic was always permitted by all versions of Jewish law and does not even stretch any boundaries.  In fact, it may constitute an implicit avoidance of the conjuring of angels or demons, typical of most metallic amulets from the land of Israel and of the Jewish Aramaic magic bowls from Babylonia.  But the latter, I would submit, do not cross my version of the monotheistic boundaries of antiquity, and we all know that occasionally magical praxis is the locus of permeability that crosses the preconceived lines.  Again, these lines were crossed to some socially acceptable extent by so many Jews that we need to have a sufficiently flexible view to let Jews be Jews while still excluding pagans and Christians.

The presence of Hebrew words and phrases in the magical texts of this period attests to the permeability of this kind of culture but also to the magical way in which many in the ancient world saw Jewish practice.  We have already mentioned Jewish involvement in such magic, but here we need to remember that Greek magical use of Hebrew expressions may depend on a small Jewish population and can also be brought from more heavily Jewish populated areas.

The Shema as a Watchword

The role of Deut.  6:4 in ancient Judaism is discussed thoroughly in the two issues of Journal of Ancient Judaism.  From the evidence of the Nash Papyrus and the Mezuzot and tefillin from the Judean desert, the centrality of this passage seems to be archaeologically confirmed.  Early rabbinic sources testify to the use of this passage in the liturgical recitation of the Shema Yisrael.  Generally unnoticed is the attestation to this practice, as observed by J.  Licht, in the poem at the end of 1QS.  Here is the translation of G. Vermes:

Before I move my hands and feet

I will bless His Name.

I will praise Him before I go out or enter,

or sit or rise,

and whilst I lie on the couch of my bed.

I will bless Him with the offering

of that which proceeds from my lips

from the midst of the ranks of men…

The references in this poem to praising God when waking up and going to sleep, mention of going out, entering or siting or rising, all seem to adapt the words of Deut. 6:4-9 and the passage seems to refer to its recital.

In our view, the role of this passage in the common Judaism of the time is demonstrated also by its various interpretations in Second Temple texts.  But this is an example of the problem we face in making such evaluations.  Our method is to triangulate backward from later material into the Second Temple period, when Second Temple texts or archaeological evidence argue but do not prove the antiquity of a practice.  In this case, we see the spread of Shema recital as in evidence in the scrolls and, of course, after the destruction in rabbinic literature.  We see it as a part of ubiquitous common Judaism and so have not been surprised at all by its function as an amulet in the grave of a small child, even in the Roman province of Pannonia.

Greek Language

Recent years have seen a much wider understanding of the phenomenon of Hellenistic Judaism and of its continuity into the Roman and even Byzantine periods.  The process by which rabbinic Judaism eventually became the most widely practiced form of Judaism was a complex one.  Much of the European Jewish community has its earliest origins in Greek-speaking Jews that reached southern Europe in the aftermath of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE as part of the unsuccessful revolt of the Jews of Judea and Galilee against Rome in 66-73 CE., or in the 2-3 centuries that followed.  Small numbers of Jews and even Jewish residential quarters are known for this period, even in central Europe, and the few Jews in Roman Pannonia (in Austria and Hungary) must be seen as part of this phenomenon.  We should not be surprised if, unlike the Greek-speaking Jews of Asia Minor, these Jews had more attenuated connections to Jewish observance–however defined–and to Jewish communal organizations, synagogues and burial places.  But it is highly possible that the declaration of faith in one God may have traveled with such Jews even if they could not write the words in Hebrew or perhaps, judging from our text, pronounce the words as they would have been read by Hebrew readers at the time.

The few Jewish inscriptions from Pannonia show the minimal community that existed there and attest to the existence of three synagogues.  The eventual transfer of this small community into a larger one, and the fact that by the early Middle Ages communities like this had become Hebrew praying and that rabbinic tradition had consistently become dominant, are phenomena which require detailed study.  One cannot doubt that this process was greatly encouraged by aspects of the common Judaism that even these far-flung Jews shared with those of the land of Israel and Babylonia.  This process was repeated in many communities, although we need to remember that other Hellenistic Jews were absorbed into early Christianity and still others in the Near East did not survive the Moslem conquest.

General Observations

I have purposely chosen not to attack the subject of this program had on, but rather to show how a web of variation and historical change typifies the complex organism we call Judaism or the Jewish community in antiquity.  It is no accident that an anachronistic glance at modern Judaism and the Jewish community of today would yield the same diversity we see in antiquity.  It is the nature of the phenomenon throughout its history.  Geography, chronology, variations of teaching and tradition, and many other factors created the manifestations of Judaism that we may observe throughout the ages.  But our brief look at the discussion in the Journal of Ancient Judaism on one small but precious object and the tragedy of perhaps one Jewish family, illustrate the unity of the monotheistic faith of the Jewish people, and one small verse from the Torah shows how faith, ritual and tragedy link Jews across time and space.  This is Judaism as a historical phenomenon in ancient times.  To deny this diversity and to use the term “Judaisms” is also to deny its continuity and commonality and, hence, to deny its essence.  To deny its variegation is to turn it into a cult, in the modern sense of the term. To deny its often fuzzy boundaries is to deny its identity.

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