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Ancient Judaism

by Max Weber, Hans H. Gerth, Don Martindale

Buy the book: Max Weber. Ancient Judaism

Release Date: 01 May, 1967

Edition: Paperback

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Buy the book: Max Weber. Ancient Judaism


Ian Myles Slater on A Classic of Religious Sociology

There is a small problem with the English-language title of this volume. Weber produced the studies included in the book in the years leading up to the First World War, in the absence of much the material and textual evidence produced by archeology, and under the influence of the "Higher Criticism". Despite this, he managed to produce a first-rate analysis of the social foundations of Biblical Israel. Not "Judaism," the religion of the synagogue, but rather the life of an ancient people of the eastern Mediterranean.

Indeed, the closing chapters, on the post-exilic period and the emergence of Second-Temple Judaism, are the weakest of the book. This is partly because he insisted on applying his theories of the social role of sects to the whole population of Persian and Hellenistic Judea, instead of treating it as a national religion fracturing into sects under the pressure of foreign occupation.

Max Weber was one of the founders of modern sociology, and although his reputation has fluctuated over the decades, his ideas and methods remain basic to sociological discourse, and appear frequently in other fields. It is not surprising that Weber's discussions of pre-Exilic Israel and Judah retain their value. Not greatly concerned with the absolute or relative dating of the texts, he studied them for what they revealed about economic conditions and social roles. A great familiarity with other pre-modern societies replaced Semitic philology or Christian theology as his guides. His analysis of the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee as means of maintaining social equilibrium, and with it the population of free peasants to fill the militia, is based on his knowledge of ancient Greece, but has since found some confirmation in the concerns of early Babylonian rulers to prevent the impoverishment of the military class.

Besides its continuing value as a study of the Biblical period, Weber's "Ancient Judaism" is a particularly good example of his sociological method in action. The source material is readily available to the student, if not already familiar. In this it is unlike his fascinating studies of China and India, in which he not only drew on translations and secondary sources, but on materials not likely to be familiar to most readers, and in some cases is rather difficult to obtain. (Nineteenth-century Indology and Sinology not having a large place in most libraries, for example.) It is therefore much easier to pick up what he left out, what he considered significant, and to decide whether his conclusions now seem warranted by the evidence.

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