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The origins of the Dtr story

Tiglath Pileser III – British Museum

Many scholars believe that the Dtr  – i.e. the Deuteronomist – was written during the exile (at the end of VI cent. BC). This was the Noth’s theory about Dtr’s origins.  Römer maintains that if the Dtr was written during the exile it is difficult to explain texts where the advent of the monarchy is positively evaluated. These and other texts suggest an era in which the Kingdom of Judah was still alive. Some scholars, in fact, think that the origins of Dtr are to be attributed to the age of Hezekiah (VIII BC). He is indeed presented as the greatest king since the time of David (2 Kings 18:1-6). Römer also notes that it is difficult to think that at that time a first edition of the Dtr story was written. If you read 2 Kings 18:5 you realize that even in that text the hand of an editor who lived after Hezekia is easily recognizable.

However the unsuccessful siege of Sennacherib in 701 BC caused a first attempt to centralize the cult, perhaps consisting of the removal of some cultic symbols not accepted by Assyria. Probably that event gave rise to the current of thought that then found expression in the Dtr. But the Assyrian pressure at the time of Hezekiah was too strong to afford to write extensive and reasoned works like the story dtr. The most plausible solution is to place the beginnings  of Dtr under King Josiah. There was indeed a change in the political situation of the Near East in the second half of the seventh century BC.

Beginning with the reign of Tiglat Pileser III (745-727 BC), the influence of the Assyrians in the Syrian-Palestinian area continued to grow. The kingdom of Israel, then richer and more developed than the Judean kingdom, was soon subdued. In 722 BC the Northern Kingdom – i.e. Israel – definitively lost its autonomy, with the fall of Samaria. This event caused a great demographic increase in Jerusalem and an exceptional increase in the size of the city. Within a few decades, Jerusalem, which before the fall of Samaria occupied only a few hectares of land, reached an area of ​​about 60 hectares with a population of 15,000! The material cause of all this great development was certainly the arrival of refugees from the former kingdom of the North. Moreover Judah had indeed entered the world market of Assyrian. This caused a real economic and political revolution. Judah passed from an agricultural society organized by clan, to a strongly centralized state political system. Thus, for the first time in its history, the king’s court became something far more complex than in previous periods. Such a situation was most probably achieved under the reign of Manasseh (which lasted 55 years – 2 Kings 21:1), a period during which Neo-Assyrian culture and propaganda took root deeply in the Jewish mentality.

Then, gradually the Assyrian presence in Judah weakened, allowing a certain political autonomy and awakening ancient nationalistic dreams. If it is true that Josiah ascended the throne at the age of 8 (see 2 Kings 22:1), this would mean that political power was undoubtedly in the hands of priests, scribes and important courtly families. The literary origins of Dtr are likely to be placed within these environments. The purpose of this activity was to support the “Zionist party” i.e. the nationalistic and expansionist policies. So it was a propaganda work. We may think that, at that time – that is, in the second half of the seventh cent. BC – there was a collection of rolls stored perhaps in a library. Perhaps, these were laws concerning the political, economic and religious reorganization of Judea (Dt 12-25); a story of the conquest that reflected military ambitions and territorial claims of Judah (Js 3-12); a chronicle of the kings of Judah and Israel that legitimized Josiah as a new David (Samuel-King). In all these texts the influence of the neo-Assyrian culture is clearly recognizable. In the book of Judges, instead, it is difficult to recognize the presence of a publishing activity in the age of Josiah.

Some scholars have even suggested that in the seventh century there was also a Mosaic tradition. According to Römer, it may have been part of the “deuteronomist library”. In this case, this life of Moses would have been like a sort of anti-Assyrian propaganda, in which Moses (Ex 2) is the antagonistic figure of Sargon – the hypothetical founder of the Assyrian monarchy – and the liberation from Egyptian slavery as an allusion to Josiah’s attempts to free himself from the Assyrian yoke.

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Simone Venturini

Writer and Researcher at Vatican Secret Archives, Professor of Bible at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross od Rome

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