Biblical Studies History of Ancient Israelite Religion
Richard Hess
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0315


Israelite religion refers to the evidence and interpretation of the religious life and practice of ancient Israel. The period includes third and second millennia BCE precursors to the Israelites as well as their first appearance in the land of Israel in the late second millennium and continuing to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and exile of Israelite people in 586 BCE. The study of Israelite Religion was closely tied with the study of Old Testament theology. Archaeological discoveries of the nineteenth century and critical approaches to the Hebrew Bible led to the separation of Israelite Religion from theology and to its examination in terms of historical developments of the Israelite people and their beliefs and practices. Ancient Near Eastern texts, especially from Assyria, established connections between Israelite belief, as found in biblical traditions, and the wider cultural context. This was further developed by the discovery of archival sources from the second millennium among West Semitic sites at Mari, Alalakh, Ugarit, and Emar. While Mari attested to personal names and clan religious practices such as those found in Genesis 12–37, Ugarit revealed myths of deities and accounts of their activities that had biblical parallels. Later discoveries from Emar provided evidence of cultic activities and celebrations similar to those found in priestly and ritual texts of Israel such as the book of Leviticus. Cultic finds of early standing stones (Hebrew mazzebah, pl. mazzebot) contributed to identifying a religious presence in the region millennia before Israel emerged. The early and unique cult site at Mt. Ebal paralleled that of the people’s first extra-biblical mention in the Egyptian Merneptah stele (c. 1209 BCE). Iron Age temple sites such as Dan and Arad contributed to understanding Israelite practice as well as the tri-partite Jerusalem temple of 1 Kings 5–8 ascribed to Solomon. For the latter, important parallels were located to the north, especially at ‘Ain Dara’ and Tell Tayinat. Perhaps most significant in the study of this topic was the discovery and 1980s publication of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, what was likely a caravansary in the northeast Sinai, with religious dedicatory inscriptions from c. 800 BCE. Written in Hebrew and related dialects these texts bear witness to a belief by some that Israel’s chief or only deity Yahweh had a consort, Asherah/Asherata. More than any single discovery, this revolutionized the study of Israel’s religion. Many now concluded that Israelite faith during the Monarchy did not include belief of a sole deity.

Early History of the Discipline (1850–1975)

While the Reformation removed the Bible from interpretation by the church alone, the successive centuries identified the significance of studying the religious teaching of the biblical text in terms of its own categories. Gradually, this study of biblical theology was properly separated from research addressing the distinctive origins and evolution of the history of Israelite religions. Assuming the text in part or in whole to serve as a palimpsest of many traditions, critical analysis in the eigtheenth and nineteenth centuries sought to identify these historical layers, often in discrete literary sources. The study culminated with the work of Julius Wellhausen in 1878. Wellhausen 1973 argued an evolutionary development to Israelite religion, moving from personal connection with God to priestly intermediaries. Gunkel 1903 applied ancient Near Eastern (ancient southwest Asian) creation and flood myths to similar texts and themes in the Bible. Alt 1989 understood a synthesis of El deities in Canaanite towns with tribal eponyms among Israelite tribes entering the land. Oral tradition, ritual study, and the reflection of this in biblical texts and ancient Near Eastern myth came together in the Myth and Ritual school, found especially in Britain and Scandinavia, as summarized in Knight 1975. In particular, Psalms and other texts were used to recognize divine status for the king. Kaufmann 1960 identified in Israel an early aniconic monotheism. Wright 1950 distinguished Israelite religion from the surrounding cultures. Developing from an earlier key text (Albright 1953) for understanding the discipline in America, Albright 1957 applied the archaeology of his era to contend for an early Mosaic monotheism. His students included Frank Moore Cross and G. Ernest Wright. Cross 1973 used Ugaritic texts to identify early themes in the poetry and narrative history of the Bible. In contrast, Thompson 1974 and Van Seters 1975 challenged any validity to claims of early biblical historiography, the former denying any historical statements and the latter advocating a return to the literary analysis of Wellhausen with a much later date for the narratives.

  • Albright, William F. Archaeology and the Religion of Israel: The Ayer Lectures of the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1953.

    Although dated, this work illusrates the early application of Albright’s method of biblical archaeology to the subject of Israelite religion. This description remains a resource for the development of the discipline. Contending that evidence existed reflecting the fundamentals of Israelite religion from an early period, he developed an understanding of the field. See the introduction by Theodore J. Lewis in the 2006 reprint by Westminster John Knox.

  • Albright, William F. From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957.

    The acknowledged leader in American biblical archaeology of the mid-twentieth century draws upon texts, artifacts, and sites to argue for a monotheism tracing back to the age of Moses and developing with some influence from surrounding cultures and religious practices. Albright’s mastery of these fields and his powerful influence enabled him to produce a widely accepted synthesis of ancient Israelite religion.

  • Alt, Albrecht. “The God of the Fathers.” In Essays in Old Testament History and Religion. By Albrecht Alt, 1–77. Translated by R. A. Wilson. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic, 1989.

    This volume provides groundbreaking essays on Israelite history, culture, and religion. In the essay cited here, originally published in 1929, Alt describes the conflation of Israelite tribal eponyms (e.g., Fear of Isaac; Genesis 31:42) and El deities worshiped at Canaanite sanctuaries (e.g., El Elyon in Jerusalem; Genesis 14:18–20) into an identification with the one God of Israel.

  • Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674030084

    Cross brings the insights of West Semitic myths, particularly as obtained from 13th-century BCE Ugarit, to bear upon the biblical text. Having identified certain poems as among the earliest biblical texts (e.g., Exodus 15; Judges 5; Deuteronomy 32; Psalm 68), he traces words, phrases, themes, and divine acts through the two cultures, arguing for Canaanite origins to much of the biblical religious ideology.

  • Gunkel, Herman. Israel und Babylonien: Der Einfluss Babyloniens aud die israelitische Religion. Göttingen, Germany: Vendenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1903.

    This represents the premier tradition-historical approach to identifying the influence of the Babylonian world upon Israelite themes and ideas as found in their religious belief and practice. For example, serpent imagery emerges from the Gilgamesh and other mythological accounts and is brought into the world of Genesis 3 and traced through the Bible to the dragon of Revelation 12. English translation: Israel and Babylon: The Babylonian Influence on Israelite Religion. Edited by K. C. Hanson. Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2009.

  • Kaufmann, Yehezkel. The Religion of Israel, from Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile. Translated and edited by Moshe Greenberg. New York: Schocken, 1960.

    This epitome of the first four volumes of Kaufmann’s five-volume history that appeared five years earlier in Hebrew represents an effort to give priority to the biblical account using a method that separated Israelite religion from that of its neighbors and found an early origin to monotheistic belief. The fifth volume was edited and translated by Clarence Efroymson: The Babylonian Captivity and Deutero-Isaiah. New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1970.

  • Knight, Douglas A. Rediscovering the Traditions of Israel. 2d ed. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1975.

    This review of traditional-historical criticism provides an introduction to the work of scholars who shared a common view of tradition (largely oral) and its communication of earlier materials into the biblical text. Ideas such as the deification of the king and his recognized enthronement at the annual covenant renewal festival, are located in the Psalms and elsewhere. The contributions of scholars such as Kapelrud, Mowinckel, and Ringgren are explored.

  • Thompson, Thomas L. The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham. Beihefte zur Zeitschrist für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 133. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110841442

    This forms the first of a series of books by Thompson that appeared over the following decades calling into question every aspect of the Hebrew Bible’s claims to historical narrative. Here he discounts unique parallels in religion and culture made between the biblical ancestors of Genesis 12–50 and second millennium BCE Mari, Nuzi, and Alalakh, and Ugarit archival sources.

  • Van Seters, John. Abraham in History and Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.

    Like Thompson 1974 this is the first of several books denying historical value to the Genesis traditions by challenging the attempts by Albright and others to correlate distinctive religious and cultural connections between the Genesis narratives and the world of the second millennium BCE especially as represented in West Semitic archives. Van Seters returns to Wellhausen’s views, with special focus on the Yahwist source which he sees as late and often constructed on models of Greek historiography.

  • Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. Reprint. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973.

    This is the most important introduction to source criticism and the development of Israelite religion that became the standard text for the next century, and remains the best starting point for understanding critical biblical interpretation. Building on the hypothesis of four original sources in the Pentateuch, the work argues a chronological and religious development for the earliest Jerusalemite Yahwist to which was added the Elohist document of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The late seventh century Deuteronomist material followed, and the post-exilic Priestly texts supplemented these. Translated from the 1878 German original by J. Sutherland Black and Allan Menzie. 1885.

  • Wright, George Ernest. The Old Testament against Its Environment. London: SCM, 1950.

    For Wright, Israel’s deity is characterized by his acts in history. This history, as recorded in the Bible, reaches back to Israel’s birth and covenant-making at Mt. Sinai. Such distinctive divine acts, as well as its ethical standards, separate the religion of Israel from the practices of other ancient Near Eastern peoples and states.

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