Review of Melody D. Knowles, Centrality Practiced
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Melody D. Knowles, Centrality Practiced: Jerusalem in the Religious Practice of Yehud and the Diaspora in the Persian Period (SBL Archaeology and Biblical Studies, 16; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2006). Pp. vii + 181. Paper, US$24.95. ISBN 1-58983-175-6.


According to Melody Knowles, Centrality Practiced looks at the “physical expressions of the Yahwists of the Persian period to see how the centrality of Jerusalem was practiced” (p. 3). The chapters of the work more or less tackle this focus from a variety of perspectives. Chapter 1, “Centrality and Religious Practice,” explores in introductory fashion centrality as it relates to religious practice. Chapter 2, “The Centralities of Yahwistic Animal Sacrifice,” compares biblical references addressing the permitted areas for animal sacrifice. Chapter 3, “Centrality and the Religious Use of Incense and Figurines,” analyzes the use of incense and figurines as a substitute or supplement to animal sacrifice in ‘non-centralized’ locations. Chapter 4, “Jerusalem as a Pilgrimage Center in Persian Period,” traces out references to pilgrimage in the Persian-period biblical texts. Chapter 5, “Centrality through Economics,” argues that the regular sending of “taxes and/or tithes” to Jerusalem reflects a “posture of obligation” to the city. The final chapter, “The Palimpsest of Jerusalem’s Centrality,” is an exercise in theoretical comparison of the centrality of Jerusalem to a palimpsest.

            There are several points of issue upon which Knowles’ argument rests. She assumes that the centrality of the Jerusalem temple was a “real theological conviction of its adherents” (p. 4). These adherents appear to be the golah community and the Yahwists in diaspora. For instance, “These communal expressions of centrality, as far as they can be discerned in the extant sources, give expression and help to construct adherence to the God who (once again) dwells in Jerusalem” (p. 17). It is a very Ezekielian sentiment (cf. Ezek 43:1-5). Confining the heartbeat of Yehud to a specific grouping of people reflects her argument that the centrality of Jerusalem was maintained by substituting the ‘geography of habitation’ with the ‘geography of religious practice’ (cf. p. 8). By restricting centrality to practice, the author separates from any relevant geographical-spatial discussion those parties whose practices diverged from, varied on, or rejected the practices she argues supported centrality. Such practices are quickly passed over by way of stating that the textual record shows a decreasing trend in non-central practices (p. 15). In other words, the ‘people of the land,’ for important example, do not appear to be a significant matter of consideration.

Yet she also observes that the archaeological record does not support the emerging centrality of animal sacrifice in the biblical texts (pp. 52-53).  For the biblical authors this produced a need to promote the authority of Jerusalem over “rival shrines.”  This need, Knowles states, became an important focus in texts such as Chronicles and even Ezra.    According to the biblical authors, sacrifice to Yahweh could commence because Yahweh had returned with the previously exiled. This explains to an extent why the Passover attains such a place of prominence within Ezra (cf. 6:16-22)—Yahweh ‘passed over’ and separated the chosen seed from the ‘pollutions of the land.’ Competition between places of worship and sacrifice, Knowles concludes, suggests only a “partially realized” centralizing tendency.

Archaeological evidence such as incense burners from Tel en-Nasbeh, Gezer, and Lachish point to the use of incense as acts of non-sacrificial worship by Yahwists unable to travel to Jerusalem (cf. p. 75). In addition, she argues that the promise by Yedanyah and his associates in Elephantine not to offer burnt offerings reflects a desire to observe the centrality of the Jerusalem temple. Two points of consideration may be offered here. The first is that there is no clear indication in the biblical texts or otherwise that the high priest in Jerusalem held jurisdiction over the community in Elephantine. The petition for aid (AP 30/31)—which is generally the source used to argue Jerusalem priestly authority—was sent to a number of individuals: Bagohi, governor of Yehud; Yehohanan the high priest and his colleagues; Ostanes, brother of Anani; and to the Judean nobles (cf. AP 30/31[:19-22]). Yedanyah and his associates look for aid from parties outside the jurisdiction of their immediate political authorities. The petition itself does not specify the nature of the relationship that these had with the Yahwists in Elephantine. Secondly, it may be more likely that Yedanyah and his colleagues promised to halt animal sacrifices so that they would not offend ‘our lord’ who may either have been the local governor or Arshama the satrap (cf. AP 33)—either one of which had immediate jurisdiction over the area. If that is the case, then the decision to halt sacrifices was a politically motivated one.

Knowles states that the prophets and the historical narratives present two different perspectives on pilgrimage, namely future orientation or contemporary practice (p. 103). This together with scant archaeological remains from Jerusalem suggests to her two possible outcomes, otherwise two models of interpretation: the texts reflect either wishful thinking or reality (cf. p. 102). “In both of these interpretations, Jerusalem still has claims for being the geographic center of the Yahwistic religion of this period, although its visitors are greater or lesser in number depending on the chosen model” (p. 103).

Her argument that tithe and tax demonstrate the centrality of Jerusalem is stronger than others. Yet given the chapter’s focus on economics, her emphasis on religious tithe to the almost detriment of imperial taxes, and likewise any strong political or economic foundation, threatens the strength of her argument here (cf. pp. 119-120). Certainly the Jerusalem temple was important for the economy, but mostly to the extent that it was a center of distribution and exchange within an imperial economic system uncontrolled by the golah community. Joachim Schaper’s work on the ‘king’s chest’ and the role of the imperial official connected to it, which gets brief mention (pp. 107, 118), provides documentation for an imperial practice of using temples as tax collection agencies. Given that the social-political administration of Yehud was maintained by the imperial government through its appointees, an argument for economic centrality would have been greatly supported by clearly showing an imperial precedent.

That centrality in Jerusalem can be compared to a palimpsest is an argument not well articulated. It is not clear what exactly about the idea of centrality is being compared: the discussed practices that led to centrality, those practices as reflections of an already determined centrality, or centrality as an expression of a collective identity. It also seems to raise more questions than it answers. For instance, “Like a palimpsest, centrality was reworked through time, but it was also enacted in different ways by different communities and individuals at the same time. According to the extant textual and artifactual evidence, the practice of centrality was neither entirely univocal nor consistent” (p. 128).

Overall, the work tended to move too quickly through its discussions of the evidence. For instance, the section on tithes in Trito-Isaiah is approximately four sentences (p. 108). Sections also tended to list relevant biblical references without much sustained discussion. Given Knowles’ own findings that centrality was not always realized, sustained discussion on how the ‘practice’ of centrality conflicted with the social-religious reality—one that included the people of the land—in Yehud would have been helpful. While this work is an interesting study, and even at times a helpful review, it does not break any new ground. What it does that is of credit is call attention to, consciously and unconsciously, the need for continued discussion regarding the interrelationship of the social, economic, political, and religious realities of Yehud.

Jeremiah Cataldo
Seton Hall University