Review: Middlemas, The Templeless Age



Jill Middlemas. The Templeless Age: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the ‘Exile.’ Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007.  Pp. x + 174. Paper. $24.95.  ISBN: 0664231306.


Jill Middlemas is currently associate professor on theology faculty at Aarhus University in Denmark.  The volume under review here is the result of a series of lectures delivered at Oxford University on “The Exilic Age.”  Middlemas is also the author of The Troubles of Templeless Judah (OTM, Oxford, 2005).

Middlemas identifies two related purposes in the book: 1) to offer “an up-to-date introduction to history, literary, and theological insights” on the period between the two Temples; 2) to challenge the designation “exile” for the period spanning 587-515 BCE.  Concerning the second of these two purposes, Middlemas hopes that the new designation “Templeless” will highlight a new way of looking at this period, one which is intimately related to the responses of the Judahite communities that were affected so deeply by the exile (ix).

In the Introduction, Middlemas offers a cursory overview of “the exile,” discussing Judah’s fall to Babylon and eventual return under Persian hegemony.  Two theological shifts, it is argued, occur in this period: 1) the advent of monotheism; 2) viewing YHWH’s rule as universal (2-3).  The accompanying result was a greater emphasis on the role of the human evident in increased personal piety and the view of individual responsibility as opposed to inherited guilt.

Five specific difficulties with the conventional terminology “exile” are then enumerated: 1) the singular “exile” when in reality the events of 598, 587, and 582 attest to exiles, plural; 2) some people fled Judah and were not taken into exile; 3) exile is too narrow a description for the multifarious difficulties faced by the community during thi speriod; 4) some people remained in Judah and were not ‘exiled,’ thus exile serves as a description of the experiences of but one segment of the Judean populace; 5) “exile” has been taken in scholarship to refer to a particular period in history (587-539), yet in a way the exile continued beyond these brackets because some opted not to return to Judah (3-5).  “Templeless” is proferred as a more adequate title than “exile” in that it takes into account the shared experiences of the deportees as well as those remaining in the land, all of whom had to wrestle with the loss of the Temple.  It also has the benefit of delineating a clearly defined time period (587-515 BCE).

Chapter 1, “The Historical Record,” narrates the history leading up to and of the fall of Jerusalem in 587, paying particular attention to the variety of responses depending on the social location of the community: those remaining in Judah, those taken to Babylon, and those in Egypt.  The history of the period is sketched out by means of an appeal to the biblical text and a supplementing (and at times correction of) it by extrabiblical texts such as the Cyrus Cylinder.  She then discusses the experiences of the three distinct communities mentioned above.  In Jerusalem and Judah the archaeological evidence corroborates the dismal picture painted by Lamentations; at many sites with destruction layers, no habitation is evident in the sixth century.  Conversely, though, there are sites (Mizpah being one) that demonstrate a nearly uninterrupted continuity and/or renewal  (16).  The Elephantine papyri offer the best glimpse into life of refugees in Egypt.  Five deities–Yahu (YHWH), two female deities, and two others Middlemas does not name–were worshiped at Elephantine, where there was also a significant temple.  However, she points out that no Hebrew Scriptures are in evidence at the site, but Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread seem to have been celebrated (20).  In the biblical text, this settlement in Egypt is portrayed negatively (Jer 44:27, 29; Ezek 29-32).  And in Babylon, little has been preserved of life save for the biblical text, which finds some confirmation in Babylonian records (23).  Daniel Smith-Christopher’s work is appealed to so as to evidence the great toll relocation would have exerted on the families, not to mention the desire for revenge (24-25).  Life in Babylon was typified by “loss” . . . . of homeland, leadership, Temple, family, among other things (25).  It is this setting in which a great literary creativity exploded that sought to struggle with and respond to these challenges.  It is here, also, that one begins to see a movement towards hope.

Chapter 2, “The Aftermath of Disaster I: Lamentation” treats the first of the two responses Middlemas sees arising out of the Babylonian onslaught (the other being “recording,” which is treated in the next chapter).  Worship served as one outlet for these emotions.  Various biblical texts are discussed (Lam; Pss 74, 89, 79, 102, 106 and 137; Isa 63:7-64:11.  These texts raise a host of concerns–Temple destruction, Jerusalem’s ruin, the loss of symbols of divine presence– and place them before YHWH (45).  Also evident in these texts is a range of emotions, most prevalent among them doubt.  The catastrophe was attributed to YHWH.  Yet at the same time, Middlemas argues (by means of Brueggemann) that the lament genre itself is tinged with hope because it presumes YHWH listens and will respond. 

In Chapter 3, “The Aftermath of Disaster II: Memory,” Middlemas notes the second response, that of fashioning a story to make sense of the disaster.  The result?  The Deuteronomistic History.  After a brief survey of recent views on the composition of DH (among them, Noth, Cross, and Smend), Middlemas contends that no clear answer is immediately forthcoming, yet there is adequate material attesting to the fact that DH should be read as a unity (53-55).  As a whole, DH implicates everyone, king included, in failing to follow YHWH’s precepts.  For Noth, DH is an utterly negative constitutive document, ending without a glimmer of hope.  Middlemas wonders, though, if this is the case why then would it have been written (59-60).  She adduces von Rad, who sees the reference to Jehoiachin at the close of 2 Kgs as an indicator of a future hope and possibility for restoration.  Middlemas is most interested in DH’s function.  She argues that the cyclical processes reported in DH point to a “liturgical recital” with historical concerns and achieving two purposes: 1) didactic: how to avoid repeating the past; 2) liturgical: equipping one with a way of worshiping YHWH without the Temple and sacrifice (62).  DH concludes with a community awaiting a new divine word.  There is hope amid the despair.

Chapter 4, “Between Judgment and Hope,” focuses on Jeremiah and Ezekiel and their message of both judgment and hope.  As in the previous chapters, Middlemas first offers a brief history of scholarship on the topic, here prophecy, noting parallels with similar figures in egypt, Mesopotamia, and Canaan.  She first expounds upon Jeremiah, offering a basic narration of his career as recounted in the biblical text.  While Jeremiah’s words of woe continue even after the events of 587, the latter part of the book points towards hope for a future renewal.  Texts such as Jer 27:8-11 and 38:17-20 are illustrative of this future orientation; more broadly, the entire latter half of the book, chapters 26-52, do this (74).  Gedaliah’s appointment further fostered this hope, as well as provided some “stability” (74).  According to Jeremiah, it seems only the exiled community has a part in this hope (Jer 24:3-6, 8). 

Ezekiel also bears a mixed message.  Unlike Jeremiah, post-587 Ezekiel focuses upon themes of renewal and restoration as evident in the various visions he sees.  Almost immediately upon learning of the fall of Jerusalem, Ezekiel transitions to speak of hope (Ezek 33-39).  Two themes emerge in Ezekiel that aid in this transition: 1) “individual responsibility for sin”; 2) “inner spiritual renewal” (88).  The idea of restoration becomes patent int he closing chapters of the book (Ezek 40-48) with the vision of the new Temple.  A discussion of the similarities and differences between Jeremiah and Ezekiel round out the chapter.

In chapter 5, “The Turn to Hope I: Prophetic Visions of Divine Reversal,” Middlemas focuses upon a transition that occurs at the tail end of the templeless age, one that sees a certain realism begin to emerge regarding the possibility of return (93).  The notion of YHWH’s salvific activity typifies the literature of this latter period.  Middlemas looks at Isa 40-55 in-depth, noting the theme of divine intervention that pervades these chapters (94-111).  She also returns to Ezek 40-48 and its theme of restoration related to the Temple.  According to Middlemas, the Isaiah and Ezekiel texts complement one another, both relating YHWH’s “imminent intervention” on behalf of Israel (114).  And while the prophetic utterance remained “unrealistic” in that no tacit details were given about how such a renewal was to be accomplished, this only underscores that the emphasis is on proper living and the proper orientation of society with the Temple as the center (114). 

Chapter 6, “The Turn to Hope II: Commitment to Covenant” looks at hope in a faithful response of humanity to imminent renewal and divine deliverance through the lenses of Haggai, Zech 1-8, and the Holiness Code (Lev 17-26).  Concerning Haggai, Middlemas points out the recurring theme of restoration working in tandem with the rebuilding of the Temple (Hagg 2:1-9).  Haggai’s oracles are said to be “practical” in that they bring about “the recognition of [YHWH’s] turn toward restoration and encouraging temple construction” (117).  Zech 1-8 similarly connects rebuilding the Temple with the restoration of Jerusalem.  In toto, the “prophetic contribution to the thought of the period” is that of envisioning the possibility of return (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) and realizing the return (Haggai and Zechariah 1-8). 

The Holiness Code alone is discussed here given that Middlemas places the overall shaping of the Pentateuch in a period after the templeless age.  While the Holiness Code speaks of cultic and ritual matters, it also emphasizes YHWH’s holiness and covenantal relationship with Israel.  In short, the Holiness Code attests to YHWH’s unwavering covenantal fidelity, even in the most dire of circumstances. 

What one sees, then, from the overall literary trajectory outlined by Middlemas is a movement from despair and anger amidst the possibility of hope to the realization of this hope amidst feelings of great expectation.  Middlemas sums the development up well: “The literature at the close of the templeless age marks the reversal of the disastrous events that took place when Jerusalem fell in 587 BCE” (136).

In the conclusion, Middlemas again affirms the rationale for the redesignation of this period as “the templeless age.”  She claims that her thematic arrangement has the advantage of recognizing almost immediate responses to the ‘exile’ and after, as well as their development, while grouping according to biblical book creates a more static portrait that is not in tune with the reality of the situation (137).  Six strategies are listed that allowed for the community to express its grief yet remain steadfast in the hope for the renewal of the divine promise: 1) communication through liturgy; 2) creativity of the literature; 3) memory and remembering; 4) adaptation  of the divine word; 5) inheritance, or drawing from earlier traditions; 6) inclusion and sustaining of a multiplicity of perspectives held in tension with one another (138-139).  This focus on “variety and difference” typifies, for Middlemas, the templeless age, and serves as the means by which the community was able to continue (143).

Middlemas has written a fine introductory volume.  She is conversant with secondary scholarship throughout her study, and she takes great care to guide the uninitiated reader into this complex period in ancient Israel’s history.  As I note above, each chapter contains a brief, though responsible and fair, history of research on the topic under question.  Also to be commended is her care in discussing critical issues pertaining to the biblical text, such as questions pertaining to the composition of Isaiah or the development of the book of Ezekiel.  These issues, while perhaps well known to the scholarly community, provide a helpful orientation to introductory readers who wish to investigate the period from 597-515.

And yet Middlemas has accomplished much more than writing a basic introductory volume, for she has argued cogently that the designation “exile” is wanting.  Her reasons for challenging this title are clear, and one should take them quite seriously in subsequent scholarship on the ‘exilic period’ or ‘templeless age.’

Two issues of concern, however, deserve brief mention.  First, at times Middlemas seems to offer an uncritical acceptance of the historicity of the biblical text, even though she earlier had noted that integrating the Bible and history is a cautious exercise.  What is left wanting is a clear articulation of where the biblical text is historically reliable from her perspective, and where not so much.  For instance, she accepts uncritically the historicity of Josiah’s reforms as narrated in Kings, despite the wealth of literature that struggles with this episode (see, for instance, Grabbe [ed.] Good Kings and Bad Kings).  Perhaps one may attribute this latent tension to the synthesis of an historical and theological paradigm she employs.  Second, and this is more of a small quibble than anything, but the title “templeless age” is still lacking.  One can just as well call post-70 Jerusalem a “templeless age.”  Indeed, we are still living in the “templeless age.”  How might this title be able to be refined?  Perhaps “the first templeless age?”

Middlemas has written a fine introductory volume that contributes very much both to beginning students and to the wider scholarly discussion.  Her contention that ‘exile’ should instead be called ‘templeless age’ is a proposal that warrants careful scrutiny and thought in ensuing scholarship.

6 thoughts on “Review: Middlemas, The Templeless Age

  1. Igal says:

    Hi John,

    My name is Igal German, an OT PhD. Candidate at the University of Toronto (Wycliffe College). I happened to visit your blog since Dr. Gupta has recommended me it. You blog is intersting and the updates on new books are good. I have just a quick question to you: how do you manage all the stuff with writing book reivews? I sent some applications to a number of book review editors in different journals but haven’t recieved any book from them for a review. What the ‘secret’ of getting into this academic business? what shall I do in order to get any books for review?

    Sincerely Yours, Igal G. (Wycliffe College)

  2. Roy "Eli" Garton says:


    As always, an excellent overview. I am familiar with Middlemas’ The Troubles of Templeless Judah, and I’ve actually had this volume on my to-do list for awhile.

    The one thing that has long struck me about Middlemas’ thesis is its lack of execution. By this, I mean that while her objection is primarily against overgeneralizing this time period from a singular perspective — namely that of the so-called “exiles” — her solution to this issue is to espouse a term that from her perspective operates as the greatest common denominator, in effect creating only another, albeit broader, overgeneralization. The temple in Elephantine (built by at least 525 BCE), for example, is evidence that “templeless” may not be the best descriptor for all Yahwistic worshippers at this time. Not to mention that it is not altogether clear that the loss of the Temple would have been universally viewed as a tragedy; one need only look to the prophetic polemic against the high places to recognize an undercurrent of anti-temple sentimentality.

    All that to say, that Middlemas’ objection to overgeneralization is, I think, very instructive and should be heeded, but her proposal only offers a new set of biases. Such is the nature of terminologies, though: they are a necessary short-hand, but in using them they create inescapable generalities. The irony is, however, that in the process of writing caveats for these “terms,” we end up defeating their purpose to begin with, which is to conceptualize complex phenomenal data.

    Hey, I got an idea! Since creating ever new specific, yet simultaneously generalizing terminology is a property of scholarship, how about I put forth my own terminological proposition: I say we call it “The Sixth Century.” 🙂

  3. Maria says:

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  4. John Anderson says:

    Igal: Thanks for checking in. Book reviews are hard to come by at times. You may want to look at the RBL website and, if you are an SBL member, volunteer for reviews through there. Otherwise, it is kind of hit and miss. Contacting various journals and asking to be put on their review list is a good exercise as well. And, starting a blog is a fine way as well.

    Roy: As I read through Middlemas I continually struggled with the same question you ask pertaining to execution. While I recognize the volume is an ‘introduction,’ she didn’t seem to deal with the concept of ‘templeless age’ explicitly in later chapters that she had put forward in her opening chapter. The concept serves as a sort of inclusio over the entire book, but I remain unconvniced it is the basis for the entire book. Perhaps a ramification of the genre (introduction), and perhaps her 2005 volume is more nuanced in that regard.

    I also think you are right in noting the scholarly proclivity to assign labels to various themes, ideas, etc. that attempt to systematize and groups matters together often lead to overgeneralization. In the review I point out one such overstepping of the bounds . . . . what then do we call post-70 Palestine if not Templeless? You point to another: the Elephantine Temple. Of course, by “templeless” Middlemas means the Jerusalem Temple, and she is clear about that, but if her challenge is to offer a paradigm that takes into account the diverse populations and their experiences, the Elephantine Temple can only be described as an attempt to make sense of the Babylonian onslaught. But as scholars we want things to be nice and tidy. Here, her critiques are nice; her counter-proposal, though is still no less tidier.

    Regarding your own proposition to call it “the sixth century,” that is both funny and honest. Middlemas’ quibble, I suggest, would be that the spectrum of history encompassed within the sixth century is too broad to serve as a redesignation for “exile.” The 6th century started before the ‘exile,’ and ran through to the time when the Temple was in existence for about 15 years. See, no title is perfect!

  5. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    Of course I was being a bit sardonic in my suggestion, John, but at least it doesn’t offer a overly simplistic characterization of the time period in question! 🙂

    As well, and perhaps you can correct me on this since Elephantine is not one of my research specialities, am I not correct in saying that scholars are unsure precisely when the Elephantine Temple to Yahu was built? I know there is a letter that indicates the temple was in existence at the time of the Persian invasion (525), but that does not indicate when the complex was constructed. Further, my understanding is that there is still debate as to how and when these so-called “Jews” arrived in Elephantine in the first place; the mid-7th century is what one of my sources says. If both these data are accurate, is it then fair to say that the Elephantine Temple was constructed as a response to 587? As well, you would think that if the worshippers at Elephantine were trying to cope with the loss of the Jerusalem Temple, that they would have modelled more than just the Sabbath and Passover after the practices in Jerusalem. Further, and I may be off base on this one, am I not correct in citing that style of temple in Jerusalem and Elephantine was not unique in the ANE? If this is the case, and I would have to double check on this to be sure, then it’s not very informative to say that the Elephantine Temple was modelled after the Jerusalem Temple.

    All in all, I’ve got enough of an understanding about Elephantine to get me into trouble, but not enough to get me out of it. 🙂 (Hey, what’s new!) In short, until I get more information about when the Elephantine Temple was constructed in the first place (not to mention verify some of the things I’ve said above), I feel I must hesitate in describing the Elephantine Temple as a response to the Babylonian Onslaught . . .

    Fascinating topic, though! I really must do more research on this topic. 🙂

  6. John Anderson says:


    I don’t believe Middlemas makes the argument the Elephantine temple was built as a response to the Babylonian onslaught but rather that the fact it was used by Jews (a still somewhat anachronistic term at this juncture of history) points to one such reaction to it.

    You are right, though, in your assessment of the matter: the issue (as are most historical-critical questions, as you surely know–wink) is up in the air. I too have heard, though, mid 7th century, ca. Manasseh, for a Jewish occupation of the Elephantine temple. I also, and I may be remembering imperfectly here, recall that the temple was not constructed by the Jews; the temple rather has its own history stretching quite far back. Also, the polytheism (or monolatry?) evident at Elephantine muddies things up all the more.

    Elephantine is a fascinating site. Everyone should learn Aramaic to read these texts!

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