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‘Bad Judeans’? Despite biblical ban, non-kosher fish were eaten in ancient Israel

A new study scrutinizing 2,000 years of fish consumption in the ancient Holy Land has found that — despite clear Torah prohibitions — non-kosher finless and scaleless fish were generally eaten by all peoples, regardless of ethnic and religious affiliation.

The requirement to eat only fish that has both fins and scales is found twice in the Bible: in Leviticus 11: 9–12 and in Deuteronomy 14: 9–10.

In both cases, the proscription follows the more widely known prohibition against eating pig. Indeed, as one might infer from the Bible, there is scant archaeological evidence of pork consumption among the early Judahites and Israelites. Not so with the “treyf” (non-kosher) fish.

In “The Pentateuchal Dietary Proscription against Finless and Scaleless Aquatic Species in Light of Ancient Fish Remains,” published in the peer-reviewed Tel Aviv archaeological journal on Tuesday, co-authors Dr. Yonatan Adler of Ariel University and Prof. Omri Lernau, present evidence from some 56 fishbone assemblages from 30 sites spanning from 1550 BCE to 640 CE, to establish whether common, everyday Judahites actually adhered to this Torah prohibition.

In all, some 21,646 skeletal elements were studied, revealing that, at most of the sites there was a preponderance of non-kosher fish, mostly catfish, but also shark, eel, and ray remains, alongside the kosher fish bones.

“Catfish were clearly exploited as a suitable source of nutrition for various population groups living in the region over considerable periods,” write the authors. During the Iron Age II, for example, “at over three-quarters of the sites with available evidence, scaleless fish remains are present in modest to moderate amounts: 13% on average (excluding outliers below 5% and above 30%).”

And even in the Holy, Land – locked capital of Jerusalem, non-kosher fish remains were in evidence.

“Significantly, all the fish assemblages from sites within the Southern Kingdom — first and foremost Jerusalem — presented evidence of modest to (more often) moderate amounts of scaleless fish remains,” they write.

Apparently, not all the Judahites got the memo on the ban on catfish, but that is not surprising to Adler.

The current fish study is part of a larger project headed by Adler called the Origins of Judaism Archaeological Project, which looks at both textual sources and archaeological remains for evidence of when the ancient Judeans began keeping the laws of the Torah.

The project looks for evidence for purity laws, such as ancient ritual baths and stone vessels, as well as other biblical commandments, which could be represented by ancient tefillin (phylacteries), mezuzot, or the existence of figurative art (which may defy the second commandment). This new study focuses on evidence for the kosher dietary laws, which is also explored in the project.

“What I’m interested in is the question of, from which point in time do we have evidence that ancient Judeans were aware of the Torah and saw the Torah as something authoritative, which they should be keeping,” Adler told The Times of Israel.

Modern scholars believe the first five books of the Bible, or the Torah, was written or compiled in the Persian period — from 539 to 332 BCE. According to Adler, the fact that a select elite redacted the Bible does not at all mean that the contents were known to the common Judahite.

“There’s a very important distinction that I’d like to make between when a book is written down, edited, and put together, and when the general public knows of its existence and regards that book as authoritative,” said Adler.

A project is hatched

The fish study was spawned after Adler heard a 2017 lecture by co-author Lernau, a retired MD whose hobby — shared by his father — of studying ancient fish bones made him the foremost expert in Israel.

During the lecture, Lernau happened to mention the existence of evidence of catfish in ancient Jerusalem and Adler’s ear perked up. Lernau has a huge database documenting fish remains from throughout the country, which allowed the study to work on a large scale, despite a relative paucity of systematically collected fishbone samples. (Indeed, the authors call on their fellow archaeologists to take more care, and to dry- and wet-sift for fish bones, at any site, when possible.)

“We took a particular snapshot — a snapshot of 2,000 years — but a window from 1550 BCE until 640 CE, within which this period of time, we can say for sure the Pentateuch came about and Judaism was born,” said Adler.

Through this long prism, the authors discovered that non-kosher fish were a regular part of people’s diets, including species that were imported from far-away Egypt and elsewhere.

The authors compared the proliferation of non-kosher fish remains with the absence of pig evidence during the same eras and concluded that the two biblical prohibitions come from starkly different backgrounds.

“There have been some very important studies in recent years, which showed that pig was not being eaten by all ethnic groups in the ancient Levant. Already in the Bronze Age,” there are “many sites where we don’t find pig remains and a limited number of sites where we do find pig remains,” said Adler.

Adler cautions that the absence of a certain kind of food does not necessarily mean abstention nor necessarily imply a taboo, however.

But what is clear, he said, is that

“… when the pentateuchal laws are written down and compiled and the prohibition against pig was being written down, if you will, pig was not being eaten by Judeans. And that had been the case for quite some time. Their Canaanite ancestors had not been eating pig for hundreds of years. And the pentateuchal prohibition against pig was written on that backdrop,” he said.

“That was not the case with the fish. Scaleless fish was being eaten by Judeans for hundreds of years and, when the pentateuchal laws came to be written down, they contradicted long-standing Judean dietary behaviors,” he said.

To date the genesis of the non-kosher fish ban is still unknown. Adler said he is unaware of any other contemporary culture that prohibited these scaleless, finless fish. But it appears that the fish prohibition “had a very different background from the pig prohibition, despite the fact that the fish prohibition appears immediately after the pig prohibition in both places that it appears in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.”

Birth of a religion

In Adler’s upcoming 2022 book from Yale University Press on the Origins of Judaism, he will discuss more fully when the religion as a practice was born. Spoiler: It’s centuries later than when the Torah was redacted.

“We don’t have evidence for any of these [Torah] practices or prohibitions prior to the second century before the common era, that is to say from the period of the Hasmonean Dynasty,” said Adler. “We do not have any evidence that the Judean masses, that your regular every day Judean you would have met on the street of Jerusalem, prior to the middle of the second century BCE had any knowledge of the Torah and or that he observed the rules of the Torah.”

Adler is the first to emphasize the archaeology maxim that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.

“Judaism could have begun before the mid-2nd century,” he said, but the lack of evidence currently makes that conjecture. “It could have emerged during the long Hellenistic period – sometime during this time is the best time to be seeking the emergence of Judaism.”

Source: Amanda Borschel- Dan – TOI