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The Book of Josiah's Reform

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The Problem Stated

The problem which this study will address is twofold: (1) What was the “book of the law” which was found in the temple in 2 Kings 22--23?, and (2) what implications does the answer to question one have on the date and authorship of Deuteronomy?

The Problem Addressed

Views surveyed. As one examines the literature there seems to be a number of views as to the identity of the “book of the law” found by Hilkiah in the temple during the reign of Josiah (2 Kim. 22; 2 Chron. 34). Many identify the book as Deuteronomy, however, what is meant by Deuteronomy varies greatly from one scholar to another. There are those such as Craige and Robinson who consider it to be the whole Mosaic Deuteronomy in its present form.[1] In a similar vein there are those such as Wood who affirm that the “book of the law” was probably a copy of, not only Deuteronomy, but the five books of the Law.[2] Then those such as Lundbom say that only the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 was found.[3] However, probably the most favored view by modern Old Testament scholars is that which was originally presented by W.M.L. de Wette in 1805, to be developed and most classically expressed by Wellhausen, that the “book of the law” found by Hilkiah had been recently written (seventh-century) by prophets (or a prophet) with the purpose of promoting a religious reform which did indeed occur after Josiah had read the book.[4] One last view was that it was not Deuteronomy which was found but the “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 17--26 because Deuteronomy is of post-exilic origin.[5]

Berry’s view is clearly a minority one which has been mentioned for completeness but will not be addressed further in this paper. The others can be generally divided, for the purposes of this study, into two major positions: (1) an early Deuteronomy, be it Mosaic or one written after Moses yet long before Josiah’s time, and (2) a late Deuteronomy as asserted by Wellhausen written just prior to its discovery in the temple for the purpose of and resulting in reform.

The views analyzed. In analyzing the above views the first to be examined will be Wellhausen’s position of a late Deuteronomy written for the purpose of religious reform.

As many have pointed out, a foundational presupposition for this view is that the discovery of the “book of the law” was that which was the impetus for reforms by King Josiah.[6] This is based upon what appears to be the chronological order of events in 2 Kings 22--23. In 2 Kings 22 it is reported that the “lost book” was found during Josiah’s eighteenth year to reign (22:1-13). Then it seems to be after this and in response to this, that Josiah initiates reform in 2 Kings 23:4-20. Driver argues that upon Josiah’s ascension there was a willingness by the young king to bring about reform but because of his youth he was unable to effect such massive change; therefore Deuteronomy was written, be it under Manasseh or just prior to Josiah’s ascension, in order to supply a basis for reform in its “Mosaic” authority.[7]

Aside from the moral question of deception which a late Deuteronomy would seem to imply if it claimed to have Mosaic authority,[8] there seems to be a more basic flaw to this position, namely, that 2 Chronicles 34 places the reforms under Josiah’s rule prior to the finding of the “book of the law” during Josiah’s twelfth year of power (1 Chron. 34:3-7). The significance of such an observation is not only in what may appear to be a contradiction in synoptic Old Testament passages, but in the fact that if the chronology of 2 Chronicles 34 can be demonstrated to be true, then the basis of a late Deuteronomy -- written for the purpose of reform -- will be undermined. The problem lies in explaining the order of events in 2 Kings 22-23.

The affirmation of 2 Chronicles is clear: “in the twelfth year he (Josiah) began to purge Judah and Jerusalem...” (34:3). If this is so, why would the reforms under Josiah be placed in 2 Kings after the “book of the law” was found during Josiah’s eighteenth year (2 Kings 22:3; 23:4-20)? Those proposing a late Deuteronomy say that either the Chronicler was inaccurate in an attempt to enhance Josiah or that the reforms spoken of in Chronicles are different than those given in 2 Kings.[9] However it seems best that the charge of falsification is but a theory and the attempt to explain these reforms as different, though possible, is but an effort to salvage a position. Rather, it is quite possible to explain the reforms listed in 2 Kings 23 as being placed where they are for a thematic purpose rather than a chronological one.

Robinson develops this position stating that Josiah’s response in 2 Kings 22--23 to the “book of the law” was primarily to recognize the doom upon Israel and not to initiate reform as is seen in Huldah’s statement in 2 Kings 22:14ff. He relates 2 Kings 23:4 to the narrative of Josiah’s discovery but explains verses 5-20 as a list of other previous reforms of Josiah’s which are cued off of 23:4.[10] Likewise, even Lundbom recognizes a thematic order in 2 Kings 23 when he states, “It seems clear that DH is using criteria other than chronology in the structuring of his account.”[11] He argues that, “The DH intends to make the purge the center and climax of his narrative.”[12] Such thematic development is quite common in the historical books of 1 Samuel and Ezra as Robinson points out.[13] Also this kind of development is seen in the Joseph stories with the insertion of Judah’s account between Genesis 37 and 39.

Therefore, if 2 Kings 22-23 does not describe a reform in response to the finding of the “book of the law” and 2 Chronicles 34 does affirm that Josiah’s reforms preceded the discovery of the book, then the higher critics’ basis for the late Deuteronomy is washed away. There is no motive for a book of reform. A clear implication of the above conclusion is that if Deuteronomy is the “book of the law” which is found, then it was an early Deuteronomy rather than a late one. This does not decide how early it was nor Mosaic authorship, but it does not negate a Mosaic Deuteronomy.

That Deuteronomy was probably the book which was discovered, at least in part, is affirmed by most Old Testament scholars. Even Driver goes to great extents to demonstrate a relationship which his “late Deuteronomy” had in common with Mosaic principles stating that the matter is not new, only the form.[14]

There is also good support from the text of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles that Deuteronomy was in view. As Robinson points out, either Exodus or Leviticus could have fit but Deuteronomy seems to fit best.[15] There are phrases in 2 Kings used to describe this book which correlate very closely with those used in Deuteronomy to describe itself (compare 2 Kings 22:8,11,13,16,18: 23:2,3,21,24 with Deuteronomy 17:18,19; 27:3,26; 28:58,61; 29:1,9,21,27 respectively).[16] The taking of the “lost book” to the king as reported in 2 Kings 22:10 and 2 Chronicles 34:18 also fits well with the injunction of Deuteronomy 17:18ff that the king was to have the law. Also the fact that Josiah clearly responded to the book by having the people enter into a covenant (2 Kings 23:1-3; 2 Chronicles 34:31-32) correlates best with the covenantal message of Deuteronomy.

Robinson argues against the possibility that the entire Pentateuch was discovered based upon his observation that the book was read aloud and seemed to have been read 2-4 times in one day.[17] However there is nothing in the text which mandates all of the reading to have occurred at one sitting or in one day. He also argues that only one scroll seems to have been found due to the lack of a definite article with the term “book” (rp!s@). This is possible and needs more study. But against this is the phrase in 2 Kings 23:25 in which Josiah is described as following the Lord according to all the law of Moses. If the other books of the law existed and only Deuteronomy was lacking, then Josiah’s response seems to have been unnatural upon the discovery of what may have been only Deuteronomy. However, it is also possible that all of the law was lost and found again thereby explaining Josiah’s response[18] or that all of the law was lost but only Deuteronomy was found which would still allow for Josiah’s response. No matter what, it is certain that Deuteronomy was the book which was discovered.

If it was an early Deuteronomy which was found by Hilkiah in the temple, then there is also a good deal of evidence to support a Deuteronomy which is as early as Moses. As mentioned above, Driver affirms that the matter of Deuteronomy is Mosaic only the form is not.[19] Yet as Kitchen[20] and Harrison have pointed out, Deuteronomy, as a book, bares much of the form of an ancient Near Eastern Hittite Suzereinty treaty of the late second millennium.[21] Thompson does point out that a seventh-century treaty with a historical prologue has been discovered by A.F. Campbell since Kitchen’s work, but this does not negate that the form of Deuteronomy is at least possible for Mosaic times and in fact more probable in accordance with the present evidence.[22] Likewise, Harrison argues well against higher critical objections to Mosaic authorship due to the phrase “beyond the Jordan” by demonstrating that the phrase is actually indeterminate with respect to location of the writer.[23] There are also several other evidences which point to a Mosaic date or Authorship: (1) There are many references to Moses speaking within the book,[24] (2) Jesus identifies Moses as the author of Deuteronomy in Matthew 19:8 by referring to Moses as the author of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, (3) Deuteronomy describes a simpler state of society than that of Josiah’s time. There is also no reference to Jerusalem as the central sanctuary, and (4) the writer of Kings and Chronicles clearly identifies the book which was found as being Mosaic (2 Kings 23:25, and especially 2 Chronicles 34:14). Therefore, there seems to be good evidence for the early date of Deuteronomy to even be that of the late second millennium with Moses as its author.


In conclusion it seems that the “book of the law” which Hilkiah found in the temple was not a recently written Deuteronomy for the purpose of (and as a basis of) Josiah’s reform, but an early Deuteronomy, if not all of the law, written in the second millennium by Moses. Although there is more work to be done concerning the thematic arguments of 2 Kings 23 and the real significance of the treaty forms, it seems as though the burden of proof lies with the higher critic at this point.

[1] Peter C. Craige, The Book of Deuteronomy, pp. 46,69; Robinson, Joshiah’ Reform and the Book of the Law, pp. 29-34.

[2] Leon Wood, Survey of Israel’s History, p. 367, n., 88.

[3] Lundbom, p.29.

[4] Thompson, Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 57; Driver, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Deuteronomy, pp. xxxiv-lxii; Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament:,pp. 640-641; ZPEB, vol. 2 p. 112 by Harrison.

[5] George R. Berry, “The Code Found in the Temple.” JBL, pp., 14-15.

[6] Driver, p. xlv.

[7] Ibid.,pp. l-lv.

[8] Driver has a higher critical discussion of this, pp. lvi- lxii.

[9] Robinson, pp., 8-9.

[10] Robinson, pp. 12-15.

[11] Lundbom, p. 302.

[12] Ibid., p. 300.

[13] Robinson, p. 15.

[14] Driver, p. lvi.

[15] Robinson, pp. 27-28.

[16] Robinson, p. 30.

[17] Robinson, pp. 28-29.

[18] Wood, p. 367, n. 88.

[19] Driver, p. lvi.

[20] Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament, p. 99.

[21] See the above discussion under “Textual Elements”

[22] Thompson, p. 52 n. 1.

[23] Harrison, pp. 637-638.

[24] See above under “author.”

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines

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