Constructing Landscapes of Interiority in Second Temple Judaism

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending day two of the 2019 Payton Lectures at Fuller Seminary. The speaker was Carol Newsom, from Emory. Her topic for the lecture series was senses of the self in ancient Judaism. Below are my notes from yesterday’s lecture.

Q:How strange and different were the ancient Israelites?

  • Questions about same/different arise when we try to study cultures of the ancient world – “the past is a foreign country…”
  • Yet scholars have tended to assume that the experience of being a self was the same back then as it is now – but now we know that the concept of self is a changing experience (see Taylor’s Sources of the Self)
    • What about the ancient Israelite concept of the self?
  • Devito: The ancient Israelite self is different
    • Its deeply embedded in social identity
    • Embedded and undefined boundaries
    • Doesn’t exalt autonomy – emphasizes obedience
    • Inwardness was lacking
    • In other words – Israelite was socio-centric and not ego-centric — this ends up in two different understandings of the self


Q: Did the ancient Israelite sense of self lack a robust interiority (i.e. culture of interiority)?

  • See David Lambert for a critique of this lack of a culture of interiority
  • Newsom suggests: All people experience inner conflict – we are emotional animals – but not every culture tells you to pay particular attention to and cultivate these practices.
  • Our cultural practices (symbols and stories) reinforce certain synaptic patterns and make certain connections stronger in our minds, so it does shape and reshape the brain, making us different people — We become different selves than we would be if we were equipped with different cultural tools


Biblical Sense of Interiority

  • There is an awareness of interiority
    • Thoughts described as in the heart
    • God searching hidden aspects
    • Basic distinction between knower and agent (I and Me)
  • In post-exilic period the importance/attention paid to the sense of interiority grows
  • See the Psalm 51 for an example of the “split” subject (structure of self-alienation that creates an interior landscape)

“Sin is the ultimate pre-existing condition, and no your insurance won’t cover it.”

Second Temple Interiority

  • New concept of inclinations which are objectified as innate psychological dispositions
  • Shift from outward object of desire to inner part of oneself that needs to be controlled
  • See the Two-Spirits Teaching of the DSS
    • Spirit of Truth and Spirit of Perversity – that struggle in the heart of a person. They correspond to external transcendent powers but also to interior principles.

Book of Job

  • Constructs Job as a character of psychological depth – contrast between prose and poetry – The author makes the content of Job’s psyche a point of interest for us
    • How pain distorts what one desires/sense of time
    • Refers to distress and inability to control his own psychological space
    • Engages in mental projection – hypothetically changing his mental state
    • How it engages the experience of cognitive dissonance
    • Psychological turns (ex: Bitterness in 9:14-33 then a turn)
  • Even without a tradition of a psychic drama – the author of Job explores the landscape of interiority that manifests itself in cognitive dissonance

Landscapes of Interiority for “Fun” and “Entertainment” in Bible – Theory of Mind

  • Theory of Mind – is that stranger friendly or hostile, is that collegue withholding information, what does my friend think about her feelings for her significant other
    • We are only somewhat good at “mind reading” – it’s the basis for a lot of comedy
  • Mind reading is a fundamental part of the human tool kit
    • Yet – many cultures don’t put an emphasis on this
    • Literary scholars argue that “mind reading” becomes a prominent action with the rise of novels…
  • Ancient Israel developed “theory of mind” in ways that other ANE cultures didn’t
    • However, their use of “theory of mind” is a lot more rare than we are used to
    • Examining cases of deception shows this a bit, but the author doesn’t really make mind-reading a focus of attention
  • One clear example of “mind reading”
    • Ex: Conversation between David and Jonathan
      • Jonathan thinks he knows his father’s intentions but David disagrees and provides a different “mind reading” than Jonathan.
      • David thinks he knows what Saul thinks about what Jonathan will think about Saul thinking something about David.

Theory of Mind in 2nd Temple Literature

  • See book of Esther – Haman thinks he can read the mind of the king, only to realize he is bitterly mistaken when the honors are given to Mordecai. IN this case the audience is in the know about the mistaken case of mind-reading.
  • Book of Ruth – Reader is supposed to fill in gaps about: Naomi’s silence…. What is Naomi and Ruth’s intent when she asks Ruth to sneak into Boaz’s place? These are gaps in the intentions/mental state of characters – what does she think he thinks? What do we think he thinks? The author exploits theory of mind to complicate the story.
  • Book of Jonah – Only after chapter 4 that we the reader discover that we have misinterpreted Jonah’s state of mind in the beginning of the story. The mind-reading joke is on us. This is a very sophisticated use of theory of mind.
  • The authors use their understanding of how people understand other people’s states of mind – this puts a focus on interiority in ways that was not all that common prior to the 2nd temple period.



The increased concern for sin and anxiety was developed in forms of prayer that drew attention to self-alienation and inner conflict, the author of job examines the textures of mental distress and develops novel ways of depicting cognitive dissonance, in 2nd temple literature we see sophisticated and playful uses of theory of mind.

Its interesting that the kind of development of interiority in ancient Israel is also occurring in Greece during this period. This doesn’t mean that there was dependence but its an interesting fact of history.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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