Hensley on Reed, 'Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism'

Annette Yoshiko Reed
Jason Hensley

Annette Yoshiko Reed. Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. x + 353 pp. (e-book), ISBN 978-1-139-03084-7; $29.99 (paper), ISBN 978-1-108-74609-0.

Reviewed by Jason Hensley (Gratz Academy) Published on H-Judaic (March, 2022) Commissioned by Robin Buller (University of California - Berkeley)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57144

Excursions into the beliefs of Second Temple Judaism have often focused solely on the biblical periods, considering much of Second Temple Judaism as either intertestamental (taking place between the Jewish scriptures and the Christian scriptures) or as a prelude to the development of Christianity.[1] In Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism, Annette Yoshiko Reed seeks to upend the intertestamental paradigm and open a window into a thriving and influential scribal world in which angels, demons––or transmundane powers, as Reed calls them––inhabited the earth and the skies. Why, she asks, is a well-developed demonology and angelology absent from the Hebrew Bible? When did Jewish understanding change to reflect the embrace of transmundane powers as seen in Second Temple Judaism? Reed’s thoroughly researched journey into the biblical period and Second Temple Judaism seek to provide answers to these questions.

Throughout Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism, Reed asserts that writing brings power. Writing not only reflects current traditions, but can also shape them. It is through writing that collective memory is solidified. Thus, while demonology and angelology are absent from the Hebrew Bible, they were nevertheless present among the population throughout the biblical period (p. 51). As Reed argues in chapter 1, the absence evinces an eighth- or seventh-century BCE “moment of recasting both Israel’s past and earlier memories of it” (p. 63). This recasting was a process aimed at filling a need for influence and necessity within the eighth- and seventh-century scribal culture. The works of Second Temple Judaism, such as the Astronomical Book, the Book of the Watchers, and Jubilees were also part of a process of recasting memory. The recast memory neither denies the existence of transmundane powers, nor seeks to systematize them (p. 79).

Just as biblical books wrote Israel’s history as a collective memory to shape Israel’s views of itself in the monarchic period, so Second Temple literature was written to form collective memory and meet contemporaneous historical events and challenges, such as the rediscovery of the Torah in the days of Josiah, or the captivities brought about by the Assyrians and Babylonians. The discrepancy, however, between biblical and Second Temple texts indicates, according to Reed, not a change in theology but rather a change in historical circumstances that required writers of Second Temple Jewish works to impose a new way of seeing on their community. How does this help us to understand the emergence of angelology and demonology at this time? Why did writers create a system of angels and demons in religious texts? What circumstances prompted this development, and what advantages did it bring?

Chapter 2 begins to answer these questions. Reed asserts that for years, many followed Wilhelm Bousset’s assertion that Jewish angelology and demonology arose in Second Temple Judaism to provide mediating powers that could liase with an increasingly distant God in the years that followed the Babylonian exile (p. 87).[2] Instead, Reed suggests that this shift came from scribes’ need to form a new collective memory after the traumatic Babylonian exile, and not from a change within Judaism itself. Moreover, their creation of angelology and demonology was tied to knowledge and influence. As Reed explains, “the demonology of the Book of the Watchers did not displace or replace practical and local demon-belief. What it did, however, was inaugurate an influential line of Jewish literary tradition whereby scribes, in particular, claimed authority” (p. 217). If scribes were able to describe new and previously unknown powers, did they not have special knowledge, and thus deserve greater influence and respect? This suggestion is found in chapter 3, as Reed builds up her framework and then defends it. Using thorough evidence, in the final three chapters, Reed effectively demonstrates how this textualization of transmundane powers through the Astronomical Book (chapter 3), the Book of the Watchers (chapter 4), and Jubilees (chapter 5) changed, why it changed, and how this change affected the community. In summary, Reed traces a theme––the power and influence of writing––through the history of the Hebrew Bible and into the period of Second Temple Judaism, arguing that scribes wielded power through their ability to create memory, and reinforced their power by not only creating memory, but creating entire systems of transmundane powers to which only they were privy.

Overall, Reed provides a solid foundation for her argument. She examines the Astronomical Book, the Book of the Watchers, and Jubilees in depth, specifically demonstrating how angelology and demonology was used to advance the belief in special scribal knowledge. She examines how these books illustrate the passing of knowledge from the angels to humanity, and eventually to the scribes. The vast majority of Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism is composed of examinations of Second Temple literature, and in this, Reed has done an excellent job of documenting and supporting her argument. One can come away from the book acknowledging the powerful scribal culture and recognizing that “practices of copying, reading, and writing books are here placed at the very heart of the transmission and preservation of cosmic truths, on earth, in heaven, and between them” (p. 302). Scribes were not simply printing presses––they were influential members of society who shaped belief and memory of belief.

Perhaps one further consideration, however, when examining biblical scribal culture relates to how scribes were suggested to have rewritten Israel’s history in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, Reed’s assertion that writing shapes memory is abundantly clear and well proven, yet there are instances within the Hebrew Bible itself of this rewriting of memory, without the loss of previous memory. How does this fit into a framework that suggests that demons were written out of the Hebrew Bible? For example, though Deuteronomy is a reworking of the Exodus account, the Exodus account still remains in the Hebrew Bible for comparison. The same can be seen in the records of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. Though the author of Chronicles adds information that is not in Samuel or Kings, such as Manasseh’s repentance (2 Chronicles 36:12), he does not appear to alter the Kings record, which plainly states Manasseh’s wickedness (2 Kings 21:2) and spotlights Manasseh as responsible for the destruction of the First Temple (2 Kings 23:26, 24:3). The biblical record indeed appears to present a scribal culture that revised history, yet also preserved other versions of that history. How does this preservation fit with a rewriting of Israel’s records in order to present a specific version and form of monotheism? Admittedly, this question is outside of the realm of Reed’s main thesis, which focuses on scribalism in Second Temple Judaism; nevertheless, as the book addresses scribalism at the time of the Hebrew Bible, a consideration of rewritten narratives within the Hebrew Bible could perhaps strengthen this book’s already compelling position.

In conclusion, Reed provides a foundation by which scholars can bypass the outdated view of Second Temple Judaism as merely influenced by foreign nations, feeling estranged from God, and thus adopting angelology and demonology. Reed demonstrates a scribal culture within Judaism to create memory, values, and influence through writing. In Second Temple times, scribes developed a scenario in which they could become more and more influential, thus creating a new world, not simply of demons and angels, but of demons and angels who interacted with humanity, possessed personal names, and who could be known, seen, and understood.


[1]. See the description of Wilhem Bousset’s views and George Moore’s views in Loren Stuckenbruck and Wendy North, eds., Early Christian and Jewish Monotheism (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2004), 6.

[2]. Bousset’s view is examined in depth in Larry Hurtado, One God, One Lord (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015), 24-27.

Citation: Jason Hensley. Review of Reed, Annette Yoshiko, Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. March, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57144

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.