Popular versus official religion in ancient Israel has been an important topic in biblical scholarship for some time. Explain what the issues are here and, by referring to several examples, how you would deal with them?


The two terms have been used in wider scholarship outside of the Hebrew Bible as well and represent attempt to recognize that differences in religious belief and practice between groups of the same communities. Institutionalized forms of religion and culturally authoritative views and practices of specialists tend to be grouped and classified as ‘official’ and divergent or aberrant views from this perceived normative practice are labeled ‘local’ or those of non-specialists and put under the ‘popular’ umbrella-term. Scholarship has often used the dichotomy between ‘popular’ and ‘official’ religion as way of distinguishing the Yahwism espoused by prophets and priests, the view taken in the biblical texts, with the practices that are openly proscribed by these groups. This dichotomy may be considered helpful in accounting and taking note of the religious diversity that is apparent in ancient Israel (something was largely in ignored in Wellhausen’s treatment of the religion of ancient Israel), but this term has perhaps outlived its usefulness and may best be discarded by present researchers. These terms are problematic for a number of reasons. For example, (1) The dichotomy preserves the value judgments inherrant in the HB, (2) the ‘official’ religion is more indicative of a later group of scribes or literati, (3) ‘popular’ religion nor ‘official’ religion were monolithic entities, (4) it tends to accentuate perceive differences when similarities may be stronger, since single individual may participate in both of the practices covered by these terms.

The fact that what is considered ‘official’ religion in Israel often coincides with the values and traditions of Judeo-Christian religious perspective has played a part in the valuing of one category over the other. This has often been the case with these terms, and deeming something as part of ‘popular’ religion has a pejorative sense, relegating it to the rubbish bin of unenlightened religious practice.

In some ways the use of popular and official religion can be seen as a helpful reminder of religious pluralism that undoubtedly existed in ancient Israel, however, the general method to identifying what the ‘official’ religion as opposed to the ‘popular’ religion can be problematic. First, official religion is often identified as the religion of the state, or of the important social institution like the temple, and it is assumed that these shared a single view. This is then juxtaposed with the practices of the ‘common’ people, practices which are usually only identified by their negative evaluation and the fact that the prophets openly oppose them. However, a major issue is that this ‘official’ religion is thought to represent realities on the ground in Iron age Judah and Israel, when in fact, this may be merely the view of much later writers that is imposed upon this historical time period. Therefore rather than an state sponsored religion against cultural practices of the common people, it the religious views of a later specific scribal group against the views of all who oppose them.

In fact, closer examination of the books of Kings reveals that the celebrated royal champions of ‘orthodox’ Yahwism, thus tradents of ‘official’ religion, displayed shockingly aberrant behavior in light of the practices of those before and after. If the majority of the kings of Israel and Judah were berated for their ‘incorporation’ of ‘popular’ elements into the ‘official’ religion within the state and temple, then this calls into question the definition of ‘popular’ and ‘official.’ The religious practices of Josiah were neither popular nor official for most of the existence of Israel and Judah, but had a profound effect on later periods. This emphasizes that the ‘official’ religion that is being juxtaposed with foreign religious elements in Kings is the religion of the Deuteronomist(s), and thus may have little to do with the religious views of the temple and state during the time periods it seeks to represent, further complicating the label of ‘official.’

Additionally, the dichotomy creates the assumption that we are dealing with two monolithic entities that coexisted side by side, as if one could either a tradent of official or popular religion. However, this dichotomy neglects the various different between religious views of varying groups that are covered by the terms “elite” and “non-elite.” Not only are differences neglected to create artificial uniformity, the real commonalities that existed between various social/religious groups of this community are neglected. Allowing ourselves as scholars to get caught up in the inner-group rivalries that existed among various groups Israelites puts us in danger of being blinded to great commonalities that the religious practices of differing social groups have in common by nature of their shared cultural assumptions. The greater the rhetoric that seeks to differentiate and marginalize a group is often evidence that such rhetoric is needed for differences to be noticeable. We see this in the great historic rivalries of countries and cultures of Korea and Japan; France and England, etc. There surely are important differences between the two peoples, but from certain perspectives the commonalities are often far greater than their differences.

Although the prophets seem to be considered torch bearers of ‘official’ religion within the HB, they are often at odds with other prophets, with priests, and kings. Prophets might decry the injustices and empty practices of the temple system and the indulgences of the king, as well as worship to the Queen of Heaven. This type of relationship represents one of distinct social groups vying for ideological power and social and politic influence. Many groups within these terms of ‘official’ and ‘popular’ religion bound in a network of competing interests that cuts across these boundaries as often as it stay within them.

Some scholars have rejected the dichotomy between ‘popular’ and ‘official’ and have shifted toward a examination of religious groups based on interlocking social strata. Thus, recent scholarship has favored looking at a series of layers like family religion, clan religion, and state religion. There is benefit to this approach because it can highlight the fact that individual members of society can participate in a variety of religion practices all at the same time. Thus a communal meal during a yearly sacrifice with one’s kin is not necessarily in opposition to “official religion” even though it is mostly a family endeavor.

I argue that more beneficial investigation can continue with the jettisoning of these terms. It is best, as advocated by Stavrakopoulou , to differentiate between the portrayals of religious practice in the HB with actual Iron Age practice. Once this is done we must take things on a case by case basis, assigning certain beliefs and practices as close as we can to certain social groups, to particular Israelites, rather than to constructed dichotomies.


Berlinerblau, Jacques. “The ‘Popular Religion’ Paradigm in Old Testament Research : A Sociological Critique.” JSOT 60 (1993): 3–26. Stavrakopoulou, Francesca. “‘Popular’ Religion and ‘Official’ Religion: Practice, Perception, Portrayal.” In Religious Diversity in Ancient Israel and Judah, edited by Francesca Stavrakopoulou and John Barton, 37–60. Continuum, 2010.

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