An old adage – one that Dan Gruber holds to be true in his book Rabbi Akiba’s Messiah – is that history is written by the victors. I guess it doesn’t take a genius to see the truth in that, but sometimes I wonder whether it is as thoroughly true as some make it out to be.
Don’t misunderstand; I get the point, and it’s true in this case. The Pharisee movement, and the specific sect to which Yochanan ben Zacchai belonged, as well as Rabbi Akiba after him, won the political-religious power struggle in Judaism in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Jerusalem in the first and early second centuries. Considering that prior to this, there was a wealth of sects that comprised Jewish life from the Maccabean era to first-century period, and none of those sects survived, our modern view of Jewish orthodoxy is certainly colored by the Pharisaic movement that won the power struggle.
We don’t have more than scant hints about what the temple service should have been like, for example, from a priestly perspective, or from the perspective of the Sons of Light, the Fourth Philosophy, the Essenes, the Sadducees or any number of other sects that comprised Jewish life prior to the fall of Jerusalem.
Still, if history were as completely Darwinian as academics suggest, one must stand back in wonder at the very survival of Judaism itself. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have experienced more defeat and oppression over the millennia than they have victory and dominance.
From slavery in Egypt to the Babylonia exile to dominating rule by the Greeks and Romans, the Jewish people have rarely been victors in battle, over the long haul of world history. After the Bar Kokhbah Rebellion, it would be another 1800 years or so before they would even have a homeland again.
Yet despite the horrors of the various pogroms, inquisitions and even the Holocaust, Judaism has survived. Their scriptures have survived. The writings of many of their historically significant thinkers have endured.
Heck, most societies fall at one time or another, and eventually fade from power. Which all leads me to conclude that while there are many examples of victors writing the history in a very general way, it is not always the complete truth, or even the whole story. Societies, religions, cultures and movements that are not victorious may not be as well-documented as those who are, certainly; but there are exceptions to every rule, and the survival of Judaism in general is a fine example of this, even if the surviving form of it is a version defined by the victors.
Of course, if one is unable to understand that there are exceptions to such rules of history, I suppose one would be better off not pursuing a career in ministry. Perhaps one would be better-suited to a career in Cary NC real estate? Yes, perhaps.