How did Josiah change the religion of the Jewish nation?

What did the Deuteronomist reform? How did Josiah’s reign change the religion of the Israelites/The Kingdom of Judah?

King Josiah changed the religion of Israel in the mid-seventh century BCE in several significant ways. According to the Old Testament account in 2 Kings 23, he removed all of the things that the author of the text would consider idolatrous from the Jerusalem Temple and purified the kingdom of Canaanite observances and physical accoutrements. Temple vessels made for Baal, Asherah, and the host of heaven were removed from the temple precincts, idolatrous priests were unseated (and slain! – see 2 Kings 23:20), and the Asherah itself was taken from the temple and burned. A lost “book of the law” was discovered somewhere in the temple, and this had pressed the king to bring the religion of Judah into compliance with the requirements of that book (2 Kings 22:8–13; 2 Chronicles 34:14–20). According to this text, there could be only one temple, therefore all other places of sacrifice, all other altars had to be destroyed (Deuteronomy 12:1–5). The “book of the law” is, by most scholars recognized to be the book of Deuteronomy, and so King Josiah’s religious purge is usually known as the Deuteronomic Reform. 1

Margaret Barker said, “One generation before Zedekiah there had been the great upheaval in the reign of King Josiah, something now regarded as the turning point in the history of Jerusalem and its religion.” 2 Because the book of Deuteronomy is believed to be the “book of law” associated with this reform, the movement is often called the Deuteronomic Reform, and those who agreed with it are called Deuteronomists. 3

Over the years I have read some excellent explanations of what is actually taking place on in the Deuteronomic books, detailed explanations of the Deuteronomistic Historian, the Deuteronomic Reform, and how the Bible was altered in the middle of the 7th century BCE, the period just prior to Lehi’s exit from Jerusalem. My favorite explanation for those that are new to the subject is Richard Friedman’s stellar work, Who Wrote the Bible? This book helps the layman understand what is happening with the Bible in a way that is easy to understand while citing the scholarship available at the time of his writing. It is an excellent book, and if this topic interests you, this is a book worth owning. In his book, Richard Friedman makes the following statement about the Deuteronomistic History:

The book of Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ farewell speech before his death. It is set in the plains of Moab, just across the Jordan River from the promised land. Moses and the people have arrived there after forty years of travel in the wilderness. Moses reviews the events of the forty years that he and the people have known each other. He gives them a code of laws by which to live in the new land. He appoints Joshua as his successor. Then he climbs a mountain from which he can see the land, and there he dies.

The first key breakthrough in finding out the identity of the person who produced this account was the recognition of a special relationship between Deuteronomy and the next six books of the Bible: Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. These six books are known as the Early Prophets.

In 1943, a German scholar, Martin Noth, showed that there was a strong unity between Deuteronomy and these six books of the Early Prophets. The language of Deuteronomy and parts of these other books was too similar for coincidence. Noth showed that this was not a loose collection of writings, but rather a thoughtfully arranged work. It told a continuous story, a flowing account of the history of the people of Israel in their land. It was not by one author. It contained various sections, written by various people (such as the Court History of David, and the stories of Samuel). The finished product, nonetheless, was the work of one person.

That person was both a writer and an editor. He … selected stories and other texts that he wanted to use from sources available to him. He arranged texts, shortening or adding to them. He inserted occasional comments of his own. And he wrote introductory sections which he set near the beginning of the work. Overall, he constructed a history that extended from Moses to the destruction of the kingdom of Judah by the Babylonians.

For this man, Deuteronomy was the book. He constructed the work so that the laws of Deuteronomy would stand as the foundation of the history. When he rated the kings of Israel and Judah as “good in the eyes of Yahweh” or “bad in the eyes of Yahweh” it was according to how obedient they were to Deuteronomy’s laws. He characterized the entire fate of the nation as hanging upon how well they kept the commandments of Deuteronomy. The tie between Deuteronomy and the six books that follow it appeared to be so crucially integral that Noth referred to the full seven-book work as the Deuteronomistic history.

Noth’s analysis and the term “Deuteronomistic history” came to be widely accepted among investigators. The case was strong. The first book of the Early Prophets, the book of Joshua, begins where Deuteronomy leaves off. It develops themes that are begun in Deuteronomy, and it refers to matters first mentioned in Deuteronomy. Key passages in Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings use terminology that comes from Deuteronomy and refer to specific passages in Deuteronomy. 4

From the analysis of scholarship regarding the Deuteronomistic Reforms, as well as Lehi’s reaction to the Jews of Jerusalem in 600 BCE, and from Nephi’s visionary experience in 1 Nephi 13, I have come to the conclusion that the altering of the Biblical texts that Nephi refers to really began in the middle of the 7th Century BCE, and not just in the time prior to the formation of the New Testament canon in the 4th Century CE with the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire. I believe these changes occurred both before and after Nephi left Jerusalem. In other words, I believe that there is evidence that there were Deuteronomistic textual changes both before and after the exile. 5 To Nephi, the changing of the texts was a reality in his lifetime. The reforms of Josiah had fundamentally changed the way Jews viewed God, the Divine Council, the location and manner of temple worship, the goddess Asherah, and the nature of a suffering Messiah with redemptive power, among other things. Many of these conclusions can naturally come from the reading of the text that Nephi gives us when comparing his writing with the book of Deuteronomy and the rest of the works of the Deuteronomistic Historian. Clearly things changed, and the winners of the debates of history are the ones who control the narrative. History is always written by the winners.

Margaret Barker explains, “We now recognize that King Josiah enabled a particular group to dominate the religious scene in Jerusalem about 620 BC: the Deuteronomists. Josiah’s purge was driven by their ideals, and their scribes influenced much of the form of the Old Testament we have today, especially the history in 1 and 2 Kings.”6 All of this is likely within the lifetime of Lehi, and the efforts at reform, and the social tensions they created no doubt would have continued into the reign of Zedekiah in 597 BCE. In an article by Neal Rappleye, he addresses the idea that some of the tension between Lehi and his two oldest sons Laman and Lemuel come from the fact that Laman and Lemuel were Pro-Deuteronomists and Lehi’s teachings and visions stood as a polemic against many of these reforms. 7

The many attempts at reconstructing the full nature and extent of these Deuteronomistic reforms are never the same. We simply don’t have the original texts or full accounts of what was believed before the reforms. Margaret Barker sadly reports, “We can never know for certain what it was that Josiah purged or why he did it. No original versions of the actual texts or records survive from that period, but even the stories as they have come down to us in various sources show that this was a time of major upheaval that was not forgotten.”8 Many of my ideas as to the nature of the reforms of Josiah when compared to the “old religion” are framed through the lens of the texts that Lehi and Nephi provide, as well as their quotations from the Brass Plates. Clearly, if we believe that the Brass Plates represent a historical document, the idea of a suffering, redeeming Messiah existed in the 7th century prior to the Deuteronomistic Reforms of Josiah, for in 1 Nephi 19, we read an excellent quotation from the Brass Plates, a document of the time period of Lehi:

The world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men. And the God of our fathers, who were led out of Egypt, out of bondage, and also were preserved in the wilderness by him, yea, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, yieldeth himself, according to the words of the angel, as a man, into the hands of wicked men, to be lifted up, according to the words of Zenock, and to be crucified, according to the words of Neum, and to be buried in a sepulchre, according to the words of Zenos, which he spake concerning the three days of darkness, which should be a sign given of his death unto those who should inhabit the isles of the sea, more especially given unto those who are of the house of Israel. (1 Nephi 19:9-10)

There is nothing like 1 Nephi 19:9-10 in the Deuteronomistic History, indeed, any hint of a Messiah that suffers was taken out of the text that we have today. We have a reference in Isaiah 53 (not part of the Deuteronomistic History), but other than that reference, not much exists in the Old Testament today, and my contention for why this is would be due to the fact that these prophets and messages were removed from the record because it did not fit in with the narrative of the messiah that the Deuteronomists were wanting to present in their time and place.

I also believe that the Deuteronomists were in the process of reworking these ideas and these texts during and after the life of Lehi, both before and after he left Jerusalem. After Lehi leaves and the temple is destroyed, one of the questions the Deuteronomist asks, indeed, the main question he asks is, “Why was the temple destroyed? Why was Jerusalem shattered?” For the Deuteronomists, the answer is simple: we broke the law. God didn’t break his promise, we did. The law then, becomes paramount to the Deuteronomists. This tension continues in second temple Judaism in the confrontation Christian readers see in the Gospels with the religious leaders in Jerusalem as they try to tackle the message of Jesus Christ and his interpretation of the law.

Lehi was not completely on board with Josiah’s reforms

I think it is valuable and perhaps a bit of an understatement to say that Lehi may not have been in complete agreement with Josiah’s reforms. Lehi’s heritage goes back to the northern Israelite Kingdom, to which these reforms showed a certain degree of hostility. Brant Gardner writes, “The antagonism of the Deuteronomic history to the northern kingdom and the Book of Mormon’s affiliation with that kingdom should suggest at least the possibility that Lehi might resist some of Josiah’s Deuteronomic Reforms.”9 This is not to say that Lehi was completely opposed to the reforms. In fact, Lehi and Nephi do appear to be positively influenced in some ways by the Deuteronomic ideology. 10 One way to look at how Lehi may have felt about Josiah’s reforms is to consider how the changes brought about by the Protestant Reformation changed the landscape of Christianity. In many instances this reformation was beneficial to Christianity and the spread of truth. On the other hand, not all the changes brought about by the Protestants were inspired or true. This may help modern students in processing these changes that Josiah brought about anciently as he and his priests changed the texts and the beliefs of the Jews in this turbulent time period.

Margaret Barker tells us: “Remnants of the older faith survived in many places, preserved by the descendants of those who fled from Josiah’s purge.” 11 When Lehi leaves Jerusalem after Josiah’s day, his enemies who “sought his life, that they might take it away” (1 Nephi 1:20) were likely supporters of many aspects of Josiah’s reforms. There are many aspects of Lehi’s preaching that inform us that he represents the “old religion” from before the Josiah reforms. 12

Lehi and Nephi compared to the Deuteronomists of 600 BCE

Both Lehi and Nephi give us clues as to how their beliefs about God differed from those of the Deuteronomists. Of course, the text of the Book of Mormon never uses the phrase “The Deuteronomists,” but it does tell us that Lehi and Nephi were at odds with “the Jews” of their time and that their ideas did not completely harmonize with these people. Some of the things that the Jews of Lehi’s day disagreed with were:

  1. Lehi’s teachings about a suffering Messiah seem to cause the Deuteronomists anger (1 Nephi 1:19, 1 Nephi 10:1-15).
  2. The Deuteronomy account stresses the idea that God is not seen. This is in direct conflict with Lehi’s experience of standing in the council of God and beholding him. (Deuteronomy 4:12, 1 Nephi 1:8-15)
  3. The prophecy of Jerusalem’s coming destruction (1 Nephi 1:4, 18-19).
  4. Lehi’s construction of an altar outside of the Jerusalem Temple (1 Nephi 2:7).
  5. The visionary experiences of Lehi and Nephi (1 Nephi 2:11).
  6. Lehi and Nephi taught that it is not the law that saves a person, rather it is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, that has the power to save (1 Nephi 17:22).

Areas where Lehi’s beliefs were consistent with the Deuteronomist were:

  1. Lehi’s teaching did coincide with Deuteronomic teaching in that he stated that obedience brings blessings and disobedience brings cursing (Deuteronomy 28, 2 Nephi 1:20).
  2. Lehi and Nephi stressed the importance of keeping the Law of Moses, yet they balanced this idea with the knowledge that it is Christ that saves us, not the law (2 Nephi 11:4, 25:24-25).

The Suffering Messiah

Although there is not much left in our Old Testament record about a suffering servant that would be the Messiah, Lehi tells the Jews that lived in his day that the Messiah would suffer. Lehi is quoted by his son Nephi as teaching, “after they had slain the Messiah, who should come, and after he had been slain he should rise from the dead, and should make himself manifest, by the Holy Ghost, unto the Gentiles… the remnants of the house of Israel should be grafted in, or come to the knowledge of the true Messiah, their Lord and heir Redeemer” (1 Nephi 10:11, 14). As a matter of faith I believe that the original text of the Old Testament would have had multiple references to a suffering servant/Messiah figure, but that the Deuteronomists removed this from their records as it did not coincide with their views of the Messiah. Indeed, it is easy to see how the Jews of Jesus’ day would reject any idea that their Messiah would be the kind of being who claimed to be God yet would suffer and die, as this did not fit their worldview based on their understanding of the texts of the second temple period.

Standing in the Divine Council and Beholding God

Lehi stood in the Divine Council and he spoke with God. We read, “he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God. And it came to pass that he saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noonday. And he saw twelve others following him, and their brightness did exceed that of the stars in the firmament” (1 Nephi 1:8-10). The reader can contrast this idea with the statement in Deuteronomy 4, where we read, “The Lord spake unto you out of the midst of the fire: ye heard the voice of the words, but ye saw no similitude; only ye heard a voice” (Deuteronomy 4:12). This verse contradicts the other account in the Old Testament, where we read the account in Exodus 24:9–11, which reports that Moses, Aaron, and seventy elders of Israel “saw the God of Israel.” Jeremiah speaks as one who has seen: “For who hath stood in the counsel of the Lord, and hath perceived and heard his word? who hath marked his word, and heard it?” (Jeremiah 23:18; compare theophanies in Isaiah 6 and 1 Enoch)

Indeed it is vital that we understand that there were different portrayals of deity in the Old Testament, and the Deuteronomist Historian was working to rework or refashion deity to fit a view that was altogether different than that of other writers of the Biblical texts. To the Deuteronomist, God was not seen. He did not physically “dwell” in the temple, rather, the temple was a place where “his name” dwells (Deuteronomy 12:5, 14:23-24, 16:6). Lehi’s statement that he stood in the council of God and beheld his presence would have been challenging to those that ascribed to the religious changes of the Deuteronomist.

The Destruction of the city of Jerusalem

The Jews of Nephi’s day did not believe that their city could be destroyed. Much of this confidence came from their understanding of history. The Jews of 600 BCE were not too far removed from the time when Assyria came to destroy Jerusalem in 701 BCE under the reign of Hezekiah. The prophet Isaiah encouraged Hezekiah to not surrender to the Assyrian army, and the city was preserved by the power of God (Isaiah 36-37). The Jews of Nephi’s day believed that this same protection from God would be provided, probably based on this historical account and from a misunderstanding of previous passages assuring them that Jerusalem and her kings would be preserved (2 Samuel 7:10, 16; Psalm 89:3-4).

Altars outside of Jerusalem

The command in Deuteronomy 12 stipulates that there are to be no altars or sacred temples outside of Jerusalem, or as the text specifically states, “the place the Lord shall choose,” which to the Jews of Lehi’s time was Jerusalem. Lehi, after he is 3 days outside of the city, constructs an altar, and his sons Laman and Lemuel complain.  It appears meaningful that immediately after Lehi sacrifices at the altar that Nephi informs the reader that Laman and Lemuel, “murmur[ing] against their father” (1 Nephi 2:11–12). Read against the framework of the Deuteronomistic Reforms, the timing of their complaints would suggest the possibility that it was Lehi’s violation of Deuteronomic law as contained in Deuteronomy 12 which induced, or at least contributed to, the grumblings of his two oldest sons.

The visionary experiences of Lehi and Nephi

Laman and Lemuel call Lehi “a visionary man,” who followed the “foolish imaginations of his heart” (1 Nephi 2:11; cf. 1 Nephi 5:9; 17:20). According to Kevin Christensen, ”the Deuteronomist ideology rejected visions as a means of knowing the Lord’s will, and not only did Lehi receive visions, but some of the content of his visions specifically reflected old beliefs the Deuteronomists were trying to eradicate.”13 The elevation of the law appears to indicate that the Deuteronomistic Reformers were more dependent upon the proscriptions of the law as compared to the workings of the Spirit in the role of the salvation of man. If we read the text of the Old Testament through the lens Nephi gives us, we see that the Old Testament is fragmentary, and that the changes brought about by Josiah may have contributed to a loss of truth. These changes had an effect on how the Messiah was understood, as well as the temple and the very nature of God.

The Preeminence of the Law

The Deuteronomist Reformers stressed the importance of the law as a means of salvation. We see this in the exchange between Nephi and his brothers when they say:

And we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them, and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his words; yea, and our brother is like unto him. And after this manner of language did my brethren murmur and complain against us. (1 Nephi 17:22, emphasis added)

It was the Deuteronomistic reformers who placed this kind of emphasis on the law of Moses. While Nephi is determined in his devotion to living the law as well, for Nephi the law is not the end itself (see 2 Nephi 11:4; 25:24). Nephi is striking a balance between the living of the law and the following of the Spirit and being open to visions, the divine council, and the gifts of the spirit. The Law of Moses in the text of the Book of Mormon never slams the door on revelation, rather, the authors of the text testify that more revelation can come! “This is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal” (Alma 34:14). The Law in the Book of Mormon is never seen as the point, rather, the Law is a tool used to take the reader to come to know their Savior Jesus Christ, and come to receive more truth, more revelation, and to commune with him in receiving divine mysteries.


As further scholarship examining the Deuteronomistic Reform comes to light, it is my conviction that we shall see evidence that the things Lehi and Nephi taught were the very things that Josiah and his scribes sought to remove from the text of what we today call the Old Testament. Some things we may never know until further texts are brought to light, but one thing is certain: the concept of God and the worship portrayed in the Deuteronomist’s works was not the only way that ancient Israelites understood things. Nephi and his associates represented another way of viewing God, Israel, and the Messiah that we do not see in the text of Deuteronomy today. When read through the lens of Nephi’s understanding of textual changes, we can view what the author of Deuteronomy is saying about God and the temple in new ways. We can see that Nephi makes sense in the context of his culture and the political changes of his time, we can better see that he was a real person and that his struggles were testified in the text of Deuteronomy. These changes of Israel’s religion is another testament that Nephi was an actual person living in this time period.


  1. Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History, Sheffield, Department of Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield, 1957. Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, Eisenbrauns (April 1, 1992). Richard Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed, p. 5. Friedman states, “D is part of a longer work, known as the Deuteronomistic History (Dtr), which includes the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings.
  2. Margaret Barker, “Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2006), 70.
  3. Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? HarperOne, 1997, pages 101-121.
  4. Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? 103-104.
  5. Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, Cambridge: Harvard, 1973, p. 274-289. Cross identified the idea of a pre- and post-exilic redaction of the text as the Jews sought to contextualize the destruction of the temple and answer the question regarding the collapse of Jerusalem and the temple.
  6. Margaret Barker, “Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion,” p. 71.
  7. Neal Rappleye, The Deuteronomist Reforms and Lehi’s Family Dynamics: A Social Context for the Rebellions of Laman and Lemuel, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 16 (2015): 87-99.
  8. Margaret Barker, “What Did King Josiah Reform?” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, 538.
  9. Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2007–2008), 1:36.
  10. See Kevin Christensen, “Paradigms Regained: A Survey of Margaret Barker’s Scholarship and Its Significance for Mormon Studies,” FARMS Occasional Papers 2 (2001): 9–11; William J. Hamblin, “Vindicating Josiah,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture. 4 (2013): 165–76.
  11. Barker, “What Did King Josiah Reform?” 534.
  12. Brant Gardner tells us, “Lehi and his family fit into Barker’s category of people who left Jerusalem who did not agree with the reforms. The Book of Mormon represents Israelite religion in the pre-exilic period and particularly elements of a time when there were differing ideas and probably heated differences in the direction that religion was to take in addition to the political turmoil imposed by conquering armies, Lehi also experienced a major shift in Judah’s public religion, directed by the king. No change comes without resistance, and many crucial themes of the Book of Mormon emphasize some elements of the pre-reform religion lost to the biblical record, although there are indications that Nephite religion was not opposed to all of the Deuteronomistic agenda.” Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, Utah: Greg Kofford Books, 2007–2008), 1:41.
  13. Kevin Christensen, “The Temple, the Monarchy, and Wisdom: Lehi’s World and the Scholarship of Margaret Barker,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely, eds. (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2004), 452-457.

For further reading

Kevin Christensen, Prophets and Kings in Lehi’s Jerusalem and Margaret Barker’s Temple Theology, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 4 (2013): 177-193.

Richard E. Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? Harper One, 1997.

William Hamblin, Vindicating Josiah, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 4 (2013): 165-176.

Bernard Levinson, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Benjamin L. McGuire, Josiah’s Reform: An Introduction, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 4 (2013): 161-163.

Daniel C. Peterson, Nephi and His Asherah ,Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9/2 (2000): 16–25, 80–81.


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4 Responses to How did Josiah change the religion of the Jewish nation?

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