The ancient Greek world appears to have been ignorant of the Jews (or even Israel) in Palestine until around the end of the fourth century. I still recall my high school disappointment when I read the famous work of the Greek “father of history”, Herodotus, only to find not a single mention of biblical Judea even though surrounding peoples were colourfully portrayed in detail. If Herodotus had truly traveled through these regions as we believed at the time (a view that has been questioned in more recent scholarship) what could possibly account for such a total omission of a people whose customs surely differed so starkly from those of their neighbours. Didn’t Herodotus love to seek out and dwell upon the unusual?
A History of Israel from the Ground Up (i.e. from archaeology)
Perhaps that nagging question prepared me to be more open to the arguments of scholars sometimes labeled as the “Copenhagen School” — Thompson, Lemche, Davies in particular at first — than I might otherwise have been. Their thesis is that biblical Israel, the Israel of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the united kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon, the rival sibling kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south up to the time of the captivities, first of Assyria and then of Babylon, and finally the story of Jews undergoing a literary and religious revival by the waters of Babylon, all this was a literary fable as much as the stories of Camelot and King Arthur were. That’s oversimplifying it a little, since the stories functioned quite a bit more seriously than as mere entertainment; and there was indeed a historical kingdom of Israel based around Samaria, although the southern kingdom of Judah led from Jerusalem did not really emerge as a significant power until after Israel was deported by the Assyrians. Leading figures from the Judea really were deported to Babylon but the purpose of this deportation, as with all such deportations, was to destroy the old identities of the captives and reestablish them with new ones. So there was no opportunity for a literary or religious revival. There was no Bible as we know it during any of this time.
The Biblical books were the product of the peoples subsequently deported by the Persians to settle the region of Palestine in order to establish it as an economic and strategic piece of real estate for the Persian empire. This was the colony of Yehud. (If I recall correctly it was for a time part of the Persian satrapy extending across the biblical land of promise from the Nile to the Euphrates.) Fictionalized narratives of this settlement have come down to us in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. Scribal schools competed to establish a new narrative and cultural identity for this settlement. The native inhabitants (or “people of the land”) became the godless Canaanites from whom the settlers needed to withdraw in every way. Myths of returning to the land of their fathers to restore the true worship of the god of this land emerged just as they did with other deported populations of which we have some record.
The First Greek Witnesses
Let’s move ahead a little now to the time when we find our first notice of this people among the Greeks. It’s around 300 BCE. The Persian empire has crumbled before the Macedonian phalanxes of Alexander the Great. The old Persian province of Yehud is now under Hellenistic rule. read more