2024-05-19

The Curse of Monotheism

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by Neil Godfrey

R.J. (Bert) van der Spek

I cited a book chapter by R.J. van der Spek in my previous post relating to the historical reality behind the myth of ancient Persia’s “tolerance” of religions of its subject peoples. Here I quote some other extracts that relate directly to the problem of religious tolerance and how that question relates to monotheism:

It is not a coincidence that suppression of religion often had something to do with monotheistic religions (persecution of Jews and Christians, who refused to accept gods other than their own; persecution of pagans under Christian emperors). Persecution of religious beliefs and practices were usually related to would-be disturbances of order (as in the case of the suppression of the Bacchanalia in Rome in 186 BC or, possibly, the prohibition of the Jewish cult in the temple of Jerusalem by Antiochus IV in 168 BC).8

8 For the development in the Graeco -Roman world from a situation in which religious commitment was predicated on civic identity to “a situation of competition and potential conflict between religious groups based on voluntary commitment,” see J. North, “The Development of Religious Pluralism,” in The Jews among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire, edited by J. Lieu, J. North and T. Rajak (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 174-93, quotation from p. 187. A similar development is present in the ancient Near East from the early Sumerian city-states to the world empires in the first millennium BC. Still fundamental for the position of Judaism and Christianity in the Ancient world is A.D. Nock, Conversion: The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933). For the relation of community and religion, the process of mobility of people and their gods, concept of syncretism, and the profusion of cults in the Roman empire, see J.B. Rives, Religion in the Roman Empire (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), pp. 105 -157. I owe these references to Jaap-Jan Flinterman.

(Spek 2014, 235)

Further…

Recognition of foreign gods is, in short, completely normal in the polytheistic mind frame and missionary activity is not to be expected. Recognition could take place with the acceptance of a new god or with identification of a foreign god with a god of one’s own pantheon. Indeed, the identification of foreign gods with gods of their own pantheon (‘syncretism’) is widely attested. Herodotus calls Marduk of Babylon Zeus Bēlos and Melqart of Tyrus Heracles.

Complications mainly occurred when monotheists were involved or when religion played a role during an insurrection. . . .

. . . Lebram argued that Antiochus IV was not a religiously intolerant persecutor; on the contrary, he recognized the foreign god and the sacredness of his temple precinct. For the orthodox, monotheistic Jews – in the end the victorious party – it was, however, unacceptable that foreigners intervened with the cult, identified the God of the Covenant with Ba`al Šamêm or Zeus Olympius, and introduced their own cultic practices.

(Spek 2014, 241)

And further yet….

The potential for conflict increased when the government itself was monotheistic. Typically, it was not satisfied with the recognition of the state god’s leadership, but demanded exclusive worship of this deity. This may be observed with the Egyptian king Akhenaton, who tried to erase the name of Amûn, and with countless emperors and kings in the Christian world, who did not even accept differing opinions about the correct cult of the one state god.

(Spek 2014, 241, italics original)

Finally….

Cyrus’ much-praised religious “tolerance” was not a new, but a time-honored policy pursued by many ancient Near Eastern kings, who wanted to have as many gods as possible on their side and hoped to gain the support of their worshippers. “Tolerance,” in antiquity, was almost never a matter of principle. If a conqueror deemed it useful, he could also forcefully compel a nation into submission, and Cyrus did not abstain from this policy. Such a harsh policy incidentally does not constitute evidence for religious “intolerance.” Destruction of temples, removal of cult images, and the like were not intended to prove that a particular god did not exist, or to prove the correctness of a dogma or creed. Repression of religious practices was rare in antiquity; it was, however, at issue when a monotheistic religion (of the victor or the vanquished) was involved, when religion had become the vehicle of rebellion, or was considered to be hostile toward the state.

(Spek 2014, 260)

Hold on…. there’s one two more…

The policy of polytheistic rulers is generally different from that of monotheistic kings and emperors who are inclined to impose worship of a single god and oppress deviant and foreign cults.26

26 G. J.D. Aalders H.Wzn, “The Tolerance of Polytheism in classical antiquity and its Limits” Free University Quarterly 9 (1964) 223-242; R. J. van der Spek, TvG 96 (1983) 6-10; Idem, Persica, 10 (1982) 278-283 (cf. supra n. 13); A. Kuhrt, “The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy”, Journal Stud. Old Test. 25 (1983) 83-97.

(Spek 1985, 546)

and

In the polytheistic mind every god, even the god of the most hated enemy, can exist and have power, and it is therefore better to remain on good terms with every god. Thus Sennacherib invoked Marduk in the inscription in which he described the destruction of Babylon. After the destruction of Athens in 480 B.C. Xerxes ordered that sacrifices be made to the Athenian gods according to Athenian practice (Hdt VIII,54), the Romans tried to “evoke” the gods of the cities they wished to conquer. Religious oppression is relatively exceptional. It occurs when religion plays a part in rebellion (e.g. the Jews against the Romans) or when monotheistic religion is concerned, either as the religion of subjects who cannot accept the existence of the deities of the rulers (Christians in the Roman em­pire), or as the religion of the rulers who wish to deny the right of the people to believe in more than one god or even to worship the state god in a manner not prescribed (Christian emperors and kings since Theodosius the Great).

(Spek 1982, 279f)

 


Spek, R.J. van der. “Cyrus the Great, Exiles and Foreign Gods.” In Extraction & Control: Studies in Honor of Matthew W. Stolper: 68, edited by Charles E. Jones, Christopher Woods, Michael Kozuh, and Wouter F. M. Henkelman, 233–64. Chicago, Illinois: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2014.

Spek, R. J. (Bert) van der. “The Babylonian Temple during the Macedonian and Parthian Domination.” Bibliotheca Orientalis 42 (1985): 541–62.

Spek, R. J. (Bert) van der. “Did Cyrus the Great Introduce a New Policy towards Subdued Nations? Cyrus in Assyrian Perspective.” Persica 10 (1982): 278–83.



2024-05-18

Why the Bible Gives Persia Such Good Press: a Hellenistic Perspective

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by Neil Godfrey

If the Old Testament books were not written before the Hellenistic era as a number of scholars have argued and as I have posted about for some years now, why would their authors have chosen a very favourable Persian empire as the narrative setting of the restoration of Judea after the Babylonian exile? We know Persia and the Greek states were enemies, after all.

One may object that the narrators had little choice but to choose the Persian period for the release of the Babylonian exiles simply because the Persians did historically replace the Babylonian empire and they were historically tolerant towards other religions. It would have been difficult to place the return from captivity as late as Hellenistic times if the story were to have any credibility at all. But why depict the Persians as being so benevolent towards the Judeans? The account of the exodus from Egypt proved that one could create a high drama in a tale of escape to freedom if one introduced a hostile ruler. Besides, the Persians were not in fact as magnanimous as the Bible has portrayed them. In reality, the Persians continued the mass deportations that Assyrians are infamous for.

* Nabonidus Chronicle III.12–14 (Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, p. 109): . . .  “In the month Tašrītu (27 September–26 October 539), when Cyrus did battle at Opis on [the bank of] the Tigris against the army of Akkad, the people of Akkad retreated. He (Cyrus) plundered and killed the people.” — (Van der Spek 255)

Cyrus’ clemency towards the subdued nations must not be exaggerated. The massacre among the Babylonians after the battle of Opis has already been mentioned.* The Nabonidus Chronicle mentions how he looted the Median capital Ecbatana after he had captured it. In 547, Cyrus killed the king of Lydia and Lydians, Phrygians, and Urartians were probably deported to Nippur.185

185 The Murashû archive provides evidence that deportees from Lydia, Phrygia, and Urartu were settled in Nippur. . . . 

Later Persian kings also deported people.

(Van der Spek 256, 258)

Similarly for Cyrus’s “religious tolerance”:

The idea of Cyrus as the champion of religious tolerance rests on three fundamentally erroneous assumptions. In the first place, it rests on an anachronistic perception of ancient political discourse. In antiquity, no discourse on religious tolerance existed. Religion was deeply embedded in society, in political structures, in daily life. . . .

Secondly, it is too facile to characterize Cyrus’ rule as one that had ‘tolerance’ as its starting point. Although it is indeed possible to describe his policy as positively pragmatic or even mild in some respects, it is also clear that Cyrus was a normal conqueror with the usual policy of brutal warfare and harsh measures. . . .

Thirdly, the comparison with Assyrian policy is mistaken in its portrayal of that policy as principally different from Cyrus’. . . .

(Van der Spek 235)

There is no contemporary evidence outside the Bible testifying to a Persian policy of deliverance for the Judeans. The archaeological evidence is clear: during the Persian era both Judea and Samaria were polytheistic societies (Yahweh being the chief god but not the only god) and sacred sites were multiple (not centralized in Jerusalem). The previous link will take you to several explanatory posts. See also the post on Yonatan Adler’s research demonstrating the “late origins of Judaism“. The Persians were no more tolerant of the Jewish religion than any other ancient power.

Cyrus proclaims end of Babylonian captivity. Image from MediaStorehouse

Yet Persia holds pride of place in the narrative background to the religion of the Bible.

According to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Persian rulers from Cyrus to Artaxerxes allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem, and helped with the building of the second temple. Jean Soler believes that this era saw the ‘invention of monotheism’ as the influence of Persian religion would have led the Jews to consider their regional god, Yahweh, as a unique god who alone created the universe. Soler thinks this invention was made after the writing of the Bible, when it became a national tradition. I disagree with Soler’s position as it still speaks from the perspective of religious evolutionism in that it fails to understand that the Bible is not a primitive literary work; rather, it was written directly under highly philosophical influences—mainly that of Plato. Moreover, this evolution of religion towards monotheism is actually part of the biblical narrative; in a world where polytheism and sin ruled, a pious people and their ancestors came to discover the only god. Once again, interpretation is a new version of the myth. Most scholars still paraphrase the divine revelation, always later in chronology, but the Persian era is kept as the ultimate end-point. (Wajdenbaum 38)

The authors of Chronicles, Isaiah and Ezra certainly give the Persian king Cyrus the highest praise as God’s anointed and as the restorer of the Judeans to their “homeland”. I wrote about the origin of the Cyrus-Messiah myth not so long ago. But if we accept the influence of Hellenistic literature (Apollonius of Rhodes, Berossus, Euripides, Herodotus, Hesiod, Homer, Manetho, Plato, Xenophon . . . . ) on the Pentateuch and other biblical texts, the question inevitably arises: why do the Persians get such good press?

Personally, I found myself wondering if Persia was chosen as the matrix for a resurgence of biblical religion in an effort by some biblical authors to implicitly rebut their intellectual captor, Hellenism. But no, the answer is surely simpler than that. Returning once again to Plato’s Laws (a work that others have seen as highly influential on both biblical narratives and laws), we read:

ATHENIAN: Hear me, then: there are two mother forms of states from which the rest may be truly said to be derived; and one of them may be called monarchy and the other democracy: the Persians have the highest form of the one, and we of the other; almost all the rest, as I was saying, are variations of these. Now, if you are to have liberty and the combination of friendship with wisdom, you must have both these forms of government in a measure; the argument emphatically declares that no city can be well governed which is not made up of both.

CLEINIAS: Impossible.

. . . .

ATHENIAN: Hear, then:−−There was a time when the Persians had more of the state which is a mean between slavery and freedom. In the reign of Cyrus they were freemen and also lords of many others: the rulers gave a share of freedom to the subjects, and being treated as equals, the soldiers were on better terms with their generals, and showed themselves more ready in the hour of danger. And if there was any wise man among them, who was able to give good counsel, he imparted his wisdom to the public; for the king was not jealous, but allowed him full liberty of speech, and gave honour to those who could advise him in any matter. And the nation waxed in all respects, because there was freedom and friendship and communion of mind among them.

CLEINIAS: That certainly appears to have been the case.

(See also the R.G. Bury translation along with book and line citation at perseus.tufts)

The very notion that in the time of Cyrus the Persians possessed the purest form of an ideal monarchy, the type of monarchy that could confidently give freedom to its subjects, was a myth perpetuated in Plato’s Laws. Another genre introduced in the Hellenistic era was the biographical “novel”, such as we find in the Book of Nehemiah. Should one further be reminded of the freedom with which Nehemiah (and later, Esther) conversed with remarkably friendly Persian kings. Those later incumbents to the throne fell far short of Cyrus’s beneficence, of course, and Plato went on to explain why such an ideal could not be maintained.

(If I have read this same point somewhere in work by Philippe Wajdenbaum or Russell Gmirkin I do not recall doing so, although both scholars are responsible for my train of thought and interpreting this passage in Plato as a rationale for Persia’s key role in the narrative of the Judean restoration.)

Continuing in Laws, Plato has his Athenian speaker explain why later Persian kings fell short of the ideal said to be embodied in Cyrus. While Cyrus was busy fighting to build his empire his sons were left to the care and instruction of women and eunuchs. This was sufficient to explain the flawed characters of Cyrus’s successors. Kingship ideals were somewhat restored under Darius but that was because Darius had not been subjected to a “royal education”.

ATHENIAN: [Cyrus] had possessions of cattle and sheep, and many herds of men and other animals, but he did not consider that those to whom he was about to make them over were not trained in his own calling, which was Persian; for the Persians are shepherds−−sons of a rugged land, which is a stern mother, and well fitted to produce a sturdy race able to live in the open air and go without sleep, and also to fight, if fighting is required …. [Cyrus] did not observe that his sons were trained differently; through the so−called blessing of being royal they were educated in the Median fashion by women and eunuchs, which led to their becoming such as people do become when they are brought up unreproved. And so, after the death of Cyrus, his sons, in the fulness of luxury and licence, took the kingdom, and first one slew the other because he could not endure a rival; and, afterwards, the slayer himself, mad with wine and brutality, lost his kingdom through the Medes and the Eunuch, as they called him, who despised the folly of Cambyses.

CLEINIAS: So runs the tale, and such probably were the facts.

ATHENIAN: Yes; and the tradition says, that the empire came back to the Persians, through Darius and the seven chiefs.

CLEINIAS: True.

ATHENIAN: Let us note the rest of the story. Observe, that Darius was not the son of a king, and had not received a luxurious education. . . . he made laws upon the principle of introducing universal equality in the order of the state, and he embodied in his laws the settlement of the tribute which Cyrus promised,−−thus creating a feeling of friendship and community among all the Persians, and attaching the people to him with money and gifts. Hence his armies cheerfully acquired for him countries as large as those which Cyrus had left behind him. Darius was succeeded by his son Xerxes; and he again was brought up in the royal and luxurious fashion. Might we not most justly say: ‘O Darius, how came you to bring up Xerxes in the same way in which Cyrus brought up Cambyses, and not to see his fatal mistake?’ For Xerxes, being the creation of the same education, met with much the same fortune as Cambyses; and from that time until now there has never been a really great king among the Persians, although they are all called Great. And their degeneracy is not to be attributed to chance, as I maintain; the reason is rather the evil life which is generally led by the sons of very rich and royal persons; for never will boy or man, young or old, excel in virtue, who has been thus educated.

If that story of an ideal warrior king (and former shepherd) having the misfortune to see less worthy sons engage in bloody strife sounds familiar, it might be because you are aware of the story of King David — a narrative that another scholar, John Van Seters, believes owes much of its detail to the history of the Persian court. One might further wonder if we can focus that provenance a little more sharply by suggesting it was the Persian court as interpreted through Hellenistic ideals.

If Plato could imagine the Persian monarchy as a kind of antithetical ideal foil to Athens, a monarchical ideal that granted liberty to former captives, and one whose kings had the self-assurance to encourage discourse with their subject people, one might conclude that nothing would have been more natural than for Hellenistic authors to find a respectful place for Cyrus and at least a few subsequent (not quite so perfect) Persian monarchs who represented “the highest form” of the alternative to the government of Athens.


Plato. “Laws.” Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive. Accessed May 18, 2024. http://classics.mit.edu//Plato/laws.3.iii.html.

Spek, R.J. van der. “Cyrus the Great, Exiles and Foreign Gods.” In Extraction & Control: Studies in Honor of Matthew W. Stolper: 68, edited by Charles E. Jones, Christopher Woods, Michael Kozuh, and Wouter F. M. Henkelman, 233–64. Chicago, Illinois: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2014.

Wajdenbaum, Philippe. Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible. London ; Oakville: Equinox, 2011.



2024-05-12

What Did Marx Say Was the Cause of the American Civil War? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

I toyed with the idea of presenting the dishonest, decontextualized quotation of Marx that one finds in both Lost Cause as well as libertarian “scholarship,” and then work back until I revealed the original intent. But then I remembered from psychology classes that the primacy effect is extremely potent and realized that I risked sabotaging my own efforts. So instead I’ll begin with what Karl Marx actually thought, to avoid all ambiguity.

What Marx Thought

In an essay written for the The Vienna Presse, he wrote:

The whole movement was and is based, as one sees, on the slave question: Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states should be emancipated or not, but whether the twenty million free men of the North should subordinate themselves any longer to an oligarchy of three hundred thousand slaveholders; whether the vast Territories of the republic should be planting-places for free states or for slavery; finally, whether the national policy of the Union should take armed propaganda of slavery in Mexico, Central and South America as its device. (Marx 1861, p. 71, attributed to Marx and Engels, bold emphasis mine)

What the Many in the British Press Thought 

For the moment, let’s lay aside whether or not we agree with Marx. The question is not what we think, but what he thought. In this essay, Marx and Engels were taking a position against many in the British press. Many of the loud and sanctimonious voices in newspapers of the day were saying that the war had nothing to do with slavery. Early on, in this same essay, Marx wrote, concerning contemporary London media:

In essence the extenuating arguments read: The war between the North and South is a tariff war. The war is, further, not for any principle, does not touch the question of slavery and in fact turns on Northern lust for sovereignty. (Marx 1861, p. 58)

The Quote, Out of Context

The modern mischief begins with stripping away all context, and then presenting the implicit (and false) notion that Marx thought the Civil War was simply a war of aggression and dominance, perpetrated by the North. I first came upon this quotation in a truly dreadful book by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr. called It Wasn’t about Slavery.

He begins the chapter called “The Election of 1860” with this: Continue reading “What Did Marx Say Was the Cause of the American Civil War? (Part 1)”


2024-05-09

The Samaritan Tenth Commandment

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by Neil Godfrey

The most obvious objection to the previous post’s idea that the Torah was composed (or at least finally edited) in such a “cunningly ambiguous” manner as to allow divergent traditions and practices between and among Samaritans and Jews is the Samaritan tenth commandment. For Jews (or Judeans, the more appropriate term for the period we are addressing) the tenth commandment forbids coveting one’s neighbour’s house, wife, slave, ox or donkey. For the Samaritans, that is the ninth commandment. Their tenth is an order to construct an altar to Yahweh on Mount Gerizim. Since Judeans believed Jerusalem was ordained as the central place of worship we may think that a command to build an altar at Mount Gerizim could hardly have arisen through any collaborative effort of Samaritans and Judeans. But we would be wrong to think so.

But first, let’s be clear about what the Samaritan tenth commandment says. Here it is as it follows the command against coveting:

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet his field, his male or female slave, his ox or his ass or anything that is your neighbor’s.

And when YHWH your God brings you to the land of the Canaanites which you are about to invade and occupy,

You shall set up large stones and coat them with plaster.

And you shall inscribe upon the stones all the words of this teaching.

And upon crossing the Jordan you shall set up these stones about which I charge you today, on Mount Gerizim.

And you shall build an altar there to YHWH your God, an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them.

You must build the altar of YHWH your God of unhewn stones. You shall offer on it burnt offerings to YHWH your God.

And you shall sacrifice well-being offerings and eat them there, and rejoice before YHWH your God.

That mountain is across the Jordan, beyond the west road which is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah, before Gilgal, by the terebinth of Moreh, before Shechem.

(Translation from Hepner 149; Hepner also points to an alternative Samaritan translation of the tenth commandment into English.)

There are several ways one can parse the words spoken from Mount Sinai to make them align with ten points. I have tried to capture the variants in this table along with some additional notes in the last row.

Samaritan Jewish  Protestant Roman Catholic & Lutheran
1 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. (Exodus 20:2)

(But see note below)

1 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 
.
.
.
You shall have no other gods beside Me. 
.
.
You shall not make for yourself any graven image…
1 You shall have no other gods before me. 

You shall not make for yourself any graven image…

2 You shall have no other gods beside Me. (Exodus 20:3)

You shall not make for yourself any graven image… (Exodus 20:4)

1 You shall have no other gods before me.
2 You shall not make for yourself any graven image…
2 You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. 

(But see note below)

3 You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. (Exodus 20:7) 3 You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. 2 You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
3 Remember the Sabbath day… 4 Remember the Sabbath day… (Exodus 20:8) 4 Remember the Sabbath day… 3 Remember the Sabbath day…
4 Honor your father and your mother. 5 Honor your father and your mother. (Exodus 20:12) 5 Honor your father and your mother. 4 Honor your father and your mother.
5 You shall not murder. 6 You shall not murder. (Exodus 20:13) 6 You shall not murder. 5 You shall not murder.
6 You shall not commit adultery. 7 You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14) 7 You shall not commit adultery. 6 You shall not commit adultery.
7 You shall not steal. 8 You shall not steal. (Exodus 20:15) 8 You shall not steal. 7 You shall not steal.
8 You shall not bear false witness  9 You shall not bear false witness (Exodus 20:16) 9 You shall not bear false witness  8 You shall not bear false witness 
9 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house…

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant…
10 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… 

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant… (Exodus 20:17)

10 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house…

You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant…

9 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house…
10 You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant…
10 Build an altar on Mount Gerizim
Ex 20:2 – Preamble or first commandment:

The official Jewish view takes Ex. xx, 2-3 to be the First Commandment, followed by verses 4-6 as Second. But R. Ishmael (second century A.D.) counts verse 3 as the First Commandment, viewing verse 2, apparently, as a preamble, in complete agreement with Samaritan practice. A similar system is adopted by Josephus and Philo who count verse 3 as Commandment 1, verses 4-6 as Commandment 2 and verse 7 as Commandment 3.
(Bowman 220)

The Samaritans consider the first commandment of the Jewish tradition as an introduction to the Decalogue, so that in their tradition there is room for an additional commandment.
(Tov, 94)

 

Ancient Samaritan stone inscriptions point to variation in enumerating the commandments:

[T]he first three Commandments which are extant only on two of the stones (Nablus and Palestine Museum) are quoted with an interesting variation. The Nablus Decalogue has no trace of Ex. xx, 2 as part of the First Com­mandment, which verse is treated in the Samaritan MSS. as a preamble to the Decalogue. … The Palestine Museum inscription starts off with what is definitely taken from the official Jewish First Commandment (Ex. xx, 2). It has, after that, as its Second Commandment verse Ex. xx, 3 in exactly the same form as the Nablus stone, which latter treats this phrase as First Commandment. But the Jewish Third, ” thou shalt not take the name of Lord thy God in vain”, which is the Samaritan Second Commandment, is omitted in the [Palestinian inscription] while it is found in the [Nablus inscription]. This seems to suggest that [Palestinian inscription] included in its Second Command­ment by implication Ex. xx, 7, the Jewish Third Command­ment.
(Bowman 219f)

As we can see from the table there are several ways one can count “the ten”.

Furthermore, Judeans would interpret the Gerizim command as a one-time action to apply to the moment when Israel entered the land of Canaan and not as an ongoing command.

Bóid’s observation that we cited in the previous post applies:

We see, then, that there is nothing in the Samaritan Torah that is necessarily unacceptable to Jews, and nothing in the MT [=Masoretic Text of the Jewish Bible] that is necessarily unacceptable to Samaritans.

(Bóid 340)

I am bypassing at this point another discussion addressing the Samaritan reading that God “has chosen” his place of worship — as per Gen 12:6 and Gen 33:18-20  — against the Jewish reading that he “will choose” his place so that we do not read of Jerusalem and its temple until the later books of the Bible.

But is not the Samaritan tenth commandment a “blatant interpolation”, an egregious sectarian intrusion into the narrative of the Ten Commandments? It does not have to be read that way. There is nothing in the tenth commandment that is not found elsewhere in the Jewish Torah. The editors have merely turned to Deuteronomy and copied verses from there into the Exodus account of the Ten Commandments. So there is nothing new or objectionable in the wording, even to Judeans who worshiped in Jerusalem. And what for the Samaritans could be read as a command to be kept “forever” for the Judeans could be read as a one-time historical edict.

I have constructed the following table from an article by Stefan Schorch (2019) to illustrate how the Samaritan tenth commandment was composed. It begins with the Samaritan ninth commandment and shows what passages from Deuteronomy were inserted at this point in Exodus 20 and the second narration of the ten commandments in Deuteronomy 5. The column on the right lists the verses of the Samaritan tenth commandment so you can see how they were taken from Deuteronomy 11 and 27 (middle column). You will notice that the passage from Deuteronomy 11:29-30 has been split to form an inclusio — a frame — for the main body of the commandment.

Ex 20:17
Dt 5:21
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife . . . 
Dt 11:29 When the LORD your God has brought you into the land you are entering to possess, you are to proclaim on Mount Gerizim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses. And when YHWH your God brings you to the land of the Canaanites which you are about to invade and occupy,
Dt 27:2 When you have crossed the Jordan into the land the LORD your God is giving you, set up some large stones and coat them with plaster. You shall set up large stones and coat them with plaster.
Dt 27:3
.
.
.
.
.
.
Dt 27:8
Write on them all the words of this law when you have crossed over to enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, promised you.

And you shall write very clearly all the words of this law on these stones you have set up.

And you shall inscribe upon the stones all the words of this teaching.
Dt 27:4  And when you have crossed the Jordan, set up these stones on Mount Ebal [original=Mount Gerizim — see note below], as I command you today, and coat them with plaster. And upon crossing the Jordan you shall set up these stones about which I charge you today, on Mount Gerizim
Dt 27:5 Build there an altar to the LORD your God, an altar of stones. Do not use any iron tool on them. And you shall build an altar there to YHWH your God, an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them.
Dt 27:6 Build the altar of the LORD your God with fieldstones and offer burnt offerings on it to the LORD your God. You must build the altar of YHWH your God of unhewn stones. You shall offer on it burnt offerings to YHWH your God.
Dt 27:7 Sacrifice fellowship offerings there, eating them and rejoicing in the presence of the LORD your God. And you shall sacrifice well-being offerings and eat them there, and rejoice before YHWH your God.
Dt 11:30 As you know, these mountains are across the Jordan, westward, toward the setting sun, near the great trees of Moreh, in the territory of those Canaanites living in the Arabah in the vicinity of Gilgal. That mountain is across the Jordan, beyond the west road which is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah, before Gilgal, by the terebinth of Moreh, before Shechem.

It is clear, therefore, that the Samaritan tenth commandment is nothing other than a rearrangement of passages from Deuteronomy. In the narrative flow of the Pentateuch, a Judean reader would have understood that an altar was to be built on Mount Gerizim but the same Judean reader would have understood those passages as a reference to a one-time historical moment – not as an eternal command.

Indeed, the above method of rearranging biblical material into new configurations was typical of the way scribes worked to produce expanded and “clearer” or more “relevant” texts, as can be seen in the “rewritten scriptures” of the Dead Sea Scrolls:

Scholars have long noted that the redactional process resulting in the new Samaritan Tenth Commandment shares many characteristics with the scribal tradition that produced the expanded Qumran scrolls. In fact, the techniques are identical. . . . The creation of the new tenth commandment, which takes material from Dtn 27 that had no connection to Sinai, exhibits the same type of freedom as in the third insertion in SP [=Samaritan Pentateuch] Ex 20, »showing that the ›Samaritan‹ scribe was only following his predecessor’s footsteps«. Moreover, the Samaritan Tenth Commandment did not involve the creation of any new material; the scribe simply duplicated text found elsewhere in the Pentateuch, including the reference to Gerizim, taken from Dtn 27,4 according to what many scholars now regard as the original text of that passage. As Tigay rightly comments: »What is noteworthy about the interpolator’s technique is that actual changes in substance are remarkably few. On the whole he accomplished his tendentious purpose with material already present somewhere in his sources.«

(Gallagher 104)

.
Mount Ebal or Mount Gerizim?

In case you think I am cheating by striking out Mount Ebal in the above table and replacing it with Mount Gerizim, I appeal to the scholars in my defence. (Recall also the same point made by Gallagher in the above quotation.)

We have to realize, however, that the Masoretic [=the Jewish Bible] reading in Deut 27:4 בהר עיבל “on Mount Ebal” is almost certainly a secondary ideological correction, as opposed to the text-historically original בהר גריזים “on Mount Gerizim”, which is preserved in the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Old Latin (Vetus Latina). According to the original text of the Book of Deuteronomy, therefore, this altar is to be built on Mount Gerizim, which is the mountain of the blessings according to the framing passages Deut 11:29 and 27:12‒13.

(Schorch 2011 28)

Magnar Karveit discusses the manuscript evidence through a six page excursus and concludes:

… that the reading “Gerizim” in Deut 27:4 is older than the reading “Ebal” of the [Masoretic Text = Jewish Text].

(Karveit 305 — the title of the excursus is Deuteronomy 27:4 in the Old Greek Papyrus Giessen 19 and in the Old Latin Lyon Manuscript, and the Altar-Pericope in Joshua 8:30–35)

In the following passage the sign ⅏ represents the Samaritan Pentateuch:

The main ideological change in ⅏ concerns the central place of worship. Wherever the Torah mentions or alludes to Jerusalem as the central place of worship, ⅏ inserted, sometimes by way of allusion, Mount Gerizim,  . . . This change is particularly evident in the Samaritan tenth commandment referring to the sanctity of Mount Gerizim. This commandment consists of verses occurring elsewhere in the Torah: Deut 11:29a, Deut 27:2b-3a, Deut 27:4a, Deut 27:5-7, Deut 11:30, in that sequence in -Exodus and Deuteronomy. The addition includes the reading of -Deut 27:4 “Mount Gerizim” instead of “Mount Ebal,” which appears in most other witnesses, as the name of the place where the Israelites were commanded to erect an altar after the crossing of the Jordan.140

140 This reading is usually taken as tendentious, but since it is also found in the Vetus Latina+ it should probably be considered non-sectarian and possibly original. . . . A reading [Mount Gerizim] is also found in a Judean Desert fragment (Qumran cave 4?). –> U. Schattner-Rieser, “Garizim versus Ebal: Ein neues Qumranfragment Samaritanischer Tradition?” Early Christianity 2 (2010) 277-81. See also R. Pummer, “APΓAPIZIN: A Criterion for Samaritan Provenance?” JSJ 18 (1987) 18-25. This reading, written as one word, occurs also in a Masada fragment written in the early Hebrew script+ (papMas 1o). –> Talmon, Masada VI, 138-47. However, the Samaritan nature of that fragment is contested by H. Eshel, “The Prayer of Joseph, a Papyrus from Masada and the Samaritan Temple on APΓAPIZIN,” Zion 56 (1991) 12536 (Heb. with Eng. summ.).

(Tov 87f)

Images adapted from NET and Britannica.com

Who proclaimed the commandments? God or Moses?

One may object that in both the Samaritan and Jewish/Judean texts it is Moses who is instructing the Israelites to build the altar on Mount Gerizim so it could hardly be one of the “Ten Commandments” per se. Not so, however. It is only in the first of the ten commandments even in the non-Samaritan versions where God speaks in the first person. Returning to Schorch:

[O]nly the First of the Ten commandments (according to the traditional Samaritan counting), uses indeed the divine first person:

You shall have no other gods besides Me. . . . 

Beginning with the Second commandment (Samaritan counting), God is referred to in the third person, where applicable:

You shall not swear falsely by the name of the LORD your God; for the LORD will not clear one who swears falsely by His name. etc. (Exod. 20:7)

The literary difference between these two parts is obvious and was already observed by early Jewish Midrashim preserved in Pesikta de-Rab Kahane and the Babylonian Talmud, which solved the problem by suggesting that only the beginning of the Decalogue reflects God’s own speech, while the reminder is attributed to Moses and refers to God in the third person. 34 From that perspective, the Gerizim composition, inevitably continuing the mode of speaking introduced already with the Second commandment (Exod 20:7), is more plausibly understood as being inserted in the context of Moses’ words rather than God’s

(Schorch 2019 93f)

So the fact that the narrative has Moses speaking the Mount Gerizim command to the Israelites does not disqualify it from being one of the “Ten Commandments” — if one’s tradition wanted it that way.

The Samaritans read this passage as the tenth commandment. The Jews can find nothing objectionable in the extended verse because all of those instructions are found elsewhere in the Pentateuch; the main difference is that the Jews count the earlier commandments differently so that the Jews would not need to read the extended passage of the Samaritans as one of the ten commandments. So it comes down to how one counts and how one interprets the temporal context of the command.

In the next post I hope to present some of the evidence that the Mount Gerizim command preceded both the traditional Samaritan Pentateuch and Jewish Bibles.


Bóid, Iain Ruairidh MacMhanainn. Principles of Samaritan Halachah. Leiden ; New York: Brill Academic Pub, 1989.

Bowman, J., and S. Talmon. “Samaritan Decalogue Inscriptions.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 33, no. 2 (March 1951): 211–36. https://doi.org/10.7227/BJRL.33.2.3.

Gallagher, Edmond L. “Is the Samaritan Pentateuch a Sectarian Text?” Zeitschrift Für Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 127, no. 1 (January 20, 2015). https://doi.org/10.1515/zaw-2015-0007.

Hepner, Gershon. “The Samaritan Version of the Tenth Commandment.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 20, no. 1 (May 2006): 147–52. https://doi.org/10.1080/09018320600757101.

Kartveit, Magnar. The Origin of the Samaritans. Leiden: Brill, 2009.

Schorch, Stefan. “The Samaritan Version of Deuteronomy and the Origin of Deuteronomy.” In Samaria, Samarians, Samaritans: Studies on Bible, History and Linguistics, edited by József Zsengellér, 23–38. Walter de Gruyter, 2011.

Schorch, Stefan. “The So-Called Gerizim Commandment in the Samaritan Pentateuch.” In The Samaritan Pentateuch and the Dead Sea Scrolls: 94, edited by M. Langlois, 77–98. Leuven ; Bristol, CT: Peeters, 2019.

Tov, Emanuel. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. 3rd edition, revised and expanded. Minneapolis, Mn: Augsburg Books, 2011.



2024-05-08

So the Bible is “Intentionally” Ambiguous!

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by Neil Godfrey

From creazilla

How is it that there are so many different interpretations of the Bible? Surely the original authors could have written more precisely and consistently to avoid this state of affairs. But what if the earliest authors and editors of the biblical texts were working to bring divergent groups with varying traditions and practices into a kind of unity with a book they could all claim as their own? That is the view of several scholars but I will focus on just one of them, the Samaritan scholar Ruairidh MacMhanainn Bóid, in this post.

We now have to reconcile this variation within the halachic tradition with the uniformity of the text of the written Torah, which all Jews and Samaritans accept. If there are no variations in the written text, how is it that there are variations in the halachic tradition? (328 – bolding is mine in all quotations)

It may seem obvious enough that we should assume that interpretations of the text and traditions of practice were once uniform and that over time, through ignorance or carelessness, divergences set in. But this assumption falls apart when one takes the trouble to examine the evidence that informs us about those variations (Bóid 309). There is no evidence for a common tradition among either Samaritans or Jews having ever existed. I did begin to draw venn diagrams to try to grasp an overview of the range and types of disagreements and agreements among the various opinions within and between Samaritan “sects” and Jewish “sects” but the task became simply too monumental. For an overview of these disagreements begin reading at page 309 and again from 328 in the available Google pages. Here I will only point out Bóid’s conclusions.

First of all, it is now known that the Samaritan Torah was originally neither Samaritan nor Jewish, but the common property of both. (The passages commonly considered to be tendentious are discussed below). But aside from this, what concerns us at the moment are the halachic passages in the texts used by the Samaritans and Jews. Now, an examination of the two texts shows that there is very little difference in wording between the Masoretic Torah and the Samaritan one in the halachic passages, that what variants there are do not usually affect the meaning, and that there arc very few halachic differences between Samaritans and Jews that can be related to differences in the text. (329 — I will address a key “commonly considered tendentious” difference below; the specific halachic regulations Bóid is addressing have to do with the various “bodily emissions” of males and females)

So we come back to trying to understand how to explain the particular state of affairs concerning divergent practices and interpretations that arose from a common text (again, see the pages available through Google books, linked above). Bóid’s conclusion is that the different practices and understandings preceded the Torah:

The Torah, both traditional and written, is the possession of all Israel and was intended as such from the time of its composition. It has been accepted by all Israel, the ancestors of all the known and unknown Samaritan and Jewish groups and sects. When edited in its final form it would have had to be acceptable to the bearers of all the existing halachic traditions. This means that the final editors, whether they touched up an existing book, or put a book together out of existing sections, or however they did their work, were faced with the problem of producing an edition that could be used by people following different traditions of halachah. Perhaps there were already several different versions, in which crucial verses had slightly different wording in agreement with one tradition of halachah or another. How was the problem solved? (331)

Bóid finds part of the answer to that question by looking “at the qualities of the text” of the Torah itself:

The text of the halachic sections of the written Torah is normally very precise in its wording, but is cunningly ambiguous or vague on purpose in the verses that lay down a point of halachah about which there is disagreement between different Jewish groups, or different Samaritan groups, or between Jews and Samaritans. The text has been worded very carefully, it is very precisely vague and unequivocally ambiguous so that it will bear a certain number of interpretations and no more, and will agree with all the halachic traditions in mind. (331)

Precise and cunning — sounds like a lawyer.

This way, each tradition can be supported by the text of Scripture. This explains why the text is so vague or uses wording that does not seem completely appropriate in verses on the interpretation of which there is disagreement: the disagreement is older than the present form of the verse. This explains, as well, how it is that the Pharisees (or Rabbanites) can say that the tradition is to be followed in interpreting Scripture even if a verse has to be understood in a way that seems the verse was phrased so as to make their interpretation possible, even if unnatural. It equally well explains how the Karaites and Samaritans (and apparently the Sadducees) can object to the Rabbanite theory, and maintain that their tradition never contradicts Scripture: the text of Scripture is formulated with their traditions (along with everyone else’s) in mind. We see, then, that although the two sides contradict each other over the relationship between written and oral Torah, they are both equally historically correct, and differ only in the expression of their theory. (331 – italics original)

Why not, rather, assume that the different practices arose from a common text that was interpreted differently by the founders of the various factions? Bóid’s answer is twofold:

The first is, as we have said, that differences in practice are often connected with verses the apparent meaning of which does not strongly favour one reading over another. . . .

The second phenomenon is that the verse to which the different traditions are linked and which is interpreted in one way or another is often so obscure or vague that it is hard to see how it could have got past the editors unless the wording is deliberate. The wording of the written Torah is normally very precise. (332)

But surely there are major differences that cannot be harmonized! Think of the Samaritan tenth commandment that orders an altar to be built on Mount Gerizim . . . I’ll discuss that passage in the next post. It will be demonstrated that there is nothing in the Samaritan Pentateuch that is “necessarily unacceptable to Jews, and nothing in the [Jewish Pentateuch] that is necessarily unacceptable to Samaritans.” (Bóid 340).

We conclude . . . that just as the compilation of the Pentateuch brought together and combined whatever forms of the book had been current in different parts of the country or amongst different groups, and produced a book acceptable to the whole nation, the final editors acted in the same spirit and as part of the same movement, and chose a wording in crucial places that would suit the bearers of all the variant sub-traditions of the halachah. The Pentateuch in its completed form had to be a unity in spite of its disparate sources, to fulfil its function as the version that would serve and be acceptable to the whole nation as spiritually (though not politically) united. The compilers did manage to turn the parts into a unity, integrating the different outlooks of both kingdoms [sic – Bóid appears to be assuming a text more ancient than I have been positing in recent posts] and all groups or movements or traditions, and people capable of such a compilation would have had the ability to choose the precise details of the wording of the halachic passages needed to satisfy the same disparate groups of people, and would have seen the need to do so. The compilers were the ones that integrated the sources, and were the final editors as well. (Bóid 340f).

Bóid suggests that such a work would have taken generations. I’m not so sure. It is easier to imagine diverse interests cooperating harmoniously over a shorter time span than a longer one.

Bóid also works to mollify traditionalists who prefer their sacred texts to be very, very ancient:

This is not to deny that the written Torah goes back to time immemorial, or to Moses, depending on the system of terminology: it is simply to say that various books making up the written Torah in different traditions were deliberately combined into one in a form that every Israelite could accept. Rather than suppress or ignore any tradition, the compilers and editors achieved a near-uniformity of wording in the halachic sections, a wording into which could be read (artificially if necessary) the halachah of each tradition. Where uniformity was not reached, the alternatives of wording were either inconsequential and trivial, or were both equally ambiguous . . . . (Bóid 341).

As mentioned earlier, the specific Pentateuchal topic Bóid is addressing is a narrow range of bodily cleanliness regulations. But what of the larger story narratives?

Because of the impossibility of finding an ambiguous wording of historical or chronological statements, existing differences between the source-books would have had to be allowed to stand, so that the final edited written Torah would have had to have several different recensions, according to the source of the historical sections in each case. This would not have been a serious difficulty, since in later times it has always been halachah and basic theology that have divided Israel into sects or religious factions, not disputes over historical details or the chronology of the Patriarchs, and the outlook would presumably have been the same in earlier times. (Bóid 341)


Bóid, Iain Ruairidh MacMhanainn. Principles of Samaritan Halachah. Leiden ; New York: Brill Academic Pub, 1989.



2024-05-04

Imagine Palestine

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by Neil Godfrey

From archive of teol.ku.dk site

The reason my posts relating to Biblical questions so often express a view that is inconsistent with mainstream narratives has nothing to do with wanting to be different (as the moderator on the earlywritings forum has patronizingly insisted) but everything to do with examining the evidence according to the same methods that are accepted as normative best-practice in other fields of history and classical studies. It was for this reason — identifying what I considered a fundamentally sound method of research and interpretation of evidence — that attracted me to the methods of what is sometimes (and dismissively) termed “minimalism” in explorations of the origins of Judaism, Christianity and the Bible.

So I feel a little reassured when I read that the same so-called “minimalist” authors themselves acknowledge that their approach is nothing other than what is considered uncontroversial in other areas of historical studies. It is only controversial, it seems, in the context of biblical studies — for reasons not hard to fathom. It is even more reassuring and encouraging to see that some of the “minimalist” scholars have taken practical steps to change the way Palestine’s history is understood more generally and taught in Palestinian schools and universities. Given the current ongoing slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza by the IDF it is very difficult to conceptualize anything positive for the future in Palestine-Israel, so one does hope that the candle-flame of The Palestine History and Heritage Project (PaHH) will not be fully extinguished.

The methods — doing history the way other historians are expected to do it

The PaHH project follows research principles set forth in the Copenhagen School’s insistence on producing clear methodological and epistemological evidence based historiography, such as is required in classical history writing, and rejecting the biblical-archaeologically designed history of “ancient Israel” most often presented in historiographies of ancient Palestine. (Hjelm 15)

We do use late historical works (e.g. Arrian of the mid-second century CE) to learn about Alexander the Great around 330  BCE, but in that case we know that Arrian was in turn using writings from Alexander’s own time.

In short, the only legitimate method of finding out “what really happened” in the past is to begin with primary evidence, the evidence from the time and place being studied. If we have much later narratives, accounts, myths, we don’t by default reject them as “lies” but we do examine them and try to trace their origins according to the culture that produced them. And that originating culture has to be determined by independent evidence. We cannot simply assume that a story about King David (or King Arthur for that matter) originated in the time of King David or King Arthur. The only legitimate method demands that we do not mix up the two types of sources. We don’t use Homer’s epics to learn about the historical Helen of Troy, nor Walter Scott’s novels to learn about the historical King Richard and Robin Hood, nor should we use the Bible’s stories to inform us about events that are known to have happened centuries before the Bible’s books were written.

The application of what I call normative historical method to the “history of Israel” has led to some considerable heat:

This has even been the case in the non-theological Biblical Criticism & History Forum – earlywritings.com as I mentioned in relation to my own experience there when attempting to discuss the case for the Bible originating later than the Babylonian exile.

The debate cemented the minimalist-maximalist positions with accusations of ‘revisionism’, ‘anti-semitism’, ‘anti-zionism’, ‘anti-biblical’, and ‘nihilism’, on one side, and ‘fundamentalism’, ‘evangelism’[sic] and ‘bad scholarship’ on the other side. Moving from the discussion of methods in history writing which had been the focus of scholarship since the deconstructionist tendencies of the ‘60s-‘80s, the Bible’s role as witness to its own histories, rather than its ancient mental history, became the primary issue. It became almost “illegitimate” not only to deny or criticize the Bible’s historicity, but also to discuss its origin later than the Babylonian Exile, although the Dead Sea Scrolls had made it absolutely evident that no Hebrew Bible existed that early. The approach taken by the so-called “minimalists” is, however, a basic demand in scientific history writing and is called for if biblical scholars are to be included in the guild of historians. Rather than being the ideologically driven program of a small group it has been adopted, to some extent, ‘by a fairly large number of scholars in response to the collapse of “biblical archaeology”, and the absolute necessity of reconsidering the way in which archaeological data and biblical texts are best related in the search for a critical history’. (Hjelm 50)

The content — imagining a non-biblical history of Palestine

Biblical-influenced history of Palestine or Israel is not limited to evangelicals. But I hope by the time interested readers reach the end of this post they will recognize the need to move beyond our common Bible-influenced histories.

Biblically based history does not only feature in histories written by biblical scholars, but is common in writings by archaeologists and historians alike. (Hjelm 15)

Ingrid Hjelm adds examples to demonstrate what that statement covers, some of which no doubt many readers will at least have seen referenced in online discussions:

 

  • W. G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001);
  • Israel Finkelstein and N. A. Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (New York: The Free Press, 2001);
  • P. Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander. A History of the Persian Empire (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2002);
  • T.C. Mitchell, ‘The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and Other States of the Near East from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries’, in J. Boardman et al. (eds.), The Cambridge Ancient History. Sec. ed., vol. Ill, Part 2 (1991): 322-460;
  • A. Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East. Vol. II, (London: Routledge, 1995);
  • K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: MI, Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2003)

There is Israel and there is Palestine. Unfortunately, among many of us who have been immersed in a certain view of the Bible and history the term Palestine can easily conjure up images of the other, the outsider, the crude pagan destined to be supplanted, or other Orientalist visions of “the Arab” or even “Islamism”. But the term Israel is also problematic. As Philip R. Davies pointed out in 1992 we find ourselves with shifting images of three different Israels:

1. Historical Israel:

Historical Israel is the Kingdom of Israel / Bit Humri / House of Omri (9th century -720 BCE) — the kingdom that archaeologists have uncovered in the northern region of Palestine. It is known from Moabite and Assyrian inscriptions.

2. Biblical Israel:

Biblical Israel is the 12 tribe confederation, the United Monarchy, the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and the “Israelites” throughout history and tradition in the 2nd – 1st millennium BCE (Hjelm 16)

3. Ancient Israel:

Finally, the Ancient Israel perspective offers a harmonization of biblical traditions with archaeology and epigraphy and uses the name “Israel” indiscriminately of its historical use and verification. In regard to historical research, such traditional “ancient Israel” histories are oxymoronically neither biblical nor historical, but reductionist conflation of biblical myth and historical fact. (Hjelm 16)

See the above list of titles for examples of that kind of harmonization.

Where is there room for Palestine here? We know that Palestine is even denied as a legitimate name in itself by various extremist pro-Zionists and Islamophobes.

Imagining Palestine

Speaking of the Palestine History and Heritage Project, Hjelm explains:

We have chosen to use the term “Palestine” generally, because it is the most consistent name of the area stretching from as far north as Sidon to the Brook of Egypt and from the Mediterranean into the Transjordan with ever changing borders since the Iron Age. It is testified in inscriptions from Ramses III (ca. 1182-1151 BCE) with increased regional comprehension in the 12th-10th cent. BCE. From the neo-Assyrian period (10th-7th century BCE) onwards it is the most common etic collective designation, manifested in the Roman period (1st cent. BCE – 4th cent. CE), and it has been in continuous use until 1967, whence the name became a modern political term for areas that are not Israel or are occupied by Israel. Our use relates to the various meanings of the name throughout three millennia, in which many polities have co-existed, including the ancient kingdoms of Sidon, Ashkelon, Gaza, Gezer, Israel, Judah, Edom, etc. in addition to later Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine provinces and the imperial polities established from conquests by Sassanid Persians, Arab (peninsular) tribes, crusading Europeans, Mamelukes, Seljuks, Ottoman Turks and the British Commonwealth. (Hjelm 10f)

That image reduces the notion of the above three Israels to passing visions in a kaleidoscope of richly varying histories. Certainly a study of “historical Israel” (the first of the three listed above) is a necessary undertaking for anyone who wants to understand the Bible — if only to come to appreciate that the Biblical Israel cannot be identified with the historical Israel. In other words, before studying the Bible’s view of history one would do well to study history on its own terms first. Instead of seeing cultures and today’s descendants of past eras through biblical lenses we would do well to study those cultures and descendants in their own right first.

Palestine is much bigger than “biblical Israel”. A study of Palestine embraces a study of other great city states that dominated the region at various times yet which the Bible only alludes to with a passing or a negative glance, if at all.

Nor is its history limited to a few centuries in ancient times followed by a “dark age” of early Christian and Islamic domination only to be “liberated” and “revived” in 1948 or especially in 1967 with the seizure of Jerusalem — again as the highlighted portion of the above quotation demonstrates.

The relevance of the PaHH must go without saying though I think it must be said at this time, however hard that saying is.

The Palestine History and Heritage Project (PaHH)

The Palestine History and Heritage Project (PaHH) was formed in 2014 with the twofold aim at producing a trustworthy history of Palestine and of offering this history as a basis for the production of new school textbooks which may reflect Palestine’s multi-vocal and multi-facetted history in a form that is scholarly evidence based rather than rooted in traditional religious interpretation.

PaHH is an international and interdisciplinary project, at present counting some 40 members (half of whom are academically situated in the Middle East or are of Middle Eastern origin) related to or working at academic institutions in Palestine, Europe, Africa, and North and South America.

The initiative to form the project came from Dr. Thomas L. Thompson and Dr. Niels Peter Lemche of the University of Copenhagen; Dr. Hamdan Taha, Former Director of the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, Palestinian Authority; Dr. Ilan Pappe, Director of the Institute of Palestine Studies, University of Exeter; Dr. Issa Sarie, Head of the Archaeological Department, Al Quds University, Abu Dis; and Dr. Basem Ra’ad, the University of London.

The project has been housed at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Copenhagen, with me as project leader until 2017, Dr. Mahmoud Issa as project coordinator and Thomas Thompson as project developer. Although we are now all retired, the faculty has accepted to keep the relationship and non-economic support. Over the years, the project has been funded by minor Danish and British funds to cover workshop and conference expenses. In addition, many Palestinian educational institutions have graciously hosted parts of our workshops and invited us for lectures and discussions. (Hjelm 9f)


Thompson, Thomas L., and Ingrid Hjelm. The Ever Elusive Past: Discussions of Palestine’s History and Heritage. Ramallah, Palestine: Dar Al Nasher, 2019.



2024-04-25

Questioning the Hellenistic Date for the Hebrew Bible: Circular Argument

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

So let’s resume my specific responses to criticisms raised on the earlywritings forum over the question of the Hellenistic era being the earliest setting for the Pentateuch and other books of the Bible. (I am posting my responses here after discovering that on that forum some of my responses were being removed without notice or explanation.)

I have now come to the moment when the moderator (Peter Kirby) of what was designated an Academic Discussion part of the forum entered. His initial post was lengthy and it took me quite a number of readings before I thought I understood the main points clearly enough before responding. But I’ll focus here on what was clear.

Gulliver discovers Laputa, the flying island (illustration by J. J. Grandville)

From that remark I assumed that the commenter must have known the arguments I was referring to and disagreed with the claim that they were circular. But in the course of the discussion I learned that he did not know what those arguments were and simply assumed I must have been falsely claiming they were circular. The fact that I had alluded to the critique of circularity itself came from scholarly criticisms was no doubt inadvertently overlooked.

I found myself in a confusing situation. Here I was being asked to reword arguments (that I later learned were unknown to the commenter) in such a way that they were no longer logically invalid.

In effect, the daunting challenge that I was being confronted with was this:

Take the following argument:

  1. The biblical narrative of King Josiah strongly indicates that Deuteronomy made its first appearance in the time of King Josiah
  2. We conclude this from the fact that the story of Josiah appears to have been written to prove to readers that King Josiah learned of the laws in Deuteronomy and proceeded to act on them. Many passages in the Book of Kings reflect Deuteronomistic language so it looks like Deuteronomy was a key text motivating the author of the story of King Josiah.
  3. Therefore we conclude that the author of the narrative had historical sources about these events and used them to create his narrative
  4. The narrative is therefore based on historical events that came to be known to the author although we concede that the author put his own spin on the events.

Now I was given a monumental challenge. I was being asked to accept that the above line of “logic” was not credible (to this much I agree!) — that I was being asked to grant that biblical scholarship would not be so crudely fallacious (to that I cannot agree, having seen so many, many instances of biblical scholarship arguments based on fallacies and ignorance) — and that I was being asked instead to find a way to re-present the arguments for Deuteronomy being known to Josiah in a way that was not circular.

If only I could inform readers of the arguments in a way that did not make them look fallacious!

Now I fully agree with the principle that one should always construct one’s opponents’ arguments in as strong a manner as possible before attempting to address them, but how does one rearrange a circle into a straight line and still claim one is addressing the original point?

And what should I make of countless scholarly volumes that at some point zero in on critiquing a logical fallacy (most commonly circularity) of arguments being bandied about in the field?

My dilemma was that I had read and analysed the arguments of the Documentary Hypothesis (or let’s keep it simple and limit it to the discussion of Josiah and the Book of Deuteronomy), AND I had read the observations of scholarly critics of those arguments, and now was being asked to create new arguments for Deuteronomy being known in the time of Josiah that were not circular.

I felt like I was being asked to perform a magic trick even though I knew I was not a magician. If the only arguments that have been presented in the literature are indeed circular, how could I re-word them so they would not be circular?

If such a challenge was coming from one of the well-known trolls on the site I would have brushed it aside. But the moderator had some kind of reputation for being reasonably knowledgeable and intelligent — and he even said he wanted me to take his criticism in the presumably well intentioned spirit in which it was offered.

I do have to give him credit, though. He really was kindly condescending enough to try to help me out and to get me to “be reasonable” and join his world in the land of Gulliver’s Laputans.

It took a little more discussion — one that devolved into where I found myself fending off a barrage of presumptuous psycho-analysis in which he attempted to persuade me to acknowledge my “hidden psychological identity needs” that were propelling me to make the arguments in the way I was — before it finally dawned on me that I had misguidedly been knocking on the gates of Laputa.

Thus it has ever been the way, has it not? Guardians will always be there to fiercely defend the defined limits of allowable discussion and criticism. And the weapon they will always pull out is the pop-psychological analysis, otherwise known more politely and generically as “ad hominem”.


2024-04-24

Origin of the Cyrus-Messiah Myth

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

https://aspectsofhistory.com/the-rise-of-cyrus-the-great/

The Cyrus Cylinder is not evidence that the Persian king Cyrus commissioned a return of Judeans to restore their temple (as explained in the previous post) but it does show us why the biblical authors proclaimed Cyrus to be the “anointed one” as their central character in their mythical narrative of that return.

In the book of Isaiah (a work that claims itself to have been written around about 700 BCE) we read that God foretold that 200 years hence he would use a king named Cyrus to restore the Judeans (who since 700 BCE had been taken captive into Babylonia) back to their homeland. The author of the “book of Isaiah” boasted that God knew 200 years in advance that the name of this ordained king would be “Cyrus”.

This is what the Lord says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armor,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:
I will go before you
and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron.
I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the Lord,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honor,
though you do not acknowledge me. (Isa 45:1-4 NIV)

I suggest that the biblical author was very likely inspired by the propaganda of the priests of the god Marduk. Their god, Marduk, according to what was written in that famous Cylinder, prophesied that a king by the name of Cyrus would arrive as a savior and restorer of his temple cult:

Marduk examined, inspected the totality of all his countries. He looked for a just prince to his heart’s content, who holds his hand (in the new year’s ceremony). Cyrus, king of the city of Anshan, he told his name, he announced his name to rule over the whole universe. He threw the Gute country, the totality of the ummân-manda before his feet. (Harmatta 226)

or in another translation of the cuneiform tablet:

He [Marduk] scanned and looked [through] all the countries, searching for a righteous ruler willing to lead [him] [in the annual procession]. [Then] he pronounced the name of Cyrus, king of Anshan, declared him to be[come] the ruler of all the world … (Wiesehöfer 45)

Was the god Marduk emulating Yahweh in calling Cyrus “by name” for his mission or was it the other way around?

But why was Cyrus the chosen figure in the first place? If the biblical accounts were written in the Hellenistic period — a view that I have been supporting in recent posts — how do we explain their interest in the Persian king Cyrus?

The answer to that question comes from Hellenistic era works themselves. Or at least it comes from Greek works that surely became better known throughout the “Near East” in the wake of Alexander’s conquests.

We have some evidence that there were popular stories told about Mesopotamian kings by word of mouth, folk-tales if you will, throughout the centuries.

That the non-literate public not only told, but also shaped tales about the past is, I think, shown by the curious relationship between the stories of the young Sargon of Akkad and Cyrus the Great. (Drews 388)

The stories, Drews points out, that are told about a much earlier (by centuries) king Sargon of Assyria are almost an exact prefiguring of stories that came to be told about Cyrus —

  • Both were abandoned by their parents
  • Both were raised by lowly parents and became gardeners
  • Both became cupbearers to the king
  • Both replaced the king they served

Robert Drews reasons that the fact that the same story can be told about two different figures in different times indicates that the story was passed on by oral tradition. If the details such as the identity of the hero had been a matter exclusively of written record it is hard to understand how such a detail could be changed. Drews further points to “the same story” told by an even earlier Mesopotamian hero, Lugalzagisi. The oral tradents changed the name to suit each new situation.

Let’s come forward to the Hellenistic era, or at least to Greek authors who were already “classics” by the time of Alexander’s conquests.

Xenophon was a Greek commander of mercenaries who had traversed through the Persian empire. In one of his works (written around 370 BCE — circa 160 years after the time of Cyrus) he wrote what was essentially a philosophical treatise on the qualities of an ideal ruler. The person who embodied all of his ideal attributes was Cyrus. Though his account of what became known as “The Education of Cyrus” is more philosophical and idealistic than historical-factual, he did note that

Of Cyrus himself, even now in the songs and stories of the East the record lives that nature made him most fair to look upon, and set in his heart the threefold love of man, of knowledge, and of honour. He would endure all labours, he would undergo all dangers, for the sake of glory. Blest by nature with such gifts of soul and body, his memory lives to this day in the mindful heart of ages. . . . (Xenophon, trans. Dakyns 5)

We can conclude that popular story-telling about Cyrus continued into Greek (Hellenistic) times.

What of the reality, though? What did Cyrus do that might have lent some credence to such stories? After all, after Cyrus defeated the Babylonian army (outside the city of Babylon) at Opis, …..

The Persian victor [i.e. Cyrus] followed up his massacre at Opis by receiving the surrender of Sippar and sending his general Gobryas to invest Babylon, where the defeated Babylonian king, Nabonidus, was taken prisoner. In the calm following battle and defeat, the Babylonian populace received Cyrus formally into the great capital as their new king. Cyrus accepted the surrender, cast himself in the role of divinely blessed ruler of Babylon and expressed it through sanctioning civic and sacred building-works, authorising offerings to the gods and proclaiming formally the restoration of destroyed sanctuaries and the return of their peoples. . . . Such public proclamations were part of the traditional rhetoric of Babylonian conquerors after triumph …: they guaranteed continuity to the defeated and provided a way for the local élite to collaborate with the new rulers ….

Cyrus’ achievements can only be described as spectacular: in less than thirty years, he brought a vast territory under the control of a kingdom which, at the beginning of his reign, had been tiny. He was a brilliant tactician and strategist, able to move rapidly across enormous distances, take his opponents by surprise, and make calculated use of brutal and placatory gestures. The Persians celebrated his fame in song and story . . . . His astonishing success led rapidly to the creation of innumerable popular stories, which obscured his true background: he was presented variously as the grandson of the Median king, Astyages, exposed by his jealous grandfather, brought up by humble herding folk, ultimately identified and eventually returned to his parents (Herodotus 1.107—108), and as the son of poverty stricken parents who worked his way up at the Median court and eventually overthrew the Medes . . . . Other stories abounded, according to Herodotus. They are typical of the tales told about culture-heroes and founders of great empires (e.g. Sargon of Agade … , Moses, Romulus and Remus). (Kuhrt 1995: 659-661)

I have referred to the Greek author Xenophon. Herodotus also related heroic tales of Cyrus — how he was divinely ordained to inherit universal power despite human attempts to thwart his rise. Another Greek author who wrote of Cyrus as a divinely blessed child and triumphant ruler was Ctesias, a Greek physician who tended the Persian royal family in Babylon in the 490s BCE.

It was in the Greek literature that Cyrus stood out as an obvious candidate to fulfil the retrospective role of an ideal ruler chosen by God to fulfill his

The Greek doctor, Ctesias, who worked at the Persian court in the late fifth to early fourth century,2 has Cyrus start life in the lowest stratum of Persian society, working himself up to the position of royal cup bearer, and eventually overthrowing the Median realm . . . .

2 There is now a growing consensus that Ctesias’ account reflects Persian oral traditions….

(Kuhrt 2007: 108)

Returning to the original testimony of Cyrus, moreover, we find another strong act that made him a most likely “saviour” candidate. The Cyrus Cylinder inscription borrows a line from the Babylonian creation epic (Enuma Elish) to present Cyrus as nothing less than a restorer of the intended order of the creation of the universe:

Without battle and fighting he [i.e. Marduk] let him [i.e. Cyrus] enter Babylon. He [i.e. Marduk] saved his city Babylon from its oppression.

. . . [N]obody should doubt that what is being described here is not a national disaster but a process of salvation (et ̧e-ru = ‘to save’). However, there is much more to the passage than meets the eye. As Hanspeter Schaudig has pointed out, we have here a thinly-veiled allusion to a line from tablet vi of Enu-ma eliš, the Babylonian ‘Epic of Creation’, as it is often called. The relevant passage comes near the end of Enu-ma eliš and forms part of the solemn list of Marduk’s names. It sums up the defeat of Tiamat …, the creation of the world … and the building of Babylon …. The Persian takeover, in the allusive words of the Cyrus Cylinder, becomes part of this grand cosmic drama. Far from disrupting the familiar patterns of Babylonian thought and culture, it presents itself as the moment of ultimate restoration, not only of the city’s political and religious institutions, but of the cosmic order more generally.

In the Cyrus Cylinder, then, the Persians cast their conquest of Babylon as the final act in the cosmic drama which, to Babylonian readers, guaranteed the very existence of their universe.24

24 In case it be objected that the Cylinder was a building inscription and cannot therefore have had any real impact on Babylonian audiences, we need to remember that archive copies were kept of important building inscriptions, and that the extant text of the Cyrus Cylinder may have been just such a copy: Schaudig (2001), 46. More generally, Kuhrt and Sherwin-White (1991), 74 emphasize the public nature of major building inscriptions such as the Cyrus Cylinder.

(Haubold 2007: 51f)

In another Babylonian text from the time of ….. Cyrus is said to have followed in the footsteps of Nebuchadnezzar insofar as his piety in restoring Babylon and the cult of its god to the highest prominence. What could a comparison with Nebuchadnezzar mean? Nebuchadnezzar, in Greek culture, was on a par with the god-man hero Heracles. Perhaps not quite as grandiose as a Restorer of the Cosmic Order, but a powerful figure in the minds of Greeks and others nonetheless.

The Babylonian record comparing Cyrus with Nebuchadnezzar: . . . for the inhabitants of Babylon, Cyrus declared the state of peace. . . . Big cattle he slaughtered with the ax, he slaughtered many aslu-sheep, incense he put on the censer, the regular offerings for the Lord of Lords he ordered increased, he constantly prayed to the gods, prostrated on his face. To act righteously is dear to his heart.  To repair the city of Babylon he conceived the idea and he himself took up hoe, spade and water basket and began to complete the wall of Babylon. The original plan of Nebuchadnezzar the inhabitants executed with a willing heart. (Livius.org)

[W]hen Cyrus marched into Babylon, the priests of Marduk declared him a new Nebuchadnezzar in the so-called Persian Verse Account, a pamphlet against Nabonidus. It was not necessary to be of Babylonian descent/come from Babylon in order to impersonate Nebuchadnezzar. It was rather the other way round: Cyrus became legitimately Babylonian by acting like a new Nebuchadnezzar. . . . . (Haubold 2022: 80)

And how did Nebuchadnezzar act — at least according to Hellenistic writers?

Nebuchadnezzar’s importance as a model king would have been evident to any Babylonian readers of Berossus: for them, he was a national hero. It would have been less obvious to Greeks, who could read about him neither in Ctesias nor Herodotus. Things changed under the Seleucids, with Megasthenes comparing Nebuchadnezzar favourably to Heracles.32

32 FGrH 715 F1. Megasthenes’ claim may owe something to traditions about Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Tyre, imagined as the city of Heracles/Melqart.

(Haubold 2007: 112)

I don’t have the Jacoby fragment cited but there is the following freely available online (Megasthenes was a Hellenistic author around 300 BC):

Abydenus, in his history of the Assyrians, has preserved the following fragment of Megasthenes, who says: That Nabucodrosorus, having become more powerful than Hercules, invaded Libya and Iberia, and when he had rendered them tributary, he extended his conquests over the inhabitants of the shores upon the right of the sea. 

Cyrus in the minds of Hellenistic authors and audiences was clearly a prime candidate to be a Messianic figure ordained to restore the Judeans to their “homeland”.

Subsequent Persian kings were only represented decline. Plato’s great myth of Atlantis is widely interpreted as referring to the once-great Persian empire that only declined in its glories and virtues after Cyrus. The Persian monarch Xerxes is even depicted by Herodotus as reviving the ancient Trojan War when he wrote of the king staging a visit to Troy on the eve of his march into Greece:

As has long been recognized, the visit of Xerxes to Troy was a carefully planned piece of propaganda, designed to cast the king as the champion of Troy in the eyes of a Greek audience. . . . But . . . it is not difficult to see that what he heard, or was rumoured to have heard, was an imperial version of the epic past to match the prophecies [that] had ‘shown’ the king how he could conquer Greece. . . . .

. . . the overall message was clear enough: Xerxes had declared himself the avenger of Priam.

the invaders kept alive the idea that their campaign was a continuation of the Trojan War. (Haubold 2007: 55f)

The Trojan War in Greek minds marked the time that separated the present word of mortals from an earlier time when humans and gods directly interacted, even mating and bearing heroic offspring. If Xerxes was threatening to overturn the will of the gods that had long been decreed, Cyrus, the first Persian king, had “saved” a corrupted world and restored the will of the supreme god by fulfilling the edicts of Marduk, the god who had called him “by name” — just as Isaiah declared that Yahweh would do.

One will not be wrong in thinking that the overall tenor of these recent posts is that they suggest a probability that the Bible originated as a work of the Hellenistic era.


Drews, Robert. “Sargon, Cyrus and Mesopotamian Folk History.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 33, no. 4 (1974): 387–93.

Harmatta, J. “The Literary Patterns of the Babylonian Edict of Cyrus.” Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 19 (1971): 217–31.

Haubold, Johannes. “Berossus.” In The Romance between Greece and the East, edited by Tim Whitmarsh and Stuart Thomson, 105–16. Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Haubold, Johannes. “Memory and Resistance in the Seleucid World: The Case of Babylon.” In Cultures of Resistance in the Hellenistic East, edited by Paul J. Kosmin and Ian S. Moyer, 77–94. Oxford ; New York, NY: Oxford University Press UK, 2022.

Haubold, Johannes. “Xerxes’ Homer.” In Cultural Responses to the Persian Wars: Antiquity to the Third Millennium, edited by Emma Bridges, Edith Hall, and P. J. Rhodes, 47–63. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Kuhrt, Amélie. “Ancient Near Eastern History: The Case of Cyrus the Great of Persia.” In Understanding the History of Ancient Israel, edited by Williamson, Illustrated edition., 107–27. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press UK, 2007.

Kuhrt, Amélie. The Ancient near East  c. 3000-330 BC: Vol II. London: Routledge, 1995.

Wiesehöfer, Josef. Ancient Persia. 4th edition. London: I.B. Tauris, 2001.

Xenophon. The Education of Cyrus. Translated by Henry Graham Dakyns. London: J.M. Dent, 1914.



2024-04-22

No Evidence Cyrus allowed the Jews to Return

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

In my book collection I have a massive (both in size and weight) Reader’s Digest 1971 version of the King James 1611 translation of the Bible. On page 377, the second page into the Book of Ezra, is this image and caption:

Now these are the children of the province that went up out of the captivity, of those … whom Nebuchadnez’zar… had carried away unto Babylon, and came again unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city. Ezra 2:1

The page has other images and captions:

King Cyrus of Persia proved to be a benevolent conqueror after defeating the Babylonians in 538 B.C. He refrained from slaughtering or enslaving his foes, and issued a proclamation allowing the exiles from Judah and other countries to return to their homelands. A similar decree of Cyrus, shown at the top of this page, was found at Babylon. In it, Cyrus tells of rebuilding the temples of his vanquished enemies and restoring the people to their dwelling places. After Cyrus’ decree the exiled Jews organized their return to Judah. Those who chose to stay in Babylonia aided those who returned with “the freewill offering for the house of God” (Ezra 1:4), which must have included silver vessels much like the Persian bowl [left], excavated in Palestine. . . . .

I am sure I am not alone in having wished that the cited Cyrus Cylinder really did say what the Biblical verse placed adjacent to it said. There was always a slight discomfort over the fact that it was limited, exclusively, to a restoration in Babylon.

An ancient history textbook widely used right through to the mid 1960s introduced students to Cyrus thus:

[The author of the Psalm 137] greeted the sudden rise of Cyrus the Persian with joy. All kings, he taught, were but instruments in the hands of Yahveh, who through the Persians would overthrow the Chaldeans and return the Hebrews to their land. . . .

When the victorious Persian king Cyrus entered Babylon, the Hebrew exiles there greeted him as their deliverer. His triumph gave the Hebrews a Persian ruler. With great humanity the Persian kings allowed the exiles to return to their native land. Some had prospered in Babylonia and did not care to return, but at different times enough of them went back to Jerusalem to rebuild the city on a very modest scale and to restore the temple. (Breasted 233)

Undergraduates in the later 1960s who used the Scramuzza and MacKendrick text read the following:

Characteristically and sensationally, Cyrus liberated the men and gods who had been war prisoners. He sent most of them back home, including some of the Jews . . . . (110)

The myth has known no bounds….

Soudavar, Abolala. “Cyrus, Ben Gurion and Ben Zion.” https://www.academia.edu/34828896/Cyrus_Ben_Gurion_and_Ben_Zion.

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Was there a Mass Return of Judeans from Babylonian exile?

If the concept of a mass return from Exile were correct, then

(1) hints of it should be present in official Persian documents;

(2) traces of it should be observable in the archaeological record of Persian-Period Yehud; and

(3) a dramatic demographic decrease of Judeans in Mesopotamia should be traceable.

(Becking 7)

1 Persian Documents regarding a Return from Exile

If the mass return from Exile was a historical fact, then one might expect traces of it in official documents from Mesopotamia or Persia. The Cyrus cylinder has been interpreted as showing a liberal policy of respect toward other religions — as showing that Cyrus’s policy toward the descendants of the Judean exiles was not unique but fitted the pattern of his rule (e.g., Bickerman 1946; Ackroyd 1968: 140-41; Weinberg 1992: 40; Young 1992: 1231-32). Amelia Kuhrt, however, has made clear that the inscription is of a propagandistic and stereotypical nature (Kuhrt 1983).

You can read the linked references online but the Kuhrt article is not so easy to access so I quote here the relevant extracts: Continue reading “No Evidence Cyrus allowed the Jews to Return”


2024-04-20

Comparing Samaria and Judah/Yehud – and their religion – in Persian Times

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by Neil Godfrey

Recent posts have focussed on the case for the earliest books of the Bible being composed as late as the Hellenistic era, that is less than 300 years before Christ. The longstanding conventional wisdom has understood the first biblical narratives go back to the time of King David (around 1000 BCE) or at least to the time of the Babylonian captivity (circa 600 BCE) and that much editing of these earlier works and creation of some new ones all took place under the benign rule of the Persians (late 500s through to 330 BCE).

The very idea of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament covering creation, the patriarchs, the exodus, the giving of law) and later books depicting the conquest of Canaan, the united kingdom of David and Solomon not having at least some roots in the historical past (however much real events may have been mythologized) of the “Near East” is very hard to accept for many of us. A long held assumption has been that the thought of the Near East is in many ways so opposed to Greek or Hellenistic thought and intellectual and ethical culture that it is inconceivable to imagine the early books of the Old Testament being products of Hellenistic times and culture. Recent posts here have attempted to demonstrate that such conventional assumptions need to be questioned. New scholarship has been drawing attention to a symbiosis between Hellenism and Near Eastern cultures and I will be addressing more of that work in future posts.

Meanwhile, it is surely necessary to understand as much as possible about the various settings and cultures that are being proposed as the birthplace of the Bible. In this post I am continuing to write up what I have been learning about Persian era Samaria and Judah (known as the Persian province Yehud). Do we find in either of these places the conditions that make the production of the biblical works likely?

The beginning of Persian era Palestine

The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE and the southern kingdom appears to have come to its end at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The long term results of the respective conquests were very different from each other. Let’s compare how each region fared in the wake of their respective conquests.

I have adapted the Persian era map from Michael Wolffsohn’s Whose Holy Land? to include the eighth century BCE site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (discussed below), the site of Wadi Daliyeh and the estimated “borders” of Yehud according to archaeological finds (blue line based on article and map by Frevel and Pyschny). The original map shows the Yehud according to Ezra-Nehemiah.

Samaria from Assyrian conquest into the Persian period

In the north, the city of Samaria was made the provincial capital of the new Assyrian province. The entire region of Samaria did suffer significant population decline in the wake of Assyrian deportations of much of the population but the archaeological evidence also informs us that there was significant continuity of settlement. Assyrian destruction was not all encompassing. Large areas remained untouched, perhaps the result of surrendering rather than attempting resistance. New ethnic groups were brought in by the Assyrians but these coexisted with indigenous populations. There was no population replacement. After the Assyrian conquest much of (northern) Samaria continued to increase in population and prosperity (Knoppers 2004). Major recovery for southern Samaria had to await the Hellenistic era (Knoppers 2006).

This growth continued into the Persian period. Newly built major and minor roads no doubt facilitated this expansion:

The Achaemenid [= Persian] Period witnesses an unprecedented number of sites in the northern region, suggesting that this was a time of considerable demographic expansion. . . . Almost all of these Iron Age [= kingdom of Israel before 722 BCE] rural sites exhibit continuity into the Persian Period . . . . The western area of Samaria was intensively settled during the Achaemenid era. (Knoppers 2006: 268)

The city of Samaria itself was in the forefront of this expansion:

In Samaria, unlike in Jerusalem, one finds a fundamental continuity of settlement from the beginning of the Iron III period to the Achaemenid era. . . .

The areas around the town of Samaria were thickly settled during the Achaemenid era. . . .

The city of Samaria prospered and grew during much of the Persian era. . . . Stern (2001: 424) thinks, in fact, that Samaria was one of the most important urban areas in all of Palestine during the Achaemenid era. (Knoppers 2006: 270f)

The city’s population and material growth peaked in the Persian period with descendants of deportees from Assyrian times returning:

Surveys indicate that about half of the Iron II Israelite settlements in Manasseh, including the city of Samaria, continued to exist into the Persian period . . . ; in the Persian Period the area around Samaria was more densely populated than at any other time in history . . .

It also appears that deported Israelites or their descendants later returned to their homeland in significant numbers (Barmash 2005: 229-231).  (Leith 273f)

Judah/Yehud from Babylonian conquest into the Persian period

The destruction of Judah by the Babylonians was punitive and “fateful” — in unmistakable contrast with how Samaria fared at the hands of the Assyrians.

The immediate results of the Babylonian conquest of Judah are clear. Much of the country, especially in the west, south, and east and in the immediate envi­rons of Jerusalem, was destroyed by the foreign invaders. Archaeological exca­vations at many Judean sites show evidence of destruction that scholars have related to Nebuchadrezzar’s campaigns. Evidence for destruction extends from Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish) in the west, to Arad and environs in the south, to En-gedi and Jericho in the east. This is not to suggest, however, that every Judean city was left in ruins. Primarily those cities that served as fortress towns and where anti-Babylonian sentiment was high would have been the most likely targets for the Babylonians. One area, however, is the exception to the rule. Cities north of Jerusalem, in the traditional territory of Benjamin, suffered little or no destruction. . . . 

The destruction of most Judean cities meant a disruption in the governmen­tal apparatus as well as in the industry and economics of the country. Because soldiers profited from the spoils of war, plundering was the conqueror’s priv­ilege and the conquered’s fate. Thus one must assume that much of the peo­ple’s possessions became Babylonian spoils of war. Many cities, like Jerusalem, that had once been thriving centers were left as depleted, subsistence-level vil­lages if occupied at all. The primary economy of the country was probably reduced to a purely agricultural base.

A significant percentage of the manpower and leadership was killed off. There is no way to estimate the number of casualties who died at the hands of Babylonian troops, but it certainly would have been a sizable portion of the population, even though the Babylonians had no reputation for needless destruction and excessive killing. Nebuchadrezzar had taken a lenient attitude toward the country in 597, but no ancient ruler was very hospitable to a rebel­lious subject on the second military visit. (Miller and Hayes 479f)

Persian rulers did not improve the situation for Yehud (the name of the Persian province for the erstwhile kingdom of Judah):

The Jerusalem of the Achaemenid era has been described as a village with an administrative center. (Knoppers 2006:272)

Yehud was essentially irrelevant to the major interests of Persia:

One has to face the reduced extent of Yehûd against the background of the broader development in the Southern Levant in the 5th/4th century BCE. The marginal international importance is likewise true for the Persian period, when Yehûd achieved the status of a Persian province (at the latest) in the mid-5th century. . . . At least until the upheavals in Egypt and the loss of the control of Egypt by the Persian authority, the province of Yehûd was politically and economically more or less irrelevant. (Fravel and Psychny 4)

Transition to the Persian period is often unclear

With reference to the archaeological remains. . . .

. . .  we are still largely unable to distinguish clearly between material remains of Iron Age III (the period of Babylonian overlordship) and those of the early Persian period (in turn, this might indicate a very smooth transition from one to the other, with Persian administration remaining in fact ‘Babylonian’ for quite some time). (Uehlinger 136)

Most histories of this period focus on Palestine’s relations with Persia and to some extent Greece as the rival power to Persia. The economic impact and cultural influence of Phoenician cities is also recognized. Yet there was evidently a strong Egyptian influence in the area given the number of scarab amulets, Egyptian-style bronze statuettes and Egyptian deity representations on coins in Palestine during this same period.

In this respect, the impact of Egypt on Palestine during the 5th and particularly the 4th century . . . is too often disregarded in historical treatments of the period. (Uehlinger 136)

Evidence of Persian interest (or lack of it) in Samaria and Yehud

Images on seals and coins functioned as imperial propaganda to remind subject populations of Persian power. By comparing the locations of these finds and the particular styles of iconography archaeologists are informed about the areas of main interest to the Persians. Persian royalty appears to have little interest in stridently imposing its presence in Palestine until very late in the Persian period.

The bulk of seals and sealings discussed belongs to the second half or even last third of the Persian period, which makes the potential for Persian impact in the late 6th and earlier 5th centuries BCE even slimmer. . . .

In great contrast to other imperial administrations that had ruled in Palestine during earlier periods (Middle and New Kingdom Egypt and to some extent Assyria), the Achaemenid imperial administration apparently did not interfere in any way in the local seal production, certainly not in the engravers’ choices regarding the composition of their figurative repertoire.

Two main reasons may explain this contrast: basically, Persian interest and involvement must have been much more intense in Asia Minor than in far-off Palestine which was ‘Third World’ to the Achaemenids not worthy for investment. . . . To the extent that the physical presence of people of Persian origin was probably limited to military officers and administrators, Persian culture remained a largely foreign element in Palestine. Granted that we interpreted the incomplete evidence correctly, we could even observe a certain reluctance or reservation on behalf of Phoenician seal engravers to adopt Persian Achaemenid (even royal) figurative models, an attitude which is in strong contrast to the same craftsmen^ openness to integrate schemes from Egypt, Cyprus or Greece. (Uehlinger 171f)

Most of the seals and coins promoting Persian power that do appear come from Samaria, not Yehud.

Achaemenid iconography and other ‘Persianisms’ figure much more prominently on coins from Samaria than from anywhere else in the country. . . . It is striking that except for one item from Jericho, Yehud is not represented at all in our survey on iconographical Persianisms. (Uehlinger 173)

There is little evidence that the Persian administration was interested in interfering with local religious practices as a rule. The indication for this is the absence of specifically Persian religious or cult images on coins and seals.

We may notice in passing the total lack of specifically ‘religious’ subject matter other than ‘heroic combat’ or ‘encounter’, such as cult (worship or offering) scenes, representations of deities, divine symbols or the like, which contrasts neatly with Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian glyptic and their respective influence on Palestinian glyptic in earlier periods. This observation confirms the commonly accepted opinion that the Persian administration generally did not interfere with the religious beliefs of their subjects, certainly not by imposing nor even publicizing the worship of Persian deities, but rather aimed at favouring cultic normality in pacified provinces . . . . The one common notion which is emphatically stressed by a great proportion of seals and sealings is the heroic character of Persian kingship. (Uehlinger 175)

When we come to the fourth century BCE (note Persian rule over Palestine commenced in the late sixth century BCE) it is Samaria, the northern province, that is the leading representative of imperial power.

Yehud coinage, generally of rather poor minting quality, shows very few ‘Persianisms’, but also no particular dependency on Phoenician models. . . . In contrast, Samarian coinage is literally full of ‘Persianisms’, surpassing by far any other mint of the region in this respect. This confirms and emphasizes our conclusion based on the glyptic evidence, namely that Persian iconographical models and Achaemenid royal ideology had a particularly strong impact on 4th-century Samaria. (Uehlinger 177f)

Was this because Samarians were inherently more loyal to Persia? Or might the explanation be somewhat more complex?

Obviously these depictions are not all an expression of Samarian loyalty to the Achaemenid king and to the Persian imperial administration. One should rather suspect that the unusual emphasis betrays propaganda which may have intended to cover particular tensions in real life. The many ‘portraits’ of Persian officers point to a strong Persian military presence at Samaria. Many of these issues must have been minted by order of Persian officials stationed in the province, or of some higher authority such as Mazday the satrap. . . .

In sum, one cannot ignore that more than any other repertoire of the area, the coins of Samaria emphatically claim strong allegiance of the province to the Great King and his representatives. (Uehlinger 178f)

Comparing Samaria and Yehud culture and religion

If the archaeological evidence indeed supports such disparity between Samaria and Judah, there is no comparison, only contrast, between Samaria and Yehud (the name of the Persian province) in the Persian era. Yehud became a backwater under Persian rule.

I distinguish between ‘Samarian’ and ‘Samaritan’ studies, the latter having long been a subset of biblical studies, addressing the Jewish sect that continues to worship on Mt. Gerizim to this day. (Leith 268)

The two regions shared a common language and scripts.

The language of the [Samaria] papyri is a conservative version of Official Aramaic. The language used is virtually identical to the language employed in the fifth-century Elephantine papyri . . . . 

The hundreds of short inscriptions found in Samaria dating to the late Persian and Hellenistic Periods suggest that the Samarians wrote and spoke the same language as the Judeans did during this time. Aramaic evidently was employed, as it was in other provinces in western Asia, as the language of governance and international diplomacy. Hebrew was employed, but not restricted to, certain official or sacred purposes. The scribes of both communities employed a similar system of scripts, an Aramaic script for diplomatic and commercial activities and a Hebrew script (the so-called palaeo-Hebrew) for certain religious purposes . . . Both the Judeans and the Samarians used the two scripts as late as the Hellenistic era. (Knoppers, 273f)

The names of persons between the two provinces are similar, both pointing to a religious affiliation with Yahweh worship.

The linguistic and religious features of onomastica can be used to provide some indication of their bearers’ religious identities. One may begin by observing the large number of proper names shared with Judah. . . . 

In addition to the Yahwistic nomenclature found within the Samaria papyri, Yahwistic names have also been found on the legends of fourth-century Samarian coins. (Knoppers 2006: 275f)

There are also non-Yahwistic names, names with links to other deities, though some scholars would prefer to date these to the early Hellenistic era. Even so, one notes that they are Samarian and not from Yehud.

In contrast with the Samarian coins bearing Yahwistic appellatives, there are a few Samarian coins featuring non-Yahwistic theophorics. One Samarian coin type with the divine name ‘Zeus’ (ΙΕΥΣ) is attested, along with an image of this deity . . . On the reverse of this coin is the name ׳Jeho’anah’ (yhw’nh). On yet another coin one finds the face and short form of the name of the god ‘[Hera]cles’. . . . The appearance of these Greek deities may indicate a stronger western cultural influence in Samaria than in contemporary Yehud . . . . (Knoppers 2006: 277)

But the Yahwistic names are far more numerous:

Neither did Samaria post 722 become a majority non-Yahwistic province; the names of Samarians mentioned in the fourth-century Samaria Papyri in the fourth century are overwhelmingly Yahwistic. (Leith 274)

As for the material evidence of religious developments in these two areas, there is nothing to indicate any difference from the pre-Assyrian and pre-Babylonian monarchic periods of Israel and Judah.

There was no “religious revolution” in Yehûd or in Samaria that can be drawn from the account of the material culture. Even if there was a ‘material otherness’ of the Yehûdite material culture, Judaism was not the outcome of a revolution and a deliberate distinctiveness. (Fravel and Psychny 19)

The message is that there was cultic or religious continuity from the time both regions were independent kingdoms through to the time they became separate Persian provinces.

What did that common and long standing religious life look like?

Yahweh worship in the Kingdom of Israel continues through the Persian era

In the above context one should take special note of the evidence for the continuity of religious practices of the people of the Kingdom of Israel through to the Persian province of Samaria. We had a glimpse of aspects of the Samarian cult in an earlier post so I won’t repeat what I posted there but supplement it a little.

Around 800 BCE an Israelite settlement (from the northern kingdom of Israel) of what appears to have been a group of Israelites sent by the king of Israel to establish within the southernmost borders of the kingdom of Judah. The site is known to us as Kuntillet Ajrud (meaning “the isolated hill of the water sources”). The Kingdom of Judah had earlier established a fortress at Kadesh Barnea but this had been abandoned at the time of the Kuntillet Ajrud settlement.

Evidently, the founders of Ajrud did not want to occupy the fortress because of its Judean identity. They preferred to found a new site, in a less comfortable location with a meagre water source, 15 km off the main road, rather than settle in a place associated with a Judean tradition. (Meshel 67)

How do we know it was a distinctively (northern) Israelite site and not a (southern) Judahite one? Some of the clues:

  • Inscriptions at the site specifically document “YHWH of Samaria”
  • the site’s personal names use the Samarian “yw” as opposed to the Judean “yaho” to refer to YHWH
  • the pottery is Samarian style
  • the script is Phoenician (as used in Israel)

The site was short-lived, being abandoned by around 750 BCE.

The artwork at Kuntillet Ajrud is clearly related to the images on Samarian coins and therefore throws more light on Samarian religion of the Persian era. The images in the left column are from eighth century Kuntillet Ajrud and their comparable Samarian Persian coin images on the right.

1. Cow and calf: coin inscribed with “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah” – Symbol of mother goddess;
2. Ibexes [goats] flanking blossoming tree (see below);
3. Bes, Egypto-Phoenician dwarf deity of life and prosperity;
4. Harpist on chair; Samarian coin of nude harpist with Egyptian goddess Hathor’s headdress in front;
5. Lion – frequent image in Israelite coins; an image of Yahweh? or a goddess “mistress of lions”? (Images and notes from Leith)
Referring to the second from the top, a pair of ibex flanking a tree, Leith writes:

This motif was a common one throughout the ancient Near East for centuries, but is not a known coin motif anywhere except fourth-century Samaria. The uniqueness of the coin image and the inscribed letters Š-M-R (abbreviation for ‘Samaria’) on the coin reverse suggest this particular coin was specifically designed to communicate Samarian identity. . . .  The goat and tree motif is plausibly linked with the goddess Asherah. (Leith 276)

Here is a photo of the original image:

For clarity, here is a sketched outline of that tree:

And here is a copy of Russell Gmirkin’s recent comment:

A key aspect of the Iron II cult of Asherah was a pole or rod. A contemporary representation of this rod appears at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, where a picture of a stylized sacred tree flanked by ibexes appears on Pithos A where it is thought to represent Asherah as a fertility goddess (Leith 2014: 276; Asherah is associated with flocks of sheep or goats at Deut. 7:13; 28:4, 18, 51). This sacred tree corresponds in great detail to the blooming rod of Aaron, the symbol of his priesthood, with its buds, blossoms and almonds (Num. 17:8), which was laid up in the sacred ark in the tabernacle (Num. 17:10; cf. Heb. 9:4).

“It is difficult to imagine a more precise pictorial representation of the object described verbally in the Pentateuchal account than this drawing. The central element of the drawing plainly resembles a staff. It is adorned with six buds alternating with eight blossoms. And at the top are two elements shaped like almonds in the shell and speckled with dots that match the pockmarks typical of these shells.” (Eichler 2019: 36.)

It would appear that the Priestly author, perhaps along with Ezekiel, did not find the Asherah objectionable, and included this flowering staff among the most precious contents preserved in the sacred ark (Eichler 2019: 40-41). This sacred staff later featured in the account of Moses striking the rock to obtain water in Num. 20:1-13 (Eichler 2019: 41-45). The sacred tree flanked by rampant goats is an image that also uniquely recurs in fourth-century BCE Samarian coinage, along with other imagery also depicted at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (Leith 2014). This seems to indicate the persistence of the Asherah as revered sacred tree at a late date in Samaria.

It would appear that if we are looking at a Hellenistic provenance for the Hebrew Bible, the biblical tropes themselves go back much earlier.


Eichler, Raanan. “The Priestly Asherah.” Vetus Testamentum 69, no. 1 (January 21, 2019): 33–45.

Frevel, Christian, and Katharina Pyschny. “A ‘Religious Revolution’ in Yehûd? The Material Culture of the Persian Period as a Test Case: Introduction.” In A “Religious Revolution” in Yehûd?: The Material Culture of the Persian Period as a Test Case, edited by Christian Frevel, Katharina Pyschny, and Izak Cornelius, 1–22. Fribourg: Academic Press, 2014.

Knoppers, Gary. “In Search of Postexilic Israel: Samaria After the Fall of the Northern Kingdom.” In In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar, edited by J. Day, 150–80. JSOTSup 406. London: T. & T. Clark Continuum, 2004.

Knoppers, Gary N. “Revisiting the Samarian Question in the Persian Period.” In Judah and the Judeans in the Persian Period, edited by Oded Lipschits and Manfred Oeming, 265–90. Winona Lake, Ind: Eisenbrauns, 2006.

Leith, Mary Joan Winn. “Religious Continuity in Israel/Samaria: Numismatic Evidence.” In A “Religious Revolution” in Yehûd?: The Material Culture of the Persian Period as a Test Case, edited by Christian Frevel, Katharina Pyschny, and Izak Cornelius, 267–304. Fribourg: Academic Press, 2014.

Meshel, Zeev, Shmuel Aḥituv, and Liora Freud. Kuntillet ʻAjrud (Ḥorvat Teman): An Iron Age II Religious Site on the Judah-Sinai Border. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2012.

Miller, J. Maxwell, and John H. Hayes. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. 2nd edition. Louisville, Ky. London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.

Uehlinger, Christoph. “‘Powerful Persianisms’ in Glyptic Iconography of Persian Period Palestine.” In The Crisis of Israelite Religion: Transformation of Religious Tradition in Exilic and Post-Exilic Times, edited by Bob Becking and Marjo C. A. Korpel, 134–82. Brill, 1999.



2024-04-15

Samaria in the Persian Period

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Our quest is to test the thesis that the earliest books of the Bible were written or at least heavily redacted and supplemented in the Persian period. To that end we have been trying to understand what Persian era candidate “biblical” societies were like. We’ve looked at Judeans in Persian times according to the evidence in both the Persian province of Yehud and their “brethren” in Egypt, so for the next stop we will have a look at the “Samarians”. Samarians may seem unusual against our more familiar Samaritans . . .

The Samarians (no “t”) of the Persian period are not to be confused with the Samaritans of the first century CE. (Betlyon 27)

We are talking about the people who inhabited the “biblical northern kingdom of Israel” after the biblical united kingdom of David and Solomon divided between “Israel” in the north and “Judah” in the south. After the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom they established in its place the province of “Samerina”, but in subsequent Persian times we speak of the Samarians.

Samaria, though subservient to imperial overlords, continued to be a major administrative centre.

When Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, Cyrus and his successors retained Samaria as the administrative center in the “Province Beyond the River [Euphrates]” and placed it under the governorship of Sanballat. Excavators have discovered a large garden area (.25 m-thick; 45 x 50 m) that surrounded the district governor’s palace there. A fifth-century Athenian coin, three Sidonian coins from the reign of Abdastart I (370-358 BCE), fourteen Aramaic ostraca, plus significant quantities of pottery imported from Aegean centers during the late sixth to late fourth centuries BCE . . . all attest to the solvency of the Ephraimite economy . . . . (Tappy 583)

Coins

Ancient coinage in general can provide significant information not only about the economic, but also the political, cultural and religio-historical state of affairs of a city or province. Coins were commissioned by those in power, were often used to communicate specific values and ideas and served as mass medium in Antiquity. Accordingly, the images appearing on them were not randomly chosen but selected with great precision and reflect a certain ‘spirit’. (Wyssmann 222)

The sampling here is taken from Wyssmann’s study and were selected on the basis of having been more probable than not minted in the province of Samaria itself. The inscriptions on Samarian coins were in Aramaic, Paleo-Hebrew and Greek letters. Greek gods appear along with names of Persian satraps and Samarian governors.

These images have been selected from Wyssmann, Patrick: “The Coinage Imagery of Samaria and Judah in the Late Persian Period” 2014.

Man wearing Persian dress with bird’s tail and two pairs of wings. A “human-headed bird deity”?
Crowned bearded man on throne reminds us of the Persian king. But the adjacent inscription ZEYΣ (=ZEUS). Some scholars claim ‘Zeus’ refers to the Greek name of Baal or Baalshamen and Yhwh respectively who were already equated in Samaria in pre-Persian times.
Draped bearded man on throne holding blossom. This is an adaptation of Baal of Tarsos. The name behind him is Hananyah. A Samarian governor with a theophoric name (including Yah [=Yahweh]) thus had no trouble being associated with Baal.
The inscription between the two figures = Jeroboam (a Samarian governor). Some scholars have interpreted the scene as Jeroboam (right) being blessed by the (naked) god on the left. Or it might be a scene of worship of a local god (Yhwh?)
Some interpret the woman to be Aphrodite, others a city goddess, Tyche.
Common female heads were Athena, Arethusa and Gorgo Medusa.
Heracles, who was connected with the Phoenician god Melqart.

The Wadi Daliyeh finds

The Samaria papyri from Wadi Daliyeh provide us with precious information regarding some of the inhabitants of Samaria, including some of its officials.  (Dušek 2020, 2)

The cache of papyri, coins, jewelry, pottery were deposited in a cave in Wadi Daliyeh by people fleeing from Samaria as Alexander the Great was on his way back there after the city had rebelled against his recent conquest by burning his appointed governor alive (according to Josephus). Those who hid in the cave were probably found and suffocated by a fire Alexander’s troops lit at the cave’s entrance.

Wadi ed-Daliyeh in relation to Samaria: From researchgate

The following notes are taken from Dušek 2007:

  • Names on the papyri contain theophoric elements relating to Yahweh (mostly) but also El, Ab, Nabu, Shamash, Sahar, Šalman, Bel, Baga, Sîn, Baal, Isis, Ilahi et Qôs.
  • Clay seals include images of Hermes, Heracles and Perseus.

The following images are from Lapp, Paul W., and Nancy L. Lapp, eds. Discoveries in the Wadi Ed-Daliyeh. American Schools of Oriental Research, 1974.

Possibly the Greek hero Jason
Heracles, nude, with club on the left and fighting a lion.
Scarab with goddess wearing crown of Egyptian goddess Hathor, incense altar, Horus hawk, papyrus flower.

According to the onomastics of the Wadi Daliyeh manuscripts, the population of the province of Samaria would have been quite diverse: most of the names are Yahwist; in the other names, the theophoric elements El, Ab, Šamaš, Sahar, Bel, Baga, Sîn, Nabu, Šalman, Ba’al, Isis, Ilahi and Qôs refer to West Semitic, North Arabic, Aramaic onomastics, Hebrew, Babylonian, Phoenician, Egyptian, Persian and Idumean. We also identified a possible Assyrian name and a name expressing ethnic origin. As we have suggested, not all of these people were likely inhabitants of the province of Samaria; in certain cases it may have been merchants who were traveling, or slaves sold in Samaria, but originating from other provinces. The variety of the population of the province of Samaria can be explained on the one hand by the great prosperity of the region and by political stability which favored settlement in the territory of the province, and on the other hand by the deportations of populations in the province of Samaria before the Persian era. (Dušek 2007, 601 – translation)

Mount Gerizim

One of the most astonishing discoveries was unearthed by a team of archaeologists led by Yitzhak Magen, who excavated a site in Samaria at Jabal al-Tur, one of the three peaks of Mount Gerizim, from 1982–2006. They identified a Yahwist sacred precinct active from the 5th century BCE until its destruction in the mid–late 2nd century BCE.4

4 It is unclear if this sacred precinct included an actual temple building, despite the suggestions of the excavators in Magen, Mount Gerizim Excavations Volume II . For further discussion, see Pummer, “Was There an Altar?”. (Economou 155)

That’s another topic, though.


Betlyon, John W. “A People Transformed Palestine in the Persian Period.” Near Eastern Archaeology 68, no. 1/2 (2005): 4–58.

Dušek, J. Les Manuscrits Araméens Du Wadi Daliyeh Et La Samarie Vers 450-332 Av. J.-C. Leiden ; Boston: BRILL, 2007.

Dušek, Jan. “The Importance of the Wadi Daliyeh Manuscripts for the History of Samaria and the Samaritans.” Religions 11, no. 2 (January 29, 2020): 63. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11020063.

Economou, Michael. “The Aramaic Inscriptions from Mount Gerizim: Production, Identity, and Resistance.” Journal of Ancient Judaism 15, no. 1 (October 16, 2023): 154–73. https://doi.org/10.30965/21967954-bja10032.

Lapp, Paul W., and Nancy L. Lapp, eds. Discoveries in the Wadi Ed-Daliyeh. American Schools of Oriental Research, 1974. http://archive.org/details/discoveriesinwad0041delb.

Lemche, Niels Peter. “Samaritans in History and Tradition.” In Samaritans and Jews in History and Tradition, by Ingrid Hjelm. Taylor & Francis, 2024.

Tappy, Ron E. The Archaeology of Israelite Samaria. Volume 2: The Eighth Century BCE. Brill, 2001.

Wyssmann, Patrick. “The Coinage Imagery of Samaria and Judah in the Late Persian Period.” In A “Religious Revolution” in Yehûd? The Material Culture of the Persian Period as a Test Case, edited by Christian Frevel, Katharina Pyschny, and Izak Cornelius, 221–66. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 267. Fribourg: Academic Press, 2014. https://www.academia.edu/9216977/The_Coinage_Imagery_of_Samaria_and_Judah_in_the_Late_Persian_Period.



2024-04-12

No Evidence Jerusalem/Judea had a “Writing Culture” in Persian times — Israel Finkelstein

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

I have transcribed the last ten minutes of the archaeologist Israel Finkelstein’s December 2022 Conference presentation because it dovetails with my recent posts and discussion points about the evidence relating to the composition of biblical texts in the Persian era.

If Jerusalem — nor the whole of Judea — had a “Writing Culture” in Persian times, we need to take a few steps back from the conventional view in biblical studies that it was in the Persian period that our principle biblical books were taking shape.

Scholars have long relied upon the texts of Ezra-Nehemiah and some chapters of the prophets to conclude that priests and scribes connected to the Jerusalem temple were busily shaping the biblical material (especially the Pentateuch) during this time.

Next to the biblical sources that are set explicitly in the Persian period, scholarship generally dates several other writings or parts of biblical books to this period. From the plethora of the material we will simply look at one (significant) example: the completion of the Jewish law in the form of the Pentateuch, the Torah of Moses, a document of which more than half was written or composed in the post‐monarchial period, i.e. during neo‐Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic times. Especially the multiple‐layered literary stratum, commonly called “Priestly Writing”, is best explained in reference to the second temple period. (Kratz, Biblical Sources 141)

Do archaeological finds support or cast doubt on that scenario? To ask a disturbing question: Is it more likely that the biblical narratives were completely unknown until after the conquests of Alexander the Great opened the way to Greek cultural domination of the “Near East”? But Israel Finkelstein does not broach that question. His conference presentation was limited to what the archaeological evidence can tell us about Jerusalem and Yehud (the Persian province name for Judea) in the Persian time slot.

The minute-and-second markers are approximate. I have used square brackets and dots to substitute for words I could not pick up from the soundtrack of the video. The images I have added were used by Finkelstein in his slide presentation but I have taken them from other publications where possible. The video presentation is available at the University of Haifa’s Yahwism under the Achaemenid empire site – scroll down to select the Prof. Israel Finkelstein (University of Haifa) : Archaeology’s Black Hole: Jerusalem and Yehud/Judea in the Persian and Early Hellenistic Periods link.

My transcript:

23 min:40 sec

As I have already suggested, Yehud was ruled from the small temple village in Jerusalem which was located on the temple mount and which had a limited population. Still, its status as the capital of the province . . . I mean we have to admit it’s clear from the Elephantine papyrus, from the seal impressions, and seemingly also from the high level of silver in the Yehud coins which seems to be related to the role in the temple economy. 

Based on the interpretation of the literary sources, the population of Persian period Yehud had been estimated to have numbered up to 150,000 souls.

24:30

More reasonable archaeology-based studies have estimated a population of the province to have been between 20 and 30,000 people. Yet the latter number, too, seems to be somewhat inflated. Scholars use too big density coefficients, that is to say people per built up hectare, to be estimates for the population of Jerusalem that is not realistic archaeologically, and too big estimates for the extension of Yehud.

I repeat, my own figures are based on scrutiny of the archaeological data per se yet limiting it to the area from north of Beth Zur to Mizpeh and from the Dead Sea to the border between the Highlands and the Shephalah.

Finkelstein, Israel. “The Territorial Extent and Demography of Yehud/Judea in the Persian and Early Hellenistic Periods.” Revue Biblique (1946-) 117, no. 1 (2010): 39–54.

As far as I can judge, and you can see on the screen, the total bit of area in Yehud is estimated around 60 hectares. 

25:30

Employing a density coefficient of about 200 people to one built-up hectare the population of the entire province of Yehud in the Persian period including Jerusalem would be about 12000 people, comparable to the population of Jerusalem alone in the late Iron II [i.e. the period of the presumed biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah before the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE] and the late Hellenistic period. 

This comes to about 15%, only, of the population of the Highlands part of Iron IIB and C Judah. These demographic estimates work against scholars who tend to belittle the scope of the catastrophe that befell Judah in 586 BC. At the same time they contradict the notion of massive waves of returnees to Yehud. They also seem to lessen the importance of the population of Yehud relative to the elite deportees in Babylonia. In the production of exilic and post-exilic biblical texts and in shaping the nature of early post-exilic Judaism.

26:30

Material Culture

So let’s turn to material culture.

The demographic deterioration which I have just described and the poor state of the population of Yehud find expression in two items of material culture. 

First, the disappearance of elaborate rock cut burials, especially in Jerusalem, but also in the countryside of Judah. These indicate that compared to the Iron II c elite groups shrink dramatically. 

Second, the evidence for scribal activity. Probably even more important.

Faigenbaum-Golovin, Shira, Arie Shaus, Barak Sober, Yana Gerber, Eli Turkel, Eli Piasetzky, and Israel Finkelstein. “Literacy in Judah and Israel: Algorithmic and Forensic Examination of the Arad and Samaria Ostraca.” Near Eastern Archaeology 84, no. 2 (June 1, 2021): 148–58. https://doi.org/10.1086/714070.

So, whilst scribal activity in late monarchic Judah is demonstrated by the corpora of ostraca of […] Arad, Lachish, Uza, Malhata, Kadesh-barnea and other places. The spread of literacy is also attested in the proliferation of the inscribed seals and seal impressions.

27:30

The most striking evidence for the dissemination of literacy in Judah comes from the work of the Digital Epigraphy team at the Tel Aviv University which has been directed by Eli Piasetzky and me. Algorithmic based comparison of handwriting identified five authors in sixteen Arad ostraca with enough data for analysis representing the entire echelon of the Judahite military system down to the assistant quartermaster of the fort.

Faigenbaum-Golovin, Shira, Arie Shaus, Barak Sober, Yana Gerber, Eli Turkel, Eli Piasetzky, and Israel Finkelstein. “Literacy in Judah and Israel: Algorithmic and Forensic Examination of the Arad and Samaria Ostraca.”

Now forensic examination by the entire chief handwriting expert of Israel’s police extended the number of authors of these sixteen ostraca even farther. This shows that the recognition of the power of writing spread in the Judahite administration far beyond temple and palace. 

28:30

Late monarchic Judah became what I can describe (all of us can describe I suppose) as a “writing society”. This was probably the end outcome of the century when Judah was dominated by Assyria and was incorporated into the sphere of the Assyrian global economy, administration and culture. 

This impressive evidence for scribal infrastructure in Judah disappeared – I repeat – disappeared after the 586 BC destruction. In the Babylonian and Persian period the southern highlands show almost no evidence of Hebrew – underline Hebrew – inscriptions. In fact, the only meagre evidence comes from a few letters on a few Yehud coins which date to the fourth century. And coins can hardly attest in my opinion to general scribal activity. 

29:30

This means that not a single linguistic inscription is known for the period between 586 and 350, not an ostracon, nor a seal, not a seal impression, nor a bulla. 

In short, there is no evidence for Hebrew writing culture in Yehud

One could argue for production of literary works on papyri in the temple. (I put in this picture only as an example.)

This is possible of course, though I find it extremely difficult that nothing of this activity leaked to other media of writing. I’m not suggesting here that the knowledge of writing Hebrew disappeared altogether, because such a statement would contradict the revival of Hebrew in the second century Hasmonean state. But scribal activity declined dramatically. This should come as no surprise. 

30:30

The destruction of Judah brought about the collapse of the kingdom’s bureaucracy and the deportation of many of the educated intelligentsia, the literati. The vinedressers and [ploughmen] who “remained in the land” (to use the biblical expression) were hardly capable of producing written documents.


Excursus: Bethel

Before I close I wish to briefly refer to Bethel – outside the territory of Yehud. Since Bethel has been mentioned in scholarly discussions as the “repository” of biblical texts, mainly northern ones in the Babylonian and Persian period. And I refer for instance to a very important article by Knauf [I am deducing that the link points to the article Finkelstein is referencing.]

A few years ago Lily Singer-Avitz and I revisited the finds with … site. All the published reports and the unpublished in storage in Jerusalem and in Pittsburgh. We actually went to Pittsburgh to look at the pottery. 

31:30

The results of our investigation indicated that the settlement history of this site was not continuous as held by the excavators based on an uncritical reading of the biblical text by the excavators. Rather it was characterized by oscillations, with two periods of strong activity in the Iron I, Iron IIB and Hellenistic periods; two periods of decline, in the Late Iron IIA and Iron IIC, and two periods of probable abandonment in the Early Iron IIA and more significantly in the Babylonian and Persian periods. 

This evidence cannot be brushed aside as stemming from deficiencies in the excavations, as significant sectors of this small mound, bigger than [. . .?]  have been excavated. They did not yield Persia period finds.

32:30

So, the meaning of this:

The data presented here, the archaeology of Jerusalem, the settlement and demographic situation in Yehud and the poor evidence for scribal activity cast doubt on the notion of major activity of composition of biblical texts in Jerusalem in the Persian period. 

My humble advice is twofold.

First, to try to date as much material as possible to periods in Judah-Judea that demonstrate widespread scribal activity and literacy in all media and all forms of inscriptions – that is, the later phases of the Iron Age and the late Hellenistic period after 200 BC, perhaps even later [….?] For lack of time I refrain from dealing with this question in detail.

33:30

My second advice is that for the era between 600/586 and 200 BC, especially the Babylonian and Persian periods to place the compilation of as much material as possible in Babylonia and in Egypt. This has recently been advocated by Thomas Römer my friend in the footsteps of others and others.  Of course I accept that there must have been some continuity in the production of literary works in […?]  One can imagine for instance a secluded, educated priestly group near the temple. But even this is not an eloquent solution, as I mentioned before would have expected something from this scribal activity to leak to daily life, and nothing did. In short, I too am tantalized by this fact and can only urge scholars not to ignore the archaeological evidence despite the fact that at times it is mainly negative and even if it threatens to shatter fad-driven theories. 

34:30

And what about the armies under the Achaemenid empire? As I said in the beginning of my talk, with evidence coming solely from military texts (mostly) and with no clue from archaeology I would only advise that we be exceedingly cautious in addressing this thing, too.

—o0o—


2024-04-11

Questioning the Hellenistic Date for the Hebrew Bible — continuing

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by Neil Godfrey

I am continuing here with my responses to criticisms raised on the earlywritings forum. The next objection raised was:

I can’t help feeling that proponents of a Hellenistic origin of the Old Testament must postulate conditions in the early Hellenistic period for which (at least IMO) we have no direct evidence and which (at least IMO) are prima-facie improbable, but which are necessary in order for the Old Testament to be produced at that time.

My response:

I think the reverse is actually the case. The Hellenistic era hypothesis is grounded in the normative approach to evidence that we expect to find among historians of any other field.

1. No independent evidence for….

There is no independent evidence, archaeological or literary, for the existence of the biblical literature prior to the Hellenistic period. There is no “postulate” there — it’s the reality, as we know. (Of course that fact alone does not disprove the existence of biblical literature prior to the Hellenistic era, but nor is it a fact that should be ignored.)

2. Evidence exists for….

The independent evidence prior to the Hellenistic era (including the Persian era) that we do have actually witnesses against knowledge of any of the biblical literature (e.g. Elephantine). I suggest that the circularity enters when one begins with the assumption that there was some Pentateuchal type literature and that the persons who left us the pre-hellenistic evidence probably had it in mind — only did not see fit to inscribe it in the data that has come down to us. Or the surviving evidence was written by a person (Herodotus) who unfortunately wrote a few years too soon before the Pentateuchal cult developments were under way in Palestine.

To interrupt my reply for a moment…. I have been posting some of that evidence in the past few days. Here is another quotation from Reinhard Kratz that elaborates on the above point. It begins by pointing out that the idea of “biblical Judaism” simply must be seen as an anomaly in the light of existing evidence:

Contemporary scholarship often considers the Judean colony at Elephantine an exception that proves the rule. Some contend this religious diversity first emerged in Egypt, where military service brought Jews into close connection with Arameans who venerated the god Bethel (cf. Jer. 48:13) as well as the Queen of Heaven, also attested in pre-exilic Judah (cf. Jer. 7:18; 44:15ff.). Others, by contrast, assert the Judeans of Elephantine preserved and transmitted an older, pre-exilic form of syncretistic Yahwism imported from northern Palestine, where—as the Hebrew Bible contends—Israelite Yhwh devotion alloyed with elements of Canaanite and Aramean religion. Yet a different explanation seems far more reasonable to me: rather than Elephantine and the Judeans of Egypt, it was the Hebrew Bible and biblical Judaism that were the exception to the rule, even into the Persian period. Accordingly, the situation at Elephantine would typify Judaism of the Persian epoch, a standard manifestation not only in the Israelite–Samarian region but also in Judah itself.

Despite drawing that conclusion from the data/facts available, Kratz still finds a place for “biblical Judaism” — surely a speculative notion given the absence of evidence, and an unlikely one at that given that we have no way from the available evidence to see how such an anomaly could have arisen:

Biblical Judaism, then, would stand as one specific faction’s ideal. By no means presupposed by all Judeans or Yhwh-devotees during the post-state period, this ideal would have developed slowly and alongside other forms in pre-exilic and post-exilic times, achieving general acceptance only in the Hellenistic-Roman era. Accordingly, the situation at Elephantine would typify Judaism of the Persian epoch, a standard manifestation not only in the Israelite–Samarian region but also in Judah itself. Biblical Judaism, then, would stand as one specific faction’s ideal. By no means presupposed by all Judeans or Yhwh-devotees during the post-state period, this ideal would have developed slowly and alongside other forms in pre-exilic and post-exilic times, achieving general acceptance only in the Hellenistic-Roman era.

Kratz returns to underscoring the evidence that stands against his speculation:

Objections to this interpretation of the evidence might consider the archives of Elephantine, largely documents from daily life, incomparable to the biblical literature in terms of genre, which could then prohibit any broader conclusions on Judaism at the time. However, the conceptions and norms of biblical literature — had they won validity in the first place — would have certainly found reflection in one way or another in the realm of everyday life and therefore in the practical texts of everyday life, especially in the sphere of religion and cultic practice. As already shown above, they reflect no such norms and concepts. Moreover, not only practical but also literary texts have surfaced among the papyri from Elephantine. Though only two in number, these literary texts fully compete with biblical literature in terms of genre and literary quality. Concerning personal conduct and its compatibility with the demands of biblical literature, common divine veneration provides an unambiguous instance. In Egypt, as in Palestine, Yahu/Yhwh was undoubtedly the highest god, i.e., the “God of Heaven.” Nevertheless, the documents from Elephantine clearly show that other divine beings and even deities received veneration alongside Yahu himself. Communication with the deities of other peoples developed easily and informally as well. (Kratz 143)

Gard Granerød likewise continues to maintain the existence of the religion, or at least a “dimension” of the Judean religion, despite the evidence:

Again, what was Judaean religion in the Persian period like? Indeed, its centre was the god YHWH/YHW/YHH. However, the Judaean religion had many facets, that is, it had many dimensions, above all because it was directed towards multiple places. Thus, from a religio-historical point of view, poly-Yahwism continued to be a characteristic of Judaean religion even in the Persian period. (Granerød 339)

Es gibt im Judentum von Elephantine nicht nur keinerlei Hinweis auf die Existenz einer »Bibel«, es gibt im Gegenteil deutliche Hinweise auf die Nicht-Existenz einer Bibel. Als es die Tora dann als solche gab, macht sie sich auch bemerkbar: seit ca. 375 ist die Münzprägung von Yehud/Jerusalem anikonisch, das Bilderverbot ist in Kraft. Die Münzen von Samaria bleiben ikonisch, denn auch die Tora ist noch nicht so eindeutig monotheistisch, wie ihre Rezeptionsgeschichte es nahelegt. Als Kompromiß vereinigt die Tora den impliziten Monotheismus der P-Tradition (es gibt nur einen Gott, aber er hat verschiedene Namen bei und verschiedene Beziehungen zu der Menschheit insgesamt, den Abraham-Völkern und Israel) mit dem programmatischen Henotheismus der D-Tradition (die nachdrückliche Forderung, Jhwh allein zu verehren macht nur Sinn in einem Kontext, in dem die Verehrung anderer Götter eine reale Möglichkeit darstellt). Aber damit beginnt ein ganz neues Kapitel der Religionsgeschichte Israels. Das weitere Geschick der vor biblischen Juden von Elephantine ist uns unbekannt; ihre Geschichte endet hier.  (Knauf’s original text)

Ernst Knauf, however, is surely right to draw conclusions that the evidence alone will justify:

Not only is there no indication in Elephantine Judaism of the existence of a “Bible,” there is, on the contrary, clear evidence of the non-existence of a Bible. When the Torah existed as such, it also makes itself felt: since about 375 the coinage of Yehud/Jerusalem is aniconic, the prohibition of images is in force. The coins of Samaria remain iconic, for even the Torah is not yet as clearly monotheistic as its reception history suggests. As a compromise, the Torah unites the implicit monotheism of the P tradition (there is only one God, but he has different names with and different relationships to humanity at large, the Abrahamic peoples, and Israel) with the programmatic henotheism of the D tradition (the emphatic demand to worship Yhwh alone makes sense only in a context in which the worship of other gods is a real possibility). But with this a whole new chapter of Israel’s religious history begins. The further fate of the pre-biblical Jews of Elephantine is unknown to us; their story ends here.  (Knauf 187 – translation)

Resuming my initial reply on the earlywritings forum….

3. The conventional eras and the “hermeneutic circle”

The conventional model of the Documentary Hypothesis has been demonstrated to be based on invalid reasoning. This error came about as a result of the bias of assuming from the outset that there was some historical core behind the OT narratives and then seeking to place strands of the OT in a diachronic order that matched that presumed historical core. (e.g. Wellhausen placed the P source last because it represented a “legalistic” response to a more “spiritual” religion of an earlier time, mirroring the general Christian assumption at the time that “good Judaism” degenerated over time into “Pharisaic legalism”.) Indeed there are many arguments based on testing biblical literature with pre-hellenistic scripts and language and so forth, but these all arise from the above fallacy, I suggest.

4. Evidence also exists for….

Our earliest independent evidence (both archaeological and literary) for the existence of any of the biblical literature is in the Hellenistic era. The scrolls found in the caves of Qumran.

5. Conclusion:

It is prima facie reasonable to begin our investigation into conditions in the Hellenistic era to see if they can explain the appearance of the biblical literature (not only its physical existence but its genres, languages, ideas, narratives, laws, etc.) and how these conditions compare with those extant in earlier times. — Always balancing those inquiries into earlier times against #2 and #3 above.

I followed up the above reply with an extract from a article that compares the methodological errors of Pentateuchal study with something similar that once occurred in Classics:

Concerning Pentateuch research, Eckart Otto has recently posed the question: “What went wrong in the last two hundred years . . .?” . . . . It is of greatest importance when somebody who belongs to the most important Pentateuch researchers asks such a fundamental question. . …

Something similar has happened to the scholarship of Roman Law. After decades of hunting interpolations of the classical Roman Law in the Corpus Iuris Civilis, about 30 years ago the legal historians became aware that there was something wrong in the foundations or, to be more precise, in the methods and assumptions. . . .

Nowadays everybody asks themselves how such brilliant scholars could have fallen into the trap of arbitrariness and uncontrolled subjectivity in this field of research.

In my opinion, a similar turning point has come for Pentateuch research now.

Armgardt, Matthias. “Why a Paradigm Change in Pentateuch Research Is Necessary – The Perspective of Legal History“, in: Matthias Armgardt, Benjamin Kilchör, Markus Zehnder (Eds.), Paradigm Change in Pentateuchal Research, 2019, P.79.


Granerød, Gard, and Granerod. Dimensions of Yahwism in the Persian Period: Studies in the Religion and Society of the Judaean Community at Elephantine. Berlin ; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016.

Knauf, Ernst Axel. “Elephantine Und Das Vor-Biblische Judentum.” In Religion Und Religionskontakte Im Zeitalter Der Achämeniden, edited by Reinhard G. Kratz, 179–88. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlaghaus, 2002.

Kratz, Reinhard G. Historical and Biblical Israel: The History, Tradition, and Archives of Israel and Judah. Translated by Paul Michael Kurtz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.



2024-04-10

Judah and Samaria in Persian Times — the Evidence (and a way out of a quandary)

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Having surveyed what the archaeological evidence tells us about religious practices of the Judeans in Elephantine (see the previous post) let’s now compare the evidence for Judah and Samaria in the same period. This time I am quoting only two sources, a chapter by Reinhard G. Kratz in A Companion to the Achaemenid Empire and a refreshingly new perspective from Annette Yoshiko Reed in her book Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism.

We saw in the Elephantine post the slide that sums up all that archaeology has given us and it’s nix. But Kratz finds a few epigraphical sources before turning to the biblical literature.

Epigraphical Sources

Inscribed stamps and seals attest to some external trade. They inform us that the region was called Yehud (yh, yhd, yhwd). Names of some governors are preserved. Samaria and Elephantine were fortress centres (p. 136) so Kratz suggests we can assume the administrative centre of Yehud was also a fortress. (He may be nudged to make that comparison because that is what Nehemiah 2:8; 7:2 attests.) On the basis of the Elephantine letters we can conclude that Jerusalem had a high priest and other priests as well as nobles and other officials.

There is a coin depicting a deity on a winged wheel. Not quite what we expected to find from the land of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Meshorer, Ya’akov. A Treasury of Jewish Coins. Amphora Books, 2001. p.2

We learn something of the ethnic makeup of the population from ostraca inscribed with personal names. There are names containing a form of Yhwh and El, as well as Aramaic, Phoenician, Edomite and Arabian personal and divine names. Three temples or sanctuaries are also mentioned: The Temple/House of Uzzah, … of Yahu, … of Nabu.

Apparently the cultic worship of the Judean‐Samarian deity Yahu was not limited to the “place that Yhwh will chose” (Deut. 12) during the fourth century BCE. The historical constellation represented in the epigraphic material appears not to differ from the one of the Judeans at Elephantine … or from the (Israelite) worshippers of Yhwh in the Province of Samaria. (Kratz 135)

North of Jericho have been found papyri that are . . .

. . . private deeds that first and foremost deal with the selling of slaves . . . The clay bullae and coins are of interest because of their iconography. Here too, the minting shows different (Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, and Greek) cultural influences and motifs, amongst them representations of deities and naked men. Especially significant is a coin that shows a portrait and inscription of the god Zeus on one side and has a Yahwistic name on the reverse . . . (p. 135)

In Samaria….

Here we have – especially amongst the owners, contractual partners, and slaves – mostly Israelite‐Judean names; next to them and especially amongst the witnesses for the deeds and the officials there exists a plethora of Aramaic, Phoenician, Edomite, Akkadian, and Persian names. . . . [T[he situation is reminiscent of the situation in Judah and Elephantine and implies the same historical constellation: we learn of a coexistence and cooperation of several ethnicities within the political structures of the Persian Empire. These ethnicities do not define their identity by a strict separation from each other; rather, they live side by side . . .  (pp 135f)

How can we know if “Samaria” was known as such?

The name Samaria is attested in its long form (šmryn/šmrn) as well as in abbreviations (šmr, šm, šn, š). The Persian satrapy of Transeuphrates is the superordinated political unit. Its satrap Mazaios/Masdaj is mentioned by its full name or in abbreviated form (mz) on coins: “Mazday who resides over Ebir‐nari and Cilicia” (mzdy zy ʿl ʿbr nhra wh. lk). Samaria itself had the status of a province (šmryn mdyntʾ) and was ruled by a governor (ph. t šmryn/šmrn). The capital is called a “fortress” (šmryn byrtʾ). In accordance to this terminology, the papyri are written “in the fortress Samaria (that is) in the Province of Samaria.” Coins mention a prefect (sgnʾ) and judges (dynʾ) as subordinate officials. (136)

And that’s about it for the epigraphical evidence relating to Judea and Samaria in Persian times on the basis of epigraphical sources.

Literary Sources

Reinhard G. Kratz

Kratz next turns to literary sources. It’s not looking good for those of us who are looking for independent evidence of the biblical narrative:

Literary sources that are attested archeologically in the Achaemenid period are only known to us from Elephantine: Here we have the “Words of Ahiqar” and an Aramaic version of the Bisitun inscription …. Otherwise we have to rely entirely on the biblical tradition and on the tradition dependent on it, such as the Jewish Antiquities of Flavius Josephus. (137)

While the literary sources from Elephantine fit well with what is dug up in Judah and Samaria, the biblical writing become something of an outlier:

In contrast to the literary works from Elephantine that fit well into the picture reflected by the epigraphic material, the biblical tradition contains a series of particularities. (137)

Everything we read in the Bible about this period appears to be at war with what we find in the ground:

Rather, the Bible seems to be highly critical toward the historical situation and even rejects it by creating its own religious counter‐world, a world that centers on the Torah of Moses and/or the biblical prophets . . . (137)

So what can the scholar honestly say about the facts of the Persian period Jehud and Samaria?

Here, one has to accept that one will hardly ever reach beyond a well (or less well) argued hypothesis. (138)

Kratz divides up the literary sources into two groups:

1. Writings set in the Persian period but not necessarily written so early:

  • Ezra-Nehemiah
  • 1 Esdras
  • Esther
  • Isaiah 44-45
  • Haggai
  • Zechariah
  • Daniel

In these writings the roughly 200 years of Persian rule over Judah and Samaria are condensed to three – if we add Esther, four – events:

(i) the end of the Babylonian exile and the rebuilding of the temple under Cyrus and Darius (2Chron. 36; Ezra 1–6 and 1 Esd.; Isa 44:28–45:13; Hag.; Zech. 1–8; Dan. 1;6 and 8–11);

(ii) the mission of Ezra under Artaxerxes (Ezra 7–10; Neh. 8; 1 Esd.);

(iii) the mission of Nehemiah under Artaxerxes (Neh. 1–13);

(iv) the rescue of the Jewish people under Xerxes (Esther).

(138 – my formatting)

Kratz claims that two of the above events find a point in actual history:

  • the rebuilding of the second temple
  • the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem

However, Kratz provides no evidence to support his declaration that these events at this time are “actual history”. As far as I can see he has relied entirely on the assumption that the unprovenanced biblical narratives relate genuine historical events.

Kratz again:

Two – possibly authentic – prophetic oracles from the time of the reconstruction of the temple have come down to us and are now incorporated into the book of Haggai: Hag 1:1.4.8 and 1:15–2:1.3.9a. (138)

But he is surely aware of the thin ice on which he stands:

Both prophetic books [i.e. Haggai and Zechariah] contain some Persian flavor, but we cannot derive reliable historical information from them. Even the role of Serubbabel and Joshua remains unclear as they both appear only in secondary, i.e. later, passages . . . . The same has to be said of the figure of Sheshbazzar, who is mentioned only in Ezra 1:7–11 and Ezra 5:14–16 (6:5?) and who cannot be placed historically . . . . (138)

Kratz assigned other writings such as sections of Isaiah to the Persian period. What historical value do they have?

The oracles in Isaiah 44–45 . . . , the narrative in Ezra 1–6 and 1 Esdras . . . , as well as the literary reflexes on the beginnings of Persian rule in the book of Daniel . . . , have to be seen as later literary creations that have little historical value. (138)

What about Ezra 5-6 that seems at face value to be “so historical”?

A comparison of the Aramaic narrative in Ezra 5–6  –  which is the literary nucleus of Ezra 1–6 where we find the older variant of the two versions of the famous edict of Cyrus (Ezra 1,1–4; 6,1–5) – with the papyri from Elephantine shows that this narrative appears to work with general historical knowledge and contains quite a bit of the flavor of the time. This, however, does not imply that the material has to be regarded as historical. Rather, Ezra 5–6 are written in the spirit of the biblical tradition and they are indebted to the Chronistic view of history (Kratz 2006). (139)

What about Nehemiah?

All the other passages of the book of Nehemiah, including those designating Nehemiah as “governor” (Neh. 5:1419; 12:26), are secondary literary supplements that were added to the building report in order to integrate Nehemiah into the (biblical) sacred history of the people of Israel, i.e. the people of God. Their historical appraisal stands on very shaky ground. (139)

Kratz acknowledges the crux of finding a way to prise history from Ezra-Nehemiah.

The evaluation of the mission of Ezra, reported in Ezra 7–10 and Neh 8–10, is most difficult . . . . His mission too is dated to the reign of a king called Artaxerxes. Scholarship generally identifies this king with Artaxerxes II since Nehemiah does not seem to presuppose Ezra. Such a dating operates on the premise that the Ezra memoir existed independently and is historical. This approach blends the historical and literary levels of the narrative. The historical fiction of the biblical tradition emphasizes that the same Artaxerxes is meant here. Ezra and Nehemiah are supposed to be contemporaries in order to complete the restitution of the people of Israel in the Province of Judah in accordance with the Mosaic law . . . Only in literary‐historical terms Ezra is younger than Nehemiah. (139)

We would love books that look like history to yield genuine history but we can’t always have what we want:

Historically, however, we can say little about Ezra. The Aramaic rescript in Ezra 7 forms the literary kernel of the Ezra narrative: Apart from bringing donations to Judah, Ezra is ordered to ensure the execution of the law (dat) of the Jewish God, that is identical to the law (dat) of the king, in the territory of Transeuphrates. The Hebrew narrative in which Ezra executes this order (Ezra 8–10; Neh. 8–10) is dependent on this rescript. The authenticity of the Aramaic rescript that once again is a mixture of Persian period flavor and biblical topoi continues to be disputed since the time of Eduard Meyer and Julius Wellhausen . . . . Despite the ongoing debate the authenticity is unlikely (Schwiderski 2000; Grätz 2004). The text reads like a foundation legend of the legal status of the Torah of Moses in Judaism and is comparable to the Letter of Aristeas reporting the origin of the Greek translation of the Torah in Alexandria under Ptolemy II. The historical background of the Ezra legend is probably the experience of the growing dissemination of the Torah as binding commitment in Judah and Samaria; this dissemination possibly started during the Persian period but came to full effect only in Hellenistic times. (139f)

What history can be gleaned from the book of Esther?

The book of Esther displays an extraordinary familiarity with details of the Persian court  –  commentaries generally quote the corresponding parallels from Herodotus and Xenophon. This general knowledge is supplemented with all kinds of fantastic details such as the marriage of the Xerxes to the Jewess Esther and woven into a narrative that portraits – in recourse to the biblical tradition  –  the situation of the Jews in the eastern diaspora . . . . (140)

In brief: it is a romantic novel that echoes Greek writing.

Kratz reminds us of what we should not need to be reminded. The fact that he says it at all is a regrettable commentary on so much traditional biblical scholarship:

The book of Esther is an instructive example that one should not use the flavor of a time to argue for the historicity of the events narrated or to deduce from it a date for the literary origin of the story. (140f)

That principle, Kratz notes, should also be applied to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Yet by far most discussions of Ezra-Nehemiah that I have encountered assume without question that those narratives are Persian era documents with historical underlay.

The example of Esther should also be used in the interpretation of Ezra‐Nehemiah. In both cases the Greek versions . . . . show that the legends about Israelites and Judeans during the Persian period  –  legends on which the self‐understanding of Judaism rests – were still relevant during Hellenistic times and were spun out further. (141)

To be a little more precise, it would be better to remove the qualifier “still” from “relevant” in the above. There is no evidence that they were ever relevant in the Persian era. The evidence we have surveyed testifies against the stories of Ezra-Nehemiah having any relevance in the Persian period.

2. Biblical sources dated to Persian times

This dating is a scholarly construct. It is not based on material evidence.

[S]cholarship generally dates several other writings or parts of biblical books to this period. From the plethora of the material we will simply look at one (significant) example: the completion of the Jewish law in the form of the Pentateuch, the Torah of Moses, a document of which more than half was written or composed in the post‐monarchial period, i.e. during neo‐Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic times. Especially the multiple‐layered literary stratum, commonly called “Priestly Writing”, is best explained in reference to the second temple period. (141)

Here we surely have an enigma. So far we have seen nothing at all in the evidence from the ground that would lead us to suspect anything like the biblical literature being a product of this time and place. On the contrary, what little we do see in epigraphical and the related archaeological evidence bluntly resists any compatibility with the themes of the Pentateuch. One has to imagine the authors of the Pentateuch shutting themselves off from society at large and writing in a way that is contrary to all that exists around them — and then shelving their work until it eventually takes root and is accepted in Hellenistic times.

As Kratz notes, the Pentateuch has the appearance of “multiple-layered literary strata”. When we read of “compromise between several rival groups”, should we necessarily assume this compromise was worked out over centuries?

The literary development has been interpreted as a compromise between several rival groups within Israel . . . (141)

Scholarship seeks an explanation within the Persian period:

. . . a compromise prompted by an initiative of the Persian authorities or as part of the Persian legal practice called imperial authorization. (141)

Again, we are entirely in the realm of unsupported hypothesis:

The historical hypothesis lacks any evidence and cannot be supported by the texts themselves. The literary development is undeniable but it can be shown only in a relative chronology of the literary strata. It is further undeniable that we have Pentateuchal manuscripts amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, which attest for the period around the middle of the third century BCE several different versions of the texts, including the proto-Samaritan version. To this evidence we have to add the Septuagint that attests the dissemination of the Pentateuch amongst the Greek‐speaking Jews in Alexandria, and Ben Sira, who canvasses the biblical tradition around 200 BCE in Judah. . . . It is equally unclear in which circles these documents were copied, studied, and adhered to and what status the Torah had in Samaria (Mt. Gerizim), Judah (Jerusalem), and Alexandria during the Persian and early Hellenistic period. (141)

So it all comes down to speculation.

We have to admit that we know far less about the history and status of the Pentateuch as Torah during the Persian period than we would like to and we are forced to rely on speculation. The Maccabean revolt during the reign of Antiochus IV during the middle of the second century BCE may provide a historical starting point. Here the Torah is no longer a document of marginalized groups such as the religious community from Qumran but has started to play a significant role in the quarrel over political and economic influence between rival groups within Judaism. During the reign of the Hasmoneans it became (for the first time?) a political and legally binding document for entire Judaism. This is, however, a different story for which we would have to assess the sources for the Hellenistic period. (141f)

Why not assess the sources for the Hellenistic period?

Annette Yoshiko Reed

Sometimes scholarly wheels turn very slowly. Let’s farewell Kratz and say hello to Annette Yoshiko Reed sees  a “Near East” that is imbued with a more active cultural role in the Hellenistic era. Reed remarks on how slow certain ideas are sometimes picked up and their worth acknowledged.

Scholars of Biblical Studies have habitually treated Near Eastern “influence” as an emblem of pre-exilic antiquity, while interpreting post-exilic sources in terms of resistance or assimilation to Greco-Roman culture – with divisions of periodization, selections of comparanda, and conventionalized reading-practices thereby naturalizing the notion of the two as mutually exclusive. Due in part to the structurally embedded persistence of old dichotomies like Greek/Near East in the study of antiquity, and “Hellenism”/“Judaism” in research on Second Temple Judaism, studies of Hellenistic-era Jewish sources have tended to neglect Near Eastern comparanda from the Hellenistic period, either treating their Jewish echoes as survivals from the pre-exilic past or dismissing them as akin to the return of the repressed. 

Reed laments that calls to change our perspective were made by two scholars (J.J. Collins and J.Z. Smith) way back in 1975!

We can no longer consider Israelite tradition and Hellenistic syncretism as mutually exclusive alternatives.” What we see, rather, is how “the conquests of Alexander had a profound impact on the eastern civilizations” and how this “impact included an unprecedented circulation of ideas among the various peoples” as well as changes in the “conditions of life” and a resultant “transformation of attitudes.”

Both articles have been widely cited. Puzzlingly, however, their calls for attention to Hellenistic-era Near Eastern comparanda have gone largely unheeded.

(From the Introduction in the ebook edition of Reed’s Demons, Angels, and Writing in Ancient Judaism)

Perhaps the first attention to Hellenistic-era Near Eastern comparanda for the Pentateuch is Russell Gmirkin’s Berossus and Genesis, Manetho and Exodus: Hellenistic Histories and the Date of the Pentateuch.


Kratz, Reinhard G. “Biblical Sources.” In A Companion to the Achaemenid Persian Empire, edited by Bruno Jacobs and Robert Rollinger, 133–48. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2021.

Reed, Annette Yoshiko. Demons, Angels and Writing in Ancient Judaism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020.