Bad History for Atheists (2) — Troubles Reading the Sources and Engaging with Different Viewpoints

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by Neil Godfrey

I do care about bad history. — O’Neill (13 min 50 sec)

Bad history is carelessly getting basic facts wrong. It is also failing to acknowledge and engage honestly with other points of view concerning the sources.

Two instances of “bad history”

At about 27 minutes we are told that “mythers” say there is no contemporary reference to Jesus therefore he didn’t exist. That, we are told, is “a terrible argument” because, even if the historical Jesus really walked on water etc, etc, the gospels say that he was famous only in the back sticks of Galilee.  That’s like being famous in the “north-east corner of Kentucky”. That’s “not famous”. So why would anyone in Rome or Athens or Alexandria write about “a dirty peasant” teaching “Jewish crap to peasants”! Also, when we look at other figures like Jesus, first-century Jewish preachers and prophets, we have NO contemporary references to any of them. We have more references to Jesus than any other analogous figure of the time.

Response 1 — not famous by gospel standards?

No, the gospels say the fame of Jesus brought crowds flocking to him from Syria, Lebanon, south of Judea and Jordan. Mark 3:8 tells us Jesus’ fame was such that people flocked to him from “Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.” That’s more than Galilee. Even if, as O’Neill is suggesting, the biblical account of Jesus is historical, then “multitudes” travelling from so far and wide to Galilee would most certainly attract the attention of the upper classes. Herod, we read, was so alarmed and thought Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead and fearfully went so far to plot to kill him. The first-century Galilean historian of Justus would have had his works preserved for us to read today.

Maps from Hayes and Hanscom, 436 (above); holyland-pilgrimage.org (right)

Response 2 — No contemporary record of any comparable figure?

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (2) — Troubles Reading the Sources and Engaging with Different Viewpoints”


Bad History for Atheists (1) — Louis Feldman on Justin’s Trypho and “proving Jesus existed”

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by Neil Godfrey

I took time out last night to follow up a comment left on Vridar and listen to Derek Lambert’s MythVision interview with Tim O’Neill, author of the blog History for Atheists. If one sets aside the revealing psychological portrait that emerges from the  incidental comments O’Neill lets drop about himself throughout the interview and focuses on his message one finds an unfortunate mix of contradictions, logical fallacies and factual errors presented with a confidence that evidently many readers find persuasive. I will attempt to deal with just one or two points per post to illustrate why readers and viewers need to put on their critical hats and examine carefully some of O’Neill’s claims.

Louis Feldman

In this post we look at what O’Neill has to say about the late Josephan specialist Louis Feldman, who came to reject the authenticity of any part of the Testimonium Flavianum (the passage about Jesus in Book 18 of Josephus’s Antiquities), and in particular at what O’Neill has to say about Feldman’s claim that a second century passage in a Dialogue with Trypho points to some debate at the time about the existence of Jesus.

Here is the Trypho passage.

But Christ—if he has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint him, and make him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves . . .

Justin’s Dialogue (ch.8)

Mythicist Earl Doherty acknowledged the passage’s ambiguity:

As I discuss at length in Appendix 12 of Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, the typical historicist argument over this passage is that Trypho “is arguing that Christians invented a false conception of Christ and applied it to Jesus” (so Eddy and Boyd in The Jesus Legend, p.170). But the language is far from this specific. And it is not Trypho who is assuming Jesus existed, but Justin, who is creating the dialogue and putting into Trypho’s mouth what he himself believes and to further the argument he is constructing.

But it does suggest that Justin is countering something that contemporary Jews are claiming, and the quotation is sufficiently ambiguous to suggest even to a committed historicist scholar like Robert Van Voorst (Jesus Outside the New Testament, p.15, n.35) that “This may be a faint statement of a non-existence hypothesis, but it is not developed . . . ” (It is not developed because that is not part of Justin’s purpose.) The “groundless report” may allude to an accusation that the entire Gospel story with its central character was indeed fiction.

(Doherty, on Vridar)

But O’Neill does not allow for any reasonable ambiguity and suggests that Feldman has fallen victim to senility for disputing the common interpretation of the passage.

The Intolerability of Ambiguity?

About 20 minutes in O’Neill professes adherence to the truism of the need to be tolerant of ambiguity in the evidence. The claim is made that “mythicism” appeals to people with a certain type of psychology, to those “who don’t like ambiguity”, who “want absolutes”, who “shun ambiguity and shades of grey”. About an hour in, he repeats “I am used to ambiguity”, to evidence that can be “read in different ways”, and that certain others “find ambiguity really weird”.

The sentiment is laudable. But when discussing a particular point of evidence that is clearly ambiguous O’Neill (around the 46-47 minute mark) unfortunately dismisses as blatantly wrong, as “a bad misreading, quite a remarkable, actually, misreading”, the interpretation that draws attention to its ambiguity.

Worse is the ad hominem: O’Neill goes so far as to suggest that the interpreter’s judgment was evidence of senility:

The problem with Feldman switching sides late in his life is … to be honest, I don’t think he was firing on all cylinders, he was in his eighties at that point, and also I think that his premise [is] on the misreading of a text.

Towards the end of the interview O’Neill declares that he believes in the importance of “reading books” and becoming familiar with “critical scholarship”. Again, a laudable sentiment. But had he done so in the case of Feldman’s claim about Trypho he would have known that Feldman did not somehow come to “remarkably misread” the text of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho “late in his life” but had published the exact same point twenty years earlier.

When O’Neill refers to Paget’s criticism of Feldman’s “misreading” of Trypho, all he is doing is pointing to a blunt single sentence that says, without any argument or justification, that Feldman has “misread” the passage:

Feldman’s attempt to argue that Justin, Dial. 8 witnesses to such an argument is a misreading of the passage.

(Paget, 602)

No argument. Just a bald assertion that Feldman is wrong.

Here is what Feldman wrote, the argument he penned (when in his 80s) about the passage: Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (1) — Louis Feldman on Justin’s Trypho and “proving Jesus existed””


Comparing the Honesty of Fox News with the Honesty of Benjamin Franklin’s Press?

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by Neil Godfrey

I was reading George Friedman’s article on journalistic objectivity in mainstream American media and was pulled up by the following paragraph in Toward a Theory of Journalistic Objectivity:

The problem is that modern journalistic ethics insist that simplistic objectivity is possible, and it compels journalists and newspapers to pretend that their political beliefs, or support for the Redskins, does not shape the way in which the news is presented. [Benjamin] Franklin would never hide his personal views, nor would he ever see them as prejudices. Rather, in his mind they were well-honed reflections that he provided the world as a gift, without prejudice. In this sense, reporters at Fox and CNN are better journalists and more honest than those at The New York Times or The Washington Post. They make no bones about who they are, nor do they hide how they shape the news. They don’t have what used to be called the mainstream press’s objectivity and don’t pretend to have it.

Friedman’s point is that the editors/journalists at NYT and WP are either blind to (or secretive about) their biases and create a deceptive illusion of objectivity for their audiences.

Now I re-read that paragraph, I wonder how Friedman can make a difference between Ben Franklin and the NYT/WP: on his reasoning are not both “blind to their prejudices” with both seeing their reporting as “well-honed reflections …. as a gift, without prejudice”?

I have never associated the word “honest” or even the words “more honest than” with Fox news. George Friedman, it seems, would have me re-think my perception. That’s a tough ask. Thoughts?

Benjamin Franklin and Roger Ailes — each “more honest” in their own way?




Robert Fisk, 1946-2020

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by Neil Godfrey

I was shocked to learn a day or two ago of the death of Robert Fisk on 30 October this year. I don’t think there was a report of the Middle East by Robert Fisk that I didn’t read, or an online interview he gave that I overlooked. How I missed the news of his death at the time I don’t know. His death was certainly unexpected and all too soon. I am glad to see The Independent has posted a page of his reporting as a memorial to him.

Robert Fisk — Middle East Correspondent @indyvoices


Such Relief

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by Neil Godfrey

How very very nice. Now the struggle begins, but for now, it’s such a happy moment to savour.

I was on a long drive and the radio announcer said, “now let’s look back on the four years of Trump’s presidency”. No way! I flicked the station immediately.

Lucky I’m on the wagon. No fear of a hangover tomorrow morning. Just an inner smile as recollections of Trump’s mockery of Biden’s rallies and mental competence flash by to mock the mocker.

But what challenges are up ahead.



“The coming weeks and months will be the most dangerous period of this presidency”

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by Neil Godfrey

Dr. Bandy X. Lee is a forensic psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine, president of the World Mental Health Coalition and editor of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 37 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President.

How Trump’s Mental Illness Infected 48% of the Electorate

“What is wrong with 68 million Americans?” is a question many are asking the day after the election. Why should the race even be close? Why did 48% of voting adults choose to remain with a president who leaves a trail of hundreds of thousands✎ EditSign of unnecessary deaths, the nation bankrupt, children in cages, and our natural habitat under existential threat?

It makes no rational sense—unless we correctly identify the problem. For almost four years, mental health professionals have been urging the nation to bring a mental health perspective to a mental health problem, instead of assuming that everything is political. All substitute approaches have failed, just as the best pandemic control comes from infectious disease specialists, not from a radiologist or economists. We have also anticipated the current situation as a product of having mental pathology in power for a prolonged period.

. . . .

Psychological Manipulation

For months, Donald Trump has been emotionally calibrating his words and actions, like a delicate seismograph capable of sensing the exact mood of the country and how to respond in order to mobilize his followers. That led to ambiguous results on election night. While it may seem to defy rationality, it was very closely and accurately anticipated by many colleagues in the mental health field. This is why we repeatedly recommended that mental health experts be consulted to help prevent election theft, which would be attempted largely through psychological manipulation and symptom contagion.

. . . .

Pathological Bond

Many of his followers will equally experience his downfall as a life-or-death matter, since he has conditioned this into them. Their bond is pathological to start, based on developmental wounds or regression to an earlier stage of development under stress, which led them to seeking a parental figure. They are thus vulnerable to someone manipulative and exploitative enough to say he will take care of them and protect them in unrealistic ways that defy reality. And once they do, they often give up their agency and rationality. Recent footage of his followers chanting, “Fire Fauci!” is disturbing in its depiction of their conformity, loss of personality, and alignment with Donald Trump’s thinking—to suggest proactively that he remove the reminder of his unwanted reality: the pandemic. Delusions, paranoia, and violence-proneness are among the most contagious symptoms, and we see all these tendencies in his followers.

Under these emotional bonds, his followers will likely experience any threat to his position as an existential threat to themselves . . . .

How Trump’s Psychosis Infects His Followers: Trump’s Madness Has Spread to Rudy Giuliani, His Rank-and-File Supporters and Much of the Republican Party

Adopting Trump’s Delusions

Unlike Trump, I have closely interacted with many Trump supporters and can personally attest to their uniformity in many psychological respects. . . .

Coming Danger

“Shared psychosis” or “folie à millions” (madness by the millions) has been well-documented by renowned mental health experts such as Carl Jung and Erich Fromm. This contagion of symptoms dissipates when exposure to the primary person is reduced, which is why Donald Trump holds rallies as if his life depended on them—psychically, it does. It is also the reason why he cannot leave the presidency—in addition to the possibility of prosecution.

However, these are also the very reasons why he is extremely dangerous. . . .



‘You Can’t Separate Trump’s Mental Health From His Voters’: Q&A With Mental Health Expert Dr. Bandy Lee

The particular traits that Mr. Trump has, furthermore, can be confusing: a lack of control can be seen as honesty, tendencies to go into attack mode can be seen as strength (whereas they more often arise from profound feelings of weakness and inadequacy), and the intense desire to ‘sense’ others in order to overpower them by deceiving and manipulating them can be mistaken for empathy (whereas in fact it is the opposite of empathy, since the goal is to cheat, or to promise one thing and then bring the opposite).

Those who are most subject to this kind of luring and predation are often the most vulnerable, who have been victimized in the past—’the forgotten men and women’—and the magnitude of the deception may conspire with psychological protection mechanisms against pain to avoid seeing the truth, sometimes at all cost.”

Does this explain how Trump ‘feeds’ his base?

“Yes, this explains the undying devotion of some members of his ‘base’, regardless of the policies that are revealed (for example, his billionaire cabinet that is greater than any “swamp” in history, a tax reform that essentially steals from the poor to give to the rich, or repeated attempts at healthcare reform that would only take away from those who have little).

All Mr. Trump needs to do is to give out the most meager evidence—crumbs—that he is “working for them,” and they will desperately gather them as proof that they were correct about him.



Escape Zone (enter here to escape the tensions of waiting for election results)

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by Neil Godfrey

Before there was Trumpian fake-news there was “Australia’s most notorious tabloid”, The Truth — now the subject of a book — The Awful Truth — by one of its erstwhile reporters, Adrian Tame. If you can’t read the book then do at least have a good laugh listening to a 20 minute interview with the author: The scurrilous tabloid called TRUTH. It was one of Rupert Murdoch’s early acquisitions, and soon after he took it over the paper earned the nickname “The Old Whore of La Trobe Street”. But it also had some serious and great moments.

Here’s how Adrian got the job:

[The editor, Paul Edwards] had brushed aside my lack of clippings, telling me: ‘Doesn’t matter, mate. Wouldn’t want to read your references, you probably wrote them yourself. Same with your clippings, except if they’re any good, someone else probably wrote ’em. Start tomorrow, that’s Tuesday, and you’ve got two weeks to show me what you can do. We’ll either make you permanent, or I’ll flick you.

Another excerpt (also covered in the Late Night Live interview linked above):

On this particular occasion the three of us had, for once, too much information to play with. Too many facts to fit into the number of words we were allotted. The story involved Marlon Brando and his daughter Cheyenne. Brando was grossly overweight and due to arrive in Australia to work some of it off at a health farm. Cheyenne was arriving simultaneously for emotional counselling, following a breakdown caused by a particularly traumatic and unsavoury domestic, resulting in a murder. We were playing with puns like ‘meltdown’, and arguing over which part of the story should be prioritised in the headline. And then Thommo strode into the room.

After a quick glance at the two stories he muttered something derisory about the amount of time we had been taking, grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled the following:

The Brandos are coming

‘Fuckin’ obvious isn’t it?’ he scowled as he left the room.

Pure tabloid genius. It was intriguing – how could anyone not want to read further? – it was wildly funny and it was to the point – all vital ingredients for a good headline. But what made it a truly great headline was its barbaric cruelty.

Excerpt From: Adrian Tame. “The Awful Truth.” Apple Books.

The interview is genuinely fascinating and informative for insights into what people who produce a paper like that think of what they’re doing and what they think of their readers.

Or if you prefer your escape from real-world political tensions to be more on cute and soft side, here is another bird photo, not from my own place this time but from my sister’s front yard:

Frogmouth parents guarding their new (fast growing) chick. No nest — everything balanced on a wide tree branch.

Not the best photo, but they are very high up in a very tall tree.

One more on that awful truth….






How the Story of Solomon Emerged from Assyrian and Babylonian Elites — part 4

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by Neil Godfrey

My original plan for a single post has now stretched out into four. Time to wrap up with Russell Gmirkin’s explanation for the relationship between the Solomon narrative and Assyrian records of Shalmaneser’s ninth century conquests and subsequent (eighth century) Assyrian building accounts.

The close correspondence between Sennacherib’s building account of Solomon’s temple and palace suggests that the biblical authors were not only broadly familiar with the literary conventions of Mesopotamian building accounts but had actually read the cuneiform inscriptions at Sennacherib’s Palace Without Rival. One may posit Assyrian authorship of the building account in Kings by educated Assyrian or Babylonian scribes from Samerina who travelled back to Nineveh for the international celebrations associated with the Palace Without Rival (LAR, II, §§367, 394, 413, 424; cf. Russell 1991: 260-2).

(Gmirkin, 86)

The Method Behind the “Narcissistic Madness” of Kings

Through citations of primary and secondary sources Gmirkin directs readers to an explanation of the political propaganda functions of the Assyrian monuments with their boasting inscriptions, unparalleled architecture and grandiose sculptures. Sennacherib made it clear that the “glory” he displayed in his monumental works were meant to be seen by people coming from all parts of his empire:

367: Great slabs of limestone, the enemy tribes, whom my hands had conquered, dragged through them (the doors), and I had them set up around their walls,— I made them objects of astonishment.

394: Those palaces, all around the (large) palace, I beautified; to the astonishment of all nations I raised aloft its head. The “Palace without a Rival,” I called its name.

413: I placed pillars of maple, cypress, cedar, dupranu-wood, pine and sindu-wood, with inlay of pasalli and silver, and set them up as columns in the rooms of my royal abode. Slabs of breccia and alabaster, and great slabs of limestone, I placed around their walls; I made them wonderful to behold. That daily there might be an abundant flow of water of the buckets, I had copper cables(?) and pails made and in place of the (mud-brick) pedestals (pillars) I set up great posts and crossbeams over the wells. Those palaces, all around the (large) palace, I beautified; to the astonishment of all nations, I raised aloft its head. The “Palace without a Rival” I called its name.

424: 1. At that time, after I had completed the palace in the midst of the city of Nineveh for my royal residence, had filled it with gorgeous furnishings, to the astonishment of all the people . . . .

John Russell in Sennacherib’s Palace Without Rival explains:

A magnificent capital closely identified with the ruling monarch can, however, be a very useful tool for maintaining an empire. Subject peoples visiting the capital would have been greatly awed by the power implied by the sheer bulk and splendor of the monuments of Nineveh, thus reinforcing their inclination to submit rather than to rebeL The construction of the new capital, then, was not a simple matter of royal vanity, but was instead an integral part of Sennacherib’s imperial policy. In the course of his reign, Sennacherib made Nineveh the center of the world . . . . 

The key to understanding these images [the palace sculptures] would seem to be not in their subject matter, but rather in their audience and function. The reliefs in the more public areas of Sennacherib’s palace, such as the outer court and throne room, seem to be directed more to outsiders than insiders, and their predominant message is one of warning rather than affirmation. One of their principal functions is apparently to insure the stability of the borders of the empire through the threat of violence expressed in graphic and easily perceptible terms. The ideal of maintaining the flow of tribute from the edges of the empire to its center has not changed, but the reliefs now take a more active part in this process. Rather than presenting visitors to the more public spaces with passive images showing universal submission as a fait accompli, Sennacherib’s reliefs sharply confront them with the consequences of rebellion.

In the more private inner parts of the palace, by contrast, Sennacherib’s reliefs balance these images of conquest at the periphery with images of construction in the center, emphasizing for insiders not only the risks involved in rebellion but the benefits of good government as well. Thus, for audiences both outside and inside the palace circle Sennacherib transformed the role of palace reliefs from affirmations of universal rule into tools to help maintain that rule.

(Russell, 261 f)

Ahab’s Eclipse

I highlighted the words “The ideal of maintaining the flow of tribute from the edges of the empire to its center” because that ideal, Russell explains, had been the theme of Sennacherib’s father who depicted scenes of long lines of tribute bearers in preference to cruel images of the fate of rebels. We are reminded of the ideal utopian scenes of “happy subjects” submitting to Solomon. So much for fleshing out Russell Gmirkin’s citations. Back to his main argument (and one may want to recall the first post in this series for the Ahab context):

Megiddo under King Ahab, 9th century BC from Archaeology Illustrated

Although the Acts of Solomon credited Shalmaneser III with a building program of ancient monumental architecture that included chariot cities at Gezer, Megiddo and Hazor, and Jerusalem’s temple and palace, these fortresses and impressive buildings of an earlier era are best understood as historically having been constructed by Ahab of Israel. Archaeological evidence pointing to correlations between the temple building account and temple architecture of the tenth to eighth centuries BCE in the southern Levant fully supports the construction of Jerusalem’s temple by Ahab rather than a construction by a local king of Judah (much less Solomon). The attribution of Jerusalem’s temple and other ancient monumental constructions in the southern Levant to the legendary ruler Shalmaneser III (Solomon) was an expression of local patriotic pride among the Mesopotamian (Assyrian and Babylonian) ruling class of Neo-Assyrian Samerina [the Assyrian name for the province dominated by Samaria].

(Gmirkin, 86)

Here Come the Mesopotamians – and They Don’t Mix

According to Gmirkin, then,

— the Assyrian conquerors deported the local elites from the northern kingdom of Israel

— and replaced them with Assyrian and Babylonian officials and colonists who became the “new educated ruling class elites”.

Did not those Mesopotamians eventually lose their identity by merging with the local population? That’s a common view but Gmirkin refers to Mladen Popović’s chapter, “Networks of Scholars: The Transmission of Astronomical and Astrological Learning between Babylonians, Greeks and Jews” who appeals to network theory to dispute the popular notion. When we follow up that chapter we find that Popović presents evidence that the Babylonian elites maintained a strong identity that stood opposed to “popular” culture:

Babylonians and non-Assyrians engaged in royal scholarly networks. The late Assyrian empire had become bilingual and bicultural, with Aramaic becoming the international vernacular. At the same time, there is evidence for adversarial reactions among the Assyrian ruling classes to the rising importance of Aramaic. For example, to a request by the scribe Sin-iddina of Ur to reply in Aramaic, the king answers that the scribe should rather write to him in Akkadian. This example works both ways. On the one hand, it shows that ethno-linguistic boundaries were not strict: letters to the Assyrian king could be written in Aramaic. On the other hand, it demonstrates that such boundaries were not completely ephemeral. The sender of the letter may have asked for too much by requesting the king’s answer also be in Aramaic. The king retorts by raising the boundary and emphasizing its importance: he creates an ethno-linguistic sense of difference between the scribe and himself. While ethno-linguistic and cultural boundaries can be crossed, they are also maintained. However, in the Neo-Assyrian period such boundaries do not seem to have prohibited the accessibility and dissemination of Babylonian science.

If we look at evidence from the Neo- and Late-Babylonian periods, it seems that the Babylonian urban elite had stricter limitations for entry into the scholarly elite than the Assyrians.  . . . .

Through cuneiform culture the Babylonian urban elite is said to have expressed a high degree of self-consciousness. For example, a cuneiform text from Hellenistic Uruk shows that the Aramaeans were still considered a separate ethno-linguistic group by some Babylonians; the reference in the late Seleucid list from Uruk of kings and scholars to Esarhaddon’s counsellor Aba-Enlil-dari as the one “whom the Aramaeans call Aḫuqar” shows that the story of Aḫiqar was known but seen as part of “popular” Aramaic culture rather than cuneiform elite culture. The impression gained from cuneiform sources is of Late Babylonia as an imagined community of urban elites who retreated into the imaginary space provided by the temples and the schools, with cuneiform itself being the main distinguishing characteristic of this community. The Babylonian urban elites constructed a cultural identity for themselves, one that became more and more detached from the ethno-linguistic, cultural and political realities of Babylonia in the Hellenistic and Parthian periods. At the same time, evidence from Hellenistic Uruk seems to indicate that they cultivated strong ties with the Greek elite and the Seleucid rulers that ensured their small community thrived. This shows that despite a cultivated identity that seems detached from real life, Babylonian urban elites were also able to relate to changing ethno-linguistic, cultural and political realities and to do so to their own advantage.

(Popović, 170 f)

In the context of Gmirkin’s views, that statement about the Babylonian elites finding common ground with the other elitist Greek arrivals is of interest.

Popović regularly cites “Network Theory and Religious Innovation” by Anna Collar who emphasizes that

most social ties are ‘strong’, reflective of fundamental facets of identity. Social identity can be defined (somewhat simplistically) by group membership.

(Collar, 151)

Hence Gmirkin has justification for his view: Continue reading “How the Story of Solomon Emerged from Assyrian and Babylonian Elites — part 4”


Solomon’s Palace and Temple as Re-worked Assyrian Accounts — part 3

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by Neil Godfrey

One of the main tasks of the historian is to compare and cross-reference sources. If different sources attest independently to the same phenomenon, the historical reliability of that phenomenon is greatly enhanced. Thus, the biblical description of Solomon’s Temple, the stone building model from Khirbet Qeiyafa, and the temple from Motza correspond to one another, hence confirming the historicity of the biblical tradition.

— Yosef Garfinkel and Madeleine Mumcuoglu, The Temple of Solomon in Iron Age Context

Garfinkel and Mumcuoglu have overlooked the most basic step in the above argument. Sources may cohere with one another but before concluding that they therefore testify to historical facts one must test whether they are indeed independent of one another. The historian’s task is to cross-examine the witnesses even (or especially) when they agree.

Before continuing with Russell Gmirkin’s analysis of the biblical account of the constructions of Solomon’s palace and temple we’ll hear a little more from Garfinkel and Mumcuoglu (with my bolded highlighting — as in all quotations):

Scholars of the minimalist school have argued that no temple at all was built in Jerusalem at the time of Solomon. According to the most extreme of these scholars, the description of the temple is entirely imaginary. Thus, an attempt has been made to remove the basis for legitimate study of the temple from an architectural or historical perspective and move all the attention to the literary and ideological levels (see discussions: Van Seters 1997; Smith 2006).

Two recent discoveries in the Kingdom of Judah have changed the picture (Figure 1). First, a building model dated to the 10th century BCE unearthed at Khirbet Qeiyafa in 2011 sheds light on some technical terms mentioned in the biblical text and enables us to overcome some of the difficulties (Garfinkel and Mumcuoglu 2013, 2016, 2018). Second, a temple dated to the 9th century BCE was uncovered in 2012 at Motza, 5 km west of Jerusalem (Kisilevitz 2015). These new finds clearly show that the architecture described in the biblical text existed in the same era and region. The new data bear out the historicity of the biblical text, even if it was rewritten and edited centuries after the actual construction of the building.

Figure 1. The Kingdom of Judah and the location of sites mentioned in the text.

(G&M, 2f)

You can download and read the full open-source paper by Yosef Garfinkel and Madeleine Mumcuoglu, The Temple of Solomon in Iron Age Context. Meanwhile, here are the finds they refer to that demonstrate that the biblical description of Solomon’s temple matched other ninth century temples of the Levant and Mesopotamia.

Compare this image and its note (from Solomon’s Temple and Palace):

And the comparable temple layouts:

A photograph of the Motza temple from an article by Kisilevitz:

G & M’s reconstruction of Solomon’s temple is thus:


Russell Gmirkin calls himself a “post-maximalist”. He does not deny the similarity between the biblical and Near Eastern building accounts and Iron Age (in this case the tenth to eighth centuries) archaeological finds, but he does deny the independence of the biblical account.

Before taking up the case for the dependence of the biblical description it is worth noting for us non-specialists that we are looking at a set literary type or form. We read about various literary forms of the ancient Near East appearing in the Bible and Gmirkin directs us to a study by Hurowitz that describes in detail the “well-known ancient Near Eastern pattern” of the “building account”. To quote Hurowitz,

In the first part of this study, more than twenty extra-biblical building accounts were analyzed and found to possess similar or nearly identical thematic structures. Despite certain flexibility and variability in the structure, all the stories examined preserved the same basic sequence of topics and central events, including:

(1) a reason to build or restore a building along with the command or consent of the gods to the proposed project;

(2) preparations for the project including enlisting workers, gathering and manufacturing building materials and laying the foundations of the building;

(3) a description of the building process and of the edifice under construction;

(4) dedication of the building by populating it, along with celebrations and rituals;

(5) a prayer or a blessing meant to assure a good future for the building and the builder. Some of the stories included an additional element:

(6) conditional blessings and curses addressed to a future king who will repair the building when it falls into ruin.

An analysis of 1 Kgs 5.15-9.25 showed that this building account as well is strikingly similar in its structure to the extra-biblical stories. The same can be said about other biblical building accounts—the building of the Tabernacle, the restoration of the Temple by the returnees from Exile, and the repair of the walls of Jerusalem carried out and reported by Nehemiah. Even Josephus’s account of the rebuilding of the Temple by Herod seems to have adhered to this structure. These stories share not only the same thematic structure, but display many common motifs, expressions and ideas as well. In the subsequent chapters the individual components of the building stories were examined, concentrating on 1 Kings 5-9. It was seen that, as far as ideas and linguistic usage are concerned, these components have parallels in many other extra-biblical building stories . . . 

(Hurowitz, 311. My formatting)

Impression of Palace Without Rival. — From the British Museum Blog

Gmirkin writes that there are “prominent Assyrian influences on the biblical description of the temple that point specifically to 1 Kgs 5:13-7:51 as originally a seventh-century BCE composition of Assyrian authorship.”

Many details in the description of Solomon’s temple directly parallel Sennacherib’s description of his Palace Without Rival in inscriptions dating to 694 BCE.

(p. 85)

Gmirkin lists in citation form a list of parallels but being me I want to check the sources and see for myself and for others who also like to inspect the details for themselves I have copied out the texts in full. Each heading is Gmirkin’s description of the parallel; I have copied and pasted the relevant text beneath each point.

Continue reading “Solomon’s Palace and Temple as Re-worked Assyrian Accounts — part 3”


The Acts of Solomon as a Neo-Assyrian Composition — part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

In the previous post we saw that the biblical account assigned the same boundaries as the later Assyrian empire (150 years after Solomon’s near-namesake Shalmaneser III) to the kingdom of Israel in the time of Solomon.

And Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. These countries brought tribute and were Solomon’s subjects all his life. (1 Kings 4:21)

From Wikimedia Commons

Obviously, Assyria itself is east of the Euphrates river but with a bit of checking I found that the Euphrates regularly features in Assyrian imperial inscriptions as the boundary beyond which their conquests extended westward:

In the Annals of Tiglath-Pileser I (1115-1076 BC):

(Thus) I crossed the Euphrates. The king of the land Tumme, the king of Tunube, the king of Tuali, the king of . . . altogether 23 kings of the lands of Nairi, combined their chariotry and army in their lands; and they advanced to wage war and combat.

Altogether 42 lands and their kings from the other side of the Lower Zab in distant mountainous regions to the other side of the Euphrates—the Hatti-land and the Upper Sea in the west—from my accession year to my fifth regnal year—I conquered. I subdued them to one authority. . . .

And the Annals of Assur-nasirpal II (883-859 BC):

I moved on from the land of Bit-Adini; (and) I crossed the Euphrates, which was in flood, in rafts (made of inflated) goatskins.

Thus one reads in Shalmaneser III’s monuments (859–824 BC):

In my 17th regnal year: I crossed the Euphrates. I received the tribute of the kings of the land of Hatti. . . .

In my 19th year: I crossed the Euphrates River for the 17th time. I received tribute of the kings . . . .

In my fourth regnal year: I crossed the Euphrates at its flood stage. I pursued after Ahum of Bit-Adini. . . .

In my tenth regnal year: I crossed the Euphrates River for the eighth time. I conquered the cities of Sangara of Karkamis.

In my eleventh regnal year: I crossed the Euphrates for the ninth time. I conquered 97 cities of Sangara (and) 100 cities of Arame.

In my 20th regnal year: I crossed the Euphrates River for the 20th time. I summoned the kings of the land of Hatti (for corvee work), all of them. I passed over Mt. Hamanu (Amanus).

In my 18th regnal year: I crossed the Euphrates for the 16th time. Hazael of Damascus trusted in his numerous troops; and mustered his army in great numbers. . . .  (this reference appears in four monuments)

An inscription of Adad-nirari III (811-783 BC):

I ordered to march to the land of Hatti. I crossed the Euphrates in its flood.

The Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III (1479–1425 BC) likewise boasted of reaching (even crossing) the Euphrates in the famous Battle of Carchemish.

Carchemish in map of eighteenth dynasty Egypt. Map from Crystalinks.

All that’s enough to satisfy me that the Euphrates river was considered to be a natural imperial boundary in Assyrian times.

The Second Stratum

I Kings 4:21 with its statement of Solomon’s empire extending from Egypt to the Euphrates belongs to Russell Gmirkin’s second stratum in 1 Kings 3-11. (See the earlier post for context.)

This second stratum of the biblical Acts of Solomon portrays Shalmaneser III/Solomon “as a great builder of monumental works of architecture in the southern Levant”. I have copied it at the end of this post.

There is one passage (I Kings 4:7-19) that is missing from the passages first listed as comprising this layer of text but that appears a few sentences later as if it should belong with the others. Its significance lies in its

correspondence of Solomon’s territorial holdings with Assyrian provinces in the southern Levant (1 Kgs 4:7-19, in which Assyrian provincial centers such as Megiddo, Gezer and Gilead figure prominently; but no sites from Judah appear; the prominence of trade with Arabia; and the affinities of the Solomon building account with Sennacherib’s Palace Without Rival. . . 

(Gmirkin, pp 84 f)

I Kings 4:7-9

Solomon had twelve district governors over all Israel, who supplied provisions for the king and the royal household. Each one had to provide supplies for one month in the year. 8 These are their names:
Ben-Hur—in the hill country of Ephraim;
9 Ben-Deker—in Makaz, Shaalbim, Beth Shemesh and Elon Bethhanan;
10 Ben-Hesed—in Arubboth (Sokoh and all the land of Hepher were his);
11 Ben-Abinadab—in Naphoth Dor (he was married to Taphath daughter of Solomon);
12 Baana son of Ahilud—in Taanach and Megiddo, and in all of Beth Shan next to Zarethan below Jezreel, from Beth Shan to Abel Meholah across to Jokmeam;
13 Ben-Geber—in Ramoth Gilead (the settlements of Jair son of Manasseh in Gilead were his, as well as the region of Argob in Bashan and its sixty large walled cities with bronze gate bars);
14 Ahinadab son of Iddo—in Mahanaim;
15 Ahimaaz—in Naphtali (he had married Basemath daughter of Solomon);
16 Baana son of Hushai—in Asher and in Aloth;
17 Jehoshaphat son of Paruah—in Issachar;
18 Shimei son of Ela—in Benjamin;
19 Geber son of Uri—in Gilead (the country of Sihon king of the Amorites and the country of Og king of Bashan). He was the only governor over the district.

Gezer is not included there but see the Second Stratum passages at the end of this post for those references. I would also be interested in finding more indications of Arabia — they are not obvious from the names as listed in 1 Kings apart from 10:15, though the Queen of Sheba sounds significant.

Gmirkin refers readers to Finkelstein and  Silberman’s David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition is to the full text available at archive.org. It is freely available on archive.org so you can read the pages cited. They examine the evidence for the sites belonging to a good century after the supposed time of Solomon.

The monumental architecture attributed to Solomon in this later literary strata appears to reflect actual constructions under King Ahab of Bit Omri, building projects which included the monumental gates and fortifications at the chariot cities of Megiddo, Gezer and Hazor (Finkelstein and Silberman 2006: 163-7, 275-81; cf. 1 Kgs 9:15-19), and the temple of Yahweh and other impressive buildings at Jerusalem, which was arguably ruled from Samaria in earlier times.

(Gmirkin, 85)

Finkelstein and Silberman, p. 152

Such is further evidence Gmirkin advances for the Solomon narrative of 1 Kings being drafted from a memory (recorded in the “annals of Solomon/Shalmaneser”) of neo-Assyrian power over the region.

The Acts of Solomon is best understood as a Neo-Assyrian composition that incorporated translations of the cuneiform inscription at Ba’li-Ra’si into Aramaic and contained amplifications that included legendary accounts of international relations and his regional achievements as builder. This Neo-Assyrian text, authored and locally preserved by the educated ruling class of Neo- Assyrian Samerina [Samaria], celebrated Shalmaneser III as the first great Assyrian king whose rule extended to this region

(Gmirkin, 85)

That inscription at Ba’li-Ra’si is known from another public inscription, the “Black Obelisk“, produced in the time of Shalmaneser III. As we saw in the previous post, 

I (also) marched as far as the mountains of Ba’li-ra’si [near Mount Carmel] which is a promontory (lit.: at the side of the sea) and erected there a stela with my image as king.

(ANET, 280)

Next post we’ll look at Gmirkin’s discussion of Solomon’s building program.

The Second Stratum text:  Continue reading “The Acts of Solomon as a Neo-Assyrian Composition — part 2”