Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Religious historian Jonathan Z. Smith

Over the summer and autumn of 2020, I’ve been catching up and rereading several important books on the New Testament, especially those that have approached their subjects from a sociological standpoint. Those works led me to others (sometimes the bibliography is more worthwhile than the book itself), and so on.

I remember reading Jonathan Z. Smith and noticing what he had actually written did not correspond well with what Robert M. Price had told us he wrote. Price has continued to insist for many years that Smith didn’t understand Weberian ideal types and that if an instance of a type did not conform exactly to the type, then we had to discard the instance.

Yet, in Drudgery Divine we observe in Smith’s writing an honest effort to categorize unique events within frameworks of classification. In fact, he pushed against “uniqueness” as a modern concept, too often used as an excuse to mystify, a lazy justification not to compare, for example, one event with another.

Let us be clear at the outset. There is a quite ordinary sense in which the term ‘unique’ may be applied in disciplinary contexts. When the historian speaks of unique events, the taxonomist of the unique differentium that allows the classification of this or that plant or animal species, the geographer of the unique physiognomy of a particular place, or the linguist of each human utterance as unique, he or she is asserting a reciprocal notion which confers no special status, nor does it deny–indeed, it demands–enterprises of classification and interpretation. A is unique with respect to B, in this sense, requires the assertion that B is, likewise, unique with respect to A, and so forth. In such formulations ‘uniqueness’ is generic and commonplace rather than being some odd point of pride. In my language, I would prefer, in such instances, the term ‘individual’, which permits the affirmation of difference while insisting on the notion of belonging to a class. [pp. 36-37, emphasis mine]

He tackled the subject of categorization and classification in greater depth in his 1982 work, Imagining Religion. When trying to explain what a religion is and how one particular religion fits within a framework of categorization, we often stumble on the problem of necessary and sufficient criteria. He wrote: Continue reading “Did Jonathan Z. Smith Really Not Understand Ideal Types? (Part 1)”

Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #6

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by Neil Godfrey

Not only are passages from Jewish Scriptures identified as sources of the gospels but we also find interesting overlaps with some of the other Second Temple literature and even the later rabbinical writings. It looks as though those later rabbinical writings originated in the Second Temple era given the striking overlaps with some of the gospel passages. I have noted and linked these references in the tables up till now but mention it this time because there seem to be more than usual in today’s table.

Very often the proposed allusions to passages in the Hebrew Scriptures are not direct but are nonetheless thought-provoking and raise questions about the possible mind-sets of the authors. One of the more interesting associations for me was the associations with Jesus writing in the dust. I know that the passage about the woman caught in adultery has had a checkered history in the manuscripts but here there is a reasonable case for interpreting it as having been composed with the same midrashic imagination as other gospel passages.

Another passage of particular interest was the association of Jesus’ instruction to eat his flesh with the words of Wisdom in Sirach. Not such a “pagan” or “mystery-religion” notion, after all, in that context!

The table below comes with the same notes as the earlier ones, paraphrases in parts, translations are my own, and slight editorial changes here and there. One difference, though — I have colour-coded rows to link together verses addressing the same unit of narrative.

Here we look at the Jewish Scripture sources for:

a. the Transfiguration and preparation for the Passion of Christ

b. signs of the End Times

c. miracles and teachings in Jesus’ last days

d. Last Supper and Betrayal

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #6”


Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #5

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by Neil Godfrey

I have taken time out to track down and catch up with several of the French works that Charbonnel cites and that has a bit to do with the long time between the last post in this series and this one.

It’s been too long since I visited our French scholars of the Bible so here I continue with part 5 of Nanine Charbonnel’s table setting out the “Old Testament” sources of the Gospel narratives. In Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier Charbonnel is presenting a case for the gospel figure of Jesus Christ being created entirely from a form of “midrashic” type composition in which diverse scriptural texts are woven together into a new story to meet new community needs.

The table below is my own adaptation of Charbonnel’s French-language multi-page table, with a few slight editorial changes and my own translations and summaries.

The work of checking every scriptural reference (they are all hyperlinked for you to check them easily too) has impressed upon me just how totally the gospels are very likely pastiches of Jewish scriptures and some non-canonical writings. There appears to be nothing left over requiring explanation as if from any other source. Jesus walking on water was not an exaggerated retelling of a biographical event where Jesus happened to be walking on a sandbank (as some have said); nor were the healing miracles exaggerations of some real-life psychological power Jesus had over those with ailments. . . . they, everything, was written as a renewal of a sacred saying or scripture. Nor is there anything new about the teaching of Jesus: everything he is narrated as having taught is a re-writing of Scriptural or proverbial teachings of the time of the evangelists.

Jesus is created as a new voice and representative of a new Israel. The kingdom of God has come, the promises have been fulfilled in Jesus. Nations, gentiles and Jews, are now one in Him. The gospels are written, surely, as a new set of scriptures through which the old are to be interpreted anew.

There is no historical person of Jesus behind the narrative. If there had been then there would be some indication of a real person that the narrative had to adapt somehow to scriptures. What we find instead, however, is a figure entirely, entirely, made up of scriptures. Scriptural rewriting is the warp and woof of what he does, what happens to him, and what he says and teaches.

Here we look at the Jewish Scripture sources for:

a. the calling of disciples and sending them out to preach

b. teachings of Jesus – to both Jews and gentiles

c. miracles of Jesus – to both Jews and gentiles

d. the fate of John the Baptist and the beginnings of the rejection of Jesus

Continue reading “Gospels Cut from Jewish Scriptures, #5”


Bad History for Atheists (4) — Psychoanalyzing Dissenters

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by Neil Godfrey

Dnipropetrovsk special psychiatric hospital

This is the final post covering my response to Tim O’Neill’s interview on MythVision. For other posts, parts one, two, three.

In 1959 Khrushchev declared that there were no political prisoners in the USSR, only mentally ill people (Bukovsky).

Arrests and trials became their last resort . . . . The authorities preferred other means, from psychiatric confinement and defamatory campaigns . . . .

Publicly branding dissidents as having some psychological issue had the desired effect:

I remember how, emerging from the psychiatric hospital in 1965, I suddenly discovered that all my “thaw-time” friends had disappeared somewhere, as if they had melted away. When we met by chance in the street, they would hurry away, clutching folders or briefcases or, even better, wheeling a pram. Sorry, old man, they would mutter without stopping, eyes lowered, I have to defend my diploma, dissertation, get my candidate’s application approved. Or I need to raise my children first. Then they would speed off, looking neither left nor right.  . . . 

(Bukovsky, Judgment in Moscow)

In the US, by contrast, political power is not necessary. The mainstream merely needs to publicly shame dissidents in the free press:

In this respect, America is an amazing country. On the one hand, publishing slander is recognized as the sacred right of the press, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the USA. On the other hand, America is a country of extreme conformists, where any criticism in the press, even if it is genuinely slanderous, renders a person unacceptable . . . . Note that it is the victim of slander who becomes “controversial and not the slanderer


From Wikimedia Commons

Recall from the previous post one biblical scholar’s observation of the conservative mainstream in his field of study:

There are several kinds of name-calling, but in the end, they all tend to impress a readership in such a way that it will simply abstain from reading material written by members of the group characterized by the name-calling. . . . 

What is the aim of this labeling? . . . The advice to the novice in biblical studies is never engage in any serious way in a discussion with non-conservative scholars. You should just denounce them as incompetent and not worth reading and continue this tactic until people believe you

For original citation references see The Tactics of Conservative Scholarship (according to J. Barr & N-P. Lemche)

One biblical scholar who was viscerally hostile against Christ mythicists, Maurice Casey, was very willing to employ the above tactics to discredit anyone who dared disagree with his views or those of his doctoral student and partner at the time. I responded to Casey’s assertions with the Who’s Who page of anyone identifying with or merely open-minded towards the Christ myth theory in order to demonstrate that his accusations were without foundation. His psychological analyses of mythicists — they were by and large disturbed ex-fundamentalists — was baseless slander.

Tim O’Neill in his MythVision interview resorted once more to the same tawdry psychoanalysis of mythicists (he allowed for a “few” exceptions). In his online statements he has added outright character defamation and some of the ugliest humiliation to his characterization of Christ mythicists. I have invited O’Neill several times to engage with my criticisms of his work but only on condition that he refrain from verbal abuse and he has declined. Rather, he has written that he finds my criticisms too petty to bother with. That’s another way of telling his followers to stay clear of my responses to his posts or to read them with a condescension that guarantees they will be dismissed from the outset.

Psychoanalyzing and humiliating mythicists 

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (4) — Psychoanalyzing Dissenters”


Bad History for Atheists (3) — Proof-texting, Circularity, Fake Facts, Insults

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by Neil Godfrey

At about 57 mins of the MythVision podcast O’Neill underscores the importance of Paul’s claim to have met James the “brother of the Lord”. Not only is Paul’s claim from a contemporary of Jesus but it is even from one who is opposed to his source:  Paul is saying, says O’Neill, “Yeh, I have met the brother of Jesus and he’s a dick.” Now evidence from contemporaries, especially contemporary adversaries, is certainly strong evidence for historicity, but at this point, O’Neill tosses aside and out of sight the most fundamental principle he said was the basis of all good historical inquiry: a need to acknowledge ambiguity in the evidence. O’Neill’s first task, therefore, is to characterize any interpretation that allows for ambiguity to be outright nonsense.

Basic historical methods applied to Paul meeting “the brother of the Lord”

Writing against Christ Mythicists, A. D. Howell Smith in Jesus Not a Myth: “There is a critical case of some slight cogency against the authenticity of Gal. i, 18, 19, which was absent from Marcion’s Apostolicon; the word “again” in Gal. ii, 1, which presupposes the earlier passage, seems to have been interpolated as it is absent from Irenaeus’s full and accurate citation of this section of the Epistle to the Galatians in his treatise against Heretics.” (p. 76)

Yet there is an even more fundamental rule for any historian examining sources that O’Neill never mentions: study the context of the source and the information in it!  It’s this simple:

  1. Acknowledge the fact that that “met James the brother of the Lord” phrase is unknown to Church Fathers who would dearly have loved to have known it to win their theological debates against “heretics” (– I was first informed of this fact by an honest author who was arguing against the Christ myth theory);
  2. Stop and think how bizarre it is that there are no other early Christian accounts that record that one of the leaders of the Christian church at Jerusalem was the very brother of Jesus! Is it really plausible that this one passing reference in a letter of Paul, a letter that was the focus of so much controversy in the early church, should be the only evidence we have from the early days of the church that Jesus’ brother became the new leader alongside Peter? Not even the Book of Acts, which portrays James as a noble head of the Jerusalem church, leads anyone to suspect that that James was a brother of Jesus.

For further details discussing the above context of this passage see

O’Neill emphasizes that a historian must be open to ambiguity when studying the sources. Indeed. There are reasonable grounds for suspecting that the passage in which Paul says he met the “brother of the Lord” was added some time in the second century in order to better assist “orthodox” Christians argue against their theological opponents. Further, fundamental questions arise when we try to understand how a brother of Jesus could have become the church’s leader without any other contemporary or near contemporary indication that anyone knew about it.

It is “bad history” to take a passage as testimony to a “historical fact” without first testing the authenticity of that evidence.

Basic historical method guards against circular reasoning

David Hackett Fischer

O’Neill next engages in a very common failing of many historical Jesus scholars: circular reasoning. That failing is not unique to biblical scholars, though, since it is one of the fallacies pointed out in a famous book from 1970 by historian David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought.

The fallacy of the circular proof is a species of a question-begging, which consists in assuming what is to be proved. A hypothetical example might help to clarify the point. A researcher asks, “Do gentlemen prefer blondes?” He discovers that Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes, and tacitly assumes that Smith, Jones, and James are therefore gentlemen. He concludes that three gentlemen out of three prefer blondes, and that the question is empirically established, with a perfect correlation. His argument runs through the following stages :

Inquiry : Do gentlemen prefer blondes?
Research : Smith, Jones, and James prefer blondes.
(Tacit Assumption ) : Smith, Jones, and James are gentlemen.
Conclusion: Therefore, gentlemen prefer blondes.

Absurd as this fallacy may appear in a hypothetical way, it is exceedingly common in empirical scholarship.

(Fischer, 49)

petitio principii : a fallacy in which a conclusion is taken for granted in the premises; begging the question.

Dietary laws

One of several examples of this fallacy that O’Neill offers (paraphrasing):

In the Gospel of Mark we read that Jesus addresses the Jewish dietary laws. This makes sense if there was a historical Jesus who was saying those things about the dietary laws that the church (at the time the gospel was written) no longer followed. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if Jesus didn’t exist.

O’Neill here is uncritically repeating an argument found among some mainstream biblical scholars. It makes just as much sense on the assumption that the Jesus of the gospels was a literary figure created to express the view of the church.

Clark Kent to Superman

By excising all evidence to the contrary some exegetes conclude that the Jesus behind Mark’s gospel was mundanely human.

At this point the host, Derek Lambert, interjects with another piece of circularity common among too many mainstream biblical scholars (again, my paraphrase):

In the Gospel of Mark Jesus appears like a Clark Kent but by the time of the Gospel of John he is Superman. The evidence is so easily explained if there was an original guy who wanted the temple brought down, and then that happened, but because it didn’t get rebuilt, the Christians had to change the prophecy of Jesus into one where he claimed to be speaking about the temple of his body.

Yes, if we assume that there was a historical Jesus at the start, then we can indeed say that the subsequent evidence can be explained by that same historical Jesus. That’s circularity. The same logic can be used to say that if we assume that the gospel authors portrayed a Jesus who fitted the time of those writers, then we can explain the later changes to the gospels as the result of adapting to changing circumstances and beliefs. Question begging works any way you want to use it.

Besides, O’Neill ought to have picked Derek Lambert up on his factual error (another one common among many biblical scholars) that the Gospel of Mark portrays a relatively ungodly “merely human” Jesus. A man who walks on water and commands the storms to cease just like the Yahweh in the Psalms is not a “merely human” figure. Nor is the range of emotion imputed to Mark’s Jesus “merely human”: anger, for instance, is a very common godly emotion. For further details see

From Nazareth or Bethlehem?

Another very common instance of circularity appears in discussions about the birth narratives. The assumption is that there was a historical Jesus who was born in Nazareth, and since everyone supposedly knew he came from this tiny village “no-one had ever heard of”, the gospel authors tied themselves in knots trying to explain how he was really born, according to the messianic prophecy, in Bethlehem.

About the 1 hour and 10 minute mark O’Neill says, quite rightly, that later (noncanonical) gospels sometimes harmonize the earlier gospels. Matthew and Luke offer contradictory, even incompatible, nativity stories. This makes sense, he rightly says, if we assume that the authors were each independently struggling to work out their own narrative to explain how Jesus came to be known to be “from Nazareth” even though he was born in Bethlehem. I say “rightly” because yes, it does make sense if we assume the premise we are trying to prove is true from the outset.

It makes just as much sense to say that the authors of both Matthew and Luke were trying to establish a legend that Jesus was born at Bethlehem (according to the messianic prophecy) while at the same time attempting to remove an embarrassing epithet by which the earliest sects of Jesus worship were known, the “nazoreans” or “nazarenes”. (The Arab and Muslim world still today refer to Christians by a cognate of that same term.) The Gospel of Matthew at 2:23 bizarrely twists a scripture and grammatical Greek to make it give that title a new meaning.

Thus the evidence of Matthew is that the early evangelists were struggling with a title they no longer felt comfortable with and decided to hide its original meaning by re-interpreting it as meaning “from Nazareth”. Luke most likely re-wrote Matthew to give a better narrative account.

By setting aside the fallacy of assuming a historical Jesus at the outset we open ourselves to a much richer scenario in accordance with all of the evidence.

Nazareth did not exist — “a stupid idea”?

Continue reading “Bad History for Atheists (3) — Proof-texting, Circularity, Fake Facts, Insults”


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””


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”


Is Solomon’s Glory Based on the Assyrian Shalmaneser III’s Exploits? – part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

Here we [being to] conclude our overview of Russell Gmirkin’s chapter ‘Solomon’ (Shalmaneser III) and the Emergence of Judah as an Independent Kingdom by addressing his view that the Acts of Solomon that we read about in 1 Kings were sourced from records of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser. For context see the previous two posts:

In 1 Kings 11:41 we read a passage that indicates that the author was drawing on a written chronicle of Solomon’s deeds that he had been covering since chapter 3:

As for the other events of Solomon’s reign—all he did and the wisdom he displayed—are they not written in the book of the annals of Solomon? (NIV)

(The passage says “other events” and I had always assumed that such passages in 1-2 Kings directed readers to information that was not covered in the biblical narrative. Here the annals/acts are interpreted as a source for the biblical narrative itself.)

Gmirkin informs us that “the identity of Solomon and Shalmaneser III was first suggested by [another scholar whose work we have featured on Vridar] Greg Doudna in private conversation c. 2000.”

Few critical readers of the Bible believe that Solomon’s kingdom stretched from the Euphrates river to Egypt yet that is what we read in 1 Kings 4:21

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.

The Assyrian empire did rule “from the Euphrates” (Assyrian monarchs spoke of the Euphrates as the border of their kingdom beyond which their eastern empire stretched) to Egypt at its greatest extent in the seventh century BCE. (Shalmaneser III was of the ninth century BCE.)

From Wikimedia Commons

Gmirkin posits three literary strata in 1 Kings 3-11 and writes that the oldest of these that “[describes] campaigns and empire-building in the vicinity of the Euphrates river” is very similar to the genre of Assyrian inscriptions, listing the great deeds of a single king and publishing them in his lifetime. Readers will have questions and so do I and I am sure Russell will help us with responses. My first question is to ask what details in the first stratum of 1 Kings 3-11 suggest “campaigns and empire-building [specifically] in the vicinity of the Euphrates river”?

Below is a table enabling a quick comparison of that “oldest strata” as identified by Gmirkin in I Kings 3-11 and a selection of some portions I have pulled out of royal inscriptions of Shalmaneser III:

1 Kings 4:26 Solomon had four thousand stalls for chariot horses, and twelve thousand horses.

27 The district governors, each in his month, supplied provisions for King Solomon and all who came to the king’s table. They saw to it that nothing was lacking. 28 They also brought to the proper place their quotas of barley and straw for the chariot horses and the other horses.

1 Kings 5:13 King Solomon conscripted laborers from all Israel—thirty thousand men. 14 He sent them off to Lebanon in shifts of ten thousand a month, so that they spent one month in Lebanon and two months at home. Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor. 15 Solomon had seventy thousand carriers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hills, 16 as well as thirty-three hundred foremen who supervised the project and directed the workers. 17 At the king’s command they removed from the quarry large blocks of high-grade stone to provide a foundation of dressed stone for the temple. 18 The craftsmen of Solomon and Hiram and workers from Byblos cut and prepared the timber and stone for the building of the temple.

From the Kurkh monolith: From of the Hattinites, I received 3 talents of gold, 100 talents of silver, 300 talents of copper, 300 talents of iron, 1,000 copper vessels, 1,000 brightly colored garments (of wool) and linen, his daughter with her large dowry, 20 talents of purple wool, 500 cattle, 5,000 sheep. One talent of silver, 2 talents of purple wool, 200 cedar logs, I imposed upon him as his tribute. Yearly I received it in my city Assur. Haianu, son of Gabbari, (who lived) at the foot of Mount Amanus,—10 talents of silver, 90 talents of copper, 30 talents of iron, 300 brightly colored garments of wool and linen, 300 cattle, 3,000 sheep, 200 cedar logs, 2 homers of cedar resin (lit., blood of the cedar), his daughter with her rich dowry, I received from him. 10 minas of silver, 100 cedar logs, a homer of cedar resin, I laid upon him as his tribute; yearly I received it. Aramu, son of Agusi,—10 minas of gold, 6 talents of silver, 500 cattle, 5,000 sheep, I received from him. Sangara, of Carchemish,—3 talents of gold, 70 talents of silver, 30 talents of copper, 100 talents of iron, 20 talents of purple wool, 500 weapons, his daughter, with dowry, and 100 daughters of his nobles, . . . .

Both Solomon and Shalmaneser collected tribute –horses, chariots, harems, gold, silver, etc.

Gmirkin further points out that the “acts of Solomon” in 1 Kings 3-11 contain “many political references anachronistic prior to c. 840 BCE.” My question: What are some of these anachronisms? (Maybe they are mentioned later in the chapter but if so they have slipped while preparing this post.)

Continuing with a section of that “oldest stratum” is a suggestive common clustering of five kings (of a total of twelve) who allied themselves against Shalmaneser III:

1 Kings 10:28 Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt and from Kue—the royal merchants purchased them from Kue at the current price. 29 They imported a chariot from Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse for a hundred and fifty. They also exported them to all the kings of the Hittites and of the Arameans.




Shalmaneser III erected a monument at Mount Carmel testifying of his conquests of Syria and her allies, including Israel. (Map from Bible History)
Shalmaneser’s Kurkh monolith inscription: 1,200 chariots, 1,200 cavalry, 20,000 soldiers, of Hadad-ezer, of Aram; 700 chariots, 700 cavalry, 10,000 soldiers of Irhuleni of Hamath [a Hittite city] 2,000 chariots, 10,000 soldiers of Ahab, the Israelite, 500 soldiers of the Gueans [Kue] 1,000 soldiers of the Musreans [Egyptians], . . . . —these twelve kings he brought to his support; to offer battle and fight, they came against me.

Compare various inscriptions of Shalmaneser’s campaigns to subdue the Aramean city of Damascus with its allies that are listed together in Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts: 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. At that time I received the tribute of the inhabitants of Tyre, Sidon, and of Jehu, son of Omri, Hadadezer, king of Damascus…, together with 12 kings of Hatti-land, rose against me. . . . I conquered Ashtamaku, the royal residence of Irhuleni of Hatti, together with 86 (other towns). . . . The tribute of Jehu…, son of Omri … I received from him silver, gold, a golden saplu-bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king, (and) wooden puruhtu. . . . The tribute of the country Musri; I received from him camels whose backs were doubled, a river ox (hippopotamus), a … (rhinoceros), a susu -antelope, elephants, … – (and) … monkeys. . . . The tribute of Karparunda from Hattina; I received from him silver, gold, tin, bronze, copper … ivory, (and) ebony-wood.

The Kurkh monolith (map from Sutori.com)

 And, of course, we have the similarity of the names:

Shalmaneser appeared as שלמו in the biblical text (Hos. 10:14), very close to the spelling of Solomon as שלמה (LXX Σολομών) in 1 Kings 3-11. 

(Gmirkin, 84)

Continuing the train of thought from the earlier posts in this series, Gmirkin explains:

The appearance of Shalmaneser III in the biblical text as a mighty king who ruled the territories south of the Euphrates is easily accounted for as a local tradition among the Assyrian ruling class in the later province of Samerina [Assyrian Samaria].

Next post we’ll begin with the second literary stratum “of the Acts of Solomon” in 2 Kings 3-11.

Gmirkin, Russell. 2020. “‘Solomon’ (Shalmaneser III) and the Emergence of Judah as an Independent Kingdom.” In Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson, edited by Lukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò and Emanuel Pfoh, 76–90. Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies. New York: T&T Clark.

Luckenbill, Daniel David, ed. 1926. Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia. Volume I, Historical Records of Assyria from the Earliest Times to Sargon. Ancient Records, First Series. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press. http://archive.org/details/LuckenbillAncientRecordsAssyria01.

Pritchard, James B., ed. 1969. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. Third edition with Supplement. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. https://archive.org/details/AncientNearEasternTextsRelatingToTheOldTestament


Those Sources the Bible Cites

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by Neil Godfrey

Here I bring together different scholarly views on the sources cited in the Old Testament books of Kings directing readers to other writings for further information about a particular monarch. I conclude with a new perspective on one of those sources (the chronicles or annals of the kings of Judah) that would actually subvert the biblical narrative it is meant to support. This new interpretation comes from Russell Gmirkin’s chapter, “‘Solomon’ (Shalmaneser III) and the Emergence of Judah as an Independent Kingdom”, in the Thomas L. Thompson festschrift, Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity.

So the Lord routed them before Israel, killed them with a great slaughter at Gibeon . . . And it happened, as they fled before Israel . . . that the Lord cast down large hailstones from heaven on them . . . . There were more who died from the hailstones than the children of Israel killed with the sword. Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon; And Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”

So the sun stood still, And the moon stopped, Till the people had revenge upon their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. And there has been no day like that, before it or after it, that the Lord heeded the voice of a man; for the Lord fought for Israel. . . .

But these five kings had fled and hidden themselves in a cave at Makkedah. And it was told Joshua, saying, “The five kings have been found hidden in the cave at Makkedah.”

So Joshua said, “Roll large stones against the mouth of the cave, and set men by it to guard them. . . . And afterward Joshua struck them and killed them, and hanged them on five trees . . . . So it was at the time of the going down of the sun that Joshua commanded, and they took them down from the trees, cast them into the cave where they had been hidden, and laid large stones against the cave’s mouth, which remain until this very day.

Joshua 10:10-27

For other references to landmarks that are said to be visible “to this day” see Josh 7:26; 8:28, 29; … Judg 6:24; 15:19; 1 Kgs 8:8; 10:12; 2 Kgs 10:27; 2 Chr 5:9. — Stott, Why Did They Write This Way? p, 55

The Hans Christian Andersen citation

Given that Gmirkin uses “methods allied to those of Thompson, although [his] efforts rely more heavily on documentary sources” (p. 76), let’s open this post with Thompson’s view on particular attempt by a biblical author to “prove the truth” of his account by pointing to external evidence:

In Joshua 10, Jerusalem’s king, Adonizedek, the leader of five Amorite kings, was defeated by Joshua and his army in a running battle. Yahweh killed more enemies than Joshua did by throwing huge stones down on them from heaven. The kings were captured hiding in a cave and executed by Joshua. To endorse this story, the author tells us that five of these large stones are laid at the entrance of the cave ‘to this day’.

The humour of this closing ought not be missed. The author is very aware of the audience’s critical sensibilities. Just as Yahweh is hurling the large stones down from heaven, killing the enemy, the dead are described as having been killed by ‘hailstones’. After all, everyone knows – even the minimalist – that God sends hailstones. And this is where the author traps his listeners! The memorial set up at the cave, five of Yahweh’s stones, is an obvious argument for the story’s historicity. Such an argument is a common folktale motif, quite like the closure of Hans Christian Andersen’s story of ‘the princess and the pea’ with its historicizing details that the pea is still in the museum . . . ‘that is, if someone hasn’t stolen it’.

(Thompson, Mythic Past, 44)

Are they not written in the book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah?

Continue reading “Those Sources the Bible Cites”


Reconstructing the History of “Biblical” Israel and Judah

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is based on Russell Gmirkin’s chapter, “‘Solomon’ (Shalmaneser III) and the Emergence of Judah as an Independent Kingdom”, in the Thomas L. Thompson festschrift, Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity. All posts addressing the same volume are archived here.

Russel Gmirkin’s conclusions (p. 77):

• That the area later known as the kingdom of Judah was under direct rule from Samaria from c. 875 to c. 735 BCE.
• That Yahweh worship was also centered at Samaria during this early period and only appeared at Jerusalem as a result of Samarian regional influences.
• That Judah only emerged as an independent political entity in the time of Tiglath-pileser III under Jehoahaz of Judah in c. 735 BCE.
• That the Acts of Solomon originated in the Neo-Assyrian province of Samaria to celebrate Shalmaneser III as legendary conqueror and founder of an empire south of the Euphrates.
• That old local monumental architecture that the Acts of Solomon attributed to Shalmaneser III, including Jerusalem’s temple, is best understood as reflecting Omride building activities c. 875-850 BCE.

A typical chart illustrating the Old Testament chronology of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah is Jonathan Petersen’s on the BibleGateway Blog. I have copied that chart complete (left). If we use contemporary archaeological sources to determine what the kingdoms of Israel and Judah looked like and make adjustments to that chart we end up with something like the following. The United Kingdom disappears entirely. The Kingdom of Judah only emerges after the Assyrians have hamstrung the Kingdom of Israel in the time of King Menahem in the 730s. Before then the area we think of as the kingdom of Judah had been dominated by the kingdom of Israel.

Russell Gmirkin does not use the above chart but he does seek to reconstruct the historical origins of the kingdom of Judah, its Temple and Yahweh worship by means of the contemporary archaeological sources and comes to much the same conclusion as illustrated on the right side of the above chart. In an effort to get a handle on the archaeological sources and their relation to what we read in the biblical texts I made up my own rough grid based on Gmirkin’s list of archaeological sources. Dates and scale are only approximate. Many of the sources are available online for those interested in that sort of detail.

The kingdom of Judah does not register a mark on the world scene until after the Samaria based kingdom of Israel has been weakened by Assyria and on the brink of final collapse. For earlier Vridar posts on this order of events see

For those interested in following up the archaeological testimony to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah as per the above chart . . .

Scene on Black Obelisk: Jehu prostrate before Shalmaneser III

Consult Luckenbill’s Ancient Records of Assyria and Babylonia Volumes 1 and 2 for

  • the Kurkh Monolith Stele
  • the Black Obelisk
  • the Mesha Stele
  • the Nimrud Slab Inscriptions (for Adad-nirari III)
  • the Annals of Tiglath-pileser
  • the Display, Pavement and Nimrud Inscriptions (for Sargon II)
  • Sennacherib’s Annals & Bull inscription
  • the Cylinder texts (for Ashurbanipal)

Consult Glassner’s Mesopotamian Chronicles (I was able to access this volume on Questia in July last year but cannot see them there now; hope you have better luck) for

  • Shalmaneser V’s siege of Samaria
  • Nebuchadnezzar II’s destruction of Jerusalem

And Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts for

  • Esarhaddon’s subjugation of king Manasseh of Judah
  • Nebuchadnezzar II’s deportation of king Jehoiachin of Judah

Archaeological finds have demonstrated that Israel under Ahab extended its power from the Galilee through to the Red Sea. The map below is from Israel Finkelstein’s The Forgotten Kingdom : the Archaeology and History of Northern Israel (open access link). Read the concluding paragraphs of chapter 3 for Finkelstein’s discussion of evidence that Jerusalem at the time of Ahab was far from being a significant urban site. The map shows the main sites of Ahab’s building activities. Continue reading “Reconstructing the History of “Biblical” Israel and Judah”


Origins of the Jacob-Esau Narrative

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by Neil Godfrey

Part 2 on Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò‘s chapter, “The Abraham and Esau-Jacob Stories in the Context of the Maccabean Period”, in Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson.

The title of this and the previous post may read as declarative but my intent is to share thought-provoking explorations rather than state dogmatic conclusions.

. . .

The Genesis portrayal of Jacob is unlike other biblical narratives in which a heroic figure chosen by God momentarily falls from favour among his peers only to rise again to a more highly exalted status (e.g. Joseph, Gideon, David). In Genesis, Jacob is the second born and cheats his way to take the position of the older sibling.The second part of Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò’s [NS] chapter focuses on the Jacob-Esau narrative in Genesis. It does so by comparison with the parallel account in the Book of Jubilees, a book generally dated to the late second century BCE. The Genesis story of the two brothers, we well know, ends with their unexpected reconciliation. In Jubilees (chapters 3738), though, Jacob kills Esau. Jacob’s sons then attack and subdue Esau’s people making the Edomites tribute-paying subjects of Israel “until this day”. How could such opposite narratives come about?

Jacob depicted in Genesis is not the hero who falls, and loses, to rise to a triumphal victory. He is rather described as the lucky dodger. The stories about Jacob struggling with an angel, staying at Laban’s house and especially competing with his brother do not represent the typical plot of the falling-and-rising hero. (p. 55)

NS suggests that the author of this Genesis tale was inviting his audience to appreciate Esau and not to think poorly of him even though they identify with Jacob.

Readers obviously sympathise with Jacob, yet it might have been Esau who was intended to be the central figure of this part of the story. Therefore, the story allows the interplay of the protagonists’ successes and failures. In this way, the narrative’s attractiveness and the intellectual value of the story are proportionally higher since the story is less straightforward. The demanding reader needed more sophisticated accounts. (p. 55)

But what are we to make of the Jubilees’ version with its conclusion so opposing the drama in Genesis? In Genesis we are reading an adventure that presumably explains a friendly relationship between peoples, the Jews and the Edomites, while in Jubilees we find an etiological explanation for Jewish conquest of Edom. Genesis dialogue leaves no question that the story is etiological: God explains to Rebekah at the moment she was giving birth to the twins,

The LORD said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb . . .  one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.’ – Genesis 25:23

The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau, c. 1624, Peter Paul Rubens (https://institutopoimenica.com/2012/07/28/a-reconciliao-de-jac-e-esa-rubens/)

In NS’s view, the Jubilees story with its violent conclusion has a simpler and “more natural” coherence. In Genesis, Jacob’s fear for the safety of his family and his placing his most loved ones in the farthermost positions for their comparative safety,

The version in Jubilees seems to be better-constructed in regard to the narrative’s dynamics: Jacob’s fears, leading him to protect the most beloved ones by placing them at the end of the caravan (Gen. 33:1-3), does not find a logical culmination in Genesis. The canonical version, in which two brothers hug one another (Gen. 33:4), is dramaturgically less natural than the version in Jubilees, where the tension ends with war as the narrative climax . . . (p. 56)

Perhaps. I do like the sophistication of the literary structure here and see in it a masterful buildup of suspense and fear that makes the reconciliation all the more dramatically overwhelming. NS had already spoken of the sophistication of the Genesis narrative in the context of the complex position and character of Jacob and his fall from grace.

One thing is surely evident, as NS points out: At the time of the writing of Jubilees, apparently in the late second century BCE, the status of the Genesis stories had not had time to become canonical. There was still room for debate. Continue reading “Origins of the Jacob-Esau Narrative”