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”


Origins of the Abraham Narrative

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s return to having a closer look at some of the chapters in the book I  described back in  August this year. (Actually my recent post History. It’s Long Lost Dead and Gone began as a closer look at Niels Peter Lemche’s chapter titled “What People Want to Believe: Or Fighting Against ‘Cultural Memory'”, but since I’ve discussed the same thoughts of Lemche in many earlier posts I somehow ended up with my own little bottom-line spiel instead.)

In the chapter “The Abraham and Esau-Jacob Stories in the Context of the Maccabean Period”, author Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò [NS] seeks to understand the most plausible context from which those stories originated. I know some readers will be as interested as I am in his approach. I address a few — not all — of the arguments in the chapter. I will cover the stories of Jacob and Esau in the next post.


Łukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò

NS points out  that in the book of Genesis Abraham is “depicted as a figure disconnected from any historical realities, by being alien and of a nomadic way of life.”

The stories connected with Abraham are set within the mythical illo tempore, in the same way as Greek heroes are described in un-historical realities of the tragedies or Homeric epic for which a coherent historical background does not exist. (NS, p.50)

NS zeroes in on two moments in the Abraham story that he considers the most important:

  • the covenant between God and Abraham promising Abraham multitudes of descendants who become God’s chosen
  • the sacrifice of Isaac (the Akedah)

Begin with that second episode. NS views it as dramatizing the kinds of complex theological questions we elsewhere encounter in books like Job and Ecclesiastes. To what extent is the pious person expected to obey and trust God? Is the reward expected to be in this or the next life? The problems facing Abraham point to sophisticated philosophical (or theological) quandaries of the sort that preoccupy intellectual elites. The story does not come from popular folklore, surely. Rather,

it is a reflection of the Jewish elites of the late Hellenistic period (second-first century BCE), an expression of their intellectual, highly sophisticated interest. (p. 51)

* de Pury, A. 2000. “Abraham: The Priestly Writer’s ‘Ecumenical’ Ancestor.” In Rethinking the Foundations: Historiography in the Ancient World and in the Bible : Essays in Honour of John Van Seters, edited by Steven L. McKenzie, Thomas R. Mer, and Thomas Romer, 163–81. Berlin ; New York: De Gruyter.

On the first of those two key moments, NS observes that Abraham is a rather “pure in nature” figure unlike his progeny — Ishmael, Isaac and the sons of Keturah — who are all coloured with distinctive features that clearly associate them with certain historically known peoples: the Ishmaelites, the Jews, the inhabitants of Arabia. NS points readers to an article elsewhere by de Pury showing us that Abraham serves as an “ecumenical figure” serving as a unifying focus for both Jews and certain of their neighbours. Though descendants of Isaac will the “the chosen”, the narrative demonstrates God’s love for all of Abraham’s descendants. (de Pury remarks on the way Abraham must give up both sons — Ishmael exiled into the wilderness and Isaac sacrificed on the altar — only for God to miraculously intervene to save each of them.)

But if the narrator merely wanted to demonstrate that the sons of Isaac were to be the most favoured ones, why did he make the plot so complicated by having Isaac born after Ishmael? If the message for Jews was that they should embrace the descendants of Ishmael, Hagar and Keturah, why the “twisted narrative device”? NS sees two possible reasons:

Firstly, it might have served as inter-propaganda directed to members of the Jewish community, with the statement about Arabs, who shall not be treated as aliens. This may have served certain political needs.

Secondly, the Abraham-Isaac-Ishmael tradition might have been addressed to the Arab population with the same friendly information. In this case, we would be dealing with the declaration of friendship, which in the reality of politics might have been understood as an invitation toward the Arab population to join the political unity of the Jews. (53)

The question that follows is, When, historically, would such propaganda needs have appeared? Continue reading “Origins of the Abraham Narrative”


conclusion … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

The previous posts in this series:

This post concludes my overview of the festschrift to Thomas L. Thompson on his 80th birthday. I hope to post soon a link to a single PDF file of all of these posts. Over the coming months, from time to time, I would further like to cover some of the essays in more detail. The book is expensive and I do appreciate all involved in enabling me to receive a review copy. Hopefully, a less expensive paperback or e-version will be available before long, but till then and for those who are not as financial as they would like to be don’t forget your state and local libraries since most of them will be able to assist you with an interlibrary loan service. So with thanks to those who put this volume together and contributed to it, and to Thomas L. Thompson whose scholarship has been so influential in biblical studies (and of course on me among so many others), here is the final post in my overview discussion of Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson.

. . .

Lisbeth Fried’s essay, “Can the Book of Nehemiah Be Used as an Historical Source, and If So, of What?“, builds on Thomas Thompson’s emphasis on “the importance of looking beyond the situation in which the biblical story is set to the situation in which the book may have been written” (p. 210).

Following in that path, we recognize that while the biblical book Ezra-Nehemiah is set in the Persian period, it was written over a long period of time. Much of it is definitely Hellenistic (Fried 2015a: 4-5; Finkelstein 2018); some of it may be Persian, however, and may be used as an historical source if used cautiously and if confirmed by corroborating documents. I test this hypothesis by examining the portrayal of Nehemiah as the Persian governor of Judea during the reign of Artaxerxes I. Is Nehemiah’s portrayal historical, i.e., does his portrayal match what we know in general about provincial governors under Achaemenid rule? (p. 210)

Fried leads readers through a step by step comparison of Nehemiah’s actions with those that Persian inscriptions inform us were typical of the actions and responsibilities of Persian governors: jurisdiction over the temple and its operations, control of temple funds (temples functioned as collection centres for the Persian empire), religious practices of the priests and people, and control over marriages in order to safeguard against the emergence of alliances that might threaten the security of those appointed to administer state power. So though a late composition the book of Nehemiah appears to be consistent practices of Persian governors from Egypt to Asia Minor.

In Ehud Ben Zvi’s “Chronicles’ Reshaping of Memories of Ancestors Populating Genesis” we encounter many instances where the books of Chronicles rewrite events found in Genesis and how we might expect the literati of the day to have been influenced in their perceptions of those events in the more culturally significant book of Genesis.

Reading Chronicles and identifying with the message conveyed by the Chronicler2 led, inter alia, to processes of drawing attention to or away from some events, characters or some of their features, and led to a reshaping and re-signifying of implicit or explicit mnemonic narratives. (p. 225)

Details that on the surface look rather pointless to the lay reader take on fascinating meaning as Zvi takes us through several of those “little details”: Why does Genesis generally speak of “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” while Chronicles of “Abraham, Isaac and Israel”? Why in Genesis do we follow the adventures of Esau and Jacob while in Chronicles it is Esau and Israel? Do we detect here a subtle attempt to snatch from the Samaritans in the north the identity of Israel for the Judeans in the south? Compare also Abraham’s wife Keturah in Genesis; why in Chronicles is she called a concubine-wife? and why in Genesis do we read that she bore “to Abraham” children but in Chronicles she simply “bore children”? Why are the Genesis and Chronicles narratives about Er so different? Is there significance in the different ways “Adam” is introduced at the beginning of each book? Why does Chronicles find it necessary to merely set out a list of unadorned patriarchal names whereas Genesis introduced some anecdote on the significance of some of those names? Why does the Chronicler think it appropriate to make no mention at all of the Garden of Eden or Flood stories while rewriting other episodes in Genesis? And so on and so on. I found it a most interesting journey of discovery.

The penultimate chapter is by another scholar who has appeared before on Vridar, Philippe Wajdenbaum. Some readers of Vridar will be reminded of Russell Gmirkin’s thesis that Greek authors inspired the books of the Bible when they read Wajdenbaum’s “The Book of Proverbs and Hesiod’s Works and Days“. Debt to Thompson is once again acknowledged in this context:

T. L. Thompson (1992, 1999, 2001) and N. P. Lemche (2001 [1993]) have raised the possibility that the Hebrew Bible was produced in the Hellenistic era. There is no physical evidence for the Hebrew Bible before the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the spread of Hellenism in the Levant after Alexander’s conquest provides the best context for its creation. Thompson’s vision has elicited a paradigm shift in biblical studies, inspiring several scholars to posit a direct influence upon the redaction of several Hebrew Bible books of such Greek classical authors as Homer (Brodie 2001: 447-94; Louden 2011: 324; Kupitz 2014), Herodotus (Nielsen 1997; Wesselius 2002) and Plato (Wajdenbaum 2011; Gmirkin 2017). (p. 248)

Some Hesiod passages:

    • He does mischief to himself who does mischief to another, and evil planned harms the plotter most.
    • The idle man who waits on empty hope, lacking a livelihood, lays to heart mischief-making.
    • For a man wins nothing better than a good wife, and, again, nothing worse than a bad one.

There are “similarities of vocabulary between Hesiod and the Septuagint text of Proverbs . . . even though the latter greatly differs from the original Hebrew” so one might well suspect that the translators had been familiar with Hesiod’s Greek poem. Yet Wajdenbaum goes further and argues that “the original Hebrew text itself may have been influenced by Hesiod.” Wajdenbaum lists very many possibilities and acknowledges similar observations other scholars have made concerning Proverbs and Greek moralistic works (including Aesop and Aristotle).

Not only Proverbs but the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are also brought into the discussion as well as other Greek poets such as Theognis.

The final essay is “The Villain ‘Samaritan’: The Sāmirī as the Other Moses in Qur’anic Exegesis” by Joshua Sabi — the second chapter taking a look at the Qur’an. Sabi’s discussion is probably the most technical of all in this volume and not the easiest of reads for those not yet initiated into the highly abstract conceptual terminology. It is worth engaging with, however, in order to see a control instance of how a religious text both challenged and rewrote earlier scriptures. Such a case study potentially deepens any discussion of the changes in Jewish-Christian scriptures that most of us are more familiar with. How does one understand the literary creation of a new figure (in this case the Sāmirī) as a rival counterpart to Moses (at the time of the golden calf apostasy) and ancestor of the Samaritans?

Muslim exegetes have been – and still are – obsessed with the historicity of the figure of the Sāmirī. . . .

The novelty in Islamic Qur’anic exegesis is not how these biographical accounts came about, but how the identities are constructed and construed literarily. In the minds of the exegete the ambiguity of theSāmirī figure’s Qur’anic identity left him with no option but to venture into the realm of mythologized understanding of history according to which the Qur’an is both the eternal word of God and his message of salvation to mankind. The invention of such a figure with all the theological elements of iconoclastic theology‘ and literary anatomy of mythology was construed as history. Exegetes had to invent another Moses whose biography is a mimicry of the biblical and Qur’anic Moses. In their trying to solve the ambiguity of the Sāmirī’s story and his culpability, exegetes failed to see the Qur’an’s restorative approach to Scriptures as well as to humans’ fragile relations to God.(pp. 271-72)

Niesiolowski-Spanò, Lukasz, and Emanuel Pfoh, eds. 2020. Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson. Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies. New York: T&T Clark.


part 3 … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

Earlier posts in this series: 25th August 2020 and 27th August 2020.

Thomas Thompson . . . is a pioneer in questioning more or less weak historical reconstructions done by Old Testament scholars, reconstructions that were mainly based on biblical texts and only sometimes supported by a few arbitrarily selected extra-biblical data. I still remember how his Tübinger Dissertation on the historicity of the patriarchal narratives struck like a bomb in Heidelberg during the preparation stage of the second volume of Westermann’s commentary on Genesis. 


Later on Thompson extended and radicalized his historical scepticism concerning the Hebrew Bible. According to him, all the texts from Genesis to 2 Kings constitute a ‘mythic past’ composed by redactors of the Persian and Hellenistic periods from many traditions. They show no historiographical interest but are intended to construct a Judean or Samarian identity and to enfold a theological and philosophical worldview. — Rainer Albertz

. . .

We come now to the third section of Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity and the one that is of special interest to me . . . .

Part 3. Biblical Narratives

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

The opening essay is by another scholar also of the University of Copenhagen whose work has been discussed before on Vridar, Ingrid Hjelm: “The Food of Life and the Food of Death in Texts from the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East“. Hjelm interprets Genesis 1-3 intertextually with the Mesopotamian myth of Adapa, the book of Proverb’s discourse on Wisdom and Folly, and 1 Samuel’s narrative of Nabal and Abigail, finally extending even to thoughts on the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament.

I have a special interest in the Adapa myth as is surely evident from having posted fifteen times on it so far. It is about a pre-Flood mortal, Adapa, who is given perfect wisdom by the god Ea but not eternal life. Adapa offends the gods and is called to give account. The god Ea, who gave him wisdom, deceives him so that he unwittingly rejects the gift of eternal life offered by a higher deity, Anu. The details are quite different but the motifs are the same as we read in Genesis: a mortal being deceived by a divine agent, becoming wise but losing eternal life, the “sin” and a curse. There is surely some connection but exactly what that is is not immediately clear. Hjelm explores the questions common to both myths. The temple of the gods in the Adapa myth is replaced by the divinity’s garden in Genesis. Hjelm points out that Thompson himself has noted that the woman already “knows the good” before she eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and that insight changes the way we read the story. Yet God has already planted the tree of life in the same garden, so why is it that God appeared from the outset (before “the fall”) to turn the attention of Adam and Eve from that tree? Asking such questions brings us even closer to the character of the interplay between the gods and Adapa in the Mesopotamian myth.

The second part of the essay is another fascinating examination of Wisdom and Folly in Proverbs vis à vis Abigail and Nabal (meaning “Folly”) in 1 Samuel 25, with once more the motif of eating specially prepared food. A snippet of the discussion:

In a comparative analysis of the goddesses Athirat, Qudshu, Tannit, Anat and Astarte in texts from the ancient Near East, inscriptions mentioning Asherah (and Yahweh) from Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud and Old Testament texts, Broberg finds so much similarity in the symbol of Ashera’s linking of trees, snakes, fertility and woman that it is plausible that McKinlay’s ‘agents of God’ hide an Ashera goddess (Broberg 2014: 50-64).19 The use of the plural forms in Gen. l:26’s and 3:22’s ‘let us’ and ‘like us’ functions as an inclusio around this hidden goddess (Broberg 2014: 64), who is present at the creation as god’s wife, but in the course of the narrative is transformed to become Adam’s wife as the ‘mother of all living’ (Gen. 3:20; Broberg 2014: 59; cf. also Wallace 1985: 158). A similar transformation takes place when Abigail as David’s wife ‘is moved into the ranks of the many wives’ (McKinlay 2014 [sic – 1999?]: 82).

If, as argued by Broberg (2014: 61), Genesis 2-4’s woman/Eve narratives contain a conscious dethronement of Asherah similar to the anti-Asherah bashing the in the books of Kings (e.g. 1 Kgs 18:19; 2 Kgs 21:7; 23:4-7), it is likely that Proverbs 1-9 and 1 Samuel 25 are written as contrasting narratives, aiming at transferring Asherah’s positive traits as mother of all living onto the female figure. As heir of the life-sustaining qualifications of the fertility goddess, the wise woman secures the good life and holds death in check. (pp. 171f. Broberg 2014 = a Masters thesis at University of Copenhagen. My highlighting in all quotations.)

Where does the Lord’s Supper enter this picture?

The study of ancient myths may also add to our understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a radical transformation of drinking from the ṣarṣaru cup of Isthar in Near Eastern covenant ideologies’ confirmation and remembrance of the covenant. (p. 173)

The artist’s imagination has reduced the gates to a far more manageable size than in the original narrative unless we are to imagine Samson here, as later rabbis did, as a monstrously large giant. Wikimedia Commons

But let’s move on. The next chapter pulls out for attention one of those very odd passages in Biblical narratives that seem to have no real connection with the surrounding text and seem to add nothing at all to the plot and appears to be nothing more than an outlandishly tall tale. It’s one of those “why did the author write that?” scenarios: “A Gate in Gaza: An Essay on the Reception of Tall Tales” by Jack M. Sasson.

Judges 16: 1 One day Samson went to Gaza, where he saw a prostitute. He went in to spend the night with her. 2 The people of Gaza were told, “Samson is here!” So they surrounded the place and lay in wait for him all night at the city gate. They made no move during the night, saying, “At dawn we’ll kill him.” 3 But Samson lay there only until the middle of the night. Then he got up and took hold of the doors of the city gate, together with the two posts, and tore them loose, bar and all. He lifted them to his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that faces Hebron.

Sasson asks how such a story was understood by its ancient audience. We have no motif for Samson’s visit to Gaza; the feat defies credibility even for a strong-man (given the size of city gates later rabbis deduced Samson’s shoulders spanned dozens of cubits; add to the weight and size we have a steep climb and journey of tens of kilometres). Why do Bible authors sometimes resort to what surely must have been acknowledged to be obvious fictions?

. . . the exaggerations are themselves the focus of the story, giving them a ‘fictionality’ that encourages transposal into other forms of comprehension, such as a parable or a paradigm. In such accounts, narrators tend to sharpen implausibility by multiplying clues, their main intent being to promote the didactic via the entertaining. In antiquity, any Samson reader acquainted with fortified cities would know that city gates, not least because of their size, bulk and weight, were not transportable on the back of any one individual, however mighty. . . .

Elsewhere in Scripture, narrators also use diverse tactics to alert perceptive readers or audiences on the fictionality of what lies before them by assigning moralistic or whimsical names to characters that no parents would wish on their children. Such a tactic is obvious in Genesis 14 with its series of the named kings of Sodom (Bera, ‘In Evil’), Gomorrah (Birsha,‘In Wickedness’) and one of their allies (Bela, ‘Swallower’, likely king of Zoar). (pp. 184f)

Continue reading “part 3 … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”


continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

The first part of this review is at https://vridar.org/2020/08/25/biblical-narratives-archaeology-historicity-essays-in-honour-of-thomas-l-thompson/

. . .

Continuing the section Part 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology . . . 

Jesper Høgenhaven’s chapter explores evidence in the Qumran texts for how Second Temple Judeans thought about the Biblical writings. We can be puzzled by the way biblical passages were joined to one another to create new texts (Thomas Thompson, Høgenhaven informs us, spoke of a ‘Copenhagen Lego hypothesis’ with regard to 4Q175). An early quotation in the essay jumped out at me since it addresses the basic method of gospel interpretation by Maurice Mergui and Nanine Charbonnel whose books I have been discussing on this blog. (I will be returning to them both in coming months.)

The late Philip R. Davies made the following pointed remark on scholars striving to collect the elements necessary for writing a ‘sectarian history’ based on Qumran scriptural commentaries (pesharim):

The first direction in exegesis of the pesharim must always be towards their midrashic function, for until we understand how these commentaries work – and that means as midrashim – we have no warrant to plunder them for historical data, especially given that (a) no continuous tradition can be established as lying behind them and (b) where they do contain – as we know that they do (I think in particular of 4QpNah) – some historical information, any kind of plausible analogy we could invoke would warn us that it will be mixed up with invention, will be distorted, garbled and anachronistic. (Davies 1989: 27-8)

(pp. 101f. The Davies 1989 link is to the Open Access book at Project Muse)

Amen. I recall Liverani’s observation about lazy historians running with a narrative that looks like history without too much second thought. Investigating the genre of a source ought to be the first priority of any historical inquiry.

So Høgenhaven surveys the way Israel’s past is utilized in various Qumran texts. He concludes that there is little conceptual difference between myths of ancient times and recent historical experiences. Metaphor and history are blurred in a way that it is not always obvious to modern readers which is which. Stories are rewritten, reinterpreted, rationalized, expanded, and commented upon as their functions vary over time. History is salvation history (“or ‘perdition history’), and along with its dualistic motifs, discerning what texts meant to readers at any particular time can be a challenge. Høgenhaven’s concluding reference to “renewed and repentant ‘Israel’ or the faithful and obedient remnant of Israel” as a stock identifying motif for the creators of the texts and their audiences links up with a dominant theme in Thompson’s The Mythic Past.

2 heads: John Hyrcanus II and John the Baptist

Next essay is by Gregory L. Doudna, another scholar some of whose work (especially on Qumran and the DSS) has been addressed here. This time Doudna takes on the passage about John the Baptist in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. After having read a variety of cases for the passage being an interpolation by a Mandean or Christian hand and other suggestions that the passage is definitely Josephan but straining at ways to reconcile Josephus’s chronology with Jesus, I learn now that there is yet another possible explanation for the various curiosities raised by the account. I admit I approached this chapter with some scepticism but by the time I had finished had to concede that I think Doudna makes a very good case that Josephus’s John the Baptist report is “a chronologically dislocated story of the death of Hyrcanus II”:

In the same way [as another apparently dislocated account], Josephus’s John the Baptist story reads as a doublet or different version of Hyrcanus II chronologically dislocated to the time of the wrong Herod. In this case Josephus did not place the two versions of the death of Hyrcanus II close together in the same time setting as in some of the other cases of doublets. If Josephus had done that, the doublet in this case would have been recognized before now. Instead, Josephus mistakenly attached one of the traditions of the death of Hyrcanus II to the wrong Herod, just as he separately mistakenly attached documents to the wrong Hyrcanus. (p. 132)

I hope to discuss Doudna’s chapter in more detail in a future post.

The next chapter by Jim West is a “re-evaluation” of

the book by Thomas Thompson titled The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David and discusses the appropriateness of his methodology, the correctness of his interpretation, and the continuing importance of his contribution on the topic of the historical Jesus. (p. 138)

West laments the lack of more general scholarly interest in The Messiah Myth given that it has, he claims, been taken up by

an army of ‘Jesus Mythicists’ who latched onto Thompson’s work as support for their view that Jesus actually never existed and who were bolstered by Thompson’s book. (p. 139)

Continue reading “continuing … Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”


Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson

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by Neil Godfrey

With thanks to those contributors who encouraged and assisted me to obtain a review copy of this volume, and thanks, of course, to the publisher T&T Clark/Bloomsbury for sending it to me.

Why a volume of essays in honour of Thomas L. Thompson? The opening paragraph of the Introduction explains (with my highlighting):

Thomas L. Thompson has been, for the past five decades, behind some of the – if not all – major changes in Old Testament historiography, if we consider that his criticism of the patriarchal narratives, the exodus and settlement and the United Monarchy were each at their own time forerunners of what later on would become accepted in the field (Thompson 1974, 1987, 1992, 1999).

See below for those four titles. The first, 1974, was met at the time with such opposition that it left him “unemployed and unemployable for ten years”. The 1992 work precipitated his expulsion from Marquette University.

His work from the 1970s through the 1990s was certainly decisive in crafting a critical understanding of that now infamous creature ‘ancient Israel’ – a task he, along with Philip R. Davies, Niels Peter Lemche and Keith W. Whitelam, deconstructed in different ways within the field of Old Testament studies. 

All four names have been the subjects of multiple posts on Vridar.

The grouping of these four scholars is not innocent, of course, as already during the 1990s they were thrown together under the tag of ‘biblical minimalists’ by scholarly adversaries (the so-called, by opposition, ‘maximalists’). As has been noted elsewhere (Whitelam 2002), understanding these four scholars under this epithet is not only misinformed but eventually wrong, since they did not agree on every point nor were they addressing the same issues from the same perspective. However, on many issues they agreed, if not on the results, certainly on the methodology and the ways in which to conduct historical research in Old Testament studies. And the arrival at such a situation in the 1990s has a lot to do with Thomas’s career.

They certainly do differ in their conclusions and overall approaches to historical inquiry. But the fundamental point they have in common is their reliance upon the “hard evidence” of archaeology as the starting point of their interpretations and applications of the Hebrew scriptural texts as source documents for historical reconstruction. That is, the first question to ask is, What do we know from the archaeological remains and how does this archaeological information compare with the biblical texts?; the second arises from a failure to find material support for the historical narratives in the Bible: How can we best understand the circumstances that led to the creation of those unhistorical theological narratives? But back to TLT in particular.

Earlier this year I posted an interview with Thomas Thompson that had been conducted by the Greek Mythicists site. The only contact I had personally with TLT prior to this blog was an email I sent asking him if he knew where I might obtain a reasonably priced copy of Early History of the Israelite People and his reply expressing outrage at the publisher’s asking price. So it is reassuring to read in the same Introduction to Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity testimonies to his more general character of sympathy and support for those who face hurdles in academia with having their views acknowledged and respected. He sounds like a good friend to have. How I do wish more scholars who have expressed outrage at some of the views expressed on this blog would show some sign that they could be more like the TLT described here:

Thomas is also an engaging person, a protective friend and a true believer in peaceful resolutions. Even during the harshest moments of the debate between the so-called biblical maximalists and minimalists, Thomas served as an emissary of dialogue. While some of his colleagues were irritated by absurd and sometimes painful accusations, Thomas was able to sit over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee with the adversaries and talk. Thomas always separates – something not common enough – scholarly polemics from personal relationships. (p. xxi)

Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity is divided into three parts: 1. Method; 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology; 3. Biblical Narratives. Each section is a container for mostly bite-size essays which makes for easy reading for someone like me who enjoys breaks from the more lengthy tomes and articles.

Part 1. Method

The first essay (by Margreet L. Steiner) highlights the chaotic state of the archaeological landscape of Jerusalem. The second (by Raz Kletter) presents another chaos, one of an ongoing explosion of scholarly publications about that archaeology and related ancient Near Eastern studies and with which it is impossible for any one person to keep up.

Several posts on Vridar have presented Niels Peter Lemche’s criticism of the “conservative scholarship – critical scholarship” divide found in biblical (notably Old Testament) studies. Lemche’s sober essay here extends these thoughts to a more general tendency of scholars to lead general readers into what are effectively myths, whether national or religious myths.

It was Lemche, it should be noted, who assisted Thompson after his rejection from Marquette University in gaining a chair in Old Testament at the University of Copenhagen.

Emanuel Pfoh (another scholar with a presence in Vridar archives) in his essay offers a way forward for making biblical scholarship “more honest”. His in-depth discussion of specifics concludes,

My point therefore is that the context for the production of knowledge should at least be considered by everybody as a necessary moment of any research, a moment of reflexivity in which we think about our own categories and models and our own social locations to understand and explain our production of knowledge. To gain consciousness of such an epistemological situation would unquestionably make our research processes not only more explicit and scientific but also more honest. (p. 43)

That pulled me up somewhat. Perhaps such awareness comes more easily in one’s early years of exploration. Over time one can fall into a routine that takes one further away from the initial reasons for one’s interests and fresh awareness of the different actors one meets. But the routine should also mean one is in a better position to have a deeper awareness of where hypotheses, agreements and disagreements are ultimately coming from.

Part 2. History, Historiography and Archaeology

Continue reading “Biblical Narratives, Archaeology, Historicity – Essays in Honour of Thomas L. Thompson”


How to Read a Sacred Text (a lesson from Psalms and Ascension of Isaiah)

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by Neil Godfrey

In a recently published volume on the Ascension of Isaiah is a chapter with these arresting words:

It is the thesis of this paper that readers and authors of ancient oracular literature did not assume that meaning lies in the text, that the meaning is what the text says. Rather ancient revelatory authors wrote to open windows on meaning that lay beyond what their texts say, and ancient readers read to look through those windows to the meaning beyond. Perhaps an ancient way of reading can explain ancient translators’ decisions and can lead modem readers to appreciate them – and can open a door through which modern readers can understand the Ascls as its authors and earliest readers may have wished. 

(Hall, 146-47. my bolding)

That reminded me of a conflicted time in my own past life trying to make sense of my church’s teachings against the reality of what the Bible itself said. “Here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:10), was the phrase that our church leaders had taught to us: scripture, we were taught, could only be understood by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and it was written so that only the spiritually guided ones could truly understand it. One passage was to be interpreted by another passage in some other book. You wonder what Hosea meant when he wrote,

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. (Hosea 11:1) ?

Why, turn to Matthew and you will read the answer:

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:14-15)

Matthew explains the meaning of Hosea, you see. That’s how the Bible works, we were taught.

My difficulties began one day quite some years ago when I decided study each book in isolation from the other books just to try to get a firm handle on exactly what each book really was saying — in its “own write” — in its own context, without any input from any other book in the Bible. That was an eye-opener. I fairly quickly found myself in a position where I knew more about what the Bible itself says than what our pastors and evangelists and ministers who were teaching us. There begins another tale for another day.

But now I’m studying Christian origins and the more I learn the more I realize that my old church was right — the sacred texts were not meant to be read for literal meaning but as gateways into other texts and visions of the mysteries. At least, that’s how they were read so very often. Such a method is the fundamental assumption of midrashic readings, too. That is how Matthew read Hosea, after all. (Of course, there remains one serious difference between church readings “here a little, there a little”: church authorities have had a habit of cementing their jig-saw readings of the Bible as set doctrine, the departure from which amounts to the crime of heresy; the early explorers of midrashic interpretations of text were apparently free to explore and discover new “insights”, at least for a time.)

The author of the Gospel of John understood the principle well. He even had Jesus propound it:

Robert G. Hall

Nicodemus respectfully offers a careful, precisely consistent interpretation of what Jesus said, and Jesus berates him for it, ‘Are you a leader of the Jews and you do not know these things’? (John 3.10). Jesus refuses to define his statements. Instead, Jesus stokes Nicodemus’ bewilderment by piling on puzzle after puzzle. Jesus had said, ‘Unless one be born άνωθεν, one cannot see the kingdom of God’. Does Jesus mean ‘born again’? or ‘born from above’ or ‘born from the beginning’ or ‘born anew’? When Nicodemus tries ‘born again’ and asks Jesus to explain what he means, Jesus simply replies with another puzzle: ‘Unless one is bom from water and πνεύμα, one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’ (3.5). Jesus’ words do not refute Nicodemus; Nicodemus’ interpretation works as well as ever. Furthermore, Jesus’ second puzzle does not define the meaning of the first; rather it multiplies meaning: Is Jesus speaking of resurrection? ‘Unless one is born again, born from water (death, Lam 3.53; Ps 69.14-15] and breath [Ezek 37.9] one cannot enter the kingdom of God’. Is Jesus speaking of life in the Spirit? ‘Unless one is born from above, born from water [water of life flowing from Jesus who comes from above, John 4.10-15] and Spirit [water from Jesus is the Spirit, John 7.38-39], one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’. Is Jesus speaking of a new creation? ‘Unless one is born from the beginning, born from water and wind [think Gen 1.2], one cannot enter the Kingdom of God’. Jesus’ subsequent statements solve nothing; they simply add depth to the ambiguity. Nicodemus tries to understand the words as propositions, as statements containing meaning. Jesus refuses to fix the meaning: the statements are not propositions; they are windows to meaning that goes beyond what they say. Only by interpreting windows by windows can the statements remain windows; to fix the meaning is to kill them. Jesus refuses to do so.Authors of ancient revelatory literature wrote not to fix meaning but to open windows. Their goal is not a well- expressed message but the readers’ enlightened mind. They expect a reader who will join the inquiry, who will try to see through the text into the realities beyond.

(149-50. italics original, bolding mine)

To add to the “windows of opportunities” for various meanings Hall reminds us that books were far more often heard performed than silently read. And each reading performance was surely different in some way given that Hebrew manuscripts lacked vowels and Greek manuscripts lacked word divisions.

Readers had to decide what to pronounce. Every performance might be different; each would beget its own insight. (150)

Take the most central conundrum of the Jewish Scriptures, the very name of God:

I AM WHO I AM, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (Ex 3.14) is complex. The imperfects denote continual action in the present, the past, the future, continual action always. The Septuagint translates έγώ είμι ό ών. ’Εγώ είμι denotes present continual action; ό ών is timeless, denoting the act of being simply, έγώ είμι ό ών pretty well captures continual action always – much better than έγώ είμι ός είμι έγώ. This last is elegant, but captures only continual present action. Of course, the divine name is carefully composed; readers meditating on it will see much more than ‘continual action always’ and the Greek repays meditation, too. Translators of the Septuagint have tried to open a window rather than simply to translate what the text says. (152)

Recall that the Psalms have those curious musical terms popping up here and there:

The Psalm titles are difficult to understand because they contain musical terms the significance of which is lost. Even the Septuagint offers little help because it prefers to translate the titles as windows for insight rather than as notes to musicians. For instance, the NRSV translates the title to Psalm 45 (LXX 44) as ‘To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song’. The LXX has delved for insight: εις τό τέλος ύπέρ των άλλοιωθησομένων τοΐς υίοΐς Κορε εις σύνεσιν φδή ύπέρ του αγαπητού, ‘For the end concerning the things that shall be changed a song by the sons of Korah for insight concerning the Beloved’. The Septuagint translates the title to urge readers and hearers to penetrate to what the song is really about: it is not simply the marriage song of the king, but it opens insight into the transformations at the end for the sake of the Beloved, for David. In the Septuagint the Psalm title offers Psalm 45 as transparent to insight that is behind and beyond its words. (152-53)

The Descent and Ascent of Jesus in the Psalms?

Continue reading “How to Read a Sacred Text (a lesson from Psalms and Ascension of Isaiah)”


How Paul Found Christ Crucified – “on a Tree” – In the Scriptures

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by Neil Godfrey

Toruń, church of St. Janów. Painting on the north wall of the presbytery (around 1380-90) – Crucifixion on Jesse’s Tree (Wikimedia)

Who bewitched you? Paul demanded to know of the Galatians. He continued:

Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was written beforehand [προεγράφη, cf Rom. 15:4] as crucified.

Max Wilcox suggested (with some diffidence) at least the possibility of such a translation back in 1977 in an article published in the Journal of Biblical Literature. The remainder of this post draws a few key points from a mass of fascinating details in that article, “Upon the Tree”: Deut 21:22-23 in the New Testament”. It focuses on what Paul and other early “Christian” exegetes found written in the Scriptures through a midrashic type reading.

A few verses after that opening Paul “bizarrely” links Jesus Christ with the pronouncement of a curse on anyone “hanging on a tree” as per the law of Deuteronomy. Galatians 3:13:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”

quoting Deuteronomy 21:23

. . . anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse . . .

Look at that Deuteronomy 21 passage in full and despair at trying to find any way Paul could have associated it with the crucified Jesus:

If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance. (Deut 21:22-23)

Wilcox finds clues to the association in the verses leading up to Galatians 3:13. If we are aware of the Scriptures Paul has been alluding to in those preceding verses we can find the answer to why the Deuteronomic tree-hanging curse applied to Jesus.

Look at Galatians 3:8-9

Now Scripture, having seen beforehand that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, proclaimed the good news of this in advance to Abraham in the promise, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”

So then, those who are ‘of faith’ are blessed with faithful/believing Abraham.

For Wilcox the above passage looks very much like a mixed quotation based on three passages in a Greek translation of Genesis(Notice that Peter is assigned a similar quotation in Acts: the major difference being that in Acts the stress is on “seed” while in Galatians it is on “you”, referring to Abraham.)

Wilcox comments that Paul (and the author of Acts) are using a hybrid quotation to associate the promise to Abraham with the “nations”, the Gentiles.

Not only Genesis but Deuteronomy informs Paul’s thought

In Galatians 3:10 we begin to read a longer section of the cursing and blessing dichotomy. This motif comes from many passages throughout Deuteronomy. Galatians 3:10 even directly quotes Deuteronomy:

Galatians 3:10 Deuteronomy 27:26
. . . for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Cursed be he that confirmeth not the words of this law to do them. . . .

But why does Paul veer towards the “cursed is everyone hanging on a tree” passage when that passage is surely meant to apply to blasphemers and other sinners of the worst kind? Continue reading “How Paul Found Christ Crucified – “on a Tree” – In the Scriptures”