2010-05-29

The Fall of Jericho — inspired by an old Canaanite tale?

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by Neil Godfrey

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Marieke den Braber and Jan-Wim Wesselius published an article that argued the story of Joshua’s besieging of Jericho drew on literary precedents centuries old.

Gosh, maybe even the story of the fall of Jericho after 7 days of silence and loud blasts of trumpets on the 7th day was made up too.

These are notes from “The Unity of Joshua 1-8, its Relation to the Story of King Keret, and the Literary Background to the Exodus and Conquest Stories.” — Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament, Vol. 22, No. 2, 253-274, 2008.

The original article covers a much more complex discussion than the following table suggests. I’ve just picked out these bits for general interest here. Braber and Wesselius don’t suggest that the Joshua story necessarily directly copied or transvalued the Keret story we have, but that the evidence suggests that such a story, such tropes as 7 days besieging and 7 days noise bringing about the fall of the city, was known in the literature before the biblical author penned the Jericho story.

My primary interest in stuff like this is to explore the links between biblical stories and other narratives and themes in the wider area. Anything that helps understanding possible literary backgrounds to the Bible is “A Good Thing” in my view.

The Epic of Keret is a Canaanite/Ugaritic epic poem from around 1500 to 1200 B.C.E. I admit I find it a little difficult to connect a king going crazy enough to surrender his city because of the noise of animals with walls falling flat at the noise of trumpets. So make of this what you will.

Continue reading “The Fall of Jericho — inspired by an old Canaanite tale?”


2010-05-22

Jesus: a Saviour Just Like the Kings and Gods of Egypt and Babylon

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by Neil Godfrey

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Thomas L. Thompson wrote The Messiah Myth to demonstrate that the sayings and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels (and David in the OT) are the product of a literary tradition about Saviour figures — both kings and deities — throughout the Middle East. The subtitle of the book is “the Near Eastern roots of Jesus and David”.

A number of New Testament scholars have expressed concern that contemporary classical literature is not widely read and studied by their peers. One’s understanding of the Gospels and Acts — and even the New Testament letters — is enriched when one can recognize links between them and other literature of their day. Thompson goes a bit further than this, and appeals for a greater awareness of the longstanding tradition of literary themes and images that were the matrix of both Old and New Testament narratives.

Some scholars see in Jesus’ sayings certain gems that are unique or holy or brilliantly enlightened and worthy of the deepest respect. They see in his deeds of healing and concern for the poor and weak a noble character worthy of devotion.

Some see the themes of concern for the poor and condemnation of the rich and powerful as evidence that Jesus was tapping into popular revolutionary or resistance sentiments among peasants and displaced persons in early first-century Galilee.

Other scholars see in the saying evidence of economic exploitation such that a sense of resentment could easily morph into a Jesus movement.

All of the above interpretations are thrown into question when one notices their echoes in the OT – and especially throughout the wider world of the OT. The wordings vary, but they are all clear reiterations of the same motifs.

But after one becomes more familiar with the literary heritage of the ancient “Near East”, one must legitimately ask if all those sayings and deeds of Jesus are nothing more than stereotypical tropes that authors wanting to describe any God in the flesh or Saviour King would inevitably use. What is said of Jesus was said countless times of your average typical Saviour Pharaoh or Mesopotamian monarch or deity.

Naturally we expect the Gospel authors to be more influenced by the Jewish texts than Egyptian or Mesopotamian ones, but Thompson shows that this is all part of the same package. What we read in the Old Testament is much the same as we read among Egyptian, Syrian and Babylonian literature. It’s all part and parcel of the same thought world.

Thompson asks readers to re-read the Gospel narratives about Jesus in the context of the literary heritage of the Jewish scriptures — and to understand that heritage as itself part of a wider literary and ethical outlook throughout the Middle East. Don’t forget that Jews were not confined to Palestine but were well established in communities from Babylonia to Egypt, too.

The following extracts are from Thompson’s discussion of The Song for a Poor Man. It is only one of the several facets of this heritage that Thompson addresses. One sees that the ancient world was full of Saviours like Jesus. It must have been a happy time and place (tongue in cheek). Continue reading “Jesus: a Saviour Just Like the Kings and Gods of Egypt and Babylon”


2010-05-15

Genesis myths inspired by Plato?

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by Neil Godfrey

There was an interesting article in the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament in 2007 by Lukas Niesiolowski-Spano (LN-S) of Warsaw University titled “Primeval History in the Persian Period?” (SJOT, Vol.21, no. 12, 106-126, 2007). The paper was first presented at the Seminar of Historical Methodology in Groningen, The Netherlands, 2004.

The Genesis creation stories are unlike other ancient Middle Eastern myths. LN-S refers to the “unparalleled character of the Primeval History in its Near Eastern environment”, and attributes this to the influence of Platonic philosophy in their making.

The assumption throughout the discussion is that no text can be dated earlier than external testimony permits. Genesis, in particular, its first two chapters, cannot be dated any earlier than when we find other texts making reference to them. In other words, normal practical historical methodology that applies to any nonbiblical study is followed. Dr LN-S is a lecturer in the Department of Ancient History at the University of Warsaw.

I begin here with some evidence for the earliest knowledge of Genesis, though LN-S really adds this at the end of his article. (I have colour coded some of the following sections to make for easier browsing of the main thought sections I have taken from LN-S’s article.)

What is the earliest evidence for Genesis? Continue reading “Genesis myths inspired by Plato?”


2010-05-11

God taught Cain the wisdom of Plato

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by Neil Godfrey

I have been doing some follow up reading on a paper presented at a Netherlands Seminar on Historical Methodology and chanced upon the following passage from Plato in Timaeus. It is speaking of newly created human beings at the dawn of time:

in the second place, they must have love, in which pleasure and pain mingle; also fear and anger, and the feelings which are akin or opposite to them; if they conquered these they would live righteously, and if they were conquered by them, unrighteously.

Given the context of the paper I was reading, it was not hard to hear the echo of God’s instruction to Cain in Genesis 4:

And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell.
So the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen?
If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”

Many of us can acknowledge that this instruction to Cain is an unusual image in the context of a primeval tale about Cain and the first murder. Sin is something that must be mastered, ruled, lest it master or rule us. It is a striking image that has prompted countless discussions among believers.

And there it is, the same image, sitting in the writings of Plato. Not only the same image, but the same same context of the sin of anger.

Now I’ve given the away what my next post will be about — the lateness of the composition of Genesis and the influence of Greek philosophy, particularly Platonic thought, that went into the creation of its myths.



2010-04-08

The Bible’s 4000 years from Creation to the New Israel

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by Neil Godfrey

A 4000 year year span which terminates at the re-dedication of the Temple in 164 bce has been worked into the chronology of Old Testament literature. 4000 years had significance beyond the biblical texts, too. I will give the ancient sources for that at the end. This data has significance for when the Bible’s books were still subject to editing, or even creation, before settling into the canonical versions we use today.

Event

Year (from creation)

Historical year

Span

Adam 1
Birth of Abraham 1946 1945
Call of Abraham 2021 75
Entrance into Egypt 2236 215
Exodus from Egypt 2666  (two thirds of total span)
430
Solomon’s Temple 3146 480
Jerusalem besieged / Exile to Babylon 3576 588 bce 430
Edict of Cyrus 3626 538 bce 50
Rededication of Temple 4000 164 bce 374

This covers a neat 10 generations from Adam to the Flood

  1. Adam
  2. Seth
  3. Enosh
  4. Kenan
  5. Mahalalel
  6. Jared
  7. Enoch
  8. Methuselah
  9. Lamech
  10. Noah

and another 10 generations from the Flood to the father of Abraham

  1. Shem
  2. Arpachshad
  3. Kenan
  4. Shelah
  5. Eber
  6. Peleg
  7. Reu
  8. Serug
  9. Nahor
  10. Terah

Abraham was called by God when he was 75 years old (Genesis 12:4)

Call of Abraham to the entry of Israel into Egypt was 215 years

From Abraham’s call to the birth of Isaac was 25 years, Isaac was 60 when Jacob was born, and Jacob 130 years old when he entered Egypt (25 + 60 + 130 = 215 years)

Entry into Egypt to the Exodus and birth of Israel was 430 years

(Exodus 12:40).

Exodus to the beginning of the building of Solomon’s temple was 480 years

(1 Kings 6:1).

Abraham’s birth to the foundation of the Temple was 1200 years

Or 12 generations of the round 100 years each. (There are several remnants throughout the Bible of the idea of a post-Flood generation being a round 100 years, such as Genesis 15:13-16 where 4 generations are given 400 years.)

Foundation of the Temple to the destruction of Jerusalem was 430 years

(Ezekiel 4:5-6)

Destruction of the Temple to the (legendary) edict of Cyrus to return of Israel was 50 years.

(Jeremiah speaks of a 70 year captivity, but the chronology was constructed at a time when there was no canonical bible and Jeremiah’s book did not figure in the calculation.)

Return of Israel to the rededication of the Temple was 374 years

The odd-number out to complete the “Great Year” of 4000 years.

And the point of all this is?

Continue reading “The Bible’s 4000 years from Creation to the New Israel”


2010-03-28

Elijah manifests a Sun God?

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by Neil Godfrey

In a Singapore bookshop I recently picked up a reprint from an 1877 publication date and titled Mythology Among the Hebrews and Its Historical Development by Ignaz Goldzhier of Hungary (translated by Russell Martineau). And even more recently I was listening to a podcast by Robert M. Price in which he mentioned the same book. So I pulled it off my shelf and decided I’d see if I should get around to reading it at last.

I have sometimes heard that so many of the characters from the Jewish Scriptures can be traced to mythological figures, but not knowing anything about this field of study I simply did not know what to make of the claims, so generally shelved them.

Today I looked up Elijah in the index and here is what I found:

Hairiness was a typically associated with the Sun, representing its rays of course.

The Sun punished the earth with drought.

The Sun also regenerates life.

The Sun is also symbolized by a pool or well of water.

The Sun descends into water before rising again to bring renewed life.

There are also sunny descriptions associated with David (stone throwing and ruddy complexion) and Samson (blinded at the end of his days).

It still looks like a Rorschach inkblot test to me. But then I see in the translator’s introduction a note about comparative mythology not being studied in England, etc. I don’t know this field. I don’t know what the current studies “in England” or any English speaking country are.

Still on the question shelf with this one.


2010-01-10

A (Near) Bible Text Discovered in the Ancient Kingdom of David?

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by Neil Godfrey

They’re coming thick and fast now. Having just been hit with the discovery of Jesus’ house in Nazareth, or maybe his neighbour’s, we now have another Israeli archaeologist telling the media that a text on a pottery shard dated — and located — in King David’s jurisdiction, testifies to a Bible-like text that is unique to the prophetic and compassionate culture of ancient Israel. (Thanks to Sabio Lantz for alerting me to this piece of news.)

The claims come from Prof. Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa. He is not an archaeologist, but an historian and interpreter of archaeological finds. This is interesting because one of the loudest complaints against so-called “minimalists” like Philip Davies, Niels Peter Lemche and Thomas L. Thompson is that they are not archaeologists, but historians who interpret the archaeological reports. But moving on, and not to get sidetracked with inconsistencies like this, here is Professor Galil’s claims as reported in what appears to be a University of Haifa press release.

“This text is a social statement, relating to slaves, widows and orphans. It uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as asah (“did”) and avad (“worked”), which were rarely used in other regional languages. Particular words that appear in the text, such as almanah (“widow”) are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other local languages. The content itself was also unfamiliar to all the cultures in the region besides the Hebrew society: The present inscription provides social elements similar to those found in the biblical prophecies and very different from prophecies written by other cultures postulating glorification of the gods and taking care of their physical needs,” Prof. Galil explains. . . . .

He adds that the complexity of the text discovered in Khirbet Qeiyafa, along with the impressive fortifications revealed at the site, refute the claims denying the existence of the Kingdom of Israel at that time.

Impressive fortifications refuting the claims denying the Kingdom of Israel?

A few months ago I discussed what the evidence of the fortifications found in Judea around this period. It is surely fanciful to link them with a centralized kingdom of Israel!

The University of Haifa press release continues:

The contents of the text express social sensitivity to the fragile position of weaker members of society. The inscription testifies to the presence of strangers within the Israeli society as far back as this ancient period, and calls to provide support for these strangers. It appeals to care for the widows and orphans and that the king – who at that time had the responsibility of curbing social inequality – be involved. This inscription is similar in its content to biblical scriptures (Isaiah 1:17, Psalms 72:3, Exodus 23:3, and others), but it is clear that it is not copied from any biblical text.

John Loftus on Debunking Christianity has already published a fine piece raising awareness of translation and dating controversies.

I repeat here the translation comparisons, and then cite a few ancient nonbiblical texts that ought to give pause to anyone taking Galil’s claims of the uniqueness of the society of ancient Judah.

The University of Haifa translation:

1′ you shall not do [it], but worship the [Lord].
2′ Judge the sla[ve] and the wid[ow] / Judge the orph[an]
3′ [and] the stranger. [Pl]ead for the infant / plead for the po[or and]
4′ the widow. Rehabilitate [the poor] at the hands of the king.
5′ Protect the po[or and] the slave / [supp]ort the stranger.

Compare a translation by John Hobbins, “based on the judgments of Misgav, Yardeni, Ahituv, and Schniedewind”:

1          Do not do [anything bad?], and serve [personal name?]
2          ruler of [geographical name?] . . . ruler . . .
3          [geographical names?] . . .
4          [unclear] and wreak judgment on YSD king of Gath . . .
5          seren of G[aza? . . .] [unclear] . . .

The reader might be forgiven for questioning the certainty of either translation.

But assume the former is the truer. Here is a small sampling of similar Middle Eastern texts, from an appendix in The Messiah Myth (2005) by Thomas L. Thompson. To assign a uniqueness to Israel’s culture on the basis of a few lines of this sort of poetry is patriotic arrogance in the extreme.

Akkadian Counsels of Wisdom (Messiah Myth, p. 328)

To your opponent, do no evil. Recompense your evildoer with good. To your enemy, let justice [be done] . . . . Give food to eat; give date wine to drink; honor, clothe the one begging for alms. Over this, his god rejoices This is pleasing to the god Shamash; he rewards it with good. Be helpful. A maid in the house, do not . . .

Hittite Hymn to Telepinus (Messiah Myth, p. 328)

Whatever you say, O Telepinus, the gods bow down to you. Of the oppressed, the orphan and the widow you are father and mother; the cause of the orphan and the oppressed you, Telepinus, take to heart.

Compare Psalm 65:5

A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy habitation.

Middle Assyrian Hymn to Marduk (Messiah Myth, p. 329)

Each day you give justice to the oppressed and abused; you administer the destitute, the widow, the wretched and the anxious . . .

I think there is much more public familiarity with the similar texts from Egypt which I won’t repeat here.

There is hardly anything remarkable or unique about the content of the text.

What might be a bit unusual is that the content is not about trade administrivia, nor, apparently, is it a few lines of praise for a deity. Or maybe it is a few lines about a deity. Or maybe . . . . Let’s wait and see.


2009-12-06

Tactics of Religious Innovation: Deuteronomy and Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Of the authors of Deuteronomy Bernard M. Levinson writes

. . . their concern was to implement their own agenda: to reflect a major transformation of all spheres of Judaean life — cultically, politically, theologically, judicially, ethically, and economically. The authors of Deuteronomy had a radically new vision of the religious and public polity and sought to implement unprecedented changes in religion and society. Precisely for that reason, the guise of continuity with the past became crucial. The authors of Deuteronomy sought to locate their innovative vision in prior textual authority by tendentiously appropriating texts like the Covenant Code [esp in Exodus], while freely going beyond them in programmatic and substantive terms to address matters like public administration, the role of the monarchy, and the laws of warfare.

Deuteronomy’s reuse of its textual patrimony was creative, active, revisionist, and tendentious. It functioned as a means of cultural transformation. (Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation, p.16)

The authors of Deuteronomy used the very texts they opposed to introduce a contrary set of rules to displace them. The legal code in Exodus knew nothing about an obligatory single cult centre. Sacrifices could be performed wherever the people were — in every place — just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sacrificed in every place where they found God’s presence. So Exodus 20:24:

An altar of earth shall you make for me, and you shall sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I record my name I will come to you, and I will bless you.

Twisting your opponent’s words

I cannot repeat here the richness of Levinson’s textual comparison: a broad overview will have to do, so where the detail sounds shallow Levinson is not at fault. The Hebrew for “In every place where” above literally reads: in every [the] place. The Deuteronomist has reused the same words with a slight restructuring in Deuteronomy 12:13-15

Take heed to yourself that you do not offer your burnt offerings in every place that you see; but in the place which the Lord chooses, in one of your tribes, there you shall offer your burnt offerings, and there you shall do all that I command you. However, you may slaughter and eat meat within all your gates, whatever your heart desires, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which he has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, of the gazelle and the deer alike.

The Deuteronomist appears to be explaining more fully the old law in Exodus while in fact he is contradicting its basic assumption and instruction. One of his tools for accomplishing this is to reuse but also restructure the targeted phrase in the Exodus law that he seeks to overturn.

The degree of technical scribal sophistication involved is remarkable. (p.33) Continue reading “Tactics of Religious Innovation: Deuteronomy and Gospels”


2009-11-15

Origins of the Israel of the Bible’s narrative (1)

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by Neil Godfrey

After a couple or more years I’m finally completing the formatting of my notes from Philip R. Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel, the book that is said to have sparked the public debate between “minimalists” and “maximalists”. The earlier chapters are outlined on my In Search of Ancient Israel web page.

The first section, The Exile, is a bit of a recap of an earlier section that was dealt with more fully in the web page above. I’m pushing myself to get this completed and sense that I have clung too closely to Davies’ words and outline in too many places and not taken the time to stand back and find the most appropriate ways of both framing and expressing the ideas so their essences can be grasped quickly. I also need to give more time to smoothing its connections to the earlier sections. Have decided to post it here as a draft and with a view to editing it after a time before adding it where it will belong as the next chapter on my webpage notes.

The point of this post may not be clear unless one knows a little of the background, which is to be found in the earlier chapters (see the vridar.info page). The basic theme it is addressing is that the conditions — economic, social, political, ethnic, linguistic, cultic, geopolitical, cultural and literary — were never to be found in Palestine right up to the time of the exile of the kingdom of Judah. Davies argues that the requisite conditions to produce the biblical literature — indeed, the idea of “biblical Israel” itself — did not exist until the time of the Persian empire. (Some other background posts on this theme are also kept in my Biblical archaeology archives.)

The Exile

We do not know if the Babylonians deported from Judah only the ruling classes and their servants or also some of the peasants.

Although we cannot estimate the numbers deported, “the reduction of population [from deportation, refugees, deaths] may have been as much as fifty percent immediately.” (Davies, 1995: p. 75)

Deportation was a long-established custom, made an instrument of imperial control by Assyrians (though not at all monopolized by them), and used, as well as to punish, deter and pacify, also to import much-needed labour into the Mesopotamian heartland. (p. 76)

The custom was to remove temple furniture, including images of the gods.

Official archives would have either been confiscated and taken to Babylon, or, more likely, have been left behind in Judah which still had to be administered.

What is fairly certain is that the Judaean deportees will have had no further access to these administrative documents, and it is not easy to imagine that they were allowed to take with them privately any other scrolls (assuming such literature existed), since the point of deportation is to alienate people from their homeland. (p. 76)

The deportees, as displaced peoples normally do, quite likely established themselves as ethnic communities in their new lands. We need not assume that they had to gather literary documents from their homeland to reconstitute their national identity.

Of the life of the deportees, of refugees or of those remaining in Judah we actually know virtually nothing. . . . [I]t is biblical scholarship which has painted an entirely fanciful portrait of religious fervour and furious literary creativity among Judaeans in Babylonia. (p. 77)

The Return

The Persian empire replaced the Babylonian and the area of the old kingdom of Judah became the province of Yehud. Yehud province was part of the satrap “Beyond the River” that extended from Babylon and the Euphrates River to Egypt.

Perhaps significantly, this is the one historical period in which the land promised to Abraham in Genesis 15:18 exists as a political unit. (p. 77)

Continue reading “Origins of the Israel of the Bible’s narrative (1)”


2009-10-18

The Pattern of Years of Judah’s Kings

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by Neil Godfrey

From Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History — Ancient and Modern, by Philip R. Davies. . . . . .

1 and 2 Kings detail corresponding years of ascensions and deaths between kings of the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and the lengths of reigns of each. The refrain goes like this:

In the twenty-seventh year of Jeroboam king of Israel, Azariah the son of Amaziah, king of Judah, became king. He was sixteen years old when he became king, and he reigned fifty-two years in Jerusalem. (2 Kings 15:1-2)

It’s all very precise. So we can be confident that the authors were not speaking in rough generalizations when they said David ruled for 40 years as did his son Solomon. Their interest in detailed matching informs us that they were interested in precision. So we can accept that when they said 40 years they meant literally 40, not some vague “generation”.

But the scribes who authored and edited these books never expected a generation would come when every Tom, Dick and Harriette would have a cheap copy and spare pen and paper and the ability to take time to work out the details of how the reigns looked in a nice chart or table.

Probably most bible-buffs have tried it and found there are problems. When one plots on paper the years each king came to power in relation to his neighbouring dynasty, and the length of each reign, there are gaps. The figures don’t add up.

Take the king Amaziah and his successor Azariah (also called Uzziah for some reason left unexplained):

In the second year of Joash the son of Jehoahaz, king of Israel, Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, became king. He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. (2 Kings 14:1-2)

Joash of Israel happened to reign for 16 years (2 Kings 13:10) and was succeeded by Jeroboam II. Jeroboam’s 27th year is said to be the starting year of Azariah (see the 2 Kings 15 citation above). But if Azariah’s father reigned 29 years from the second year of Joash’s 16 year reign, then Azariah should have begun his reign around Jeroboam’s 15th year. But no, we are told in 2 Kings 15:1-2 that it began in Jeroboam’s 27th year.

There is a gap of twelve years here. No king seems to have ruled Judah in the twelve years between Amaziah’s death and Azariah’s ascension.

So an easy solution is commonly applied to explain such discrepancies. Co-regencies. If we can juggle the figures so that certain reigns overlap, and certain ascension years are really the years a prince began ruling with his father before assuming sole authority. That can be done to make the figures work out. But the trouble with this as a solution is that there is no evidence that Israel and Judah had any custom of co-regency. It is simply a made up ad hoc guess. (The precise numerical details applied by the authors would, moreover, suggest that they were conveying precise times and years, and were not likely to be so slapdash as to omit vital details like co-regency data if it did exist. Further, texts such as 2 Kings 8:16 and 15:5 are shown on close examination not to point to co-regency as is sometimes casually — wishfully? — assumed.)

There is another very strange detail in the chronology of the kings:

Saul was a year old when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel. (1 Sam.13:1)

“This is what the canonical (Masoretic) Hebrew text says.” (p.22)  Other manuscript evidence either omits it or attempts to re-write it into something more intelligible.

But when we add the total years of the kings of Judah as given in the sometimes seemingly gap-ridden narrative, we come a step towards understanding what the authors/redactors of these figures were thinking.

When totalled, the period from the building to the destruction of the first temple is 430 years.

By keeping Saul’s reign short as writ, the period from the Exodus to the first temple is 480 years.

Most readers of the Bible are familiar with these numbers. But what is their significance in the larger scheme of things?

Counting back from the Exodus to the birth of Abraham we total 720 years, hence 1200 years from the birth of Abraham to the First Temple.

But to cut to the chase (with an acknowledged debt to Thompson):

Creation to the Flood: 1656 years

Creation to the birth of Abraham: 1946 years

Creation to the Exodus: 2666 years (= two thirds of 4000)

Creation to the First Temple: 3146 years

Creation to the destruction of temple: 3576 years

Creation to the edict of Cyrus (538 b.c.e.) to build second temple: 3626 years

and finally finally, by adding a “remaining” 375 years . . .

Creation to the rededication of the temple (163 b.c.e.) by Judas Maccabee: 4000 years

(The Book of Jeremiah contains a different chronology from this one, since it assigns 70 years of exile instead of 50. There is evidence that different schools of redactors have attempted to introduce varying chronologies.)

The artificial design of the numbers of kings and their reigns in the biblical history is further underscored by the fact that

The books of Kings list twenty kings after Solomon in each of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Now, the kingdom of Judah lasted over a century longer than Israel, which makes this equivalence very curious, not to say suspicious. (p.26)

(Davies also observes that in each dynasty it was “coincidentally” the 7th reign that introduces an evil woman.)


2009-09-24

The Bible’s “Historical” Writings: Histories or Historical Novels or . . .?

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by Neil Godfrey

Comparing Modern and Biblical “Histories”

The idea of history as a scholarly attempt to explain “what really happened in the past” is a relatively young European invention. The “first modern historian” is said to be Edward Gibbon (his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published 1770’s-1780’s); the acknowledged founder of modern scholarly and “evidence-based” history is nineteenth century’s Leopold von Ranke, although many students of history today are influenced by E. H. Carr‘s revision of von Ranke’s idea of the objectivity of “facts” (1961).

Bible authors did not think of writing history in this modern European way. In The Canaanites and Their Land Niels Peter Lemche writes:

Rather than writing history, the Israelite historians composed a novel, the theme of which was the origin of Israel and its ancient history. (p. 158)

Lemche unpacks this a little: Continue reading “The Bible’s “Historical” Writings: Histories or Historical Novels or . . .?”


2009-09-23

Bible’s characters in the wrong plays

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Little Known Questions . . .

A stone monument constructed by an Assyrian monarch around 850 b.c.e. makes mention of the biblical king of Israel, Ahab, and another king named in the Bible, Hadadezer of Syria. This is the famous Kurkh stele.

The Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III, uses this stone to boast of a victory at the Syrian city of Qarqar on the Orontes River. (See the Battle of Qarqar web page.) It is debatable whether the Assyrian victory was as resounding as the king boasts, but the most interesting detail about the inscription for many is, of course, its mention of Ahab, a Biblical king of Israel.

The stele lists about a dozen kings, led by the Syrian king Hadadezer, who were in alliance against Assyria. The inscription boasts that all these were smashed and routed by the Assyrian forces.

That is, Ahab, the king of Israel whose capital city was Samaria, was in alliance with the Syrian king against the expanding Assyrian empire, and that he suffered a terrible major defeat.

Shalmaneser claims to have destroyed 2,000 Israelite chariots and an army of 10,000 of Ahab’s Israelites fighting alongside Syrian allies.

The curious thing is, however, that in the first book of Kings in the Bible, from chapter 16 on when the story of Ahab begins, Syria is always an enemy of Ahab and Israel. Israel and Syria are at constant war with each other. The attempted Assyrian conquest that brought Ahab and the Syrian king together is simply not mentioned in the Bible at all. In fact, the Bible gives no indication that Assyria emerged on Israel’s horizon until the Second Book of Kings, chapter 15.

Furthermore, the biblical narrative claims that Ahab’s Syrian contemporary was not Hadadezer (or Adadidri in Assyrian) but Ben Hadad.

There are other Assyrian monuments, too, such as the Black Obelisk. They inform us that the Assyrian kings Shalmaneser and Adad-nirari III eventually did conquer all of Syria and Palestine. Joash, king of Israel, is said to have paid tribute to Assyria.

According to the plot of the Biblical history, however, there is no such conquest of Israel. It never happened. Assyria, as mentioned above, is a late entrant in the drama of the Bible’s Primary History of Israel. Assyria’s role is to punish and remove Israel from the map for her sin against Yahweh. Before then, Israel is said to have been periodically punished through intermittent warfare with neighbouring Syria. Key players in this drama are the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Elisha even oversees the blinding of a Syrian army and leads them into the capital city of Samaria.

Unless the Assyrian monuments are completely fabricating campaigns and victories they never fought or won, we are left to think that the author of Kings has taken historical names and re-written them into a theological drama that was the work of his own creative imagination.

Shakespeare did the same with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and with Lear, legendary king in Celtic Britain, names and settings he could draw on from historical chronicles and use as vehicles for his own dramatic themes.


2009-09-12

Little known questions about the archaeological evidence for the Bible: The “Israel Stele”

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by Neil Godfrey

I have just purchased Philip R. Davies’ Memories of Ancient Israel and got a bit of a shock when I read this about the Merneptah Stele:

After mentioning Canaan, and three Canaanite cities of Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yanoam, it runs, “Israel (?) is wasted, its seed is not.” Assuming we have Merneptah’s dates correctly as 1213-1203, and that the reading “Israel” is correct, the reference places an Israel in Palestine in the thirteenth century. The word read (probably correctly) as “Israel” also has a sign indicating a people and not a place. That makes the alternative reading “Jezreel” less likely — though Hebrew “s” and “z” could both be represented by the same Egyptian letter; also, since “Jezreel” is partly made up of the word for “seed,” the inscription could be a pun by a Semitic speaking scribe. It might also be considered that Merneptah would find it easier to fight in the plain of Jezreel than in the highlands. (pp. 90-91)

Why, after so many years of interest in the bible and archaeology, did I not know till now that there was an alternative possible reading to Israel in the Merneptah stele? Other questions have been raised commonly enough, but not that particular one — at least not widely in readily accessible public literature.

Here is one translation with, as per Davies, “Israel (?)” in context:

Tjehenu is vanquished, Khatti at peace,
Canaan is captive with all woe.
Ashkelon is conquered, Gezer seized,
Yanoam made nonexistent;
Israel is wasted, bare of seed,
Khor is become a widow for Egypt.
All who roamed have been subdued.

So well known and “secure” is this monument’s reference to “Israel” that it is even widely known as, simply, the “Israel stele”. The wikipedia article will cast not a shred of doubt on this reading. A cited webpage from that article with a full text and translation is just as dogmatic in its assurance of this reading.

Merenptah Stele (Israel Stele): the photograph...
Image via Wikipedia

This possibility of an alternative reading, even if the majority of scholars and others take the translation “Israel” for granted, is significant and worth drawing to everyone’s attention given the other anomalies associated with the stele and that are well known:

  1. If the monument speaks the truth, that Israel is annihilated, then biblical Israel never got started as a nation. But, of course, exaggeration is common enough in political propaganda — in any age. Alternatively, another people may have taken the name Israel after the demise of those mentioned by Mernepteh.
  2. There is little indication in the stele to inform us about the nature of the reference “Israel”, or the location to which it refers. See my vridar.info notes on the Mernepteh Stele from Davies’ earlier book, In Search of Ancient Israel.
  3. There is no biblical reference to any event involving a clash between Israel and Pharaoh Mernepteh (or any Pharaoh of Egypt) in the thirteenth century. This is, presumably, the time of the biblical “Judges”, or even of the period of Joshua’s conquest.

I have seen so many references to this Mernepteh stele over the years and not once, till this week, did any of them give me the slightest indication that there was simply no room for debate about its reference to “Israel”.

I don’t think I would be the only one who is attracted to the possibility of the original reference being Jezreel, with a pun on the “without seed” beside it — and would be open to suggestions that such a personification in the pun could explain its reference to being a people, not a place.

But this is not the only stele with “issues”. Davies also surfaces many questions over the Shalmaneser (Kurkh) stele, the Sennacherib inscriptions, and even the Hezekiah “Siloam” tunnel supposed-inscription — and others. Will discuss one by one in future posts.

Is it valid to be reminded of religious scholars continuing a proud tradition, that can be traced back to the middle ages, of keeping the lay masses in ignorance?


2009-09-02

The Tel Dan Inscription — Setting the Record Straight

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

by Neil Godfrey

Note 09/09/2009 — Plan to re-write much of this post in a future update — have finally caught up with some of my library and now see some misleading generalizations and possible (minor) errors in this post.

George Athas, author of “the first comprehensive, systematic, and complete treatment of the Tel Dan Inscription as a whole” (Aufrecht, 2007), responded in 2006 to a confused critic who mistook him for a “minimalist”. Athas’s response, Setting the Record Straight: What Are We Making of the Tel Dan Inscription?, is unfortunately without cost only to those who belong to institutions subscribing to the Journal of Semitic Studies.

First some background:

The Tel Dan Inscription refers to a stele discovered in northern Palestine and originally erected, around 800 b.c.e., by a Syrian king with a message boasting of victories over kings. Its special significance is that it contains the word widely transliterated as “byt dwd”, and translated as “House of David”, meaning a royal dynasty of David, and by extension, the Kingdom of Judah. This is generally accepted as archaeological evidence for the existence of the biblical David. In this way the inscription has been interpreted through the biblical references to the House, or royal dynasty, of David.

A few other scholars who attempt to interpret archaeological finds independently of biblical references interpret the inscription as making a reference to a place. They compare, for example, place-names like Beth-lehem or Beth-el (literally “house of bread” and “house of god”), and suggest Beth-dwd/david is likewise a place-name, literally meaning “house of blessing”. Some of these scholars also present the case that even if the words did refer to the dynasty of David, that that would not prove the historical existence of David himself. Many ancient (and modern) royal dynasties claim mythical ancestors.

George Athas is not a “minimalist”. He writes of the united kingdom (of Israel-Judah under David and Solomon) that the Tel Dan Inscription “suggests that it was a reality.” So Athas takes a position about the biblical literature, in particular its Primary History, that considers it at some level a historical record about the past, and he also interprets the inscription through the bible narrative. He differs from the mainstream, however, in seeing it as a reference to “the city of David” (Jerusalem). (A so-called “minimalist” would accept that the biblical literature contains some details from past records but that whether its contents are historical or theological or other or from what era is another question entirely. Any particular nature of a literature’s relationship with artefacts needs to be demonstrated, not assumed.)

George Athas “setting the record straight”:

Athas argues strongly that the famous word on the stele, “Bayt-Dawid”, “is not a dynastic label for Judah, but rather a toponym referring to Jerusalem as a city-state. It is the Aramaic parallel to . . . ‘City of David’).”

His reasons for this conclusion are both simple and complex.

The simplest reason is that the inscription reads, “king of b-tdwd”. Athas points out that we would not expect the expression, “King of the House of David”. A king is not a king “of” their dynastic name. “[A] king does not rule a dynasty — he rules a kingdom, a specific area of land.”

The comparison with the Assyrian inscription of “The House of Omri” (applying to the dynasty of the northern kingdom of Israel) is beside the point. The Assryian inscription is a direct reference to the dynasty ruling Israel. The Tel Dan inscription is different because the expression is preceded by the word(s) “king of”.

The complex reason I will leave to reviewer Walter E. Aufrecht to sum up:

The suggestion that bytdwd is a toponym rests on the following: the noun ‘îr (‘city’ as in the Hebrew ‘îr dawîd, i.e., Jerusalem) is unattested in Old Aramaic. It is likely that the writer used the Old Aramaic word bayt to render the Hebrew ‘îr of ‘îr dawîd. Furthermore, the interchange of ‘îr and bêt “is certainly not unheard of ”: Athas cites Josh. 19:41, where the town of Beth Shemesh is referred to as ‘îr sms (p. 280). So the inscription is talking about a place which the Aramaic author knew as the “city of David.” I think this is a brilliant notion, though I confess it took me two close readings of Athas’s sometimes dense exposition to convince me. (p.67)

There is much more to Athas’s article since he is addressing the major points of a critical review of his book. I’ve zeroed in on the bits of most general interest here. Aufrecht concludes:

As far as I am concerned, Athas has solved the crucial and most contentious issue in the debate over the Tel Dan Inscription, the meaning of the letter sequence bytdwd. And he has done it, by and large, on sound epistemological grounds.

Athas does see this toponym as “evidence”, but not “proof”, that David was an historical figure.

Ninth century Jerusalem as a city-state?

This interpretation means that the city Bytdwd was originally understood by the Syrian author to be a city-state.

(Interestingly, this interpretation (based in a significant part on the context in which it appears) supports Thomas L. Thompson’s argument — see my previous post/s — that Jerusalem was principally a city-state as opposed to being the central administration centre of a larger political unit or state (Judah).)

But “city-state” sounds very grandiose for a site that archaeologists have established was really quite small at this time.

Athas addresses this notion. He explains, citing Gabriel Barkay:

We tend to define cities as large sites, well fortified, where the building density is greater than in sites termed villages. In biblical times, however, any place built by royal initiative or housing a representative of the central authority, even a small site or isolated fort, was called a city (‘ir).

My own thoughts:

My own thoughts are that it is worth remembering that the name of the capital cities of Italy, Greece and Assyria do not mean that Romulus, Athena and Asshur had any role in their founding. The land of Canaan does not, by its name, prove that Canaan was a literal son of Noah and progenitor of the peoples who settled there. The name of Europe is certainly not evidence for the historical reality of the Phoenician woman of that name who was abducted by Zeus disguised as a fine white bull. The city name Tarentum does not legitimize Taras as an historical figure. The city of Eryx does not establish the existence of Eryx the host of Hercules. Besides, before the emergence of biblical literature and its themes it may well be that “dwd” or “david” was a circumlocution for a deity (“the Blessed One”).

It is worth keeping in mind that in other circumstances, especially where there is less pressing need to find evidence to support biblical accounts, scholars are quick to explain that legends so often emerge to explain places, names and customs after the fact.

In the cases of Saul, David and Solomon, I am persuaded (partly through some of Thomas L. Thompson’s discussions) that these characters are depicted as three theological “types”: Saul the epitome of all that is outstanding in human righteousness and appearances, David the flawed and rejected one whose heart is in the right place and who is for this reason is especially loved by God, and Solomon who lets “having  it all” lead to his demise. These themes appear regularly throughout the Primary History (Genesis – 2 Kings) and through them all God’s highest, non-human righteousness and wisdom rules. They are all presented to us as theological exemplars. Without corroborating evidence it is rash to see any of these three as historical figures.