Tag Archives: Biblical Israel

Bible and the Argonauts. ch.5 (Book 4)

Continuing my little series of posts reading the Bible in the context of popular ancient fiction, specifically with the Argonautica.

Book 4 — Seaton’s translation of the fourth and final book of the Argonautica. (Ignore the chapter numbering in the title.) This post covers only the early portions of this book.

Escape adventure and happily disbelieving reunion

Having thrown her lot in with Jason Medea flees her father’s palace under cover of darkness fearing his wrath. As she rushed forth from her home,

the bolts of the doors gave way self-moved, leaping backwards at the swift strains of her magic song. . . . Quickly along the dark track, outside the towers of the spacious city, did she come in fear; nor did any of the warders not her, but she sped on unseen by them.

Peter is not a semi-divine being as Medea is (she is a granddaughter of the sun god Helios and has magic powers) so he needs an angel to help him out when it is his cue to enter this Hellenestic adventure motif of fleeing for his life, past guards unseen, with doors opening of their own accord: read more »

Bible and the Argonauts. ch. 4 (Book 3)

Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse.
Image via Wikipedia

Continuing my little series of posts reading the Bible with popular ancient fiction in mind, or the other way around, with the Argonautica as the case study.

Book 3 — Seaton’s translation of the third of the four books of the Argonautica. (Ignore the chapter numbering in the title.)

Change of pace in the story flow

Book three of the Argonautica illustrates the one of the distinctive features found in all four gospel narratives, a feature that is found in much other popular literature of the day, too. Here the adventure of Jason and his Argonauts shifts gears. Up till now the story has been a travelogue. One adventure after the other as the heroes move from one place to the next. But with book 3 the pace settles down into a very detailed and lengthy narrative in a single setting, covering a short period of time, and that relates the climax to which the previous itinerary has been leading us.

After Jesus and his disciples experience many mini-adventures as they travel this side and the other side of the lake, to this town and that region, they come to Jerusalem — the place where they have been destined to meet their destiny, to accomplish what has been planned from the beginning. And it is from this point that the gospels settle into a detailed narrative of all that is related to this climactic adventure. It all happens in the one region, and is told in much more detail than the earlier brief episodes.

Scholars have in the past attempted to explain this difference in pace by suggesting the Passion Narrative was originally an independent story that was later extended with the earlier episodes. But a little more familiarity with the popular epics and novels of the day would point to a simpler explanation.

Renewed beginning at the climax read more »

Bible and the Argonauts. Chapter 3 (Book 2)

Clashing Rocks Parted by Poseidon
http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/File:Jason11.jpg

Continuing here my commentary on the points of literary, thematic, religious and cultural contacts between ancient popular literature and the Bible, with the Argonautica as a case study. From my initial post:

Anyone who treats the Bible too seriously as history needs to take time out to read Jason and the Argonauts, or the Argonautica, composed in the third century BCE by Apollonius of Rhodes.  They could also read a lot of other ancient literature, epic poetry, tragic dramas, Hellenistic novellas, to find a more grounded perspective for the Bible as literature, but here I focus on the Argonautica.

Book 2 — this links to Seaton’s translation of the second of the four books of the Argonautica. (The “chapters” in my titles are only for convenience to follow the sequence of posts on the blog and are not part of any formal numbering system.)

The Dual, the Prophecy, the Parting Rocks, and Seeing the Glory of God

read more »

Bible and the Argonauts. Chapter 2

Hypsipylé, first wife of Jason, from Octavien ...
Image via Wikipedia

Continuing the story in Book 1 (links to Seaton’s translation) of the Argonautica. It is one of many ancient works of literature that deserve to be read alongside the Bible to keep everything in its perspective.

Prayer, promise, loss and suffering

Before embarking on their quest for the golden fleece, the leader of the expedition, Jason, utters a lengthy prayer to Apollo, the god of his fathers. His prayer reminds Apollo of promises the god made to him in the past, seeks protection, offers devotion, and announces that all will be done for the god’s glory. Following the prayer a number of sacrifices are offered. In their wake, one of the crew, Idmon, pronounced a prophecy declaring final success for the mission, but only through many trials and tribulations, including death for himself. The crew listened with mixed feelings, rejoicing in the promise of eventual success, but mournful at the fate of Idmon.

Jason’s prayer is matched by Solomon’s prayer at the inauguration of the Temple and the beginning of the new era for Israel under God. God is reminded of his promises, protection is sought, and God’s name is to be glorified. At the Amen, the sacrifices begin. But with the prayer are hints that not all will be well. Readers are reminded of the history of failure of Israel. There are many such prayers throughout the Bible. Jesus prays for the safety of his followers, conceding that one must be lost according to the divine pre-ordained will. All prayers acknowledge the necessity that the godly must suffer severe trials before they reach their final reward.

The leader sets himself apart, and is challenged, but music restores the calm

The crew, the argonauts, quickly forget the sober moment when evening falls and it is time to rest, tell stories and feast with wine. Their leader Jason, however, cannot share with them their carefree spirits. He is too burdened with the full awareness of the dangers ahead, and his responsibility of leading them all safely. Like Homer’s Odysseus before him when he knew too well the dangers that faced his crew, and who likewise left them in their carefree state of mind to go off alone to pray, Jason withdrew himself. read more »

Bible and the Argonauts: chapter 1

The Argo
Image via Wikipedia

Anyone who treats the Bible too seriously as history needs to take time out to read Jason and the Argonauts, or the Argonautica, composed in the third century BCE by Apollonius of Rhodes.  They could also read a lot of other ancient literature, epic poetry, tragic dramas, Hellenistic novellas, to find a more grounded perspective for the Bible as literature, but here I focus on the Argonautica.

Book 1 — this links to Seaton’s translation of the first of the four books of the Argonautica.

It opens with a prophecy that sets the action in motion. King Pelias had been warned that he would be murdered at the behest of a man he saw approaching with one sandal. It just so happened that Jason happened to have lost one sandal while crossing muddy waters when he came to King Pelias to enjoy a banquet. Pelias could hardly kill him on the spot for losing his sandal, so sent him on a mission (to a distant land to retrieve a golden fleece) from which he believed he could scarcely return.

So begins the action. And it is not just an ordinary adventure of ordinary folk. It is to be a tale of famous deeds by some of the most renowned of ancient heroic names. And the plot is driven by prophecies from the gods and their agents. This is the stuff of ancient epics, dramas and novellas. read more »

Scholarly Trench Warfare to Defend the Bible by Means of Rationalistic Paraphrase

This post is based on a discussion by Niels Peter Lemche in The Israelites in History and Tradition. It begins with a quotation from Assyriologist Mario Liverani:

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events, they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.— Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.  (Cited p. 149 in The Israelites in History and Tradition)

Liverani is addressing historians of Hittite history here. Historians of the Hittites felt they had all they needed to know to get started by the discovery of a decree by King Telipinus. This presents an outline of Hittite dynastic history that has been used by many Hittite historians. But Liverani showed that the “history” had little to do with actual reality. It was a highly ideological text designed to establish a (fictional) rationale for King Telipinus’s usurpation.

Lemche adds:

In few places is Liverani’s warning against naively accepting an ancient text as a historical source as relevant as in biblical studies, where the amount of rationalistic paraphrase has in fact been overwhelming. (p. 149)

Lemche is speaking specifically of Old Testament studies. But my observation is that it applies at least equally strongly among New Testament studies.

Some reasons for this that Lemche offers: read more »

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

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.

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

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)

read more »

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

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: read more »

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

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?

Origin of the northern kingdom of Israel

Sharing here what I’ve found of interest in an alternative view to Finkelstein’s account of the rise of the kingdom of Israel.

While Finkelstein sees the rise of Samaria and Omride dynasty in the context of cyclical demographic-economic patterns within the central hills area of Palestine and as an outgrowth of an ethnic unity and a former united kingdom, Thompson argues that a survey of a broader range of evidence (and without presuppositions of a united kingdom) suggests Samaria was built as a capital of a kingdom in response to the region being drawn into the wider world of international trade.

Finkelstein’s views are widely known through his popular books written in collaboration with Neil Asher Silberman. Hence my focus here on a digestible summary of Thompson’s views, in particular from his Early History of the Israelite People. The book is available free in Google books online — but legal matters prevent the publication of all its pages.

Climate change preparing the way for a northern kingdom

From around 1050 – 1000 b.c.e. the “great Mycenaean drought” came to an end. This drought period (ca 1200 to 1050 b.c.e.) forced populations from Palestinian lowlands to seek livelihoods in new areas and for the first time the highlands of “Ephraim”, (with their semi-steppe areas, fertile plateaus and valleys, and rugged western slopes) were opened up to small villages and agriculturalists and pastoralists.

This was the beginning of settlement of what was to become the kingdom of Samaria.

1050 to 850 b.c.e. sees throughout all Syria-Palestine

  • improved climate
  • population explosion
  • transformation from regionally and subregionally based markets to interregional and international markets
  • increased demand for oil, timber, wine, meat, dairy products

Part of the evidence for the above involves the expansion of population and farming in terraced areas of the central hills area that are more suited to cash crops (nuts, fruits, wine, oil) than subsistence agriculture.

[T]heir development necessarily involves regional trade. Their disproportionate expansion . . . suggests an even greater economic development of extra-regional trade, and with that an involvement in increasing centralization. (p.232)

With widening commerce comes increased importance of access to trade routes.

These were the conditions that existed before the rise of Samaria as the capital of a northern kingdom.

At Samaria, the establishment of a political base of power is logically prior to the actual building of the city. (p.408)

Rise of a Kingdom, not an imperial city-state

In my previous post I mentioned Thompson’s interpretation of Jerusalem’s late rise and expansion of power as being that of an imperial city-state coming to dominate surrounding regions. Palestine had until Samaria’s appearance known only city-states as dominant centres of power — “i.e., essentially agriculturally based market town[s] with an indigenous Hinterland supporting  . . . ” But Samaria was something new.

What was established here was new to Palestine. Moreover, the lack of geographically unifying factors in the geographical structure of the central hills, and the development of numerous subregional centers throughout the central highlands militated strongly against an expanding dominance of a single city over such a diverse population. . . . (p. 408)

The inevitable origin and fate of Samaria:

The motive force behind the development of Samaria was the end result of the rationalization of trade to accommodate the rising demands of markets external to the central hills, a development that small scale trade simply could not foster. This led to the formation of a region-wide agricultural cartel with an autonomous center free of any single subregion’s dominance. Samaria was built to monopolize and funnel oil production, timber and other products to the trade routes of the Jezreel, linking Samaria’s fate inexorably to the Jezreel and to the greater world of politics, caravans and soldiers. (pp. 408-9 – my emphasis)

Samaria was built “as a capital city with dominant public structures”, although it did additionally develop the economy of a city-state as well.

Assyrian texts provide further evidence that Samaria was the capital city “of much of the region of the central highlands”.

Thompson comments that these texts suggest that Samaria found itself in competition with Tyre and Damascus for control of the Jezreel and Galilee regions.

A Moabite text also points to a struggle between Moab and Israel (Samaria) over the Gilead area. Damascus and Ammon may also have sought influence here.

The ethnic gulf between Samaria and Jerusalem

Variable Linguistics

It’s easy to think of biblical Hebrew having been around since Adam, but Thompson addresses some interesting questions about the linguistic variations throughout Palestine in the Bronze and Iron age periods. See pp. 336-339. Biblical Hebrew is a relatively late development, and it has been argued (Knauf) that it is an artificial literary construct. Thompson refers to E. A. Knauf’s studies of the branches of Canaanite languages, and the distinction between “core Canaanite” (Phoenicea, Israel), and “fringe Canaanite” (Judaean, Ammorite, Moabite and Edomite).

Divergent Origins

Israel developed out of the population dislocations of the great Mycenaean drought.

Judah originated out of the expansion of the olive industry (to meet demands of international trade) that brought about the enforced sedentarization of pastoralists and nomadic groups.

Assyrian Dominance: less unified than ever

It was Assyrian imperial policy to “systematically [destroy] the coherence of the population and the economic and political infrastructures  that had been the foundation of Israel’s solidarity and the source of its strength.” (p. 414)

They did this, of course, through mass deportations of populations.

Not only were the elite deported, but craftsmen, corvee laborers, women for the slave trade and men for the army, and indeed entire villages and towns were moved across great distances of the empire.

Conclusion

[T]he conclusion becomes difficult to avoid that just as the origin of the ninth and seventh-century states of Israel and Judah were wholly separate, they were also unlikely to have any more common an ethnic base than had any other two neighbouring states of the Southern Levant. (p.412)

Jerusalem’s rise to power: 2 views

This post is an extension of an earlier one, Jerusalem unearthed.

Israel Finkelstein describes Jerusalem’s rise to power in the seventh century b.c.e. as a result of integrating itself within the Assyrian imperial economy after the fall of Samaria. He writes of Jerusalem being the capital of a politically integrated kingdom of Judea.

Thomas L. Thompson likewise argues that Jerusalem rose to power with Assyria’s blessing. Jerusalem did not extend its influence to the north or any other Assyrian conquered areas, but to the southwest and south, the Shephelah and the Negev. Further, Judea was not a politically integrated kingdom or nation, but was dominated politically by city-state Jerusalem imposing its hegemony over other city states like Hebron.

Jerusalem’s population multiplied greatly at this time, and for the first time “acquired the character of a regional state capital. One must doubt Jerusalem’s capacity for such political aggrandizement at any earlier period.” (Thompson, p.410)

King :en:Sennacherib of :en:Assyria from http:...

Jerusalem’s growth

For background to this, see earlier post, Jerusalem unearthed.

Commercial rival Lachish had been destroyed, never to be rebuilt, and this opened up the possibility of more of the southern area’s resources to Jerusalem.

But the Assyrians had also, led by Sennacherib, diminished Jerusalem’s influence when they invaded parts of Judea.

Thompson suggests that given Samaria had been a longstanding enemy of Jerusalem, it is unlikely that refugees from Samaria would have sought refuge in Jerusalem. They would more likely have gone to allies in Phoenicia. Moreover, Jerusalem would have been drawn into “the direction of a hopeless confrontration with Assyria” had they accepted large numbers of Samarian refugees.

Here Finkelstein and Thompson part. Finkelstein sees Jerusalem’s population swelling primarily as a result of refugees from the northern kingdom rather than those of the Shephelah area. Finkelstein argues for cultural-historical affinities between the peoples of the northern and southern “kingdoms” but Thompson sees no archaeological evidence for these. Thompson sees the various geographical regions of Palestine as a hotch-potch of ethnic and cultural groups until the Persian era at the earliest.

The size of Jerusalem — a great city in the seventh century — time meant it could no longer be economically sustained “solely by the Jerusalem saddle and the Ayyalon Valley.” Thompson sees Jerusalem as a city-state compelled to secure itself by dominating the resources of neighbouring areas to the south and south west.

Comparing Ekron — a mirror to Jerusalem’s rise?

At the same time Ekron expanded its influence to dominate the coastal plain lands and cities. Ekron was able to do this as a result of cooperation with the Assyrian empire. Ekron served Assyria’s interests by establishing itself as a centre of a vassal state in Judaea.

Assyrian reorganization of Judea under Jerusalem

Assyria destroyed Lachish and other towns of the Shephelah and these were not resettled. “Rather, during the seventh-century, Judaea, and with it the Shephelah, was reorganized around a number of new fortified towns, apparently subject to Jerusalem . . . ” (Thompson, p.411)

According to Thompson, Jerusalem’s growth and expansion was that of an imperial city state over subject peoples and cities like Hebron. Unlike the erstwhile northern kingdom of Israel, Judea was not a politically integrated united kingdom. It maintained its hegemony as an imperial city state only.

Jerusalem expanded southward to the Judaean highlands, the Shephelah and perhaps the northern Negev. “It is unlikely, however, that the exercise of this warrant was carried out in opposition to the firmly established Assyrian authority in the region.” (Thompson, p.411)

Finkelstein concurs that Jerusalem benefitted from cooperation with Assyria, but sees Judea becoming an integrated kingdom, not merely an area under the hegemony of a newly giant city-state. “The question is, where did this wealth and apparent movement toward full state formation come from? The inescapable conclusion is that Judah suddenly cooperated with and even integrated itself into the economy of the Assyrian empire.” (Finkelstein, p. 246)

Where Finkelstein and Thompson part

Finkelstein’s interpretation of the evidence hinges on his belief that much of the biblical literature, in particular the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah beginning with the United Kingdom of David and Solomon, was the product of the pre-exilic Kingdom of Judah.

Thompson instead argues that the themes of the biblical literature find no basis of origin before the Persian period. The archaeological evidence is against the existence of a united kingdom of Israel or large-scale influx of a new ethnic-cultural-religious group dominating Palestine in the Iron Age. It is not until the Persian era that Palestine is united politically and religiously, and this with the migration of a new group of peoples at the behest of the Persian imperial authority.

Such a development [the creation of a Jerusalem led “nation-state”] came about only with the ideological and political changes of the Persian period, centered around the Persian supported construction of a temple dedicated to the transcendent elohe shamayim, identified with Yahweh, the long neglected traditional god of the former state of Israel, who, in his new capital at the center of the province of Yehud, might, like Ba’al Shamem of Aramaic texts, be best described as a Palestinian variant of the Neo-Babylonian divine Sin and of Persia’s Ahura Mazda. (Thompson, pp.411-2)

I think that both Thompson and Finkelstein would agree that history tells us as much or more about those who wrote it as it does about the past.

Finkelstein sees the biblical history being concocted by propagandists of King Josiah’s court to justify his presumed interest in expanding his kingdom north to incorporate Samaria. This history supposedly exaggerated events of the past to justify Josiah’s ambitions:

Yet it is clear that many of the characters described in the Deuteronomistic History — such as the pious Joshua, David, and Hezekiah and the apostate Ahaz and Manasseh — are portrayed as mirror images, both positive and negative, of Josiah. The Deuteronomistic History was not history writing in the modern sense. It was a composition simultaneously ideological and theological. (Finkelstein, p. 284)

Personally I don’t understand why such propagandists would create negative images of Josiah.

While agreeing that the biblical history was ideological and theological, Thompson sees the biblical history being concocted by propagandists among the the leaders of those deported by the Persians to settle in Palestine. This history was apparently inspired by themes of settlement among an indigenous population who did not welcome the newcomers, of a new state arising out of peoples migrating from Mesopotamia, and even from a (Persian created) political entity stretching from Euphrates to the Nile  — compare Genesis 15:18 and 1 Kings 4:24.

I consider this the more plausible explanation.

 

Archaeologist A. Mazar argues for a strong Jerusalem, biblical David and temple of Solomon

Archaeologist Amihai Mazar writes that studies over the past twenty years that have cast doubts on “the historical validity of the biblical descriptions” have “gone too far” (p. 117 in The Quest For the Historical Israel, a book in which he debates Israel Finkelstein chapter by chapter.) In this post I choose to discuss what appear to me to be the strongest of nine overall arguments in Mazar’s chapter titled The Search for David and Solomon: an Archaeological Perspective. I use Mazar’s headings.

The Importance of the Sheshonq I (Shishak) Raid

Mazar writes:

The lack of external sources relating to a kingdom like that of David and Solomon should not surprise us, since there were no empires or major political powers during the tenth century b.c.e. that could leave behind substantial written documents. The only external source relating to this period is the Sheshonq I inscription . . . . (p. 123)

Mazar reasons from the fact that Sheshonq’s list of conquests mentions cities north of Jerusalem (Beth Horan and Gibeon) that the Pharaoh was following “an exceptional route” for a campaign (no earlier Egyptian New Kingdom campaigns mention such cities) and that “the only sensible” reason for this must have been the existence of a powerful Solomonic kingdom to the south of those cities. (Mazar later comments that southern cities like Arad are also listed by Sheshonq’s scribes.) How to explain the absence of Jerusalem from the list?

The fact that Jerusalem is not mentioned in the inscription does not mean much — if the city surrendered, perhaps there would have been no reason to mention it; or alternatively, its mention could have appeared on one of the broken parts of the inscription. (p. 124)

(In other words, if there is no evidence for the biblical account, then the historian is entitled to speculate reasons to account for the missing evidence for what is “known” to have existed or happened?)

Jerusalem of the Iron I-II Period

The strongest evidence Mazar points to in this section is the Stepped Stone Structure in Jerusalem. This structure “is enormous and was most probably intended to support an exceptionally large monumental building.” (p. 125)

In terms of their magnitude, neither the Stepped Stone Structure nor the building recently discovered to its west has a parallel anywhere in the land of Israel between the twelfth and early ninth centuries b.c.e., and this is, in my view, a clear indication that Jerusalem was much more than a small village. (p. 127)

The other building Mazar refers to is one known as the “Large Stone Structure“, part of a complex excavated by a relative of Amihai Mazar, Eilat Mazar. Eilat announced that these remains belonged to King David’s palace!

One might expect that if such monumental edifices has been recovered from the tenth century then one might also find significant supporting artefacts from the same time. But no, and this situation is explained by Mazar:

The latter situation is probably the result of the bad state of preservation of structures on the steep slope at this peculiar site, and of the continuous reuse of buildings over the centuries. (p.127)

(Yet subsequent layers of evidence of other eras — the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine periods — are abundant. And the early tenth century four hectare area of Jerusalem can be seen to have grown dramatically by the seventh century.)

Unfortunately Mazar’s chapter was published in 2007, the same year as a rebuttal of Eilat’s and Amihai’s interpretations (“Eilat Mazar’s archaeological, chronological and, in fact, historical conclusions have unreservedly been endorsed by Amihai Mazar— Finkelstein et al.) of these remains dating earlier than Hellenistic and Roman times was published — by Israel Finkelstein, Ze’ev Herzog, Lily Singer-Avitz and David Ussishkin — and for this reason Mazar was presumably unable to address its discussion. Their article (Has King David’s Palace in Jerusalem Been Found?) can be read by anyone online, but I will highlight a few of its points here.

  1. When Eilat Mazar pointed to 11th/10th century foundational layers to the edifice, Finkelstein et al pointed out that the dating was only valid if the soil was originally “in situ” and not a fill for construction brought in from elsewhere. They give reasons for observing that the latter is more likely the case.
  2. When Mazar drew attention to a particular form of pottery that was known to have been found at earlier sites, Finkelstein et al pointed out that the accompanying picture also showed that later forms of pottery were found with that earlier type.
  3. Finkelstein et al point out that some of Mazar’s finds — including Herodian pottery between and under the spaces in the “Davidic” walls! — point to the “palace” being built in post-Iron Age times.
  4. Finkelstein et al further remark on the walls of a Hasmonaean ritual bath being built in the same orientation and at the same elevation (strata) as the “palace of David”.
  5. Finkelstein et al finally note that a Byzantine wall was built directly on a flattened part of the wall of “David’s palace”.
  6. Finkelstein et al conclude that the best explanation for all the evidence is that the “palace” was not built as a single unit, but was begun in the late Hellenistic (Hasmonaean) time, and later added to in Roman times.

So much for the evidence that Jerusalem was a monumental city in the tenth century.

And the evidence for Solomon’s temple? Mazar does not shrink from declaring that he believes it for no reason other than that the Bible says it:

The temple and palace that Solomon supposedly built should be found, if anywhere below the present Temple Mount, where no excavations are possible. If the biblical account is taken as reliable, Solomon’s Jerusalem would be a city of twelve hectares with monumental buildings and a temple. Should Solomon be removed from history, who then would have been responsible for the construction of the Jerusalem Temple? There is no doubt that such a temple stood on the Temple Mount prior to the Babylonian conquest of the city, but we lack any textual hint for an alternative to Solomon as its builder. (pp. 127-8)

Demography

Amihai Mazar next turns to “the supposed low settlement density and lack of urbanization in the tenth century.” (p. 134) He attributes this perception to “methodological problems”.

Nonetheless, Mazar accepts the evidence that points to “a gradual increase in settlement” and concludes that 20,000 people in Judah in the tenth century “appears to be realistic”. He continues:

If we add to this the unknown population numbers in the Israelite territories of northern Israel and parts of Transjordan, we may estimate the population in the Israelite territories at somewhere between fifty and seventy thousand people. (p. 134)

How he arrives at such figures despite the “methodological problems” he discusses he does not explain. But I am not clear on the significance of these figures anyway. Surely a — the — significant figure would be that of the apparent power base from which a united Palestinian kingdom could be established, extended, controlled and sustained. I doubt a 4 hectare Jerusalem could fit the bill.

Literacy

Mazar:

The few inscriptions incised on stones or pottery vessels for daily use from a tenth century context hint at the spread of literacy already in this time, and thus it can be assumed that some officials and professional scribes did exist in the tenth century. (p. 135)

Not knowing the specific evidence to which Mazar is referring (and hence unable to cross check with other views and finds) my only comment is that literate officials required for basic book-keeping and legal matters are a long step from a critical mass of literates from which historical, religious and other forms of literature can be sustained.

Conclusions

Mazar writes:

A talented, charismatic, and politically astute leader in control of a small yet effective military power could, in my view, have taken hold of a large part of a small country like the land of Israel and united diverse population groups under his leadership. (p. 139)

Apparently forgetting for a moment about the need to account for the Solomon legend adjunct to the Davidic one, Mazar goes on to comment that “short-lived political and territorial achievements like those of David may be beyond the capability of the tools of archaeology to detect . . . .”

Anyone who has followed Jared Diamond’s studies (e.g. Guns, Germs and Steel) knows that even the most talented, charismatic and politically astute leaders are powerless without the geographic tools and base at their command.

(Or for the videos try:

 

 

The strongest argument for revised histories of Israel & Judah

Finding this or that new artefact or foundation of fort or shrine in Iron Age Judea and Jerusalem may make headline news in relation to the Bible story, but it is unlikely in the extreme to change the basic geographic facts we do know about Jerusalem and the area of the supposed kingdom of Judea as outlined in my previous post, Jerusalem unearthed — 1000 to 700 b.c.e.

The facts of Jerusalem’s size, relative isolation, and political and economic position position in relation to Lachish, Ekron, Hebron and Arad, as well as in relation to the greater neighbouring kingdoms of Israel, Syria, etc, make any notion of it having the power base to dominate a Judean kingdom before the seventh century b.c.e. completely implausible.

Such a village could not have the critical mass of educated elites required to preserve a noble history, quite apart from the fact that such a village simply lacked the economic and political and cultural backgrounds from which such historical notions are necessarily spawned. These facts belie the biblical history of Jerusalem as the major power centre of a united kingdom of Israel, or even a dynastic hub controlling Judea.

Sensationalized news about discoveries of new artefacts are unlikely to result in any significant changes to these facts.