Despite having been familiar with the Bible for many years I have had to confess that much of my understanding has been at a layman’s level and only sporadically informed by more thorough scholarly insights. One assumption that most lay readers are likely to bring to the Bible is that it speaks with a uniform voice about a future time when a Messiah figure descended from King David will once again restore Israel to a power exceeding the comparable status she held in the days of King Solomon.
So I was taken aback when I read that one of the contributors to the book of Isaiah had no such vision about a future Davidic messiah, but on the contrary accepted that David’s dynasty had finished, been terminated. But don’t we read in 2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89 that God promised an everlasting dynasty for David? Did our Isaiah writer not know of this prophecy? How could that passage be included in the canon if it contradicted other “sacred scriptures”?
That second Isaiah was keen to reinterpret what he could of Isaiah’s oracles can be seen in his handling of the Davidic convenantal tradition. Though political realities would not allow him to simply repeat Isaiah’s promises to the Davidic monarchy, he skillfully actualizes this tradition by “democratizing” it, and applying the Davidic promises to the entire nation (55:1—5). (David Meade, Pseudonymity and Canon, 1986. p. 34)
Again 5 pages later,
We already saw how the Davidic promises were applied by second Isaiah to all Israel (55:1— 5).
If you’re confused by the above reference to “second Isaiah” then understand that scholars have long believed that the 66 chapters of our book of Isaiah are a composite of different writings: “first Isaiah” wrote chapters 1-39 during the time of the Assyrian empire; “second Isaiah” wrote the rest at the time of the Babylonian empire. Some even add a “third Isaiah” responsible for chapters 55-66.
How many of us who have read much classical literature have found occasions to pause and reflect on unexpected similarities between “pagan” works and what we recall from the Bible? Often, I suspect, we have wondered for a moment only to resume reading and let the curiosity be shelved without further attention.
It is unfortunate that some interesting scholarly works that do address such parallels are prohibitively priced so very rarely do they ever nudge the wider public consciousness. This post is offered here as encouragement for any reader who has wondered about such odd similarities that seem to have as many differences as points in common. It comes from a classicist, not a biblical scholar, of course. Unfortunately the word “parallelomania” seems to cast a cloud over such observations in Biblical studies if anyone dare suggest the Biblical writers did the borrowing, but they have less trouble if the argument goes the other way and the Greeks borrowed from the Hebrews. In that latter instance I doubt they ever raise the spectre of “parallelomania” — just as I suspect they avoid the same quibble when arguing that later mystery religions of the Roman era borrowed from Christianity!
This post looks at a small selection of similarities between Greek and Biblical heroes as discussed in The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth by classicist M. L. West. We know all the usual caveats about correlation and cause and effect. One things for sure emerges, however. The gulf between the thought-world of Greece and the Bible is not necessarily as wide as we may have imagined.
Previous posts in this series are archived here. Another review of this chapter can be read at Aaron Adair’s blog.
I liked Ingrid Hjelm‘s chapter, “‘Who is my Neighbor?’ Implicit Use of Old Testament Stories and Motifs in Luke’s Gospel”, for several reasons:
it presented the first cogent explanation I have ever encountered for why Luke’s genealogy of Jesus is so different from Matthew’s and why it avoided all mention of David’s son Solomon and the rest of the kings of Israel and Judah;
it explained how a Davidic Messianic figure did not necessarily imply a worldly conqueror (at least not until the last days) but that the OT also contained a nonviolent priestly vision of David who united God’s people as a priestly, Moses-like figure;
it showed how the Gospel of Luke is very much an extension of the same sort of literature that came to make up the Jewish Bible;
it reminded me of the importance of the sacred meaning of numbers among biblical authors, something too easily overlooked today;
it also indirectly prompted possible explanations for why Luke might have adapted and changed the Gospel of Matthew (if he did — but this is really a topic that belongs to another post entirely.)
(But it took some time to grasp what the chapter was about initially. It launches straight into a detailed discussion of details of Matthew’s genealogy and one is immediately wondering, “What the heck is this all about? Was an opening paragraph outlining her argument lost by an editor?” More likely, perhaps, it was cut and paste from other publications by Hjelm yet with insufficient re-editing to clarify the direction of the argument for readers completely new to her views. And there are several passages in the rest of the chapter that leave a reader unfamiliar with the contents of cited references bemused. (Only after tracking down online citations and catching up with some background reading was I able to make sense of some of Hjelm’s statements. Needless to say, some of her claims whose citations are not online remain obscure to me.) Unfortunately this chapter is not the only one in this volume that suffers from this sort of difficulty for those unfamiliar with some of the authors and ideas, — not to mention just a few too many typos. But as you can tell from my positive introduction it was worth making the effort to understand the flow of her argument.)
Hjelm shows us that the author of the Gospel of Luke interpreted and reused the Old Testament scriptures as a template for his own Gospel story of Jesus in quite subtle and sophisticated ways that are foreign to the ways most modern readers have come to understand the OT. Luke (we’ll imagine the author’s name was Luke) viewed the David figure embodied in Jesus not through the stained history in the books of Samuel, but through the idealized portrait in the books of Chronicles where a priestly David is portrayed as a second Moses, and as such reunites Samaritanism and Judaism once again into the theological ideal of a new Israel.
(I use the term “Judaism” here instead of “Jews” because it is worth keeping in mind what that word “Jew” actually describes at that time: see Where did the Bible’s Jews come from?Part 1, Part 2. Hjelm even concludes that Luke was not the gentile convert most readers have assumed him to be, but a Hellenized “Jew”.)
What we see in the Gospel are reiteration and paralleling of the motifs and themes of the older Scriptures. If that sounds a lot like the sort of argument we have come to expect from Thomas L. Thompson, we should not be surprised to find Hjelm is also from the University of Copenhagen and Thompson’s name appears frequently in her list of publications.
There is, of course, much more to be written about the Gospel of Luke’s use of the OT — see, for example, Origin of the Emmaus Road Narrative and More on Luke’s Use of Genesis — but this chapter by Hjelm gives readers an excellent insight into the way the author used Scriptures. Hjelm concludes ambiguously on the question of the implications of Luke’s use of Scriptures for the narrative’s historicity. What really matters is that we understand and accept the nature of the Biblical stories and what they meant for their original creators and audiences.
Against Hjelm’s references to Samaritans as the heritage of Moses in this chapter one should be aware that Ingrid Hjelm clearly has a special interest in Samaritan studies (see her list of publications) and last year was awarded The Samaritan Medal for Peace and Humanitarian Achievement by the Samaritan community. At one point she justifies the pivotal reference to Samaritans as well as Jews as an allegorical interpretation (Moses represents the Samaritans and Elijah the Jews) by citing an earlier (2004) publication of hers.
Let’s imagine that oral traditions among today’s bedouin Arabs may be able to guide us in understanding how oral traditions worked in the days when the Bible stories were being originally told. — But don’t misunderstand. The Bible stories, even if they were originally sourced from pre-literate oral tales, have been artfully constructed to convey theological messages. But even the pre-literate oral traditions among Arab tribes have been re-written (sometimes for modern film) in ways that bear little resemblance to the themes of the original. What I am trying to imagine here is the evidence for the original biblical tales and how they compare with what we know of
Let’s focus on one Bible story for exercise, the story of David, and compare its elements with what we know about story-telling among peoples with long traditions in the Middle East. Incidentally, let us ask how one can know if an oral tradition has any historical basis at all.
Arabs had and have a plethora of vernacular traditions: various forms of poetry, genealogies, epic legends and tribal histories. Oral traditions are a rich source of information, provided they are eventually written down and preserved. (p. 127)
And written down and preserved many have been since the 20th century when literacy pervaded a critical mass of the Arab world. Until then they relied entirely upon storytelling, citing and singing for their preservation.
One form of oral tradition that can be traced back to pre-Islamic times is the akhbar, “short stories, recounting the adventures and battles of the various bedouin tribes.” Again going back to pre-Islamic times story telling competitions were held among the various tribes.
Features of the stories
Usually focused on one tribal hero
Eventually grew into tribal heroic cycles
Recited by professional storytellers
Recited in desert tents and coffeehouses of towns and villages
Told or chanted (often a mixture of both) in prose or rhyming prose, interspersed with poetry.
Every Arab knew parts of these stories: they were, and still are, part of the national culture. (p. 128)
Baybars was the Mamluk Sultan who fought Mongols, Persians and Crusaders.
Abu Zayd was the hero in the Sirat Beni Hilal who led the exodus of the tribe from hunger-striken Arabia into the Maghreb in the 9th and 10th century.
Antar was the black hero of the Beni Abs, in continual conflict with the Beni Fazara, and in love with Abla.
Nineteenth century Orientalist Edward Lane described how storytellers would come into coffee houses in Cairo, recite and/or chant their stories about tribal heroes, then — at an appropriate cliff-hanger moment — stop for the evening to ensure an audience for the next day.
That way a story session could last well over a year.
The storyteller would develop the story as he went along, borrowing from his repertoire of other stories and formulas, adapting the story to the audience and situation. So the audience itself played a critical part in the development of the story:
they expressed their approval or disapproval, and discussed the story with the narrator. In town the stories reflected life in the town, in bedouin camps the context would be the camp. Only the main storylines, and the heroes remained the same. (p. 128) Continue reading “What Makes a Good Bible Story?”
John Van Seters is of the view that the Biblical narrative of David is a composite of two narrative strands: one by a “Deuteronomistic Historian” (Dtr) who in essence has little but good to say about David — he is God’s faithful servant, etc. — and a later thread by one writing in the period of the Persian empire. This latter author had a much more cynical view of David, or at least opted to portray David as a typical exemplar of all that Samuel forewarned would go wrong with Israel if they chose a king to replace God (via the judges like Samuel himself) as their leader. Here I outline his discussion of The Bathsheba Affair in The Biblical Saga of King David. It is more than about dating the narrative to the Persian empire period, though. Van Seters makes some interesting observations about the intent of the author to undermine any respect for David as an ideal king.
Context: War with the Ammonites
This war against the Ammonites stands out from all the other foreign wars of David by the way in which it pays attention to particular details. First, it deals with the casus belli for the war in [2 Sam] 10:1-5, something that in Dtr’s treatment of foreign wars needs no such explanation. (p. 287)
For Van Seters the Deuteronomist historian (Dtr) always portrays David as going to war in the service of God. They are holy wars against God’s enemies and need no other explanation. So note the difference with this one:
1 In the course of time, the king of the Ammonites died, and his son Hanun succeeded him as king. 2 David thought, “I will show kindness to Hanun son of Nahash, just as his father showed kindness to me.” So David sent a delegation to express his sympathy to Hanun concerning his father.
When David’s men came to the land of the Ammonites, 3 the Ammonite commanders said to Hanun their lord, “Do you think David is honoring your father by sending envoys to you to express sympathy? Hasn’t David sent them to you only to explore the city and spy it out and overthrow it?” 4 So Hanun seized David’s envoys, shaved off half of each man’s beard, cut off their garments at the buttocks, and sent them away.
5 When David was told about this, he sent messengers to meet the men, for they were greatly humiliated. The king said, “Stay at Jericho till your beards have grown, and then come back.”
Dtr would never have approved of David having a solemn friendship understanding with the pagan king Nahash. But apart from this it is quite anomalous to suggest here that David did have such a friendship at all since in the days of Saul Nahash and his Ammonites were the most bitter enemies of Israel (1 Samuel 11; 31:11-13).
John Van Seters in The Biblical Saga of King David offers arguments that much of the biblical narrative about King David was composed in the period of the Persian empire. Snippets from this work cannot possibly do justice to those arguments. So I am not presenting this as evidence of the Persian provenance of the story of David, but only as an illustration of how a highly respected biblical scholar comes to conclude that a particular narrative in the Bible — in this case the tale of David’s capture of Jerusalem — is neither based on official archives nor at all historical. Generally concluding comments in parentheses within each section are my own summaries.)
The scripture for this lesson is 2 Samuel 5:6-12:
6And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who spoke unto David, saying, “Unless thou take away the blind and the lame, thou shalt not come in hither,” thinking, “David cannot come in hither.”
7Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion (the same is the City of David).
8And David said on that day, “Whosoever getteth up through the gutter [water shaft] and smiteth the Jebusites, and the lame and the blind, who are hated in David’s soul, he shall be chief and captain.” Therefore they said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.“
9So David dwelt in the fortress/stronghold, and called it the City of David. And David built round about from the Millo and inward.
10And David went on and grew great, and the LORD God of hosts was with him.
11And Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar trees and carpenters and masons; and they built David a house.
12And David perceived that the LORD had established him king over Israel, and that He had exalted his kingdom for His people Israel’s sake.
Van Seters begins his discussion with:
There are many enigmatic elements within this short unit that have elicited a great amount of speculation and debate. . . . (p. 214)
The following points about the biblical narrative of David are taken from The Biblical Saga of King David (2009) by the eminent scholar John Van Seters. Not that this post reflects the purpose or theme of Van Seters’ study. I am focusing on a small segment in a much larger study that analyses both the archaeological research relating to the Davidic period and the Davidic literature. Van Seters believes the evidence points to the Saga of King David being composed in the Persian period. But I leave those arguments aside for now.
2 Samuel lists dozens of named officials, military officers and sons that to the average modern reader are so boring they have to be genuinely official records!
Van Seters references Nadav Na’aman (1996) who thinks the following lists must be derived from authentic written records. (“No-one would make them up”):
From the moment his followers believed that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by the Prophets, the transformation of his life into myth began, and proceeded apace. (p. 108 of Jesus by Charles Guignebert, trans by S.H. Hooke)
It is refreshing to read some sound logical sense by a historical Jesus scholar in the swelling tide of apologetic publications. I like the way Guignebert (through his translator) worded the following:
The belief in this illustrious descent [of Jesus] is unquestionably very old, since Paul already knew and accepted it (Rom. i. 3, “of the seed of David according to the flesh”), but that is no reason for believing, without further investigation, that it was correct. There are still critics, even open-minded ones, who accept the possibility of its being so, but we cannot share their opinion. (p. 111, my emphasis)
No doubt more recent scholars have expressed the same critical nous, but there are many other historical Jesus scholars who since have attacked the very values of the Enlightenment, sneered at what they label a “hermeneutic of suspicion” (some even arguing that “charity” is a Christian duty owed to certain subsets of texts) (Bauckham et beaucoup al), and glided on the wind of postmodernism to substitute “even fabricated material . . . however inauthentic it may be as far as the specific details are concerned” for genuine historical evidence (Allison).
No. At least not in the time of Bar Kochba‘s revolt against Rome, 132-136 ce.
That’s if we can trust the later rabbinic evidence that attributed certain beliefs to famous Rabbi Akiba who supported Bar Kochba’s claim to be the messiah.
(The relevance of this discussion to Christian origins lies in the context of arguments that Jesus being said, at various places, to have been of the seed of David or of Davidic descent. For starters, given modern scholarly (archaeological) understanding of the reality of “King David”, and even the “Davidic dynasty”, there was evidently no such thing as a “family of David” existing in Palestine at the time of Jesus, before and later, anyway.)
Bar Kochba’s original name was Simeon ben Kosiba. It was subsequently changed to Bar Kochba, which was Aramaic for “Son of a Star”, an allusion to the prophecy of Numbers 24:17. (This sort of name change based on a pun on the original name in order to fit a biblical prophecy is worth keeping in mind when one compares other apparent puns in names found within the gospels.)
The rabbinic passage is discussing this bible’s reference to the plural “thrones” in heaven, one for the Ancient of Days, and another, presumably, for the Son of Man (Daniel 7:9, 13-14). The passage follows on from references to a biblical contradiction where God is described as an old man (with white hair) in Daniel 7, but as a young black-headed man according to their interpretation of Song of Solomon 5:11.
One passage says: His throne was fiery flames; and another Passage says: Till thrones were placed, and One that was ancient of days did sit!
— There is no contradiction: one [throne] for Him, and one for David; this is the view of R. Akiba.
Said R. Jose the Galilean to him: Akiba, how long wilt thou treat the Divine Presence as profane! Rather, [it must mean], one for justice and one for grace.
Did he accept [this explanation from him, or did he not accept it?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Finkelstein et al finally note that a Byzantine wall was built directly on a flattened part of the wall of “David’s palace”.
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)
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.
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.
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.