Tag Archives: Jews

Judea, an Ideal State of the Greek Philosophers?

Bust of Herodotus. 2nd century AD. Roman copy ...
Herodotus.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ancient Greek world appears to have been ignorant of the Jews (or even Israel) in Palestine until around the end of the fourth century. I still recall my high school disappointment when I read the famous work of the Greek “father of history”, Herodotus, only to find not a single mention of biblical Judea even though surrounding peoples were colourfully portrayed in detail. If Herodotus had truly traveled through these regions as we believed at the time (a view that has been questioned in more recent scholarship) what could possibly account for such a total omission of a people whose customs surely differed so starkly from those of their neighbours. Didn’t Herodotus love to seek out and dwell upon the unusual?

A History of Israel from the Ground Up (i.e. from archaeology)

Perhaps that nagging question prepared me to be more open to the arguments of scholars sometimes labeled as the “Copenhagen School” — Thompson, Lemche, Davies in particular at first — than I might otherwise have been. Their thesis is that biblical Israel, the Israel of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the united kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon, the rival sibling kingdoms of Israel in the north and Judah in the south up to the time of the captivities, first of Assyria and then of Babylon, and finally the story of Jews undergoing a literary and religious revival by the waters of Babylon, all this was a literary fable as much as the stories of Camelot and King Arthur were. That’s oversimplifying it a little, since the stories functioned quite a bit more seriously than as mere entertainment; and there was indeed a historical kingdom of Israel based around Samaria, although the southern kingdom of Judah led from Jerusalem did not really emerge as a significant power until after Israel was deported by the Assyrians. Leading figures from the Judea really were deported to Babylon but the purpose of this deportation, as with all such deportations, was to destroy the old identities of the captives and reestablish them with new ones. So there was no opportunity for a literary or religious revival.  There was no Bible as we know it during any of this time.

The Biblical books were the product of the peoples subsequently deported by the Persians to settle the region of Palestine in order to establish it as an economic and strategic piece of real estate for the Persian empire. This was the colony of Yehud. (If I recall correctly it was for a time part of the Persian satrapy extending across the biblical land of promise from the Nile to the Euphrates.) Fictionalized narratives of this settlement have come down to us in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra. Scribal schools competed to establish a new narrative and cultural identity for this settlement. The native inhabitants (or “people of the land”) became the godless Canaanites from whom the settlers needed to withdraw in every way. Myths of returning to the land of their fathers to restore the true worship of the god of this land emerged just as they did with other deported populations of which we have some record.

The First Greek Witnesses

Let’s move ahead a little now to the time when we find our first notice of this people among the Greeks. It’s around 300 BCE. The Persian empire has crumbled before the Macedonian phalanxes of Alexander the Great. The old Persian province of Yehud is now under Hellenistic rule. read more »

Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1

Kurdistan .Yazidis .Judaism . Christianity ....
Kurdistan. Yazidis. Judaism. Christianity. Islam. (Photo credit: Kurdistan Photo كوردستان)

This post is based primarily on a few pages in The Mythic Past by Thomas L. Thompson. It is slightly supplemented by fewer notes from a different but complementary discussion on the biblical meanings of “the people of God” in The Israelites in History and Tradition by Niels Peter Lemche. (All bold fonts for emphasis or highlighting key points for ease of reading are mine.)

I conclude with my own thoughts on what all of this means for the first of our Gospels.

The biblical tradition informs us of the meaning and understanding that the biblical authors’ contemporaries attributed to the past. Archaeological evidence points to a different reality of the past.

The religious understanding of Israel’s origin myth

The primary biblical referent for Israel’s ethnic and family identification is found in the stories and metaphors of “exodus”, “wilderness”, “exile” and “return”. Even in the Books of Kings the narrative is couched in the suspense of threats and promises of exile from the land. These themes centre on the motif of the children of Israel as the “people of God”, as Jahweh’s “first-born” and God’s “inheritance”.

These stories all are solidly rooted in the self-defining, grand epochal line of a God without a home or a people [and who was] searching for a people without a home or a God. It is in this metaphor that we find the foundation and matrix for the ethnographic metaphor of all Israel. This metaphor gives voice to the ‘new Israel’ with its centre in Yahweh’s temple of the ‘new Jerusalem’. This is an identity that is formed from the perspective of the sectarian theology of the way. (pp. 255-56, The Mythic Past by Thomas L. Thompson)

Compare Niels Peter Lemche’s observation of the nature of Israel’s origin myth: read more »

The Wandering Who?

Gilad-Atzmon-The-Wandering-WHOFollowing is a review of Gilad Atzmon’s book. One part of what interests me about this sort of discussion is the inevitable comparison with any other similar experiences of losing one’s old identity and finding a new one. My own experience was in losing my identity as a Christian and becoming what many would call a secular humanist. I went through more than one iteration of Christianity (fundamentalist, liberal) but failed to appreciate the extent to which one’s identity can be entombed in such a belief at any level, until I left the “other-world” idea behind entirely. (One is constantly reminded that even “liberal Christians”, for example, can sometimes be just as arrogant in their humility, just as intolerant and hostile of other views, as the fundamentalist variety. The only difference for so many is that they change their targets or their levels of self-deception. But we are all where we are at and each of us has our own journey to follow.)

The original is at Gilad Atzmon’s blog here or on the VT site here.

Gilad struggled with the conflict between his early experiences as an Israeli Zionist and his awakening as a humanist

The Wandering WHO? navigates between thought-provoking personal experiences, historical and philosophical issues

by Paul J Balles

Gilad Atzmon, scholar, prolific writer and leading jazz saxophonist has authored the book The Wandering WHO? In it he astutely explores the identity crisis he himself experienced and one faced by many Jews.

Gilad struggled with the conflict between his early experiences as an Israeli Zionist and his awakening as a humanist.

His book reveals an innate ability to switch between the qualities of a down-to-earth artist (the successful sax player and word-smith) and the knowledgeable philosopher.

Without doubt, The Wandering WHO? will awaken many readers– pleasing some and disturbing others.

The pleased will include those who have experienced similar awakenings or resolved identity crises by continuously asking questions.

The book will also find welcome readers among those who have sought honest answers to the many contentious issues involving Jewish identity, Jewish politics and Israel.

The disturbed will include those Gilad might refer to as “separatist Jews…kind of a bizarre mixture of an SS commander and a Biblical Moses.”

Gilad will also face threats and complaints from those he calls “pro-war Zionist Islamophobes.”

He will undoubtedly find rejection from those who want “to stop proud, self-hating Jews (like Atzmon) from blowing the whistle.”

The Wandering WHO? navigates between thought-provoking personal experiences, historical and philosophical issues.

In the forward, Gilad tells the most remarkable story of his Jewish upbringing and the challenging questions raised by his early experiences as an Israeli Zionist.

In the chapters that follow, Gilad remarks that “Israel is the Jewish state and Jewishness is an ethno-centric ideology driven by exclusiveness, exceptionalism, racial supremacy and a deep inherent inclination toward segregation.”

Atzmon draws a distinction between Jews as: read more »

An Invention called “the Jewish People”

My heading, “an invention called the Jewish people” is taken from an article recently published in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. It’s about a book by Professor Zand of the Tel Aviv University. The article concludes with:

His book, “When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?” (published by Resling in Hebrew), is intended to promote the idea that Israel should be a “state of all its citizens” – Jews, Arabs and others – in contrast to its declared identity as a “Jewish and democratic” state. Personal stories, a prolonged theoretical discussion and abundant sarcastic quips do not help the book, but its historical chapters are well-written and cite numerous facts and insights that many Israelis will be astonished to read for the first time.

Some of those facts:

  1. “There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion”, and the exile of 70 c.e. also never happened. At the most, tens of thousands were exiled. Most were permitted, and most did, stay in the land. It follows, if exile is a myth, that the idea that Jews since the twentieth century are “returning” to “their land” is a myth.
  2. When the Arabs conquered the land, many of the Jews converted to Islam and were assimilated among the conquerors. It follows that many Palestinian Arabs today are descendants of the original Jews.

Tom Segev, author of this article, writes:

Zand did not invent this thesis; 30 years before the Declaration of Independence, it was espoused by David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and others. . . . . Zand quotes from many existing studies, some of which were written in Israel but shunted out of the central discourse.

So how did the Jewish Diaspora originate?

From Tom Segev’s article on Prof. Zand’s book in the Haaretz:

  1. emigration of their own accord
  2. many Jews in Babylon had simply remained of their own will
  3. members of other faiths were forced to become Jews (c.f. the Book of Esther which says narrates just such an event — many converting because of fear of the Jews.)

Specific case-studies discussed by Zand:

  1. the Jewish kingdom of Himyar in the southern Arabian Peninsula
  2. the Jewish Berbers in North Africa
  3. the Jews in Spain — these originated from Arabs who became Jews and who arrived with the forces that captured Spain from the Christians; these mingled with European individuals who had become Jews.
  4. the first Jews of Ashkenaz (Germany) . . . became Jews in the Khazar Kingdom in the Caucasus.

Segev notes:

We find, then, that the members of a variety of peoples and races, blond and black, brown and yellow, became Jews in large numbers. According to Zand, the Zionist need to devise for them a shared ethnicity and historical continuity produced a long series of inventions and fictions, along with an invocation of racist theses. Some were concocted in the minds of those who conceived the Zionist movement, while others were offered as the findings of genetic studies conducted in Israel.

The original Haaretz article is worth the full read, not least for the same page’s other interesting news of the sort that does not normally see light of day in the English speaking Western media.

The story will not be news to those who already appreciate the fictional nature of the Bible’s Exodus and genocidal Conquest narratives. Nor to those familiar with some of the racist fictions that were concocted in the latter nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. Focus on Nazi racist myths has obscured from much public memory the fact that such racist ideologies and cults of physical ideals inflicted many races, nations and peoples then, many Jews included.

One day the world will look back on the current myths underpinning Zionism as with no more factual foundation than their nineteenth century and early twentieth century counterparts — and that were likewise used to rationalize ethnic cleansing and expansion of “living space”.