The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Book 1. The Crisis of Sacred History
Iron Age to Persian Conquest
To judge a story’s historicity by its degree of realism is to mistake verisimilitude for historicity. Verisimilitude is the literary term for the illusion of reality. Just because a story sounds real does not mean that it is. Realistic fiction is just as fictional as nonrealistic fiction.
The Walls of Jericho
For centuries “scholars” have been satisfied with any whisker of evidence that might have been interpreted as upholding biblical history and have hung on to it contrary to all reason, until recently when the continual absence even of whiskers of evidence where it ought to be plentiful has forced some to admit the scriptures are historically a massive lie. Though the Old Testament contains much of value mythologically and in terms of wisdom, it is mainly lost on Christians who prefer the fancy of a supernatural, interventionist god that never existed until the Persian kings of the fifth century invented it to control the people of Palestine they needed as loyal subjects to guard the gates of Egypt. Jewish nationalists in the second century BC found the stories valuable in giving a basis for their new state, and to warn Jews off Greek gods and culture.
Thomas L Thompson, Professor of Old Testament Studies at the University of Copenhagen, writes (TLT-BIH):
The association of the bible with religious faith has often been understood by biblical scholars to give warrant to the emptiest of propositions.
A reviewer of Thompson’s book, William Dalrymple, says the same thing even more delicately:
Thompson is right to emphasize that traditional biblical scholars are guilty of giving a religious text a factual historicity it neither seeks nor deserves.
Put less delicately Thompson and his reviewer are saying traditional biblical scholars are liars. An empty proposition put forward with the intention of confusing or detracting is simply a lie, and so is a text given a factual historicity it does not deserve.
Christian acceptance of the reality of Jewish history has followed a path similar to the “god of the gaps” in science. As science advanced, there were fewer gaps left for god to occupy by way of explanation. In Jewish history, latterly we have seen a sort of king Canute god—he had to keep stepping back as the tide came in. Palaeological science refuted creation and the origins myths. The Flood of Noah had to be discarded as historical truth. Moses had to be discarded. Joshua became a myth. Judges never existed. One by one the biblical stories had to be accepted as false as the tide of knowledge rolled in. Each time the servants of the god, Canute, scratched a new line in the sand, but the tide washed it away. Saul and David, mythical. Solomon, pure fancy. The divided kingdom, invention. The lost tribes of Israel, plain nonsense. Finally, the exile from Judah and the return, not quite what they seem!
The delay in realising these things is not surprising. The Palestine Exploration Society, founded in 1870, set its purpose as the “refutation of unbelief…” by “modern skepticism” attacking the facts of the bible. The high point of biblical archaeology was from 1920 to 1970, when the American School, under William F Albright made a total pig’s ear out of Palestinian archaeology in defence of God’s word!
James Kelso excavated Bethel, mixing artefacts, facts and fancy. He mixed up unrelated artefacts from different stratigraphic layers to discover “Abraham’s altar” and “an open air sacrificial shrine to the Canaanite god El”. No wonder these people call the archaeology of Palestine “disturbed”. Rabbi Nelson Glueck, a follower of Albright, saw a decline in population in Transjordan in the third millennium BC as reflecting the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Yet, it was a widespread phenomenon. Modern archaeologists have to try to correct the mess biblical archaeologists have made, and the faulty interpretations they have given. Neither ministers nor media take much notice of their efforts in the social conspiracy to maintain religion.
Albright’s disciple, George Wright, openly averred that Biblical archaeology was for apologetical purposes:
The Biblical archaeologist may or may not be an excavator himself, but he studies the discoveries of the excavations in order to glean from them every fact that throws a direct, indirect or even diffused light upon the Bible… Yet his chief concern is not with methods or pots or weapons in themselves alone. His central and absorbing interest is the understanding and exposition of the Scriptures.
Only now, after a hundred years or more of excavating Palestine, are scholars beginning to think that not all might be right with scriptural history. Many have realized that Biblical archaeology is discredited. Wright himself was obliged to retract many of his claims.
No trace of the long sagas of the Old Testament has ever been found in any archaeological dig from Jericho to Megiddo. The bible tells us of Joshua invading the western banks of the Jordan from the east bank, attacking Jericho and dramatically succeeding in defeating the walled city when god arranged a miracle to bring down the walls. A fortified city that fell in a definite moment of history is an archaeological prize indeed. Biblical archaeologists, Christians and Jews, dug and dug. Soon the traces of the mighty walls destroyed in the biblical account would be found. And they dug some more. Ancient walls were found thousands of years before they should have been. They have found no Iron Age walls. There were no walls from the Middle Bronze age on!
In 1907, E Sellin and C Watzinger, German archaeologists, dug ernestly at the site, identifying three layers, attributed to the Canaanite, the Israelite and the Judaean periods. The “Israelite” city which had a tremendous wall and a palace came to an end in a violent destruction. Curiously, many scarabs of the Middle Kingdom were found, as well as pot handles impressed with seals of the same time in the Israelite layer! “They must have been used as amulets hundreds of years after they were made!” Years later, Watzinger demurred, dating the “Israelite layer”, from the scarabs, to the Middle Kingdom. The “Judaean” city was assigned to the ninth century, as the work of the biblical Hiel.
John Garstang undertook new excavations at Jericho between the wars. He saw traces of intense fire. “Houses alongside the wall are found burned to the ground, their roofs have fallen upon the domestic pottery within”. “Palace storerooms were burnt in a general conflagration”. “White ash was overlaid by a thick layer of charcoal and burnt debris”.
Kathleen Kenyon turned to the site in 1955 with a new type of systematic archaeology, the Wheeler-Kenyon method, she helped to perfect. Kenyon found that, in the time of the Middle Kingdom, Jericho was at its apogee as a city and fortress: “…the Middle Bronze Age is perhaps the most prosperous in the whole history of Palestine”. The walls consisted of a massive bank faced with stone, “part of a complex system” of defences, but the city was set on fire, then “violently destroyed and left in ruins”. The thick layer of burnt material above the Middle Bronze Age buildings is the highest surviving layer, showing that the city had ceased to exist before Joshua’s invasion.
Of any fortifications that the Late Bronze Age settlement might have had, no trace survives. The double line of wall, thought by Garstang to be of the Late Bronze age, or New Kingdom in Egypt, dated from the Early Bronze, contemporary with the Old Kingdom in Egypt. Garstang’s conclusion of a sizable fortress in the days of Amenhotep III was shown to be wrong. He had excavated the wrong wall, thinking the Early Bronze Age foundations were the Late Bronze Age walls of the time of the conquest.
The site was only a village in the Late Bronze Age when Joshua supposedly crossed the Jordan River. The conquest must have been easier than the bible suggested! French archaeologist Judith Marquet-Krause nearby excavated the site of Ai (Josh 7-8) and found it was also destroyed around 2400 BC and abandoned at the time of Joshua’s conquest.
It is a sad fact that of the town walls of the Late Bronze Age, within which period the attack by the Israelites must fall by any dating, not a trace remains… As concerns the date of the destruction of Jericho by the Israelites, all that can be said is that the latest Bronze Age occupation should, in my view, be dated to the third quarter of the fourteenth century BC… a date which suits neither the school of scholars which would date the entry of the Israelites into Palestine to c 1400 BC. nor the school which prefers a date of c 1260 BC…
Kenyon was not led by either hypothesis of the Exodus, neither Garstang’s who placed the Exodus in the days of Amenhotep II and the conquest in the days of Amenhotep III of the eighteenth dynasty (Apiru theory), nor Albright’s that the Exodus took place in the days of Rameses II and the conquest in the days of Merneptah (Israel Stele), both of the nineteenth dynasty. Nevertheless, under either hypothesis, she expected to find the Old Testament confirmed and the great walls of Jericho dating from some time in the Late Bronze Age, to which both the eighteenth and the nineteenth dynasties belonged. She intended to discover the truthfulness of the written record, and seemed sad she did not. Professor Martin Noth pointed to the Jericho discrepancy as decisive proof of the unreliability of the Old Testament.
The bible believers use their ingenuity to explain why the bible says there were Iron Age walls and practical science says the opposite—Jericho in those days must have been a different Jericho! The plain fact is that Jericho had no walls after the Middle Bronze Age and the biblical story is mythology, less historically accurate than Homer’s Iliad, which no one believed as history but which was vindicated when Troy was actually found a hundred years ago.
No trace has been found of any conquest of the west bank in the late Bronze or early Iron Ages. Some scholars, accepting this some time ago, decided that the “conquest” must have been a slow infiltration over a few centuries, followed by an internal rebellion against the ruling classes. The trouble is that there is no evidence of that either. Such a change would show up culturally. It does not. And there is no good reason to believe the biblical accounts of the conquest except that they are in God’s book!
Numbers 13 describes Canaan as being full of giants. Of course the bible bashers tell us this is merely metaphorical. Why then is this to be accepted as metaphorical but, say, the miracles of Jesus are to be read as true history? It is to avoid such problematic questions that Fundamentalists prefer to believe the literal truth of the bible, but it is a position that is untenable to any reasonable person. The correct position is that it is all metaphorical. The scriptures are a long allegory.
What appears to be the word Israel has been found on one Bronze Age monument (thirteenth century BC) depicting people that the Pharaoh Merenptah fought against in the Levant. Does it mean the people of the bible? The same inscription states that the “seed of Israel” are no more, implying that they had been wiped out. Monument builders are noted braggers, so we do not have to believe this, but there can hardly have been the vast numbers of them mentioned in Exodus. The Israel of this inscription is also described as the “spouse” of Canaan. The Egyptians seem to be depicting Israel and Canaan as the parent gods of the people they had conquered and eliminated.
The Philistines, on the other hand, are well documented. They were sea people from the Aegean who invaded the Nile Delta and the coasts of the southern Levant in the late Bronze Age. The Egyptians record this on their monuments and call them the Peleset, from which name Palestine is derived. The ancient name is found also in Assyrian records and was adopted by the Greeks and Romans.
Not only did the Hebrews and the Israelites scarcely exist as separate peoples but the Canaanites were also not any particular ethnic group. The term simply refers to the people living in the Levant at these times but it seems they were not a nation. The Canaanites had no defined homeland but seemed to live anywhere in the lands of coastal Syria and Phœnicia and the hinterland hill country later known as Israel and Judah but not Philistia. Nor were biblical Canaanites a nation, but a generic people who did not worship a monotheistic Yehouah but worshipped Baal. Since Baal simply means “Lord”, it is hard to be certain that even any particular god, Baal, is meant. It was loosely used for any god in the Canaanite pantheon, including Yehouah. Anyway, the Canaanites and the Philistines between them represented the world of idolatrous people at the time the mythical state of Israel was first described.
Deuteronomy 32:7-9 says plainly that, for the Israelites, Yehouah was appointed the god of Jacob. He was therefore a national god and other nations had their own national gods different from Yehouah but equal to him. Whoever appoints gods must be an even greater god and this was El Elyon, the Most High God, who was obviously the universal god, not Yehouah! Because Yehouah is merely an angel or a son of the Most High in Deuteronomy shows that he could not have created the world at the beginning of Genesis as all Jews and Christians doggedly believe. El was the original creator and the authors of the compilation of mythological fragments called the scriptures elevated Yehouah to the role to suit Jewish aspirations.
In Genesis 10 is a similar story to Deuteronomy 32:7-9 in which the Patriarchs are alloted to parts of the world and the nations and cities of those parts. Comparing the two versions suggests that the Patriarch’s were themselves the lesser gods appointed by the Most High, or the earthly equiovalents of the heavenly gods appointed to the same regions. Yehouah was the heavenly Jacob.
Genesis goes on to try to explain, by aetiological myths, the name Israel and others. Israel in the popular aetiology of the time meant “struggled with El” and the place of the struggle was “Peniel” because in his struggle Jacob saw the “face of God”. Simple Christians write to express their amazement at all this and to say it proves that God is behind the scriptures! They are mythological rationalisations of age old place names but, at the same time undermine the whole basis of modern Judaism, Islam and Christianity as strictly monotheistic religions. Who could “struggle” with the Most High god except another god?
The Jewish scriptures are chock-a-block with puns on names and aetiological mythology by way of explanation. The Essenes had a child-like delight in punning and the question arises whether they had it from the scriptures or whether the scriptures had it from the Essenes. Since Aramaic was not a rich language and vowels were fluid, the chances for punning were great. They read the scriptures as word play, but had their predecessors written it as word play? Jacob, who became Israel, is a good example. Jacob means “deceive”, “supplant” or “grasp” and puns on the word for heel, and we find all of these implications in the stories of Jacob and Esau. Essenes looked for them in their pesherim and created them in their everyday speech. It was like the original Cockney rhyming slang—only those brought up to it could comprehend it. Jesus did it, which is why he was said to have spoken in parables, or riddles.
The Bronze and Iron Ages
When archaeology revealed no confirmation of a Mosaic monotheism in Iron Age Jordan or Israel, scholars and clergy alike became speechless with shock. They told nobody—certainly not the Christian punters whose accumulated pennies pay for their sinecures. They turned to the trusty old weapon of Christianity—the lie. They either blatantly denied the evidence or put a false spin on it.
The gods of Palestine in the Iron Age were local gods. In the south, they were influenced by Egypt, and Seth and the goddess, Hathor, were popular. Phœnicia had a general influence as a long established Semitic trading nation, and it shows in images and hymns. The Arab kingdoms to the south also had an influence. Indeed the religions of Israel and Judah were essentially the same as those of Moab, Ammon and Edom. Each had their god, but their general characteristics were similar and some even had the same named god as others, though differing in small ways. The Assyrians, for reasons of political unity, were keen on syncretism and promoted a more universal idea of god, whose sons were the local gods.
The universal god was called the “Lord of Heaven” or “Lord” for short. The dialect word for “Lord” was Baal—a woman’s husband was her “Baal” as we see in the Book of Hosea. The court of the Lord of Heaven were his sons, the local deities, who were therefore a great assembly of national gods. This syncretism seemed to work in different ways in different Assyrian provinces. A Great God superseded the local gods but often he was the son elevated to his father’s old throne. The son usurped the power of the universal god and became a God of Heaven with universal and local characteristics.
In the Bronze Age, the chief god had been El, the creator god, and his consort was the queen of heaven, Asherah or Astarte. El was a distant god, though worshipped for some of his aspects. Nearer and more approachable was Baal who was also associated with Astarte or Asherah, the mother of all living things. Asherah—as mothers are—was always approachable.
Baal was a son of god, the local god of the small states and had a variety of local names besides his generic name, Baal. Baal is found in Phœnicia, Galilee, Israel and Judah, as well as further north in the Levant. Yehouah is found in Israel, Judah,and Edom. Dagon is found in Philistia; Qaus in Edom, Moloch and Chemosh in Moab and Ammon, Amon and Hathor in Shephalah. El was the authority behind Baal and Baal was the authority behind the local king. The local Baal and his servant, the king, were the ways that people had an identity, and that meant that they considered their own god as unique even though they were in the same litter as the others. Their characteristics and worship differed in only minor ways but the priests of each—as they do—were keen to establish the differences.
Goddesses were worshipped in the special roles of fertility, caring, healing and—oddly—warfare. The most important figurine found in Palestine is of a naked woman, presumed to be a goddess rather than graffiti, though they are often crudely fashioned. From their roughness, these were household fertility objects rather than temple statuettes. The putative loyalty to a single temple in Jerusalem is also mythical. Archaeology and the scriptures show there were many shrines in Israel and even in Jerusalem, often called “high places”, and there were hosts of priests, priestesses, choirists, servants and so on, of both sexes. The fertility rituals they celebrated involved both sexes, but later editors have suppressed the details in the biblical fragments, though the bible does admit the Jews had temples for the gods of the Moabites, the Ammonites and several Phœnician deities at Jerusalem, including a shrine to Moloch in the Vale of Hinnom where human sacrifices were “passed through the fire”.
In the fourteenth century BC, Yehouah is mentioned in Egypt. Egyptian New Kingdom texts refer to people dwelling in the desert near Edom as the “Shasu of Yehouah”. where “Yehouah” seems to be a place name. Christian “scholars” jumped to the conclusion that the place must have been near Sinai where the Theophany of Yehouah came to Moses and the place must properly have been called “Beth Yehouah”, the House of Yehouah.
Elements in personal names, including royal names, from the early Bronze Age city of Ebla and the late Bronze Age city of Ugarit, suggest a god with the name Yeho, but they could be a form of diminutive. Both could be related if Yeho was meant to signify a little El. Iron age altars apparently dedicated to Yehouah or an equivalent god have been uncovered at Arad and Beersheba. Yehouah is mentioned at Nebo, and is associated with Samaria and Teman. Yehouah is declared the god of Samaria (Israel) and his consort is Asherah.
In the first millennium BC, reference to Yehouah was widespread in the whole of the Levant from Sinai to Syria. Texts from the Persian period mention Baal and link Yehouah with Asherah and a letter from Elephantine in Egypt refers to him. Surprisingly, for a hidden, faceless and ineffable god, coins of the Persian period were minted with the image of Yehouah and his symbols. A god, Yeho, was worshipped in the eastern Mediterranean at least until the end of the Hellenistic period. Philo of Biblos, for example, refers to a god, Yao. Even Eusebius writes of a god, Ieuw, worshipped in north Syria. Temples to Yehouah are known to have existed at Araq-el-Amir, Cyrenaica, Leontopolis, Elephantine, Arad and Samaria on Mount Gerizim besides the Jerusalem temple.
How do we get from this traditional fertility religion of gods and goddesses to the ethical monotheism of the Jewish scriptures? Some, such as Norman Gottwald, call the religion of the Jews a “mutation”, implying that it was a most peculiar and spontaneous change. They seem to mean a miracle, the preferred view of most Christian and Jewish punters, who see God’s finger forever waggling in sacred history.
G E Wright, a devout Albrightian, got surprisingly close to revealing the truth when he spoke ( The Old Testament against its Environment ) of the Jewish religion being impossible to have evolved by “any natural evolutionary process from the Pagan world”. Wright also says:
It is impossible to see how this God of Israel could have evolved slowly from polytheism. The two faiths rest on entirely different foundations. The religion of Israel suddenly appears in history…
He wants to give the impression that the divine finger must have been pushing it in the right direction, or rather that God suddenly revealed it! Yet the obvious alternative to evolution is not divine intervention but human intervention. What religion already had the necessary attributes, but could not have evolved naturally from Canaanite polytheism? It is Persian Zoroastrianism! Wright cannot see the implications of his own words even when he gives a good analogy of what must have happened in Palestine in the Persian period.
We in the USA have our founding fathers, our exodus from European oppression, our covenant in the constitution and the Bill of Rights, our conquest of America, and a succession of great men…
He refers to the sagas of Moses and Joshuah and concludes that the biblical events are not unique. The proper comparison is with the “returners from exile”, the colonists sent by the Persian kings. The singular difference is that the founding fathers of the USA were independently leaving oppression in their home countries to start a freer life in the colonies, whereas the Jews in the fifth century BC were being sent as colonists by oppressors who had declared themselves saviours of the colonies and restorers of their gods. In either case, the covenant was a legal document. The American wrote their own as freemen but the Jewish leaders had to accept the Persian treaty, as servants of the king of kings, the regent of Yehouah on earth.
The Divine Crisis Revisited
John R Bartlett says in Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation, according to a Bryn Mawr classical review by Thomas Bolin of S Mary’s University, San Antonio, that archaeology cannot “prove” the bible, then claims to stand on the middle-ground of the equal use of the bible and archaeology for a “reconstruction of biblical history”. Yet like many other biblical scholars, in practice, he limits archaeology to the ancillary role of supporting the biblical texts. Subordination of archaeological material to the biblical is the same circular argumentation used for decades by W F Albright and his students to affirm the historicity of biblical events (Thomas L Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, 1974 ). Are these people being deliberately dishonest or are they kidding themselves?
To contrast objective, archaeological data with ideologically biased ancient literature is specious in that putatively objective archaeological data are themselves interpreted by the modern archaeologist, mainly biased toward the revealed story, before they reach the public. Sean V Freyne, who should be among those who know, acknowledges the bias of interpreters of archaeological data. Bartlett primes us in advance that archaeology cannot challenge the bible’s historical truth:
Archaeological research may once have found the tomb of Jesus and may yet find the grave of Moses, but such discoveries will not demonstrate the uniqueness of Yehouah or the resurrection of Jesus.
Or otherwise, so traditionalists can sigh in relief. Yet, though archaeology cannot absolutely verify the history or theology of the bible, it can challenge its versions of history and theology and demand their revision in the light of its discoveries. If archaeologists had found and confirmed the tomb of Jesus with first-century skeletal remains in it, wouldn’t there be cause to examine the biblical texts for accuracy?
Or, if archaeology showed that the degree of state activity required by the bible for the nations of David and Solomon is not present in tenth century BC Palestine, and it has shown it, doesn’t it suggest that the biblical stories of David and Solomon might be verging on gross exaggeration. Archaeology would then have said something about the resurrection of Jesus or about Yehouah’s promise to David of an everlasting covenant.
Thomas Bolin reminds us that William Dever’s interest, the settlement of the Israelites in Palestine, is an issue that has exercised scholars and archaeologists for almost a century. In his pursuit of his investigation, Dever has rejected the external conquest described in Joshua and Judges and taken as historical by Albright. Instead, Dever cites the work of Volkmar Fritz stressing the cultural and material continuity that existed in Palestine throughout the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages. Drawing upon the surface surveys of I Finkelstein (The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement 1988 ), Dever argues that the Israelites or, for him, “proto-Israelites”, are first attested in the archaeological record in Late Bronze-Early Iron Age settlements in the central Judaean highlands and are characterized by, among lesser things:
For Dever, this “archaeological assemblage” is the signature of the proto-Israelites and confirm the description in the books of Joshua and Judges of emerging Israelite society as impoverished, agrarian, family and clan based, and egalitarian.
Now, in the absence of epigraphic remains, grand architecture, art or ceramics, it is impossible to determine the ethnicity of a site’s former inhabitants. Nevertheless, Dever claims to do this when he ascribes to the Israelites “a new ethnic consciousness that we must presume” from the archaeological data, even though the list he gives has nothing clearly to do with ethnicity but rather with technological advancement.
The simplicity of these villages in architecture and layout leaves little room for finding in their technology anything sufficiently distinctive of culture. The one feature of these hill country villages that could distinguish ethnicity—ceramics—shows that the Israelites were culturally continuous with their Bronze Age lowland neighbours—Canaanites not Israelites. Why then does Dever insist that these sites are Israelite? Because the bible tells us they were. The argument is circular. The scholars find archaeological data from these sites but they do not read them in their cultural and geographical context. Instead they read them in the context that they came to verify, that of the biblical books of Joshua and Judges. Lo! They find that it verifies it! The archaeology is subordinate to the bible.
In his interpretation of biblical texts, Dever uses the sociological analysis of Norman Gottwald, despite seeming to dislike Gottwald’s idea that the ancient Israelites were Canaanite peasants who revolted against the rulers of the city-states. Thus, he thinks that early Israelite culture is typified “probably… by radical, reformist ideology”. They were rebels.
Brolin tells us that Gottwald’s typically sanctimonious interpretation—that the nascent Israelites were egalitarian, because of their revealed religious sentiments, whereas the Canaanite city-states were oppressive—has been witheringly criticized in the last twenty years, for its naïve understanding of the biblical texts and the application of social theory to ancient culture. The use of Gottwald’s shaky idea to identify his proto-Israelite ethnic markers, further weakens Dever’s shaky case.
Dever was adamant, in an article in The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters, 1985, that the archaeology of Palestine should be a discipline distinct from biblical studies. Yet, elsewhere, in Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation, he makes leading statements like, the biblical authors “claimed to be inspired by God”, and “much about ancient Israel still remains a mystery, if not a miracle”.
The aim of statements like these can hardly be the skeptical stance expected of a scientist. Scientists have long since discredited such intimations of biblical superiority and the uniqueness of its religious outlook compared with neighbouring cultures. While traditional scholars emphasize the uniqueness of the Israelites, modern ones see in them striking similarities with the general culture of the Levant and Mesopotamia.
Until the twentieth century, scholars could probably have found differences between neighbouring Welsh or Lancashire valleys that, presented alone, would have made them look like different cultures. In reality, the common factors omitted show them to be Welsh or Lancastrian. The same is true of Israel. “Biblical scholars” went forth to seek the evidence that made Israel unique as God’s Chosen People. A more balanced view suggests overwhelmingly that the features of Canaanite religion were shared with the Israelites.
One problem for the discredited conquest and immigration theories of Israel’s origins, became a strength from Israel Finkelstein’s work. Hebrew as an indigenous language in Palestine could be linked to a settlement history that also had its origins in Palestine. Beginning in the weaknesses of Late Bronze Age patronates, Thomas L Thompson explains that the new settlement of Iron I saw the population shift from an urban economy to a network of small farmers and pastoralists in at least three geographically distinct regions in highland Palestine associated with biblical Israel.
A trans-regional unity of highland Palestine is unlikely from the topography. Late in Iron I, new settlement is first intensely engaged, and Lachish—with its pig-bones—seems the dominant town of the region.
How does Jerusalem fit into this picture? In the Middle Bronze Age, Jerusalem was the natural market town of the Ayyalon Valley, but its association with the Judean highlands is not so obvious. Archaeologically, no Late Bronze Age Jerusalem has been found, though from the Amarna tablets one must have existed somewhere. The tenth century revealed only a retaining wall, but Kenyon’s excavations unearthed a small town in the Iron II period. Only after the destruction of Lachish in 701 BC does Jerusalem become, as Sennacherib put it, the “city of Judea”, and grow to a city’s size, the capital of a small state. It is only just over a century to its destruction by Babylon, and in that time its people have to create a self-understanding, while the Nablus hills—the former Bit Khumri—is under Assyrian patronage and possibly ruled from Assyria. Jerusalem and Judea’s proto-ethnic understanding, if it had existed, must have been different from that of Samaria’s.
The United Monarchy
The biblical “Golden Age” was in the 40 year reign of David and another 40 year reign of his son, Solomon, each reign a precise generation. These famous kings were supposed to have lived in about 1000 BC but archaeologists have been unable to find a brick of any Jerusalem built at this time. How can the documentation of these king’s deeds be so detailed yet the evidence in the earth not exist? Because they are myths, not history, as the idealized periods of their reigns shout out, but no one—least of all biblical scholars—has ears to hear.
The kingdom of Solomon supposedly extended from Egypt to Anatolia in the north, and Mesopotamia and Arabia in the east. Not a vestige of any such empire has been found whether through digging or through studying ancient texts. Neither Solomon nor his predecessors, David and Saul, ever appear in the correspondence of foreign kings or in triumphal monuments. Solomon’s most famous project, a temple, ought to have left substantial foundations, one would have thought. Nothing! Ignorant Christians think the “Wailing Wall” revered by Jews is the temple of Solomon but that is Hadrian’s temple, not even Herod’s built just before Jesus was born. It is the temple built by the Romans when they destroyed Jerusalem as a Jewish city—over a thousand years after Solomon’s putative reign.
Be sure to understand! After a hundred or more years of historical and archaeological searching, nothing has been found of these famous biblical kings. The only conclusion is that they are myth! It is not simply that the direct names have not been found or that the digging is in the wrong place, it is that there is no possibility that anything on the scale suggested by the bible existed at the time. Everything that has been turned up points to a desiccated and depopulated country of shepherds and sheep.
Proof that the scriptures are not telling real history is that they say nothing about natural events—the flood is a known myth and the plagues of Egypt cannot be tied to anything recorded in Egyptian history. There are no mentions of earthquakes, in a place situated next to an active rift valley or about droughts, in an area on the edge of a desert. Known famous historic battles like Megiddo (the origin of Armageddon), Lachish and Qadesh are ignored. The Israelites mythically lived in Egypt for 400 years but there is no mention that Egypt ruled the country as a colony for 400 years.
The Mycenaean Drought
There was a period of prolonged drought in the eastern Mediterranean called the Great Mycenaean Drought because it supposedly ended the civilisation of the Mycenaean Greeks. It lasted for hundreds of years around 1200 BC and brought the two superpowers of the day, Egypt and the Hittite Empire, into conflict after centuries of prosperity, trade and co-operation. The hill country of Judaea is at the edge of the boundary between the region of Mediterranean climate and the semi-desert climate. The drought advanced the desert into the formerly Mediterranean area and times got hard. Desiccation turned the hill country arid and suitable only for nomadic shepherds following the seasonal rains.
Like the hopeful Christians and Jews of Jericho digging, there have been continuous digs in Jerusalem but no one has ever found any strong evidence that Jerusalem existed at this time. It might have existed as a negligible town but was nothing like the biblical description. The important town in the region was about 25 miles to the west in Lachish.
The New Kingdom Amarna letters contain a lot of correspondence with minor princes of Palestine and speak of a town of Urusalim and its king Abdihepa. In this time the whole region was an Egyptian colony, not the disadvantage one might expect because it was a buffer zone and therefore fairly favoured and it provided some commodities the Egyptians desired, namely olive oil in particular. The drought, however, badly affected the olive crops and the Egyptians concentrated on supporting the main lowland centers. The hill country therefore was not a concern to the Egyptians during the Great Drought and was quite unpopulated. Urusalim must be Jerusalem, which therefore existed in some form as early as this, but since it has not been found in the earth, it must have been little more than an encampment. Alternatively, it was the name of the whole region later called Judah, not a town but a few arid hills inhabited by mountain goats and wild asses.
The drought began to ease at last from about 1000 BC and the Mediterranean climatic region returned to the hill country by degrees. The improvement in climate led to the wealthy lowland families and merchants sponsoring the hill country statelets to effect the change to agriculture. Merchants from the large market towns like Lachish wanted a better return from the hill country as it improved and had to make the nomads settle. Watch towers and light fortresses were constructed in the hills to regulate the movement of the nomads, who had shepherded their sheep there for generations, and force them to settle and turn from sheep to more valuable olives and vines.
The lowland merchants financed the shepherds to build terraces to trap the topsoil and allow them to grow olives. It was money to make money, because the prosperity of everyone improved as a consequence. In the next 200 years, as the climate improved, the shepherds turned to growing olives and vines and improved their wealth and prospects. Jerusalem might have grown under the influence of this economic revival, but there is no archaeological evidence of it. Kathleen Kenyon, whose approach to archaeology was practical and honest, not conditioned by biblical preconceptions, found a substantial Iron Age wall in Jerusalem dating to about 950 BC but there was no substantial town to go with it, so it must have been some kind of fort to monitor nomadic movement.
Whether as shepherds or as olive farmers, they cultivated only one main item and depended on markets to obtain the others necessities of life. Jerusalem could have served that function but did not exist, at least on a sufficiently large scale, until the seventh century. Lachish, protected by the Egyptians, was the main market town and remained so after the Egyptians withdrew until the Assyrians arrived. The Assyrians destroyed Jerusalem’s lowland rival Lachish in 701 BC leaving the hill top town as the regional centre. Then Jerusalem began to prosper.
The region was back to its pre-drought prosperity by about 800 BC. This is the time when the small states of Israel, Moab, Edom, Ammon and Philistia were created to enforce the switch from pastoralism to agriculture and to administer the improving economies of the area. Concerning Edom, charcoal samples from Khirbet en Nahas give calibrated C-14 dates of 1200 to 950 BC, suggesting some Iron I settlement and mining activity. But most evidence from three sites including Taliwan and Bozrah show no signs of permanent settlement before the end of the 700s BC when the Edomite state might have been founded at Bozrah. E A Knauf thinks the Edomite king list in Genesis 36:31-39 is sixth century BC at the earliest. Diana V Edelman summarises:
There is no clear evidence of an Edomite state in the late tenth century BCE.
Israel had been founded to the north of Jerusalem with its capital at Samaria. Omri (Khumri) is the founder of Samaria in the Jewish scriptures and the House of Omri (Bit Khumri) has been discovered mentioned in old records of the time. This seems to be one of the earliest memories of true history in the bible.
In the ninth century BC, Shalmaneser III of Assyria took tribute from the king of Israel, “Yeho, son of Omri”. In the second half of the eighth century BC, Tiglath-pileser III subjected most of the region, deposed Peqar, the king of Israel, and placed Hosea (Saviour) on the throne. Sargon II eventually annexed Israel and, following a well established imperial policy, transported the leading citizens. Some of the farms were abandoned for a while and reverted to brush but then the deportees were replaced by people from Elam, Syria and Arabia. The newcomers were absorbed, the economy recovered and the culture and practice of the state continued. Contrary to the bible, the whole of the population was not removed and the state destroyed, though it became a colony of Assyria.
The population of Lachish were not so fortunate in 701 BC. The Assyrians did murder and deport them all, but they did not destroy the city—the Babylonians and later the Persians did. In the next 50 years Jerusalem grew five-fold to a population of 25,000 people by about 650 BC. Conceivably a temple was built in this period of prosperity but there is no scientific evidence it was. All the evidence points to the first temple being the second temple! The idea that the temple was preceded by a first temple seems to be biblical mythology.
Jerusalem’s initial spell of prosperity did not last long. In 597 BC then in 586 BC it was attacked by the Babylonians. As in the previous cases, the Babylonians pursued the policy of transporting the leading lights and artisans of a population and Judah was left leaderless and impoverished. Jerusalem was not destroyed as Lachish had been but it fell into disrepair from neglect over the next 50 years.
Summarising, Thomas L Thompson writes that ‘in the historical developments of Palestine between 1250 and 586, all of the traditional answers given for the origins and development of “Israel” have had to be discarded:
The population of Judah did not cease to exist in 586 BC and Jerusalem and its region were not entirely depopulated after the Babylonian army took the city. Those who may have been taken to Babylon in one of the many deportations from Palestine to Mesopotamia during the first millennium BC cannot be assumed to have been ethnically or religiously related to any of the several groups who identified with a self-understanding of Hezekiah’s remnant Jerusalem, but as a returning remnant, with “exile” as their self-defining literary paradigm.
The unskilled population left behind struggled on in poverty again shepherding their flocks until the king of Persia, Cyrus, issued an edict that Jerusalem should be “restored” as a vassal state of the Persian Empire. The “Jews” were to be “restored” to their rightful kingdom and their god “restored” to his temple. Cyrus sent bodies of people to carry out his edict and the poor people who had been left behind on their own hillsides for fifty years wanted to participate in the wonderful project. Their pleas were ever rejected and they were villified by the newcomers who had “returned” from “exile” as Samaritans and Am ha Eretz.
The quizzical marks in the previous paragraph highlight a fact of the “exile” that scholars do not tell the punters. The Assyrians from about 850 BC had a policy of transporting the leading classes of a conquered country to some distant part of the empire. The idea was plain. The leaderless people remaining were not likely to cause trouble and the deported people would be too insecure and busy establishing themselves elsewhere to bother about revolution. Even minor kings had the same policy. Mesha of Moab, on the Moabite Stone, says he attacked the city of Ataroth, built by the King of Israel, and slaughtered “all of the people of the town to satisfy Chemosh… settling in the city the men of Sharon… and Maharith”.
Even the Jewish scriptures admit it, and tell us of deportations unknown otherwise in history, if they are not excuses. In Ezra 4:2, the biblical author makes out that the natives of Judah, who want to help the Persian colonists to build the temple, were put there by Esarhaddon king of Assyria (680-669 BC). These people said, “we seek your God, as you”, and that they used to worship him as new deportees in the days of Esarhaddon. So, they had been sent in by Esarhaddon and made to worship Yehouah! If this is true then it is an Assyrian deportation unconfirmed elsewhere. It is not the only one that this author reveals. He also mentions, in Ezra 4:10, “the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Asnappar exiled and set in the cities of Samaria, and the rest of the province ‘Beyond the River’ ”. This king is Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC) who received the submission of twenty-two kings of the west, and, having exiled captives from Kirbit to Egypt, he was obviously deporting people. Together, they seem to be excuses to ignore the Samarians and the Am Ha Eretz as not genuine worshippers of Yehouah.
This much the scholars admit, but the real point is that the Assyrians presented the move to the people being deported as a salvation from their oppression by their rulers in the land in which they lived because they had previously been deported there! Not all the people being thus deported were fools but they were in a dodgy situation and the Assyrians softened the blow by giving them every assistance in their new colony—land, status and the protection of the empire against the natives.
They were led genuinely to believe that they were being helped by their deporters and they were helped by being granted privileges as long as they did as the king decreed. It seemed this could only be if the story was true, and, of course, if they chose not to believe it, protection could be withdrawn and they could be left to be massacred by the native populations. It paid to co-operate! They were led to think of themselves as pioneers in what was supposedly their own land, restoring the forgotten traditions of their ancestors. Their wealth and power was gone but they were clever and skilled people who were able to make a success of rebuilding. Ultimately, the policy was meant to melt the divers populations of the empire together into a coherent amalgam.
Nabonidus, the Babylonian king, mistakenly called Nebuchadnezzar in the scriptures, followed this policy in restoring Harran. He assured a mixed group of people they were “returning from exile” to their rightful home in Harran and that they could set up and worship their own gods there. However, the true and original god of Harran was the god, Sin, the Lord of Heaven, and the empire would be sponsoring a grand temple to the original god restored to his rightful glory. Nabonidus presented himself as a restorer of gods and a saviour of peoples.
Needless to say, though some of the “returners” will have set up shrines to the gods they brought with them, before long the grand temple of the original god, Sin attracted all the customers and the shrines quickly closed. If this should sound familiar, so it should. Cyrus, Xerxes, Darius and Artaxerxes all published documents expressing the same policy as Nabonidus and declaring themselves as restorers of gods and saviours of people. It is precisely what Cyrus and his successors did in Judah.
Cyrus the Persian
Cyrus allowed some people to return to the hill country of Judah and restore the rightful god of the land, Yehouah, but the cult of this god turned out not to be the one worshipped by the Samarians, the native people of Israel. The scriptures mention this Persian king 19 times and tell us about his edicts no less than eight times (2 Chr 36:22,23; Ezra 1:1,2; 4:3; 5:13,17; 6:3,14; Isa 44:28). Isaiah (Isa 45:1) also declares that Cyrus was God’s anointed—the messiah or saviour of the Jews, and God’s shepherd.
It is unlikely if many, if any, of the the Jews who were returned from exile were previously natives of Judah or descendants of them, though later, when movement was freer, some will have been. The bible is clear that the people who “returned” wanted nothing to do with the people who had remained behind. Josephus (c 38-100 BC), the Roman-Jewish historian, writing in his apology for Judaism, Contra Apionem (1:13), could not be clearer:
Chaldaeans… since our original leaders and ancestors were derived from them, and they do mention us Jews in their records because of the kindred there is between us.
Here the Chaldaeans are the Babylonians and Josephus is plainly saying that Jews descended from Babylonians and not Jewish exiles. Astonishing confirmation from a different direction comes from Mrs E S Drower who, in Mandeans, tells us:
Both Jews and Chaldaeans are called Yahudai in Mandean scripts, showing that they were considered one nation by the Mandeans… Nebuchadnezzar is called a Yahudai.
However, Chaldaeans specifically means Babylonian Magi, and the colonists sent by the Persian king were probably Babylonian priests. Chaldaeans is the same word as Chasidim, which means “The Holy Men” in Hebrew, and were a well-known sect in Hasmonean Judah, and precursors of the Essenes!
The accounts of the “return” in Ezra and Nehemiah suggest a long period in which the task of restoration was unaccomplished. The narrative obscures that there were four separate “returns” under the four kings of Persia, Cyrus, Darius, Artaxerxes I and Artaxerxes II. Ezra 6:14, records edicts of Darius and Artaxerxes as if to illustrate that the policy was a continuing one of near eastern monarchs.
Assyrian records indicate deportations from Hazor and Galilee in 733, Samaritans were deported in 722 (2 Kg 17) and people from Hamath and Babylon were moved in. People were deported from Jerusalem and Judah in 701, according to Assyrian records. People were carried off by Babylonians from Jerusalem (2 Kg) in 597 BC and 586 BC. Persians deported people into Judah in 538 BC and on three subsequent occasions. Samarians were deported to Alexandria under Alexander. Alexander also settled Macedonians in Sebaste. Ptolemy Soter (Saviour) of Egypt deported a great number of Jews to Egypt as soldiers in 320, and in 312 transported another large number to Cyrene and Libya. Seleucus did the same when he built Antioch. Ptolemy Philadelphus moved more Jews into Egypt and supposedly translated the Jewish scriptures into Greek. Antiochus the Great moved 2000 Jewish familes from Babylon to Phrygia and Lydia where their Hellenized descendants were the basis of Paul’s mission.
The Samarians apparently also experienced another “return” (Ezek 36; Jer 21). Yet another “return” is mentioned in the Damascus Rule where the Righteous Teacher and a remnant returned from exile. The final dispersion of the Jews—effectively the same programme of pacification continued now by the Romans—was the diasporas of 63 BC, 70 AD and 135 AD when the markets were said to be full of Jewish slaves who later became freedmen in various parts of the empire, their freedom often bought by already free Jews. The implication of the name of the Synagogue of the Libertines (Acts 6:9) is that it was for freed Jews.
Note that in the biblical accounts in 2 Kings, “all” the people were carried off twice and yet some were left to escape later to Egypt. None of these dispersions and deportations were total, that is mere biblical hype. The northern state was said to have been totally carried off because the Jews who wrote the scriptures wanted an excuse for not liking their northern neighbours in Samaria who had an independent cult of Yehouah. So they pretended that Samaria was not Israel.
No deportation can be certainly linked to the same people or their descendants returning. It was the “return” of somebody officially sponsored by the Persian administration that created Judaism. There was a temple in Jerusalem by about 400 BC we know from a documentary source, a letter from Elephantine on the Nile to the High Priest in Jerusalem.
In each place that an old god was restored, he was restored with the title, “king of heaven”. The rulers wanted everyone to worship the same god and their idea was that eventually, everyone would worship a “king of heaven” with broadly the same characteristics and merely having different names. The Great King of the empire could then be shown to have the same role on earth as the universal king of heaven, and the various kings of heaven could be shown to be different versions of Ahuramazda, unifying everyone. The effects of this universal mixing of peoples was that:
The historicity of the deportations is shown by the West Semitic names that appear in the city rolls of various Assyrian cities and military rolls at this time. But, though this mass movement of people under Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans was a continuous imperial policy, the bible never declares it as such and, rather the opposite, gives the impression it happened only to Jews.
The Persian name for the statelet that supported Jerusalem was Judah, but how significant a state was it? Herodotus wrote his famous histories in the middle of the fifth century, about the time that we think Nehemiah was sent as governor to Jerusalem but about thirty years before Ezra really imposed Persian policy. Herodotus notes the towns and peoples of the Levant but mentions no people called Jews or even Israelites! People of these names cannot have existed then or were insignificant. Admittedly, a whole section of the Histories, the part describing Assyria, has gone missing! It is the very part of the book that might be expected to mention the statelets of Judah and Israel and throw light on the formation of Judaism. Its disappearnce suggests that Christians did not find in it what they wanted to read and suppressed it.
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