Archive for the ‘Biblical Archaeology’ Category

ISIS Destruction of Antiquities and Respect for Archaeology in Iran

April 12, 2015

Nimrud Map

Map of Nimrud drawn in 1856 by Felix Jones

The Independent reported today that ISIS had released a video of themselves destroying the ancient Babylonian city of Nimrud. Its destruction was reported back in March, but this is the first time footage has been shown of it. The video shows the terrorists attacking the city and its antiquities with pneumatic drills, anglegrinders and sledgehammers. They then laid explosives, and blew the site up.

Irinia Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, the section of the UN that oversees the world’s cultural heritage, denounced the destruction, saying that the “deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime”.

I couldn’t agree more.

The Indie’s article can be read at: http://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/other/isis-video-shows-complete-destruction-of-ancient-city-of-nimrud-in-iraq/ar-AAaTuAG?ocid=OIE9HP

I’ve already blogged about ISIS’ destruction of Nimrud, and the other cultural treasures of Mosul, and the Christian and Muslim shrines to the patriarch Seth, revered by Moslems as the prophet Sheth, St. George and others. ISIS have claimed that they are destroying these antiquities because they are somehow blasphemous or un-Islamic. In fact, they are attacking them purely because these monuments don’t conform to their own, extremely narrow religious views. They’re a deliberate, calculated assault on the cultural heritage and identity of Iraq’s people. ISIS fear them because they present an alternative, secular national and religious pluralist identity to the absolute conformity ISIS wish to foist on them.

It’s also been suggested that more worldly, venal motives were involved in Nimrud’s destruction. ISIS may have been looting the site to raise money to buy more arms by selling the antiquities illegally. They levelled the city to disguise what they’d done. So their claim that they were destroying the city for religious reasons may have been just a load of lies to disguise what they really are: a bunch of thieves and grave robbers.

Archaeology in Iran

ISIS’ contempt for the region’s heritage contrasts with Iran, where, with some qualifications, archaeology is still valued. John Simpson in one of his books described the way an angry mob was ready to destroy the depictions of the Persian shahs at Naqsh-i-Rustem in the 1979 revolution, but were prevented from doing so by the carvings’ guard. He stopped them by telling them that they were instead depictions of Hassan and Hussein, the two sons of the Imam Ali, the founder of Shi’ism.

In the 1990s there was a minimal Western archaeological presence in Iran, though I believe it has been expanded since then. I once bumped into one of the lecturers in the archaeological department at Uni nearly ten years ago, who had just returned from excavating an early Islamic city in Iran.

And a few years ago the British Museum loaned the Cyrus Cylinder, shown below, to the Islamic Republic.

Cyrus Cylinder

The Cyrus Cylinder records the conquest of Babylonia by the great Persian king Cyrus, or Kourash, as he is known in Persian. After the conquest, he issued an edict permitting the peoples exiled in Babylon to return to their homelands, returned their gods, and assisted in the reconstruction of their temples. These included the Jews, who returned to Israel, for which the Persians are praised in the Bible.

I was taught at College that Islam similarly regarded Zoroastrians as ‘Peoples of the Book’, who, like Jews and Christians, worshipped the one God, and whose worship was therefore protected.

British Museum’s loan of the Cylinder to Iran was of major diplomatic and cultural significance. Firstly, it was party of a general thaw in relations between Britain and the Islamic Republic. Secondly, it also showed the confidence that the Museum in the Cylinder’s safety. The repatriation of cultural artefacts looted by Western scholars from the other cultures around the world is a major issue in archaeology and the heritage sector. Many nations and ethnic groups are rightly angered at the appropriation of valuable or important religious items from their cultures, including human remains. A few years ago, for example, BBC 2 screened a series looking behind the scenes at the British Museum. Amongst the Museum’s other work, it showed the delicate negotiations surrounding the repatriation of the remains of Aboriginal Tasmanians to their descendants.

Other items remain, and their retention is immensely controversial. The Elgin Marbles is a case in point.

The Museum has, however, a policy of not returning antiquities to countries where their safety can’t be guaranteed. The looting and destruction of ancient monuments and archaeological finds is a real problem, particularly in the developing world. And it isn’t unknown here either. There have been digs in Britain, that have been wrecked and the finds looted by Nighthawks. There have also been a number of curators and museum directors, who have been caught illegally selling off objects from the very collections they were supposed to be maintaining.

The loan of the Cyrus Cylinder to Iran, by contrast, showed that the British authorities had every confidence that their fellows in Iran would respect and value it, and that Britain and Iran could have good relations in the exploration of that nation’s ancient past and its treasures.

This is another excellent reason why the Repugs are stupid to want another war with Iran. Apart from destabilising yet another nation and brutalising its people, purely for the profit of the oil and arms industries, it could result in the same destruction of antiquities as in Iraq.

And as in Iraq, the world would again be much the poorer.

King David and the Foundations of Solomon’s Temple

September 12, 2013

Yesterday’s reading was 1 Chronicles 29:1-9. This describes how David gave some of his own great wealth to the Temple, and encouraged his leading courtiers, generals, and the wider Israelite people to do the same.

King David ruled from 1000 to 965 BC. According to the Bible, he established an empire stretching from the Negev in the south to the Euphrates in the north, comprising most of Palestine, transjordan, with the exception of the Philistine cities on the coastal strip, parts of Syria and some of the Phoenician coast. No contemporary texts exist for this period of Israel’s history apart from the Bible, and the archaeological evidence is sparse. It is difficult to date precisely buildings or objects to the beginning of the 10th century, and some of the buildings attributed to him may have been built by his son, Solomon. As a result of this, some of the Biblical minimalist historians have claimed that King David was either mythical, or if he existed at all, then he and Solomon, were merely pastoral clan chieftains rather than the rulers of a rich and impressive kingdom. This view was discredited by the discovery of the Tell Dan stele in 1993 and the decipherment of part of the inscription on the Moabite Stone by the French linguist, Andre Lemaire, in 1994. The Tell Dan stele had been put up by King Hazael of Damascus to commemorate his victory over northern Israel. In it Hazael claims that he defeated ”[Jeho]ram king of Israel and kill[ed Ahaz]yahu son of (gap) [I overthr]ew the house of David”. The Moabite Stone was put up by King Mesha of Moab to celebrate his successful rebellion against Israel’s king Ahab, during which Mesha had sacrificed his own son to the Moabite national god, Chemosh. The Stone was broken up into small fragments by the bedouin, who found it in order to gain more money from European archaeologists. Studying a 19th century copy of the text before it was smashed, Lemaire found a reference to the ‘House of David’. Literary examination of the Biblical texts shows that much of this was written either in David’s or Solomon’s time, and so represents a reliable witness to the events of their reigns. Although the archaeology does not support the image of King David as the founder of a great empire, it is consistent with Biblical accounts of his reign, which do not describe him as engaged on any great building operations.

The philistine town of Megiddo, stratum VIA and the Canaanite town of Tell Qasile stratum X were destroyed by fire, possibly by King David. The first half of the 10th century BC saw the Israelites establishing an urban culture. A number of small village sites have been attributed to David’s reign. There was a roughly circular settlement at Khirbet Dawara defended by a casement wall. Stratum VII at Tell Beer-Sheba consisted of several dwellings built around an open area. New types of pottery also appeared at this time, with different shapes and a distinctive hand burnished red slip.

David also conquered Jerusalem from the Jebusites in 995 BC. Jebusite Jerusalem was situated on the hill of Ophel, between the Kidron Brook and the Tyropoeon valley. Excavations on the eastern slope of this spur above the Gihon spring revealed a ‘stepped structure’ with walls surviving to a height of 16.5 metres (c. 49 1/2 feet). This may have dated to the tenth century. It supported a monumental structure, which has not survived. The Israeli archaeology Yigal Shiloh showed that this was built on top of ruins dating from 1300 to 1200 BC. The ‘Stepped Structure’ itself dates from the 10th century BC. In 2005 another Israeli archaeologist, Eilat Mazar, ,discovery a large stone building at the top of the Hill of Ophel associated with the ‘Stepped Structure’. Pottery found with this building dated to the 10th century BC or earlier. This indicated that the building may have been the ‘Fortress of Zion’ occupied by King David after he took Jerusalem.

David appealed to the Israelite people to donate to the Temple’s construction, not because it needed more money, but so that as many people as possible would be involved in its construction. This truly made the Temple of the Jewish people, rather than a place built purely for the service of the monarchy. It was a practical demonstration that God’s call is not just for the few, but to all.

The Temple later built by King Solomon was a massive rectangular structure of 50 x 100 cubits, about 25 x 50m. This is larger than any known Canaanite or Phoenician temple. It was also very tall, at 30 cubits in height. Its walls were 12 cubits in width, similar to the Middle Bronze Age temple at Shiloh. The interior was divided into three sections: a porch, ulam, the sanctuary, hechal, and the Holy of Holies, debir. The entrance to each of these was along the Temples central axis. On either side of this was a series of auxiliary chambers, which probably acted as the kingdom’s treasury. In its plan and interior decorations, the Temple was similar to other, pagan temples in Palestine and the Ancient Near East, particularly those at Ebla, Megiddo, and Tell Mumbakat and the Bit Hilani palace and its attached temple, the last two both in north Syria. The use of cedar wood was similar to the Philistine and Canaanite temples at Lachish and Tell Qasile. The Temple’s cult objects included the sacrificial altar and and the ‘molten sea’. This was a huge bronze basin supported by 12 bulls. These can be reconstructed finds and depictions from Phoenicia, Cyprus and Palestine. The Temple’s two columns, Jachin and Boaz, are similar to column bases at the Late Bronze Age temple at Hazor and those on the pottery model of a similar shrine found at Tell el-Far’ah. The cherubim which sat above the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies were very different from our modern view of cherubs. Instead of chubby, cute babies, these were sphinx-like, with the body of a lion or bull, wings of an eagle and head of a man. This was a well-known figure in Canaanite, Phoenician and Syrian Bronze Age art. The Temple was also decorated with palmettes, network designs, fringes and chains. These also appear in Phoenician images of the 9th and 8th centuries BC. Many art historians consider the 10th century BC a Dark Age in the art of the Ancient Near East. The only example of monumental arat from this period is the sarcophagous of Ahiram, king of Byblos, in modern Lebanon. The Bible’s description of Solomon’s Temple is thus important evidence for the existence of monumental art in the 10th century BC.

Sources

James K. Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford: Lion 2008).

Kathleen Kenyon, Archaeology in the Holy Land, 3rd Edition, (London: Ernest Benn Ltd 1970)

Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000 – 586 B.C.E. (New York: Centre for Judaic-Christian Studies/ Doubleday 1990)

The Historical Accuracy of the New Testament

July 10, 2013

You regularly hear attacks on the historical accuracy of the Bible, and particularly the New Testament. These consist of statements like ‘You can’t believe all that. It’s all made up’. The opponents and critics of Christianity have been arguing like this since ancient Rome. There is, however, a lot of evidence supporting the Gospel’s historical accuracy. These are a few of the arguments. Whole books have been written defending the Gospels. I’ve tried to make this as short as possible, so that they can be printed and distributed on a single sheet of paper as part of church activities or private study.

Trusting the New Testament

The Gospels are bioi, Graeco-Roman biographies. St. Luke begins his Gospel in the way Greek and Roman authors began serious historical or scientific texts – stating that they have examined the previous sources and then compiled their own account.

The Gospels were written between AD. 64 and the 90s, when many of the witnesses to Christ’s life and ministry were still alive.

The Gospels provide four independent accounts of Christ’s life and ministry. They were composed earlier, and there are far more copies of them, then contemporary secular Roman biographies of the Roman Emperors. Indeed, some of these are known from only a single coin. A fragment of John’s Gospel has been dated from the late 1st century to c. 125 AD. It has been suggested that it may even have come from the scriptorium of the Evangelist himself. This contrasts with the earliest extant copy of one of the biographies of the Caesars, which dates from the 9th century.

The New Testament frequently refers to named individuals, who were still alive at the time they were written. Graeco-Roman culture distrusted purely written accounts of events and facts, and preferred eye-witness testimony where possible.

Ancient Jewish culture stressed the importance of memorising texts. Rabbis’ disciples were expected to memorise their masters’ teachings.

Anthropological evidence states that the dates when the Gospels were written is too soon after the events for mythological or legendary material to have entered the Gospel stories.

The Gospels also reflect 1st century Jewish life. Many of the questions put before Christ are about issues discussed and debated in contemporary Jewish society, such as the question of divorce. Christ’s commandment ‘Hear, O Israel, you shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy mind and with all thy soul, and thy neighbour as yourself’ is a kelal, a rabbinical short summary of the Law. One of the questions asked during 1st century rabbinical debates was ‘Can you summarise the Law while standing on one leg?’ Christ’s commandment above is an example of the answer to just such a question.

The description of Jerusalem in St. John’s Gospel corresponds to the layout of the town, especially the Pool of Bethesda and the Temple forecourt as revealed by archaeology. Furthermore, types of the tomb in which Jesus was buried, which were closed by a stone have also been discovered. Christ is also described as deidaskalos – teacher – which is also known from archaeology to have been used of 1st century rabbis.

The Sacrifice of Isaac: Francis Wheen Spouts Mumbo Jumbo

June 3, 2013

You may remember that way back in the last decade there was a spate of sceptical books attacking what their authors saw as pseudo-science. These included various New Age beliefs, and very often also Creationism and Intelligent Design. These books included Bad Science, by the Roman Catholic writer and science jounralist, Ben Goldacre, and How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, by Francis Wheen. Wheen’s a left-wing journalist, who has, I believe, written for the Guardian. He is a frequent guest on the News Quiz, a satirical panel show about the news on BBC’s Radio 4. In his introduction he stated that part of his purpose in writing the book was to defend the Enlightenment. These revivals of what he considered irrationalism threatened it. He confessed his admiration for the Enlightenment and its values, including its secularism.

Strange Days and Paranoia, Terrorism and Psychiatric Abuse of Dissidents in the 1970s

Now Wheen is an excellent writer. His book on the paranoia and chaos of the ’70s, Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia, is very good. It begins with Nixon and Watergate, and expands to include the fear surrounding Mao and the Gang of Four. He traces the way Mao’s doctrine of guerilla warfare formed the template for that decades western urban terrorists, including the Provisional IRA in Britain, the Rote Armee Fraktion or the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany and the Maoist terrorists in France. These latter emerged following the failure of the 1968 uprising to topple French capitalism, and drew intellectual inspiration and support from radical academics. One of these latter appears to have done little except march around his university campus disrupting the classes of other lecturers he considered to be bourgeois and reactionary. He also discusses the murky events surrouding Harold Wilson’s prime ministership and the preparations to remove him in a coup by those who suspected him of being a KGB agent. One of the most fascinating, and relevant pieces in the book is his description of how Soviet psychiatry came up with a new mental illness that would justify the forcible incarceration of dissidents. This was done under the pretext that they must be insane to challenge the great, Soviet workers’ paradise. The Soviet political abuse of psychiatry strongly influenced the BBC SF series, Blake’s 7. In the series, the totalitarian Federation used mind control, including drugged food and water, and the conditioning, brainwashing and psychiatric brutalisation of dissidents to maintain its brutal and corrupt rule. This particular episode in Soviet history should be particularly alarming and provide a stark warning to people of faith concerning some of the pronouncements made by contemporary atheists. Some of the New Atheists, like the Rational Response Squad, made it clear they thought religion was a psychiatric disorder. Even now some professional neurologists have stated that they look forward to the day when neuroscience will be used to cure radical or dangerous religious beliefs. Blake’s 7’s fictional federation also closed churches. Science Fiction has been described as the literature of warning, and Blake’s 7 provided a fictional treatment of the Soviet psychiatric persecution of dissidents. The Soviet medicalisation of religion as a psychiatric disorder is one that some atheist scientists now seem to be following on their own. They’re either unaware of or unconcerned by their totalitarian predecessors.

Wheen’s Mumbo Jumbo and the Sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis

Much of Wheen’s book on ‘Mumbo Jumbo’ is unremarkable. It tackles some of the bizarre New Age beliefs. It shows his own left-wing views in criticising Thatcherism and her pursuit of the free market. Wheen is, however, an atheist. Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, to which Wheen has contributed, has joked about how Wheen called him an ‘irrational theist’. The book makes it clear that Wheen views religion as not just wrong, but dangerous. It shows the effect of 9/11 and the subsequent jihadi attacks on atheist opinions towards religion in general. Wheen does not consider them the action of just one religion, or even or a movement within that religion, but due to religion as a whole. He specifically blames the patriarch Abraham and the sacrifice of his son, Isaac, for causing suicide bombing. God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac is, in Wheen’s view, a demand for the blind faith and for believers to give up their lives in the service of their God. It is the origin of the blind faith of the suicide bombers. He then rants about how Abraham was a barbarian who should be excluded from the tables of civilised people.

This is profoundly wrong. Wheen misses the point about the sacrifice of Isaac completely. His Comments do, however, say volumes about received atheist opinion towards religion. Mostly, this is that many prominent atheists actually aren’t concerned about the basic facts behind religious events and phenomena before they utter their opinions.

Abraham and God’s Mercy: God Unlike Pagan Gods, Does Not Demand Human Sacrifice

For Jews, Abraham is not a symbol of fanaticism and blind faith, but mercy. This is shown by his conversation with the Almighty concerning the number of good people, who would have to be in Sodom before the Lord destroyed the city. This goes down to about ten, showing that even if only a minuscule number of righteous people are present in a place so steeped in evil that the outcry against it goes up to the Lord Himself, God will withhold His anger from it. As for the sacrifice of Isaac, that has to be seen in the context of the pagan religious practices of the Ancient Near East. Human sacrifice was an accepted part of the ancient Near Eastern religions. It’s found in the law codes of the Hittites. In ancient Phoenicia, Canaan and Carthage infant children were burned alive as sacrifices to the pgan gods. The tophets, the sacrificial altars on which these poor mites were killed, have been found in the remains of Carthage itself. The remains of these sacrifices have also been found in ancient Canaan. The point the story of God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac makes is that the Lord does not want people to sacrifice humans to Him. Yes, He rewards the faith that makes people wish to fulfill His commands, even to death, but does not want them to make that sacrifice. Abraham does indeed make the pyre and prepare to sacrifice his son, but this is halted by God sending a ram, caught in a thicket, for the patriarch to sacrifice instead. The whole point of the story is against suicide bombing.

Wheen Ignorant of Scholarship on Ancient Paganism and the Meaning of Isaac’s Sacrifice

Few people are experts in Ancient Near Eastern culture. But you don’t have to be. I remember studying the sacrifice of Isaac in RE (Religious Education) at my old Church of England School. Wheen went to one of the British public schools, which in this case, for transatlantic readers, means that he went to an elite private school. Despite having a very expensive education, he clearly either didn’t study this part of the Bible in RE, or simply wasn’t paying attention when they did. Even if they didn’t study that part of the Bible, Wheen could still have tried to understand it simply by consulting a commentary. There are a number of good commentaries on scripture, some of which are available online. But Wheen didn’t. He simply assumed that the apparent message he read into the text was the correct one. His failure to consult a commentary or what Christians and Jews actually historically believe and say about this event also shows a completely dismissive attitude towards their beliefs. He appears to beleive that traditional Jewish and Christian views of scripture are of so little importance, so automatically wrong, that an atheist should not even remotely consider studying them before making their pronouncements.

The Marxist Origin of Suicide Bombing

As for suicide bombing, although this is now a favourite weapon of militant Islam, it was first used by the Tamil Tigers. As Marxists, they were atheists, who clearly wre not following a divine command, still less of the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus Christ. But this is not mentioned by Wheen. Possibly he didn’t know about it. It does, however, show the deep antipathy of part of the atheist Left towards Judeo-Christian religion. There’s also an element of the secularist belief that all religions are somehow the same. If that is true, then therefore all religions must be equally violent. Thus Wheen sought to find the ultimate origin of the contemporary jihadist attacks not in today’s politics, or the violent theology and ideology of the terrorists themselves, but further back in Abraham’s lifetime, so he could blame and disparage all of the three Abrahamic faiths. Wheen’s other book are well worth reading, and much of his book on Mumbo Jumbo is too. Rather than being a product of reasoned thought and careful consideration, Wheen’s views on the sacrifice of Isaac in the Old Testament are merely the product of atheist ignorance and anti-religious bigotry.

Jeremiah and the Babylonian Conquest

May 2, 2013

Another set of readings from the Old Testament last year were taken from the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was deeply involved in the politics of his time, and vainly tried to persuade King Zedekiah against siding with the Ancient Egyptians against the Babylonians. Like Amos, he also preached against growing injustice in Israel and its people’s failure to maintain the Covenant Law despite their deep knowledge of it.

Political Background

Jeremiah was preaching during a period of turmoil, when the Assyrian Empire was collapsing and the Babylonian and Egyptian Empires vied for domination of the Levant and the Middle East.

In 627 BC Judah was a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire. After the death of the emperor Ashurbanipal around that year, the Assyrian empire collapsed into civil war. Its capital city, Nineveh, was sacked in 612 BC. The last Assyrian emperor lasted two years longer at Harran. The Egyptian Pharoah, Necho, marched into Canaan and Mesopotamia to support the Assyrians. He was attacked by Josiah, the king of Judah, at Megiddo. Necho overcame the attack, and deposed and killed Josia. The people of Judah then chose as their king Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz. Necho deposed him, and replaced him with his brother, Jehoiakim.

Necho in turn was defeated by the crown prince of Babylon, Nebuchadrezzar, at the battle of Carchemish and the Egyptians were forced to retreat. Judah now became a Babylonian vassal. In 604 BC the Babylonians conquered Syrian and Palestine, subduing Ashkelon. Three years later in 601 BC they launched an unsuccessful attack on Egypt. Jehoiakim had submitted to the Babylonians in 605-4 BC, but turned to Egypt for aid against them. The Babylonians finally subdued Syria in 598 and attacked Judah. Jerusalem fell the next year in 597. Jehoiachin died before he could be captured. His son, Jehoiachin, was taken into exile by the Babylonians with some of his people. Zedekiah was placed on the throne of Judah, although Jehoiachin was regarded as the king in exile.

Necho’s successor, the pharoah Psammetichus, attempted to persuade Syria and Palestine to enter into alliance with the Egyptians. This led to the formation of a pro-Egyptian party at the Judean court, which included the prophet Hananiah. They were denounced by Jeremiah as false prophets. Nebuchadrezzar summoned Zedekiah to Babylon to report on the situation. Zedekiah appears to have pledged his loyalty to the Babylonian king. The power of the pro-Egyptian party in Judah became dominant with the accession of the Pharoah Hophra in 589 BC. Zedekiah finally rebelled against Nebuchadrezzar. The Babylonians invaded and besieged Jerusalem in 587. The siege was lifted for a few months when the Egyptian army appeared. Jeremiah was unable to persuade Zedekiah to submit to the Babylonians. The siege was renewed, and Judah conquered. Zedekiah was blinded and taken to Babylon, along with thousands of his people.

Life of Jeremiah

Jeremiah’s life is better known than any other propher. He was born near the end of the reign of Manasseh in Anathoth. He was still very young when he began his prophetic career five years before the discovery of the law book in the Temple and the revival under Josiah. He came from a line of priests, possibly from a family attending the shrine of the Ark at Shiloh. He looked forward to the day when Judah and Israel would be reunited and would worship together at Zion.

He attacked the contemporary religious cult, which had not returned to Israel’s ancient faith. There was a deep knowledge of the Law, but reluctance to hear God’s Word. The priests were offering peace to those who had committed serious crimes against the covenant relationship with the Lord. Josiah’s reforms had proved superficial, and the demands of the Covenant had been lost behind external religious observances. Jeremiah thus prophesied that Israel would suffer divine judgement. Israel’s defeat in 609 was an illustration of Deuteronomy’s theology. God was going to send a ‘northern people’ – the Babylonians – to destroy Israel. As a result Jeremiah was hated, verbally abused and there was more than one attempt to assassinate him. Jeremiah himself suffered attacks of angry recriminations, depression and even suicidal feelings. He wished to leave his ministry, but always found strength to carry on.

He continued to preach the destruction of Israel after 597. In 594 he denounced the hope that Jehoiachin would return. He wore an ox yoke to show that God had made the Babylonians a yoke for the nations, to whom everyone had to submit. At Judah’s final rebellion against the Babylonians he declared that God was fighting against His people and advised the Judean soldiers to desert. As a result, he was thrown in a dungeon. He was released by the Babylonians, who thought he was on their side. They offered him the choice between staying in Israel and going to Babylon. He chose to stay behind, but was forcibly taken to Egypt by a group of Jews fleeing Egypt after the assassination of Gedaliah.

Archaeology

A large number of towns were destroyed and did not recover, including Beth-Shemesh and Tell Beit Mirsim. Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple sacked. Excavations in the city from 1961-7 to revealed the ruins of houses dating from the seventh century on the city’s eastern slopes. Amongst debris around an Iron Age defence tower was found a small number of arrowheads of Babylonian type, which testify to the intensity of fighting when the city fell.

Excavation of Lachish found a layer – level three – where the town had been totally destroyed. During this phase of the city an enormous shaft 70 feet deep had been cut into the rock, but never completed. It may have been part of the water supply. The extent of the destruction is shown in the amount of debris covering this level of the city. At the town gates there was eight feet of debris between the floor of this level and the next, succeeding phase of the town. The palace-citadel had been razed. There was a mass of burned, calcined bricks above its foundations.

The excavation also revealed a row of shop near the palace, which still contained everyday items such as storage jars, for corn, a weaver’s workshop. Outside the city was a mass grave, into which 2,000 bodies had been thrown through a hole in the roof. Some of the bones had been partly burnt, which suggested that the bodies had been pulled away from burning buildings. The grave had possibly been built during cleaning up operations after the town was taken by the Babylonians. Some of the skulls had battle injuries, but a group of three skulls had been trepanned. This may have been battle field surgery on head wounds, but unfortunately the patients had all died. Lachish was rebuilt with a few houses and new gate on top of the eight feet of debris, before being once more destroyed by fire.

One of the most exciting finds at Lachish was the discovery of the Lachish letters. These were found in a guardroom, and show certain points of contact with the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah states that before Jerusalem fell, there were only two towns still standing against the Babylonians. These were Lachish and Azekah. Some of the letters were written by a military officer, Hashayahu (Hosea) to his commanding officer in in Lachish, Yaush. Hoshayahu in letter four states that he was watching for the fire signals from Lachish, but they were no longer visible from Azekah. This suggests that Azekah had fallen, and dates the letter to the period just after Jeremiah reported that Azekah and Lachish were still standing.

Of nine names mentioned in the letters, five are typical of those of Jeremiah’s time. These are Gemaryahu, Yaazanyahu, Yirmeyahu, and Neriyahu. The people with these names in the letters are not the same as those with the same or similar names in the book of Jeremiah, however. The names Tobyahu and Mitbtahyahu also appear in Aramaic papyrii in the Elephantine delta, an area of Egypt in which many Jews had settled.

Jeremiah’s secretary, who wrote down his prophecies, was Baruch, son of Neriah. Amongs the bullae that have been recovered from Jerusalem is one inscribed ‘Belonging to Beruchiah the son of Neriah’. Beruchiah is a longer version of Beruch, so this seal is almost certainly that of Jeremiah’s scribe.

In 1935 archaeologists discovered another seal inscribed ‘(belonging) to Gedaliah, who is over the household’. ‘Who is over the household’ is a well-known Old Testament term for a chief steward or major domo. The Gedaliah mentioned in the seal has been identified as Gedaliah, son of Ahikam, son of Shaphan, whom Nebuchadrezzar appointed governor of Judea after the conquest of Jerusalem.

The fall of Jerusalem and the capture of Jehoiakim is recorded in the Babylonian Chronicle. The German archaeologist, R. Koldewey, working in Babylon from 1899-1917, also found the records from the rab-samin, the ‘oil purveyor’ of the Babylonian court, stating the amount of oil given as rations to the exiled king Jehoiachin.

Jeremiah was thus a major figure in the events leading up to the Babylonian invasion. Isloated at court, he could not, however, persuade Judah’s king not to provoke the Babylonians into conquering their nation by allying with the ancient Egyptians. An opponent of the corruption and disregard for Law in the Judah of his time, he could only warn them of their coming conquest by the Babylonians, and the exile of Judah’s rulers and leading citizens. There are not only archaeological finds, which are probably connected with the prophet and other major figures in Judah, but the horror of the Babylonian invasion is also shown in the remains of the destroyed cities and massacred people. Nevertheless, God was to lead His people out of their captivity in Babylon, and ancient Israel would revive and the Temple be restored.

The Life and Career of the Prophet Amos

May 2, 2013

Another set of Old Testament readings a little while ago were from the Book of Amos. This was written sometime during the prosperous reign of Jeroboam, c. 760 -750 BC.

Israelite Military Revival and Conquests at the Time of Amos

This was a time when Assyria had crushed Syria as a threat to Israel, but had not attempted to conquer the Palestinian states. This only began with Tiglath-Pileser in 745 BC. King Jehoash (802-786) had reconquered all the cities lost by his father, and recovered lost Israelite territory west and possibly east of the Jordan from the Aramaeans. His successor, Jeroboam II, completely defeated Damascus, and further recovered Israelite territories in Syria. He placed the frontier near Hamath where it had been during Solomon’s reign. He also conquered Aramaean territory in the Transjordan, establishing the frontier with Ammon and Moab by the Brook of Arabah near the Dead Sea. King Uzziah of Judah repaired Jerusalem’s defences, reorganised and outfitted the army and introduced new siege devices. He also imposed his control on the Edomite and north-western Arabian tribes. He rebuilt the port of Ezion-Geber (Elath). A seal belonging to his son and co-regent, Jotham, has been found there. He also took Gath, Jabneh and Ashdod from the Philistines and established a series of forts in the Negeb. Archaeological investigation has revealed that Arad, Hurvat Uza and Tell Beer-Sheba were fortified during this period. Arad had been a small village in the 10th century. During the 9th and 8th centuries it became a royal fortress and a military and administrative centre protecting the road from the Judean hills to the Arabah and Moab. Judah established another fortress at Hurvat Uza, which guarded the road to the Dead Sea and Transjordan. The defences were also built around the settlement of Tell Beer-Sheba. Archaeological evidence also suggests that Tell el-Kheleifah was also possibly a Judean fortress, which in the 7th century passed in Edomite possession. A seal belonging to Jeroboam’s servant, Shema’, was found in 1904. This was engraved with the image of a roaring lion and the inscription lshm’ ‘bdyrhm ‘Belonging to Shema”. The seals of two of King Uzziah’s servants, Abiyau – Abiah, and Shebniyau – Shebnaiah, have also been found. These were both inscribed ‘servant of Uzziyau – Uzziah’.

Material Prosperity at Time of Amos

It was a period of great prosperity. The 8th century was the period when the population of Israel and Judah reached its greatest density. The trade routes through Israel and Judah revived. Apart from the fortresses, the Negeb was extensively settled and developed agriculturally. Some industries, such as weaving and dyeing at Debir, also flourished.

Life and Teaching of Prophet Amos

Amos himself was the first of the great reforming prophets. He was a herdsman and a grower of figs in Tekoa. His prophetic career may only have lasted a few months. He attacked Israel’s enemies for seizing and enslaving Israelites and Judeans. He also condemned the increasing decadence and injustice in Israelite society. Rich merchants were making loans to the poor, who used the money to buy seed. When they were unable to repay the loan, their children were seized and forced in slavery. The merchants also seized part of the peasants’ land, when they were unable to repay the debt. The result was that a class of previously independent independent peasants became tenant farmers. Amos not only condemned this, but also denounced the way the merchants were using false weights and measure to defraud their customers, and bribery and corruption in the courts. He also attacked the dishonest merchants for the way they made lavish sacrifices at Bethel and Gilgal, despite their corruption and exploitation of the poor. Amos declared that the privilege of being God’s people also carried with it the consequence of more certain and severe judgement. There was no distinction between crime and sins against God. Wrongs to fellow humans were also an infringement of the Lord’s Law. He believed that a false, hypocritical observance of religion led to social decadence. God did not want large and expensive sacrifices, but justice and good deeds. Amos contrasted Israel’s poor moral state with that of the Covenant Law. Israel’s privileged status as God’s chosen people did not carry with it a guarantee of protection. Indeed, Israel’s moral decline was so great that even the Egyptians and the Philistines at Gath were morally superior. No sanctuary would be found at the horned altars used at the time, for their horns would fall off.

Luxury, Pagan Revival and Growing Gap between Rich and Poor

There was a revival in the worship of Baal at this time. Examination of the names recorded on ostraca in Samaria show almost as many people with names that included Baal as those, whose names included Yahweh. It appears to have been an age when the gap between rich and poor was increasing. Excavation at Tell el Far’ah has uncovered both a rich and a poor quarter. The rich quarter consisted of a group of large houses. These were composed of a courtyard surrounded by buildings on three sides. A long, straight wall divided these from a group of smaller houses huddled together. The types of houses in Hazor also show evidence of a rigid social hierarchy. The larger and more elaborate houses were located close to the city, while the smaller, poorer homes were more to the south. In his attack on the luxury of the upper classes, Amos mentions ‘houses of ivory’. A building excavated in the acropolis at Samaria contained a hoard of carved ivory. These were probably inlaid in furniture, as described by Amos when he referred to ‘those who recline on ivory beds’.

A large stone altar, similar to that described by Amos, was also discovered at Beersheba by Yohanan Aharoni in 1973. This had been demolished and its sandstones blocks used for the construction of a store room wall. When the stones were removed and placed together, they formed a horned altar five feet high. One of the levels excavated at Hazor –stratum VI – had been destroyed by an earthquake, which was probably the same as that described by Amos and Zechariah.

The period of Amos’ ministry was therefore a time of Israelite military strength and regional power. This led to growing material prosperity for the wealthy, who, although generously giving to the temples and shrines, nevertheless exploited the poor. Some sections of Israelite society were even turning to Baal and paganism. All this was against Israel’s covenant with the Almight, and it was Amos’ mission to call Israel and Judah to return to the Lord and warn them of Israel’s destruction for its sins.

History, Archaeology and the Book of Kings in the Bible

May 2, 2013

One of the readings a year or so ago was 2 Kings 18. 13 to the end of the chapter. This chapter documents the attacks on Judah and the threat of assault on Jerusalem itself by the Assyrian emperor, Sennacherib, as he moved against King Hezekiah. A number of archaeological remains and artifacts have been found dating from Hezekiah’s reign, and Sennarcherib himself also recorded his campaigns against Israel.

Archaeology

The tunnel dug by King Hezekiah to supply Jerusalem with water through the hill of Ophel has been found. At the centre of the tunnel is an inscription stating that it was simultaneously dug from the east and west until the two tunnels met in the middle. The style of script dates it Hezekiah’s reign.

Several bullae – lead seals – have also been found for Hezekiah. One is inscribed ‘Belonging to Hezekiah (son of) Ahaz, king of Judah’.

A section of wall was excavated in east Jerusalem after the 1967 war. This was also dated to the late 8th century BC – the date of Hezekiah’s reign. Underneath the wall were houses which had been destroyed by Hezekiah in order for the wall to be built. This corroborates the statement in Isaiah that Hezekiah tore down houses to strengthen the wall.

Sennacherib’s assault on the city of Lachish is recorded on a bas relief at Nineveh, now in the British Museum. The siege ramp built by the Assyrians has also been found, and is the only one that has yet been discovered.

500 jars have been found throughout Israel at this time bearing the stamp ‘lmlk’ – for the king, including a number in Lachish. These were part of a nationwide food supply system set up by Hezekiah to maintain the town during the Assyrian siege. One of these jars is even stamped with the name ‘Hezekiah’.

Archaeologists have also discovered that a number of other towns were destroyed at the same time by the Assyrians. These are Timnah, Ramat Rahel and possibly Gezer. The Israeli archaeologist Y. Aharoni also believed that Beer-Sheba and Tell Bit were also destroyed. A letter written on a potsherd at Arad written to a fortress commander called Malkiyahu also talks about conflict with Edom.

Sennacherib gives his own account of his campaign against Hezekiah, where he ‘shut him up in Jerusalem like a caged bird’ along with his other campaigns in a hexagonal prism.

According to one estimate of the value of the tribute levied by the Assyrians, it would have been worth £730,000 in 1986. Another estimate places its value at £2,350,000.

Assyrian Terms for Officials

The chapter also includes a number of Assyrian terms used to describe the officials Sennacherib sent with his army to Jerusalem.

Tartan – Akkadian for ‘second-in-command’, referring to commander-in-chief of the army.

Rabsaris – a high military official.

Rabshakeh – possibly a high civil official.

The Biblical account of this episode of the history of ancient Israel is therefore supported by archaeology and the independent historical testimony of the Assyrians themselves.

The Age of Abraham and Israel

January 3, 2008

One of the most contentious areas in the archaeology of the Ancient Near East today is the debate between the ‘maximalist’ and ‘minimalist’ archaeologists regarding the foundation of Israel. The maximalists consider that the Hebrew Bible – the Old Testament – is a more or less accurate description of the history of the Hebrew people and ancient Israel. The minimalists, on the other hand, largely reject the accuracy of the Old Testament narrative, viewing it as too late and ideologically tainted to be an accurate representation of events. Thus, archaeologists like R.B. Coote and K.W. Whitelam have deliberately adopted a policy of ‘minimal recourse to Biblical texts’ in the words of another leading minimalist, Norman Gottwald. 1 A crucial part of this debate has been over the nature of the emergence of Israel in the late Bronze Age. Although most archaeologists thirty years ago considered that Israel emerged through the settlement of nomadic tribes c. 1200 BC, this consensus was seriously challenged in 1979 by the Marxist scholar, Norman Gottwald. 2 Gottwald instead considered that ancient Israel was the product of a revolution by indigenous peasants against the domination of the Canaanite city states.

In 1985 Gottwald’s ‘Peasant Revolt’ model was attacked in turn by the Danish scholar, Nils Lemche. Lemche was particularly critical of Gottwald’s assumption that sedentary farmers and nomads stood in opposition to each other. He noted several examples where some nomads settled down, so that the settled peoples and nomads of an area were actually related to each other. He also cited examples of where cities and villages were part of a continuum with mutual interaction, and concluded ‘that there is no instance in teh anthropological literature of the existence of the type of opposition between peasants and city presumed by Gottwald.’ 3

Lemche himself is certainly no maximalist, and is strongly critical of the historical accuracy of the Bible. Not all scholars share this view, however. The German scholar Udo Worschech in 1983 used the results of anthropology to argue for the historical reliability of the traditions about the patriarch Abraham. 4 Interestingly, despite his opposition to the historical reliability of the Bible, Lemche’s demonstration of the lack of a opposition between city dwellers, farmers and nomads actually supports an ancient date for the composition of Genesis.

I was discussing the date of Genesis with a friend a little while ago, who pointed out that the type of semi-nomadic lifestyle described in Genesis was typical of the type of society depicted in the Mitanni texts. The Mitanni were a people situated roughly northeast of present day Syria, whose civilisation reached its zenith between 1450 and 1350 BC before being destroyed by the Hittites and Assyrians. 5 Although some of the names of the towns mentioned in Genesis belong to a later period, the society described is the same semi-nomadic culture as that of the Mitanni, and there are technical legal terms in the Hebrew that also belong to this period. Contrary to the minimalist hypothesis, which saw Genesis as a late development projected back into the past by the Israelites to support their nationhood, the similarities between the culture of the Mitanni and the semi-nomadism of Abraham and his descendents indicates a very early origin for the book of Genesis. The accuracy of this depiction would seem to be supported by Lemche’s own observation of the lack of a dichotomy between sedentary and nomadic peoples. Thus, paradoxically, Lemche’s observations in this area could actually support the historicity of the Bible, despite his own rejection of the Bible as an accurate record of historical events.

Notes

1. J.B. Martin, ‘Israel as a Tribal Society’ in R.E. Clements, ed., The World of Ancient Israel: Sociological, Anthropological and Political Perspectives (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1989), p. 114.

2. J.W. Rogerson, ‘Anthropology and the Old Testament’, in Clements, ed., Ancient Israel, p. 27.

3. J.W. Rogerson, ‘Anthropology and the Old Testament’, in Clements, ed., Ancient Israel, p. 29.

4. J.W. Rogerson, ‘Anthropology and the Old Testament’, in Clements, ed., Ancient Israel, p. 31.

5. ‘1380-1200 The New Hittite Kingdom’ in Hermann Kinder and Werner Hilgemann, translated by Ernest A. Menze, maps designed by Harald and Ruth Bukor, The Penguin Atlas of World History – Volume 1: From the Beginning to the Eve of the French Revolution (Harmondsworth, Penguin 1978), p. 35.

Religious Similarities and Continuity between Jews and Christians in Ancient Palestine

November 30, 2007

Going through the latest issue of the Oxbow Books catalogue, I found an interesting item on the similarities and continuity between Judaism and Christianity in Byzantine Palestine. Oxbow Books are an Oxford bookseller which specialises in books on history and archaeology. Their stock ranges from popular history and archaeology, like Channel 4’s Time Team to very detailed, academic works, such as technical treatises on the precise significance of the prehistoric megafauna found at a particular cave from the standpoint of a particular archaeological school.

The piece that caught my eye was Eliya Ribak’s Religious Communities in Byzantine Palestina: The Relationship Between Judaism, Christian and Islam AD 400-700. The blurb for this states:

‘This study is an archaeological analysis of the relationship between religious communities in Byzantine Palestina, based on a catalogue of excavated Byzantine sites in teh region (forming an appendix to the work). This shows that, although there are clear-cut examples of Jewish and Samaritan synagogues and Christian churches, these buildings are often so similar that it is difficult to differentiate between them. It is also shown that Jewish and Christian burial practices were so similar that, unless accompanied by inscriptions or symbols, the religious identity of burials is often difficult to recognise. This evidence is used to argue for closer and more peaceful co-existence between religious communities in Byzantine Palestina than is usually supposed’.

The Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which survived the Fall of Rome in 415 until its capital at Constantinople was finally conquered by the Turks in 1454. Palestine and the other Byzantine provinces in the Levant and Egypt, were conquered in a series of campaigns by the Muslim Arabs in the 630s and 640s. Basically the book is discussing the relationship between Jews and Christians in Palestine under the Christian Byzantine Empire and very roughly the first half century of Muslim Arab occupation.

I can’t say I’m particularly surprised at the similarities between the places of worship and the burial practices of Jews and Christians in Palestine at this time. Christianity was originally a Jewish sect, and St. Paul, the pharisee and a son of pharisees, preached in synagogues. The language of the Peshitta, the version of the Bible used in the Maronite Catholic Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Syrian Jacobite Church,and the Nestorian Church, is Syriac, descended from Aramaic, the language of the Jews and other nations of the ancient Near East at the time of Christ. One particular dialect of Syriac, that spoken by communities around the village of Malula, north of Damascus and Mardin, east of Urfa in Turkey, is still called Aramaic today. The Roman Catholic priest and archaeologist, Carsten Peter Theide, in his book Jesus: Man or Myth? mentions an early Jewish Christian synagogue discovered by archaeologists in Palestine. Now used by an Orthodox Jewish community, the synagogue-church was identified by ancient Christian inscriptions on its walls and by the fact that the niche for the scrolls of the Torah was aligned not towards Jerusalem, but towards Golgotha, the site of Christ’s execution by the Romans.

Other archaeologists I’ve heard speak have also remarked on the continuity between places of worship in Palestine, even after the Muslim conquest. Last year I was fortunate enough to hear an archaeologist who had excavated such places of monuments in the Near East talk at Uni. He remarked on a particular Christian site he had excavated in one Middle Eastern state in the region, dedicated to the veneration of a local mar or saint. Excavating it, he found an inscription giving peace to all who entered the shrine’s precincts in Arabic, indicating that Muslims too had found sanctuary and spiritual benefit at the shrine. There were also indications that the pilgrims to this Christian shrine also included Jews.

Speaking of the transition from Paganism to Christianity in Egypt, the same archaeologist stated that while pagan temples in the towns were destroyed after the conversion, in the countryside they were largely respected and left untouched. In fact architectural elements from some ancient Egyptian temples even ended up in some Christian Coptic churches. One example of this which he showed was a slide of a beautifully decorated interior of a Coptic church in Cairo.

It was a fascinating lecture, and important because of the way the history of the relationship between the monotheist religions has often been presented as entirely violent. Yet despite the conquest of Palestine by Islam, relations between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim inhabitants appear to have been peaceful and respectful in this period. As for the continuity between ancient and Christian Egypt, this was in strong contradiction to the image presented by one of the BBC’s programmes on the subject. In the last of his series on Ancient Egypt about a year ago, Dan Cruikshank dwelt on the Christian destruction of pagan monuments and temples after the country’s conversion. Now that clearly occurred, but elsewhere the change was far less violent. However, that doesn’t make such dramatic television as images of angry mobs of fanatical Christians desecrating temples.

Now while as a Christian I think there are dangers with religious syncretism, I thought nevertheless that these indications of continuity and community between Jews, Christians and Muslims needed to be more widely known. The charictature of religious interaction that has become the received wisdom since the Enlightenment is that it is nearly always violent, a charicature that has taken on renewed relevance after 9/11. The evidence from archaeology shows otherwise. Violence is there, true, but so is respect and veneration, especially amongst Jews and Christians, who in Byzantine Palestine would have been the descendents of Jews, worshipping a Jewish saviour, in the language they shared with their Jewish friends and neighbours.

Just a Bronze Age Text

November 25, 2007

One of the most common sneers I’ve come across about the Bible is dismissive comments about its supposed origins in the Bronze Age. These are mostly offhand statements that the Bible is Christians’ and Jews ‘favourite Bronze Age text’ or that it’s just ‘Bronze Age mythology’. Such sneers are so common that they’re actually something of a cliché. Rather than being any kind of meaningful criticism of the Bible and its relevance, these dismissive references to the Bible’s ancient origins are based on nothing more than cultural chauvinism and a simplistic belief that the value of a belief system can be judged solely on the scientific knowledge of the culture that produced it. More specifically, it tries to dismiss the Bible and its witness to God’s actions in history based on the technical competence of the Israelites in one particular area: metallurgy. Because the Israelites at the time some Biblical texts were written could only smelt bronze rather than iron, this is somehow taken as a decisive indicator of their stupidity, a technological limitation that is indicative of the invalidity of their worldview as a whole. They believed in God, but could only work in bronze, while we now have science and have a metallurgical skill they could only dream about. This is somehow supposed to refute belief in God.

Now I have an interest in the literature and culture of the ancient Near East, and comments about the Bible being just a ‘Bronze Age text’ and the like aren’t rational rebuttals to the Bible’s truth, but simple statements of prejudice. There’s an underlying assumption that people that far back in time were either so stupid that their ideas aren’t worth listening to today, or else they suffered from a mythopoeic mindset which does not related to the objective reality revealed by science. In fact what is abundantly clear when you start to read texts from the ancient world is not how alien the peoples who wrote them were, but how little different they are. They knew less, and their culture was profoundly different to our own, but at the same time they were as intelligent as we are and were capable of making the most profound statements about the human condition through their mythology and secular literature. And if our science and mathematics are better than theirs, it’s because they laid their foundations. So let’s examine the intellectual and cultural world of the ancient Near East to see if the Bible’s background in the Bronze Age really does make it meaningless in today’s technological world of space travel, atomic power and cloning.

Firstly, the point needs to be made that the Bible is not just a Bronze Age text. If one takes the view that the various books of the Bible were written between c. 1000 B.C. to c.100 A.D., that’s a period of about 1,100 years of revelation and theological reflection, going from the Bronze Age into the Iron Age. It’s roughly the same period that produced the ancient Sceptical texts that produced modern atheism when they were printed and began to circulate more widely in the 17th century. Epicurus, the Greek philosopher who argued that the gods could not and did not interfere in nature, and that this cosmos was only one of a number of cosmoi that had arisen by chance through the fall of atoms in a cosmic void, lived from 341 to 270 BC. Pyrrho of Elis, the founder of methodical Scepticism who attacked all statements about the gods as nonsensical and taught a ‘suspension of disbelief’, lived from 365 to 275 BC, and his noted successor, Carneades, from c. 214 to 129 BC. If sneering at the Bible as just ‘Bronze Age’ myth constitutes an effective refutation, then it is just as valid to dismiss Scepticism and atheism as mere Iron Age thinking. Clearly dismissing the validity of either theological or philosophical perspective, based solely on when it was being formulated, doesn’t count as an effective refutation of either God and the Bible, or atheism and the arguments of the ancient Epicurean and Sceptical philosophers who produced it.

So how stupid, or technologically and culturally inferior were the peoples of the Bronze Age?

Firstly, although their technology was vastly inferior to ours, they were certainly not stupid. They knew how to build great temples and public monuments using tools very little different from those used by masons today. If you look at the hammers, mallets, saws and chisels used by the Egyptian craftsmen, what actually strikes you is how little they have changed. The metal used might be copper and bronze, rather than iron and steel, but their form and function has hardly changed in millennia. When you come to the tools in use in the Roman period, there’s very little difference between them and those of modern craftsmen.

Both ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were highly sophisticated civilisations with an advanced mathematics. The Babylonians used a system of base 60, before moving to base 10, the system used today, about the time of Seleucid kings. They were acutely interested in geometry because of the necessity of accurately assessing field sizes for the correct payment of tribute and taxes. One common school exercise to provide training in this was the ‘six brothers problem’. This involved dividing a trapezium in strips between three pairs of brothers. The area of the strip each pair of brothers received was to be equal, while the strips declined in length. Although an exercise in solving a practical problem, it’s been suggested that this shows that the Babylonians were also interested in knowledge for its sake. 1 Amongst the 8,000 or so square metres of streets and houses excavated in 1930-1 by Sir Leonard Woolley in Ur was a private school, whose headmaster, Igmil-Sin, taught writing, religion, history and mathematics, recording his pupil’s work, their timetable, achievements, competitiveness, and also their truancy and physical punishment. 2 Babylonian civilisation also included academies, termed bit mummi – ‘house of knowledge’, a particularly fine example being that of Nineveh. Although the ancient Greeks’ admiration for the Babylonians as magicians has coloured the modern perception of them as superstitious, modern scholars of Babylonian civilisation have been impressed by their scientific skill and cast of mind. ‘Far from being the last word in Babylonian wisdom, witchcraft and popular astrology developed as a sign of decay in a dying civilisation, and we now know for certain that Sumerians and Assyro-Babylonians alike were blessed with almost all the qualities required for a truly scientific attitude of mind.’ These scholars point to the Babylonians’ insatiable scientific curiosity, a curiosity which saw them collect ancient tablets, establish museums of antiquities and collect rare and unusual plants and animals from foreign countries. 3 They understood with astonishing precision the lunar cycle, drew up observations of Venus, detailed star catalogues and could accurately predict eclipses of the moon and sun. The astronomer Kidunu (Cidenas), active in about 375 BC, calculated the length of the solar year with an error of only 4 minutes and 32.65 seconds. His calculations were more accurate than that of Oppolzer in 1887. And this is despite the fact that these astronomers possessed as technological guides only a primitive sundial, the waterclock and the polos. This last was a device for registering the shadow projected by minute ball suspended over a hemisphere. 4

In medicine, as well as the baru-priest who divined the sin responsible for the sufferer’s sickness, and the ashipu-priest who used magico-theological rites to treat it, there was also a tradition of rational, pragmatic medicine, asutu. 5 There were manuals of symptoms and their prognosis, including treatments for depression. They also possessed a pharmacopaeia’ of medicines and their preparation. Some of these medical procedures would still be considered good medicine today after all these centuries. One scholar has said of the treatment for epistaxis recommended by king Ashurbanipal’s personal doctor, Arad-Nama, who stated that the nose should be blocked to its end to stop bleeding that ‘modern physicians would not change a word of this procedure.’ 6

The ancient Egyptians too were skilled mathematicians, scientists and doctors. They were interested in probability theory, and had a number system based on ten which advanced to a million. 7 They had an excellent grasp of the mechanics of buildings and were well able to calculate the frustrum of a pyramid.8 While the Egyptians did not recognise the year as possessing 365 days, they knew that it took the sun this long to return to its original mythological birthplace in the south-eastern horizon at the winter solstice in 4500 BC. 9 They used a precursor of the theodolite, a notched palm rib called a bay, along with an L-shaped instrument with a plumb-bob, which measured the vertical, the merkhet, for surveying. 10 The ancient Egyptians too have won the admiration of contemporary scholars for the advanced state of their medicine. They new how to set bones, perform surgical operations to remove the parasitic guinea worm, and cataracts with thorns. They also valued oratory and intelligence. The Instruction for King Merikare of c. 2020 BC includes the advice ‘Be a craftsman in speech that you may be strong … Speech is more valorous than any fighting.’ 11

So we are dealing here with sophisticated, complex civilisations, which valued science and mathematics, and considered intelligence more important than skill in war. And in their personal observations on politics some of their comments are both acute and timeless. The modern tax-payer who feels that his hard-earned money is being squandered by greedy officials on themselves, rather than providing material results, can readily appreciate this complaint from ancient Egypt:

‘Seizers! Robbers! Plunderers! Officials! – and yet appointed to punish evil! Officialdom is the refuge of the arrogant – and yet appointed to punish falsehood!’

As well as

‘The land is diminished, but its rulers are increased. The land is bare, but its taxes are heavy. The grain is little, but the grain measure is large and measured by the tax officials to overflowing.’ 12

Similar the person who today feels that the law protects only the rich and powerful, and punishes the victim while protecting the criminal can find such sentiments expressed millennia earlier in Jewish legend. For example, in the legends that grew up about Sodom, the town was reviled as the epitome of evil and criminality because of the predatory avarice of its citizens and the extreme corruption of their judges. If a stranger entered the city, he was immediately robbed of his property and clothes by the citizens, who sent him naked and poor on his way. Their judges and rulers even passed an act which outlawed charity. Anyone who gave something to another for free, even if it was giving a piece of bread to a starving beggar, was to die. Even physical assault was rewarded under their perverted laws. If a man wounded another man in a quarrel, the wounded man was obliged to pay his assailant for performing the medical operation of bleeding him. 13

Obviously the complaint of the ordinary, tax-paying citizen against civic corruption and criminality is timeless, going down the centuries. The cry of the ancient Egyptian or Israelite can be heard today in London, New York and a million other great cities.

So the people of the Bronze Age were sophisticated, with an interest in science, mathematics and wisdom, and whose attitudes in many ways were very similar, if not identical to those of today. In reply to this, it can be stated that this does not mean that their religious ideas were correct, and that science has not overturned them.

Actually, this reply makes the same mistake. It has a mistaken view of the nature of religion, and ignores the continued existence of supernatural experience amongst contemporary people. Or rather, it stigmatises it as a mental aberration, or perhaps a false evolutionary vestige in human cognition that science has shown to be false. And it still overestimates the difference between modern people and their ancient forebears.

Firstly, positivists who see science as undermining religion by correctly explaining the objects of the natural world make the mistake of seeing religion solely as providing an explanation for events. But this is not the case. Religion is not merely about providing an explanation for a particular phenomenon, but about experiencing that phenomenon as a ‘Thou’, a mind, according the view of the great German Jewish scholar, Martin Buber. This ‘Thou’ was encountered by the whole man, as life confronting life, involving every faculty of man in a reciprocal relationship. 14 The particular images of Mesopotamian myth ‘had already become traditional at the time when we meet them in art and literature, but originally they must have been seen in the revelation which the experience entailed. They are products of imagination, but they are not mere fantasy. It is essential that true myth be distinguished from legend, saga, fable and fairy tale. All these may retain elements of the myth. And it may also happen that a baroque or frivolous imagination elaborates myths until they become mere stories. But true myth presents its images and its imaginary actors, not with the playfulness of fantasy, but with a compelling authority. It perpetuates the revelation of a ‘Thou’. 15 Thus in ancient Egypt contradictory explanations for the same phenomenon could appear in myth at the same time without apparent friction. The sun was conceived as both the boat of the god Ra travelling across the sky, and as rolled across the heavens by a giant scarab beetle. Both myths explained the phenomenon, but both looked deeper to a transcendental experience, a ‘Thou’, which the myth encapsulated. It is this transcendental experience, which is the essence of myth and religion.

And such supernatural and mythopoeic experiences still occur today. Scholars of Contemporary Legends – the mythic rumours and stories which circulate today – note that humans are also Homo Religiosus – religious, as well as rational, and that the legends that circulate may also be narrated by those to whom a supernatural experience personally occurred. 16 Sceptics and secularists such as Charles Krauthammer decry the increased interest in the paranormal as ‘a flight to irrationality, a retreat to pre-scientific primitivism in an age that otherwise preens with scientific pride.’ 17 Yet this is to make the same mistake of seeing religion and science as somehow performing the same role, whereas they operate in separate, but overlapping spheres. Moreover, it underestimates just how sceptical ancient people actually were. Denyse O’Leary in her excellent ID blog, Post Darwinist, has remarked on how the great Anglo-Polish anthropologist, Boleslaw Malinowski, was surprised at how many sceptics there were about the gods in the primitive societies he studied. Even amongst believers in antiquity, not all were at all pious. Some considered themselves far more intelligent than their supernatural masters. One ancient Egyptian scribe reproached another for his impiety thus: ‘I am astonished when thou sayest: “ I am more profound as a scribe than heaven, or earth, or the underworld!’ 18 The ancient Israelites were concerned to account for the origin of the false religions around them, and sought them in what we would recognise as rational explanations. For the writer of the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon, the origin of idolatry lay in the manufacture of images by the grief-stricken parents of dead children, and subjects to impress their kings with their devotion:

‘For a father afflicted with untimely mourning, when he hath made an image of his child soon taken away, now honoured him as a god, which was then a dead man, and delivered to those that were under him ceremonies and sacrifices. Thus in process of time an ungodly custom grown strong was kept as a law, and graven images were worshipped by the commandments of kings. Whom men could not honour in presence, because they dwelt far off, they took the counterfeit of his visage from far, and made an express image of a king whom they honoured, to the end that by this their forwardness they might flatter him that was absent, as if he were present. Also the singular diligence of the artificer did help to set forward the ignorant to more superstition. For he, peradventure willing to please one in authority, forced all his skill to make the resemblance of the best fashion. And so the multitude, allured by the grace of the work, took him now for a god, which a little before was but honoured as a man. And this was an occasion to deceive the world: for men, serving either calamity or tyranny, did ascribe unto stones and stocks the incommunicable name.’ 19 Looking at the evidence of contemporary interest in the paranormal, and the rationalist scepticism of the ancient Israelites towards the false religions of the surrounding nations, there seems much less supposed difference between credulous, mythopoeic Bronze Age people and their scientific modern descendents.

It also has to be considered that the Bible isn’t a typical Bronze Age text, and its view of God and the process of creation is radically different from the mythologies of the contemporary peoples of the ancient Near East. While scholars have pointed to the similarities between the Biblical account of creation in Genesis and that of the Babylonians, there are several crucial differences.

Firstly, in the mythologies of ancient Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia, the gods are created from a long chain of personified natural forces. In Genesis, this process is reversed. God comes before nature, and all nature is the result of God’s creative action. 20

Secondly, there is a plurality of gods in the other, pagan myths. In Genesis, there is only the One God, who acts alone. And Genesis is structured to deny any kind of divinity to the objects of His creation. The sun and moon, for example, which were worshipped as gods in Babylonia, are merely described as the greater and lesser lights. It’s a rationalist restructuring of pagan myth to bring out the point that the various objects of the created universe are only that – created objects. The true power lies behind it.

Thirdly, the actual process of creation in Genesis is rather different from the very anthropomorphic account in contemporary paganism. While the Enuma Elish gives a very graphically anthropomorphic account of the gods knotting veins when they create the first man, for example, Genesis is much less anthropomorphic. It doesn’t describe how God creates the objects of the universe, only that He does. ‘The language of Genesis 1 tells us nothing about the mechanism or mode of ‘creation’.’ 21 Clearly the description of Adam being formed from the ‘dust of the earth’ and having life blown into him by God is anthropomorphic, but less compared to the surrounding myths.

Apart from the physical act of creation, God acts in history in a way that transcends the mythological time of contemporary paganism. The Babylonian myth of Adapa has been compared to the Genesis account of the creation of Adam. In the Babylonian myth, Adapa is created by the gods to serve them. Travelling to heaven to clear himself after he angers them by breaking the wing of the south wind with a curse, he loses the opportunity of immortality by refusing the bread and water of life offered him by the gods, mistaking them for the bread and water of death. It is similar to the Biblical story of the creation of Adam by narrating how the gods create a man, and how this man then loses the opportunity for immortality. However, the Adapa myth is set in an ahistorical mythological time. It does not have the genealogies present in Genesis, which link the events in Eden to the figures of Israelite history.22 In Genesis the story moves from myth into history, pointing to the effects of the primal theological events in the contemporary world of historical experience.

This experience of God as apart from nature, and acting in history, set ancient Israel profoundly apart from the neighbouring peoples, their mythologies and ideologies.

‘Not cosmic phenomena, but history itself, had here become pregnant with meaning; history had become a revelation of the dynamic will of God. The human being was not merely the servant of the god as he was in Mesopotamia; nor was he placed, as in Egypt, at a pre-ordained station in a static universe which did not need to be – and, in fact, could not be questioned. Man, according to Hebrew thought, was the interpreter and the servant of God; he was even honoured with the task of bringing about the realization of God’s will.’ This task saw humanity ‘possessed of a new freedom, and of a new responsibility’. 23

Whatever one believes about the literal truth of the account of Creation in Genesis, the movement away from God as the personification of natural forces, as a transcendent being active in time and yet apart from it, paved the way for modern science and was far superior to the pagan cults of nature. Franz Cumont, the great pioneering scholar of the Roman cult of Mithras, observed that if the cult of Mithras had survived.

‘it would not only have preserved from oblivion all the aberrations of pagan mysticism, but would also have perpetuated the erroneous doctrine of physics on which its dogmatism reposed. The Christian doctrine, which broke with the cults of nature, remained exempt from these impure associations, and its liberation from every compromising attachment assured it an immense superiority. Its negative value, its struggle against deeply-rooted prejudices, gained for it as many souls as did the positive hopes which it promised.’ 24

Thus attempts to discredit the truth of the Bible by pointing to its origins in the Bronze Age are profoundly wrong and inadequate. The peoples of the Bronze Age weren’t stupid or uninterested in science and mathematics, even if their knowledge in these areas was much less than ours. They were capable of profound philosophical insights and expressing timeless truths of human existence in their myth and wisdom literature. The same period that saw the formation of the Bible also saw the formulation of the classic atheist arguments. Furthermore, the Bible and ancient Israel in their view of God and His relationship with the world transcended the mindset of the other ancient Near Eastern peoples to create a view of the world that was both deeply religious and rational and sceptical. Rather than sneer at the Bible for being just a ‘Bronze Age text’ or ‘Bronze Age mythology’, the arguments and experiences recorded in the Bible need to be judged according to their own merits as the result of timeless human experience.

And despite the claims that modern science has somehow disproved them, the arguments against the Bible’s truth are all deeply flawed. The testimony of the Bible still stands, and the glory of the Lord does indeed proceed from age to age, from the Bonze Age into our own.

Notes

  1. Ivor Grattan-Guinness, The Fontana History of the Mathematical Sciences (London, Fontana Press 1997), p. 30.
  2. Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (London, Penguin 1992), pp. 220, 223.
  3. Roux, Ancient Iraq, p. 358.
  4. Roux, Ancient Iraq, pp. 365-6.
  5. Roux, Ancient Iraq, p. 367.
  6. Roux, Ancient Iraq, p. 370.
  7. Grattan-Guinness, Mathematical Sciences, p. 32.
  8. Grattan-Guinness, Mathematical Sciences, pp. 34-6.
  9. Ronald A. Wills, ‘Astronomy in Egypt’ in Christopher Walker, ed., Astronomy before the Telescope (London, British Museum Press 1996), p. 34.
  10. Wills, ‘Astronomy in Egypt’ in Walker, Astronomy, pp. 36-7.
  11. Esmond Wright, ed., History of the World: Prehistory to the Renaissance (Feltham, W.H. Smith 1985), p. 57.
  12. John A. Wilson, ‘The Function of the State’ in Henri Frankfort, Mrs. H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson and Thorkild Jacobsen, Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books 1949), p. 97.
  13. Angelo S. Rappaport, Ancient Israel: Myths and Legends (London, the Mystic Press 1987), pp. 264-5.
  14. H. and H.A. Frankfort ‘Introduction: Myth and Reality’ in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, p. 14.
  15. H. and H.A. Frankfort ‘Introduction: Myth and Reality’ in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, p. 14.
  16. Linda Degh, Legend and Belief: Dialectics of a Folklore Genre (Bloomington, Indiana University Press 2001), p. 68.
  17. Degh, Legend and Belief, p. 267.
  18. John A. Wilson, ‘The Nature of the Universe’ in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, p. 69.
  19. Wisdom of Solomon 14: 15-21, The Apocrypha, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), p. 68.
  20. Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (Chicago, University of Chicago Press 2003), pp. 40-45.
  21. Roger Forster and Paul Marston, Reason, Science and Faith (Crowborough, Monarch 1999), p. 276.
  22. Roux, Ancient Iraq, p. 107.
  23. H. and H.A. Frankfort, ‘The Emancipation of Thought from Myth’ in Frankfort, Frankfort, Wilson and Jacobsen, Before Philosophy, p. 245.
  24. Franz Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithras, Thomas J. McCormack, trans., (Chicago, The Open Court Publishing Company 1910), p. 198.