The Bible and Middle East History
For more than a century, archaeologists and historians have attempted to confirm beliefs of both Christians and Jews about their common past using the Old Testament (OT) and New Testaments (NT) as starting points. Christians, while embracing the OT as a harmless precursor of the NT, insist that the combined texts prove the truth of Judaic monotheism, with its covenant with God, a covenant that was renewed with the resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. Jews, of course, stick with the basic OT texts, insisting they alone prove their role as God’s Chosen People and their right to create a Jewish state, Israel, in the Holy Land. This Jewish state was first grudgingly accepted by the Christian West, and now is enthusiastically embraced by some Christians based on their own misreading of the Bible. The Bible supposedly predicts that the Jews will return to their supposed promised land, and the messiah will (re)appear, signalling either the end of the Earth or the reign of God.
So what are the "facts"? What do modern archaeology and other sciences have to say about the Bible? Does it help us resolve the question of the validity of Jesus as a legitimate messiah, one who would end Judaism and found a truly universal religion for all mankind? Does it allow Judaism a new lease on life, providing proof of the existence of a Greater Israel from the Nile to the Euphrates, with a spectacular and ancient history? And are we fated to die in a fiery apocalypse as predicted in Revelations?
While archaeologists cannot help us answer the latter question, it can tell us something about the past. Biblical archaeology has expanded rapidly in the past half-century as a new academic field in search of both justification and funding. Unlike Muslims, for whom the Biblical legends are accepted as the legacy of all mankind and require no shards or inscriptions to prove this, both Christians and Zionists have tapped them to fuel their respective politico-religious agendas and have produced mountains of studies. But it is now clear to the most respected Christian, Jewish, Muslim and/or secular archaeologists that this supposedly scholarly, rigorous and objective discipline, with its methodology of taking biblical passages and digging and poking away in likely places, looking for proof of what they say, has been a big failure, if not a hoax. While the financial benefits of tying the Bible to archaeology have increased, historical and intellectual benefits have just as rapidly diminished.
Two egregious flaws lie behind this. Firstly, it is somehow overlooked that both the Old and New Testaments were first written down only in the fourth c BC (mostly from the third c BC) to the first c AD by Hellenised Jews, i.e., over a relatively short historical period of approximately four centuries, the culmination of Hellenism as it flourished in the Middle East up to and including its manifestation under the Roman empire. The references to "old Israel" of the distant past are directed at the enlightenment of people living at that time, and have much more to do with events at that time than some distant, mythical history which was never recorded in stone, so to speak, but was rather passed down from generation to generation much like other peoples have passed down the legends of their origins — orally, embellished by talented composers and poets. Furthermore, the OT and NT are closely integrated in structure, themes, and underlying philosophy, and to reject one part as heretical (as the Jews do the NT) or another part as a mere harmless introduction to the real text (as do the Christians concerning the OT) is not only unprofessional, but foolish and even subversive.
Secondly, the worldview of those recording the Biblical legends, stories, poems, philosophical essays, etc differs radically from ours. It was a product of Hellenism, where true reality is a Platonic ideal, recognising the ineffable quality of life, our overwhelming ignorance, and the fractured, shadowy nature of daily life as experienced by our senses. Our Aristotelian, materialist outlook, sees reality in hard, cold facts which we directly perceive and duly record, where the only truths are what can be physically demonstrated and/or refuted. This is quite alien to the mindset of the Biblical composers, writers and scribes. Taking the Bible literally, as a materialist recounting of "history" is a classic example of misplaced concreteness. To its credit, there is no word for history in ancient Hebrew, reflecting its origins in the pre- Aristotelian worldview.
To go a step further and assume that this bogus history is the "real" history of mankind, with the history of the thousands of other peoples taking a back seat, is just not on. The reality of the Bible is transcendent, universal, traditional, intuitive and emotional. To profit from it, we must rediscover this worldview, where myth is the "reality" and very essence of our lives, and the dunya is a lame, pale version of the sacred myths guiding us. Karen Armstrong, who has written widely on the monotheisms and the loss of myth as a vital part of our worldview, argues in The Bible: a biography (2007) that fundamentalist religion, be it Islamic, Christian or Jewish, is a response to and product of modern materialist culture, which undermines the role of myth as a vital element in the social matrix. Myth is reduced to its literal meaning, i.e., Jerusalem is a physical location at a fixed point in time, not a metaphor for the City of God, transcending the limitations of the physical world.
This concurs with the conclusions of the so-called minimalist school of Middle East archaeology, especially the works of Thomas Thompson, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, who argue that the OT and NT say much more about the politics of the third c BC to the first c AD than about any distant, ahistorical past. Think of the 19th c Parisian Jewish composer Jacques Offenbach penning his operetta La Belle Helene, which refashions the Iliad to poke fun at the 19th c authoritarian regime of Louis-Napoleon Boneparte. The political battles of the time during which Alexandrian Jewish scribes penned the OT/NT similarly inspired the versions of the Biblical legends we inherit today. References in the Bible to the destruction of "the temple" and stories about past tyrants really refer to ongoing struggles and current tyrants. This is in sharp contrast to the general view of the Bible, which sees the process of composition culminating in the sixth c BC, with many legends recalling real events dating from possibly as far back as the 10th c BC.
Whatever the true origin of the Jews, the Bible talks of an "old Israel" — a United Monarchy which supposedly flourished from 1000-600 BC in present-day Palestine, with Saul, David and Solomon as great kings of a magnificent empire, and a spectacular temple, built by Solomon, as the centre of worship of the Jewish god Yahweh. What do archaeologists tell us? A century of sifting, scrubbing, sorting and debate has produced no evidence of Jerusalem as a large city, let alone the centre of an empire. It was at most a minor trading and olive growing town. No doubt a small state existed in the ninth c BC, one of several — Moab, Edom, Ammon, even one we could call Israel, with Samaria as a likely "capital", and with the revival of Phoenician shipping, Palestine indeed began to flourish for the first time, but on a modest scale, as an inter-empire outpost, the home of many Semitic and non-Semitic tribes.
Not surprisingly, all of these tribes had similar religions. Adopting ancestral gods was an Assyrian imperial policy intended to create religious ties between societies around regional and local deities. They combined this policy with legends about the return of the old forgotten gods, which assisted the imperial policy of forced mass population transfers and unwittingly contributed to the development of monotheism, as all these gods were understood to be merely expressions of a single concept representing the divine. From the Bronze Age on, El became the father of gods and creator of heaven and earth, with his consort Asherah or Astarte, the queen of Heaven. Ba’al was his chief executive accompanied by the same generic Asherah (theoretically his mother), mother of all living things and goddess of fertility and mourning. Hints of these gods can be found in Genesis.
The flourishing of Palestine supposedly ended with God’s punishment of Israel and the destruction of Samaria. The goodness of the Judean kings, Hezekiah and Josiah, delayed Yahweh’s anger and Jerusalem’s destruction. But the day of wrath, so it goes, brought the Babylonian army to destroy Jerusalem, marking the end of old Israel in the sixth c BC. What do archaeologists tell us? Again, there is no historical evidence for this lovely story — Palestine was all the time just a backwater, subject to division between Assyria, Mesopotamia and Egypt as their empires ebbed and flowed.
Yes, Assyria annexed Jezreel valley and Samaria. But in the Bible, this waxing of the Assyrian empire was dressed up as the destruction of the false (old) Israel by an angry, vengeful god. This however is a theological, not a historical statement — even given likely population transfers, not everyone would have been deported, and Samaria continued to exist. Assyria slowly expanded its empire southward, yes, eventually taking Jerusalem, which it appears was a willing client city rather than a heroic, defiant remnant of some old Israel. Jerusalem actually began to grow and prosper as an economic and political centre under the Assyrians. It certainly was not destroyed. Eventually the Babylonian Nebuhadnezzar invades and (Assyrian) Jerusalem surrenders in 597 BC. But again, Jerusalem was not destroyed, as the prophet Jeremiah "states".
Never was there an ethnically coherent Israel, and according to Thomson, neither Jerusalem nor Judah ever shared an identity with Israel before the rule of the Hasmoneans in the Hellenistic period of the 3rd-1st cc BC, coincidentally, when the legends were first written down. Ironically, the Samaritans, scorned by Ezra’s (and today’s) Jews, are the most likely Semitic ancestors of the historical Israel.
Palestine and Syria were first formed into a province under Alexander the Great in fourth c BC with Samaria as capital, and began to develop true cities for the first time. Alexander founded Alexandria as his intellectual and political centre of east Mediterranean territories. Continuing imperial policies of deportation, he transported a portion of Samaria’s population to form the nucleus of what later came to be known as an important Jewish centre of learning, whose scribes would soon begin their work of fashioning their legends into a politically motivated saga of exile and return.
After Alexander died, Palestine reverted to its old role of land- bridge between Egypt and Asia, disputed territory between the Egyptian Ptolemies and the Asian Seleucids. The Romans defeated the Seleucids in 190 BC, prompting the Maccabees to revolt against the harsh Seleucids to assert the political independence of Jerusalem (supported by the Ptolemies and Romans). This revolt came to be identified as the rebirth of Israel (celebrated today as Hanukah), though, again, there was no nation or Maccabean control of Palestine even then, since the Jews were dependent on Rome’s patronage, though this revolt against the Seleucids became the inspiration behind the legends being recorded.
Prior to this Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids in 167 BC, religious tolerance was widespread. The Jews were never persecuted because of their religion — rather because of their political aspirations, or because they were in the path of conflicting empires. Their periods of exile are typical of the experience of countless other populations, the fallout of imperial policies. Their traditions, even their monotheism, are derived from the great mix of cultures in the Middle East at the time, and are close to Egyptian, later Hellenised, traditions. Interestingly, the Jewish practices of circumcision and Sabbath derive from Egypt, and even Freud argues that Moses was Egyptian, giving added ammunition to the hypothesis that the Jews are actually the Hyksos.
This turbulent period of the 3rd-1st cc BC is the historical environment in which II Kings portrays Jeroboam and Ahab as evil kings, an allegory of the Seleucids’ rejection of the true successors of Alexander — Egypt’s Ptolemies (not surprisingly, since the texts are recorded by Jewish scribes in Alexandria). Antiochus IV of Syria is the model for Ahab, bringing false gods to Israel, redeemed by the rededication of Jerusalem’s temple in 164 BC. This is the turning point of Chronicles’ story of renewal via the ancient Persian king Cyrus. These national epics of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles were clearly inspired by the events swirling around the second c BC OT Jewish authors, dressed up in the literary tradition of national, ancient epos.
The Jews of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Babylon were thoroughly Hellenised and were among the leaders of the intellectual life there. The Bible itself is recorded definitively in this Hellenised environment in Greek and Hebrew, systematically structured along the classical imperial form of a universal chronology, ordering tradition in the form of universal history from the beginning of time to the present, with systems of commentaries and discussion, achieving a moral and philosophical quality akin to Homer and Plato. The Jewish culture that had developed was an Asiatic form of Hellenism, a culture which ranged from Babylon to Rome and which had developed from the imperial world-views of the Babylonian and Persian periods.
It is impossible in the confines of an article to trace the transformation of post-Christian Talmudic Judaism, which is very different than pre-Christian variant. Though Jews continued to live in Palestine, Diaspora became its defining feature along with the ritual prayer to "return", though post-Christian Jews have no more right to immigrate and live there than anyone else. Christians also continued to live there happily until the Catholic pope decided they must be liberated in the 10th-12th cc and raised a European army to invade Palestine not once but four times. But after that fiasco, Christians learned their lesson and have left Palestine in relative peace, satisfying their spiritual urges by living quietly as monks in desolate caves, making pilgrimages, and collecting souvenir bones and bits of wood which they cherished as holy relics — again guilty of misplaced concreteness, but usually harmlessly so. This blessed peaceful period in Palestine only changed with the ascendancy of the Jews in the 19th c, who all this time had been nurturing their tribal Yahweh and their dream of concretising the metaphorical promises he supposedly made millennia ago, a misplaced concreteness far from harmless, as they set about invading and colonising a metaphor.
With the eclipse of the Socratic worldview and of myth as central to society, and the ascendancy of Judaism after the reformation, the myth of "returning to the promised land" took on a new concrete meaning. The actual prospect by a wealthy cosmopolitican Jewish elite of engineering a physical takeover of Palestine and populating it with Jews became an Aristotelian reality. Today, with Rome (the Catholic Church) now in disarray, a rebuilt Third Temple could become the chief shrine, not only for Jews but for Christians too, the icing on the Zionist victory cake, confirming irrevocably the cultural shift in the Western world as a whole from Hellenism to Hebraism, as argued by SGF Brandon in The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church (1951). Pope John Paul II reconciled the Church with Judaism and Israel, and Christian Zionists welcome the Jewish colonisation of Palestine .
The Zionists reconvened the ancient Jewish supreme court, the Sanhedrin (which condemned Jesus), in 2005 for the first time since 425 AD, and have been plotting virtually since the creation of Israel to blow up the Al-Aqsa Mosque and rebuild a replica of Solomon’s temple there. Just recently, Israeli archaeologists "found" remains of a temple under the mosque, yet another astounding victory for this bogus science. Reconstruction plans are in place for the mythical and no doubt magnificent temple of Solomon, a temple that never existed except in the imaginations of dreamy-eyed Jewish scribes in third c BC Alexandria. Truly a breathtaking prospect, however mad. But nonetheless the logical culmination of the Zionist project, eagerly fuelled by the official Israeli archaeological establishment.
Then there’s the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which sets out just such a programme in albeit an overtly grotesque form and is solemnly disowned by Zionists as a forgery, though a forgery of what is never made clear.
What is behind the Bible is not simply a record of historical facts or of even doctrines, but ultimately, the presence of God. There is much self-reference of symbols within the Bible for which the only "proof" that, say, the gospel story is true is that it fulfils the prophecies of the OT, and the only "proof" that the prophecies of the OT are true is that they are fulfilled by the gospel. This has absolutely nothing to do with digging up shards to establish some self-referential "event" in one of the Bible’s many tales. There is no temple out there (or under there, where "there" happens to be the very real Al-Aqsa Mosque). The real temple exists in one’s heart, though it is very unlikely that one can find it in the scheming Zionist’s inflamed and secular heart. And by murdering and tormenting peaceful natives in order to scrounge some bits of a previous building and call it God’s temple is unspeakable in its evil. The Naturei Karta heart has the temple in it, but for such a Jew, physical Israel itself is an abomination, and should be dismantled forthwith, or to borrow a particularly colourful metaphor of recent vintage, wiped off the map.
It is not possible here to delve into the fascinating Biblical myths and metaphors themselves — the many rival siblings (Cain vs Abel, Isaac vs Ishmael, Jacob vs Esau), the tower of Babel (door of God), the trials of Job, the many miraculous births culminating in Jesus, which continue to inspire, even in our age of disbelief. The God of Job, Ecclesiastes, Jonah, Saul, the flood, etc is unknowable — he decrees both salvation and destruction for Israel, not for justice’s sake, but for his own good, for his own unknowable reasons, consistent with the philosophy of scepticism as propounded by Diogenes, popular at the time: we must recognise that our beliefs about reality are not necessarily valid to achieve peace of mind. The great epic of Job is inspired by Hellenistic stoicism: we achieve happiness by attuning our lives and character to the Logos or universal reason which orders all things. Freedom is to live in conformity with God’s will. Ironically, the minimalists end up maximising the power of these legends by liberating them from the here and now.
The overriding metaphor of the Bible is the contrast of the old Israel of angry rejection (i.e., the past) vs the new Israel of hope and renewal (i.e., the present and future), ahistorical concepts, relating to the ever-shifting present of the epic writer’s point of view. They are universally valid, whether sung or recited 5,000 or 2,000 years ago or today. We all must leave behind the mistakes of the past and greet tomorrow with hope. There is absolutely no need or justification for taking "old" and "new" literally to refer to some purportedly historical event. Every day is the first day of your life.
And if there is any doubt left at this point that the Bible is the "gospel truth", to be taken literally, consider one of many such "instructions" from Yahweh to his "chosen people":
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them. (Deuteronomy 7 and 20).
Is this the God of mercy and compassion that Bishop Tutu referred to in his appeal in Boston? Or is this the template of an ideological monster dreamed up by a scribe sitting in the Alexandrian Library, and eagerly adopted by bigoted fanatics applying it verbatim to the land of Palestine today?
ERIC WALBERG writes for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. You can contact him at www.geocities.com/walberg2002