Because the Bible Tells Me So?
Brian D. Sadie
New discoveries of non-Biblical ancient texts and objects, especially those made within the last twenty years, along with advances in Biblical archaeology, textual scholarship, and technology, have caused many of the most popular religious stories and their consequent doctrines and beliefs to come under critical re-evaluation.
Amy Marcus and many leading archaeologists see that the message attested to in the view from Mt. Nebo, where Moses reportedly glimpsed a promised land and the Pope commenced his current historic journey, is one of shared heritage, cooperation, coexistence, and continuity. The View from Nebo: How Archaeology Is Rewriting the Bible and Reshaping the Middle East, a book that covers wide ground, examines evidence from archaeological sites and compares the findings with some of the biggest stories and legends in the Bible’s writings. For this service alone, The View from Nebo ought to be widely read and discussed.
Cultural re-evaluations are offered of the Egyptians, Canaanites, Ammonites and Edomites, and the Judeo-Christian pantheon of Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon is held to light of inquiry and hard science. When the same is applied to the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, an impressively human ruler comes to life. Ms. Marcus addresses the Hebrew Exodus and Babylonian Exile and shows that the Empires, interested in stability and trade, preferred and encouraged letting Jewish believers run their own affairs rather than expend money and time stopping civil conflict and local rebellion.
What emerges from the text is a notion of shared culture and the increasing desire of scholars for truth. Unlike previous generations of archaeologists and biblical scholars, most today do not unquestioningly declare the veracity of Biblical verse. In their pursuit of knowledge and understanding first, and wary of the political appropriation of archaeological evidence to promote religious and historical myth, many of today’s scholars, aided by teams of specialists, follow leads, investigate, and check with other projects around the region and world before reporting their findings.
Some dissent is heard. Ms. Marcus lends an ear to adamant archaeologists and others whose political or religious ethes — when separate — demand that they promote the Bible as historically accurate. The interpreted meaning of objects found, or not found, ought to be debated. However, some people share the same delusion as that of the Emperor Constantine’s mother, Queen Helena: Relying on visions, she always found the Biblical ruin she sought. Current archaeological finds and scholarship prove that the good Queen was misled. Even those of us familiar with visions and prophecy admit to the occasional difficulty of rightly divining the message.
Ms. Marcus shows the caution that interpretation requires. In one case, an archaeological team searched for animal remains, believing, because of Jewish dietary restrictions and sacrificial practices, that a dirth of pig remains would indicate the presence and uniqueness of the Israelite nation. However, pig remains were not found, nor were they at any of the many other sites investigated, leading the expedition to conclude that the entire region had then lacked pig and, therefore, an aversion to pork did not provide evidence of a unique ethnic group. In another case, excavators at the West Bank village of Ta’annek (Tannach) found animal knuckle bones that provide a connection to modern Palestinian culture: the Canaanites may have played a game with the bones similar to that which today’s Palestinians do.
Enemies and caricatures abound in the Old Testament. Much of it, given the frequent vilification and mockery of Biblical Israel’s neighbors, is the product of a narrow segment of Hebrew society. The Canaanites, especially scorned by Hebrew writers, appear to have deserved better. Ms. Marcus quotes Israel Finkelstein, head of the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology, as reminding the Israel Exploration Society that the Hebrews did not bring with them any improvements in culture or technology, but peacefully integrated into the existing Canaanite world. Israel emerged — normally, rather than miraculously — from within the greater context of middle eastern cultures, sharing the material culture, diet, sacrificial practices and even polytheism of older, predominant ethnic groups. Furthermore, architecturally, pre-Hellenistic Hebrews seemed to prefer their own simple structures to the larger, highly sophisticated Canaanite works. Even the Biblically proclaimed golden age of David and Solomon is suspect, since material evidence does not support the Biblical statement that they ruled an empire or even a developed state. Jerusalem, sparsely populated in 1000 BCE, might, at best, have served as a mountain stronghold for a tribal chieftain, while elsewhere the Hebrews simply added onto the already ancient Canaanite infrastructure.
Ms. Marcus tackles perhaps the biggest tales in history. As she tells us about the Exodus we are taken to Giza, where the workers’ cemetery has given up its secrets: There is no evidence of slavery. The craftsmen and laborers responsible for the monuments received excellent food and medical care for their seasonal contributions to the State. Because no distinct ethnic evidence has been found, it is not known whether any Jewish workers contributed to the building.
The Bible also claims that the Babylonians laid waste all the land of Judah and exiled the Jews. Few, it says, were permitted to remain, and those who did were forced into slavery. Archaeologists and textual scholars now know that Nebuchadnezzar was deliberate and discreet in his policy execution. The Jews of Judah were permitted to run their own affairs despite recurrent treachery. Nebuchadnezzar displayed no desire to destroy Judah and would not have benefited from doing so. Only after continued disloyalty from the zealous rulers of the House of David did Nebuchadnezzar remove them from Jerusalem and, given the Temple’s use as a large, heavily armed fortress, destroy it. Even then, most people remained living where and as they had before.
Following the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, Judah prospered. Its other cities expanded and flourished. The Jews of Babylon fared well, too. As Haifa University historian Oded Bustenay points out, the Murashu texts from Nippur provide detailed information about Jewish life in Babylon, and indicate that the exiled Jews were freemen, were permitted to keep slaves, suffered no formal discrimination, and generally prospered within greater Babylonian society. Again, contrary to Biblical reports, the land of Judah fared better under Babylonian rule than it had before.
So why the bad reputation? The answer may be found in a section on the Exodus, where Ms. Marcus seeks to learn the rationale for assuming the mantle of slavery without some historical reality. Why create such a myth?
It is simple enough, I think. Those who edited and wrote much of the Bible hoped to forge a unique identity. Integral to creating that identity was the proclaimed tribal lineage and connection to a fertile land. Many of their stories seek theological vindication of normally reprehensible actions, such as the slaughter of entire populations. However, Ms. Marcus writes that the Israelite view of themselves as separate is noticeable only from occasional sites conspicuous both for their simple structures and pottery and distance from the rest of town. Indeed, much of the archaeological record suggests that Israel emerged in a state of peaceful cohabitation. Not until the Hellenistic period, in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, did notions of Israel as an ethnic or religious entity develop, interpretations of which continue to affect our world.
Ms. Marcus notes that the letters of a second century Jewish woman called Babatha indicate that life was different from that presented in the better-known rabbinical texts. Unlike extremists, who chose isolation or instigation, many Jews, just as Babatha seems to have done, lived peacefully with their neighbors as regular citizens. They appear to have suffered no dilemma from living as Jews in an empire.
Archaeological finds suggest that the real legacy of Israelite culture is its religious faith. Providing a belief system that often encourages questions and interpretation, Judaism has inspired some of the world’s most memorable and beloved literature. Yet perhaps its greatest contribution was the making of the man Jesus. He appears to have lived a life of acceptance and generosity while preaching against tribal prejudices and conflict, prefiguring a new era, both with his dismissal of certain cultic practices, such as sacrifice, and by the profession of a humane message of love, forgiveness, and social responsibility.
The Bible is not a simple text and should not be read as if it were. Archaeology has proved that Biblical texts are part of a greater history, one that continues, and current generations, even those in the United States and Middle East, must understand the lessons of the past, which include the knowledge that they are inheritors of shared cultural legacies. Regardless of the tribal fears that still seem to motivate much of human behaviour and politics, our neighbors are our kin, and we will best survive through the acceptance and defense of the others’ human rights.
About the Author
Brian D. Sadie is president of the film company Eloquent Bastard Productions. He was formerly Executive Director of The Joseph K. Foundation: On Privacy and was recruited and hired as an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency. His writing appears in publications as diverse as The Economist, Boston Book Review, TeenLife, and Informationen der Gesellschaft für politische Aufklarüng. Mr. Sadie is often a featured contributor to educational and Ed Tech entities about education and literacy. He graduated with honors from Harvard University in History and Middle Eastern Studies and was a Pew Fellow at Boston University at the Institute of Culture, Religion and World Affairs. He is also an ardent sports fan and equally ardent critic of the business of sports. His sometime blog is at: http://eloquentb.wordpress.com/
Jacket Blurb: Ms. Marcus tackles perhaps the biggest tales in history… She shows the caution interpretation requires.
The View from Nebo: How Archaeology Is Rewriting the Bible and Reshaping the Middle East
by Amy Dockser Marcus
Little, Brown and Company
272 pp, $25.95