Films about the ancient Near East are few and far between, and since this blog is largely about legacy and historical memory, it would be remiss to let a new attempt at the subject pass without comment.
The Bible is a 10-part TV miniseries based on, well, the Bible, and produced by Mark Burnett (in his first non reality TV effort) and Roma Downey. The series has been noted for its small army of A list scholars who served as consultants. However, as one of the consultants, Rabbi Joshua Galloway, has noted, “the goal of the production was to remain faithful, or at least as faithful as possible, to the narrative and text of the Bible, as opposed to a historical critical approach.”
This means, for example, that Noah’s Flood is shown as global. It also sometimes means that the visuals tend towards a representation of modern western Sunday School flannelgraph ideas about what the world of the Bible looked like. As a result, the production at times felt like an updated Cecil B. DeMille epic, where Moses and Abraham are not solely based on what the Biblical text and scholarship tell us about their times, but must conform to what we expect them to look like. Certain conventions are observed, such as Moses and the Pharaoh of the Exodus growing up as rivals in the palace, simply because this is how we are used to seeing them portrayed on film.
This past Sunday’s episodes focused on Abraham and Moses, respectively, and the theme of faith is given strong weight as both men are seen doing things that appear completely insane to everyone around them. The scenes of Abraham leaving his home, almost sacrificing Isaac, and trusting that he would someday have a son were an excellent representation of Kierkegaard’s interpretation of Abraham, as a “knight of faith” plunging into the unknown based on his trust in God in spite of all reason to the contrary. This comes off to both his contemporaries and the modern viewer as borderline insane, but that is precisely the point. Trust is not always a rational act.
As far as historical commentary, there is not much to say about Abraham because there is not much that can even expect to be verified. Nomads by their very nature leave few archaeological remains. As a result, studies of Abraham and the Patriarchs have taken two approaches.
The first is to study cultural context and geography, and try and pin the Patriarchs in some time frame (the Middle Bronze Age, the Intermediate Bronze Age, etc) where the culture matches the culture described in the Bible. At the end of the Early Bronze Age (c. 2200 BC) urban culture collapsed and cities all over Canaan were abandoned. For the next 200 years, the population was almost entirely nomadic before cities began to be re-established in the Middle Bronze Age II. Because Abraham was constantly bumping into and getting into conflicts with people in cities when his massive flocks started eating up every green thing around their farmland, most scholars who accept a historical Abraham choose to situate him in the Middle Bronze II.
Others point to anachronisms in the text as a basis for arguing that the stories were composed in the mid 1st millennium BC and therefore too long after the fact to contain any historical information. The presence of camels, whose domestication is otherwise unattested until the 1st millennium, and Abraham’s frequent interaction with “Philistines” who did not arrive in the area until after 1175 BC, are longstanding problems in the narrative.
One can point to some meager remains of camels from the 2nd millennium – a camel figuring from 19th century Byblos, a camel jaw found in a Middle Bronze tomb in Tell el-Farah, a figurine of a loaded camel from a tomb in 13th century Egypt, and so on. The possibility has also been raised that the “Philistines” of Genesis as a use of a later name for a region that was inhabited by Canaanites in the Middle Bronze Age. It is worthy to note that “Abimelech” (the Philistine king in Genesis 21-26) is a thoroughly Semitic name.
Or, one could do what The Bible does and ignore all of this entirely, and make Abraham essentially timeless. Instead of being rooted in Middle Bronze Age nomadic culture, The Bible’s Abraham strides through the generic landscapes of our biblical imagination. Instead of Abraham, Middle Bronze Age sheikh and wealthy leader of a clan, we see Abraham, the leader of a motley group of suitably dirty individuals dressed in suitably dirty, vaguely “biblical” clothes, in a vaguely Bedouin setting, set in a brown and suitably “biblical” landscape.
The Bible’s treatment of Moses takes a similar approach, taking all of our assumptions about the story and returning them to us in the form of a production clearly indebted to The Ten Commandments and The Prince of Egypt. Details such as Moses and the Pharaoh of the Exodus growing up together to become adult rivals are a staple of fictional portrayals of the Exodus, but are not actually in the Bible. The costumes and set design all seem designed to appeal to our American expectations of what the Exodus story should look like, rather than what ancient Egypt actually looked like. The world of The Bible is the world of our cultural imagination of the Bible, rather than the actual world of the Bible.
At the end of his book The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, Thomas L. Thompson wrote that:
But the stories about the promise given to the patriarchs in Genesis are not historical, nor do they intend to be historical; they are rather historically determined expressions about Israel and Israel’s relationship with God, given in forms legitimate to their time, and their truth lies not in their facticity, nor in their historicity, but in their ability to express the reality that Israel experienced. To the extent that this experience can be communicated, it is a revelation of the faith that was Israel’s. And it is through this communication in word that Israel’s experience became ours, and Israel’s faith our faith; for it is through this revelation that we are enabled to see through to the reality and the truth of the human experience which transcends the historical forms in which this experience has been expressed.
While The Bible may seem to many to be fundamentalist in its outlook, it is actually fully in line with the views of Thompson. For The Bible does not intend to be historical, it is rather a “historically determined expression” about a “relationship with God” which is given in a form legitimate to our time. It seeks to express theological truths, but not by making references to solid history, but rather by “communication in word…to the reality and the truth of the human experience.”
Historical context has a way of changing our perceptions and deepening our understanding of the Bible by moving us beyond our cultural blinders and into the Bible’s own world. But, by creating an image separated from historical background, The Bible has (for its first week at least) given us faith disconnected from history. It is the same story we know from childhood, and it looks the same way it looked back then.
 For a recent defense of the historicity of the Patriarchs, see chapter 7, “Founding Fathers or Fleeting Phantoms?” in Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eerdmans, 2003).
 For more critical views, see Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts (New York: Touchstone, 2001); Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (New York: De Gruyter, 1974).
 Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 338-341.
 Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, 330.
Article © Christopher Jones 2013.
Inventions of the Ancient Near East, Part 3: Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History
Be not, O Greeks, so very hostilely disposed towards the Barbarians, nor look with ill will on their opinions. For which of your institutions has not been derived from the Barbarians? The most eminent of the Telmessians invented the art of divining by dreams; the Carians, that of prognosticating by the stars; the Phrygians and the most ancient Isaurians, augury by the flight of birds; the Cyprians, the art of inspecting victims. To the Babylonians you owe astronomy; to the Persians, magic; to the Egyptians, geometry; to the Phoenicians, instruction by alphabetic writing. Cease, then, to miscall these imitations inventions of your own.
Thus the philosopher Tatian began his Address to the Greeks. An Assyrian by birth who was living in Rome in the mid 2nd century AD, Tatian first joined a pagan mystery cult before encountering the Christian Bible. He later described his conversion to Christianity:
I happened to meet with certain barbaric writings, too old to be compared with the opinions of the Greeks, and too divine to be compared with their errors; and I was led to put faith in these by the unpretending east of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts, and the declaration of the government of the universe as centred in one Being.
As a result, Tatian jumped into the role of a cultural critic of the society that he once embraced. The Greeks saw themselves as the height of human civilization, but Tatian argued that many of their cultural and technological triumphs originated amongst the “barbarians” that 2nd century Greeks looked down on.
Where we can check Tatian’s claims many of them prove to be accurate. Babylonian astronomy is well known to pre-date Greek civilization by thousands of years. Mathematical texts show us that the Egyptians made numerous advances in geometry and were able to calculate volume, the area of a triangle, and may even have developed a basic understanding of the Pythagorean Theorem long before Pythagoras. And all the alphabets in the world are descended from the writing system of the Canaanites and Phoenicians which developed in the 2nd millennium BC.
So, why dispute the ages of inventions with the Greeks? Tatian’s main argument was that Judaism, and by extension Christianity, pre-dated Greek paganism and was therefore more likely to be true. Moses, after all, pre-dated Homer, for no one could agree when Homer actually lived while the histories of the Babylonians and Phoenicians established the early date of the Jews.
Furthermore, he argued that Greek paganism was not only a recent invention but also immoral:
Aristotle, who absurdly placed a limit to Providence and made happiness to consist in the things which give pleasure, quite contrary to his duty as a preceptor flattered Alexander, forgetful that he was but a youth; and he, showing how well he had learned the lessons of his master, because his friend would not worship him shut him up and and carried him about like a bear or a leopard He in fact obeyed strictly the precepts of his teacher in displaying manliness and courage by feasting, and transfixing with his spear his intimate and most beloved friend, and then, under a semblance of grief, weeping and starving himself, that he might not incur the hatred of his friends.
Any historian who sets out to write a biography of the historical Mary is immediately confronted by two divergent narratives. The first view, held by Catholic and Orthodox Christians (and in part by Muslims) sees Mary as a girl consecrated from birth, who remained completely devoted to the service of God before, during and after the life of Jesus. According to this view, Mary was perpetually a virgin, married in name only, and had no biological children. On the other hand, the Protestant view (as well as that held by many modern critical scholars) is that Mary was a young, poor peasant girl raised, betrothed and married in the normal fashion. After the birth of Jesus she gave birth to other biological children.
Every aspect of her life is muddled by the tension between the two views. Each view of Mary – prototypical nun or wife and mother – comes loaded with its own set of theological implications that are beyond the scope of this article. Most authors simply choose one interpretation, mention the other view in order to quickly dismiss it, and call it a day. But this fails to answer the important question of how we ended up with two narratives in the first place, and why so many people believe one or the other to be correct. Rather, this article will begin at the beginning of Mary’s life, take all sources into account, and work from there.
One immediately runs into difficulties establishing any basic facts about Mary’s early life. Her parents are not named in any 1st century sources, but tradition in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches holds that they were named Joachim and Anna. This cannot be traced earlier than the 2nd century.
Scholars have long grappled with the different genealogies given for Jesus in Matthew and Luke. Matthew traces the descent of Jesus from David and Solomon, through the Judean kings and then through the descendants of Jehoiachin in the post-exilic period. Luke on the other hand traces Jesus’ descent from David’s lesser known son Nathan.
Many scholars beginning with John of Damascus in the 7th century have sought to explain the two competing genealogies by arguing that Matthew shows the ancestry of Joseph while Luke shows the ancestry of Mary. Yet, Luke explicitly identifies Jesus as “the son, so it was thought, of Joseph son of Heli.” Advocates of this view are forced to propose a textual corruption of some sort and that the text originally read that Jesus was a descendant of Heli. The text would be reconstructed as something like “the son (as it was supposed, of Joseph, but really) of Heli.” Advocates of this view further argue that the name Heli is short for Eliakim, another variant of the name Joachim, the traditional name for the father of Mary.
But why is Mary never mentioned in her own genealogy? John of Damascus argued that it was because “it was not the custom of the Hebrews nor of the divine Scripture to give genealogies of women,” ignoring that Matthew’s genealogy lists four of them and the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1-8 mention numerous women whenever they were deemed to be worth mentioning. It seems rather strange that Luke, who otherwise paid much more attention to Mary than Joseph, would fail to mention Mary in his account of her lineage and substitute Joseph instead. Other scholars came up with different explanations for the discrepancy. For instance, in the early 3rd century, Sextus Julius Africanus argued that the line of Joseph had been muddled with numerous levirate marriages, and that original records had been lost, leading Matthew and Luke to reconstruct the ancestry of Joseph as best they could from oral traditions and private family records. Hence, they ended up with different lists.
Regardless of the names of Mary’s parents, Luke does inform us that Mary was related to Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest and the mother of John the Baptist. Both Elizabeth and Zechariah were descendants of Aaron, the first high priest. Zechariah “belonged to the priestly division of Abijah,” one of the 24 priests named by David in Jerusalem. This implies that Mary did not belong to the tribe of Judah, as is often alleged, but to the tribe of Levi. It also means that, contrary to the common Protestant claim that Mary was a poor peasant, she was in fact born into the hereditary ruling class of Jewish society. She definitely was not some sort of proto-marxist heroine of the lower classes as envisioned by certain neo-Anabaptist authors. Protestant Midrash aside, by the end of the 1st century BC, the priestly families of Jerusalem lived in large houses, had accumulated extreme amounts of wealth and held a lot of political power. Most of them seemed to have belonged to the Sadducee sect which attracted the powerful and wealthy but had little influence amongst the general population.
Christian pacifism has raised its profile in recent years, likely prompted by dissatisfaction with increasing political polarization, and promoted by some influential writers. Ideas promoted in the past century by Cecil John Cadoux and John Howard Yoder with little headway have found a modern defender in Stanley Hauerwas and a popularizer in Shane Claiborne, whose books, speaking tours and radical lifestyle have attracted many admirers if few followers.
Central to all of these authors’ ideas is the concept of the “fall of the church.” They hold that early Christianity was pacifist and anarchist in character, and rejected the ideas of military service and loyalty to the state. As Christianity came to be accepted by the Roman government at around the time of Constantine, the church became corrupted by its relationship with state power. After Constantine the church became willing to acquiesce to state power and wage war, execute people in the name of the state, force conversions, and recognize the authority of rulers other than Jesus. According to Yoder, the behavior of the early church is important because the early Christians “read the Bible in a first-century context. They read the New Testament in the same world in which it was written, in the same language in which it was written. They probably read it, therefore, with more understanding than we do. Hence, how they read the New Testament is helpful to us in our reading of the New Testament, whatever the limits of their faithfulness.”
I shall leave the theological portion of this debate for other websites. What I will do is examine the central historical claim of the “fall of the church” thesis: That Christians before the era of Constantine were pacifists who did not enlist in the Roman military. Unfortunately, none of the pacifist authors who have tackled this question have much experience in ancient history and it has led them to make certain errors which have led to erroneous conclusions.
First, to cover some basics of the Roman Army from Augustus to Constantine. The Roman army during this period was an all-volunteer force. No one was in the army who didn’t want to join. The Army was made up of two groups: The Legions and the Auxilia. Recruitment for the legions was open only to Roman citizens, who served for 20 years unless they were injured and medically discharged or were kicked out. On the other hand, the auxilia were recruited from the peregrini, the non-citizens of the provinces. Their term of service was 25 years, after which they received Roman citizenship as well as conubium, the right to marry a non-Roman wife but still pass on Roman citizenship to their children. The navy was smaller and accepted more non-citizens, but the model was essentially the same. As a result, service in the auxilia was a common route for social and economic advancement for those who were not Roman citizens. In 212, the emperor Caracalla decreed that everyone in the Roman Empire was now a Roman citizen, but the auxilia did not disappear (many units were now centuries old with a storied battle history they were loath to part with), rather, they ceased to be a method for social advancement and became just another type of unit which included special units such as cavalry and archers.
Like everything else in Roman society, the army also had a pagan religious element. Festivals, sacrifices, and sacred ceremonies honoring the gods, the emperor, the Legion’s standards, and nonspecific virtues such as virtus and disciplina were commonplace. How Christians in the ranks would deal with the requirement to partake in these ceremonies would become a major issue.
In the 1st century, we have some scraps of evidence of Christians in the Roman military. The gospel of Luke states that some soldiers (possibly from the Roman puppet Herod’s auxiliary forces) asked John the Baptist for religious advice, and he told them “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” Matthew mentions that Jesus was visited by a centurion in Capernaum who asked him to heal his sick servant. Later, the book of Acts records that Peter preached at the house of a centurion named Cornelius who was stationed in Caesarea, and the man and his household became some of the first non-Jewish converts to Christianity.
From the conversion of Cornelius at about AD 39 to AD 173, we have absolutely no sources referencing Christian participation in the army. None. It may have happened, it may not have happened. Either way, we know nothing about it, so speculating is futile.
In 173, we have a story that would be easy to dismiss were it not documented by five sources. During the Marcomannic Wars, emperor Marcus Aurelius was leading the Legio XII Fulminata (“Thunderstruck”) campaign along the Danube against the Quadi, erstwhile allies of Rome who had switched sides. The Quadi met the legion with a superior force and drove them to an open field away from water sources. It was a hot day, and the Quadi halted their attack to allow heat and thirst to take its toll.
Surrounded, outnumbered, out of water, growing weak from thirst and in desperate straights, what is clear from the sources is that lots of men began to pray. Soon, a thunderstorm materialized. Lightning struck the treeline where some of the Quadi had gathered, scattering many of them. Rain and hail poured from the sky. No battle could be fought in such weather, so the Quadi withdrew, which was fortunate for the Romans as they were so busy gulping down water collected in their helmets and shields that they were hardly in a position to fight.
A little less than two months ago, I wrote a piece about why academic study of the Ancient Near East is important despite often playing third string behind Greek and Roman studies in the world of ancient history. Yet, while the Near East is clearly important, it lacks not only the academic support but also the popularity of the classics.
The world of ancient history scholarship is a small one. At the top of this world are academics, tenured professors of history, archaeology and classics whose illustrious careers have broken new ground or provided old interpretations of ancient history. They publish much of what we read about ancient history, both technical and popular. Below them are the popular authors, who are not professors but write for a broader audience and tend to make more money from it. Separate from the authors, you have the normal academic hierarchy of adjuncts, graduate students and undergraduates with their sights set on graduate school.
Separate from them are the enthusiasts, who read the popular books, watch the History Channel, play computer games such as Age of Empires or Rome: Total War and watch movies such as Gladiator and Alexander. These people may have majored in classics or ancient history in college, but it’s a hobby for them, not a career. In addition, you have producers of popular entertainment based on ancient history, from edutainment TV shows, to dramas, movies and computer games.
Every one of these components of the ancient history world is dominated by ancient Greece and Rome. Ancient Egypt and Biblical lands make a few inroads here and there. Babylon, Assyria, Phoenicia, Mitanni, Persia, Nubia, Hatti and the rest make little impression on the popular imagination. Few popular works, movies or games focus on these civilizations. Few people can name any famous Babylonians or Assyrians.
If one takes a moment to browse the ancient history section at your local Barnes & Noble or on Amazon.com, one finds the field populated by biographies and books about battles. Cicero, Cleopatra, Augustus, Alexander the Great and many others have been the subject of numerous recent biographies. Books analyzing an ancient battle such as Thermopylae or Salamis and assessing its place in history and influence on western civilization make up most of the rest of the selection.
Why are these themes popular with the general public? The public is not so much interested in issues of cultural change, class and identity which consume much academic scholarship. Rather, they are interested in learning from the lives of great men. Part of it is the trend in recent historical writing to try and pinpoint “tipping points,” those precise moments where the course of history hinged on the decisions of one man (whether or not history actually works this way is something I’m not going to get into here).
Now, don’t get me wrong, studying culture, class and identity are vital to understanding the ancient world. Such things should continue to be studied and published. But when academia’s entire output consists of such topics, it does something far more dangerous to ancient history in the long term: It makes history boring.
The Trojan Horse is one of the most recognizable literary motifs in the western world. The legend is familiar: Odysseus came up with the plot to open the gates of Troy by a trick. Epeios the carpenter built a wooden horse in the camp, and Odysseus and a handful of picked men hid inside. The Greek fleet sailed away, the Trojans took the horse inside the city, where the Greeks emerged and opened the gates for the returning Greek army. And thus the term “Trojan Horse” entered the western world’s vernacular to describe any method of gaining access through deception.
(In fact, while writing this post my computer was infected with the modern version of the Trojan Horse, an event partly responsible for the delayed posting of the past two weeks).
Ironically, the most recognizable symbol of the Homeric age is barely mentioned in Homer. The horse does not appear at all in the Iliad and only appears briefly in the Odyssey, where Menelaus is recounting Odysseus’ deeds during the siege of Troy:
What a piece of work the hero dared and carried off
in the wooden horse where all our best men encamped,
our champions armed with bloody death to Troy…
The most detailed account of the horse appears in Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid. The Greeks build the horse, hide their chosen men inside of it, and sail away. The Trojans take the horse inside their city, thinking it is a votive offering. The Greeks wait until nightfall, break out and open the gates. The same story is told by the 4th century AD Greek poet Quintus Smyrnaeus in his The Fall of Troy.
Even though detailed accounts of the Trojan Horse legend appear only in later works, art from around the time of Homer indicates that the legend was widely known in early Greece. A fibula brooch from around 680 BC shows a fragment of a horse with wheels. A detailed relief on the outside of a storage jar from Mykonos which dates to between 675 and 650 BC contains a much more detailed depiction of a horse hiding armed men inside.
Therefore, while the Trojan Horse is barely mentioned in Homer, the story was obviously part of the collection of folklore surrounding the Trojan War which swirled around the popular consciousness of early Greece. Some of these stories found their way into Homer’s authoritative collation, and some did not.
As has been discussed before on this site, the ancient Greeks knew that Homer was writing fiction and that the stories and folklore were not works of history. A few ancient writers mentioned possible explanations for the Trojan Horse legend. The Greek 2nd century AD travel writer Pausanias wrote of the legend that “Anyone who does not suppose that Phrygians are utterly stupid will have realized that what Epeios built was an engineer’s device for breaking down the wall.” In a chapter on the origins of various inventions, the Roman Pliny the Elder wrote that “The battering-horse, for the destruction of walls, which is at the present day styled the “ram,” was invented by Epeus, at Troy.” Generally, ancient writers seemed to have believed that the Trojan Horse had been some sort of siege weapon, probably a battering ram.
The first modern ancient historians often took a harshly critical view of Homer. By the beginning of the modern era, western scholars generally held that the Iliad and Odyssey were myth, that the Trojan war was not an actual event and that the characters of Homer’s poems were not real people. Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensées that Homer “did not think of making a history, but solely a book to amuse; he is the only writer of his time; the beauty of the work has made it last.” He went on to write that “Every history which is not contemporaneous…[is] false, and found to be false in the course of time. It is not so with contemporaneous writers,” which, if taken literally, would mean that this website is in fact a web of falsehood and the practice of studying history should cease. In his massive 11-volume History of Greece (published between 1846 and 1856), George Grote wrote that the only real Trojan War occurred in the minds of the poets, summarized it in a few pages, and then excused himself to move on to “the real history of the Greeks.”
All of this changed in 1871, when German amateur archaeologist and ardent proponent of Homeric historicity Heinrich Schliemann began excavations of the mound of Hissarlik. In a few years of whirlwind excavations, Schliemann destroyed most of the parts of Troy that were actually from the time of the Trojan War, lost his dig license, founded the field of Anatolian archaeology, and despite it all definitively proved that there had been a Bronze Age city at the region that ancient geographers identified as the location of Troy.
Fortunately, further excavations by actually competent people have rescued our knowledge of the Hissarlik site. We now know that ancient Troy had 9 principal levels corresponding to different historical periods. Most importantly, Troy VIIa was violently destroyed by fire at around 1190 BC, at about the time the Greeks report that the Trojan war happened. Whereas earlier writers had only ancient texts to work with, we now had hard evidence to back up the texts. As a result, views of the Iliad swung back towards the side of historicity.
This changed again in 1954 with the publication of M.I. Finley’s book The World of Odysseus. Drawing upon the previous 75 years of excavations of Greek Bronze Age sites, Finley showed that the societies described in Homer’s poems looked nothing like the highly bureaucratic city-states of the Bronze Age. Rather, they looked like the societies of Homer’s own time in the 8th century BC, where towns were ruled by local strongmen. As a result, opinions shifted again. There may have been a Troy, and it may have been destroyed, possibly even by Greeks, but Homer knew hardly anything about it.
However, in this great debate it is sometimes overlooked that the ancient Greeks themselves knew that Homer was writing fiction. The historians of ancient Greece did not accept Homer as a historical source for Trojan War. Instead, they tried to write their own, more accurate and historically based accounts.