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.
It is not a stretch to say that the ancient Near East is known in the modern world primarily for its inventions. World-changing Near Eastern inventions such as agriculture, metallurgy, the wheel, writing and the chariot are well known. Yet, these are just the tip of the iceberg of ancient Near Eastern ingenuity and engineering. Here, we will examine some more familiar everyday items that trace their origins to the ancient Near East.
1. Pin Tumbler Locks
Simple barred doors are effective at keeping people out of something, but they suffer from a major flaw: They can’t be opened from the outside. You can lock your front door to keep intruders out at night, but a barred door won’t do you any good to keep people out of your house when you’re not there.
So the solution was to figure out ways to lock and unlock doors from the outside. At around 2000 BC, the Egyptians invented a complex key system that involved using strings to manipulate several cylindrical pieces of wood through a hole. When the space between the cylinders on the string lined up with the edge of the door, the door opened.
A less clunky and more elegant solution to the problem came from Assyria. The palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad (built from 717-706 BC) featured a new type of lock that used loose pins to hold the bolt in place. This was a simple version of the modern pin tumbler locks used on most doors in the modern world.
This lock worked by putting the bar on the outside of the door instead of the inside. This bar had a notch cut into it, and holes drilled into the top. When the bar was in place, loose pins in the door dropped into the holes and held the bar in place. To unlock the door, a key with pins sticking out of the end that matched the holes was inserted into the notch and used to push the pins upwards, allowing the bar to be slid free of the door.
The Romans later copied this design, and modern pin tumbler locks operate on the same principles. Their main improvements in modern locks have been to make the pins different lengths (so different keys open different doors), make the whole system smaller and add rotation to make it easier to open.
Ancient Egypt was famous throughout the ancient world for its advanced medical practice and excellent doctors. Numerous papyri survive which contain instructions on the diagnosis and treatment of injuries. While doctors in the rest of the world were a singular profession, Egyptian doctors developed a range of specialized fields including dentistry, gynecology and proctology. While many of the prescriptions for drugs are now known to be useless, in some cases the Egyptians stumbled upon something useful.
The Edwin Smith surgical papyrus, a textbook on treating wounds, head trauma, fractures and spinal injuries of the upper body that dated from the 17th century, recommended the following diagnosis and treatment for a wound that appeared to be infected:
If thou examinest a man having a diseased wound in his breast, while that wound is inflamed and a whirl of inflammation continually issues from the mouth of that wound at thy touch; the two lips of that wound are ruddy, while that man continues to be feverish from it; his flesh cannot receive a bandage, that wound cannot take a margin of skin; the granulation which is in the mouth of that wound is watery, their surface is not and secretions drop therefrom in an oily state.
Thou shouldst say concerning him: “One having a diseased wound in his breast, it being inflamed, (and) he continues to have fever from it. An ailment which I will treat.”
Thou shalt make for him cool applications for drawing out the inflammation from the mouth of the wound:
a. Leaves of willow, nbs’-tree ksnty. Apply to it.
b. Leaves of ym’-tree, dung. hny-t’, ksnty, Apply to it. Thou shalt make for him applications for drying up the wound: a. Powder of green pigment wsb-t, thn.t, grease. Triturate bind upon it.
We now know that willow bark has antiseptic qualities that reduce inflammation. Later Egyptian doctors took this treatment further and began prescribing “bread in a rotten condition” to be applied to infected wounds that were discharging pus. Blue bread mold is better known in the medical world by its scientific name Penicillum, making the ancient Egyptians the first to use antibiotics.
Some scientists have expressed skepticism that the amount of penicillin absorbed would have been enough to be effective, but even trace amounts applied directly to a wound would have had some effect on the infection.
The Egyptians did not know that infection was caused by bacteria and did not understand the scientific principles underlying the use of antibiotics. Rather, they figured out the effectiveness of bread mold by trial and error. While throwing anything at an infected wound in hopes that something would work, some Egyptian doctor somewhere decided to try moldy bread, and – surprise - he got results.
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.