Social History

Aside

“The Bible,” Episodes 3 and 4: The Protestant Midrash is Strong in This One

After last week’s opening episodes, I still held out hope that The Bible would show improvement as it moved into better documented periods of history.

This was only partially vindicated. On the strong side, the narrative and storytelling really took off in these episodes. Samson’s one man war against the Philistines, the manhunt for his capture, and his death in a collapsing Philistine temple were exceeded in thrilling drama only by the tragedy of Saul’s rise to power and descent into madness. Saul and Samson (played by Francis Magee and Nonso Anozie) gave the series something it lacked up to this point: Complex, internally conflicted, morally ambiguous characters.

Philistines battle with Egyptians in a relief scene on Rameses III's mortuary temple in Medinet Habu,

Philistines battle with Egyptians in a relief scene on Rameses III’s mortuary temple in Medinet Habu,

The series gets some plaudits for its accurate depiction of the Philistines, who are shown as suitably Aegean in appearance, with accurate dress, leather cuirasses, feathered headress helmets, and long broadswords. Most of our knowledge of Philistine battle dress comes from the Medinet Habu reliefs of Rameses III, and the costume designers for this show did their homework in this regard. The series also gave a nod to scholars who translate kidon in 1 Samuel 17:6 as an Egyptian khopesh (sickle-sword) by showing Goliath armed with a large version of that weapon.

The geography of the episodes was also much improved. While not exact matches, Jerusalem was shown on a hillside, Jericho was shown in the Rift Valley at the foot of hills, and Saul’s war in southern Israel actually looks like southern Israel. The one obvious goof in this regard are the external shots of Saul’s hometown of Gibeah, which is shown situated at the foot of a massive cliff in the series. Ancient Gibeah was actually on a hilltop, with expansive 360-degree views of the surrounding territory.

    Tell el-Full, the site of ancient Gibeah. An unfinished palace begun by King Hussein of Jordan sits atop the site.

Tell el-Full, the site of ancient Gibeah. An unfinished palace begun by King Hussein of Jordan sits atop the site.

Yet, the series continued to make a large number of basic factual errors which directly contradict history, archaeology and the biblical text. The Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle is repeatedly violated by Joshua and David seeking to pray before the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, in the opening scene of Episode 3 the Ark is sitting in the open, shaded from the sun by a tarp. The characters continue to write in block Hebrew script (500 years too early), Delilah is paid to betray Samson with silver coins (also 500 years too early), the Philistine temple has proto-Ionic column caps (an Israelite phenomenon) and (my favorite) a Canaanite soldier is seen fighting Joshua in hand-to-hand combat while wearing a Roman lorica segmentata cuirass.

cavalry

What is much more baffling is the presence of cavalry throughout both episodes both in battle and as messengers. Chariots were common in Late Bronze and Iron Age I warfare, but we have no evidence of mounted cavalry in the Near East until Tukulti-Ninurta II introduced them into the Assyrian army in the early 9th century BC.[1] Even then, Assyrian cavalry had no spurs or saddles (although these may have been necessary in the film for safety reasons). For the wars between the Israelites and Philistines in the 11th century BC, cavalry comes three centuries too early. Donkeys were the transport animal of choice. Chariots would have been the only use for horses, which were extremely expensive and hard to care for.

In a previous article on Mary I used the term “Protestant Midrash” to describe interpretations of the Biblical text which have no explicit textual basis and are not historically supported, but have entered into tradition anyways because they teach a desirable moral lesson. The Bible is full of this.

The most obvious example is the series’ treatment of Samson. Much of the plot revolves around Samson’s marriage to a Philistine woman, her murder, and his subsequent relationship with Delilah. In the book of Judges, Samson’s father disapproves of his marriage, asking “Is there no woman among the daughters of your relatives, or among all our people, that you go to take a wife from the uncircumcised Philistines?”[2] His father in law then gives his wife to a Philistine husband, and she is later murdered by a Philistine mob.

samsonClearly, tension between the Aegean Philistines and semitic Israelites led to both communities disapproving of intermarriage. The Bible then tries to translate this into terms understandable to the modern viewer by keeping the Philistines Greek but casting an Afro-British actor as Samson. This takes the moral lesson out of the world of the Iron Age southern Levant and into the cultural language of our modern world, in order to teach a lesson about racism.

While admirable in intent, this ahistorical method of storytelling misses a much bigger story that is lurking under the surface of the Biblical text, waiting to be unearthed by historical scholarship.

David’s companion Uriah appears as a major character throughout episode 4, loyally fighting alongside David until David has him killed and takes his wife. But look closely at Uriah’s identity in 2 Samuel 11:3 or 1 Chronicles 11:14. Uriah the Hittite. That’s right, Uriah was neither an Israelite nor even a Semite, he was of Indo-European ancestry. How did this happen? Later on in 2 Samuel, David buys a threshing floor in Jerusalem from a man named Aravnah the Jebusite. It seems that David did not massacre the inhabitants of Jerusalem when he captured it. They were still living in the city and Israelites were living alongside them.

This implies that not only did the Israelites not massacre the entire Canaanite population of the land from Dan to Beersheva, it indicates that non-Israelite inhabitants of the land could rise to positions of great prestige in the early Israelite kingdom. The moral lessons here – of meritocracy, of earning rank on the basis of ability, of a society based around allegiance to a common set of religious ideals rather than ethnic ancestry – are profound. Yet, you’d miss them entirely in the Bible of our popular cultural imagination. It takes a careful, scholarly reading of the text to bring it into the light.

Regardless, I’ll still be watching. This show may still have some surprises yet. Also, most of the critics whose names have been attached to this series are New Testament scholars, so I’ll be interested to see how the second half of this series (which begins next week) is going to look.

References:

[1] H.W.F. Saggs, The Might That Was Assyria (Londong: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1984), 71-72.

[2] Judges 14:3

Image Sources: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pulasti_%28Philistine%29_and_Tsakkaras_%28painting%29.png; Photo of Gibeah © Christopher Jones 2012; last 2 are screen caps from the series.

Article © Christopher Jones 2013.


The Great Persecution

Christianity may have begun as a small group of a few dozen followers of Jesus, but it grew at a steady clip for the next two centuries. By the late 3rd century AD this growth had exploded into a major religion within the Roman Empire. Many members of the upper classes had converted, especially women. Christians served in the army and held positions in the civil service. Christian churches were organized throughout much of the empire, with bishops in major cities and pastors leading local congregations throughout towns and villages. Churches were built in most cities as Christians moved out of meeting in private houses to create their own places of worship.[1]

Meanwhile, the Roman Empire was falling apart in fifty years of unrest known as the Third Century Crisis. The prosperous, largely peaceful empire of the Severan Emperors gave way to constantly changing governments, weak emperors and numerous military coups. Foreign invasions threatened all of the borders of the empire and some regions of the empire sought to secede and break away. The protracted unrest caused the economy to take a nose dive. The government sought to address the problem of low tax revenues by devaluing its currency, which made the problem worse. Poverty caused many people to leave cities and become semi-serfs, working land owned by large landowners.

Romans were looking for answers as to why their once powerful empire was in decline. As in so many similar cases throughout history, many of them answered these questions by blaming religious minorities. Traditional Roman religion did not recognize any such concept as the separation of church and state. The state employed numerous priests to conduct rituals, make sacrifices and read omens, all to ensure the favor of the gods upon the state. If the state was experiencing ill fortune, then the gods must be displeased and punishing the Roman people.

If the gods were displeased, for many people the obvious reason for their displeasure were the Christians, the Manichaeans and other religious groups growing in numbers across the empire. The Christians argued that they were good citizens – they paid taxes, lived moral lives, followed the laws, and served in the military – and that this qualified them as loyal Romans despite their refusal to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods. Most of the time, the Roman authorities had tacitly if not officially accepted this argument. Sporadic persecutions occurred numerous times, but in the 3rd century they became more frequent and drastic. The emperors Decius and Valerian each issued decrees that Christians must sacrifice to the Roman gods or be executed.

This stage of persecution ended when Valerian was captured by the Persians in 260 and Christianity was again tolerated, but the crisis continued. Nevertheless, friction between pagans and Christians continued. The Christian church, with its hierarchical structure, social support networks, and ruling bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, was viewed as a threat to Imperial power, a sort of potential fifth column who did not follow the Roman gods and therefore was damaging the Roman state. To make matters worse, Christianity’s outlaw status made it an attractive religion for all those within the empire who hated Rome. Especially in Egypt and North Africa, Christianity became associated with local nationalism and anti-Roman sentiment.[2]

In short, Christianity was viewed as an internal threat to the unity and security of the empire. This view was especially strong amongst Imperial officials, whose hatred of Christians is evidenced by the numerous tortures many of them devised which went above and beyond their mandate. As is also often the case throughout history, leaders sought to pin blame on a disliked minority in order to divert attention from their own failings.

Late 3rd Century bust of Diocletian, now on display at the Museum of Archaeology in Istanbul.

Into this world stepped a 40 year old army officer named Diocles. Born in Salona, Dalmatia (modern day Solin in Croatia) to parents of low birth, he had enlisted in the army and worked his way up through the ranks. In 284, the reigning emperor Numerian was murdered by soldiers in Syria. The army then declared Diocles emperor, and he changed his name to the more Latin-sounding Diocletian. After defeating an army led by Numerian’s brother Carinus in modern day Serbia, he took control of the entire empire in 285.

Diocletian set out to radically transform the entire Roman Empire. The first and most obvious problem to be rectified was the growth of military power: between 235 and 285 there had been no fewer than 13 military coups. To put a stop to this, in 293 Diocletian split the empire into four parts, called the Tetrarchy. Two sections of the empire would be governed by Augusti, theoretically ruling as equals but with Diocletian as the practical senior partner. Two other sections would be governed by lesser rulers given the title of Caesar, who would be trained to eventually succeed the Augusti. This system kept army commanders from gaining too much power, as each was under the control of a more local ruler.

Diocletian named Maximian the Augustus of the western empire, ruling Italy, Africa and Spain with his capital at Milan. Constantius was named Caesar of Britain and Gaul with his capital at Trier. In the east, Diocletian himself took control of Egypt, Syria and Asia Minor, with his capital at Nicomedia. He named Galerius Caesar of the Balkans and Greece, with his capital at Sirmium on the Danube. All three of these men also hailed from the Balkans: Maximian came from Sirmium in modern Serbia, Galerius from Serdica in Dacia (modern Sofia, Bulgaria) and Constantius from Dardania in what is now Serbia. Rome was no longer the capital city of the empire that bore its name.[3]

Map of the Tetrarchy, as established in 293.

Aside from this decentralization of power into four parts, the rest of Diocletian’s reform involved accumulating as much power as possible to the person of the emperor. Whereas Augustus and those who followed him had adopted the title princeps, claiming to be a “first among equals” and striving to preserve the fiction of the old Republic, Diocletian adopted the title dominus, formerly a term used by slaves to refer to their masters. Now, instead of a “first among equals” from among the free citizens, the Roman people were his slaves and he was their master. Visitors to the imperial court were required to prostrate themselves before him, and if they were lucky they were allowed to kiss the hem of his robe. Previously, the power and legitimacy of the princeps was said to be derived from the Senate and the Roman people. Diocletian instead declared himself to be the gods’ representative on earth. His legitimacy was derived from the gods, not from any earthly source. He gave himself the name Jovian, as the earthly representative of Jupiter. Maximian followed suit, calling himself Herculius to compare himself to Hercules. The Senate was almost completely ignored, reduced to ruling the now unimportant city of Rome.[4]

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The Quest for Herakles

The Greek historian Herodotus left us one of the earliest and most popular works of ancient history. While focused on the history of the Persian Wars, he digressed far and wide, covering the cultures, history and customs of many regions. He even visited some of these regions, such as Egypt. Other regions, such as Scythia, he described based on the accounts of others but does not claim to have visited the regions himself.

Herodotus traveled to Egypt sometime in the mid 400s BC. “I conversed with the priests of Hephaistos,” he later wrote. “And I also went to Thebes and Heliopolis, since I wanted to see if they agreed with what was said in Memphis. For of all the Egyptians, the Heliopolitans are said to be the most learned in tradition.”[1]

Herodotus did not mean that the Egyptians had a temple to worship the Greek god Hephaistos. Rather, Herodotus, like many Greeks, saw all polytheistic religions as worshiping the same gods, just under different names. In a way, they were correct. The gods of all ancient polytheistic religions were anthropomorphic manifestations of various natural phenomena, emotional states and other forces which acted upon individual humans.

Obelisk of Senusret I in Heliopolis. Senusret I reigned from 1971 to 1926 B.C., so this monument had already been standing for almost 1,500 years when Herodotus visited Egypt.

Religious mythology sprung up around each of these characters, and a series of rich and complex stories took shape in various cultures. Rituals, offerings and temples developed to please the gods and gain their goodwill. These myths were not meant to be taken literally, rather, they served as a way to understand the complex, often destructive  and seemingly random world. Ancient religious thought was generally abstract and not meant to be taken literally. It’s not that the ancients believed these events did or didn’t happen, it’s just that the question of actual temporal existence was altogether unimportant. Since all cultures observed things such as water, storms, rage, the wind, knowledge, war, and so on, they tended to develop similar deities. Herodotus credited the Egyptians with being the first to develop this, saying that “They said that the Egyptians were also the first to establish the tradition of identifying names for the twelve gods, and that the Hellenes [Greeks] adopted this practice from them. They were also the first to assign altars, statues, and temples to the gods and to carve their figures in relief on stone.”[2]

When Herodotus traveled to Heliopolis, he visited one of the most important centers of Egyptian religious thought. The Heliopolitan priests had worked out a series of complex myths to explain the origin of the gods and the origin of the world. Herodotus doubtless learned of their myths, but declined to relate them in his history, explaining that “I have no desire to relate what I heard about matters concerning the gods, other than their names alone, since I believe that all people understand these things equally. But when my discussion forces me to mention these things, I shall do so.”[3]

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Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 3

Previous entries in this series:
Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 1: Ugarit

Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 2: Phoenicia

The third installment in this series will take us away from the geographical area of the Near East to the Phoenician colonies of the western Mediterranean. The foremost of these colonies was Carthage, which came to rule the others in a maritime empire spanning most of the western Mediterranean.

The name “Carthage” is a latinization of the Punic qart hadasht, meaning, rather uncreatively, “New City.” This gets more confusing and even less creative later on when a city called Carthago Nova (modern-day Cartagena) was founded in Spain, literally meaning “New New City.”

Carthage was founded in 813 BC by colonists from Tyre, according to Roman sources. The archaeological record only dates back to the early 700′s, so the very early settlements were either too small to leave traces in the record or else the Roman’s dates were off. Carthage was not the first Phoenician colony in the west. Utica on the northern coast of Tunisia preceded it, as did Cadiz on the Atlantic coast of Spain. However, Carthage would become far more powerful, and eventually rule over the others.[1]

The longest account of the founding of Carthage is preserved in the history of Justin, which is itself an abbreviated version of the history of Macedon written by Pompeius Trogus, who based his history of Tyre off of that of Timaeus of Sicily. According to Timaeus, the king of Tyre died and in an unusual move left his son Pygmalion and his daughter Elissa as joint rulers. Disputes and jealousies soon brewed into open conflict. A large faction of the population supported Pygmalion becoming sole ruler, and he had Elissa’s husband (who was the chief priest of Melqart) assassinated.

Ancient coin from a later date depicting Elissa.

Elissa, on the other hand, had the support of many members of the Tyrian council of elders. She plotted with them to escape the city. Elissa and her supporters made their escape by sailing out of Tyre’s port in the middle of the night. They made their way first to Cyprus and then to the coast of what is now Tunisia. Here, Elissa famously told the locals that she only wanted to buy as much land as could be covered with an oxhide, and then cut the oxhide into extremely thin strips to enclose a wide area. “In a short time,” records Justin, “the inhabitants became numerous, and the city itself extensive.” The spot chosen to found Carthage was a peninsula, with a harbor. What’s more the, the city was naturally located to control access between the eastern and western halves of the Mediterranean Sea, a prime location for a trading power.[2]

Another commonly held school of thought holds that Elissa never existed, and Carthage was originally founded by Tyrian merchants who also founded a new council of elders. In this view, Carthage never was a monarchy and began its history as a republic. However, Elissa is mentioned in a number of other ancient sources as the founder of Carthage, and the details of the stories are corroborated by Josephus, who quotes the historian Menander of Ephesus that “…Pygmalion succeeded him; he lived fifty-six years, and reigned forty-seven years. Now in the seventh year of his reign, his sister fled away from him, and built the city Carthage in Libya.”[3]

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Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 2

The first installment in this series examined the role sea power and maritime commerce played in the society of the Late Bronze Age culture of Ugarit. While Ugarit actively pursued overseas trade, it never developed open and democratic institutions as a society. It may have been on its way towards doing so, but the Sea Peoples intervened and destroyed the city before that could happen.

The second installment in this series will examine the Phoenicians. Phoenicia is generally defined as the middle Canaanite city-states located in what is now Lebanon, which from 1200 BC onwards developed in a different fashion from their southern Canaanite brethren. While southern Canaanites city-states remained land-based powers that would soon be conquered or absorbed into Israelite or Philistine society, the middle Canaanite states took to the sea.[1]

The Phoenician city-states were well located for becoming maritime states. The coast of Lebanon is marked by a number of bays which serve as natural harbors. These harbors are lacking further south along the coast of what is now Israel, where the coast runs in a smooth curve down to the Nile Delta. What’s more, the Phoenician city-states were shielded from land invasions by the dual obstacle of the Lebanon and anti-Lebanon mountain ranges. Some of the cities were founded on even more geographically inaccessible locations. Sidon was built on a headland shielded by islands. Tyre was built on an artificial island created by filling in the space between two smaller islands (the space between the island and the mainland has since been filled in as well).[2]

Google Earth images showing modern-day sites of Phoenician city-states. Note all of them are on peninsulas with natural harbors. Tyre was an island until Alexander the Great built a causeway connecting it to the mainland during his siege of the city in 332 B.C.

As a result of geography, each Phoenician city was isolated not only from the threat of land invasion but from each other.[3] Therefore, the states operated independently of each other. Like the Greek polis, the Phoenician qeret (Phoenician for city-state) became the main political unit, and the unit to which a Phoenician owed his primary loyalty.

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Democracy and Maritime Power in the Near East, Part 1

Part 2 of this series can be found here.
Part 3 of this series can be found here.

Scholars have long noted a correlation between maritime societies and the development of open social institutions. This was first noticed by scholars in ancient Greece. Plutarch wrote that the early kings of Athens invented the myth of Athena defeating Poseidon in the contest to name the city in an attempt to “to draw the citizens away from the sea and accustom them to live not by navigation but by agriculture.” Much later, when Athens was under Spartan rule, the Thirty Tyrants tried to discourage seafaring “because they thought that maritime empire was the mother of democracy, and that oligarchy was less distasteful to tillers of the soil.”[1]

Likewise, Aristotle wrote in his discussion of political philosophy that “the naval multitude, having been the cause of the victory off Salamis and thereby of the leadership of Athens due to her power at sea, made the democracy stronger.” Sea power required lots of manpower to row triremes. If the power of the state rested on the work and valor of the majority of its people, the people would hold power in their society and not oligarchs or kings.[2]

Sea power theorists in more recent times have expanded this thesis into a broad theory of state development. In 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan published his landmark work titled The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. Mahan argued that commerce by sea was a very efficient method of moving goods from place to place. Nations that are geographically disposed to the sea by being physically isolated from land threats, possessing good ports and easy access to important trade routes choose to pursue sea power because it is advantageous for them to do so. [3]

Mahan’s thesis has been further developed by others such as Clark Reynolds to explain changes in a society after they take to the sea. Because maritime states are geographically protected from land threats, they do not need to maintain large land armies. Instead, the navy becomes the most prestigious military service. Agriculture-based land powers typically have a large and very poor peasant class to till the fields, and have authoritarian political systems based on the need to mobilize manpower to defend against overland invasions. Maritime powers, on the other hand, have an economy primarily based on commerce and trade. This leads to the emergence of a thriving middle class which gains political power.

What’s more, commerce and trade mean that the people of a maritime state are constantly coming into contact with new ideas from all over the world. The combination of this competition of ideas and a powerful middle class leads to a society where capitalism, freedom of speech, art and innovation all thrive. As a result, maritime societies become more open and democratic than their land-based counterparts. They have a higher degree of individual freedom than their landlubbing neighbors, and citizens are more able to participate in the government.[4]

This process has been observe in a number of maritime powers throughout history. Classical Athens, the Venetian Republic, the Dutch Republic and Britain are prime examples of such societies. But does the paradigm still apply to the ancient Near East?

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