Why Schama’s History of the Jews is not History: On Jewish Origins in Episode 1

British historian Simon Schama is currently presenting a series called The Story of the Jews, on BBC2. In episode 1, Schama begins with the stories told in the Bible. He notes that, while there is no archaeological evidence for the Exodus or desert wandering that would make them count as historical reality, the first ‘solid evidence’ of Jewish identity can be found near the Valley of Elah:

To find some of the first solid archaeological evidence for the Jewish story, you have to fast-forward a couple of centuries from the traditional date for the Moses epic, and come here, to the Valley of Elah, in present-day Israel. According to the Bible, this is where a giant, called Goliath, was brought low by a shepherd boy called David, armed only with a slingshot.

Schama then goes on to make the claim that Yosef Garfinkel, excavator at Khirbet Qeiyafa, has established that the Elah Fortress (ca 1000 BCE) belonged to the people of the Judean highlands, “not to the pig-eating Philistines of the coastal plain”. The reason is that no pig-bones can be found in the highland fortress at Elah – and the proscription against eating pork is, of course, a distinctive ethnic marker of later Jews.

The big problem with this claim is that the lack of pigs is a feature of highland areas in general – not just of the Judean highlands. Pigs need a lot of watering, which in the Iron Age necessitated a location near the coast. This is the case both within so-called Jewish territory, and for any Philistines who did not live on the coast, such as the Philistines of the northern Negev. On this issue, see the 1997 article by Brian Hesse and Paula Wapnish, “Can Pig Remains Be Used for Ethnic Diagnosis in the Ancient Near East?” and Aharon Sasson’s book, Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel: A Zooarchaeological Perspective on Livestock Exploitation, Herd Management and Economic Strategies, Equinox, 2011. As previously noted on this blog, the same point is noted by the archaeologist at Tel es-Safi (identified with biblical Gath, hometown of the legendary Goliath), Aren Maeir:

… extremely high pig frequencies (c. 20 per cent or more) are found in [Philistine] sites in the Israeli coastal plain (Ashkelon, Tel Miqne-Ekron)…. At Tel es-Safi/Gath, located on the interface between the coastal plain and the hill country, pigs comprise 13 per cent of the Iron I fauna …, while Tel Batash, located in a similar setting, has yielded only 8 per cent pigs; at southern Philistine sites, the Nahal Patish temple … and the small village of Qubur el-Walaydah in the northern Negev …. pigs represent less than 1 per cent of the faunal assemblage, a similar low frequency to that observed in coeval Israelite sites…. Thus, it is very feasible that ecological, economic or functional factors, or a mixture of them, rather than ethnicity, were responsible for the relatively high frequencies of pigs in some Philistine sites and their dearth in others – Philistine and Israelite settlements alike

– Aren M. Maeir, Louise A. Hitchcock, and Liora Kolska Horwitz, “On the Constitution and Transformation of Philistine Identity”Oxford Journal of Archaeology 32 no. 1 (2013): 5–6 (emphasis added).

In the BBC documentary, Schama also lets Yosef Garfinkel repeat his claim that the story of a battle between the Philistine Goliath and the Judean David preserves a kernel of historical truth: that the Elah fortress was a site of conflict between coastal Philistines and highland Judeans. However, the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, as Israel Finkelstein points out, bears many more marks of much later ideological concerns:

The story of David and Goliath is a complex one. There could have been an ancient memory on conflicts between Judah and Philistine Gath in this region and the story of the slaying of Goliath by a hero named David or Elhanan (2 Sam. 21:19) may be related to this ancient tradition. But the text in 1 Samuel 17 is Deuteronomistic in its language, and it seems to depict Homeric influence. It is clear therefore that the story could not have been put in writing before the late 7th century BCE. More than anything else the story portrays the theological goals of the authors and the historical reality of the time of the authors – centuries after the high days of Khirbet Qeiyafa.

– Israel Finkelstein, “A Great United Monarchy? Archaeological and Historical Perspectives.” Pages 3-28 in R.G. Kratz and H. Spieckermann, eds., One God – One Cult – One Nation: Archaeological and Biblical Perspectives (Berlin, 2010), pp. 18-19.

So in The Story of the Jews, Schama recycles some less-than-critical arguments that the beginnings of Jewish identity can be demonstrated 3000 years ago, a time associated with the legendary King David. In truth, the origin of a distinctive Jewish identity is not clear before the Persian period (sixth-fourth centuries BCE), in the province of Yehud. More than that, Schama’s assumption seems to be that the biblical dating of the exodus and conquest – 1000 years earlier than the Persian Period – is essentially correct:

You don’t have to accept the Bible as literal truth to believe that 3,500 years ago something extraordinary and fateful in world history did happen, over there, on the other side of the Jordan Valley.

The biblical stories of such early origins for ‘Israel’ and ‘Israelites’ (not yet Judea and Jews) are founding myths dating from the Persian period. While they are still important for Jewish self-identity today, they are not historical events; they constitute a part of Jewish cultural memory but they do not belong to reality. The Story of the Jews tells a good story, but it is not, in this regard, good history.

See also: Mark Goodacre, “Simon Schama’s Misreading of Paul“, NT Blog, 10 September 2013

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Keith Whitelam’s Rhythms of Time: A History of Palestine Beyond the Twin Tyrannies of Biblical and Western-nationalist Consciousness

Keith Whitelam - Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine's PastKeith Whitelam’s 1996 work The Invention of Ancient Israel represented a groundbreaking criticism of the double erasure of ancient Palestinian history. Whitelam’s devastating ideological critique demonstrated how, first, biblical studies had reified the Bible’s construct(s) of Israel as the imaginary object of its own historical investigations and, second, how Western nationalism had superimposed its own interests onto this “Israel” – at the expense of any history of the actually existing inhabitants of ancient Palestine.

In what reads as an extended essay, Whitelam’s most recent book, Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past (BenBlackBooks, 2013), offers just such a history of Palestine. In the absence of significant written sources from the Bronze and Iron Ages, some have denied that the composition of a history of ancient Palestine is possible. Despite this inherent difficulty, Whitelam succeeds in providing a vision of Palestinian history which offers a real alternative to the twin tyrannies of biblical and modern Western-nationalist ideologies. And this is no mean feat. Whitelam manages to do so by utilising the approach advocated by Fernand Braudel and the French Annales school: Rhythms of Time describes ancient Palestinian history according to the longue durée, avoiding explanations that have recourse to “great” individuals or specific events for descriptions of the gradually perceptible changes wrought by the changing natural and economic rhythms of the region. If this approach is something of a necessity, given the dearth of primary sources, the approach is also the author’s preference – a way to sidestep the biblical and Western biases which have silenced Palestinian history; a strategy to provide modern inhabitants of the region with an equally valid claim to the past.

Rhythms of Time should be viewed above all, therefore, as a form of maximalist history-writing – as the recovery of those voices which have been suppressed or lost as a result of earlier purported histories of the region.

Foremost among Whitelam’s concerns for attempting such a history is the effect of history-writing on non-Israeli inhabitants of modern Palestine. That is, he wishes to redress the frequently made but highly spurious claim that Palestinians are not a people, a claim which forms the basis for denying their right to a nation state in Palestine-Israel.

What underlies such a claim, writes Whitelam, “is a very important principle: the idea that a nation without a past is a contradiction in terms. If the Palestinians do not possess a past, they cannot possess a national consciousness or be a people. Therefore, they have no right to a land or a state” (Kindle 69-71). The problem is exacerbated by the persistent claim, within the Christian culture in the West and within the Zionist culture in Israel, that the modern state of Israel is somehow guaranteed by what was written in the Bible, that a state created in 1948 has 3000-year-old roots:

    For Bush, as for many American politicians like Gingrich, the modern state has a past and that past is described in the Bible. For them, this is the return to a god-given land. The Bible becomes the title deed in the contemporary struggle for the land. Palestinians, by contrast, cannot claim this past since it is seen to be Israel’s past as described in the Bible. Israel has a past and so it has a present as a modern state. Palestine has no past and so no present. (78-80, 90-91)

Since the nineteenth century and during early colonialism, the “Holy Land” has been viewed through this biblical lens, to the detriment of its actual inhabitants. For Western tourists, “the contemporary inhabitants were extras on the stage on which the biblical events had been acted out.” The region was viewed through a biblical lens which glorified the imaginary past described in the Bible while treating the actual inhabitants as undeserving of the land, as having no comparable claim on the land. This is taken to absurd lengths in theme-parks in the United States such as The Holy Land Experience, in Orlando, Florida, which nonetheless serve as an illustration of the power of religious-nationalistic images of the past:

Goliath Burger
Goliath Burger, The Holy Land Experience (photograph by Raymond Walsh, manonthelam.com)

Again it [The Holy Land Experience] is a fantasy land, an imagined place that is presented as though it is real; but a place where the lived realities of the inhabitants of Jerusalem are erased. It is a construction of the Orient as fantasy; a world sanitized of real inhabitants and their indigenous culture. If you are feeling thirsty and hungry on your trip, then you can drop into the Oasis Palms Café and enjoy a ‘Thirsty Camel Cooler’ or a ‘Goliath Burger’. (131-134)

Whitelam sees the continuity of Palestine from ancient times to the present subsisting not in modern conceptions of the nation state or even in political empires which have regularly ruled the region, but in a shared mode of life  which unites the various peoples in the region who are otherwise divided by various ethnic labels.

Palestinians and Palestine have a past that needs to be written from the ancient past to the present and put together as a coherent story; not one that only starts in the nineteenth century or during the period of the British Mandate but one that goes back millennia to the Bronze Age and stretches through to the present. Palestine in the Iron Age forms part of a rich and intricate historical tapestry whose threads, set deep in the past, continue into the present. (345-348)

Whitelam’s history thus avoids ethnic and political distinctions for a focus on economic and geographic descriptions of Palestine over the longue durée. His analysis finds a region which is subject to periodic reorderings, economic shifts and geographic shifts.  Most importantly, he sees the Iron Age not as the period in which a unique nation or ethnic group called “Israel” emerged, but as a period which bears a resemblance to changes which occurred in the Early Bronze Age and which will repeat in the future.  He finds in Palestine “a region that is difficult to subdue and control … ever resistant to state or imperial control, finding ways—some times through direct conflict but more often than not by subtle ways of non-participation—to maintain its local identities and autonomy” (1811-1813). And this conclusion serves as a warning to those who would cling to a more narrow religio-national view of the region.

Rhythms of Time is a visionary essay, seeking to forge an entirely new path in Palestinian history-writing. There has been a growing recognition in recent decades that any purported history which paraphrases the Bible’s narrative – of conquest, United Davidic Kingdom, divided Kingdoms, exile, and return – is no history at all. What is required is a casting off of the twin tyrannies of biblical narrative and Western nationalist consciousness, and Whitelam offers one approach which does just that. It is an approach that no doubt needs to be “filled out” and developed in subsequent treatments, and not everyone will agree with the Annales school approach which it follows. But it is a fresh account, it is a realistic account, and it is a necessary account.

In a Pig’s Ear: On Levels of Pig Consumption as an Ethnic Marker of Ancient Israelites and Philistines

kosher-hamThere is a view that the low levels of pig bones found in the “Israelite” highlands during the Iron Age, and the comparatively higher levels in Philistine sites near the Mediterranean, provide evidence of an ethnic difference between an Israelite people and Philistines as early as 1200 BCE. That is, the explanation of the difference is sought in the ideological proscriptions against eating pork in literature from the much later Persian period (e.g. Lev. 11.7-8). One recent defender of such a view is William G. Dever:

One animal species is conspicuously absent in our Iron Age villages: the pig. Although not nearly as common as sheep and goats at Bronze Age sites, pigs are well attested then. They are also common at Iron I coastal sites that are known to be Philistine. But recent statistical analysis of animal bones retrieved from our Iron I Israelites sites show that pig bones typically constitute only a fraction of 1% or are entirely absent. A number of scholars who are otherwise skeptical about determining ethnic identity from material culture remains in this case acknowledge the obvious: that here we seem to have at least one ethnic trait of later, biblical Israel that can safely be projected back to its earliest days.

– William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 108

It had already been pointed out, however, that there are other causes for a lack of pigs in arid highlands, such as the lack of water required for animals which require much more watering than sheep and goats (Brian Hesse and Paula Wapnish, “Can Pig Remains Be Used for Ethnic Diagnosis in the Ancient Near East?”, 1997; cf. Aharon Sasson, Animal Husbandry in Ancient Israel: A Zooarchaeological Perspective on Livestock Exploitation, Herd Management and Economic Strategies, Equinox, 2011).

A recent article from the excavators of Tel es-Safi (identified with biblical Gath, hometown of the legendary Goliath) affirms that there are good ecological and economic reasons for low levels of pig-farming in the highlands of “Israel”:

“… extremely high pig frequencies (c. 20 per cent or more) are found in [Philistine] sites in the Israeli coastal plain (Ashkelon, Tel Miqne-Ekron)…. At Tel es-Safi/Gath, located on the interface between the coastal plain and the hill country, pigs comprise 13 per cent of the Iron I fauna …, while Tel Batash, located in a similar setting, has yielded only 8 per cent pigs; at southern Philistine sites, the Nahal Patish temple … and the small village of Qubur el-Walaydah in the northern Negev …. pigs represent less than 1 per cent of the faunal assemblage, a similar low frequency to that observed in coeval Israelite sites…. Thus, it is very feasible that ecological, economic or functional factors, or a mixture of them, rather than ethnicity, were responsible for the relatively high frequencies of pigs in some Philistine sites and their dearth in others – Philistine and Israelite settlements alike”

– Aren M. Maeir, Louise A. Hitchcock, and Liora Kolska Horwitz, “On the Constitution and Transformation of Philistine Identity”, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 32 no. 1 (2013): 5–6 (emphasis added).

The article by Aren Maeir, et al, is well worth reading, too, for observations about the complex mix of Aegean and Levantine cultural influences in the Philistine territories. These observations are based in the latest archaeology being carried out in the area.

h/t: Aren Maeir, “New Article on the Formation and Transformation of Philistine Identity”, The Tell es-Safi/Gath Excavations Official (and Unofficial) Weblog, 10 January 2013

David versus Goliath Story inspires Killing in St. Louis, Missouri

St. Louis resident Tod Shepard killed a cop in 2008, basing his killing on the biblical story of David versus Goliath. In jail-house letters (produced by the court prosecutor in his current trial), Shepard wrote, “I stood and looked at Goliath. I could have run in fear, but isn’t it good to only fear God?’

In carrying out the killing, Shepard loaded five bullets into his 38-caliber revolver, in imitation of the biblical reference to the “five smooth stones” which David collected in order to kill Goliath.

Earlier testimony claimed that Shepard had been talking to friends for years about his desire to kill a police officer to “start a revolution” and improve  the treatment of black people by the government.
(CBS St. Louis)

Tod Shepard will be killed at the conclusion of the trial.