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

The Use of Myth in History: Ken Dowden

Monsters exist in order to be defeated and, preferably, slain. (134)

Ken Dowden
Ken Dowden

Ken Dowden’s The Uses of Greek Mythology (Routledge, 1992) provides an excellent guide to the ways in which Greek myth was used to construct Greek historiography that was set in the more remote past.

I particularly like the following quote from the book, which should be meditated upon at length by a fundamentally uncritical strand of scholarship which is unfortunately prevalent today within biblical studies:

No matter how fictional or artificial local myth seems to us, it is always capable of being treated as strict history by interested parties. (89)