Cover image for The mythic past : biblical archaeology and the myth of Israel
The mythic past : biblical archaeology and the myth of Israel
Thompson, Thomas L.
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
[New York] : Basic Books, 1999.
Physical Description:
xix, 412 pages : maps ; 25 cm
Reading Level:
1200 Lexile.
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BS1171.2 .T56 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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This is a revolutionary, revisionist book on the Old Testament and the early history of the Middle East. There have been many extraordinary advances in Palestinian and biblical archaeology in recent years. This book is a synthesis of all the cutting-edge archaeology and textual studies of the last 25 years as well as studies in the history of agriculture and technology, settlement patterns, climatology, sociology, and economics. Among its startling conclusions are:1) Today we no longer have a history of Israel.2) We can no longer talk about a time of the patriarchs.3) There was never a "United Monarchy" [Saul, David, Solomon] in history and it is meaningless to speak of pre-exilic prophets and their writing.4) Israel was only a small highland patronate lying north of Jerusalem and south of the Jezreel Valley.5) The notion "Israel" and its history is a literary fiction.These conclusions are bound to set off some explosive arguments. The synthesis draws on established and widely accepted specific, scholarly work. The author's conclusions, however, are radical and new.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

It is most appropriate that Thompson, who has been a professor of Old Testament at the University of Copenhagen since 1993, takes up the metaphor of Lego blocks to describe a narrative strategy common to the variety of texts that make up biblical literature: a tiny collection of simple shapes imaginatively combined to create an explosion of possible worlds. Thompson writes passionately, persuasively and provocatively, as, for example, when he notes that "it is only as history that the Bible does not make sense." He notes that history demands evidence, not plausibility. It is, in fact, fiction that demands plausibilityÄand this is the basis for Thompson's eloquent argument on behalf of a literary approach to biblical material. One thing the Bible does not claim to be, he maintains, is history. To read it as such is to distort it, and to inform archeological and historical research with such a reading compounds the distortion. In Thompson's words, "the misappropriation of ancient texts for purposes contrary to the tradition's intentions, which two generations of theological use of the Bible have now encouraged, is one of those common abuses of intellect" that "contributes to the pollution of the ocean of our language.". Thompson's book is sure to generate significant discussion, and it should be of interest not only to students of biblical literature but to general readers fascinated both by "how stories talk about the past" and by how they form our present. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Thompson's radical perspective on the Old Testament and the ability to reconstruct from it a history of ancient Israel is well known to biblical scholars and archaeologists (see, for example, his Early History of the Israelite People: From the Written and Archaeological Sources, CH May'93). His views are shared by a minority of scholars, variously labeled as minimalists, revisionists, or nihilists. Thompson (Univ. of Copenhagen) claims that the Israel known from the Bible is unrelated to any known historical Israel--it is the mythic creation of authors writing in the Persian or Hellenistic period, who constructed a history meaningful to themselves. Many of Thompson's claims are unsupported and difficult to assess, especially by nonspecialists; he provides no references or notes beyond a modest list of recommended readings. Most scholars would agree that the biblical text in its final form is relatively late, that we should take seriously its literary dimensions, and that we cannot accept its portrait of Israel's history uncritically, but they will not share Thompson's conclusion that we have only a "Hellenistic Bible" and must reject its historical aspects. Although Thompson writes in a style easily accessible to a general audience, graduate students and faculty or researchers will be better equipped to judge his claims. H. O. Forshey; Miami University



Chapter One History and origins: the changing past 1 When texts are confirmed by texts The issue of Israel's origins has dominated approaches both to the Bible and to the history of Palestine. The resulting dilemma is one that all historical `origin' questions face because of their implicit anachronism, and it seriously affects the way we integrate whatever biblical or extra-biblical evidence we have about Israel's earliest history. While any historical reality we can identify with biblical Israel is necessarily a product of the `origins' question, and must be understood to post-date it, the fact remains that historical evidence for origins must be sought earlier than Israel, in a time when there was no such place or concept. But then, how is such evidence to be recognized specifically as belonging to Israel's origins? Given the fragmented nature of all evidence for ancient history, a question of origins is structured by hindsight. It is entirely dependent on the understanding we have of Israel as it comes to us from biblical tradition, whether or not that ideologically oriented self-understanding has any historical warrant whatever.     Another dilemma is that of the evidence itself. What is well understood as primary evidence comes from data that is contemporary with Israel's emergence. This is largely evidence that derives from archaeological research and exploration, and is commonly sought among the fragmented remains of the Bronze and early Iron Ages of ancient Palestine. It is our secondary evidence, namely the Bible and extra-biblical traditional literature, that purports to identify what this Israelis, whose origins we are trying to identify. It is also these secondary sources that provide what we assume is the appropriate time-frame for our primary quest for archaeological evidence. However, these assumptions relating to both identity and chronology are taken from texts known to us first from the Hellenistic period -- that is, in the earliest biblical texts that have been found among the Dead Sea scrolls.     The obvious dilemma should make any historian uncomfortable. As long as the primary and secondary sources for our history of Israel's origins remain separated by as much as a thousand years, there can be little hope of establishing possible links between the Bible and early archaeological materials. We are looking for the origins of Israel as we know it from the Bible, yet we are unable to confirm any biblical narrative as historical until we first have a separate, independent history with which we might compare the Bible's account. If, moreover, we are trying to create a history capable of providing the context in which biblical narrative developed, this history can hardly be identical with that story of the Bible. Without an independently established history of Palestine and ancient Israel, the question of historicity -- whether or not the Bible describes events that occurred in the past -- remains a riddle.     These issues have grave consequences when we try to write history for very early periods. Our primary sources, which come to us mostly through archaeology, are very fruitful, but they tell us mostly about the structures that ancient societies had -- how people lived, how their economies developed, the variety of relationships traceable by studying the remains of the physical culture that excavations have given us access to. With the largely unwritten materials that archaeology brings us, our history tends to become a description of societies with their long-range developments and changes, rather than a history of persons and events. Inscriptions add much to this. They tell us about language, political boundaries and structures, religious beliefs, social and legal customs, trade and business organization. When we are very lucky we get an insight into the way ancient people thought. We learn about their prejudices, fears and beliefs, their sense of humour and beauty, as well as about their loyalties and values. Palestine, however, is very poor in texts from periods earlier than the Hellenistic period, and we have nothing of the wealth or complexity of Egypt and Mesopotamia. This is especially true for the period of the Iron Age in which the early states of Israel and Judah existed. Moreover -- as we shall see -- Palestine never developed a political power of any great international significance. It was always so divided by its many small regions that it never developed a common history except when it was controlled by some power from outside, such as Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia. High culture, as expressed in art, architecture, literature and pageant, hardly existed. Most of what has survived is either foreign in origin or derivative from Phoenicia on the Syrian coast. Both culturally and intellectually speaking, Palestine ever remained Syria's southern fringe.     There is a particularly strong contrast between this poverty of primary historical sources for Palestine's Bronze and Iron ages, and the rich secondary literature available to us in texts and traditions from the Persian, Hellenistic and Greco-Roman periods. This literature recounts traditions about the past. In fact, preoccupation with the past and with its role in understanding and defining the present is a striking characteristic of the literature of these later periods. This literature includes not only the Bible's texts, but a large body of non-biblical literature, including traditional historiographies centred in questions of origin. They give us detailed accounts of what writers represented as the past. Much of this literature is well known, and historians have long used it in an effort to reconstruct Palestine's earlier history.     These texts, however, are not very easy to use. Not only are they filled with all kinds of legends and stories, but their authors did not much care to distinguish between stories which were interesting, humorous or entertaining, and stories which actually related something that had occurred in the past. They did not hesitate to change their sources and reconstruct the past whenever there were gaps in their knowledge, or indeed in any manner that they saw fit. As we have grown more aware of such typical characteristics of traditional historiographies about Palestine's past, the way that scholarship once used them for reconstructing the history of Israel has grown less and less acceptable. Historical scholarship's indolent habit of offering paraphrases of ancient historians and correcting them only when evidence proves them wrong will no longer do. Nor will it do any longer to view such traditional historians as in some degree `dependable'. What they conceived as `historiography' were historical fictions about the past, using whatever materials came to hand. What we learn when we read them is not data about any earlier period of the past, but rather an account of what they thought, and what they understood to belong to the genre of literature they were writing. These texts are historically useful for what they imply about the author's present, and about the knowledge available to him and his contemporaries, not for their author's claim about any projected past. One of the most striking and wonderful things about an `historian' like Josephus is that he knows almost nothing about `the past' that we ourselves do not already know from other sources. When an account he gives of a supposed event of two centuries earlier `confirms' something we can read in other works, it is only because he has copied or paraphrased it. Josephus has been well described as a person one wouldn't buy a used car from.     We do get an accumulating body of stories from such works as Josephus writes and from the traditional historiographies given in the Bible, but it is a mistake to suppose that we can use one text to confirm what another says about the past. The most important historical information we can learn from such ancient historiography has very little to do with the quality of their history, and almost nothing to do with what they say about the past. Ancient inscriptions have often been found, which refer to one or other character or narrative which we otherwise know only from the Bible. Yet, even here, a confirmation of the biblical narrative, which would allow us to read it as if it were history, is still elusive. The reason that these ancient texts always seem to fail to give us the evidence we need is that our way of understanding the past is not shared by the authors of these or of any other ancient texts. This, I hope, will become clearer with the help of two examples of biblical stories which have been emphatically confirmed by extra-biblical inscriptions.     The first example comes from an excavation at Tell Deir Alla in the Jordan valley. The text found dates to the late eighth century BCE. It presents a story centred on the visions of a seer of the gods, Balaam, son of Beor, who is known to us from Numbers 22-24. The Bible's tale is the well-known story of the prophet and his talking ass. In the Deir Alla inscription, Balaam is a seer of ancient Moab, while the biblical story describes him as a prophet living in Syria, on the Upper Euphrates. Both are figures who speak with the voice of God, which determines the fate and destiny of nations. In the Bible's story, Balaam is a prophet of Yahweh. In the Deir Alla text, he is associated with a god with the name Shgr , as well as with what are called Shadday gods and goddesses -- much like the god El Shadday of Genesis 17:1 and Exodus 6:3 -- and with the goddess Ashtar. The biblical story is presented within the context of the narratives about Israel's wanderings in the wilderness with Moses. The inscription, however, is centuries younger than any period associated with Moses. In spite of these differences, both narratives are obviously stories centred on the same ancient literary figure. What is established by this remarkable parallel is not the existence of an historical Balaam, but an ancient way of telling stories about prophets or holy men who bless and curse nations and their kings. It is precisely the story character of the prophet Balaam that the Deir Alla inscription gives evidence for. The extra-biblical evidence shows that the biblical role of prophets from Balaam to Samuel and from Amos to Jeremiah belongs to a long-established literary tradition of ancient Palestine. Balaam is Palestine's earliest known example of this tale type.     My second example of a biblical narrative confirmed by ancient texts relates to another early Moabite monumental inscription of about the same date or slightly earlier than the Tell Deir Alla text. It has long been claimed that Omri, who in the biblical narrative built the city of Samaria and founded the ruling dynasty of the northern kingdom of Israel, is the earliest king in the Bible whose reign has been confirmed by extra-biblical evidence. In fact, Omri's historicity has been thought doubly strong, as it has been confirmed by inscriptions from both Assyria and Moab. Assyrian records refer to the state of Israel with its capital in Samaria by a dynastic name, Bit Humri (`House of Omri'). We find similar names for small states in other Assyrian inscriptions, such as Bit Illani and Bit Agusi . Omri is also mentioned on the Mesha stele, an inscription found in 1868. The inscription on this monument was thought to have been commissioned by a near contemporary of Omri and his son Ahab: Mesha, the king of Moab. The biblical narrative of II Kings 3: 4-8, which has much in common with this inscription from Transjordan, has been thought to refer to the same political conflicts between Israel and Moab that the inscription does. On the basis of the reference to Omri (and `his son') and the correspondence of the events with the Bible's story, the inscription and the reign of Mesha has been dated by historians to some time between 849 and 820 BCE. The part of this text that clearly describes Omri as king of Israel reads as follows (11. 4-8): As for Omri, king of Israel, he humbled Moab many days, for Chemosh was angry at his land. And his son followed him and he also said, `I will humble Moab.' In my time he spoke (thus) but I have triumphed over him and over his house, while Israel has perished forever! (Now) Omri has occupied the land of Madeba and had dwelt there in his time and half of the time of his son: forty years; but Chemosh dwelt there in my time.     The monument on which this inscription was written was originally erected at a sanctuary. Its purpose was to give honour to Chemosh, the god of Moab. Chemosh is a god much like Yahweh in the Book of Kings. He was angry at Moab and so allowed Omri to conquer it. The contrast drawn between the images of first Omri and then Chemosh `dwelling in Moab', expresses the difference between the land as conquered by Israel and then as once again set free. Together with the motif of Omri's hubris, this literary and highly metaphorical language belongs to the world of story. It is the same kind of language we find in tales in the Bible, where Yahweh controls Israel and Judah's fate and where he sends enemies against them when he is angry.     Rather than an historical text, the inscription, in fact belongs to a substantial literary tradition of stories of kings of the past. We find a similar story (told, autobiographically, in the first person), which dates back at least to the thirteenth century BCE. It is about the king of Alalakh, Idrimi, who in fact had reigned over this city some two centuries earlier. Like Idrimi's tale, the Mesha story is written in the first person and presented in the voice of the king himself. The monument presents us with an epitome of the king's reign: his enemies defeated, his campaigns completed, like Idrimi's, so too Mesha's kingdom is established in peace and prosperity, ready to be handed on to his successor. His work was done. Both inscriptions are tributes to a great king of the past, epitomizing his reign.     The same monumental style of writing introduces us to the birth story of the ancient king of Akkad, Sargon the Great, which lived on to become a standard piece of Neo-Assyrian and Babylonian legend. It offers one of the finest renditions of the stock birth-of-a-saviour episode, found throughout ancient literature, and most famously in the story of King Oedipus and in the Bible's story of Moses' birth in Exodus 2. The inscription on the monument to Sargon begins much like the inscriptions on those to Idrimi and Mesha, as a first-person, epitomizing biography: `I am Sargon, the mighty king, king of Agade ... my mother, the high priestess, conceived me; in secret she bore me. She set me in a basket of rushes; with bitumen, she sealed my lid. She cast me into the river, which rose not over me ...'     By far the most famous of monuments from the ancient Near East which epitomizes a great king of the past by using the common formulae and metaphors of the king as faithful servant of God and using a pseudo-autobiographical first person address is the stele of Hammurapi which created the Hammurapi `Code'. While the original of this monument possibly goes back to Old Babylonian times, it remained a staple of Mesopotamian literature for centuries later.     As with the Hammurapi, Sargon and Idrimi monuments, it is more than style and form that establish the fictive qualities of Mesha's inscription. Literary metaphor also lies behind the use of the name Omri itself. Omri `dwelling in Moab' is not a person doing anything in Transjordan, but an eponym, a literary personification of Israel's political power and presence. It is clear that the reference to Omri in the Mesha stele is literary, not historical. This forces us to look more closely at the Assyrian geographical and political name for Israel: the `House of Omri'. From this early historical name for ancient Israel's ruling house, the Bible's story of one Omri as builder of Samaria and founder of its dynasty might grow. The language of patronage supports the folklore that behind a political name such as Bit Humri lies hidden the founder of the state. Literary elaborations and play on geographic and ethnic names belong to a well-known pattern of story-telling, built on eponymous ancestors. This type of tale is closely associated with genealogies and dynastic lists, and is especially common in both biblical and early Greek stories.     Similarly, the use of family metaphors, as in Omri's `son' and `house', is drawn from the metaphorical language of patronage, the political system dominant throughout the history of ancient Palestine and Syria. The use of rounded numbers, such as thirty and forty years, for reigns, which we find shared both by Idrimi's and the Bible's tales; the motif of a god becoming drunk on the blood of his enemies, known from the Late Bronze Age poems from Ugarit in Syria and from the creation mythology of Egypt. These are all classical tale motifs. The literary nature of the Mesha stele needs to be taken seriously. It is quite doubtful that it refers to an historical person when it refers to Israel's king. `Omri, king of Israel', eponym of the highland patronate, Bit Humri , belongs to the world of stories. In a description of a battle against Israel for the town of Nebo, the Mesha stele presents the enemy as dedicated to total destruction as a sacred offering to the God Chemosh in a manner that is very familiar to us from the books of Joshua and I Samuel: `... slaying all, seven thousand men, boys and women, for I had devoted them for destruction for Ashtar-Chemosh'.     Finally, in the biblical variant of the Moabite story in II Kings 3: 4-8, the two kings of Israel that are involved are not Omri and his son (namely Ahab), but rather Ahab and his son Jehoram. The motif of a king of Israel and his son attacking Moab remains constant; only the names of the characters vary. This is a pattern of variation that occurs often in stories, but in history only by mistake. It would be an error to pit the Bible against the Mesha stele in a contest of historicity. It is also wrong to date the stele by using the biblical tradition as if it were an account of an event. Nor do the roles the characters play in either version of the story allow us to understand the narratives as reflecting historical events or persons. The similarity of the Mesha narrative to the posthumous tale of Idrimi forces us to see the inscription as a monument celebrating Mesha's completed reign, and to date it somewhat later or at the very close of this historical king's reign. What we have in the Mesha stele is an early variant of the same tale that we find in the Bible. As with the Balaam story of Numbers, the Mesha inscription gives us evidence that the Bible collects and re-uses very old tales from Palestine's past.     Even evidence from extra-biblical texts which proves that some of the biblical narratives do derive from very early sources does not confirm the historicity of these stories. Quite the contrary, it confirms the Bible's own presentation of them as fictive tales of the past. In a similar way, the discovery of very close variants of passages of Leviticus used in early Palestinian tephilim dating to the seventh century BCE gives no evidence for the historicity of the story of Moses in the wilderness. The wilderness story offers us the Bible's aetiology, a story fictively establishing the foundation of this ancient ritual tradition of wearing sacred texts on one's person. Just so, the story of Exodus 12:14-20 presents an origin story for the feast of Passover. What the archaeological evidence does confirm is the antiquity of the use of tephilim in Palestine, as well as the function of biblical narrative as both a collection and an interpretation of past traditions.     The theme of `exile', which dominates so much of the Bible's narrative, needs a discussion of its own, and must wait for another chapter. Extrabiblical evidence for the exile of Israel and Judah by the Assyrian and Babylonian armies is overwhelming. Even the Mesha stele, which we have just discussed, reflecting the military ambitions of what was but a very small state, refers to this ancient war crime of forced population transference. With the example of the exile, we are confronted with how ancient Near Eastern texts mark the Bible's stories as part of a world of story and interpretation. While it is a hard-won principle of biblical archaeology that the historicity of ancient biblical narratives about old Israel cannot be affirmed unless we have extra-biblical evidence, it is just as important to be aware that even when we do have such extra-biblical confirmation, it is more likely to confirm the Bible's literary and metaphorical tropes than to establish it as historical record-keeping.     Of course, the existence of kings such as Ahab and Jehu in history has long been confirmed. Assyrian records leave us in no doubt. The biblical stories must be understood as using the names of historical kings of Israel. These extra-biblical confirmations also support the approximate dates the Bible gives for these kings, within a modest range of error. Nevertheless, we cannot conclude that the Bible's use of such real names of kings of the past was based on hypothetical but otherwise unknown dynastic lists, which might give us the hope of using the other, unconfirmed names as if they were historical. Our historical knowledge comes, rather, not from the Bible's references but, independently, from their occurrence in Assyrian texts. The evidence suggests that the Bible, like Shakespeare, often invokes fictional kings in confecting its stories. This is the very nature of literature. Though I reside within the community of Elsinore in Denmark, and can see Hamlet's castle every time I go to the seashore, I cannot hope to find in the patterns of Shakespeare's poetry any evidence that this storied king might have been historical. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Thomas L. Thompson. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Preface the Academic Debatep. xi
Recommended Readingp. xvii
Part 1 How Stories Talk About the Pastp. 1
Introduction to Part Onep. 3
Chapter 1 History and Origins: the Changing Pastp. 8
Chapter 2 Confusing Stories with Historical Evidencep. 34
Chapter 3 How the Bible Talks About the Pastp. 62
Chapter 4 Myths of Originsp. 82
Part 2 How Historians Create a Pastp. 101
Introduction to Part Twop. 103
Chapter 5 Beginningsp. 105
Chapter 6 A Mediterranean Economyp. 130
Chapter 7 Palestine's Many Peoplesp. 155
Chapter 8 Under the Shadow of Empiresp. 179
Chapter 9 Historians Create Historyp. 200
Part 3 The Bible's Place in Historyp. 227
Introduction to Part Threep. 228
Chapter 10 The Bible's Social and Historical Worldsp. 234
Chapter 11 The Bible's Literary Worldp. 267
Chapter 12 The Bible's Theological World I: How God Beganp. 293
Chapter 13 The Bible's Theological World Ii: the Myths of the Sons of Godp. 323
Chapter 14 The Bible's Theological World Iii: Israel as God's Sonp. 353
Chapter 15 The Bible's Intellectual Worldp. 375
Index of Texts Citedp. 408