Friday, January 16, 2009

The Bible & Real History

In a continuation of a rant started like twenty posts ago on being a hack historian, I'd like to bring up one my favourite sticking points in Middle Eastern archaeology. The Bible.
In Egyptian History class in college, the professor brought up an interesting point that I'd never considered seriously before. He said that the Bible, and here I'm referring to the Old Testament, is really the only historical document that we have from the ancient world wherein a people documents their history from their own point of view. It gives us an insight into the mentality of an ancient tribe far removed from ourselves. It also gives us the point of view of members of a fairly unstable ancient society, which was, in its early history, constantly getting in petty squabbles with its neighbours, sometimes ending in genocide, and getting fairly regularly WTFPWNT and occupied by the more cosmopolitan empires surrounding it.
Usually, ancient texts are esoterically religious (which this one is as well in bits), diplomatic calls of the super-elite, shopping lists of the middle class, or pure propaganda.
Rameses II announces in stone his victory in the battle of Qadesh, while his rival Muwatalli, leader of the Hittites, who actually won the battle, does the same. Rameses' "victory", it turns out is code for "We avoided Total Destruction in Syria."
Anyway, as valuable a document of the minds of the Ancient Hebrews as the Bible is, it's not a "history." It's a combination of myths and legends.
Sometimes, the rough outline of these events turn out to be true. There really was a King Nebuchadnezzar, for example. His regime left us plenty of clay tablets with his name on them. The Biblical city of On probably corresponds to the Egyptian city of Iwnw, and there probably was a Land of Goshen in Egypt. A stelae from the reign of Merenptah, son of Rameses II, mentions a Land of Ysrw(?), which we can relate to Israel.
And you know what? Paul Bunyan was probably a real lumberjack at one point. He probably won a medal at the State Fair for log rolling and a hundred years later, he has a blue ox named "Babe."
Snark aside, my point is that many historians assume that the events in the Bible really happened, and try to work history around it, instead of going from evidence and fitting the Bible in if tangible evidence for it is found. I feel that "Biblical Archaeology" is a logical fallacy. It's not at all scientific, and I think there needs to be more scientific method in archaeology. Saying you're going to dig for the Jerusalem of King David and then trying to prove that any burnt up ruins you find are the remains of King David's city is starting on the assumption that your hypothesis is true and fudging up your calculations to "prove it." It shouldn't fly, but it seems to get a unanimous pass from the public and other middle eastern archaeologists.
How many documentaries have I watched and papers have I read where someone's theorizing that Pharaoh X was the Pharaoh of Exodus? I'm talking TV Heads and serious scholars here, and no one seems to be able to grab the big logical booboo here!
Waiiiiit--there's no evidence that there actually was an Exodus, so how can we find the Pharaoh of Exodus?
A GREAT, although somewhat lowbrow example of this is the Wikipedia Article on the "Land of Goshen", where Joseph is depicted as a historical figure and history is built up around him. (He was buried in Avaris during the 12th Dynasty, for example) There is no evidence that there ever was a man named Joseph nor that his brothers backstabbed him, nor that he had a pretty coat.
Here's the deal on the people of Canaan in Egypt. I'm not even going to say Hebrews, because to my knowledge, there's no indication that all of these people identified themselves with one group. At the end of the 17th Dynasty, Ahmose and his brother/uncle Khamose kicked the Hyksos (which is derived from a generic Egyptian term for "Fucking Foreigners") out of Egypt. (We still don't know who exactly the Hyksos were, except that they brought things like horses and chariots into Egypt.) The capitol of the Hyksos was Avaris, which is near the supposed "Land o Goshen." The period in which Egypt was overrun by these foreigners, who didn't invade all at once, but gradually migrated into Egypt and then styled themselves as Pharaohs ruling over Northern Egypt was called the Second Intermediate Period. Ahmose and Khamose came from Thebes in the south, and in a twisty maze of succession, their scion took over and founded the 18th Dynasty. Over the next hundred and fifty years Amenhetep I, Thutmose I, and Thutmose III stormed the Middle East, conquering everything from Sudan to the Euphrates in modern day Iraq. The chaos these guys caused while sacking the city of Megiddo is reflected in the term Armageddon.
Modern day Israel was, for the next few generations, ruled by Egyptian-supported toadies who sent their children to be brought up with pharaoh's children, both to make them like Egypt, and to ensure the good behaviour of their parents.
Around 1350 BC, the area erupted in infighting between local warlords, and unfortunately, the current Pharaoh didn't really care to come break up the fight. This king was Akhenaten, who banned the worship of the traditional Egyptian pantheon in favour of a single ancient and until now symbolic god called The Aten. Some choose to see in Akhenaten's short-lived religious reform inspiration for the monotheistic religion of the Hebrews, but this is speculation. It does seem however, that Akhenaten's Hymn to the Aten is echoed by psalm 104.
During this period, Egypt was actually a very diverse society, with Nubians and people of Canaanite stock in high posts and within the echelons of the aristocracy. This is underscored by Egyptian renderings in tombs of some very semitic names--Aperia the Vizier under Akhenaten's father is a rendering of Aper-El. El was a Canaanite deity. As in El Shaddai. During this period, we get mention of a people called the Habiru, which may or may not be the Equivalent of Hebrew, we just don't know.
Anyway, Egypt's eastern empire fell apart while Akhenaten was busy playing God, and his successors, Ankheperure and Tutankhamun found themselves inheriting a situation similar to what Obama has inherited from George W. (Although I picture Akhenaten as being a lot smarter than Dubya. Maybe a bit spacy and detached.) They patched things up the best they could, but Egypt didn't get their empire back until about twenty years later when the general Seti I took the kingship from his elderly father, Rameses I. Seti and his son Rameses II re-exerted Egypt's influence over the middle east, but Egypt would never have as much influence as it did during the 18th dynasty. The point here is that the Jews fleeing from Egypt to Palestine during this period would have been like fleeing the Chinese by going to Tibet. Palestine was spoken for during this time, and just about everyone there was paying tribute to Egypt.
A hundred years after Rameses II becomes king, we have the first mention of a people referring to themselves as the People of Israel, so a lot of people assume that the Exodus was under Rameses or Merenptah, his son. This scant evidence is ALL WE HAVE, though. There is no evidence for an Exodus during this time, no evidence that the Hebrews were slaves--in fact, several people of semitic ancestry were involved in high society at the time!
Anyway, I hope that this diatribe has helped to illuminate just how patchy the Bible can be as a historical record. Like Homer, it tends to get things like people and places, and maybe even vague outlines of events correct. We have to remember, though, that often the people writing this document were nowhere near where this history was happening either spatially or temporally. There were no telephones for breaking news--it's his cousin's friend's friend's friend's girlfriend's mom's acquaintance told me that some sea captain told her that there was this guy named Joseph once upon a time...
Yes, the writers took it seriously, but it is a work of mythology and its value lies in what it can tell us about the way an ancient people viewed the world around them, not in what it can tell us about the reality of that world.

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