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Digital Dead Sea Scrolls Reveal New Biblical Insights

David Malamud  •  07/26/2016

Four and a half years of scans and reinterpretation of newly legible parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed intriguing insights into 2,000-year-old Biblical texts, including the idea that the roof of Noah’s Ark was pointed, reports Haaretz.

Digital Dead Sea Scrolls: The badly damaged textual fragment describing the apocalyptic struggle of Melchizedeck was barely legible before scanning (top), but once digitized, the faded ink becomes clearer (bottom). Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Israel Antiquities Authority created a laboratory, equipped with a custom camera, to scan tens of thousands of Dead Sea Scroll fragments and complete the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library project. Researchers photographed each fragment 28 times in high resolution, employing different wavelengths of light. This technique allowed erased or burned fragments to be readable. The historical dictionary department of the Academy of the Hebrew Language read and reinterpreted these texts and presented their findings at a Dead Sea Scroll conference held at the academy.

In a passage describing Noah’s ark, the once-illegible word following “the ark’s tallness” can now be read as ne’esefet, or “gathered,” and describes the ark’s pointed roof, according to researcher Dr. Alexey Yuditsky. Yuditsky cited other sources as evidence, including a similar Greek verb in the Septuagint (the earliest ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Maimonides, the famous medieval Jewish commentator, also suggested the ark had a pointed roof, a claim now supported by the team’s discovery.

Interested in the history and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In the free eBook , learn what the Dead Sea Scrolls are and why are they important. Find out what they tell us about the Bible, Christianity and Judaism.

Yuditsky and fellow researcher Dr. Esther Haber deciphered an apocalyptic text that depicts a mythical hero, Melchizedek, triumphing over an enemy, Belial, by freeing “captives.” Researcher Chanan Ariel argues that these captives were forgiven of their sins because of the sabbatical—or shmita—year, thus suggesting that monetary debt could replace sin. This view is similar to the medieval Catholic Church and its use of pardons—and antithetical to Judaism—but the researchers do not know if the practice as recorded on the scroll was the inspiration for the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, after centuries of debate, the researchers discovered what the ptil was that Judah gave to his daughter-in-law Tamar, who was disguised as a prostitute, to guarantee his payment (Genesis 38). Two fragments, once reunited, explained that the “ptil is his belt.”

Exciting new interpretations may continue to be released as the researchers work to scan and interpret the last 20 percent of the scrolls. Who knows what the laboratory and academy will shed light on next?
David Malamud is an intern at the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Alexander in the East




Alexander the Great never reached his goal of conquering all the inhabited earth. This was simply beyond his army’s endurance. But he did get as far east as ancient Bactria, in modern Afghanistan. More than two thousand years later, archaeologists have begun to recover evidence of Greek settlers Alexander left behind at a village called Ai Khanoum. Unfortunately, much of what remains in this remote area of war-torn Afghanistan is being looted from the site and plundered from museums. The tale is nonetheless heroic, even if it ends in tragedy.

History, it is said, is a huge mirror, a reflection of who we were and are. If so, archaeology is the painstaking recovery of pieces of that fragile looking glass, and the life of Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) represents but a tiny sherd of that mirror.1

Archaeologists have turned up Alexander’s traces in Egyptian temples, Apulian vases, Etruscan reliefs, Pompeian mosaics, Gandharan sculptures and medieval medallions—as well as in a village in Afghanistan. Perhaps someday they will “unearth” his image from the remains of the opulent Alexander Suite in Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City.

Over and over, succeeding generations of Greek heroes, Roman imperialists, saintly medieval kings and modern totalitarian dictators have recognized reflections of their own glory in Alexander’s grand, panoramic career.2


The Alexander I see was neither a ruthless monster nor a poster-boy for world peace and brotherhood.3 He was cultured and charismatic but also cunning and cruel. He grew up in a dangerous world of war and intrigue that gave no quarter to real or imagined weakness. His native Macedonia in northern Greece embraced the old warrior code of Homer’s Iliadand Odyssey: No challenge went unanswered, no insult passed unpunished. Men fought hard, hunted recklessly and drank epically—monarchs most of all.

Macedonian kings did not order their armies into battle; they led them. Alexander, like his father Philip II, bore the conspicuous scars of brutal combat as badges of leadership. A mutilated eye, arm, collarbone and leg distinguished Philip among friends and foes. Alexander endured wounds to the head, neck, shoulder, chest, thigh, leg and ankle. Never safe, the threat of assassination also haunted these restless heads of state. Alexander witnessed the murder of his father during a royal procession in 336 B.C.; in later years, his mother, two wives and son would also be killed. Every one of Alexander’s relatives died at the hands of assassins.4

Although bred for battle, Alexander nonetheless received the finest education possible under the tutelage of the philosopher Aristotle. The young heir-apparent proved himself a devoted student of Greek culture, and as king he was a lavish patron of the arts. He built or refurbished many shrines and temples, founded cities (usually named Alexandria) and vied to outdo the deeds of his avowed ancestors, both mortal and divine: Zeus, Herakles, Achilles.

That Alexander set out to conquer Greece’s traditional enemy, the Persian Achaemenid Empire,a should come as no surprise. The conquest of Persia had been his father’s unfulfilled dream, and the promise of gold and glory fired the ambitious young king’s imagination. But the magnitude of Alexander’s successes—the swiftness and decisiveness of his victories—remains shocking even after 23 centuries.

Backed by a shaky coalition of Greek city-states, Alexander led an army of 37,000 troops against Persia in the spring of 334 B.C. He soon rocked the cradle of civilization with astonishing victories: the Battle of Granicus in 334, the Battle of Issus in 333, the Siege of Tyre in 332 and the Battle of Gaugamela in 331. In just four years, Alexander overran and occupied the rich territories of the modern Middle East, including Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. The Persian “King of Kings,” Darius III, lay dead, his palaces plundered and his armies—which had always outnumbered Alexander’s—scattered. At the age of 26, Alexander had become the mightiest, wealthiest and most celebrated conqueror of all time.5

But he did not stop there. Although his army was anxious to return home to Greece, Alexander decided to push ever eastward toward the fringes of the then-known world. How he drove his men through the hardships to come remains a mystery of military science.

For the next three years (329–327 B.C.), Alexander’s forces struggled desperately to win control of Bactria, the harsh, inhospitable region of modern Afghanistan.6 At times, weather seemed the Greeks’ worst enemy. A lack of provisions and waist-deep snows in the Hindu Kush mountains compelled the men to eat their baggage animals raw; howling blizzards in the Pamir Mountains actually froze many Greeks where they stood or slept. In summer the burning plains of Bactria claimed more lives than any battle fought by these long-suffering troops. Dehydration and brackish water debilitated everyone, including Alexander.

Superstock, Inc. The idealized image of Alexander is captured in this Roman marble bust (compare with photo of mosaic from Pompeii’s House of the Faun).

All the while, the local peoples put up fierce resistance. First led by Bessus, a kinsman of the dead King Darius, and later more ably by one of Bessus’s generals named Spitamenes, the native populations engaged the Greeks in a new style of warfare—the hit-and-run guerrilla combat that still works so well in Afghanistan. In 328 B.C., while Greeks back home gathered to celebrate the 113th Olympic Games, Alexander’s army competed in a much grimmer contest 3,000 miles away. They stormed mountain fortresses and chased mobile insurgents all over the region. The Greek soldiers faced stern opposition, with enemies coming at them from all sides; it was like trying to put out a forest fire that kept breaking out in different areas. In an essay on Alexander, the Greek historian Plutarch (c. 46–120 A.D.) chooses a different metaphor:

But if the spirit of Alexander had not been great, had not drawn strength from virtue, had not defied Fortune, then would he not have wearied and given up marshalling and arming his troops, besieging cities, chasing down subjects in numerous revolts, desertions, and riots, pursuing faithless kings to Bactra, Maracanda, and Sogdiana as if he were cutting off the heads of the Hydra which always grew back in renewed wars.7

Under the strain, some of Alexander’s men became mutinous and the king himself cracked: He murdered a Macedonian general named Cleitus the Black—who had once saved his life in battle—simply for insulting him at a dinner party.8

To retain control of the region, Alexander settled his men in military colonies at strategic points in Bactria. These soldiers lamented their orders, which required them to spend their careers living so far from the sun-splashed beaches and balmy climate back home in Greece. In 327 B.C. Alexander finally enjoyed a change of fortune. Spitamenes’s own exhausted troops (or his unhappy wife, as one source reports) betrayed him and delivered his head to the Greek camp.9 Seizing the moment, Alexander married the daughter of a captured Bactrian leader, Oxyartes, to win favor among the disheartened locals. His young bride, Roxanne, may seem a romantic figure, but she was a mere pawn queened by her father and husband in a move toward peace in central Asia. Leaving behind 13,500 reluctant soldier-settlers to garrison Bactria, Alexander headed east once again.

Photograph by Sharon Suchma, courtesy of the American Numismatic Society The ancient Greek silver decadrachm shown here was minted in 323 B.C. (possibly in Babylon) and depicts a mounted Alexander charging an Indian war elephant (compare with photo of medieval miniature). During the Battle of the Hydaspes River, many of the wildly trumpeting elephants panicked, trampling Porus’s foot soldiers, while Macedonian archers picked off his cavalrymen. The Indian rajah’s defeat was devastating; his casualties have been variously estimated at 12,000 to 23,000 men. Yet Alexander saluted his foe’s bravery by magnanimously permitting Porus to continue to rule—under Greek control, of course.

In 326 B.C., Alexander’s troops encountered yet another hostile world in northwest India. The monsoons swamped the invading army and made the five great rivers of the Punjab nearly impassable. On the far side of one of these raging torrents, the Hydaspes River, the forces of a defiant rajah named Porus lay in wait. His elephant corps, the panzers of the ancient past, complicated Alexander’s task immensely but did not stop the Greeks. Alexander outmaneuvered the Indians, ferried his main army across the river under cover of rain and darkness, and overwhelmed Porus with a surprise dawn attack. After a harrowing fight punctuated by the screams of trampled men and trumpeting elephants, the Indian forces collapsed and Porus was captured.

Unexpectedly, Alexander rewarded the rajah’s bravery by restoring his throne, a rare outcome indeed for an ancient battle. Many historians consider the Battle of the Hydaspes to be Alexander’s greatest victory and compare it to the Norman invasion of Britain or (conversely) the Allied landing at Normandy.10 It turned out to be the last major battle of Alexander’s career. Soon thereafter his weary Greeks begged to turn back. Alexander’s personal goal, reaching the end of the inhabited earth, obviously lay far to the east across the Indian subcontinent, well beyond the limits of his army’s endurance. Grudgingly, the 30-year-old king settled on a less grandiose plan: He would build a fleet and subdue the Indus Valley as far south as the Indian Ocean, then divide his forces and return by land and sea to Babylon.

Still leading by fearless example, Alexander suffered grievously during these last campaigns. Attacking the town of Multan in India, he was the first man over the wall and sustained a life-threatening arrow wound to the chest. Afterward, on his arduous trek westward across the bleak Gedrosian Desert, the king refused water in order to share the suffering of his men. This march cost many lives and left a rare stain on his exemplary record of logistical planning.11



Undaunted by torrential monsoon rains, Alexander crossed the Hydaspes River in 326 B.C. to take on the elephant-mounted troops of the Indian rajah Porus—a scene captured in the medieval miniature shown here (compare with photo of Greek silver decadrachm). Alexander displayed his tactical genius during the battle, confusing Porus with feints and mounting an attack on the Indian army’s flanks.

Some modern scholars insist that these hardships drove Alexander to despair, even dementia.12 He put to death some of the high-ranking officials in his imperial government, ordered the Greeks to worship him as a god, mourned excessively the death of his dearest friend, Hephaestion, compelled many of his generals to marry Persian noblewomen and dreamed of improbable conquests across Africa, Asia and Europe. Although his body was battered by war, his mind raced ahead to envision a supranational world under his divine power. Then, swiftly and unexpectedly, Alexander sickened and died in Babylon, probably the victim of either typhus or malaria.13 He was only 32 years old. According to tradition, his final prophetic words were, “I foresee a great funeral contest over me.”

Alexander had single-mindedly carved out an empire ranging from the Adriatic Sea to the borders of India. His ambitious generals gradually killed off all the conqueror’s kinfolk, including Roxanne and her royal son Alexander IV, so that the empire could be whittled into new dynastic kingdoms: Antigonid Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, Ptolemaic Egypt, Attalid Pergamum, Diodotid Bactria and others. Alexander’s remarkable conquests and untimely death gave birth to a new epoch, called the Hellenistic Age (323–30 B.C.); its civilization has generally been considered more like ours than any other in history. We can see in that ancient world similar patterns of imperialism and colonialism, and a comparable array of social and ethnic tensions. Then, as now, economies boomed, scientific discoveries dazzled the public, cults and astrology flourished, and people sought personal liberation. According to one modern scholar, the Hellenistic Age confronts us with “an overpowering sense of déjàvu.”14

Phototgraph by Sharon Suchma, courtesy of the American Numismatic Society East meets West on the two sides of the silver tetradrachm shown here, minted in the Bactrian city of Panjhir around 145 B.C. The obverse is inscribed with Greek writing and a helmeted bust of Menander, a Hellenistic Bactrian king who converted to Buddhism in the mid-second century B.C. The coin’s reverse is written in the local Kharosthi script—which uses an alphabet derived from Aramaic—and depicts Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, hurling a thunderbolt.

There is, however, one notable blind spot in this mirror of history. We can see with some clarity the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions of Alexander’s old empire, but the eastern edge has long eluded us.15 Ancient texts tell us simply that Alexander’s legacy in Bactria and India was a troubled one. After Alexander’s death, the unhappy Greeks who had settled in Bactria tried to pack up and leave their posts, but they were compelled to stay under penalty of death by Alexander’s generals, among them Seleucus, the founder of the Seleucid dynasty. In 318 B.C., further east, Greek settlers assassinated Porus (the rajah whom Alexander had conquered and then returned to power), leaving Seleucus little choice but to trade India back to the natives for 500 war elephants. The literary sources tell us little more; they provide only a fantastic image of Greek merchants and mercenaries adrift in central and south Asia—a land beyond history where fierce griffins flew, strange rivers oozed oil and honey, native peoples ate their aging parents, and giant ants heaped up mounds of gold. Ancient geographers and poets wrote of a thousand lost cities in this neverland of monsters and missing Greeks. In the 13th century A.D., Marco Polo sought the lost cities in vain; Chaucer imagined one of their kings, Emetrius, as a man who rode a splendid steed “like Mars,” attended by an entourage of lords, lions and leopards.
When Englishmen arrived in the 19th century to play out the infamous “Great Game” between Czarist Russia and British India, they found the hoary ghosts of Alexander and his army everywhere in Afghanistan. Tribesmen in remote valleys claimed to be the direct descendants of the ancient Greeks; even the ancestors of their horses, it was said, had been sired by Alexander’s famous steed, Bucephalus. Lakes and towns bore many variations of the ubiquitous name Iskendar (Alexander), as did such leaders as Sha Sikander Khan. These tireless legends even trickled into Rudyard Kipling’s tale “The Man Who Would Be King.” Not long ago, a Tadjik native told me about an amateur archaeologist who took a skull he had found to a local museum. “Alexander’s,” the man proudly informed the curator. Pleased by the museum’s eagerness to display his find, the man quickly returned with a smaller skull. “Alexander’s, too,” he reported, “only a little younger!”

Alexander himself will never be found in Afghanistan (the king’s mummy, with one head only, was actually entombed in Alexandria, Egypt). But what of his lost colonists in the Alexandrias of central Asia? What became of the Greeks forced to build a new life in that far-off land?

Superstock, Inc. The towering mountains of the Hindu Kush overlook the Bamiyan valley of Afghanistan, where Taliban soldiers recently reduced most of the famed Buddhas of Bamiyan to rubble (see John C. Huntington, “The Buddhas of Bamiyan”). Alexander’s troops faced punishing weather and terrain as they made their way through narrow mountain passes. (Alexander’s tutor, Aristotle, had conjectured that the ends of the earth should be visible from the peaks of the Hindu Kush.) Alexander moved on, conquering Bactria and sweeping into the Punjab, finally reaching the Indian Ocean near the modern city of Karachi, Pakistan. The Greek conqueror then returned westward through Persia and Mesopotamia, where he died suddenly in Babylon in 323 B.C.

The scientific search for them began in earnest with the foundation of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) in 1922. Alfred Foucher, a French expert on the Greco-Buddhist art found in Gandhara, guided this mission in the belief that Alexander’s colonies in Bactria were the obvious missing link in the evolution of Greek-style art in ancient India (See Rekha Morris, “Imagining Buddha”). Hellenistic cities must have survived in central Asia long after Alexander was gone, but where were they? Foucher excavated in vain. No traces of Greek cities or monumental art turned up anywhere in Afghanistan, forcing the exhausted archaeologist to declare 20 years later that he had been chasing a “mirage.”16 Others continued the search until finally, in 1961, the mirage lifted and revealed a significant piece of the mirror of history near a village named Ai Khanoum.

On a royal hunt in a remote corner of his realm, King Muhammad Zahir Shah of Afghanistan spotted a strange outline in the dry soil between two rivers. Looking down from a hillside at this confluence of the Amu Darya (ancient Oxus) and Kochba rivers, the king could see traces of a well-planned ancient city: A wall and defensive ditch stretched from the hill to the Oxus, broken only by a gateway leading to the main street inside the settlement. The shapes of many large buildings bulged underneath the thin carpet of dirt, and at least one Corinthian column rose up like a signpost of Hellenistic civilization. Here, at last, was Alexander’s elusive legacy in the East.

In 1965, the DAFA commenced full-scale work at Ai Khanoum that continued until the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During those years, under the very fortunate direction of French archaeologist Paul Bernard, archaeologists wrested the remarkable story of Hellenistic Bactria from the ruins of Ai Khanoum.17

The Greek founder of this colony, which may have been called Alexandria Oxiana,b was a man named Kineas, whose fourth-century B.C. shrine and tomb stood in the heart of the city. Kineas may have been one of Alexander’s soldiers, sent to settle this strategic fortress on the frontiers of Bactria. There are indications of an attack on the site soon after Alexander’s demise, perhaps part of the disturbances that took place when Greek settlers attempted to abandon Bactria. Fifty years later, under the aegis of the Seleucid dynasty, a major building phase began. True to Greek cultural traditions, the later citizens of the city enjoyed a large theater, a gymnasium with a pool, and quantities of olive oil and wine. Papyrus for writing was transported from Egypt.

The Archaeology of Afghanistan Inscribed at the base of the funerary monument of Kineas, the founder of the city of Ai Khanoum, are five Delphic maxims (shown here, compare with photo of confluence of the Oxus and Kochba Rivers)—exhortations to follow certain ethical behaviors at each of life’s stages. A high premium was placed on preserving such Greek values in imperial backwaters like Ai Khanoum. The philosopher Clearchus made a special trip to Delphi to make a transcript of the maxims and carried them all the way back to Ai Khanoum to inspire the city’s inhabitants.

These ancient Greeks built large, luxurious private homes and a great sprawling palace. Their Greek names and political titles appear on tombstones and government records. To preserve Greek values in this alien land, an Aristotelian philosopher copied the Delphic Maxims in Greece and carried them all the way to Bactria. An inscription found at Ai Khanoum explained to the colonists that these maxims were the wise counsel of earlier Greeks as codified by priests at the sacred site of Delphi. Their closing lines convey the idea of this Hellenic creed “blazing from afar”:

As a youth, be self-controlled.
As an adult, be just.
As an elder, be wise,
As one dying, be without regrets.18

Ancient Ai Khanoum must also have been visited by numerous itinerant merchants and nomads, from both East and West. Archaeologists have found a few ostraca (texts inscribed on potsherds) in Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew that the Persians used for administrative purposes. (Aramaic also influenced the development of contemporary Indian scripts, such as Kharoshthi.)

What of the Bactrians themselves, the natives who fought Alexander and outnumbered the Greek immigrants? Are they reflected in the mirror of history as equal partners at Ai Khanoum or as an exploited underclass? The archaeological record reflects a picture that is disturbingly similar to the ghettos and barrios of our own cities. The Bactrians (ancestors of today’s Tadjik peoples) huddled in single-room houses—well away from the guarded mansions and public buildings of the Greek ruling class. Some Bactrian names appear in lists of the city’s officials, but only in the very lowest ranks and always under Greek supervisors.

Coins minted at Ai Khanoum and other Bactrian sites give us the first real evidence of cultural integration. On these coins, the Greeks introduced images of native deities and even inscriptions in local languages. Square coins, like those favored in India, were also minted. The more valuable the coin, the more purely Greek it tended to be, and some of this money was precious indeed. The largest gold and silver coins ever minted in the ancient world came from the Greek kings of Hellenistic Bactria.

The Bactrian kings condensed as much information as they could onto these portable billboards: royal names, titles, portraits, regalia, religious patronage, dynastic connections and military victories. Their coin inscriptions reveal that new dynasties continued to arise in Bactria. In about 250 B.C., the region rebelled against the Seleucids and established itself as an independent Greek kingdom under Diodotus I and II, an ambitious father and son who fell in turn to Euthydemus I and his family. This next dynasty flourished and carried Greek power back into India, retracing and then surpassing Alexander’s original conquests. One Euthydemid king, Agathocles, honored Alexander’s memory with a special coin. In the second century B.C., the usurper Eucratides—the first Greek king to call himself “the Great”—defeated the Euthydemids, but was then assassinated by his own son around 150 B.C.

All of this in-fighting weakened Hellenistic Bactria. As a result, 200 years after the reign of Alexander, the Greek settlements along the Oxus River were overwhelmed by nomadic invaders from the north.19 The settlement at Ai Khanoum was among the first to be abandoned, its inhabitants fleeing into the mountains or moving south into India.

Paul Bernard Archaeological excavations (the outlines of the ancient city near the confluence of the Oxus and Kochba Rivers can be seen in this photograph, compare with photo of Kineas funerary monument inscription) have revealed that Ai Khanoum’s colonists also took these maxims seriously and built institutions—a large theater, palace library and gymnasium—that fostered traditional Greek mores.

Lost for 2,000 years, these Hellenistic settlements are vanishing once again—this time, forever.20 In war-ravaged Afghanistan, the tangible traces of Alexander’s legacy are being systematically destroyed. Ai Khanoum lies looted, its buildings cratered into a lunar landscape by clandestine digging, its treasures trucked away for sale. Artifacts excavated by the DAFA and “safely” stored in the National Museum at Kabul have also been plundered; some of these antiquities are now being publicly auctioned on the World Wide Web to collectors in Europe and America.21 So once again the fragile mirror of history has been shattered; its sherds swept up by the greedy among us. We may at least be grateful to archaeology for providing us with a fleeting glimpse of a tumultuous era hauntingly similar to our own.

I dedicate this article to the unsung heroes of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage.

Frank Holt, a professor of history at the University of Houston

Where Did the Philistines Come From?



Where Did the Philistines Come From?

The excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, the site of Gath of the Philistines mentioned in the Bible (e.g., 1 Samuel 6:17), have produced many fascinating finds,* and the summer of 2011 was no exception.

While uncovering an impressive destruction level dating to the second half of the ninth century B.C.E., when Gath was the largest of the five cities of the Philistines and perhaps the largest city in the Land of Israel during the Iron Age, excavators found an exceptionally well preserved horned altar reminiscent of the Israelite horned altars described in the Bible (Exodus 27:1–2; 1 Kings 1:50).

Had it not been for a stroke of luck, the horned altar may never have been discovered. Like most archaeological digs, the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavation leaves unexcavated “balks” between the excavation squares, thereby allowing easier access to the squares as well as providing a profile view of the excavated layers. In the winter of 2010/2011, however, strong rainstorms caused some of the balks to collapse.

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When the team came back to the field in July 2011, one of their first priorities was to clean up and straighten the collapsed balks. As they cleaned one of the balks in Area D (in the lower city), they came upon an unusually shaped stone object just 10 inches below the surface. Work was immediately stopped as they probed further, and, lo and behold, one of the horns of the altar appeared. Once they realized what they had discovered, the team began the slow, delicate process of excavating the entire horned altar.

The horned altar stands nearly 3.5 feet high and measures just over 1.5 feet on each side. These dimensions more or less match the dimensions given in the Bible (Exodus 30:2) for the Israelite incense altar of the Tabernacle (though this altar shows no signs of having been used to burn incense). Moreover, the decorative features of the altar, including its horns and the groove and raised band of the base, are similar to Israelite altars described in the Bible (Exodus 27:2), as well as other Iron Age altars that have been found throughout the southern Levant.

But why does this altar have only two horns, when we know from the Bible and excavated examples that the altars of both the Israelites and, later, the Philistines, typically had four horns?**

The fact that the Tell es-Safi/Gath horned altar has only two horns may have to do with the cultural origins of the Philistines. As Louise Hitchcock, senior staff member of the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavations, has suggested, the very motif of the horned altar in the Levant may have been influenced by earlier Minoan “horns of consecration,” symbolic representations of the horns of the sacred bull in Minoan culture. In fact, there is an altar from the Late Bronze Age site of Myrtous Pigadhes in Cyprus that also has only two horns. The unique horned altar from Tell es-Safi/Gath, the earliest stone altar ever found from the land of the Philistines, may be another indication of the Aegean influences on early Philistine culture and quite possibly a hint to their origins.

——————Based on Aren M. Maeir, “Prize Find: Horned Altar from Tell es-Safi Hints at the Origins of the Philistines,”Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2012. Originally published in Bible History Daily on January 19, 2012.

First-Ever Philistine Cemetery Unearthed at Ashkelon

Discovery brings us face to face with the Israelites’ archenemy


The first and only Philistine cemetery ever discovered has been found outside the walls of ancient Ashkelon. As one of the major Philistine city-states during the Iron Age, Ashkelon was a significant Mediterranean port and boasted a thriving marketplace. Excavations at Ashkelon have revealed many details about how the Philistines lived: the kind of houses they built; the food they ate; the plates, bowls, cups, pots and jars they made; the tools and weapons they used; the jewelry they wore; the imports they bought; the way they made clothes; and much more.Now Ashkelon has yielded the Philistines themselves.

Directed by Lawrence E. Stager, Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel, Emeritus, at Harvard University, and Daniel M. Master, Professor of Archaeology at Wheaton College, the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon discovered the Iron Age cemetery in 2013 and began excavating it extensively in 2014. Three seasons of significant investigation have revealed previously unknown details of the Philistines in death—and life. First of all, the cemetery provides a window into Philistine burial practices.

“Ninety-nine percent of the chapters and articles written about Philistine burial customs should be revised or ignored now that we have the first and only Philistine cemetery found just outside the city walls of Tel Ashkelon, one of the five primary cities of the Philistines,” said Lawrence E. Stager.

Various theories have been proposed about Philistine burial practices: Some thought that the Philistines were burned at death, like Patroclus and other figures in Homer’s Iliad. Others connected late 13th-century B.C.E. Egyptian anthropoid ceramic coffins with the Philistines. While a cemetery has been found at Azor (dated to the Iron Age 1), located at the northern boundary of Philistia, Ashkelon’s cemetery is the first to be found in the heartland of Philistia—and the first to be indisputably Philistine. As such, it is the standard for measuring all other burials claimed to be Philistine, such as the tombs found at Tel Farah (South) and near Tel Eitun, which were found beyond the limits of Philistia but argued by some to be Philistine. All of these “Philistine” burials and practices must be reevaluated in light of Ashkelon’s cemetery—as should perhaps the cemeteries found at Ruqeish (dated to the Iron Age 2) and Erani (Iron Ages 1–2), located at Philistia’s southern and eastern boundaries, respectively.


More than 210 individuals have been excavated from Ashkelon’s cemetery. Their burials have varied from simple pit internments and cremations in jars to interments in ashlar-built tombs—with the most frequent being pit internments. Grave goods dated from the 11th–8th centuries B.C.E. accompanied some of the Philistine burials. The most common items included in Philistine burials are small juglets. Storage jars, bowls and juglets have been found next to many individuals; these installations consist of a storage jar standing upright with a bowl sitting on its top opening and a juglet resting inside the bowl.


Many of the decorated juglets from the cemetery were imported from Phoenicia. This is not surprising since the Philistines had close ties with Phoenician cities of the central Lebanese coast, such as Tyre, Sidon and Byblos. This close relationship is reflected in the Hebrew Bible (see, e.g., Jeremiah 47:4). From other excavated areas at Tel Ashkelon dated to the 12th–7th centuries B.C.E. (the Iron Age), we see that the largest portion of Ashkelon’s imports came from Phoenicia.

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In addition to the many ceramic vessels from Ashkelon’s cemetery, jewelry, amulets and weapons have also been discovered. Individuals were found wearing delicate silver earrings, as well as bronze necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings. A few bracelets with alternating bronze and carnelian beads and necklaces with alternating carnelian beads and cowrie shells were found; although the strings that originally connected these beads had long deteriorated, the beads themselves stayed in their original positions.


Amulets and scarabs were found with some individuals, as were weapons. Notably, one warrior was buried with a quiver full of bronze arrows. This discovery was made by Adam Aja, Assistant Curator of Collections at the Harvard Semitic Museum and the Expedition’s Assistant Director, who supervised the excavation of Ashkelon’s Philistine cemetery. Although the cemetery has produced a large quantity of grave goods, the majority of the Philistines were buried without personal items.The difference between Philistine burials and other burials in the region is compelling. The earlier Canaanites, as well as the Israelites and Judahites of the Iron Age, buried their dead in two steps. They first laid out their dead—usually on a bench in a tomb—and waited for the corpses to deflesh. Then about a year later, they gathered the deceased’s bones into niches in the tomb—repositories—where the bones were mixed with those of their ancestors. This process is not seen in Ashkelon’s Philistine cemetery, which has instead yielded many fully articulated skeletons. Sometimes burial pits would be dug again, and new individuals would be laid on top of previous burials—with their own grave goods—but the earlier burials were not intentionally disturbed. Relationships between those buried in the same pits and tombs are currently being investigated.

Not only does Ashkelon’s cemetery shed light on Philistine burial practices, but it also illuminates the Philistines as a people group.

“After decades of studying what the Philistines left behind, we have finally come face to face with the people themselves,” said Daniel M. Master, Co-Director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. “With this discovery we are close to unlocking the secrets of their origins.”

The Bible records that the Philistines, Israel’s archenemy, came from Caphtor (see, e.g., Amos 9:7). Many correlate Caphtor with the island of Crete. An Aegean heritage for the Philistines lines up well with the archaeological finds from Philistia. Modern excavations at the Philistine sites of Ashdod, Ekron, Ashkelon, and Gath (Tell es-Safi)—four city-states of the Philistine Pentapolis—have demonstrated that the Philistines brought their own distinctive types of pottery, building styles, weapons, jewelry and weaving with them when they settled on the southern coast of Israel around the 12th century B.C.E.

Ashkelon’s cemetery supports the Philistines’ distinctness from their neighbors and may be able to connect the Philistines to related populations in the Aegean world. Bone samples of the cemetery’s population are undergoing DNA testing, radiocarbon dating and biological distance studies (the degree of genetic relatedness). The results of these investigations may give us a better picture of the Philistines’ heritage, when Ashkelon’s cemetery was in use, and how the population of the cemetery was related to one another.


Sherry Fox, the head forensic anthropologist analyzing Ashkelon’s Philistine burials, has already identified some of the illnesses and traumas that plagued the Philistines. Her team’s study of the material is sure to yield many other insights into the Philistines, such as common traits and average life span. Although their investigations are just beginning, Fox and her team have noted a curious phenomenon: The vast majority of the individuals from Ashkelon’s cemetery are adults. Just a small percentage is children and infants. In a culture that surely experienced high rates of infant mortality, this is surprising. Where did the Philistines bury all of their babies? This question warrants further investigation.The discovery of Ashkelon’s cemetery was announced today, July 10, 2016, at a press conference in Jerusalem and coincides with the opening of Ashkelon: A Retrospective, 30 Years of the Leon Levy Expedition, an Israel Museum exhibition at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem. The exhibit features discoveries from the Philistine cemetery, as well as artifacts uncovered from recent excavations at Tel Ashkelon that are representative of the site’s long, diverse occupational history from the Chalcolithic period through the Crusades. Highlights include the famous Canaanite silver calf (dated to the 16th century B.C.E.) that was found in a shrine on Ashkelon’s ramparts and beautiful imported Greek pottery from Ashkelon’s Philistine marketplace that was well-preserved due to Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the city in 604 B.C.E.

2016 marks the final season of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, which began excavating the site in 1985. The discovery of the Philistine cemetery is a nice addition to 30 years of extraordinary finds at Ashkelon.

New Fossils Hint ‘Hobbit’ Humans Are Older Than Thought

Mysterious civilization of ‘Sea Peoples’ were wiped out by ‘world war zero’ 3,000 years ago

  • Theory proposes Luwian-speaking kingdoms joined to form a coalition
  • This coalition then attacked and destroyed the nearby Hittite civilization 
  • Researchers say Egyptian text describing ‘Sea Peoples’ is about Luwians
  • The Luwians were later destroyed in battle with Mycenaean kings at Troy 

More than 3,000 years ago, the flourishing Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean suddenly met their downfall.

The Trojan War erupted as one of the final events culminating an era of chaos which one archaeologist has named ‘World War Zero’, plunging the region into a Dark Age soon after.

And, it was all begun by a mysterious and powerful civilization which came to be known as the ‘Sea Peoples,’ a new theory suggests.

More than 3000 years ago, the flourishing Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean suddenly met their downfall. The Trojan War erupted as one of the final events culminating an era of chaos which one archaeologist has named 'World War Zero,' plunging the region into a Dark Age soon after

The new ideas presented by Luwian Studiespropose a scenario that could explain the fall of the Bronze Age around 1200 BC, and the events leading up to the Trojan War.

In the new scenario, it’s argued that the many Luwian-speaking petty kingdoms and western Asia Minor, a peninsula also called Anatolia, joined together in a coalition to attack the neighbouring Hittites.

As these Luwian kingdoms spoke a common language, they can be discussed as a single civilization, Eberhard Zangger, head of the Zurich-based non-profit, explained to New Scientist.

‘During the second millennium BCE people speaking a Luwian language lived throughout Asia Minor,’ Luwian Studies explains.

‘They were contemporaries, trading partners, and at times opponents of the well-known Minoan, Mycenaean, and Hittite cultures of Greece and Asia Minor.

When the Bronze Age drew to a close, the Greeks lost the art of writing for many centuries. But, the Luwians maintained this for roughly half a millennium, the researchers say.

Texts from the Luwians were discovered in the 19th century, before the Mycenaean, Minoan, and Hittite documents.

Hittite texts reveal that the Luwian coalitions occasionally grew powerful enough to attack the empire.

The new theory suggests the Luwians did so once more, roughly 3200 years ago, converging upon the capital Hattusa from both land and sea.

Later Egyptian texts describe raids on Cyprus and Syria by the ‘Sea Peoples,’ and the researchers suggest these mysterious attackers are actually the Luwians.

Attackers set fires to temples and palaces, and drove out the ruling class until the Hittite civilization ‘vanished into oblivion for three thousand years,’ according to the proposal.

The massive Luwian civilization then ruled a territory from Northern Greece to Lebanon, they say.

In the new scenario, it’s argued that the many Luwian-speaking petty kingdoms and western Asia Minor, a peninsula also called Anatolia, joined together in a coalition (red) to attack the neighbouring Hittites (green). The new theory suggests the coalition converged upon the Hittite capital Hattusa from land and sea

Shortly after, the Mycenaean kings in Greece banded together to destroy the Luwians, who could not defend their large territory. The Myceneans built a large fleet and attacked the port cities of Asia Minor, which were easily destroyed

Shortly after, the Mycenaean kings in Greece banded together to destroy the Luwians, who could not defend their large territory.

The Myceneans built a large fleet and attacked the port cities of Asia Minor, which were easily destroyed.

Then, the two armies gathered before Troy.

The subsequent battle – the infamous ‘Trojan War’ – ended in the complete destruction of the Luwian coalition, and the fall of Troy.

But, the victors were met with their own chaos in the years to follow.

Kings returned home from war to clash with the deputies who had since assumed their roles, and some didn’t return at all.

Few kings were able to resume their claim to the throne, and ‘traditional Mycenaean kingdoms existed next to areas of anarchy,’ the researchers explain.

Eventually, a civil war tore through the civilization, and the Mycenaean Era was brought to an end.

A Dark Age began soon after.

The researchers from Luwian Studies say this scenario could explain the sudden end of the Late Bronze Age, but not all archaeologists agree with the concept of a ‘lost’ Luwian civilization, New Scientist explains.

And, some debate the ‘World War Zero,’ narrative, and explain that that many archaeologists have become skeptical of the ancient narratives which describe ‘approximate historical truth,’ like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

‘Archaeologists will need to discover similar examples of monumental art and architecture across western Anatolia and ideally texts from the same sites to support Zangger’s claim of a civilization,’ Christoph Bachhuber, of the University of Oxford, told New Scientist.

Though it’s been met with some criticism, archaeologists say the research will bring the Late Bronze Age era of western Anatolia into the light for future studies.


Josephus on the Essenes

Steve Mason argues that the texts of Josephus cannot be relied upon to support the conclusion that the Essenes were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the inhabitants of Qumran.

Flavius Josephus was a first-century Jewish historian, politician and soldier whose literary works provide crucial documentation of Roman Palestine in the first century A.D. At age 29, he was appointed general of the Jewish forces in Galilee. He was eventually captured by Vespasian, who was at that time the supreme commander of the Roman army. Josephus capitulated and sought to ingratiate himself with the Roman general, eventually becoming part of the imperial court in Rome. He was an eyewitness to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple by the Roman army in 70 A.D. He spent the rest of his life in Rome pursuing his literary career, the surviving results of which comprise a vital source of historical information.

Josephus’s commentaries on the laws and characteristics of the Essene community have been invaluable to scholars studying ancient Jewish laws and customs. They have also been the subject of much debate, particularly as they pertain to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Researchers have relied heavily on Josephus’s works as they try to determine who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, who inhabited Qumran, and whether or not the authors of the scrolls and the community at Qumran were in fact one and the same.

Professor Steve Mason asserts in his article “Did the Essenes Write the Dead Sea Scrolls? Don’t Rely on Josephus” (BAR, November/December 2008) that the texts of Josephus cannot be relied upon to support the conclusion that the Essenes were the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the inhabitants of Qumran. So what does Josephus have to say about the Essene community? Following is a translated excerpt from The Jewish War, in which Josephus provides his main description of this fascinating group.

This deliberately literal translation of the Greek is from Steve Mason, Flavius Josephus: translation and commentary, vol. 1b: Judean War (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

The Jewish War, Book II, Chapter 8


119 For three forms of philosophy are pursued among the Judeans: the members of one are Pharisees, of another Sadducees, and the third [school], who certainly are reputed to cultivate seriousness, are called Essenes; although Judeans by ancestry, they are even more mutually affectionate than the others. 120 Whereas these men shun the pleasures as vice, they consider self-control and not succumbing to the passions virtue. And although there is among them a disdain for marriage, adopting the children of outsiders while they are still malleable enough for the lessons they regard them as family and instill in them their principles of character: 121 without doing away with marriage or the succession resulting from it, they nevertheless protect themselves from the wanton ways of women, having been persuaded that none of them preserves her faithfulness to one man.


122 Since [they are] despisers of wealth—their communal stock is astonishing—, one cannot find a person among them who has more in terms of possessions. For by a law, those coming into the school must yield up their funds to the order, with the result that in all [their ranks] neither the humiliation of poverty nor the superiority of wealth is detectable, but the assets of each one have been mixed in together, as if they were brothers, to create one fund for all. 123 They consider olive oil a stain, and should anyone be accidentally smeared with it he scrubs his body, for they make it a point of honor to remain hard and dry, and to wear white always. Hand-elected are the curators of the communal affairs, and indivisible are they, each and every one, [in pursuing] their functions to the advantage of all.


124 No one city is theirs, but they settle amply in each. And for those school-members who arrive from elsewhere, all that the community has is laid out for them in the same way as if they were their own things, and they go in and stay with those they have never even seen before as if they were the most intimate friends. 125 For this reason they make trips without carrying any baggage at all—though armed on account of the bandits. In each city a steward of the order appointed specially for the visitors is designated quartermaster for clothing and the other amenities. 126 Dress and also deportment of body: like children being educated with fear. They replace neither clothes nor footwear until the old set is ripped all over or worn through with age. 127 Among themselves, they neither shop for nor sell anything; but each one, after giving the things that he has to the one in need, takes in exchange anything useful that the other has. And even without this reciprocal giving, the transfer to them [of goods] from whomever they wish is unimpeded.


128 Toward the Deity, at least: pious observances uniquely [expressed]. Before the sun rises, they utter nothing of the mundane things, but only certain ancestral prayers to him, as if begging him to come up. 129 After these things, they are dismissed by the curators to the various crafts that they have each come to know, and after they have worked strenuously until the fifth hour they are again assembled in one area, where they belt on linen covers and wash their bodies in frigid water. After this purification they gather in a private hall, into which none of those who hold different views may enter: now pure themselves, they approach the dining room as if it were some [kind of] sanctuary. 130 After they have seated themselves in silence, the baker serves the loaves in order, whereas the cook serves each person one dish of one food. 131 The priest offers a prayer before the food, and it is forbidden to taste anything before the prayer; when he has had his breakfast he offers another concluding prayer. While starting and also while finishing, then, they honor God as the sponsor of life. At that, laying aside their clothes as if they were holy, they apply themselves to their labors again until evening. 132 They dine in a similar way: when they have returned, they sit down with the vistors, if any happen to be present with them, and neither yelling nor disorder pollutes the house at any time, but they yield conversation to one another in order. 133 And to those from outside, the silence of those inside appears as a kind of shiver-inducing mystery. The reason for this is their continuous sobriety and the rationing of food and drink among them—to the point of fullness.


134 As for other areas: although there is nothing that they do without the curators’ having ordered it, these two things are matters of personal prerogative among them: [rendering] assistance and mercy. For helping those who are worthy, whenever they might need it, and also extending food to those who are in want are indeed left up to the individual; but in the case of the relatives, such distribution is not allowed to be done without [permission from] the managers. 135 Of anger, just controllers; as for temper, able to contain it; of fidelity, masters; of peace, servants. And whereas everything spoken by them is more forceful than an oath, swearing itself they avoid, considering it worse than the false oath; for they declare to be already degraded one who is unworthy of belief without God. 136 They are extraordinarily keen about the compositions of the ancients, selecting especially those [oriented] toward the benefit of soul and body. On the basis of these and for the treatment of diseases, roots, apotropaic materials, and the special properties of stones are investigated.


137 To those who are eager for their school, the entry-way is not a direct one, but they prescribe a regimen for the person who remains outside for a year, giving him a little hatchet as well as the aforementioned waist-covering and white clothing. 138 Whenever he should give proof of his self-control during this period, he approaches nearer to the regimen and indeed shares in the purer waters for purification, though he is not yet received into the functions of communal life. For after this demonstration of endurance, the character is tested for two further years, and after he has thus been shown worthy he is reckoned into the group. 139 Before he may touch the communal food, however, he swears dreadful oaths to them: first, that he will observe piety toward the deity; then, that he will maintain just actions toward humanity; that he will harm no one, whether by his own deliberation or under order; that he will hate the unjust and contend together with the just; 140 that he will always maintain faithfulness to all, especially to those in control, for without God it does not fall to anyone to hold office, and that, should he hold office, he will never abuse his authority—outshining his subordinates, whether by dress or by some form of extravagant appearance; 141 always to love the truth and expose the liars; that he will keep his hands pure from theft and his soul from unholy gain; that he will neither conceal anything from the school-members nor disclose anything of theirs to others, even if one should apply force to the point of death. 142 In addition to these, he swears that he will impart the precepts to no one otherwise than as he received them, that he will keep away from banditry, and that he will preserve intact their school’s books and the names of the angels. With such oaths as these they completely secure those who join them.


143 Those they have convicted of sufficiently serious errors they expel from the order. And the one who has been reckoned out often perishes by a most pitiable fate. For, constrained by the oaths and customs, he is unable to partake of food from others. Eating grass and in hunger, his body wastes away and perishes. 144 That is why they have actually shown mercy and taken back many in their final gasps, regarding as sufficient for their errors this ordeal to the point of death.


145 Now with respect to trials, [they are] just and extremely precise: they render judgment after having assembled no fewer than a hundred, and something that has been determined by them is non-negotiable. There is a great reverence among them for—next to God—the name of the lawgiver, and if anyone insults him he is punished by death. 146 They make it point of honor to submit to the elders and to a majority. So if ten were seated together, one person would not speak if the nine were unwilling. 147 They guard against spitting into [their] middles or to the right side and against applying themselves to labors on the seventh days, even more than all other Judeans: for not only do they prepare their own food one day before, so that they might not kindle a fire on that day, but they do not even dare to transport a container—or go to relieve themselves. 148 On the other days they dig a hole of a foot’s depth with a trowel—this is what that small hatchet given by them to the neophytes is for—and wrapping their cloak around them completely, so as not to outrage the rays of God, they relieve themselves into it [the hole]. 149 After that, they haul back the excavated earth into the hole. (When they do this, they pick out for themselves the more deserted spots.) Even though the secretion of excrement is certainly a natural function, it is customary to wash themselves off after it as if they have become polluted.


150 They are divided into four classes, according to their duration in the training, and the later-joiners are so inferior to the earlier-joiners that if they should touch them, the latter wash themselves off as if they have mingled with a foreigner. 151 [They are] long-lived, most of them passing 100 years—as a result, it seems to me at least, of the simplicity of their regimen and their orderliness. Despisers of terrors, triumphing over agonies by their wills, considering death—if it arrives with glory—better than deathlessness. 152 The war against the Romans proved their souls in every way: during it, while being twisted and also bent, burned and also broken, and passing through all the torture-chamber instruments, with the aim that they might insult the lawgiver or eat something not customary, they did not put up with suffering either one: not once gratifying those who were tormenting [them], or crying.153 But smiling in their agonies and making fun of those who were inflicting the tortures, they would cheerfully dismiss their souls, [knowing] that they would get them back again.


154 For the view has become tenaciously held among them that whereas our bodies are perishable and their matter impermanent, our souls endure forever, deathless: they get entangled, having emanated from the most refined ether, as if drawn down by a certain charm into the prisons that are bodies. 155 But when they are released from the restraints of the flesh, as if freed from a long period of slavery, then they rejoice and are carried upwards in suspension. For the good, on the one hand, sharing the view of the sons of Greece they portray the lifestyle reserved beyond Oceanus and a place burdened by neither rain nor snow nor heat, but which a continually blowing mild west wind from Oceanus refreshes. For the base, on the other hand, they separate off a murky, stormy recess filled with unending retributions. 156 It was according to the same notion that the Greeks appear to me to have laid on the Islands of the Blessed for their most courageous men, whom they call heroes and demi-gods, and for the souls of the worthless the region of the impious in Hades, in which connection they tell tales about the punishments of certain men—Sisyphuses and Tantaluses, Ixions and Tityuses—establishing in the first place the [notion of] eternal souls and, on that basis, persuasion toward virtue and dissuasion from vice. 157For the good become even better in the hope of a reward also after death, whereas the impulses of the bad are impeded by anxiety, as they expect that even if they escape detection while living, after their demise they will be subject to deathless retribution. 158 These matters, then, the Essenes theologize with respect to the soul, laying down an irresistible bait for those who have once tasted of their wisdom.


159 There are also among them those who profess to foretell what is to come, being thoroughly trained in holy books, various purifications, and concise sayings of prophets. Rarely if ever do they fail in their predictions.


160 There is also a different order of Essenes. Though agreeing with the others about regimen and customs and legal matters, it has separated in its opinion about marriage. For they hold that those who do not marry cut off the greatest part of life, the succession, and more: if all were to think the same way, the line would very quickly die out. 161 To be sure, testing the brides in a three-year interval, once they have been purified three times as a test of their being able to bear children, they take them in this manner; but they do not continue having intercourse with those who are pregnant, demonstrating that the need for marrying is not because of pleasure, but for children. Baths [are taken] by the women wrapping clothes around themselves, just as by the men in a waist-covering. Such are the customs of this order.

An Unexpected Consequence of the Christian Crusades

From a western point of view, the Christian Crusades have a glorified and righteous history: countless films and books recount how the shining knights of Christianity set out to save Christendom from the “infidel.” Ironically, the reality of Crusades history is that probably the best thing to come out of the Christian Crusades for western civilization was not the conquest of, but rather the exposure to, the Muslim “infidel.” Below, J. Harold Ellens details this twist in Crusades history in “The Fihrist: How an Arab Book Seller Saved Civilization.”

At a time when western Christian society could be accurately characterized as superstitious, brutal, dogmatic and repressive, the Arab world during the Christian Crusades period was reaching a zenith of learning and enlightenment. Once such example of this is the watershed work called the Fihrist (meaning “the catalogue”), a compendium of all of the significant written works on religion, the humanities and science available at the end of the first millennium A.D. The Fihrist, and the scholarship it represents, is one of the shining positives that emerged from a Crusades history that was otherwise brutal and bloody.

As explained by J. Harold Ellens below, from the Fihrist western scholars gained from the Christian Crusades the wealth of human knowledge that spanned the preceding several millennia—even Aristotle’s will was included in the masterwork compendium. It could be—and has been—argued that in Crusades history the best and unanticipated consequence of the Christian Crusades is that the western world now had the opportunity to regain ancient knowledge—through works like the Fihrist—that centuries of political instability and religious superstition had lost.

It took time. The western Renaissance several hundred years later is largely attributed to this reacquisition of ancient learning from works like the Fihrist. But gradually this consequence of the Christian Crusades trickled down to men (and some women) of learning in later generations, who were able to incorporate this aspect of Crusades history into a revival of knowledge in the humanities and sciences.

What the Christian Crusades gave to the Muslim world in terms of destruction, death and conflict was nowhere near the unexpected and unanticipated gift that the western world obtained from Crusades history in the form of works like the Fihrist. The Christians set out to conquer the “infidel,” but the “infidel” ended up educating the Christians.

The Fihrist

by J. Harold Ellens

The Fihrist: How an Arab book seller saved civilization

In a fiery speech delivered at Clermont, France, in 1095 C.E., Pope Urban II called on Western Christians to expel the “Infidel” from the Holy Land. Thus the Pope unleashed the Crusades, during which European armies gained control of most of the Levant, including Jerusalem. The Pope also unleashed something else—a kind of frenzied destructiveness that frequently accompanies righteous fury. The wars of the following two centuries were marked by unimaginable and often irrational acts of rapine and murder, not the least of which was the Crusader attack in 1203 upon Constantinople, in which hundreds of thousands of Eastern Orthodox Christians were slaughtered.

In return, the West received one of the greatest gifts ever presented by one civilization to another. The Crusades opened up a rich mine of Eastern scholarship. The West would be civilized by the “Infidel,” informed by refined Persian and Arab scientists, historians, physicians, poets and philosophers.

An important instrument in this cultural exchange was a remarkable book, the Fihrist (Catalogue). This tenth-century C.E. book is a catalogue of all the significant written works on religion, science and the humanities that were available at the end of the first millennium C.E. It includes a digest of ancient Greek and Roman literature, much of which was lost to the West after the fall of the Roman Empire and the destruction of the Alexandria Library.a The Fihrist also lists classical texts that were preserved by Eastern scholars in the great imperial libraries of Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus and Khurasan.

The breadth of learning revealed by the Fihrist is astonishing. It treats language, calligraphy and holy scriptures such as the Torah, the Gospels and the Koran. It contains chapters on Arab grammarians, history and politics, pre-Islamic poetry, the literature of the Umayyad (661–750) and Abbasid (750–1258) caliphates, as well as chapters on prominent jurists and legal authorities. It provides a summary of philosophy from the Hellenic thinker, Thales of Miletus (c. 620–555 B.C.E.), to the end of the first millennium C.E.—devoting considerable ink to Plato and Aristotle, even recording the entire text of Aristotle’s will. TheFihrist discusses mathematics, astronomy, medicine, fables and legends, Christian and Islamic sects, alchemy and bookmaking, and it tells what was known of such faraway places as India, Indochina and China.

The author of this signal work, Abu ’l-Faraj Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Nadim (c. 935–990 C.E.), was probably born in Baghdad, where his father ran a bookstore. The name “al-Nadim” (literally, “courtier”) means that he was a court official of some sort. His father was a warrag, or entrepreneur. Al-Nadim probably received a normal education: beginning instruction at the mosque at age six, memorizing much of the Koran by early adolescence, and then entering one of the mosque’s study circles. During the course of his life, he also had the opportunity to study under some of the luminaries of his day, such as the famous jurist Abu Sa’id al-Sirafi, the mathematician Yunus al-Qass and the historian Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Marzubani.
Al-Nadim’s greatest source of learning, however, was his father’s bookstore, where he was employed. No doubt his research was extremely useful to his father and their potential customers, especially his detailed knowledge of important books and authors. One imagines that his daily routine included copying manuscripts, entertaining scholars and acquiring books.1 In chapter four of the Fihrist, al-Nadim explains that his life’s work was “to present the names of the poets and the amount of verses written by each poet among them … so that whoever desires to collect books and poems can have this information.” Perhaps not accidentally, this system closely corresponds to that developed by the third-century B.C.E. scholar Callimachus for recording books in Egypt’s Alexandria Library.2

One of al-Nadim’s biographers refers to him as a Mu’tazili—that is, a member of a heretical Islamic sect that embraced the rationalistic and humanistic aspects of Islamic thought. The Mu’tazili, for instance, rejected traditional Islamic determinism, according to which everything happens because of the will of God. They believed, instead, that God’s justice could only exist if human beings were the authors of their own actions—and thus were punished or rewarded according to what they, not only God, willed and did. Even though al-Nadim was a Shi’ite who considered the rival Sunni Muslims crude and ignorant, he must have been seriously interested in the Mu’tazili, since he devotes a large part of chapter five to the sect.3 Mu’tazilism also seems like the sort of philosophy that would appeal to a man of al-Nadim’s learning.

Al-Nadim added to, arranged and rearranged his encyclopedia until his untimely death at the age of 55. On the title page of the Fihrist manuscript in Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library (see the second sidebar to this article) is a note, almost certainly penned by the great historian al-Maqrizi (1365–1441), indicating that al-Nadim died on the tenth day before the end of the month of Sha’ban in 990/1. Manuscripts of the Fihrist in al-Nadim’s own handwriting were probably placed in the royal library at Baghdad. In 1229 an Arab scholar claimed that he had worked from a manuscript of the Fihrist in its author’s hand; in 1252 the lexicographer al-Saghani made a similar claim.

One of al-Nadim’s persistent interests was the Arabic language. He cites scholarly debates about the origins of Arabic script—whether it was developed in a small Midianite Bedouin encampment in modern northwest Saudi Arabia or was borrowed from foreigners. Some sources say that Adam passed the script down, al-Nadim tells us; others claim that Ishmael gave it to his descendants. Al-Nadim is not much concerned with these folk traditions, but he is very interested in transcriptions of the Koran in the various dialects, scripts, hands and illuminations available in his day.

Al-Nadim not only sold and catalogued books, he was passionate about them. In the Fihrist, he comments on books and scripts of the Persians, Greeks, Hebrews (archaic and current), Syrians, Saxons, Chinese, Turks, Indians, Nubians, Russians, Bulgarians, Franks and Armenians. He loved all aspects of bookmaking, from orthography and calligraphy to methods of sharpening pens and making paper. Books, for al-Nadim, were almost alive; they were friends and teachers. “[B]ooks are the shells of wisdom, which are split open for the pearls of character,” he records one source as saying. From another source he quotes: “If books had not bound together the experiences of former generations, the shackles of later generations in their forgetfulness would not have been loosed.” Books represented an ideal existence without the failings to which men and women are prone. As one source says,

We have companions of whose conversation we never weary;
Confiding and trustworthy whether absent or present,
They give us the benefit of their knowledge … of what has passed,
With wise opinion, discipline, and instruction well-guided,
Without cause to be dreaded or fear of suspicion.

It is not surprising that al-Nadim devotes an extensive section of his volume to how the Koran was supposed to have been assembled from the revelations of the prophet Mohammed. He discusses the various sources, editions and interpretations of the Koran, along with the Islamic sages who commented on the holy book and the people and places mentioned in it. Al-Nadim also includes careful notes on discrepancies in the Koran— inconsistencies, special characteristics of language or ideas, as well as other notable peculiarities in the sacred texts.

The Fihrist: How an Arab book seller saved civilization

Apparently al-Nadim visited official libraries, bookstores, authors and private libraries in his search for books. Of one book collector, Mohammed ibn al-Husayn, who lived near Aleppo, al-Nadim writes: “I have never seen anyone else with a library as extensive as the one which he had. It certainly contained Arabic books about grammar, philology, and literature, as well as ancient works. I met this man a number of times and, although he was friendly with me, he was wary and tight with his possessions.”

Hand-copied books were valuable objects—prized particularly by the feudal chiefs who ruled Aleppo from 944 to 967 C.E. and who were commandeering books to build their own library. Al-Husayn was “tight” because he was worried that the Aleppo sheiks would learn of his beloved volumes and then confiscate them. Among his precious antique manuscripts, al-Nadim reports, were “trusts and contracts in the handwriting of the Commander of the Faithful, Ali,” the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, along with documents in the hand of Mohammed’s scribes.

While making his way from library to library and from city to city, al-Nadim was always on the watch for especially rare books. He knew of two eighth-century C.E. Arabic grammar books that had apparently been lost, since he could find no one who had ever seen a copy or knew of anyone who had. One can sense the palpable grief of a true bibliophile in al-Nadim’s account of his futile search for these tomes.
Of a well-known man named al-Suli, “one of the brilliant men of letters and collectors of books,” al-Nadim reports a long list of admirable things, from his writing important books to his being a champion chess player. But the news about al-Suli is not all good. In his magnum opus on poetry, entitled Leaves, al-Nadim observes, “he relied upon the book of al-Marthadi about poetry and the poets; in fact he transcribed and plagiarized it. I have seen a copy of [the work of] this man [al-Marthadi] which came from the library of al-Suli and by which he was exposed.”

The Fihrist: How an Arab book seller saved civilization

One intriguing passage in the Fihrist concerns ancient Persian astronomy. After carefully describing how Persian scientists treated the bark of the white poplar tree to produce a durable writing material, al-Nadim informs us that they wrote down detailed astronomical tables collected from as far back as the Babylonians. Then the ancient scientists looked for a city where the climate was optimal for preserving these records. They determined upon the Persian city of Jayy:

Then they went … inside the city of Jayy, to make it the depository for their sciences. This [depository] was called Sarwayh [Saruyah] and it has lasted until our own time. In regard to this building … many years before our time a side [of the building] became ruined. Then they found a vault in the cleft-off side … in which they discovered many books of the ancients, written on white poplar bark … and containing all of the sciences of the forefathers written in the old Persian form of writing.

Al-Nadim reports further that he had it on “reliable authority” that in 961 or 962 “another vaulted building cracked open … Many books were discovered in this place, but nobody found out how to read them.” The author then informs us that a decade before he had seen for himself books in Greek that had been found in a wall of the city (presumably Jayy). Al-Nadim closes this account by observing that in ancient times learning was forbidden except for those who were scholars or known to be able to receive learning by natural genius. Although the Greeks and Romans promoted learning, the Byzantine Christians forbade literacy except for the study of theology. In contrast, al-Nadim believed that Islam encourages the pursuit of literacy and knowledge.

Although the Fihrist is probably most valuable as a compendium of knowledge, it also preserves the spirit of its times through informative and entertaining narratives. One such story tells of a cotton worker named Mohammed ibn Kullab, who had a running theological debate with an acquaintance. Ibn Kullab contended that the Word of Allah, notably the Koran, is also Allah. His interlocutor then accused ibn Kullab of being a Christian, since Christians believed, on the basis of the Gospel of John, that the Word is God, and asked, “What do you have to say about the Christ (al-Masih)?” He would say the same thing about Christ that the Sunni Muslims say about the Koran, ibn Kullab responded: He is the Word of God.

This story nicely illustrates al-Nadim’s tone of mind: tolerant, curious, often bemused. Not only does the Fihrist show the breadth of al-Nadim’s knowledge, it is also a testament to his compassion. This devout Muslim, extremely proud of his culture and heritage, honored the beliefs of other peoples and gave them residence in his life’s work. He knew much about Judaism and Christianity, for example; he knew their histories, their scriptures, their religious beliefs. He knew the works of ancient Greek, Hindu and Chinese scholars. He was fascinated by the world beyond his own, so he built a monument to it, the Fihrist, which shines brightly with his humane spirit.


1. Al-Nadim provides numerous accounts of book collections in remote places. For example, he tells of one sage, Khalid ibn Yzid ibn Mu’awiyah, who ordered a group of Greek philosophers from a city in Egypt, presumably Alexandria, to translate Greek and Coptic scientific books into Arabic (p. 581). Al-Nadim gives one unusually interesting account: “I heard Abu Ishaq ibn Shahram tell in a general gathering that there is in the Byzantine country a temple of ancient construction. It has a portal larger than any other ever seen with both gates made of iron. In ancient times, when they worshipped heavenly bodies and idols, the Greeks exalted this [temple], praying and sacrificing in it. He [Ibn Shahram] said, ‘I asked the emperor of the Byzantines to open it for me, but this was impossible, as it had been locked since the time that the Byzantines had become Christians. I continued, however, to be courteous to him, to correspond with him, and also to entreat him in conversation during my stay at his court. … He agreed to open it and, behold, this building was made of marble and great colored stones, upon which there were many beautiful inscriptions and sculptures. I have never seen or heard of anything equaling its vastness and beauty. In this temple there were numerous camel loads of ancient books … Some of these [books] were worn and some in normal condition. Others were eaten by insects.’ Then he said, ‘I saw there gold offering utensils and other rare things.’ He went on to say, ‘After my exit the door was locked …’ He believed that the building was a three-day journey from Constantinople” (pp. 585–586). It is likely that this was the famous Celsus Library at Ephesus, built in the second century C.E.

2. Callimachus (c. 305–235 B.C.E.) served under four successive chief librarians as the collector and collator of the Alexandria Library. He produced a 120-volume catalogue, called the Pinakes, of the library’s 500,000 books (that number would reach 1,000,000 by the time of Jesus). The Pinakes contained information on each book’s contents, provenance and author. After the library was destroyed in the seventh century C.E., many of its surviving books were apparently carried off to the imperial libraries of the caliphates, where they were translated into Persian and Arabic. For more information, see J. Harold Ellens, “You Can Look It Up!AO 02:02; “The Ancient Library of Alexandria: The West’s Most Important Repository of Learning,BR 13:01; The Ancient Library of Alexandria and Early Christian Theological Development, Occasional Papers no. 27 (Claremont, CA: Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Claremont Graduate University, 1993).

3. In the Fihrist, al-Nadim provides a summary of what others think of the Mu’tazilah (meaning “Those Who Separate Themselves”): “The Zaydiyah and Ibadiyah said that they did not believe in [God’s] grace, and were neither polytheists nor Muslims, but sinners. The companions of al-Hasan said that they were hypocrites and also sinners. All of the Mu’tazilah separated themselves from the things about which these [groups] differed. They said, ‘We agree about what they join in calling sin, but we avoid matters about which they disagree concerning unbelief, belief, hypocrisy, and polytheism’” (pp. 380–381).

When Was the Hebrew Bible Written?

Earlier than previously thought, say Tel Aviv University researchers

Robin Ngo   •  04/15/2016


When was the Hebrew Bible written? Ostraca with Hebrew inscriptions excavated from the Iron Age fortress at Arad in Israel may provide clues, say researchers from Tel Aviv University.Photo: Michael Cordonsky, courtesy Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Was the Hebrew Bible written earlier than previously thought? That’s what a recent studypublished in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests. The study was led by Tel Aviv University (TAU) doctoral students Shira Faigenbaum-Golovina, Arie Shausa and Barak Sober.

The TAU researchers analyzed multi-spectral images of 16 Hebrew inscriptions, which were written in ink on ostraca (broken pottery pieces),using a computer software program they developed. The ostraca, which date to 600 B.C.E., according to the researchers, were excavated from the Judahite fortress at Arad in southern Israel.

The researchers say they were able to identify at least six different handwriting styles on the inscriptions, which contained instructions for the movement of troops and lists of food expenses. A TAU press release notes that “the tone and nature of the commands precluded the role of professional scribes.”

“The results indicate that in this remote fort, literacy had spread throughout the military hierarchy, down to the quartermaster and probably even below that rank,” state Faigenbaum-Golovina, Shausa and Sober in their paper.

“Now our job is to extrapolate from Arad to a broader area,” explained TAU Professor of Archaeology Israel Finkelstein, who heads the research project, in the TAU press release. “Adding what we know about Arad to other forts and administrative localities across ancient Judah, we can estimate that many people could read and write during the last phase of the First Temple period. We assume that in a kingdom of some 100,000 people, at least several hundred were literate.”

So when was the Hebrew Bible written? What does literacy in the Iron Age have to do with it?

Scholars have debated whether the texts of the Hebrew Bible were written before 586 B.C.E.—when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, razed the First Temple and exiled the Jews—or later on, in the Persian or Hellenistic period. If literacy in Iron Age Judah was more widespread than previously thought, does this suggest that Hebrew Bible texts could have been written before the Babylonian conquest?

The Tel Aviv University researchers think so, based on their study of the ostraca from Arad.

Not quite, says epigrapher Christopher Rollston, Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures at the George Washington University. In a lengthy blog postanalyzing the TAU study, Rollston contends that there is not enough information from these ostraca to make estimates about the literacy of Iron Age Judah. Rollston points out that, according to a publication by Yohanan Aharoni, the original excavator at Arad, the 16 ostraca came from different strata dated across the seventh and early sixth centuries—and therefore do not all date to 600 B.C.E. Moreover, we cannot tell how many of these inscriptions were written at the Arad fortress and how many came from elsewhere.

“Rather than arguing on the basis of 16 ostraca (that ended up at Arad) that we have a ‘proliferation of literacy,’” Rollston says, “I would simply conclude that we have some readers and writers of inscriptions at Arad. That’s all we can say.”

Rollston notes that he and others have argued, however, that there is enough epigraphic evidence from ancient Israel to conclude that “already by 800 B.C.E. there was sufficient intellectual infrastructure, that is, well-trained scribes, able to produce sophisticated historical and literary texts.”

“Additional detailed, sophisticated and substantive scholarly arguments for the early dating of the Torah have been made by William Schniedewind, author of How the Bible Became a Book, and Seth Sanders, in The Invention of Hebrew,” observes Candida Moss, Professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, in The Daily Beast.

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