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Who Tells the Truth—the Bible or Archaeology?

Credibility of the Hebrew Bible as a source for ancient Israel’s history has been disputed since at least the mid-1970s, when the historicity of the patriarchs of Genesis suffered a serious blow in the works of Thomas L. Thompson and John Van Seters.1 Biblical scholars of the last 35 years or so thus split into two camps of thought: historical minimalism and historical maximalism. The minimalists would argue that most of the Hebrew Bible has little value for the study of history because it is made up of prose fiction, folk tales, legends and theological treatises, while the maximalists would defend the Bible’s claims regarding the early history of ancient Israel.2 In “Whom Do You Believe—The Bible or Archaeology?” in the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, eminent archaeologist William G. Dever explores the difficult subject, giving BAR readers a sneak-peak of his upcoming book.

It is fair to acknowledge that Biblical archaeology had failed to deliver the evidence that the founding fathers of the discipline—William F. Albright and George E. Wright—thought it would in support of the Bible as history. But as much as Biblical archaeology fell short of the quest to “prove the Bible,” it helped to show just how misguided those initial expectations from Biblical archaeology were. As a result, many scholars have grown suspicious of the Biblical text, rejecting even the most central narratives of early Bible history, such as the Exodus, the military conquest of Canaan, the existence of the United Monarchy and, most recently, the very historicity of figures such as Saul, David or Solomon.

Aided by new trends in literary studies and coinciding with a more general shift in the European historiography, the skeptical views of historical minimalism seem to dominate especially in Europe. The maximalist views, on the other hand, were able to stand their ground in Israel and the United States, where the public discourse is generally more optimistic about the Bible and the early history of ancient Israel as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible.

The tangled tale of Biblical archaeology as practiced in the USA is best symbolized by two still fairly recent decisions by the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), a leading academic institution devoted to the study of the Near East: ASOR changed the name of its popular journal from Biblical Archaeologist to Near Eastern Archaeology in 1998, and it also decided to separate its annual meetings from those of the Society for Biblical Literature.

Over the years, the discussion between minimalists and maximalists has been characterized by inflamed rhetoric and bitter personal attacks. This is a little more understandable if we acknowledge that the current discourse continues to be fueled by the insertion of moralistic views and matters of faith and even modern political agendas and nationalist sentiments. It is then also less surprising that the skeptical and often hyper-critical approach of the minimalists is labeled as cynical, nihilist and immoral by some maximalists. On the other side, the most radical voices occasionally transcend the minimalist–maximalist debate, calling for the dismissal of the whole of the Biblical studies as we know it because the field is allegedly obsolete and irrelevant to modern society.3

millo

Called the Large Stone Structure, these massive walls excavated in the City of David belong to the original King David’s palace in Jerusalem, affirm many. What is the evidence for this claim? Circumstantial at best, caution others. Photo: Eilat Mazar.

 

One possibility is to deal with the Biblical texts and archaeological data independently and then look for “convergences,” suggests William G. Dever, Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona, who is arguably the most influential voice among the maximalists. But it did not escape Dever’s critics that in checking the Bible against material evidence (or vice-versa), archaeology is not speaking for itself. For his approach, Dever has been castigated with others for actually falling into the trap of “proving/disproving the Bible”—an honorable pursuit for some, a methodological trespass for others.

To be sure, Dever understands that both archaeology and the Bible as historical sources have their limits. An experienced archaeologist, Dever rightly points to the chronic cause of disappointment and frustration among Biblical scholars: people have been asking the wrong questions of archaeology!

At the same time—as his critics object—Dever acknowledges the privileged position of archaeological data as being closer to the “real” life and, hence, more reliable for the Bible history than are the Biblical texts, which were written or edited centuries after the supposed events that they relate. And while recognizing that most of the Pentateuch, or Torah, is contaminated by legendary and even fantastic materials, which might disqualify the first four books from historical consideration, Dever with other maximalists also believes that these Bible books are a result of long oral traditions with a real historical core and that history can be distilled from the books immediately following them: Deuteronomy through 2 Kings. Dever’s critics, therefore, point out that his positivist method based on verifiable data is incoherent and circular and that his scholarship actually demonstrates the pitfalls of any attempt to use Biblical archaeology in the quest of uncovering the “true” Bible history. Some critical voices would also question whether Dever’s cautious judgments about the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers still qualify as maximalist.

As should be apparent by now, the issues at hand are rather complex. And they are potentially explosive because they transcend the boundaries of academia and can touch on people’s core values and identities.

For William G. Dever’s latest thoughts on this multi-layered and slippery subject, read his article “Whom Do You Believe—The Bible or Archaeology?” in the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, where Dever attempts to demonstrate how we can marry archaeology and the Bible in the study of ancient Israel.

 

Notes:

1. See Thompson’s The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974) and Van Seters’s Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1975).

2. For an open confrontation between scholars of the two camps, read Hershel Shanks, “Face to Face: Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers,” BAR, July/August 1997.

3. Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007).

Akhenaten and Moses

Defying centuries of traditional worship of the Egyptian pantheon, Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten decreed during his reign in the mid-14th century B.C.E. that his subjects were to worship only one god: the sun-disk Aten. Akhenaten is sometimes called the world’s first monotheist. Did his monotheism later influence Moses—and the birth of Israelite monotheism?

In “Did Akhenaten’s Monotheism Influence Moses?” in the July/August 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, University of California, Santa Barbara, emeritus professor of anthropology Brian Fagan discusses this tantalizing question.

Egyptian King Akhenaten, meaning “Effective for Aten”—his name was originally Amenhotep IV, reigned from about 1352 to 1336 B.C.E. In the fifth year of his reign, he moved the royal residence from Thebes to a new site in Middle Egypt, Akhetaten (“the horizon of Aten,” present-day Tell el-Amarna), and there ordered lavish temples to be built for Aten. Akhenaten claimed to be the only one who had access to Aten, thus making an interceding priesthood unnecessary.

In the BAR article “The Monotheism of the Heretic Pharaoh,” Donald B. Redford, who excavated Akhenaten’s earliest temple at Karnak (in modern Thebes), describes how Akhenaten instituted worship of Aten:

The cult of the Sun-Disk emerged from an iconoclastic “war” between the “Good God” (Akhenaten), and all the rest of the gods. The outcome of this “war” was the exaltation of the former and the annihilation of the latter. Akhenaten taxed and gradually closed the temples of the other gods; the images of their erstwhile occupants were occasionally destroyed. Cult, ritual and mythology were anathematized, literature edited to remove unwanted allusions. Names were changed to eliminate hateful divine elements; and cities where the old gods had been worshipped, were abandoned by court and government.

Akhenaten destroyed much, he created little. No mythology was devised for his new god. No symbolism was permitted in art or the cult, and the cult itself was reduced to the one simple act of offering upon the altar. Syncretism was no longer possible: Akhenaten’s god does not accept and absorb—he excludes and annihilates.

Did Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten’s adamant worship of one deity influence the Biblical Moses, leader of the Israelite Exodus? Was Akhenaten’s monotheism the progenitor of Israelite monotheism? According to BAR author Brian Fagan, we are talking about two different kinds of monothesisms:

“Israelite monotheism developed through centuries of discussion, declarations of faith and interactions with other societies and other beliefs,” Fagan writes. “In contrast, Akhenaten’s monotheism developed very largely at the behest of a single, absolute monarch presiding over an isolated land, where the pharaoh’s word was divine and secular law. It was an experiment that withered on the vine.”
When Tutankhaten—the second son of Akhenaten; we know him as the famous King Tut—ascended to the throne, he, working with his advisers, restored worship of the traditional Egyptian pantheon and its chief god, Amun. Tutankhaten also changed his name to Tutankhamun, meaning “the living image of Amun.”

First Person: Misogyny in the Bible

Christopher Rollston is one of the world’s leading paleographers of ancient Near Eastern inscriptions. I have been harshly critical of some of his views, principally regarding unprovenanced inscriptions—inscriptions that have surfaced only from the antiquities market, not from a professional archaeological excavation. They may be forgeries, he argues. Although my criticism of Chris’s position is intense,1 we remain good friends and regularly share a meal. Chris is also a master carpenter. Above my office door hangs a beautiful polished wooden plaque expertly carved with my name in paleo-Hebrew script—the kind of Hebrew letters used before the Babylonian destruction of the Solomonic (First) Temple in 586 B.C.E.

Several years ago, when Chris was teaching at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, a Tennessee seminary affiliated with the Restoration Movement, he wrote an article about the Bible’s sometimes “unfair” or unequal treatment of women.2 He recently published a revised and augmented version of this controversial article.3

Here are some examples from his article:

Noah and his wife had three sons (Shem, Ham and Japheth—Genesis 5:32) who were each married. All eight were on the ark. We know the names of all the men, but none of the women (Genesis 8:18), not even Noah’s wife.

Rollston finds the marginalization of women obvious and “clear” in the Ten Commandments: “The wife is classified as her husband’s property, and she’s listed with the slaves and work animals. There is also a striking omission in this commandment: Never does it say, ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s husband.’”

Rollston continues with other examples:

An unmarried woman could be compelled to marry her rapist, as long as the rapist could pay the standard bride price and the woman’s father was comfortable with the marriage (Deuteronomy 22:28–29). Polygyny (a man having multiple wives at the same time) was not condemned, but was an accepted and legal custom (Deuteronomy 21:15–17; Genesis 4:19–24; and 2 Samuel 3:2–5). A woman’s religious vow could be nullified by her father or her husband (Numbers 30:3–15). And the assumption of the text is that the priesthood is all male (Leviticus 21). In short, within the legal literature of the Bible, women were not accorded the same status as men.

Other examples come from the New Testament; here is one of Rollston’s examples:

[1 Timothy 2] begins by stating that “men should pray” (and the word used here for men is andras, a gendered word that refers only to males) and then says “women should dress themselves modestly and decently” (vv. 8–9). So men are to pray, and women are to dress modestly. That’s quite a contrast. But there’s more: “Let a woman learn in silence and full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to be silent” (vv. 11–12). The author’s rationale: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (vv. 13–14). According to this text, women were to be silent in worship gatherings (and men were certainly not told to be silent), and the rationale for this mandate is that woman (Eve) was created second and sinned first. And the final blow is this: A woman “will be saved” (the future tense of the standard word for “be saved,” “be given salvation”) “through childbirth if she remains in faith and love and sanctification with modesty” (1 Timothy 2:15).

 
Rollston recently told us in writing what we already knew. This criticism of the Bible led to his “forced ouster” from Emmanuel Christian Seminary.

Not long after his “forced ouster,” I saw Chris and told him that this could be the best thing that ever happened to him. And so it turned out. Eventually he obtained a tenured position at the George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C. Soon thereafter the prestigious position of editor of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) opened up, and Chris and his distinguished colleague Eric Cline at GWU were appointed as coeditors to fill the position. Seldom do we write stories with such happy endings.
 

Notes:

1. See Hershel Shanks, “Predilections—Is the ‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription a Forgery?”Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2015.

2. Christopher Rollston, “The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About,” Huffington Post, August 31, 2012.

3. Christopher A. Rollston, “Women, the Bible, and the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” in Frances Flannery and Rodney Alan Werline, eds., The Bible in Political Debate (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016).

Does the Gospel of Mark Reveal Jesus’ Anger or His Compassion?

 

Codex Bezae

In the fifth-century C.E. Codex Bezae, an early edition of the New Testament written in Greek, the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus’ anger before healing a leper (Mark 1:41). While later scribes changed Jesus’ anger to compassion, it is likely that Codex Bezae preserves the original reading. Image: Cambridge University Library/ff.288v & 289r from Nn.2.41.

Textual variants among ancient manuscripts aren’t usually as controversial as chapter 1, verse 41 of the Gospel of Mark. Sometimes one scribe spelled a word differently on his manuscript, while another might have accidentally skipped or repeated some of the text he was copying. These cases are minor variants and don’t really change the meaning of the text. Other times, however, scribes added to or even changed text to clarify a passage or suit the theological preferences of their communities. That’s when things get interesting, and this passage in the Gospel of Mark offers an especially intriguing example.

In Mark 1:41, a leper has approached Jesus seeking to be healed. Most Greek manuscripts (the New Testament was originally written in Greek), as well as later translations, say that Jesus was moved with compassion and healed the man. A few manuscripts, however, say that Jesus’ anger was kindled before he healed him. So did the verse mean to convey Jesus’ anger or his compassion? If this were a popularity contest, the “compassion” reading would surely win. In 1998, the authoritative book Text und Textwert recorded only two Greek manuscripts (and a few early Latin ones) that contained the reading expressing Jesus’ anger. But, as Dr. Jeff Cate announced in The Folio,* the bulletin of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center at the Claremont School of Theology, close examination of one of those two Greek manuscripts has shown that it does not contain the word for either anger or compassion. Just as Matthew and Luke did when retelling Mark’s story in their gospels (cf. Matthew 8:2–4; Luke 5:12–16), the scribe of this Markan manuscript simply left it out.

This now leaves the other Greek manuscript, the fifth-century C.E. Codex Bezae, as the sole Greek witness to the reading expressing Jesus’ “anger.” Much like the cheese in “The Farmer in the Dell,” Codex Bezae stands alone.

Mark

Mark composes his account of the life of Jesus in this scene from a 12th-century manuscript from Constantinople.

But most interesting of all, the Codex Bezae may in fact have the better (i.e., original) reading. As New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman pointed out in a 2005 article in Bible Review, “one factor in favor of the ‘angry’ reading is that it sounds wrong.”**It is much easier to believe that early scribes were troubled by Jesus’ anger and changed it to his feeling compassion, rather than the other way around. Later scribes also would have preferred the easier “compassion” reading and copied it until it became the more popular reading. (As Ehrman explains, there are other passages in the Gospel of Mark that seem to support the reading conveying Jesus’ anger.) Thus does Codex Bezae now stand as a lonely witness to what is very likely the original Greek text of Mark 1:41.

Gospel of John Commentary: Who Wrote the Gospel of John and How Historical Is It?

Gospel of John Commentary: Who Wrote the Gospel of John and How Historical is It?

The Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament, tell the story of the life of Jesus. Yet only one—the Gospel of John—claims to be an eyewitness account, the testimony of the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” (“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true” [John 21:24]). “Who wrote the Gospel of John?” is a question that remains unanswered, though noted theologians throughout the ages maintain that it was indeed the disciple John who penned the famous Biblical book.

Gospel of John commentary is easy to find—some of the most famous theologians in history have closely examined the text and underscored its importance from as early as the beginning of the third century. It is believed that Origen, an Alexandrian Christian scholar and theologian, wrote his Gospel of John commentary while in Alexandria at some point after 218 A.D. St. Augustine—a famous fourth century church father—contributed no fewer than 124 tractates in his Gospel of John commentary, while St. Thomas’s Gospel of John commentary of the 13th century is still highly regarded today by modern scholars.

We may never know for certain who wrote the Gospel of John, any more than we can know who wrote the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We do know that John is a gospel apart, however. Early Matthew, Mark and Luke are so alike in their telling that they are called the Synoptic Gospels, meaning “seen together”—the parallels are clear when they are looked at side by side. Matthew and Luke follow the version of events in Mark, which is thought by scholars to be the earliest and most historically accurate Gospel. John, however, does not include the same incidents or chronology found in the other three Gospels, and the fact that it is so different has spurred a debate over whether John’s Gospel is historical or not, something that has been noted in Gospel of John commentary for hundreds—even thousands—of years.

Several hypotheses have attempted to explain why so much of Jesus’ life not portrayed in the Synoptics is present in John and vice versa. One hypothesis claims that John recorded many of the events that occurred before the arrest of John the Baptist, while the Synoptics all have Jesus’ ministry beginning only after the arrest. Another holds that John was written last, by someone who knew about the other three Gospels, but who wished to write a spiritual gospel instead of an historical one. This would mean that the person who wrote the Gospel of John would not have been a contemporary of Jesus, and therefore would not have been an eyewitness as the author claims. There is also the possibility that the author of John did not know of Mark and hence did not have the same information.

One of the facts in dispute among the four Gospels is the length of Jesus’ ministry. According to the Synoptics, it lasted only about a year, while John has Jesus ministering between two and three years. The Jesus of John’s telling also knew Jerusalem well and had traveled there three or four times. The Synoptics, however, have Jesus visit Jerusalem only once. In John, Jesus had friends near Jerusalem, including Mary, Martha and Lazarus of the town of Bethany, which is just outside of the city on the east slope of the Mount of Olives.

The author of John also knew Jerusalem well, as is evident from the geographic and place name information throughout the book. He mentions, among others, the Sheep Gate Pool (Bethesda), the Siloam Pool and Jacob’s Well. The geographic specificity lends credence to the John’s account.

Another aspect of John that may be more historically accurate than the Synoptics is the account of the crucifixion and the events that led up to it. The Synoptics say that Jesus’ Last Supper was the Passover meal—held that year on a Thursday evening (Jewish holidays begin at sunset)—and they would have us believe that the Sanhedrin, the high court, gathered at the beginning of a major holiday to interrogate Jesus and hand him over to the Romans. John, in contrast, has Jesus handed over for crucifixion on “the day of Preparation of Passover week, about the sixth hour.” According to John, the Last Supper is not a Passover meal (because the holiday that year did not start until Friday evening), and Jesus is crucified and buried before Passover begins. In John’s account Jesus becomes the Passover sacrificial lamb, which was offered the afternoon before the Passover holiday. Some scholars suggest that John may be more historical regarding the crucifixion than the other three Gospels.

Given John’s familiarity with Jerusalem and its environs, it is very possible that he had visited the Pool of Siloam, which he mentions in connection with the story of the curing of the blind man (a story that appears only in John’s Gospel). It is that pool that has only recently been uncovered.

What’s Missing from Codex Sinaiticus, the Oldest New Testament?

Compare differences between the King James Version and Codex Sinaiticus

Two hundred years after Constantine Tischendorf’s birth, questions remain as to the conditions of his removal of Codex Sinaiticus from St. Catherine’s Monastery. Dating to the mid-fourth century C.E., Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest complete manuscript of the New Testament. In his article “Hero or Thief? Constantine Tischendorf Turns Two Hundred” in the September/October 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Stanley E. Porter contends that Tischendorf should be considered a hero, not a thief.

codex-sinaiticus

 

The text of Codex Sinaiticus differs in numerous instances from that of the authorized version of the Bible in use during Tischendorf’s time. For example, the resurrection narrative at the end of Mark (16:9–20) is absent from the Codex Sinaiticus. So is the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen” (Matthew 6:13). The woman caught in adultery from John 8 is omitted in Codex Sinaiticus. According to James Bentley, Tischendorf was not troubled by the omission of the resurrection in Mark because he believed that Matthew was written first and that Mark’s gospel was an abridged version of Matthew’s gospel. If this were true, the absence of resurrection in Mark would not be a problem because it appears in the older Matthean gospel. Modern scholarship generally holds that Mark is in fact the oldest of the Synoptic Gospels, which could cause theological concerns over the omitted resurrection.

One other omission in Codex Sinaiticus with theological implications is the reference to Jesus’ ascension in Luke 24:51. Additionally, Mark 1:1 in the original hand omits reference to Jesus as the Son of God.

Below, see a visual comparison of these and other differences between the King James Version and Codex Sinaiticus.

The Markan Resurrection (Mark 16: 1–14)

King James Version
1 “And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary themother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.
3 And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?
4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.
5 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
6 And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
7 But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
8 And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to anyman; for they were afraid.
9 Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.
10 And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept.
11 And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not.
12 After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country.
13 And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them.
14 Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.
15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
19 So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.
20 And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.
Codex Sinaiticus
1 “And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.
3 And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?
4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.
5 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
6 And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
7 But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
8 And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to anyman; for they were afraid.

 

The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13)

King James Version
9 Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
Codex Sinaiticus
Father,
Hallowed be thy name,Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done, as in heaven, so upon earth.

Give us day by day our daily bread

And forgive us our sins, as we ourselves also forgive every one that is indebted to us.

And bring us not into temptation.

 

The woman caught in adultery (John 8: 3–11)

King James Version
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
Codex Sinaiticus
Completely absent.

 

Significant omitted verses

King James Version
Luke 24:51: “And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.”Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;”

Luke 9:55–56: “But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.”

Codex Sinaiticus
Omits “carried up into heaven.” Leaving no ascension in the Gospels.

Omits “the Son of God.”

Not present.

 


 

Alterations perhaps due to later theological beliefs

King James Version
Mark 1:41: “And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.”Matthew 24:36: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.”

Codex Sinaiticus
“Jesus, angry, stretched out his hand and touched him…”

“But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, neither the Son, but the Father only.”

 

The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet

We all know the story of Noah’s Ark. Ever since George Smith’s 1872 translation of Babylonian texts similar to the Biblical Deluge (see “George Smith’s Other Find” below), we’ve also known about echoes of the Genesis narrative in pre-Biblical Mesopotamian texts. A recently translated Old Babylonian (c. 1900–1700 B.C.E.) tablet has literally reshaped our vision of the Babylonian vessel used to weather the storm and builds bridges across the floodwaters dividing the Biblical and Mesopotamian accounts of the flood.

The Babylonian Flood Tradition

Babylonain flood traditions have been familiar material for BAR readers since the early days of our magazine. Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s 1978 feature “What the Babylonian Flood Stories Can and Cannot Teach Us About the Genesis Flood” introduced the Sumerian Flood Story, the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic and the Atrahasis Epic:

The Babylonian flood stories contain many details which also occur in the flood story in Genesis. Such details in the story as the building of an ark, the placing of animals in the ark, the landing of the ark on a mountain, and the sending forth of birds to see whether the waters had receded indicate quite clearly that the Genesis flood story is intimately related to the Babylonian flood stories and is indeed part of the same “flood” tradition. However, while there are great similarities between the Biblical and Babylonian flood stories, there are also very fundamental differences, and it is just as important that we focus on these fundamental differences as on the similarities.

 

The Babylonian accounts differ from each other. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the god Enki tasks Utnapishtim to save the world from the flood, and for his good deed, he is granted immortality (and subsequently, Gilgamesh’s envy). Later discoveries revealed that the account was an abridged and modified version of the Akkadian Atrahasis epic, a similar flood myth that was copied and adapted for centuries in the ancient Near East. Memories of an antediluvian (pre-flood) period were preserved throughout Mesopotamia: The Sumerian king list includes antediluvian kings, and reliefs of antediluvian sages known as apkallu figures (winged genies) lined the walls of Assyrian palaces and remain one of the most iconic forms of Mesopotamian art to this day.

How to Build an Ark

With such a well-documented Mesopotamian flood tradition, why is this newly translated cuneiform tablet making waves in our understanding of the Babylonian flood myth? The so-called “Ark Tablet”—a cell-phone sized piece of clay inscribed on both sides—is essentially an ark builder’s how-to guide, according to its translator, British Museum scholar Irving Finkel. Enki gives Atrahasis instructions on how to build an ark, but the resulting boat isn’t what you’d expect. According to Irving Finkel, this boat was round. In an article in The Telegraph, Finkel writes:

The most remarkable feature provided by the Ark Tablet is that the lifeboat built by Atra-hasıs— the Noah-like hero who receives his instructions from the god Enki—was definitely, unambiguously round. “Draw out the boat that you will make,” he is instructed, “on a circular plan.”

The text describes the construction of a coracle or gufa, a traditional basket-like boat that would have been familiar to Mesopotamian audiences. Of course, this is no average coracle—Atrahasis is to build a boat with a diameter of close to 230 feet across and 20-foot-high walls. The boat is made out of a massive quantity of palm-fiber rope, sealed with bitumen. This isn’t exactly the same ark that Noah built—or Utnapishtim, for that matter:

Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI, 54-65On the fifth day I laid out her exterior. It was a field in area, its walls were each 10 times 12 cubits in height, the sides of its top were of equal length, 10 times It cubits each. I laid out its (interior) structure and drew a picture of it (?). I provided it with six decks, thus dividing it into seven (levels). The inside of it I divided into nine (compartments). I drove plugs (to keep out) water in its middle part. I saw to the punting poles and laid in what was necessary. Three times 3,600 (units) of raw bitumen I poured into the bitumen kiln, three times 3,600 (units of) pitch …into it… Genesis 6:14-15Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks.

 

The Animals Went in Two by Two

At first glance, it would seem that the Ark Tablet, while extremely descriptive in its instructions—it features twenty lines just describing the waterproofing of the vessel—is describing an ark narrative that differs more from Noah’s than its other Babylonian counterparts. However,according to his Telegraph article, Finkel was shocked by the rare cuneiform signs sana in the passage describing the animals on the boat. Sanais listed in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary as “Two each, two by two.” Compare this with the Biblical text:

And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive.”

The cuneiform wedges were pressed into Babylonian Ark Tablet a full millennium before the Genesis narrative was written down, but the two bear a strong thematic resemblance in their treatment of the animals. However, this tablet describes how to build an ark, and the resulting vessel couldn’t be much more different from the Biblical boat. Would a round gufa-style boat weather the Deluge? Irving Finkel points out that a pointed ship may be easier to sail to a particular destination, but Atrahasis’s ark had nowhere to go—it merely needed to support its human and animal occupants for the duration of the flood. He toldThe Guardian:

In all the images ever made people assumed the ark was, in effect, an ocean-going boat, with a pointed stem and stern for riding the waves – so that is how they portrayed it. But the ark didn’t have to go anywhere, it just had to float, and the instructions are for a type of craft which they knew very well. It’s still sometimes used in Iran and Iraq today, a type of round coracle which they would have known exactly how to use to transport animals across a river or floods.

George Smith’s Other Find: The Babylonian Flood Tablet

Originally published as the sidebar to “The Genesis of Genesis” by Victor Hurowitz in Bible Review‘s anniversary issue. Click here to read the full article in the BAS Library.

In 1866, George Smith, a British bank-note engraver, wrote a letter to the famed Assyriologist Sir Henry Rawlinson, asking if he might have a look at the fragments and casts of Assyrian inscriptions in the back rooms of the British Museum. Rawlinson agreed—thus initiating what would become an unusually fruitful friendship between an eager amateur and the man who had deciphered cuneiform.

Smith so impressed Rawlinson that the latter hired him in 1867 to help catalogue the museum’s cuneiform inscriptions, including those excavated by Austen Henry Layard at Kyunjik (ancient Nineveh) in the 1840s and 1850s.

In the accompanying article, Victor Hurowitz describes one of Smith’s most significant discoveries: the Babylonian poem Enūma Eliš. But Smith’s most famous “find” in the British Museum store rooms was undoubtedly the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its dramatic account of a Great Deluge that threatened to wipe out humankind.

In his popular book The Chaldean Account of Genesis, Smith described the discovery: “I soon found half of a curious tablet which had evidently contained originally six columns of text; two of these (the third and fourth) were still nearly perfect; two others (the second and fifth) were imperfect, about half remaining, while the remaining columns (the first and sixth) were entirely lost. On looking down the third column, my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning. I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean [Babylonian] account of the Deluge.”

According to a later source, Smith then “jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.” The British Museum has dubbed Smith’s Tablet 11, shown, “the most famous cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia.”

After he calmed down, Smith scoured the museum’s holdings for further fragments, and soon found that his Flood tablet was the 11th tablet in a 12-tablet epic poem. On December 3, 1872, he presented his findings to the newly founded British Society of Biblical Archaeology and speculated that more of these tablet fragments remained buried in the sands of Nineveh.

Soon after, Edwin Arnold, owner of London’s Daily Telegraph, proposed that his paper sponsor renewed excavations at Nineveh, with Smith at the helm. Smith, and the museum, agreed.

Smith later wrote, “Soon after I commenced excavating at Kouyunjik, on the site of the palace of Assurbanipal, I found a new fragment of the Chaldean account of the Deluge belonging to the first column of the tablet, relating the command to build and fill an ark, and nearly filling up the most considerable blank in the story.”

The copies of the Gilgamesh Epic discovered by Layard and Smith came from the world-class library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (668–627 B.C.E.). The tales of Gilgamesh, the bold warrior-king of Uruk, are much older, however; many of them date back to the Sumerian period (third millennium B.C.E.). In the Old Babylonian Period (early second millennium B.C.E.), the various adventures of Gilgamesh were strung together in a cohesive narrative, which was rewritten many times. By the 12th century B.C.E., an 11-tablet version of the epic had emerged. In the eighth century B.C.E., a 12th tablet describing the death of Gilgamesh was added to the series.

The Flood story does not number among the original Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh. Rather, it was inserted into the narrative in about the 12th century, and thus appears only in the 11- and 12-tablet versions of the tale (called the Standard Babylonian versions).

According to the tale, after the death of his beloved friend Enkidu, a disconsolate Gilgamesh searches for ways to live forever. His quest leads him, on Tablet 11, to the immortal Utnapishtim—often referred to as the Mesopotamian Noah, because he saved his family from a devastating worldwide Flood. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he, too, was once a mere a mortal and a king, of Shuruppak-on-the-Euphrates. In his day, five of the gods plotted to send a Flood to destroy humankind. One of the gods, Ea, surreptitiously informed the king, whispering, “Quickly, quickly tear down your house and build a great ship, leave your possessions, save your life … Then gather and take aboard the ship examples of every living creature.” Utnapishtim finishes the ship and loads his family and animals just in time: “Ninurta opened the floodgates of heaven, the infernal gods blazed and set the whole land on fire. A deadly silence spread through the sky and what had been bright now turned to darkness. The land was shattered like a clay pot. All day, ceaselessly, the storm winds blew, the rain fell, then the flood burst forth, overwhelming the people like war … For six days and seven nights, the storm demolished the earth. On the seventh day, the downpour stopped. The ocean grew calm. The land could be seen, just water on all sides, as flat as a roof. There was no life at all.” The boat runs aground on Mount Nimush. Utnapishtim sends out a dove, which flies right back, having failed to find land; he sends a swallow with similar results. Finally, he sends a raven, which never returns. The waters have begun to recede.

The gods convene and offer Utnapishtim and his family immortality. Having heard this tale, Gilgamesh recognizes he has little chance of being offered the same, and he returns home to Uruk to die.—Molly Dewsnap Meinhardt

Passages from Gilgamesh come from Stephen Mitchell’s new translation Gilgamesh: A New English Version (New York: Free Press, 2004).

How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?

Biblical Archaeology Society Staff   •  09/22/2016

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.”
—Psalm 137:1 [JPS]

The Babylonian Exile that resulted from King Nebuchadnezzar’s sixth-century B.C.E. capture of Jerusalem has traditionally been portrayed with the Judahites lamenting their circumstances. But the textual remains left by the Babylonians and even some Judahites may reveal an entirely different story.

tablets-of-jewish-exiles

The Babylonian Exile began in 597 B.C.E. with the deportation of Judahite king Jehoiachin, his family, skilled craftsmen, warriors and 10,000 additional captives (2 Kings 24:12–16). Two more deportations took place: one in 586 B.C.E., when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, and another in 582 B.C.E. Jeremiah 52:28–30 claims that a total of 4,600 Judahites were displaced in the Babylonian Exile. Psalm 137:1–2 poetically recounts the feelings of the deported Judahites: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion. There on the poplars we hung up our lyres.”

University of California, Berkeley, Lecturer in Akkadian Laurie E. Pearce explores the evidence in her article “How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?” in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. According to Pearce, despite the melancholic tone of Psalm 137, life in Babylon was actually pretty good for many of the Judahite deportees.

According to the Bible, notes Laurie E. Pearce, King Jehoiachin was given special treatment—even over other imprisoned kings (2 Kings 25:30; Jeremiah 52:31–34). Moreover, cuneiform ration lists discovered in Nebuchadnezzar’s South Palace in Babylon show that captive kings and high officials received monthly rations of grain and oil.

The lives of non-royal Judahites, too, are preserved in Babylonian records. Texts from Nippur contain the names of Judahites who served as witnesses in land contracts. The Judahite identity of the witnesses is revealed by their Yahwistic names—names formed from the Israelite divine name YHWH. The texts record the business activities of a family whose patriarch was an entrepreneur named Murašû. Since witnesses to contracts usually have the same social status as those engaged in the transaction, this would suggest, Laurie E. Pearce argues, that a number of Judahites were as successful as the Murašû family.

Records from the city of Susa (Biblical Shushan, where the book of Esther is set) reference Judahites with Yahwistic names serving as royal courtiers, and in Sippar, a few Yahwistic names appear under the designation “royal merchant.” However, the majority of Pearce’s evidence that the Babylonian Exile wasn’t so bad is focused on cuneiform texts from in and around a settlement called Judahtown (Babylonian āl-Yāḫūdu).

“These texts, along with approximately 160 texts written in nearby towns,” Pearce writes, “provide balance to the known documentation, now attesting to the lives of the lowly as well as high-born Judean and other West Semitic exiles, in rural as well as the previously documented urban landscapes, from the start of the Judean Exile to the time of the rebuilding of the Temple and beyond.”

The evidence reveals a diversity of experiences for the Judahite exiles, and the picture of the Judahite experience in the Babylonian Exile that emerges is perhaps not as morose as previously believed.

To learn more about the Judahite experience during the Babylonian Exile as gleaned through the Biblical and archaeological evidence, including the texts from Judahtown, read the full article “How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?” by Laurie E. Pearce in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

 

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.

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