You’ve probably answered this b4, but who was the Pharaoh of and what date do you think was the Exodus? I like the Amarna period and the one God people all got exiled to Canaan … but so many theories.

Note Before I Answer: This is not a political response, nor is it a religious one.

Short Answer: According to my readings of the Hebrew Bible, Ancient Near Eastern myths, contemporary archaeological works, Biblical scholarly literature, and the history of the Levant in the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age, I am of the opinion that the story conveyed in Exodus–>Joshua never happened. I also might be wrong.

Long Answer: 

There’s this thing called the Documentary Hypothesis, founded by Julius Wellhausen, and recently expanded upon by Richard Elliott Friedman. There is no scholarly consensus on the veracity of the Hypothesis, but it makes the most sense to me when placed alongside the archaeological records, the known historical record, and Sumerian (etc) myth cycles. The very short and sweet explanation of the Documentary Hypothesis is that there are four main narrative strands within the Hebrew Bible: the J Source, E source, D Source, and P Source. Plus the Redactor. The J (“Yahwist”) and E (Elohist) sources are the oldest. J represents the oral history, mythos, etc of what would become the southern Kingdom of Judah, and E represents the same for the northern Kingdom of Israel. The two sources were combined by the D Source, the “Deuteronomist” sometimes after the fall of Israel to the Neo-Assyrain Empire in 721 BCE. The P Source is the “Priestly” source and it’s not really relevant to this particular conversation

The D Source’s combining of J and E wasn’t just about creating a compendium of myth, or folk religion, or oral history, it was about asserting the political and spiritual dominance of the Kingdom of Judah over the Kingdom of Israel, and hegemonizing Israelite worship practices from polytheistic to hardcore monotheistic. So, in Genesis we see a lot of cosmological and general mythological archetypes which, if you knew where to look, reflect aspects of God/Goddess cycles from all across Asia Minor, Egypt, and the Ancient Near East. (Check out my posts from 2011 and 2012 to learn more about how Genesis is secretly about a life goddess murdering some guy who kept stealing shit from her garden and banging his granddaughters)(that’s a hyperbolic assessment)

So Genesis happens blah blah blah, and then Joseph heads down to Egypt, his fam follows, time flies, and then came a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph etc the Israelites left Egypt, wandered the desert for 40 years, then blew down the walls of Jericho under Joshua, slaughtered all the Canaanites and took back the Promised Land. A grand, epic ending to a super-long Israelite cosmology.

Except, according to Joshua, the Israelites were supposed to have destroyed a large number of Canaanite cities within a fairly small period of time. But the archaeological record of those cities show destruction layers hundreds of years apart, even within the larger 1100-1300 BCE timeframe typically used to look for a historical Exodus situation. And to make things even more awkward, the Book of Judges is supposed to happen after the Book of Joshua. Except, in the Book of Judges, the various Israelite clans very obviously live alongside Canaanites and Philistines. And they don’t even have hegemony over Canaan, like, most of the Book of Judges is about Israelite groups getting into border skirmishes with Canaanites. Who, according to Joshua, were supposed to be dead.

Awkward, but there’s an explanation.

There’s an archaeological theory called the Israelites as Canaanites theory, and it’s the one that makes the most sense to me. According to this theory, there was no Exodus, and the proto-Israelites never left the Levant; the Israelites WERE Canaanites. During the Bronze Age, the Levant was pretty evenly split between Egypt and the Hittite Empire, possibly leading to a memory of life under Egyptian rule which the D Source used as inspiration for the Exodus. The Bronze Age Collapse left the Levant in a bit of a power vacuum. That power vacuum opened the door for new groups and peoples to form identities, and claim territories, and have border disputes and form like, little backwater kingdoms for the Neo-Assyrians to laugh at.*

According to archaeologist William Dever, sometime around 1200 BCE, evidence starts to show up in the archaeological record of something new happening in the central Judean hill country: semi-permanent circular settlements, removed from other Canaanite sites of the period, with no evidence of pork consumption. The archaeological record does not show evidence of a new group entering Canaan, but it does show evidence of a new material culture growing in the highlands.

If we are to understand Judges as a compendium of oral history, verse, myth, legend, and regional adapted archetypes from the pre-monarchical Israelite past, then that past is one of slow emergence and separation, not of dramatic racial and territorial conquest. And honestly, how do you go from winning a glorious genocidal campaign under one ruler to fighting a vague series of clan and border disputes within a loosely organized tribal society ruled by a warrior/mystic figure? Well, you kind of don’t. At least, not within a year.

So, that’s how Biblical textual analysis, ancient near eastern history and mythology, and the archaeological record come together for me to lead me to view that Exodus, the grand Israelite cosmology as conveyed in the Genesis-Joshua, didn’t happen. At least, not the way it is described, and not the way we think about it.

Now, further reading because you know I don’t pull this out of my ass ok:

Old Testament Parallels (New Revised and Expanded Third Edition): Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East by Victor H. Matthews and Don C. Benjamin

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Turning Points in Ancient History) by Eric Cline

From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible by Eric Cline

Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? by William Dever

Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel by William Dever

The End of the Bronze Age by Robert Drews

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Neil Silberman and Israel Finkelstein

Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Eliot Friedman

A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, Second Edition by J. Maxwell Miller and John Haralson Hayes

A Brief History of Ancient Israel by Victor H. Matthews

The Social History of Ancient Israel: An Introduction by Rainer Kessler

A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000 – 323 BC [Blackwell History of the Ancient World Ser.] by Marc Van De Mieroop

The Philistines and Aegean Migration at the End of the Late Bronze Age by Assaf Yasur-Landau

*I’m going to Jew hell for that one.

The sea peoples of the Bronze Age Collapse™ sound like something Buzzfeed would write. Do we actually have no clue where they come from or is it one of these over-hyped non-mysteries like the crystal skulls ?

Just fyi, this is not intended to be one of my hardcore scholarly posts, and it has been quite a few years since I’ve looked deeply into these issues. This response is more like I’m your quirky grandma pounding wine over lunch.

So, the Sea Peoples. You know how when you’re younger you think it was The
Barbarians who caused Rome to Fall in 476, but then you get older and
eventually learn that the “Barbarians” were actually hardcore Romanized and a
massive empire can’t just fall in one year because of one group of icky
outsiders anyway? Well, the “Sea Peoples” are to the Bronze Age Collapse as the “Barbarians” are to the Fall of Rome.

The Eastern Mediterranean Empires of the Late Bronze Age were a series of highly cosmopolitan, internationalized, and interconnected economic and political system ranging from Ancient Greece, to Asia Minor, to Egypt, to Sumeria. Complex systems like
that take a long time to build up, and require a lot of little problems building up over a span over the course of years to cause a widespread collapse. And when we say
“collapse” I think it’s incorrect to think of just cities being destroyed. By “collapse” I
mean the breakdown of international trade routes and economic systems and
systems of communication.

So as for what actually happened. We have primary resources; a lot in fact. We have a rich archaeological record, linguistic evidence, not to mention evidence from
geologists and climatologists. But these pieces of evidence tell a lot of little stories which only together could form a situation in which all that infrastructure could totally break down.

There were climate related problems; droughts, for example, unusual flooding patterns. There was unusually heavy volcanic and seismic activity. Some of the trade routes were impacted by these natural occurrences, causing minute snafus over a variety of interconnected economic systems, leading to a lot of big economic snafus over time. Empires were dealing with civil unrest and rebellions, undoubtedly partial results of the earthquakes and droughts and economic issues.

Though I’m primarily speaking of Sumeria and the Eastern Mediterranean, the Western and Central Mediterranean were hardly isolated from these economic and natural incidents, and these dominant international systems. Peoples of the West and Central Mediterranean responded to these disruptions by migrating east to the great imperial centers, which where all lowkey already breaking down.

These migrants, the “Sea Peoples,” likely settled and assimilated into into the civilizations they are purported to have destroyed. Some, I’m sure, were met with hostility upon their arrival. Others wanted to relocate politically and engaged in warfare, and others still wanted to plunder these slowly failing economies for all they were worth. So really, the “Sea Peoples” were multiple groups of migrants from dispersed areas migrating to a massive geographical area in a series of waves in response to a widespread set of structural problems. Meaning, that they were reacting to a set of pre-existing problems, not causing them.

Also, a lot of archaeological and linguistic evidence points to the “Sea Peoples” being of Etruscan and Aegean descent and I can’t tell you how much that thrills me.

Secondary Sources:

whats the accepted timeline for biblical events such as exodus? who was the pharoah? were the Jews the Habiru or the Hyksos?

Some archaeologists, and myself, hold to the theory that Exodus is actually a folk memory of the Bronze Age era Egyptian imperial hegemony over the southern Levant. The people archaeologists can identify as being distinctively different from other Canaanite groups began to emerge in the central Judean hill country around 1200 BCE, and their settlements and inscriptions can be traced as distinctively “Israelite.” This is called the “Israelites as Canaanites” theory.

Exodus came into the form it’s in because the Biblical authors needed it for the cosmology they were constructing, and they borrowed extensively from Near Eastern literary tropes (the Baby With a Destiny Found in a Basket in a River, for instance) and Israelite folk memory in constructing it.

If you put the Books of Exodus/Joshua and Judges side by side and really read the texts, you’ll see that they tell the same story. One tells the story of an exiled people making their way home after so many years and violently reclaiming the land via military campaigns which left dubious archaeological imprints, and one tells the story of a loosely organized Iron Age tribal society sharing the same general folk religion and language gradually emerging and gaining power over other Canaanite groups, including the ones which were theoretically wiped out in Joshua.

….Biblical Studies was my jam in undergrad.

Fun with Ancient Graffiti! (No, not the Pompeii dicks)

Ah ancient graffiti. Thousands of years later, we know who had intercourse with whom where, who consider themselves to be best friends forever, and who was the best endowed in all of Rome. Unfortunately, of all the archaeological sites which contain remnants of society’s ponderings, only that which decorates the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneam has been both translated and made widely accessible.

Here are some of my favorites:

“Amplicatus, I know that Icarus is buggering you. Salvius wrote this.”

“We two dear men, friends forever, were here. If you want to know our names, they are Gaius and Aulus.”

“Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog.”

“The city block of the Arrii Pollii in the possession of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius is available to rent from July 1st. There are shops on the first floor, upper stories, high-class rooms and a house.  A person interested in renting this property should contact Primus, the slave of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius.”

“I don’t want to sell my husband, not for all the gold in the world.”

“Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they every have before!”

“The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian.”

“We have wet the bed, host.  I confess we have done wrong.  If you want to know why, there was no chamber pot.”

“Serena hates Isidorus.”

“O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.”



A Short History of Plumbing, Toilets, and Sanitation

In 1856, East Indian Railway Company workers summoned General Alexander Cunningham to the Indus River Valley site, where they had uncovered the ruins of an ancient city. The archaeologists who had rushed to the scene were stunned—as archaeologists digging under the auspices of the British Empire were wont to be—by the sophistication of the civilization the workers had begun to uncover. One particular point of interest was the complex system of underground brick lined sewage drains, complete with running water and rudimentary flush toilets.

To put it in different terms, these British archaeologists uncovered a civilization which had had an underground sewage system circa the third millennium BCE in the same year that the city at the seat of the British Empire—London—had begun to experience the sanitation problems which would lead to the “Great Stink” of 1858.


“Father Thames Introducing His Offspring (Diptheria, Scrofula, and Cholera) to the Fair City of London,” originally published in the July 3, 1858 edition of Punch Magazine. Image courtesy of the Museum of London.

In the 1850s, the modern flush toilet began to replace the chamber pot in the daily waste disposal of many Londoners. This increased the volume of waste being poured into cesspits, which often overflowed into the streets, overwhelming the medieval drainage system, and emptied into the Thames. The unusual heat levels of the summer of 1858 merged with the bacteria in the sewage-filled waters of the Thames to produce a stench so overwhelming that the House of Commons nearly shut down.

Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro weren’t the only ancient cities to have a finer grasp on the intricacies of sanitation than the capital of the British Empire.

The sewage of Rome and Istanbul is still partially carried through 1000+ year old pipes, and the first inverted siphon system (u-shaped pipes for those of us who are not engineers) was put into use in the palaces of Crete over 3000 years ago. Those pipes are still in working condition. The Ancient Minoan peoples had a stone sewage system periodically flushed with clean water, and flush toilets dating to around the mid-second millennium BCE have been found in the Minoan archaeological site of Akrotiri.

In the mid-12th century CE the Arab, or possibly Kurdish, engineer Al-Jazari invented a hand-washing device which made use of flush technology (he also invented the first water supply system to be driven by gears and hydropower, and a robot boy band among other things).


Illustration of his water-raising device from Al-Jazari’s work, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Image courtesy of the Topkapi Palace Museum.

In 1596, Sir John Harington developed a forerunner to the modern toilet and had it installed in his house. He also had one installed for his godmother, Queen Elizabeth I, but she refused to use it because the noise freaked her out.

By the 1850’s, the flush toilet had become a standard fixture in the homes of the bourgeoisie, leading to many much needed updates to old and overburdened sewage systems.

And because I’ve been picking on Britain a lot in this post, I will say that a 31st century BCE hydraulic waste removal system was discovered in one of Britain’s oldest known Neolithic villages: Skara Brae, Orkney. Way to remove that waste, Skara Brae.

since your expertise lies more in jewry, could you possibly give an (albeit stunted and too short for the subject matter) analysis on why judaism developed monotheism and other cultures did not?

The people known as the Israelites weren’t special or exceptional; they were just another group of semi-nomadic Iron Age Canaanites (for more on this refer to the series of “Passover” posts from April 2011, or to the works of William Dever on my Further Reading page as linked above). They were arranged in a loose confederation of tribes and often had wars and alliances with other Canaanite groups.

They reached a point at around the eleventh century at which the tribal leadership was no longer effective, so they agreed to put themselves under the rule of a king chosen by the tribal leaders. The first king was Saul, and then came David, who usurped Saul’s line. After the death of David’s son Solomon, the northern tribes rebelled against the Davidic line, leading to the formation of two polities: The Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah.

So there’s a historical backdrop for you.

As Canaanites, the Israelites were polytheists. They primarily worshiped Ba’al, Astarte, El, Yahweh, and Asherah. There were more, but those are the most important ones. If you pick up the Bible and look at the books of Judges-II Kings, you’ll see that the author of these books worked very hard to convey the idea of Israelite society as a strictly polytheistic one. However, what can actually be seen in those books is a picture of a society with two distinct forms of worship: there was the Israelite folk religion—in which Ba’al and Asherah etc were worshiped alongside Yahweh—and then there was the religion of the Jerusalem elites who worshiped only Yahweh. In some cases isn’t wasn’t just folk religion: as you’ve seen in the post linked above, worship of Asherah was so widespread that her symbology was present in the Temple.

All of this changed around the eighth century BCE after the 722 fall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrian Empire. There came into power within the priesthood a group referred to by scholars as the Yahweh Alone Party. This group was comprised of religious radicals who wanted to institute two things throughout Israelite society 1) worship of Yahweh as the sole deity, and 2) the idea that Yahweh could only be worshiped in Temple in Jerusalem; the writer of Deuteronomy-most of II Kings was a member of this group.

This group instituted a series of reforms which included the destruction of unsanctioned places of worship, the removal of Asherah’s presence from the Temple, the destruction of Asherah poles and alters to Ba’al, and the fusion of El and Yahweh into a singular deity.

However, these reforms were hardly effective. The people continued to worship as they pleased (albeit in a quiet manner) while the King of Judah and the Jerusalem priesthood went about their business, worshiping only Yahweh and pretending that the people did as well.

As you can see, that still wasn’t close to monotheism as we currently understand the term. The event which dramatically changed Israelite/Judahite religion from a form of varied polytheism into strict monotheism came in 586 BCE: the Babylonian Exile. In this year, the Babylonian Empire conquered Judah, destroyed the Temple, and shipped off the majority of the population to Babylon. There, the Judahites were a minority. As a minority they were faced with a question: do they assimilate and cease to be Judahites, or do they forge an enduring identity to ensure the continuation of their existence in exile?

They chose the latter. A big part of the formation of this identity was final abandonment of the worship of the old gods, and the full acceptance of monotheism with Yahweh at the center of their worship. Another aspect of this identity formulation included the determination of how Yahweh could be worshiped without the Temple; the solution to this was the writing of the Bablyonian Talmud.

When Persia conquered Babylon less than 100 years after Babylon’s conquest of Judah, the Persian emperor allowed the “Yehudites” to return under limited self-rule to the Province of Yehuda. Some returned and some stayed; what these two communities now had in common was that they worshiped Yahweh. As history went on and Exile turned to Diaspora, this monotheism and the forms of worship contained in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds became the factor which continued to distinguish Jews, far flung as they came to be.

So there’s your answer: the Babylonian Exile created a situation in which proto-Jews realized that they had to unify lest they be destroyed. They chose to unify, and with this unification came the full acceptance of monotheism. This monotheism was still a very ancient form of what we now call “Judaism,” but that’s how Jewish monotheism came to be. At least, that’s the short version of how that form of monotheism came to be.

Enheduanna: the First Author

In the Ancient Near East, religious appointments were political appointments. Thus, as the High Priestess of the Moon God Nanna, Enheduanna (2285-2250 BCE) was a very powerful political player in the cities of Ur and Uruk. She was appointed to the post by her father, King Sargon of Akkad, in order for him to consolidate his power in the above two cities.

And indeed, Enheduanna was a political, cultural, and literary force to be reckoned with. She was the writer of protest literature, and is recognized by Assyriologists as the creator of the theology associated with Innana; in fact, her authorship of these compositions make her the first identifiable author in world literature. Her writings were so well loved that copies of her work have been found throughout the Near East, many of them dating to hundreds of years after her death.

Me who once sat triumphant, he has driven out of the sanctuary.
Like a swallow he made me fly from the window,
My life is consumed.
He stripped me of the crown appropriate for the high priesthood.
He gave me dagger and sword—‘it becomes you,’ he said to me.

It was in your service that I first entered the holy temple,
I, Enheduanna, the highest priestess. I carried the ritual basket,
I chanted your praise.
Now I have been cast out to the place of lepers.
Day comes and the brightness is hidden around me.
Shadows cover the light, drape it in sandstorms.
My beautiful mouth knows only confusion.
Even my sex is dust.

-Enheduanna, after her first removal from her post

After her father’s death, the throne of Akkad was taken by her brother Rimush. He was not a strong ruler, and she was expelled from her position in the turmoil surrounding his rule. Though she was eventually reinstated as High Priestess, the experience affected her enough to compose the narrative The Exaltation of Inanna.

After Rimush came the rule of her nephew, Naram-Sin. Naram-Sin, understanding the political advantages of having a daughter installed as High Priestess of Nanna, expelled Enheduanna from her post, and installed his own daughter instead. In her anger and fury over her expulsion, Enheduanna composed the Curse of Akkad, in which Naram-Sin is cursed and cast out of Akkad by Enlil.

Though we can only hear her voice through her writings, those writings give us a clear idea of the woman she was: a woman who, after losing her place in life, refused to fall quietly into obscurity, and instead struck back with a damning literary response.

History of the Guennol Lioness

The Guennol Lioness; photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

The Guennol Lioness is of Elamite origin and is thought to have been made between 3000 and 2800 BCE—the same period in which writing systems were being developed, the wheel was being invented, and cities were beginning to rise in the Ancient Near East. Experts believe that the Lioness may have been used to ward off evil, and that it was probably owned by a person of high social standing. It also must be noted that many Ancient Near Eastern deities were portrayed as figures of both animal and human attributes, encapsulating the Mesopotamian belief in the attainment of power through the combining of the physical attributes of different species.

In 1931, New York art dealer Joseph Brummer came to possess the figure after reporting its discovery at a site near Baghdad. In 1948, the piece was purchased by Alastair Bradley Martin and Edith Park Martin. As a trustee and President of the Brooklyn Museum, Mr. Martin had the object—along with other artifacts from his family’s collection—displayed at the museum, and kept them there on a long term loan.

In 2007, the Martin family took the object—their family property—off of loan with the intent to sell it through the Sotheby’s auction house. At this point, it was one of the last antiquities of its age and type still in private hands. Here is a video of the Executive VP of the Sotheby’s auction house discussing the Lioness; they’ve disabled embedding, but I really encourage you to click through to it.

On December 5, 2007, the piece sold to an anonymous British bidder for nearly $57.2 million, setting a world record (which has since been broken) for an antiquity sold through an auction house.

Because the purchaser was anonymous, nobody is quite sure on the location of this artifact. Perhaps the individual has private conservators, perhaps they do not; there is no way of knowing. What we can know for sure, however, is that this item is not available to the public.

Assurbanipal(King of the Universe, king of Assyria)’s Library

The other day I was walking into my apartment with a friend, excited to introduce her to the masterpiece that is Summer Heights High, when all of the sudden a name popped into my head: Assurbanipal. And I was like “Why is an Assyrian-sounding name popping into my head?” It was clearly a sign.

Assurbanipal (685 BCE– 627 BCE) was the last great emperor of the neo-Assyrian Empire. Despite his popularity amongst his own people, he was known for the brutality he showed to his enemies; he once put a dog chain through the jaw of a defeated king and forced him to live out the rest of his life in a dog kennel, and he celebrated his conquest of Elam by displaying the head of the defeated king Teumann in the port of Nineveh. However, this is not a post about Assurbanipal’s military activities and regional hegemony; this is a post about something way more awesome: his library.

Assurbanipal was a highly literate collector of texts and tablets. Though Assyrian rulers before him had begun to build a library, he was responsible for the most active and aggressive collecting; in the year 648 BCE alone he accessioned more than 2000 tablets into his collection. He sent scribes into every corner of the empire to collect texts from temples and vassal states, and he used his violent reputation to acquire texts from unwilling donors.

He collected all kinds of texts, including royal inscriptions, mythological/religious texts, legal documents, medical documents, administrative documents, grants, decrees, incantations, and so forth. Included in the library were such texts as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish, the story of Adapa, the Epic of Atrahasis, and the Descent of Ishtar. He also collected textual commentaries.

He was not merely a collector, but he devised a standard format and script for all of the texts within his collection. Though he had the originals of the majority of the texts he collected, he had his scribes re-copy each text using a standardized cuneiform script and layout with each text ending with an identification stating that the text belonged to the “palace of Assurbanipal, king of the universe, king of Assyria.” The scribes doubled as translators when the originals were written in languages, such as Sumerian, which had died out of usage.

Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Scythians, and the Medes in 612 BCE. They burned the palace, and instead of destroying everything as they had intended, the heat from the fire baked the clay tablets on which the majority of the texts in Assurbanipal’s library were recorded, ensuring their preservation.

According to Persian and Armenian tradition, it was Assurbanipal’s library which inspired Alexander the Great to create his own library. Though he died before he could put his plans into motion, his friend and successor Ptolemy I began work on it, and that project grew into the great Library of Alexandria. Of course, this is arguable as Alexander was active after the destruction of Nineveh, but it is possible that the memory of the library was still active in the region, or that it Alexander had access to the ruins.

Either way—and sadly unlike the Library of Alexandria—Assurbanipal’s library remained intact within the ruins of Nineveh until it was discovered at the site of Kouyunjik (located in modern Iraq) first in 1849 by Austen Henry Layard, and then in 1852 by Hormuzd Rassam (Layard’s assistant).

Unfortunately, in the nineteenth century, archaeological excavations in the Ancient Near East were conducted by wealthy young “adventurers” who were searching for Biblical sites. They tended to treat archaeological sites like their own private playgrounds, and remove artifacts as they saw fit with no record of layers, excavation order, or immediate provenance. Upon their arrival in Europe, the tablets taken from the Kouyunjik site were so thoroughly mixed up that is has proved nearly impossible to reconstruct the original order.

The majority of these texts are held in the collections of the British Museum. Information regarding ongoing work with this collection by the museum in cooperation with the University of Mosul in Iraq may be found here: The Ashurbanipal Library Project.

Chanukah and Historiography, or, the Hasmoneans are Rly Embarrassing

You know, I was going to try to be unpredictable and not make a Chanukah post, but lol @ that tbh.

Today, Chanukah is kind of a cute holiday about god saving the Jewish people from cultural genocide with lots of songs about candles and spinning tops. With presents. But at its barest of bones, Chanukah is a celebration of the fact that a bunch of guerilla fighters beat the Greek establishment out of Judea while using spinning tops as an instrument of subversion. Which begs the question: how did candles and spinning tops come to dominate this holiday which arose from the ousting of an empire of the hands of a few Jews?

First we have to ask what actually happened. Modern scholars fall into two main camps on this issue. One camp views the uprising told of in 1 and 2 Maccabees not as a revolt against the Greeks, but as the result of a civil war between orthodox and reformist Jews. Meaning, there was a civil war between Jews who did not wish to assimilate to the Hellenistic way of life, and Jews who did. The Greek leadership responded to this war by punishing the Orthodox camp (by doing stuff like letting their pigs defecate in the temple). The Maccabean uprising, according to this theory, was the result of Greek intercession in the civil war.

The other camp argues that the revolt began as a religious one, and simply grew into a nationalistic one. Now, because this isn’t my field of study within Jewish history I cannot argue in favor of either camp. I will, however say that, in light of subsequent inter-Jewish conflicts, and in light of conflicts within the present day global Jewish community, the first theory—the one which states that the revolt began with a war between orthodox and modernized Jewry—rings true to me.

The Maccabees, who founded the ruling Hasmonean dynasty, ruled the land independently from 140 BCE to 37 BCE, at which point it was completely dominated by Roman power.*

It would seem that an event of this magnitude would have been deemed worthy enough to merit inclusion in the Biblical canon, but instead, 1 and 2 Maccabees were banished to the Apocrypha.** For, the Hasmoneans were actually pretty corrupt leaders whose policy led directly to the Roman conquest of Judea, and thus the destruction of the Second Temple.

For this reason, later rabbinical scholars, not wanting to glorify the Hasmoneans, relegated 1 and 2 Maccabees to the Apocrypha and emphasized the role of god and miracles in the uprising over the Maccabees themselves. That is why, today, we have a holiday about latkes, dreidels, and candle lighting.

*Rome conquered and divided the land in 63 BCE, but the Hasmoneans retained a semblance of independence until Herod the Great strengthened his rule in 37 BCE.

**These books are apocryphal in the Hebrew Bible, and in the Protestant scriptures; they are canonical within the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox texts.