Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Babylon Nurtures the Jewish Priesthood

Babylon Nurtures the Jewish Priesthood

Without a Trace
Though much honoured in legend (and Hollywood) the simple truth is that no evidence has ever been found of David, Solomon or his ‘empire.’ Neither secular history, nor archaeology, provides a shred of confirmation for the highly detailed and colourful biblical stories. Not a single stone or artifact from what was supposedly the world’s most fabulous temple has ever been identified. The extraordinary magnificence of the Jewish Empire is matched only by the total void when we seek confirmation from any other source.
For example, the Asiatic Greek Herodotus – writing one of the world’s first histories in the 5th century BC – wrote of peoples and places throughout the Persian empire and beyond. Herodotus knew of lake-dwellers in far away Europe and of barbarous tribes along the north African coast. He was familiar with the painted warriors of the Sudan and with the nomads of southern Russia.
Yet in all his work Herodotus makes no single mention of Jews or Hebrews, Judah or Israel. He speaks of the coastal cities of Sidon and Tyre but never of Jerusalem. He records the great temple of Aphrodite Urania at Ascalon but fails to mention any temple of Solomon.
He does, however, know of circumcision and says this:

'"The Colchians, the Egyptians, and the Ethiopians are the only races which from ancient times have practiced circumcision. The Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine themselves admit that they adopted the practice from Egypt…No other nations use circumcision, and all of these are without doubt following the Egyptian lead."
– Herodotus, The Histories, Book 2,104; Penguin, p167.

Herodotus gathered much of his information first-hand from priests and holy men. His travels took him to the frontier of Upper Egypt and to Babylon itself. He also recorded popular beliefs and legends. Speaking of the inhabitants at the eastern end of the Mediterranean he says:

'The Phoenicians, with the Syrians of Palestine…have a tradition that in ancient times they lived on the Persian Gulf, but migrated to the Syrian coast, where they are found today. This part of Syria, together with the country which extends southward to Egypt, is all known as Palestine.'
Herodotus, The Histories, Book 7,89; Penguin, p472.

For Herodotus, this land is the home of ‘Syrians known as Palestinians’. If tribesmen in the interior escaped his attention they assuredly were not the authors of a great empire which supposedly had existed a few hundred years before his own time. More than two thousand years later nothing has emerged to change our understanding:
"This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel.
Perhaps even harder to swallow is that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom."
Ha'aretz Magazine, October 1999.
All that we do have is some evidence of minor regional war lords or ‘city bosses’ (‘kings’) who, in the centuries before first Assyria, and then Babylon, overran Palestine. Yet more tellingly in the Jewish ‘nationalistic’ saga, we have the rationale for a theocratic state and a religious caste system. The priests are born to rule both because it is Yahweh’s design and because secular kings (even magnificent ones) transgress and run amok.
Yet kings are not excluded out of hand. The priesthood loathed the diminution of their power and the intrusion of secular laws but were delighted by the enlargement of the territory of the theocratic state, such as might be achieved by a warrior king (and as idealised in the ‘empire’ conjectured for Solomon). The duality of power, the conflict between king and priest, runs as a theme through subsequent Jewish history and was never resolved.
Above all, from the ‘Davidic’ legend we get the supposed primacy of the ‘House of David’ and the awful conviction that, when the hour is right, a warrior/priest (or a warrior and a priest – keeping him on the straight and narrow!) will appear to lead the nation of Israel against the forces of darkness – a Messiah (or Messiahs)!
It is worth noting that 'Davidic descent' as some sort of exclusive cachet – supposedly one of the marks of Jesus – would have been patently absurd in first century Palestine. If that fabled polygamous king and his prodigiously promiscuous son Solomon – he of 'seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines'! – had actually existed, the passage of a thousand years (or twenty eight generations according to Matthew, forty three generations according to Luke) would have assured that each and every Jew – all seven million of them – could have made the same 'Davidic' claim!
J.A. de Gobineau, The World of the Persians (Minerva, 1971)
Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (Phoenix Grant, 1987)
Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Crucified Jew (Harper Collins,1992)
Henry Hart Milman, The History of the Jews (Everyman, 1939)
Josephus, The Jewish War (Penguin, 1959)
Leslie Houlden (Ed.), Judaism & Christianity (Routledge, 1988)
Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (Harper Collins, 1999)
Herodotus, The Histories, (Penguin, 1954)

Nicholas De Lange (Ed.) The Illustrated History of the Jewish People (Aurum, 1997)
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