JEWS HAVE LONG traced their origin to the Five Books of Moses in the Bible, to the story of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, the Exodus from Egypt, and the revelation at Mount Sinai. We suspect that this is where many readers would expect a book like this to begin, and one has to admit that stories like those told in Genesis and Exodus make for a great opening, one of the most memorable origin stories ever told. But there is a complication that prevents us from beginning in this way.
Over the last few centuries, scholars have come to question the traditional account that traces the Jews back to the people and events described in the Bible, just as scientists came to question the Bible’s explanation of how the world began, and they have developed many alternative reconstructions of ancient Jewish history, some directly at odds with the biblical account. Since our goal in this book is to share the fruits of modern historical research, should we not begin with these scholarly accounts? Perhaps, but scholars do not agree among themselves about how the Jews originated. They have been successful in raising doubts about the stories of Abraham, Moses, and David—thanks to modern historical and archaeological research, we can no longer be certain that such figures even existed—but they have not settled on an alternative understanding of how the Jews originated. We have to struggle not only with how little we know about ancient Jewish history but also with how many possible ways there are to understand that history.
Consider how difficult it is to resolve when to begin Jewish history. Before we can begin recounting the history of the Jewish people, we must obviously decide when exactly to begin it, and it is not easy to commit oneself to a particular date or even a century as a starting point. As we have noted, Jews themselves have long believed their history begins with Abraham’s sojourn to the land of Canaan and the Exodus from Egypt, but we do not know when these events occurred, if they occurred at all, and there are other problems as well. The people described in much of the Bible do not call themselves Jews, but Israelites, or the “sons of Israel” to be more precise, and their culture and religion differ from that of later Jews in many ways. Perhaps the beginning of Jewish history should be placed at the point at which the ancient Israelites become the Jews, but when exactly does that transformation take place? Many scholars place it at the end of the period described by the Hebrew Bible, in the wake of the Babylonian Exile in 586?BCE. Some place it even later, after the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, and some still later, in the age of Roman rule and the ascendancy of Christianity. Depending on which account you happen to read, the story of the Jews begins 4,000 years ago in the Middle Bronze Age, or 2,000 years ago in the same age that produced Christianity, and some would go so far as to argue that we cannot really speak of “the Jews”—as opposed to the Israelites or the ancient Judeans—until medieval or modern times.
Why is it so difficult to fix a clear starting point for Jewish history? One reason is that we simply do not have a lot of evidence for the earliest periods of Jewish history, but that is not the only complication. Another is that scholars do not agree about what Jewish
means exactly and how it relates to or differs from overlapping terms used in the Bible, such as Israelite
. The term Jew
derives from the name “Judah” or Yehuda
, but even in the Hebrew Bible that term has several possible meanings, referring to an Israelite tribe, to a territory in the southern part of Canaan, and also to the kingdom based in this territory and ruled by David and his descendants. After the end of the biblical period, the terms translated as Judean
acquired still other connotations, signifying a particular way of life or adherence to particular beliefs. The term’s ambiguity continues to this day, with Jewish
signifying a religion for some, for others a cultural or ethnic identity that may not be religious in orientation, and for still others a national identity, such as French, Turkish, or American. To fix a single starting point
for “Jewish” history would commit us to a specific definition of Jewishness at the expense of other definitions that also have merit.
Still, we must begin somewhere, and this book has opted to begin where Jews themselves have long looked to understand their origins—with “history” as described in the Hebrew Bible. We put the word history in quotes here because it is not clear that the biblical account corresponds to what counts as history for a historian, the past as it actually happened. Modern scholarship has expressed doubts about the Hebrew Bible’s value as a historical document, questioning whether the people described in the Bible, such as Abraham and Moses, really existed and whether key events, such as the Exodus and the revelation at Mount Sinai, really occurred. The skepticism of scholars has alienated some Jews and Christians who believe in the Bible as an accurate account of how reality works, but the reasons for this skepticism cannot be dismissed out of hand if one is willing to approach the evidence with an open mind. Mindful of what modern scholarship has concluded about the Bible, one of our goals in this chapter is to open the question of what really happened, to ask whether the biblical account of Israel’s history—its stories of Abraham and his family, the Exodus from Egypt, Joshua’s conquest of the land of Canaan, the rule of King David—corresponds to the past as reconstructed by historians and archaeologists.
Even as we question the biblical account, however, we will also try to provide a sense of how it tells the story of ancient Israel because, regardless of whether that story corresponds to what actually happened, it is crucial for understanding the development of Jewish culture. For one thing, Jewish culture did not suddenly appear one day; it evolved out of an earlier Israelite culture from which it inherited beliefs, practices, language(s), texts, and patterns of social organization. Why do Jews worship a God who they believe created the world? Why are Canaan and Jerusalem so central in Jewish culture? What are the origins of Jewish religious practices such as circumcision, resting on the Sabbath, and keeping kosher? Why is Hebrew such an important language in Jewish culture? These questions cannot be answered without referring to pre-Jewish Israelite culture, and biblical literature is our richest source for understanding that culture.
A second reason for beginning with the Bible is that the perception of the Bible as the starting point for Jewish history is a historical fact in its own right, and an important one for understanding Jewish identity. For the last 2,000 years at least, Jews have looked to the Hebrew Bible to understand who they are and how they are to behave. To this day, in fact, many Jews trace their lineage back to patriarchs such as Abraham and Jacob; during Passover, they recount the Exodus as if in Egypt themselves, and many look forward to the coming of a messiah from the line of King David. We are speaking here of religious Jews but even secularized Jews—Jews who are not animated by faith in God and do not see their identity as a religious one—can look to the Bible to understand themselves or draw on it as a source for poetry, art, and other forms of cultural expression. Even if the Bible had no value whatsoever as a historical source (and we will see that it actually has great value as such a source), it is important to know what it says about the past if only to understand how Jews throughout the centuries have seen themselves.
Keeping these points in mind, we have settled on not one but two starting points for Jewish history. The first is ancient Israelite history prior to the Babylonian Exile in 586 BCE. Where did the Israelites come from, and what is the historical connection between them and later Jews? The present chapter will attempt to answer these questions by drawing on the Hebrew Bible, but its testimony will not be sufficient by itself since according to modern scholarship, its account is questionable, concealing the true origins of the ancient Israelites. What this chapter introduces, therefore, is ancient Israelite history as reconstructed by biblical scholars, their best attempt to explain the genesis of the ancient Israelites within the context of what is known about history from other ancient Near Eastern sources and archaeological excavation.
Our second starting point, and the focus of Chapter 2
, is the emergence of the Hebrew Bible itself: where does biblical literature come from, and how did it become so important to Jewish culture? It is no easier to answer these questions than it is to reconstruct ancient Israelite history, for there remains much uncertainty about who wrote the texts included in the Hebrew Bible, and when and why they were written. It is also unclear when these texts acquired the resonance and authority they would enjoy in later Jewish culture. Despite the many gaps in our knowledge, however, there is evidence to suggest that the emergence of the Bible marks a watershed moment in the transition from Israelite to Jewish culture; indeed, we will argue that the formation of Jewishness and the formation of the Hebrew Bible are inextricably intertwined.
For modern scholars who approach the Bible as a text composed by humans, nothing is sacred about the history it tells. Consider a story that may already be familiar to you—the Bible’s account of how David defeated the Philistine Goliath:
A warrior came out of the Philistines’ camp, Goliath by name, from Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand bronze shekels. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron.?.?.
As the Philistine drew near to David, David rushed toward the battle line toward the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took from there a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground. So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone.
(1 Samuel 17:4–7, 48–50)
As is true of history books in general, this volume employs the abbreviations BCE and CE to help date events in the past, especially the ancient past, but their use to understand Jewish history in particular raises some issues worth thinking about.
There is something ironic about applying the abbreviations BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) to the Jews: both terms are tied to a Christian conception of time. CE is a modern equivalent to AD, anno domini—“the year of our Lord”—namely, the year of Jesus’s birth. The idea of dating history in relation to the year of Jesus’s birth was first developed in the sixth century CE by a Christian monk named Dionysius Exiguus, and we do not know how he was able to calculate the year of Jesus’s birth, though scholars think he wasn’t far off (many scholars think that Jesus was probably born sometime between 6 and 4 BCE). Historians developed the abbreviation BC, “Before Christ,” more recently, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, counting backward from 1 BC (there is no year zero) in order to encompass their growing understanding of events that took place before the onset of Christianity. AD and BC were later changed to CE and BCE, “The Common Era” and “Before the Common Era,” not originally to purge them of their religious association with Jesus but to indicate dates common to all humanity, Christian and non-Christian. To use dates like 586 BCE or 70 CE to describe Jewish history is thus to frame it in terms of a calendar introduced by another religious community.
For their part, Jews have longed used their own calendar, which counts from the creation of the world as dated in Jewish tradition. The origins of this calendar are obscure, but the use of creation as a starting point seems to have been embraced by Jewish communities by the tenth or eleventh century CE, perhaps as a reaction against the growing influence of the Christian calendar, and is still in use to this day (as I write this sentence, in 2018, it is the year 5778 according to the Jewish calendar). While the application of the abbreviations BCE and CE to Jewish history has scholarly value, allowing historians to situate the history of the Jews within a broader history of humanity, the use of this chronological framework is also a reminder that the way scholars think about the past is shaped by the Christian European context in which the field of history arose.
For thousands of years people have accepted this story as true, but is it true in a historical sense? Did David really fight such a battle? Did he win in the way that this episode suggests? Underdogs do occasionally prevail in real life, so the improbability of David’s victory isn’t enough reason to reject the story. There is, however, at least one specific reason for skepticism: another reference to the defeat of Goliath tucked away elsewhere in the Bible that attributes the giant’s defeat to someone else:
There was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaareoregim, the Bethlehemite, struck Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.
(2 Samuel 21:19)
Goliath is still the enemy here, described the same way as in the more famous version of the story (cf. 1 Samuel 17:7: “the shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam”). The hero who slays Goliath is not the young shepherd David, however, but an otherwise obscure warrior named Elhanan. Interpreters have long recognized this problem and tried to reconcile the discrepancy by suggesting that Elhanan was another name for David, but this solution ignores the Bible’s claim that David and Elhanan were two different people, a king and his servant. Yet a third reference to this battle in the Bible—this time in a narrative called Chronicles—tries to solve the problem by claiming that David killed Goliath while Elhanan killed Goliath’s brother (1 Chronicles 20:5), but Chronicles was written much later than 1–2 Samuel by an author trying to resolve the contradictions that he found in these earlier sources, and his solution too is rather contrived. Scholars have therefore proposed another possibility. Perhaps there is no way to reconcile the discrepancy. One or the other of the two accounts is simply wrong, and it seems more likely, given how the biographies of important political figures often become embellished over time, that it is 2 Samuel 21 that records the name of the real slayer of
Goliath, not David but the long forgotten Elhanan, and that the more famous version of the story in 1 Samuel 17 is a later development, an attempt to boost King David’s heroic image by giving him the credit for another man’s victory. In other words, the battle of David and Goliath as depicted in the Bible, while making for a very memorable story, probably isn’t an accurate reflection of history, the past as it actually unfolded.
Modern scholars raise such possibilities not because they want to undermine people’s religious beliefs but because they are committed to a particular way of knowing reality that bases itself not on tradition—on what people have believed in the past—but on empirical evidence, unfettered questioning, and reasoned explanation. Like judges in a trial, the modern scholar wants to hear from multiple witnesses and to cross-examine them about how they know what they claim to know, before rendering a judgment about what happened. This is how scholars approach history in general, and applying the same basic approach to the Bible has led scholars to challenge much of what the Bible says about history, and not just particular episodes like David’s victory over Goliath but also sometimes even more basic claims—that David did any of the things attributed to him in 1–2 Samuel, for instance, or even that there was a King David.
From the perspective of modern historical scholarship, what the Hebrew Bible says about the past becomes much more credible when other witnesses can back up its testimony, when one can point to other independent sources that can provide corroboration. Since we are not talking about witnesses in a literal sense, what we mean here is corroboration provided by (1) written testimony composed independently of the Bible and/or (2) the discipline of archaeology, the retrieval and interpretation of physical evidence generated by the activities of earlier humans. The written testimony at our disposal includes inscriptions from Israel itself and texts from other ancient Near Eastern cultures that refer to Israel. The archaeological evidence consists of pottery, the remnants of buildings, tools, weapons, jewelry, and so forth. The written evidence can tell us what people thought and how they expressed themselves, and sometimes responds to specific historical events. The archaeological evidence can shed light on what people did—the food they ate, the work they did, the battles they fought, the dead they buried. Sometimes all this evidence confirms what the Bible says about history, and it certainly ...