The Holy Land in History
Lecture given on Swan Hellenic Cruises The Very Rev. A.C. Bridge
Ladies and Gentlemen I say what I want to say under the title, The Holy Land in History, may I issue a mild warning? Whatever I say is bound to be inadequate, for the part of the world I am going to try to describe a bit has had one of the longest, most complicated, and most fascinating histories of any country in the world, and I am bound to leave a lot out - I can only flit from period to period, people to people, civilisation to civilisation, like some elephantine butterfly, and if I satisfy none of you, I shouldn’t be surprised. And there’s another snag to talking about this part of the world; for it is a part of which everyone knows something, even if what they know is wrong.
So, to get down to business, let me first try and define what I mean by the Holy Land. It certainly isn’t confined to the State of Israel; it’s bigger than that. In fact, it is the area which used to be called Palestine or more often Syria; Palestine after the Philistines while Syria is almost certainly a corruption of the Babylonian ‘Suri’, which was the name of a province of the Babylonian Empire, and not a derivative of the word Assyria, as Herodotus thought. Whatever it may be called, it is the area bounded by deserts to the East and the South, and by the anti-Taurus mountains to the North, and by the sea to the West, and of course modern Israel lies at the heart of it; and one of the reasons why it has had such a varied and momentous history is that it has constituted a sort of global cross-roads - a meeting point or passing point for the nations of the world - the world’s cross-roads. First, it has been a cross-road, a junction of paths, a place through which people moving from A to B have had to pass each other - because it lies between the continents of Asia and Africa, and even more importantly between the two primeval cradles of civilized man, the valleys of the Euphrates and the Nile between the first two centres of Empire. But it has also been a cross-roads for travellers from West to East and East to West: for travellers from Asia to Europe by way of the Mediterranean and for those moving in the other direction.
All - or nearly all - the world’s great invaders have left their marks on Palestine and Syria - Pharaohs, Assyrians, Hittites, Babylonians, Greeks, Seleucids, Ptolomies, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Seljuks, Mongols, Mameluks, Crusaders, Khwarismian Turks, Ottomans, Napoleonic Frenchmen, and British Tommies. This makes the place an archaeologist’s paradise - or nightmare in some cases; and when you add to the list of people who have left their deposits of pots and bones and cities and coins and artefacts on the face of the land the various people of the Old Testament - Habiru, Canaanites, Moabites, Jebusites, Ishmaelites, Edomites and all the other ‘ites’, you can begin to understand how exciting and potentially muddling digging up the past in the Holy Land can be and indeed is.
But there’s another way in which Palestine/Syria has been the cross-roads of the world; for a cross-roads is a place where people on the move have to make a decision as to which road to take, and there has never been a place which has confronted travellers through life with the need to make up their minds which road to follow more firmly or more frequently that this place. Are you going to follow the road mapped out for you by Moses and the Prophets: the road sign-posted for you by the great Jewish Torah? Or are you going to follow him who said
‘I am the way, the truth, and the life….Come unto me all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’? Or do you reckon that there is no God but God, and that Mohammed is his prophet? It is an astonishing fact that the three greatest monotheistic religions of the world all look to this place as the cradle of their faith - as sacred ground - and it is a fact which has deeply influenced its history - indeed, not only its history, but the history of the whole western world - for better or worse, and still does so. And of course it has not only influenced the history of this part of the world - the Holy Land - but has marked its face too.
Lastly, and before I leave the analogy, a cross-roads is also a place where travellers meet, and either respect each other’s rights to go their own way or clash with each other; and Syria/Palestine has been the scene of many such meetings and clashes, both of men and gods down the ages. I’ve already mentioned some of the men who have fought and lived there - and I’ll come back to them in a minute - but I can’t leave the gods out. Some have been inhabitants of the place; the old earth mothers were here first of all, then the fertility gods and goddesses so hated and distrusted by people like Elijah and Isaiah; then Yahweh - Jehovah, as the old authorised Bible called him; then the Christian God, then that of Mohammed.
Others have stayed for a bit, and passed through en route to other places. Apollo was an eastern god in origin, and so was Diana of the Ephesians, whom the Greeks called Artemis, while others like Astarte or Ishtar - the Ashtaroth of the Old Testament - were indigenous to Syria. So in all these senses, this part of the world has been a cross-roads - one might almost say the cross-roads of the world - and my justification for reminding you that this has been so is that the people who have passed along the various roads leading through the country have shaped it and formed it, laying down deposits of tombs and temples and fortified cities during their passage, however prolonged or brief that passage may have been, some of which we shall see during our short visit.
But before I get on to these cultural deposits, I must point out one other thing about Syria/Palestine - the Holy Land - and its geography. I ought to have done so before this. Hemmed in by deserts, mountains, and the sea, as I have already said, it itself is broken up into plains divided by mountains - or anyway hilly areas - hilly areas interspersed by fertile valleys; and thus it has never had the kind of geographical unity which countries like Egypt or Mesopotamia have, composed as they are wholly of fertile plans, nor that of countries like Switzerland or Nepal, composed wholly of mountains; and this geographical disunity of the place has always made its political unification very difficult. It has been a place of little tribes, small hostile peoples, and constant political strife; and of course these, too, have left their cultural deposits on the face of the land.
Looking briefly at these deposits in historical order, what do they tell us about the people who laid them down? First, the earliest period and the Old Testament - leaving aside Jerusalem, on which I shall be lecturing separately this evening - there is a mass of archaeological evidence relative to the Biblical narratives, and obviously I can’t look at it all in forty brief minutes; but to take one example as representative of much else, the earliest site to be thoroughly explored by archaeology - by Dame Kathleen Kenyon to be precise - was that of the Old Testament City of Jericho, now in Israel where Joshua - you will remember - fought his favourite battle, and where according to the Old Testament account - the walls of the City fell conveniently flat as he attacked and captured it. It has a perpetual spring of water, which is why people settled there in the first place obviously enough. But why settle at all? It is a Neolithic site, dated from as early as 8,000 B.C. as calculated by corrected radio-carbon dating; and like a very similar neolithic city in souther Turkey at a place named Catal Huyuk, it seems to have been a result of what has been called the Neolithic Revolution - a term coined to describe the change in man’s way of life from that of a wandering hunter gatherer to that of a settled planter and reaper in about 10,000 B.C.
As a term, the Neolithic Revolution has been criticised for giving the idea that the change from one way of life to another was a sudden event, like the French Revolution or the Russian; obviously, it wasn’t. It was a very gradual process over hundreds of years; the first planters and reapers didn’t suddenly stop hunting animals and picking wild fruit etcetera in 10,000 B.C. But where Paleolithic man relied on hunting the animals he painted so marvellously on the walls of sacred caves at such places as Lascaux and Altamira, the men who built Jericho did so in order to store the grain they grew and protect it from theft by others - in other words, Neolithic man in Jericho was the first capitalist.
Kathleen Kenyon found city walls six and a half feet thick still standing twelve feet high and a great stone tower thirty feet high at the at the lower archaeological level. Over the centuries, level after level of city occupation accumulated in a great mound - or Tel - and these early Neolithic walls would have been buried fifty or sixty feet deep or more by Joshua’s time. But Jericho was walled again in Bronze age times, and on more than one occasion the walls appear to have been destroyed by earthquakes - there’s archaeological evidence for that and thus the Old Testament account seems to be supported up to a point by modern archaeology.
But then comes the difficulty; for the latest walls to be destroyed have been dated to a long time before that normally attributed to the invasion of Joshua and his Hebrews - i.e. somewhere between 1500 and 1200 B.C. - and thus archaeology would seem to contradict rather than support the story of Joshua’s capture of the city - a point of which Magnus Magnusson made much much in a TV series about the archaeology of the Holy Land some years ago. But for at least a century - longer than that - Biblical Scholars have been saying that one must not read the account of the Hebrew invasion of Palestine under Joshua as straight reporting; rather it is a dramatised folk memory of a long-drawn-out process of nomadic infiltration and piecemeal invasion by the Hebrews of the settled land of Canaan: an account which did not reach its present form until much later - possibly as late as 600 B.C. - and should not be read as a simple historical record; its authors were not a bit interested in simple historical reporting; they were interested in the age-old account, handed down for centuries - almost for millennia - from generation to generation by word of mouth, of how God Yahweh/Jehovah - had led his people into possession of the Promised Land under the leadership of a legendary saviour of the people - which is precisely what Joshua means; it is not a name as such - it means, Lord, Saviour.
Seen that way, Kathleen Kenyon’s digging and the book of Joshua fill each other out rather than contradicting each other; and much biblical archaeology does the same - it can’t prove or disprove the Bible, but it can and does say much about the balance of probability of biblical events, often lighting them up in the most surprising way.
May I give you one other example from the Old Testament of how archaeology can shed enormous light on a biblical parable? It concerns the Hittites. They are mentioned in the
Book of Genesis together with the usual bunch of Kenites, Perizzites, Amorites, Girgashites, and so on. Abraham bought the cave of Macphelah near Hebron from a Hittite, Esau, married one, and in the Book of Numbers it says that “Amalek dwells in the land of the south, the Hittite, the Hebusite, and the Amorite dwell in the mountains…and the Canaanite dwells by the sea and along by the side of the Jordan”.
Joshua also mentions them, and it sounds as though the Hittites were just another little local tribe - one of the many Semitic peoples who lived in the mountainous country of Syria/Palestine. But then there is a passage in the Book of Kings in which Solomon is said to have bought horses from Egypt to sell to the Hittites for their army, and in another passage it is said that a Syrian army, hearing the noise of horses and chariots, fled, saying, ‘Lo, the King of Israel has hired against us the King of the Hittites and the King of the Egyptians’; in both passages the implication is that the Hittites might perhaps, be better compared with the Egyptians rather than with the other little local tribes mentioned in the Old Testament; but nobody really knew whether this was true or not until the moment arrived - an enormously exciting moment - when Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was first deciphered. This very much confirmed their power, and put paid to the idea that they were just another little local tribe; far from it - they were masters of a huge Empire based on their capital city of Bo(g)uskoy in north central Anatolia; an Empire of such size and power that it could and did take on the Egyptians under Rameses II and beat them at the Battle of Kadesh on the river Orontes; the subsequent treaty between the two powers is recorded in detail on the walls of the Temple at Karnak. And poor little Israel existed precariously at the cross-roads between them.
So, once again, archaeology fills out and makes more vivid the biblical narrative, painting a picture of the small nation - Israel - doing its best to exist squeezed between the two great powers, Egypt and the Hittites. Later, of course the Assyrians and the Babylonians became successively the great northern powers, and eventually the little Kingdom of Israel succumbed, as Jeremiah had predicted that it would, and was lugged off into captivity in Babylon, where it brought forth some of the greatest poetry the world is ever likely to produce.
“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee O Zion. As for our harps, we hanged them up, upon the trees that are therein. For they that led us away captive required of us a song and melody in our heaviness. Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Eventually, of course, the Jews returned to Zion and began once again trying to exist at the cross-roads of the world threatened by other powers - Persians, Greeks, and eventually Romans, all of whom came to dominate the Holy Land of Palestine/Syria in their turn. The Jews made a bid for self-determination in Seleucid days - the Seleucids being the successors of Alexander the Great in that part of the world. Seleucus Nicator having been one of his generals. The leaders of the revolt were the sons of an old priest named Matathias, one of whom, Judas Maccabaeus gave his name to the rebellion, the Maccabaean revolt, which - you will remember - was triggered off when the ruling Seleucid, Antiochus Epiphanes, placed ’the abomination of desolation’ in the Temple precincts in Jerusalem: namely a statue of Zeus. But even though the Maccabees won, Jewish independence was short-lived, and it was not long before the Romans took over. Then for a bit - indeed, for a very long time - the cross-roads of the world became quiet - relatively quiet under the blessed reign of peace known as the Pax Romana. Quiet enough, anyway the seeds of a new world religion sown by an obscure Jew named Jesus - a version of the name Joshua, Saviour, Lord - to germinate, grow, spread, flourish and change the world.
So, what about the New Testament period of history in the Holy Land? Once again though all too briefly, what has archaeology to say about it? Does it fill it out as it does the Old Testament, or does it contradict it? I’ll be saying much more this evening, when my subject will be Jerusalem, but to give one example of archaeology and New Testament history now, it’s worth having a look at Capernaum….Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Its real name was Kphar-Nahum - the city of Nahum or Nahumm as we usually call the minor prophet of that name. It no longer exists, and its exact location is not known, but tradition - very ancient tradition - places it where a Synagogue now stands near the northern Galilean short.
The present Synagogue dates from the second or early third century, so cannot be that in which Jesus taught and did some of his miracles; but it is known to be built on the site of a much earlier and less magnificent Synagogue, which may well be that in Jesus’s day - it’s impossible to say either way. But - BUT –nearby there are the ruins of some ancient lakeside houses, in which - according to ancient Jewish tradition, not Christian - some early Jewish converts to Christianity made themselves a house-church, which came to be known as the Apostle Peter’s house, in which Jesus had lived when he set out on his mission.
A splendid early example of women’s lib - an indefatigable pilgrim named the Lady Egeria - visited the place in about 380 A.D. and said this of it. ‘In Capernaum the house of the Prince of the Apostles has been made into a church with its original walls still standing. It is where the Lord cured the man possessed of the devil.’ A hundred years later, the old buildings and the church Egeria had described had been incorporated into a fine Byzantine church with mosaic floor and dressed stone walls, which the Franciscans excavated this century. They found Egeria’s church, in which, among other things they found some ancient fishing equipment together with evidence that it was indeed an ancient house which had been used for early Christian worship.
Not unnaturally, the Franciscans concluded that ancient tradition had been verified, and that Peter the fisherman’s house had indeed been discovered. But not so , according to some other eminent and sceptical archaeologists, one of whom remarked sourly that ‘claims that the house of Peter had been found in Capernaum based on the find of a fish hook must be regarded with some scepticism.’ Which is, of course, perfectly fair. But one could ask what the Franciscans cold possibly have found to persuade their sceptical critic to think that Peter had lived in the place. He is unlikely to have signed his name on one of the walls - Peter lived here - and even if he had, how could one be sure it was his hand-writing and not a later forgery. So there we are; archaeology neither proving nor disproving anything, but leaving matters up to the individual to decide whether it supports the probability that Peter lived there or not. You pay your penny and take your pick.
I’m afraid I’ve kept you all too long already, and I must hurry on; though as I have already said, I’ll say more when I talk of Jerusalem this evening. Meanwhile, I hope I’ve just time to say a word or two about the four other civilizations which have left their mark on the face of the land - the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Crusaders, and the Turks.
The Byzantines, of course, inherited the place from the Romans, and were only checked out by the Arabs in the seventh century. They were great builders, both military and religious, and the country is full of their monuments. It must be remembered that in Byzantine days it was solidly Christian; everyone except the Jews themselves, who were a small minority people, as Christian - whether they spoke Aramaic, Syriac, Greek or Arabic and whether they were villagers, merchants or rich landowners, they were all Christians. The Maronites and Jacobites of Syria and the Lebanon, and the largeish number of Arab Christians in the area today are their descendants; for instance the Arab population of Bethlehem today is almost solidly Christian and always has been so. So the Byzantines built churches and monasteries everywhere, and many of them remain - the Church of the Holy nativity at Bethlehem is one example built by Justinian. They were also great builders of fortified places. There is an astonishing fortress built in one of the hottest, rockiest and most desolate parts of the wilderness of Judea, as it descends in a barren waste of rock and cliffs and eroded wadis to the Dead Sea, where the modern road looks across the valley to the mountains of Moab in Jordan, which must have been one of the most unpopular places in the world to be stationed if you were in the Byzantine army in those far-off days of their supremacy.
After the Byzantines in 634 A.D. came the Arabs, whose civilization was rooted almost as deeply in the soil of Graeco-Roman civilization as that of the Byzantines, and they have shaped and formed the land more than anyone else, I suppose, if such generalisations are permissible. Certainly, the daily life and normative culture of Syria/Palestine is Arab: polluted Arab culture I’ve no doubt the Ayatollah would say, polluted by history, by life in an ethnic melting-pot, by modern western ideas, and by being Sunni Moslems rather than fundamentalist Shi’ites…..but nevertheless Arab. Their Mosques are everywhere, but I can’t point to any as splendid as, for instance, the great Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo or that of El Azhar - or indeed, any as great as some of the Mosques of North Africa such as that at Kairouan - but lovely Arab buildings, mellowed with age and sun and gentle, lazy, peaceful living are everywhere - everywhere, that is to say, where ferro-concrete, high-rise, curtain-wall monstrosities from the West have not replaced them. But the people who followed the Arabs, the Crusaders, four centuries later were neither gentle nor peaceful, and they have left the marks of their warlike natures on the land with a vengeance; but since you’ll hear more about them a bit later today from Professor Morris and about their castles tomorrow, I shall say no more about them now. Mamelukes followed the Crusaders and Turks followed the Mamelukes only to be ousted when they were defeated in the First World War to be replaced by the British for a while as ushers in, so to speak, of the new State of Israel, the citizens of which have done more to transform the face of the land in their short tenure of it than anyone else over the centuries, except possibly the Arabs. They have planted several hundred million trees, made the Negeb desert blossom like the rose, and grown enough fruit trees and exotic vegetables to make all our mouths water and the coffers of such people as Mr Sainsbury and Mr Waitrose burst with our hard earned money as we buy Jaffa oranges and early mangetout peas, grown on the plain of Esdraelon where Elizah once ran before Ahab and Jezebel’s corpse was eaten by dogs.
But I mustn’t stop on such a facetious note. Instead, if I may go back for a moment to my analogy of Israel as the cross-roads of the world, there is another sense in which Palestine/Syria claims to be such a meeting point: at least, it does so according to the three great monotheist religions of the world. For here, say Jews, Christians and Moslems the paths of God - if I may use that phrase - have crossed and recrossed the highways of mankind; here God and men have encountered each other, have met, and have wrestled together as Jacob wrestled with God at the Ford Jabbok. Now whatever you may think of such claims, one thing is sure; this place has been the birth-place of some of the greatest and most potent images ever to fascinate and dominate the minds of men and through them to alter the course of human history again and again; images like that of the chosen people, the elect, the pilgrim band of brothers, journeying to the Promised Land, of the New Jerusalem, where all men shall be brothers, and God shall wipe away all tears. Images of the ultimate victory of the defeated, of the triumph of the poor, the humble, and the meek; and perhaps most powerful of all, images of the dying Lord, the Lamb of God, the upside-downing of the world’s values and judgement by the weakness of God and the foolishness of God which are stronger and wiser than what men call power and wisdom.
Finally, the images of Resurrection, and the outpouring of the Spirit, of God’s self-giving to man; this is my Body which is given for you - this is my Blood which is poured out for you and for many….there have never been such images born elsewhere, and the day after tomorrow is the birthday, Easter Day, of many, many of them.