Archaeology in Israel (1)

3 August 2015
Jerusalem, "Large Stone Structure"

Jerusalem, “Large Stone Structure”

The study of the ancient world is so fascinating because all those cultures, nations, tribes, states, and civilizations share one characteristic: a great shortage of data. If you want to study an aspect of Antiquity, you need every bit of information you can get: texts, archaeological finds, parallels from other cultures. Antiquity, I’m sure you’ll agree, is the largest and most interesting puzzle the world has ever seen.

Unfortunately, the available information is often inconsistent. Herodotus tells us that Ecbatana was a big city with seven walls, but archaeologists found nothing. Caesar claims to have visited Britain, but not a single camp has been identified.

In situations like these, when information obtained from texts and excavations is asymmetrical, it’s up to the historian to decide what to do next. He might say: “I prefer to believe the written sources. If the archaeologists continue to dig, they will find what we’re looking for.” In other words, as long as archaeological data are absent, you lend maximum credence to your written sources. This approach is called maximalism. The alternative would be to argue “The sources may not be literally true. Unless the archaeologists find something, I must reconsider my way of reading the texts.” If you think you should not believe your source unless it is confirmed archaeologically, that’s called minimalism.

[Continued on the blog of Ancient History Magazine]

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Simmons, Peoples of the New Testament World

22 March 2009

What is worse: six hours of claustrophobia in an Airbus 319 or five hours of exposure to Heathrow Airport? As I recently traveled from Tehran to London and Amsterdam, I might have been able to solve one of the greatest scientific problems of our age, but unfortunately, I was too distracted by the final chapters of William A. Simmons’ Peoples of the New Testament World. An Illustrated Guide (2008). It is a book that I can sincerely recommend.

In twenty chapters, the author introduces the reader to, for example, Pharisees, Sadducees, tax collectors, Herodians, centurions, and scribes. Sometimes, the book becomes a social history of ancient society: among the peoples of the New Testament world are trade guilds, slaves and freedmen, clients and patrons too – the chapters devoted to these classes are particularly strong.

Like biblioblogger Jim West, who recommended this book, I was especially impressed by Simmons’ chapter on the sinners: they were not, as I always thought, people who were unable to live up to Pharisaic standards, but “moral profligates who had, by their lifestyle, effectively rejected their religious lifestyle” (p.108).

It may be helpful here to refer to the vulgar professions listed by Cicero (De officiis 1.150): he sums up all kinds of people who have forfeited claims to respect – people like tax collectors, prostitutes, and gladiator. In Rome, these people were kept at some distance: in the theater, amphitheater, and circus they were to sit on the highest tiers, far away from the spectacle and the senators on the first ranks. In ancient Judaea, the sinners were equally excluded, and Jesus’ sharing a meal with them in the name of God must have shocked Jewish sensitivities as much as the emperor Commodus shocked Roman sensitivities when he presented himself as a gladiator.

Time and again, Simmons stresses the importance of the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem, the Exile, and the return in the Persian period. He presents this traumatic experience as the background of the emergence of groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees. Personally, I would have started the book with the Maccabaean revolt, but Simmons has convincing arguments, although he is aware that the names of those groups do not occur in our sources at this early stage and uses careful expressions like “proto-Pharisees”.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from poor editing. On page 182-183, a part of the text appears to be missing; on pages 36-37, a substantial part is printed twice; the little state Chalcis is consistently called Chalsis, adrogation becomes androgation; Cyrus repeatedly captures the city of Babylon in 538 instead of 539; of the seventeen buildings mentioned on the map of ancient Rome on page 226, fifteen were built after the youngest part of the New Testament was written.

Worse is the unnecessary chapter on Roman emperors, in which I counted dozens of factual errors, some of them especially painful in a book on peoples from the New Testament: e.g., the Colosseum was not financed from assets seized by the emperor Titus, but from the silver and gold captured in Jerusalem. I hope that this chapter will be completely rewritten when this book is reprinted.

A reprint, yes. In spite of the disastrous treatment of the Roman emperors, Peoples of the New Testament World deserves to be reprinted, and it may, with a bit more care, become a handbook used on many schools.