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Finding truth in biblical narratives

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and with me today is Dr Anne Gardner, a senior lecturer from the History Program at La Trobe University. Thank you for joining me Anne.

Anne Gardner:

Oh, thank you for inviting me, Matt.

Matt Smith:

So you are here today to talk to me about the historical controversy with the United Monarchy during the period of David and Solomon. So what is that about? What is the controversy?

Anne Gardner:

This is a controversy that has raged for about the last thirty or forty years. Prior to that time, the existence of David and Solomon and the biblical narrative that they had a kingdom which united all the tribes of Israel, that's where the United Monarchy aspect comes in – a kingdom that was centred in Jerusalem and that was very prosperous, it was independent, and particularly in the case of Solomon, had trading connections with elsewhere. Solomon, according to the bible, had a very extensive building program, he had links with other countries, and in fact, scholars have said that he actually had an empire. Doubts then began to creep in and the doubts, quite rightly, are based on the notion that the biblical narrative is our only source for these kings – their existence wasn't known from elsewhere, their exploits weren't known from elsewhere. And so, biblical scholars said, look, there are absolutely no historical grounds for supporting the existence of these monarchs, or for anything that they did. Now, to a large extent, they are correct, and you have had people on both sides of the argument, putting forward their views but often I think those views are insecurely founded.

Matt Smith:

How can this sort of controversy be resolved then?

Anne Gardner:

I think that you have to look very, very closely and here it is a very historical methodology that has to be used. You have to look very closely at any data that is available. Number one, you have to look at the archaeology of Jerusalem. Now that in itself is actually beset with difficulties. Jerusalem is built of stone and stone was a valuable building commodity and naturally, people in the ancient world, just as they would in the modern world, would want to re-use stone from ancient buildings. So if they were demolishing, they would re-use the stone. They would often go right down to bedrock. And that actually removes an awful lot of the archaeological evidence for prior structures in a city that has been built like that. Accordingly, archaeologists have had to work with a fairly small amount of data from Jerusalem although that has been increasing in recent years. One archaeologist thinks that she may have found evidence of David's palace, but that is a particularly controversial question. Another way you can try and get together evidence about the time of the United Monarchy is to look at the way the stories have been written in the bible. You are probably well aware that the bible, which sounds as if it's one work, is not. It's actually a whole collection of works. And these are works that come from ancient Israel which was a country in the ancient New East – it was actually at the centre of other civilisations, Egypt to the south, the Hittite Empire to the north-west, various Mesopotamian empires further east. Israel, naturally, was affected by what was going on in those civilisations, so some of its customs and even its style of writing is likely to have been affected by patterns that were happening elsewhere. So one thing that is possible to do is to look at the style of the writing of history, or historiography I should say, in these other ancient civilisations. I did that in one of my papers when I looked at Solomon and the narratives of Solomon's reign in the light of the historiography of other ancient civilisations. The Egyptian and the Hittite documents that I looked at very closely, in fact did appear to be telling a factual story. They didn't include all the details, so in other words, sometimes their data was deliberately misleading, perhaps for propagandist purposes – to make the Egyptian pharaoh look greater than he really was. I think another way of trying to find out a little bit more, at least about the kind of context in which David and Solomon lived, is to find out more about Jerusalem, the city which they are said to have ruled. Some biblical scholars have said that, really, it was just a backwater, and it wasn't a thoroughfare for anybody. Now I think that that particular picture can be called into question by gathering information about the trade routes in the ancient world. Of course, even that is controversial, because the trade routes weren't necessarily all in existence right from the beginning, again, according to some scholars. So once more, you have to look very carefully at data which appears in ancient texts from elsewhere – the Egyptian documents, the Egyptian pharaohs, particularly in the New Kingdom, were very active, not only in Canaan, which was the name for Israel prior to the Israelites, but also in Syria, and in order to get to Syria, the Egyptians had to pass through Israel. So Egyptian documents can be an important source for us, but also so can archaeological data from elsewhere – other cities within Canaan, other cities in Syria, and so on. So they will tell us something about the context of ancient Jerusalem, and that in particular is something that I've been very interested in.

Matt Smith:

So what methodology have you been using then?

Anne Gardner:

Well, as I said, looking at the texts of other civilisations and also at archaeological discoveries, but let me take one specific example. When I'm talking about Jerusalem, we know for instance in the narratives of Solomon as they appear in the bible, that Solomon had contacts with Hiram the king of Tyre. David is also said to have had contact with Hiram. Is this feasible? Tyre was much further north. It was on the coast. Jerusalem was inland. So what connection could there possibly have been between Tyre and Jerusalem? When I'm looking at the pre-biblical history of Jerusalem, I pay very close attention to places that are mentioned during the reigns of David and Solomon. And in that way I try and gather data which at least perhaps will give us a good contextual picture of Jerusalem, some notion as to whether what is said in the narratives of David and Solomon actually fits in with the context of that city. It may not prove the existence of David and Solomon but at least it could show whether the data that accompanies their story is likely to be true or not.

Matt Smith:

You said that they had contact with Tyre and if for example there are say, pottery fragments that show that there could be trade with Jerusalem, then that is corroborating evidence to some extent.

Anne Gardner:

Yes, that's the kind of thing. I mean, I don't have specific evidence of that nature from Tyre, but that is the kind of thing that I'm looking at.

Matt Smith:

OK. And where does the research come in with the bible? Do you go to things like agnostic evidence, or different translations of the bible to see if there's different information in different versions?

Anne Gardner:

All my work in the bible is with the Hebrew text. We have a lot of different translations of the bible in English and sometimes they are helpful, but more often than not, they're misleading, because as soon as you try and translate from one language to another, you begin to change the structure of a sentence. And sometimes an individual word might not translate very well from one language into another. So quite often English translations can be misleading. I therefore like to have a look, always, at the Hebrew. Sometimes even the Hebrew text isn't very clear. For instance, when David's so-called conquest of Jerusalem, which appears in the book of 2 Samuel, chapter 5, verses 6 to 8, is textually corrupt in the Hebrew. It probably means that a scribe, a long time ago, copied the material down wrongly – he made a mistake. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which are the earliest Hebrew manuscripts that we have, in fact aren't a lot of help with that particular passage. Not as much help as they give in other parts of Samuel. It is therefore very much a detective work to look very closely, to scrutinise the language that's used, and you're quite right to bring up the question of other versions of the bible, but perhaps I could modify that because I think more important in this particular instance, is reports elsewhere in different biblical books to the passage about David's capture of Jerusalem. We have conflicting reports as to whom Jerusalem belonged before David took it. There are reports that it didn't belong to any of the tribes of Israel. We then have a couple of reports that the tribe of Judah, to which David belonged, took Jerusalem. We have several reports, and these are more numerous in fact, that the tribe of Benjamin took Jerusalem. So that in itself is also something that need to be teased out and worked through. And in that particular instance, we have to work through the biblical texts and assess which ones are likely to be truthful and which ones perhaps have been put there for propaganda purposes.

Matt Smith:

So you think it's possible to ever be able to go through parts of the bible and say, this is true, this is true, this is true, that is true. How much of it is going to be left open to interpretation?

Anne Gardner:

As a biblical scholar, who works very closely with the text, who is in touch with a lot of the archaeological data which has been uncovered, I think it is quite possible to say that certain parts of the bible actually do reflect historical reality. And that is particularly the case in later times. For instance, in the period of King Hezekiah, of Jerusalem, who had withdrawn tribute from the Assyrians who were the overlords, we have an account of the Assyrian army encamped outside Jerusalem from Assyrian documents. We have some corroboration there of that particular portion of the biblical account. Of course, you have to remember, the bible is a collection of works. Not all the works in the bible purport to be historiography. We have various genres, we have myths – the stories in the early part of Genesis for example are mythological stories. Some of them may have legendary elements. We have love poetry – the Song of Songs. People talk about the bible and think that it is simply about religion. They should read the Song of Songs. Not only is God not mentioned there but it is love poetry of a very erotic nature which probably derives from very ancient civilisation of Sumeria, in ancient Mesopotamia. We have collections of proverbs, some of them are parallel from elsewhere. We have portions which correspond very closely to some Egyptian proverbs. We have some which correspond to material from Arabia and so on. So, the bible really should be thought of as a collection of works, belonging to a particular area of the world, but an area of the world which was not isolated from other areas in the Ancient East.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions, comments of feedback about this podcast, or any other, then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Dr. Anne Gardner, thanks very much for your time.

Anne Gardner:

Thank you Matt. It's been a pleasure.

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