Can a History of Palestine be Written?

This essay is chapter 3 of a brief collection of ten lectures given by Ingrid Hjelm and me on a lecture tour of seven universities and institutions in Palestine. This included Hebron University, the École Biblique, the Palestinian Museum in Bir Zeit, the History department of Bir Zeit University, the Department of Archaeology at al-Quds University in Abu Dis, the American University in Jenin, Ramallah Campus and al-Quds University in the Old City. The tour was sponsored by the Danish House in Palestine in April, 2018 in order to discuss and promote aspects of the Palestine History and Heritage project (PaHH), which had just published its first volume edited by Ingrid Hjelm, Hamdan Taha, Ilan Pappe and Thomas L. Thompson, under the title A New Critical Approach to the History of Palestine: Palestine History and Heritage Project 1 (London: Routledge, 2019). The Danish House subsequently arranged the publication of the lectures under the title The Ever Elusive Past: Discussions of Palestine’s History and Heritage. The Ever Elusive Past was published in both Arabic and English versions by Dar el-Nasher publishing in Ramallah and Hebron in 2019.

Chapter from: The Ever Elusive Past: Discussions of Palestine's History and Heritage (Dar Al Nasher, 2019).

By Thomas L. Thompson
Professor Emeritus
University of Copenhagen
February 2020

Can A ‘History of Israel’ Be Written?[1]

Since the mid-1970s, the accumulating results of a widespread critical debate over the need for a thoroughgoing revision of the ancient history of the South Levant have altered the orientation of many scholars regarding the need for evidence rooted in a critical understanding of archaeological and contemporary historical sources. This change has led to the rejection of interpretations based on the traditional and often fundamentalist assumptions of biblical archaeology, which has actively supported Zionist and politically motivated propaganda. In Dublin in 1996, the theme of the inaugural meeting of the European Seminar on Historical Methodology was formulated in the question: ‘Can a ‘History of Israel’ be Written?’[2]—a question which Robert Coote, Keith Whitelam and I had long raised by our insistence on the need to distance critical historical and archaeological research from an Albrightean “biblical archaeology.”[3] Already in the 1970s, this question had led to a growing debate over whether biblical narrative was rooted in folklore, a debate, which had led American archaeologist, William Dever, to reject the methods and questions of biblical archaeology and argue for a history based in a ‘secular archaeology of Syro-Palestine.’ Similarly, I sought to separate a regionally oriented landscape history of Palestine from what was an essentially mythical biblical narrative.

By the late 1980s, there was a considerable agreement among European archaeologists and historians that Israel’s history was only a small part of the history and archaeology of the whole of Palestine: a sub-regional history. In line with this, the consensus of the Dublin seminar was that the writing of such a history of Israel was, indeed, possible, but such a history would be far from a traditional history of Israel, reflecting biblical narrative. It would rather be a history of the highland region in Palestine’s central hills between Ramallah and Nablus, which had been under the patronage of Bit Humri for a period during Iron Age II of somewhat less than two centuries.

In my 1992 monograph The Early History of the Israelite People from the Written and Archaeological Sources, I addressed the central problem in this revision of our historical understanding; namely, the historical implications of the biblical narrative about an Israelite people within our understanding of the history of Palestine. Supported by Philip Davies’ analysis of the different concepts of Israel in biblical studies, I was led to the conclusion that there had not existed any historical warrant for the biblical understanding of Israel—centred as it was in a literary trope of exile and return—at any time before the Persian period. My insistence on the separation of biblical narrative from an historical understanding of the Iron Age started the so-called ‘minimalist’ debate. This debate was sharpened by Niels Peter Lemche’s 1991 monograph on the Canaanites, which demonstrated the fictive character of the biblical Canaanites. This debate reached its peak in the discussions in 1994 and 1995 about the fragments of the bytdwd inscriptions, which many scholars understood as historical proof of the historicity of David and his ‘United Monarchy’ in the 10th century BCE. In 1996, the publication of Keith Whitelam’s Invention of Ancient Israel addressed some of the political implications of writing a history of Palestine as an alternative to an increasingly problematic history of Israel.


Can a History of Palestine be Written?

A History of Palestine has not yet been written and does not exist today. As I point out in chapter 7 below, some efforts, centred primarily in Tübingen in the 1970s and ‘80s, were directed at writing sub-regional histories of agricultural development related to settlement patterns and technological developments.[4] Among these early studies, the meticulous studies of Manfred Weippert on the history of Edom[5] and Axel Knauf’s Midian and Ismael[6] supported recognition of Palestine’s many distinctive cultures and peoples, each in their own region of the South Levant. The 1993 posthumous publication of Gösta Ahlström’s History of Palestine[7] offered a promising beginning to a history of Palestine—at least up to the end of the Bronze Age! Ahlström’s efforts to recast the traditional history of Israel within the larger context of a history of Palestine has, nevertheless, seriously changed the way we write the history of this region, not least by the changes they introduced in how we understand questions of evidence. Ahlström also gave the many distinct regional historical issues a legitimacy of their own, rather than merely the question of the historicity of a biblical Israel. Syro-Palestinian archaeology, West-Semitic epigraphy and linguistics, historical geography and ancient Near Eastern studies provided him with both methods and a context for reconstructing Palestine’s past. As soon as Ahlström came to the beginning of the Iron Age, however, the Bible's story of Israel dominate his entire perspective and the biblical narrative displaced his history of Palestine—a loss which was never recovered. His book became a history of Israel in the traditional sense: essentially a biblical interpretation rather than a work of critical history writing.[8]


The ethnocentric bias of Zionist and conservative Christian interpretations of biblical traditions has been a central, unhappy result of western scholarship’s failure to write a history of Palestine. Indeed, the typical scholarly focus on origins and ethnicity in regard to ancient Judah and ancient Israel is without historical warrant. The early settlement of the central highlands in the transition from the Late Bronze to the Iron Age, unlike the settlement in the southern highlands of Judah, not only shows continuity with the Late Bronze Age settlements of the region, but these early settlements also preceded the Iron Age settlements of the Judean highlands by more than two centuries. Historically, the two regions had little in common during the Iron Age.  Even less warrant can be given to the tendency to view the history of either ancient Israel or Judah as a dominant or defining representation for the rest of Palestine in antiquity.

Our Palestine History and Heritage (PaHH) project aims to produce balanced and critical historical texts and materials related to Palestine and each of its regions from prehistoric times to the present. We need an historical perspective, which is inclusive of the variety of cultural, religious and ethnic traditions reflected in this region’s complex history—not least that this history might speak to a common heritage for all who live in Palestine. To do this successfully, we need to write a region-oriented “people’s history”, describing each region in its distinctive social forms. We need to describe the region’s everyday culture. A history of empires and world religions should not displace Palestine's indigenous history.

The past century’s scholarly construct of the history of Palestine as a history of a Jewish homeland with roots in an ancient, biblical Israel had been centred, until the 1970s, on a narrow, nationalist and ethnocentric agenda. Both international scholarship and Christian fundamentalism promoted this essentially Zionist narrative as fundamental to the so-called “grand narrative” of western civilization.[9] This biblically based narrative, moreover, understood as Jewish national epic and interpreted within a Zionist perspective and context, has created a racist understanding of both Palestine’s history and the interpretation of Palestine’s archaeological remains. Today, this politically directed nation-building of the modern state of Israel, supported by traditional Christian theology, is a threat to the historical and cultural heritage of Palestine’s peoples, including indigenous Jews and Samaritans. Biblical allegory has been used to form our understanding of Israeli Judaism as the actual “returning remnant” of biblical messianism.

The population of Palestine, prior to World War I, was ancient and—if one allows for the recurrent immigration and emigration, which are endemic to Palestine’s geographic role as land bridge— Palestine has marked the indigenous nature of its population with a remarkable cultural continuity since the Neolithic period. At the same time, Palestine's people never belonged to or developed any particular, singular, dominating ethnicity. Palestine has never been limited to the role of any particular folk’s homeland, with but a single language or culture. Rather, Palestine has always distinguished itself with a large variety of regions and peoples, supported by a considerable variety in regard to language, culture and history. A number of the scholars who are now associated with the PAHH project have, individually and collectively, supported significant changes in the narratives of both the ancient and the modern history of Palestine. In further developing the PAHH project, we need to find common ground in order to maintain a critical, evidence-based revision of both Palestine’s history and an inclusive and multi-focal understanding of its rich heritage.


Palestine’s Intellectual Heritage

In an effort to present a balanced and critical history, the construction of Palestine’s ancient history needs to avoid using an interpretation of biblical narrative as if it were itself, the history of the region. This is entirely foreign to a modern scientific understanding of history and heritage. The Christian, Jewish and Samaritan Bibles, each with its own distinctive chronological system, structuring its narrative, are rooted in ancient literary principles of utopian and apocalyptic allegory and, as such, form an intellectual discourse, which is well-recognized by the Qur’an. These literary traditions are incomparable contributions to Palestine’s heritage, but we do well to recognize that they are primarily contributions to its intellectual and literary heritage during the post-Bronze and Iron Age periods and they are not proper sources for constructing the history of such early periods.

In regard to religious heritage, the history we need to write must be inclusive. Neither the Samaritan Torah, the Jewish Tanak, the Jewish and Christian Septuagint, nor the Islamic interpretive revision of this broad tradition in the Qur’an, were composed of texts that were entirely ethnicity-defining literature. These texts reflect not national, but universal and international, religions. This is a coherent and interrelated tradition that is part of the cultural heritage, which belongs to Palestine’s indigenous population with its deep, central roots in ancient Near Eastern and Greek literary and religious traditions, which are, in turn, rooted in pre-dynastic Egypt and ancient Sumer. This biblical and qur’anic heritage is an inclusive heritage which created an expansive and internationally oriented tradition, fostered by the Samaritan, Jewish, Christian and Islamic religious traditions through a supersessionist revision of the literary heritage of the ancient Near East.

The earliest form of the Bible—namely, the Samaritan Pentateuch—was adopted by Jews as their own and accordingly expanded. It is likely that such expansion was carried out in such central cities of the Hellenistic empire as Antioch, Damascus and—not least—Alexandria, developing text traditions in Hebrew, Greek, Coptic and Aramaic—among which are the popular writings of the Syrian Peshitta. The Greek form of the Jewish Bible also embraced the early Jewish, New Testament literature of Paul and the early gospels. The Jewish-Greek Septuagint Bible became Christianity’s “first Bible” in the course of the 2nd to 4th centuries CE. By the 7th century CE, the Qur’anic interpretive revision of the Bible effectively rooted Islam and its intellectual tradition within the allegorical interpretation of Palestine’s literary traditions. In spite of hundreds of deeply divisive so-called sectarian divisions throughout its history, this singular religion of the book has continued to define the Palestinian contributions to this common ancient Near Eastern heritage, which today is clearly reflected throughout the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Jewish Tanak and Talmud, the Christian Bible and Peshitta and the Muslim Qur’an.

In contrast to this history of common intellectual roots, it appears brutally ironic that the European, settler-colonial, Zionist project of creating a Jewish state as a lasting refuge from the pogroms against Europe’s Jews, given an extraordinary urgency in the wake of the holocaust, has, in its success, created several million displaced and stateless Palestinians. The cost continues to grow today. A religion whose original self-understanding lay deeply rooted in old Palestinian Yahwism, centred in the ancient Near Eastern dogma of compassion for the poor and love for the stranger, has unhesitatingly been used to define Palestine’s indigenous population—the descendants of those reflected in the biblical narrative—as strangers in their own land! In constructing a common past for the culturally and ethnically diverse, but religiously defined, Jewish diaspora has created the myth of Palestine's heritage as uniquely centred in an ethnocentric and racial understanding of Judaism. This has in fact come to destroy, disinherit and displace the descendants of not only the Samaritans of ancient Israel, but also Jews, Christians and Muslims—as well as many who no longer identify themselves through religious beliefs, but are nonetheless descendants of the ancient population of Palestine, including its ancient Jews from the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman periods.

The Zionist theft of Palestine’s heritage has succeeded to such an appalling extent that ‘Palestine’—and, by implication, Palestinians; that is, the people who have lived in Palestine are often presented as an intrusive element with little relevance to the land or its heritage! In Zionism’s tendentious revision of biblical allegory as a history of Jewish origins, actual historical inscriptions referring to the deportations of people from ancient historical Israel and Judah are ignored. Mythic qualities of such biblical tropes as Jeremiah’s metaphor of the empty land (Jer 4:23-26) are now rewritten in support of 20th century Israeli government perspectives of Palestine: both to create a common license for Judaism’s new colonists and to hide and displace the reality of Palestine’s indigenous population and their heritage in Palestine’s past.

Although the biblical narrative of the Babylonian exile is kept in Zionist constructions, other exiles are ignored. The biblically-based Babylonian deportations from Jerusalem with a return in the Persian period are often presented as a brief hiatus within a story of Jewish dominance and continuity in the land from ‘the time of David’ to what is called the ‘great exile’. This exile was, allegedly created by the Romans after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE—or, at times, alternatively, after the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-135 CE. This narrative of an exile of 2000 years, with a heroic return under Zionism, creates the fiction of a forced expulsion of Jews from Palestine during the Roman period. However, none in fact took place! The Jews of the Roman period and their descendants have had an uninterrupted and continuous history in Palestine. The Zionist constructed ‘origin story’ of diaspora Judaism denies not only the heritage of Samaritans and the rest of Palestine’s indigenous population, but also of the well-known, rich and continuous religious and intellectual presence of Judaism in the land through the Byzantine period and later. A racist and xenophobic understanding of Judaism hides the roots of the rich, international and multi-cultural character of Judaism of the Diaspora. Asserting a claim on the unique heritage of ancient Palestine for all Jews, nationalist and colonialist disinformation has legitimized a ‘right of return’ for all who are Jews today, while subjecting the indigenous population to ethnic cleansing.


Palestine’s Multi-cultural Heritage

Writing a History of Israel from the biblical narrative is problematic because these narratives are allegorical. The writing of a History of Palestine is also problematic as long as the perspectives of our historical and archaeological research encourage us to read the myths of the Bible as if they were actual accounts of the past. In writing our history of Palestine, we need to turn away from origin stories and write a history of all the peoples who have lived in Palestine.  Rather than writing a mythic past, we might consider such themes fundamental to history as the development and diversity of politics, forms of government, economy, religion, language and culture. Rather than following the claims and assertions of such myths of a fictive nation, rooted in eschatology, we might use the rich, archaeologically-based knowledge of the land and its many regions to identify the multi-cultural realities, which have marked Palestine’s ancient past throughout its history. We must avoid presenting Palestine’s history as a national history. Palestine’s history should rather be a history centred in the rich diversities of the everyday life of all the people who have lived in the land.


Palestine's Multicultural Context

Lying on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, Palestine’s fate has been determined by its role as host for the intercontinental meeting of Africa and Asia. This is a geopolitical context, which is international and multicultural. The land is open by sea to the Aegean and the east-Mediterranean world; to Anatolia; to coastal Syria and Lebanon in the north; to Cyprus, the Aegean and Crete in the west; and to Sinai, Egypt, the Delta and Libya in the south. By way of the Red Sea from Aqaba, it is open to Arabia, the lands of the Persian Gulf and beyond. Forming a land bridge between Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, Arabia and the Syrian steppe, Palestine is host to an international trade that has markedly defined its history. The separation of Africa from Asia created the Great Jordan Rift with its complex variations affecting climate and terrain, including the lowest point on earth at the Dead Sea.

Historically and economically, the land is open to greatly diverse cultural influences in four directions. It is open to Syria and the Euphrates through the northern Jordan and the eastern Galilee; to Cyprus and the Aegean; but most immediately to the great Phoenician port cities of Tyre, Byblos and Beirut via the coastal plain as far south as Tantura and Jaffa. It is also linked to the Egyptian Delta via Gaza, Ashkelon and Jaffa and into the fertile Palestinian lowlands of Megiddo and Beth Shan. Palestine is linked by way of the south and east to Arabia and the Great Syrian Steppe via the Transjordan highlands. It is open to the Araba and the Negev, which are linked in southern Palestine—especially Edom and Judah—symbiotically: at first through the nomadism endemic to the ancient economies of sheep and goat herding, and later through the great Arab and Nabatean trade empires.


Palestine's Languages

Such complexity, within very limited regions, also marks Palestine's linguistic development, creating, in the course of the 1st millennium BCE, a rich linguistic carpet of Aramaic, Arabic and Phoenician dialects. The earliest known languages of Palestine belong to the Afro-Asiatic language family, originating perhaps as early as 10,000 BCE, with a history of inscriptions going back as early as the beginning of the 4th millennium BCE. Many Afro-Asiatic inscriptions dating from the Early and Middle Bronze Ages in ancient Egyptian, Early West Semitic and Akkadian reflect a geographical displacement from the Nile Valley into Palestine and Syria and finally to Southern Mesopotamia. Pottery finds from Arabia Felix suggest the spread of Early West Semitic influence from Palestine at the very end of the Early Bronze Age: a development, which is first reflected in inscriptions in Old South Arabic late in the first millennium BCE. By the Late Bronze Age, Early West Semitic distinguished itself in Syria and Palestine variously between Aramaic, Ugaritic and Phoenician (so-called 'Canaanite'). This development, which, in the course of the Iron Age, developed a considerable number of dialect variations, such as Israelite, Ammonite, Moabite, Edomite and Judahite (including the literary language of biblical Hebrew by the 5th century BCE). Palestine also witnessed the early use of linguae francae such as Akkadian in the Late Bronze Age, Aramaic in the late Iron Age and Persian periods and Greek from the 3rd century BCE.


The Land of Palestine without Borders

If we are to write a comprehensive history of Palestine over millennia, we need to be exceedingly flexible in how we understand the land whose history we describe. The name Palestine, itself, is hardly definable historically, unless its referent is open to change at every turn. Within the context of Israeli-Palestinian discourse, the 1948 and 1967 ceasefire lines often define our use of this name. However, another quite common modern use derives from the use of the name Palestine during the British Mandate—a usage which goes back to the ancient Roman and Greek usage. It is originally based on the name peleset, which first occurs in an inscription of Ramses III in referring to a group of people from the Anatolian Coast. The peleset were one of several "sea peoples," refugees from the Great Mycenean drought at the end of the Late Bronze Age, who settled along the Palestinian coast and in the Egyptian Delta and gradually integrated themselves with the indigenous populations of these regions. Different groups of “sea peoples” are known to have settled from Gaza to as far north as Acre. The Assyrians use of the name, in the form Pilishtu, seems to be the first use of the name in reference to a region in the South Levant, apparently indicating the southern coastal region, which reaches as far north as Tantura. The Greek author from the Persian period, Herodotus, used the name Palaestina for the entire region of South Syria and Aristotle includes the Dead Sea in his Palaestina. The ancient name of Palestine does not refer to a nation or a state-organized political entity. The social-political structures were neither national nor state-based, but rather patronage polities, from market towns to principalities and patronage kingdoms. Personal contracts and loyalties defined our regions, not borders, and these regions and the patronage polities, which controlled them politically, were ever in flux.

For example, in the Persian period, the name of the former patronage kingdom of Edom in the Transjordan, ‘Araba and southern steppe was transformed to define the Persian province of Idumea, centred in Lachish, where it came to influence a large expanse of southern Palestine—from the Transjordan steppe to the Mediterranean. At other times, economic and climatic changes brought about changes in Palestine's borders, such as at the end of the Early Bronze or in the Late Bronze period, when the border of aridity marking the regions which were able to support unirrigated farming shifted as far north as Jerusalem and affected the settlement of the entire hill country of Palestine. We must be sensitive to the changes such shifts bring. As the capability of maintaining sedentary life in the south deteriorated, Palestine shrank and the neighbouring regions of the Negev and Arabia grew. Similarly, in the prosperity of the Middle Bronze Age, the influence of the market towns of southern Lebanon and Syria came to so dominate the north of Palestine that the political patronage of the northern coastal region from Byblos to Tyre must be seen as including Acre and the north Palestinian coast as far south as Tantur. In the Jezreel and the Jordan rift, Syria and its patronage culture was such a dominating force that it affected language, economy, religion and, indeed, all aspects of cultural relationships in northern Palestine, whose Syrian border had shifted southwards.


A Mediterranean Economy

Palestine's economy—even in periods when it was at its poorest—should not be described as a form of subsistence farming. Its dynamic was, rather, intrinsically linked to a complex, interdependent patronage-based organization of trade networks—both local and distant—by land and by sea. Since the end of the Neolithic period until modern times, Palestine created and has maintained an economy centred variously in the steppe regions, plains and hills of Palestine's geographically limited, but sharply defined regions. Sheep and goats of steppe herders provided cash crops of cheeses, meat, wool and skins, as well as fertilizer for Palestine’s harvested fields. In the summers, shepherds typically moved their flocks in transhumant patterns to graze and fertilize Palestine's harvested fields. The small towns along the borders of the steppe—I think here, for example, of Khirbet el-Mshash in the Northern Negev—provided herders with markets of grains, olives and fruits, as well as pottery and other products. The grasslands of the central valleys and the coastal plain provided  wheat and barley to international trade, while the low fertile fields in the foothills were largely committed to fruits, nuts, wine-grapes and, especially, olives for oil. While terracing had taken root in Palestine already in the Early and Middle Bronze Ages, terracing in the Late Bronze Age, over the course of the Iron I and early Iron II periods expanded significantly as iron tools and advances in the technology of water storage enabled horticulture to move onto the steep eastern slopes of the highlands. The small-scale organization of the interdependent social networks of such regionally defined cash crop economies promoted small patronage structures, which fostered such trade. It also tended to limit patronage to small regional levels.


Secondary State Formations Rooted in Patronage and Empire

It is, I think, a systemic mistake to interpret the lack of state development within the history of Palestine as having been caused by Palestine’s domination by foreign powers. This description of the ancient Near Eastern empire and the geographic shifts in the steering of the empire's administrative control over centuries unfortunately serves to further anachronistic concepts of independence and democracy through idealizing rebellions of religious sectarians as if they were expressions of democratic revolt. The small patronage organizations, which were intrinsic to the Mediterranean economy, excluded indigenous forms of state formation within Palestine’s fragmented geographical context. Hardly democratic, the patronage polities of Palestine’s more than forty distinct and separate geographical regions were based on structures of personal loyalty and reciprocal obligations between patrons and clients. Such patronage structures were antagonistic to the formation of both states and nations. The functions of political power were largely oriented to the organization of trade, the production and distribution of goods and food within quite small areas as well as the construction and maintenance of defence structures and weapons: all of which were rooted in a given patron’s personal obligations to his clients.  State formation—except perhaps in the limited, secondary forms as we find some witness to in the Amarna letters and Neo-Assyrian inscriptions, or perhaps with even greater grounds in the historiographical narratives of the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods—has little role in Palestine's ancient political structures. The “kings” who appear in this region’s monumental inscriptions and correspondence, beginning with the Egyptian Execration Texts of the Middle Bronze Age, were little more than local chiefs situated in the major villages and towns of Palestine’s many regions.

Secondary state formation came to Palestine through imperial influence. Egypt, with its mining interests in the southern ‘Araba and the Sinai for gold, silver, copper and turquoise and the maintenance of its trade routes to Syria and Anatolia, was deeply involved in Palestine already in the Early Bronze Age. Similarly, ties with Syria—and especially coastal Byblos and the North Mesopotamian city of Mari—were the basis for Palestinian trade routes. In the Late Bronze Age, Thutmosis III (1504-1450 BCE), in his competition with the Hittites over influence in Palestine, brought about a shift in Egypt’s role in the region to a direct Egyptian presence in the land through the establishment of Egyptian administrative towns, which supported an Egyptian monopoly of power in the region and directly influenced its economic and political structures.

With some few significant hiatus—most notably in the 10th and 9th centuries BCE—imperial interests in the region were maintained by a near continuous series of imperial administrations.


Monotheism as an Inclusive Religious Heritage

In presenting the monotheistic heritage of Palestine it is important to recognize that, like Christianity and Islam, neither Samaritanism nor Judaism can be understood as implying the existence of a national or ethnic group. Until the Persian period, both Israel and Judah had been primarily defined geographically. Accordingly, each also developed and provided various religious functions for the population of its region. From at least the Persian period, the development of Jewish and Samaritan colonies in cities of the Eastern Mediterranean world marked the early stages of both religions as proselytizing movements with a civilizing mission under imperial support. Both also came to develop a self-understanding of their religion in terms of a literature which was understood as supporting an imperial mission to all nations—which we find expressed, for example, in both the Samaritan’s allegorical narrative of Abram’s call in Genesis 12 and Judaism’s utopian vision of a new Jerusalem in Isaiah 66.

This universalist, proselytizing mission of Palestine’s religious heritage, which we find reflected in so many texts of the Bible, has its origins in ancient Near Eastern literature. We find texts related to such a mission not only in the rich libraries of both Egypt and Mesopotamia but also—clearly and emphatically—in the mythic epics of the Late Bronze Ugarit. The biblical tradition was a later critical revision of such traditions, created sometime in the course of the early Hellenistic period and expanded over the following three to four centuries in support of a continuous literary discourse in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, which we find variously reflected in the writings of Qumran, the New Testament, the Pseudepigrapha and the Apocrypha. In spite of often bitter and murderous sectarian conflicts, related to claims of supersession, reform and interpretation, we find a history of the expansion and growth of a complex and interrelated religious ideology, which was marked with a flexibility to endure over millennia. Ideologically, it was but a small step for many Palestinians—who in the early Roman period had been Samaritans, Jews and so-called Pagans—to turn to Christianity to find a model for their religious and intellectual ideals within the new Christian world of the 4th century. The deep conservatism of such an ancient and complex tradition also influenced a considerable portion of the most conservative members of this tradition, who continued to support older forms of this greater tradition. So too, in the 7th century, with the development of the qur’anic, supersessionist interpretation and reform of this flexible religion of monotheism centred in its indefinable concept of the divine, a comparable adjustment to the new voices and insights of Islam became attractive to many.









[1] An earlier form of this lecture was given at a conference in Amman in October of 2001. See T. L. Thompson, ‘An Introduction: Can a History of Ancient Jerusalem and Palestine be Written’,  in T. L. Thompson (ed.), Jerusalem in Ancient History and Tradition, Copenhagen International Seminar (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 1-15. 

[2] For the papers and the discussion at this seminar, see L. L. Grabbe (ed.), Can a History of Israel be Written? (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997).

[3] R. B. Coote and K. W. Whitelam, The Emergence of Early Israel in Historical Perspective (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1987); T. L. Thompson, Early History of the Israelite People From the Written and Archaeological Sources (Leiden: Brill, 1992).

[4] R. J. Forbes, Studies in Ancient Technology vol. 1-5 (Leiden: Brill, 1954-1957); T. L. Thompson, The Settlement of Palestine in the Bronze Age, Beihefte zum Tübinger Atlas des vorderen Orients, B II 34 (Wiesbaden: Dr. Reichert, 1979) but see now the more up to date collected studies edited by Oded Lipschits et al.: Judah and the Judeans in the Neo-Babylonian Period: (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2003); Judah and the Judeans in the Persian Period (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2006); Judah and Judeans in the Achaemenid Period (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011); Judah and the Judeans in the Fourth Century, BCE (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2007).

[5] M. Weippert, Edom: Studien und Materialen zur Geschichte der Edomiter auf Grund schriftlicher und archaeologischer Quellen (Tübinger Dissertation, 1971).

[6] E. A. Knauf, Midian: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte Palästinas und Nordarabiens am Ende des 2ten Jahrtausend vChr; Abhandlungen des deutschen Palästinavereins (Wiesbaden: Harassowitz 1988); idem, Ismael: Untersuchungen zur Geschichte Palästinas und Nordarabiens im 1sten Jahrtausends vChr, Abhandlungen des deutschen Palästinavereins (Wiesbaden: Harassowitz, 1989).

[7] G. Ahlström, The History of Ancient Palestine from the Palaeolithic Period to Alexander’s Conquest (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).

[8] See, further, T. L. Thompson, ”Gösta Ahlström’s History of Palestine,” in S. W. Holloway and L. K. Handy, The Pitcher is Broken: Memorial Essays for Gösta W. Ahlström (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 420-434.

[9] As implicit, for example, in W. G. Dever, Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature Press, 2017).

Article Comments

Submitted by Richard Faussette on Sun, 05/03/2020 - 18:03


Professor Thompson,
You write: Writing a History of Israel from the biblical narrative is problematic because these narratives are allegorical. The writing of a History of Palestine is also problematic as long as the perspectives of our historical and archaeological research encourage us to read the myths of the Bible as if they were actual accounts of the past. In writing our history of Palestine, we need to turn away from origin stories and write a history of all the peoples who have lived in Palestine. Rather than writing a mythic past, we might consider such themes fundamental to history as the development and diversity of politics, forms of government, economy, religion, language and culture. Rather than following the claims and assertions of such myths of a fictive nation, rooted in eschatology, we might use the rich, archaeologically-based knowledge of the land and its many regions to identify the multi-cultural realities, which have marked Palestine’s ancient past throughout its history."

You say the Bible contains myths that are allegorical, then you propose using "the rich, archeologically based knowledge of the land and its many regions to identify the multi-cultural realities, which have marked Palestine's ancient past throughout it's history."

What happened to the allegories? Do you know what they mean? There is one German Jewish dialect: Yiddish, but there are 18 Judeo-Persian dialects yet the likely Zoroastrian origin of Judaism is rarely entertained. Palestine is studied archeologically because of its centrality in the biblical text. Why should we now abandon the biblical text to identify Palestine's multi-cultural realities? What happened to the allegories?

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.