|Aerial view of Tel Beit She'an looking west towards the Jezreel Valley|
The "deep cut" on Tell el-Hisn ("castle hill"), in 1933 by archaeologist G.M. FitzGerald, showed that the earliest occupation of the site began as early as 5000 BC. Occupation continued intermittently up to 3200–3000 BC, according to pottery finds. Canaanite graves dating from 2000 to 1600 BC were discovered there in 1926. It was called Scythopolis during Greek occupation and a large cemetery on the northern Mound was in use from the Bronze Age to Byzantine times. Scythopolis is one of the 10 cities (Decapolis) mentioned in the gospels (Mt 4: 25; Mk 5: 20; Mk 7: 31). It is first mentioned in the Bible in Joshua 17: 11-12 and Judges 1: 27. Traveling through these layers and strata of occupation show, not just, a change in culture and customs but also language. Beit She'an matches the layers of history in the land of Israel. For avid history buffs, visiting Beit She'an would be a visual experience in understanding the layers of history and culture that shaped the entire land of Israel.
For those, who have not yet had this opportunity, here is an outline of the layers of history and culture in the land of Palestine, that I promised in my previous post. The headings marked in red, indicate periods covering the texts of the Bible.
Mesopotamian Migration (2125 to 1700 BC):
The books of Genesis and Job belong to this period. The language is an ancient form of Hebrew, more closely related to Ugaritic. Hebrew is a derivative of Phoenician Ugaritic. Ugarit employed a 29 character cuneiform alphabet. In fact, there are archaic words in Genesis & Job found only once (or twice) in the entire Bible (called technically as Hapax legoumena) and scholars have struggled to translate it. This is the time when Abraham traveled from the land between the rivers (Tigris and Euphrates), planning to settle along the Levantine coast of Canaan.
The migrations from the Tigris and Euphrates region into the land of Canaan are well recorded in the Tel el Amarna letters. These were letters of complaint about the "Hapiru" to the Egyptian Pharoah, Amenhotep III and his son, Amenhotep IV asking for help and intervention. This is also the first reference to the Hebrews (Hapiru) outside the Bible. Of course, the Hapiru, is used in these texts as a much broader term including various Semitic people of the Mesopotamian region.
Cuneiform clay tablets discovered at Mari and Nuzi throw enormous light on passages like Genesis 15: 2 (adoption), Gen 15: 8-18 (Suzerain-Vassal Treaty) and Genesis 31: 17-35 (Laban's costly chase for a small Teraphim), Gen 12: 11-20 & 20: 1-18 (Sisterhood) etc. Even the early chapters in Genesis are better understood when studied in contradistinction with the Atrahasis and the Gilgamesh Epic of the Chaldeans. Many names, including Abram and Benjamin are not Jewish names but originally Mesopotamian names, found on Sumerian clay tablets as Abamram and Banuyamin.
Egyptian Settlement and Slavery (1700-1447 BC):
Jacob and his sons migrate to Egypt because of a famine and settle in the land of Goshen under the patronage of Joseph (Gen 37-50). After Joseph's death the political climate changes and for almost 400 years the Israelites were slaves to Egyptians, Their redemption and national history begins with the arrival of Moses. The Torah or the Pentateuch was initially compiled during his time. And as a result they are called as the books of Moses.
You will notice the Egyptian customs, in the renaming of Joseph (Gen 41: 45) and the funeral rites of Jacob (Gen 50).
Exodus and Settlement in Palestine (1447-722 BC):
God intervenes through Moses delivering the Children of Israel through mighty acts from Egypt and leading them up to the promised land. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy were recorded and compiled in this era. Joshua then takes over the Leadership from Moses and leads the nation in a conquest of Canaan. This was followed by Judges, and the Monarchy under Saul, David and Solomon (I Samuel, II Samuel). However, Solomon's period also marked the beginning of Apostasy (I Kings 11: 4-8) and it got amplified with the division of the Kingdom (I Kings 12). Various prophets attempted to address the double detriment of apostasy & social injustice (Isaiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos). But the people failed to listen. Finally in 722 BC Samaria fell to the Assyrian Empire. And northern Israel vanished as a people. The Assyrians displaced other people from far away lands and re-settled them in Samaria. They brought with them the baggage of their own religion and syncretized it with Jewish faith (I Kings 17: 24-33). They eventually became known as the Samaritans.
Neo-Assyrian Subjugation (722-609 BC):
At this time the Assyrian Empire destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC and annexed the southern kingdom of Judah as a vassal state paying huge tributes. Sennacherib the Assyrian Emperor, threatens Jerusalem with a siege (Isaiah 37), but could not complete it. In 609 BC Babylon defeats Assryria at the battle of Haran and finally Assyria ceases to have anymore significance in history. The book of Nahum describes the barbaric brutality of the Assyrians and pronounces their doom.
Neo-Babylonian Exile (597-539 BC):
The apostasy that took place in the North also affected Judah in the South. Many more prophets did their best to wean them out of heresy. They warned them of judgment through Babylon. Prophets like Habakkuk raised the issues of ethics, of using Babylon as an instrument for this purpose. Jeremiah warns of the impending doom and the hollowness of their "Temple Theology" (Jer 7). In the end judgment comes in three phases. First in 597 BC (Jer 52: 28), then in 587 BC (Jer 52: 29) when Jerusalem is razed into ground zero and finally a last deportation of exiles in 582 BC (Jer 52: 30). During this time the book of Lamentations was penned by Jeremiah. And in exile the books of Ezekiel and Daniel were written. However, Babylon was defeated by Cyrus the Great and the growing Medo-Persian Empire in 539 BC. Nabonidus was the Babylonian emperor at that time. He had settled in the desert oasis of Teima to follow his own pursuits, and is often referred to as the world's first archaeologist. He left his son Belshazzar, as the Regent and proxy ruler in Babylon. This was the time Babylon was defeated and its demise is described in Daniel 5, as the writing on the wall.
Medo-Persian Period (539-330 BC):
Cyrus the Great who founded the empire is also well-known for his Edict of Restoration (Ezra 1) which has been called the first charter on human rights and preserved in the Cyrus Cylinder. He was responsible for the emancipation of the slaves including the Jewish exiles in Babylon. The lives of these Jews in the diaspora is well described in the Murashu Cuneiform texts. The Persians had their capital in Ecbatana and in Susa, at different periods. Cyrus died around December 530 BC and was succeeded by his son Cambyses II, who immediately killed his brother Smerdis (Bardiya). He then went to the eastern front and captured Egypt just before he died in 522 BC. He was succeeded by an imposter, Gaumata, calling himself Smerdis. After only seven months he was killed by Darius the Great, the grandson of Arsames. In 536 - 534, Darius the Mede, although not a King of the empire, received the kingdom of Babylon as viceroy from Cyrus when he was 62 years old (Daniel 5: 31).
Following him was Xerxes, the son of Darius and the husband of the Hebrew queen Esther. He stopped an Egyptian revolt in his first year. Around 484 BC, he also destroyed the Babylonian temples and took the statue of Marduk (Bel) and killed the priest that tried to stop him. He was followed by the reign of Artaxerxes I, the benevolent Emperor, whom we find mentioned in Ezra 7.
As the Jews try to rebuild Jerusalem (Books of Nehemiah and Ezra), they faced stiff opposition especially from the Samaritans. The Elephantine Papyri, discovered in Egypt near Aswan, names Delaiah and Shelemaiah as the sons of Sanballat. Sanballat is described as the governor of Samaria, and who in the book of Nehemiah opposes him at every turn (Neh 2: 10, 19). Relationships between the Samaritans and Jews as a result worsened, and hostility becomes historically entrenched (Neh 2: 20). This hostility spills cruelly into the New Testament period (John 4: 9), and its seen in the reaction of the Jews to Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan.
In the end, the Medo-Persian empire was overtaken by Alexander the Great and his Macedonian army in 333 BC.
Greek Period (333-30 BC):
Xenophon (once a pupil of Socrates) writes in his famous book Anabasis, how the Greeks were hired as mercenaries by a claimant to the Persian throne, to wage war against the recognized king. The story records how the Greeks learned through the mercenary experience that the Persian Empire was internally weak and could be challenged militarily. The story may have inspired Philip of Macedon to believe that a lean and disciplined Hellene army might be relied upon to defeat a Persian army many times its size.
The first great clash between Persia and Greece occurred about 410 B.C., at the Battle of Marathon (the ram and he-goat, predicted in Dan 8). This is where the marathon race originated.
Before the Greeks conquered Persia, Darius III assembled the largest army ever created to try and stop the progress of the Greeks (over 1,000,000 men from 40 different nations). He was still defeated by Alexander, who had no money and only 35,000 men, in the Battle of Arbela. The Greeks, under the leadership of Alexander the Great, defeat Persian armies in Macedonia in 333 BC. This marks the fall of the Medo-Persian Empire and the rise of the Hellenism.
After Alexander's death in 323 BC the empire got divided into four parts under his generals. The Diadochi, as the successors of Alexanders were called, struggled bitterly for power over his domain. Two of those Generals Seleucus & Ptolemy took over the Levant and Egypt. Daniel 11 refers to these conflicts between the "king of the South" and the "king of the North".
The Seleucids controlled Babylonia, central Anatolia, Persia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and what is now Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan and northwest parts of India. They ruled till 63 BC when they were defeated by Rome, that now emerged as a new empire. It is during this period that Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BC) sacrificed a sow on the altar in Jerusalem, and is predicted in Daniel as the abomination that causes desolation (Daniel 11: 31). This led to the Maccabean revolt of the Jews and the formation of the Hasmonean dynasty.
The Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt until they were overthrown by Rome in 30 BC. Cleopatra VII, of this dynasty, was known for her role in the Roman political battles between Julius Caesar and Pompey, and later between Octavian and Mark Antony. Her apparent suicide at the conquest by Rome marked the end of Ptolemaic rule in Egypt. This was the last dynasty to rule Egypt.
This was also the period in between the Testaments, it was a time of political chaos and Hellenistic diffusion. The Sadducees, though from priestly line, were only interested in the consolidation of political power at all costs and paid no attention to the values of Jewish faith. In reaction, the sect of the Pharisees arose who determined to maintain Mishnaic purity. In contradistinction to both, the Essenoi instead retreated to desert places to maintain the purity of scriptures and lead a separated and austere lifetstyle. They devoted themselves to copying and keeping accurate records of their scripture. They lived in the desert region called Qumran, near the Dead sea and the foot of Masada.
It is important remember that the Greek that Alexander spoke was originally Attic Greek, not Ionian, Doric or Homeric (classical). However, as Hellenism spread, this Greek upon mingling with other parts of the empire, over a period of time became Koine Greek. This Koine Greek is the language in which the New Testament is written.
The Roman Empire / New Testament Period
Rome began its expansion shortly after the Republic was founded in the 6th century BC, though it didn't expand outside Italy until the 3rd century BC. It was thus an "empire" long before it had an Emperors. When it subjugated the Greek empire and annexed all its territories, Palestine too came under its control. In 27 BC the Senate and People of Rome made Octavian princeps ("first citizen") with proconsular imperium, thus beginning the Principate (the first epoch of Roman imperial history, usually dated from 27 BC to AD 284), and gave him the name Augustus ("the venerated"). Though the old constitutional machinery remained in place, Augustus came to predominate it. (In another blog I shall explain the social system that Augustus capitalized on to become the first citizen, and this social system is critically important for understanding the culture during the New Testament).
However, even though Rome defeated Greece it could not over-power the influence of Hellenism. Therefore Koine Greek remained the lingua franca for the whole empire even though Latin was the official language. The influence of Greek philosophy, their sciences still have their impact on modern science. How else would we know about the Archimedes principle or the Pythagoras theorem or Eucildean mathematics? Even about 80% of the technical words in medicine, science, psychology, biology and technology come from the Greek language.
This was the framework of the New Testament, of Jesus and his disciples, and all the epistles and books written at this time.
Rome's unique contribution was the Pax Romana and the Roman roads. Pax Romana ensured stability, security, prosperity and fair justice to all. This led to a vox populi of the deification of Rome, embodied in Roma, the goddess. Eventually, this deification was transmuted into a deification of the emperor. Some emperors tolerated it, others like Caligula revelled in it. Caligula, however, was a megalomaniac who insisted on divine honours. But what can be more dangerous than a madman? It would be a sane emperor insisting on divine honours - and this was Domitian. It was during the period of Domitian, that John was exiled to the island of Patmos where the last book in the New Testament was written.
The whole empire was networked by an efficient system of Roman roads. Therefore, the trident of Roman roads, the Pax Romana and the Koine Greek played a critical role in the wide dispersal of the Gospel. Eventually after Constantine, Christianity graduated from a persecuted faith to a State religion!
In Israel the Jews, however, resented Roman presence. There were groups such as the Zealots and Sicarii who wanted to overthrow foreign rule on their homeland. These Jewish nationalists captured the fortress of Masada in 66 AD from the Romans (the fortress was originally built by King Herod to protect himself against Cleopatra's invasion from Egypt). In order to stop this uprising revolt, Vespasian, the emperor led an assault on Israel and the Qumran Community was razed in 68 AD. The people of Qumran managed to hide all their precious scrolls, sealed tight in ceremonial jars, in the desert caves (these were accidentally discovered in 1947). In 70 AD, Jerusalem was utterly devastated and the Temple destroyed, by General Titus. And in 73 AD the Jewish stronghold at the fortress of Masada, lay under siege. When Romans overpowered they discovered that they, along with their families, committed suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. Of the 900 people present there only 2 women and 5 children survived. The last of the Jewish resistance, the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 AD), and the sad story at the Cave of Horrors (Nahal Hever), resulted in an extensive depopulation of Judean Jewish communities. Despite easing persecution of Jews following Hadrian's death in 138 AD, the Romans barred Jews from Jerusalem, except for attendance in Tisha B'Av. According to Cassius Dio's Roman History, 580,000 Jewish civilians were massacred, and those who survived were sold into slavery. The Jews were now a displaced people, scattered permanently, away from their own homeland.
Byzantine Period (313-638 AD):
After Constantine was converted to Christianity in 313 AD, the edict of Constantine provided protection for the Christian community. It was not just safe to be a Christian, but prospective. Constantine’s mother, Helena, with her personal and official resources at her disposal, identified and constructed, churches at all the important Christian sites. Some of which can be still seen today in the land of Israel.
In 395 AD, the Roman Empire divided into Eastern and Western halves. The Eastern part was ruled from Byzantium (renamed Constantinople, now called Istanbul). Palestine remained a province of this empire for 350 years. In the later years the Jews were persecuted and some were converted.
Islamic Occupation (638- 1098 AD)
If the land of Israel wasn’t convoluted enough with its complex history, a new religion now rises! In 610 AD, Mohammed, in the Arabian city of Mecca receives messages from God. Mohammed’s unique gift was in bringing together the disparate Bedouin tribes into a monolithic force, under the common factor of Islam, which means submission to God. In 638 AD Caliph Omar plus his desert troops get into Jerusalem, capturing it without a single drop of blood being shed. The Temple was declared an Islamic holy site. After the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans it was never rebuilt. The Dome of the Rock was built in its place between 689 – 691 AD. And until 1967 no non-Muslim was allowed to enter. Since 1967, permission to enter the Dome of the Rock is maintained by the Ministry of Awkaf, Amman, Jordan. Non-Muslims are now permitted to enter but they forbidden to pray.
The region remained under Islamic hand for the next 400 years, until acts of cruelty against Christian pilgrims provoked the Roman Catholic Crusades.
Crusader Period (1091-1259 AD):
The Crusades were a series of military campaigns sanctioned by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Pope Urban II initiated the First Crusade in 1091 AD with the stated goal of restoring Christian access to the Holy Land leading to an intermittent 200-year struggle. In 1099 AD, the Crusaders (drawn from many European countries) conquered Jerusalem and brutally butchered the Jews and the Muslims living there. Palestine was renamed as the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock was converted into a Christian Church, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was rebuilt.
Mameluke Period (1260 -1516 AD):
For a brief period from 1260 AD the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt took control of Palestine. This was as reasonably peaceful period in the history of this land. The Sultan demolished Jerusalem’s few remaining walls and initiated a lot of building work. Jerusalem now became a centre of Islamic learning.
Ottoman Empire (1517-1917 AD):
The Ottoman Empire, also called as the Turkish empire, was founded in 1299 by Oghuz Turks under Osman I in northwestern Anatolia. The Ottoman sultanate was transformed into a transcontinental empire with conquests in the Balkans between 1362 and 1389. They overthrew the Byzantine Empire with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 AD, renaming it as Istanbul. During the 16th and 17th centuries, in particular at the height of its power under the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire was a powerful multinational, multilingual empire controlling much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa.
Sultan Suleiman, the Magnificient, defeated the Mameluke Sultanate of Egypt in 1517, and Palestine now came under his control. He soon set about major rebuilding projects in Jerusalem. He installed the walls and gates which can still be seen around the Old City.
Over a period of time, the empire got gradually weakened, and Jerusalem became a neglected outpost. Slowly the exiled Jewish people, started to return to Palestine. During this period, in the 1890s the movement of Zionism was born, under the leadership of Theodore Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian Jew. The central aim of Zionism was to restore the lands of the Bible to the Jewish people.
British Mandate (1917-1948):
In 1917 the British General Allenby entered Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate, and the Turkish Empire lost its hold in this region permanently. Under the British Mandate (recognized by the League of Nations) the British acted as a caretaker government between 1917 to 1948.
State of Israel (1948 onwards):
On 15th May 1948, the British withdrew their caretaker government and Israel became an independent state and homeland of the Jewish people. There is still much tension there between Palestinians (Christian & Arab) and Jews due to the complexity of the way in which the British withdrew and the nation was formed. The Palestinians claim that they have dwelt there for 2000 years since the Roman times, while the Jews claim it as their original homeland. It is not comfortable to dwell on the right and wrong of these issues. All that we need to do is to pray for the peace of Jerusalem.