Ancient Complexity

The ancient world is always fascinating. It’s very much a foreign world. And so it helps us to challenge simplistic thinking.

Such things as ‘race’ did not exist as we know it. Even within a single group, it was difficult to determine who belonged or not. After asking “How, then, did you know a Jew in antiquity when you saw one?”, Shaye J. D. Cohen stated “The answer is that you did not.”

That is partly because there was so much mixing across populations and so many local variations within populations. Widespread influences and syncretism dominated the ancient world. Ancient people in a particular region had more in common than not, for they were the products of common cultural histories. Large frames of understanding encompassed diverse peoples.

This shared inheritance and mutual bond was acknowledged, sometimes even emphasized, by many going back millennia. It’s only over the distance of time that lines of distinction become hardened within historical texts. The lived reality at the time, however, was messier and more interesting.

That should force us to rethink our modern identities, as so much of who we think we are has been built on who we thought ancient people were. When we speak of ancient Greeks and Jews, the traditions of polytheism and monotheism, do we have any clue of what we are talking about? In our claims of being cultural descendants of earliest Western civilization, what do we think we have inherited?

Maybe we should ask another question as well. What have we lost and forgotten along the way?

* * * *

Of God and Gods
by Jan Assman
Kindle Locations 730-769

From the viewpoint of monotheism, polytheism seems prehistoric: original, inal, primitive, immature, a mere precursor of monotheism. However, as soon as one changes this perspective and tries to view polytheism from within, say, from the viewpoint of ancient Egypt, polytheism appears as a great cultural achievement. In polytheistic religions the deities are clearly differentiated and personalized by name, shape, and function. The great achievement of polytheism is the articulation of a common semantic universe. It is this semantic dimension that makes the names translatable, that is, makes it possible for gods from different cultures or different regions and traditions within a to be equated with one another. Tribal religions are ethnocentric. The powers and ancestral spirits that are worshiped by one tribe are irreducibly and untranslatably different from those worshiped by another. By contrast, the highly differentiated members of polytheistic pantheons easily lend themselves to cross-cultural translation or “interpretation.” Translation works because the gods have a well-defined function in the maintenance of cosmic, political, and social order. The sun god of one group, culture, or religion is the same as the sun god of another. Most of the deities have a cosmic competence and reference or are related to a well-defined cultural domain, such as writing, craftsmanship, love, war, or magic. This specific responsibility and competence renders a deity comparable to other deities with similar traits and makes their names mutually translatable.

The tradition of translating or interpreting foreign divine names goes back to the innumerable glossaries equating Sumerian and Akkadian words, among which appear lists of divine names in two or even three languages, such as Emesal (women’s language; used as a literary dialect), Sumerian, and Akkadian. The most interesting of these sources is the explanatory list Ann sa ameli, which contains three columns, the first two giving the Sumerian and Akkadian names, respectively, and the third listing the functional definition of each deity.5 This explanatory list gives what may be called the “meaning” of divine names, making explicit the principle that underlies the equation or translation of gods. In the Kassite period of the Late Bronze Age the lists are extended to include such languages as Amorite, Hurritic, Elamite, and Kassite in addition to Sumerian and Akkadian. In these cases the practice of translating divine names was applied to very different cultures and religions.

The origin of this practice may be found in the field of international law. Treaties had to be sealed by solemn oaths, and the gods who were invoked in these oaths had to be recognized by both parties. The list of the gods involved conventionally closed the treaty. They necessarily had to be equivalent in terms of their function and, in particular, their rank. Intercultural theology became a concern of international law.

The growing political and commercial interconnectedness of the ancient world and the practice of cross-cultural translation of everything, including divine names, gradually led to the concept of a common religion. The names, iconographies, and in short, the cultures might differ, but the gods remained the same everywhere. This concept of religion as the common background of cultural diversity and the principle of cultural translatability eventually led to the late Hellenistic outlook, where the names of the gods mattered little in view of the overwhelming whelming natural evidence for their existence and presence in the world.

The idea that the various nations basically worshiped the same deities albeit under different names and in different forms eventually led to the belief in a “Supreme Being” (Gk. Hypsistos, “the Highest One”).6 It essentially comprised not only the myriad known and unknown deities but also those three or four gods who, in the contexts of different religions, play the role of the highest god (usually Zeus, Sarapis, Helios, and Tao = YHWH). This super-deity is addressed by appellations such as Hypsistos (supreme), and by the widespread “One-God” predication Heis Theos. Oracles typically proclaim particular gods to be a unity comprised prised of a number of other gods:

One Zeus, one Hades, one Helios, one Dionysos, One god in all gods.7

In one of these oracles, Tao (YHWH), the God of the Jews, is proclaimed to be the god of time (Olam-Aion), appearing as Hades in winter, Zeus in springtime, Helios in summer, and “Habros Iao” in autumn.8 tumn.8 These oracles and predications manifest a quest for the sole and supreme divine principle behind the innumerable multitude of specific deities. This is typical of the “ecumenical age” (Voegelin) and seems to correspond to efforts toward political unification.9 The belief in the “Supreme Being” (Hypsistos) has a distinctly universalist character.

The sons of Ogyges call me Bacchus,
Egyptians think me Osiris,
Mysians name me Phanaces,
Indians regard me as Dionysus,
Roman rites make me Liber,
The Arab race thinks me Adoneus,
Lucaniacus the Universal God.10

This tradition of invoking the highest god according to the names given him by the various nations expresses a general conviction in Late Antiquity regarding the universality of religious truth, the relativity of religious institutions and denominations, and the conventionality of divine vine names. According to Servius, the Stoics taught that there is only one god with various names that differ according to actions and offices. Varro (116-27 BCE), who knew about the Jews from Poseidonios, was unwilling to differentiate between Jove and Yahweh because he felt that it mattered little by which name the god was called as long as the same thing was meant (nihil interesse censens quo nomine nuncupetur, dum eadem res intelligatuz).11 Porphyry felt that the names of the gods were purely conventional.12 Symmachus, a pagan prefect, wondered what difference it made “by which wisdom each of us arrives at truth? It is not possible that only one road leads to so sublime a mystery.” 13 Celsus argued that “it makes no difference ference whether one calls god `Supreme’ (Hypsistos) or Zeus or Adonai or Sabaoth or Ammon as the Egyptians do, or Papaios as do the Scythians. The name does not matter when it is evident what or who is meant.” 14 In his treatise on Isis and Osiris Plutarch makes this point, stating that no one would “regard the gods as different among different nations nor as Barbarian and Greek and as southern and northern. But just as the sun, moon, heaven, earth and sea are common to all, although they are given different names by the various nations, so it is with the one reason (logos) which orders these things and the one providence which has charge of them.” 15 Seneca stressed that this conviction was based on natural evidence: dence: “This All, which you see, which encompasses divine and human, is One, and we are but members of a great body” 16 According to Mark Smith, “Pliny the Elder (Natural History, bk. 2, V. 15) put the general point in a pithy formulation for deities in the world, that they are a matter of `different names to different peoples’ (nomina alia aliisgentibus).”17

The Mythic Past
by Thomas L. Thompson
pp. 306-308

Such theology in which the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, shared, reflects a world-view whose centre lay in an awareness of human ignorance and of the deceptiveness of sensory perception, associated with a nearly universal recognition of ineffable and transcendent qualities in life, fertility and wisdom.

This theology was an aspect of ancient philosophy and science. It was not so specifically Hellenistic as it was a product of the unified intellectual culture that had been created by the empire as early as the Assyrian period. It is a knowledge that is specifically set in contrast and in opposition to the old story-worlds of gods. From the early historian Hecateus to Plato and the Greek playwrights, and from the Babylonian Nabonidus to Isaiah and the author of Exodus, polytheism and monotheism were hardly ever opposed to each other. They rather reflected different aspects of a common spectrum of intellectual development. There was continuity between polytheism and monotheism as well as a process of changing interpretation. Hardly sudden or revolutionary, the changes of world-view were the result of more than a millennium of cultural integration. Crisis in such change was associated first of all with the understanding of divine transcendence, and with ideas regarding the truth, function and legitimacy of the personal gods of story. The struggle over beliefs about the unity of the divine came late and always had an explicitly political focus.

From at least early in the Assyrian period of the empire, in what are often thought of as the polytheistic worlds of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia, reflective people had well understood a clear difference between the gods themselves and the statues and images that were used to represent them. They also understood the difference between the forces of nature and the divine powers that had created them. […]

In the simpler West Semitic world these tendencies were much more clearly marked. In the world of trade and shipping, where contact among many cultures and languages was commonplace, Syrian and Phoenician merchants readily identified specific gods of one region with the gods of similar function of another region. In this way, Astarte could be identified with Ishtar in the east and with Venus in the far west. Yam could be identified with Poseidon, and Ba’al with Hadad and Yahweh. Such syncretism was encouraged by the fact that many of the names of West Semitic deities directly reflected a given deity’s function. The name El translates simply as ‘God’ and is easily identified with the Aegean world’s Zeus. Ba’al translates as ‘master’ or ‘husband’, Mot as ‘death’, Yam as ‘sea’, and the like. At times they distributed the functions differently, so that for instance Ba’al could be identified with both Hadad and El, or Yahweh with both Ba’al and Elohim. It is only a very small step to recognize that implicit in such gods were functions of a single divine world. As different peoples gave these functions different names, the recognition came quickly that the gods themselves differed from each other because of distinctions given to them by humans. The specific gods that people knew were the gods they themselves had made to express the divine world.

One of the most frequent ways that West Semitic story, poetry and prayer particularized gods for very specific functions was to take the name of a high god – usually El, but Ba’al, Hadad and Yah web were used as well – and add a descriptive epithet. In this way, El developed many different faces. He was ‘the most high’, ‘the merciful’, ‘the god of the storm’. Also places or names of specific towns or regions made these nearly universal deities more particular. So we fold ‘Yahweh of Samaria’ and ‘Yahweh of Teman’. We have Ba’al and his Asherah, as well as Yahweh and his , without confusion. The divine name came to reflect a very particular local deity. At the same time, a default understanding of universalism is implicit. […]

The development of such an understanding of monotheism was hardly antagonistic to the worship of a variety of gods. Quite the contrary, this variety of gods, of individuals and of gods who changed, was a necessary aspect of human relationships to the transcendent. Both the gods of tradition and the forms of worship became subject to such critical thought, Gods, as human reflections, could be false, just as their worship could be empty and corrupt. By the late fifth century BCE, one or other form of this transcendent monotheism is known in many different regions. In Greece, it can best be seen in the writings of Plato about the One, True, Good and Beautiful. In Babylon the god Sin is spoken of in some texts in the same way as Ba’al Shamem is in Syria. In Persia, Ahura Mazda is frequently so understood. In the Bible itself, many of the references to ‘God’ (Elohim) , the ‘God of heaven’, ‘God the most high’, and ‘God’ in such expressions as ‘God’s Yahweh’ should be understood in this way. […]

One could dismiss the gods of stories and legend. One could also find a way of thinking of them with integrity. It is this kind of task that exercised many ancient writers of the late Persian and early Hellenistic periods. The early writers of the Bible were among them.

The first story in the Bible in which God meets Moses, the story of the burning bush in Exodus 3–6, illustrates well how a revision of a tradition’s stories can revive and modernize old world-views and outmoded traditions by understanding them in new ways. Traditional beliefs in the old gods of Palestine are saved in Exodus by having Yahweh, the long-forgotten god of ancient Israel, understood not as God himself, but as the name, the representative of the true God – the way that ancient Israel knew the divine. Yahweh recurrently plays a role in the Bible’s narratives as mediator between the Most High and Israel, sharing this role with his messiah, with his son, with the king and the prophets. Yahweh is the primary means by as expressed by the Yahweh tradition also plays the role of the philosopher’s stumbling block, as it does so forcefully throughout the Book of Job. On the other hand, Yahweh is equally freely identified with the true God, when addressed directly in prayer and song, and plays that role in some narratives. The story of the theophany in the burning bush in Exodus 3–6 also explains how the divine had been hidden in the worship of the even more ancient gods of Palestine: the lost gods of the patriarchs. These included even an El Shaddai who was no longer either worshipped or remembered. The ‘true meaning’ of the many, now fragmented stories of patriarchs and heroes is gathered together to be remembered and preserved in a way that the past had not grasped or properly understood. More than that, the writers of the Bible were free to create all their great stories about Yahweh, that they might reflect how old Israel had understood – and had misunderstood – the divine.

Stories from Ancient Canaan
edited by Michael David Coogan
pp. 77-78

[T]he language used of Baal as storm god is echoed in the description of Yahweh, the god of Israel, who

makes the clouds his chariot,
walks on the wings of the wind,
makes the winds his messengers,
fire (and) flame his ministers
(Psalm 104:3-4)

As Baal defeated Sea, so also did Yahweh:

With his power he stilled the sea,
with his skill he smote Rahab,
with his wind he bagged Sea,
his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
(Job 26:12-13)

Similar mythological language occurs in Psalm 89:10 and Isaiah 27:1.

Baal’s adversary has the double title “Prince Sea” and “Judge River”; “sea” and “river” occur frequently in biblical poetry as parallel terms. Most interesting in this context is the application of the pair to the two bodies of water that Yahweh mastered, enabling his people to escape Egypt and enter Canaan:

When Israel came out of Egypt,
the house of Jacob from people of a
different language . . . .
The sea saw and fled,
the Jordan turned back
(Psalm 114:1, 3)

Just as the Reed Sea was split so that the Israelites crossed on dry land, so too the Jordan miraculously stopped and the chosen people entered the promised land with dry feet (Exodus 14:22; Joshua 3:13). The repetition of the event is rooted in the old poetic formula; sea and river are two aspects of the same reality.

pp. 80-81

The Canaanite temples on which the description of Baal’s house is based were the primary analogues for the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem, planned by David and built by his son Solomon. Solomon’s architects and craftsmen were Phoenicians who used cedar from the Lebanon for both the temple and the adjacent royal residence. The juxtaposition of temple and palace was deliberate: the deity guaranteed the dynasty and was purposely identified with t. This adoption of Canaanite theory and practice in the house of the god of Israel was responsible for prophetic opposition to the temple from before its construction until the last days of its existence:

“Thus says Yahweh: Would you build me a house to lie in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought the Israelites up from Egypt until today, but I walked among them with a tent as my divine home. In all the places I walked with the Israelites, did I ever say to one of the Israel’s judges, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, ‘Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?’ ” (II Samuels 7:5-7)

Despite this conservative resistance the temple was built, and at its dedication Solomon prayed to Yahweh using words that could have been addressed to Baal:

“Give rain to your land, which you gave to your people as their inheritance.” (I Kings 8:36)

The acquisition of a house marks the climax of Baal’s ascent to the kingship, a climax marked by his theophany in the storm and his assertion,

“No other king or non-king
shall set his power over the earth.”

Baal’s centrality in Ugaritic religion is demonstrable. For instance, a significant index of popular beliefs is the use of divine elements in personal names; at Ugarit the most frequently occurring deity in names is Baal, including is other names and titles, such as Hadad.

The transfer of power from an older sky god to a younger storm god is attested in many contemporary eastern Mediterranean cultures. Kronos was imprisoned and succeeded by his son Zeus, Yahweh succeeded El as the god of Israel, the Hittite god Teshub assumed kingship in heaven after having defeated his father Kumarbi, and Baal replaced El as the effective head of the Ugaritic pantheon. A more remote and hence less exact parallel is the replacement of Dyaus by Indra in early Hinduism. These similar developments can be accurately dated to the second half of the second millennium B.C., a time of prosperity and extraordinary artistic development, but also of political upheaval and natural disasters that ended in the collapse or destruction of many civilizations, including the Mycenaean, Minoan, Hittite, and Ugaritic. This was the period of the Trojan War, of the invasion of Egypt and the Palestinian coast by the Sea Peoples, of the international unrest related in the Amarna letters. In such a context a society might suppose that its traditional objects of worship had proved ineffective, that the pantheon in its established form had, like an entrenched royalty, become incapable of dealing with new challenges. At this point it might choose an extradynastic god, as Ugarit chose Baal, son of Dagon and not of El; and, beset by invasions from the sea and tidal waves arising from earthquakes, it might construct a mythology in which the new god demonstrated his mastery over the sea.

Studies in the Cult of Yahweh
by Morton Smith
pp. 53-54

It is to this new Renaissance world of the Assyrians and the Phoenicians, the Lydians and the Greeks, that the Israelites, a new people of recent invaders, belong. They belong to the beginning of the iron age culture, not to the end of the bronze. Their cultural history is paralleled most closely by that of the iron age Greeks: savage invaders of the thirteenth and twelfth centuries, they soon assimilated some elements of the culture they had overrun, but reshaped these by their own standards and interests and combined them with new elements from the new [35] world around. Learning the alphabet from the Phoenicians, they began to write down their heroic legends and those of old holy places in their land (J and E, the Homeric epics and hymns); in these we can sometimes see the dim outlines of bronze age legends, but the heroes have become nomads and chieftans of the invasion period, and the mentality and language is that of early monarchies. As civilization developed, wealth and trade and social injustice increased, and the prophets emerged to denounce the wickedness of the rulers, defend the poor, and foretell the coming of the judgment of Yahweh or Zeus—Amos and Hesiod are conspicuously close in date, message, and prophetic vocation. But prophetic preaching was not directly effective. What the people needed for their protection was the publication of their laws, hitherto a matter of tradition in the heads of the rich—the city elders and the priests. Consequently, Deuteronomy and Draco are almost exact contemporaries, and both the social concerns and the proposed remedies of the deuteronomist are in many points parallel to those of Solon, who lived only a generation later. At the same time intellectual development is going on. Soon the gnomic “wisdom” poetry, traditional all over the near east, will be developed by gifted individuals like Theognis and the author of the first section of Proverbs to serve their own didactic purposes. From such beginnings will come, a century later, such great theologico-philosophical and dramatic dialogues on the problem of evil as Job and Prometheus Bound. And after these great peaks of poetry the writers of both peoples will turn to topics of more “human interest.” Speculative thought will concern itself with the good life (so Epicurus and Ecclesiastes), narration will turn to hellenistic romances like Judith and Tobit. This is the outline of Israelite literature, and it belongs part and parcel, soul as well as body, to the iron age and to the Mediterranean, not to the Mesopotamian world.

pp, 99-101

All in all the evidence seems to indicate that while the Hebrew and Aramaic elements were more frequent in Palestine, and especially in Judea, and while Greek elements were more frequent elsewhere in Roman territory, nevertheless, the range of possible variations was roughly the same. Even rather extreme variants turn where we should least expect them, e.g. substantial evidence for the Essene influence has been found in the Epistle to the Ephesians (Kuhn, NTS 7.334ff.). It would not be implausible to suppose that a few aristocrats in Jerusalem had the sort of Greek education and philosophical attitude that we find in Philo. Although Josephus’ Greek was none too good, his rival, Justus of Tiberias, was much better at home in the language (Josephus, Vita 40 and 340) and was remembered in philosophical literature for one of his anecdotes about Plato (Diogenes Laertius 2.41).

Consequently the common in toto distinction of “Palestinian” from “diasporic” (not to mention “hellenistic”) Judaism is simply unjustified. […]

And what were the Samaritans? The destruction of the Gerizim temple in Hyrcanus’ time is most plausibly understood as an attempt at religious Anschluss: Thereby the Samaritans would be forced to bring their sacrifices to Jerusalem and subject themselves to the Hasmonean High-Priesthood, which evidently considered them as potential Ioudaioi—adherents [302] of the Judean cult. How many of them consented to enter the fold? How many refused and resorted to surreptitious sacrifices without a temple, or contented themselves with synagogue worship? We have no way of telling. Josephus distinguished “Samaritans” as an ethnic group, and was contemptuous of them as he was of Idumeans and Galileans, who by this time were undoubtedly “Jews”—i.e., adherents of the Jerusalem cult—but whom Josephus often distinguished from Ioudaioi when he used the latter term to mean (territorial) “Judeans.”

It is time to tear away this cobweb of nomenclature and try to see the facts it conceals. We have to with the gradual extension through the Greco-Roman world (and through Arabia, Mesopotamia, Armena, and Iran, which are usually ignored) of a peculiar cult and its associated literary, legal, and social traditions.

Part of the literary tradition was the legend that the cult had once been peculiar to a single family—allied tribes are often linked by such familial legends. This legend has persisted to the present: Christians, like Jews, are still theoretically one family, the “Israel of God.” However, already in antiquity the members of this theoretical family seem to have showed no significant physical uniformity. I do not recall any ancient reference to a man’s being recognized, from his physical appearance, as a Jew, except when the recognition was an inference from circumcision. (And even circumcision was not specific; it occurred among Arabs and Egyptians.) We can be reasonably sure that in the Greco-Roman period the followers of this cult had been so diversified by intermarriage, adoption, conversion, and adherence, that its spread cannot be considered as that of a single genetic stock.

The one thing common to all forms of the cult was the god called Yahweh, Yah, Iao, etc., who was often associated with various titles and epithets—Elohim, Adonai, Sabaoth, He who hears prayer, He whose name is blessed, etc. Most of these epithets, in one place or another, seem to have hypostatized as independent but associated deities. [303] Yahweh might also be associated with other gods, of whom a long list could be compiled from the Old Testament times on. His most famous associate, of course, was to be Jesus. In a few systems of the sort usually called “gnostic” Yahweh appears as an inferior god, and he so appears, too, in a good many unsystematic magical texts. He was also included in various syncretistic expressions of late Roman paganism, for instance the famous Clarian oracle: “I declare Iao to be the highest god of all, the Hades for winter, Zeus of beginning spring, Helios for summer, and splendid Iao of autumn.” (Macrobius, Sat. 1.18).

To what extent such theological effusions implied worship is uncertain, but there is no question that the worship of Yahweh by pagans was ancient and extensive. Ezra proudly records the offerings made to Yahweh by the Persian emperors; the refusal of the Jerusalem temple staff to accept sacrifices offered by the Romans was the official beginning of the revolt A.D. (Josephus, War 2.409). Therefore to discuss the spread of this cult in terms of “the extension of Judaism”—whatever one means by “Judaism”—is to discuss only one part of a complex process. The neglected part of this process, which badly needs study, was an important factor in the extension of declared “Judaism,” since Dio Cassius reports that the name Ioudaioi was commonly applied to whatever men followed Jewish customs (37.17.1).

This report illustrates our need for another study—that of the ancient definitions of “Jew” and “Judaism,” with careful attention to the different users of the terms and the circumstances of the usage. We have already seen some of the ambiguities of the terms in antiquity—the fluctuation between religious and territorial usage (the Idumeans were Ioudaioi because adherents of the Jerusalem temple, but not Ioudaioi because not natives of Judea), the fluctuation between references to temple adherence and reference to general religious pattern (the adherents of the Onias temple were Ioudaioi by general pattern, in spite of their rejection of Jerusalem), the uncertainty as to which variations of the pattern, and how man of its [304] elements, are referred to. (Were the Samaritans Ioudaioi, or the Christians, or the sebomenoi? And so on.) An even more serious difficult results from the modern specialization of “Jew” to refer to the adherents of rabbinic Judaism and their descendants, plus a few minor groups—the Karaites, the Falashas, and the like. Because of this modern usage, students of first century “Judaism” commonly take for granted that, even though rabbinic Judaism had not yet developed, something very like it was the common form of the religion, at least in Palestine, and all other groups are to be seen as divergent from this primitive stock. An extreme absurdity is reached from this notion when the Judaism of the high-priestly families of the Jerusalem temple itself, who are supposed to have been mostly Sadducean, is represented as a divergence from pretendently “normative” Pharisaic Judaism.

pp. 130-131

The first of these facts—which we should never have expected even from the Greco-Roman literary remains—is the wide extent of iconic decoration from the second century on. Of course, there were some references to iconic decoration in the literature: even Herod Agrippa I, the friend of the Pharisees, had in his palace at Caesarea statues of his daughters. But hitherto such details could be treated as exceptional. Now that the materials has been collected it appears that decoration with human figures was customary even in Jewish religious buildings. The second and third century catacombs of Rome show Victory crowning a youth, Fortuna pouring a libation, cupids, adolescent erotes, and so on. A similar catacomb is reported near Carthage. The second or third century synagogue of Capernaum had over its main door an eagle, carved in high relief. Over the eagle was a frieze of six naked eotes, carrying garlands. Inside was not only a frieze containing human, animal and mythological figures, but also a pair of free-standing statues of lions, probably in front of the Torah shrine. The synagogue of Chorazin, of about the same date, had similar statues and a frieze showing vintage scenes of the sort traditionally associated with the cult of Dionysus. Remains of some dozen other synagogues scattered about Palestine show traces of similar carved decoration. There are human figures in high relief in the second-to-fourth century catacombs of Beth Shearim. From the same period the synagogue of Dura shows a full interior decoration of the frescoes representing Biblical scenes. From the fourth and fifth century synagogues of Palestine we have a half dozen mosaic floors, and there is reason to believe that in about half of them the central panel was occupied by a picture which, if not found in a synagogue, would be recognized as a representation of the sun god driving his chariot.

So long as these remains were studied one group at a time, they might be explained as heretical. This is now impossible. On the other hand, it is dangerous to explain them as orthodox first, because the meaning of orthodoxy is uncertain for this [491] period, second, because the carved decoration of the Galialean synagogues shows deliberate mutilation: human and animal figures have been chipped away carefully, so as to leave the rest of the carving undamaged. Similarly, the eyes of some figures in the Dura synagogue have been gouged out, but the rest of the faces left unmarked. Again, a sarcophagus in Beth Shearim was broken up in ancient times, probably because it showed Leda and the swan and other carved figures. Unfortunately, the date of the mutilations in the carved synagogues is a matter of dispute. Those who maintain that carved decoration was always permitted by orthodox Judaism can blame the destruction on the Moslems. But if these synagogues housed orthodox Judaism, then it must have been somewhat different than it is pictured by the rabbinic literature.

pp. 184-186

Religious symbols are among the objects that produce emotional reactions in their observers (make them feel secure, hopeful, etc). The [54] emotional reaction produced by a symbol is its “value,” as distinct from its “interpretation,” which is what the people who use it say it means. The value of a symbol is always essentially the same, the interpretations often change. (Thus the picture of a wine-cup produced from time immemorial its “value,” a feeling of euphoria, although its “interpretation” as a reference to Christ’s salvific blood began only with Christianity.) So long as an object commonly produces its “value” in the observers, it is a “live” symbol. Once the “value is no longer commonly produced, the object is a “dead” symbol. One social group may take over symbols from another. When “live symbols are taken over, they retain their former values, but are commonly given new interpretations. In the Greco-Roman world there was a “lingua franca” of “live” symbols, drawn mostly from the cult of Dionysus, which both expressed and gratified the worshipers’ hope for salvation by participation in the life of a deity which gave itself to sacrificial death in order to be eaten by its followers and to live in them. The Jews took over certain of these “live” symbols. (In Palestine, before 70, because of the anti-iconic influence of the Pharisees, they took only geometric objects, fines, grapes, and the like; elsewhere—and, in Palestine, after 70, when Pharisaic influence declined—they took also figures of animals and human beings.) Since these symbols were “live” in Greco-Roman society, the Jews must have known their “values” and adopted the symbols for the sake of those “values.” Therefore the Jews must have hoped for mystical salvation by participation in the life of a self-giving deity, probably through a communal meal. However, since they worshipped only Yahweh, they must have imposed, on these pagan symbols, Jewish interpretations. These interpretations, as well as the symbols unchanged “values, ” may be discovered in the works of Philo (the chief remains of this mystic Judaism) and also occasionally n the other Jewish literature of the time, and in early Christian works. (The rapid development of Christian theology and art suggests they arose from similar prior developments in Judaism.) The same sources indicate the “values” and interpretations which the Jews found in and imposed on those objects of Jewish cult which they now began to use as symbols: the menorah, the Torah shrine, and so on. For “values,” however, all literary sources are secondary; the symbols must first be allowed to speak for themselves. Rabbinic literature is particularly unreliable as to both the “values” and the interpretations of the symbols, since “the rabbis” were both anti-iconic and opposed to mysticism. Their religion was a search for security by obedience to a law laid down by a god essentially different from man; with this god no union was possible, and his law forbade making images. The widespread use of mystical symbols testifies, therefore, to a widespread mystical Judaism indifferent, at best, to the authorities cited in rabbinic literature. To judge from the archaeological evidence, rabbinic Judaism must have been, by comparison with the mystical type, a minor sect. [55]

pp. 228-229

It is immediately obvious that we have a striking parallel to the Johannine story of Jesus’ miracle at Cana in Galilee, John 2:1-11, when Jesus comes to a marriage feast where the wine has run out and changes water into wine.

Scholars had long maintained that the Cana story had a Dionysiac background. It has no Synoptic parallel; the miracle it reports is not even of the same type as any of the miracles reported in the Synoptics; in this respect it is unique among the Johannine stories of Jesus’ “signs”; therefore the supposition that it came from some alien tradition was plausible. Moreover, its introduction could be [818] explained by a polemic motive found elsewhere in John—the desire to contrast Jesus as the true, spiritual vine, with Dionysus, the false, earthlyone. However, the Dionysiac myths cited as parallels were somewhat remote in time, geography, and content. Consequently a plausible case could be made out by those who wanted to deny the Dionysiac reference and to explain the story wholly from Jewish analogies and concerns—the multiplication of food and “healings” of springs in the Old Testament, the contrast, in the Johannine story, between the Jewish water of purification, which is transformed, and the wine of Christian baptism with the spirit, which Jesus gives to men. Now, however, the main reasons for denying a Dionysiac reference are refuted. It appears that when the Gospel according to John was being written there was next door to Galilee, at Sidon (a city whose territory Jesus is said to have visited, Mark 7:31, and from which men came to Galilee to hear him, Mark 3:8) an established public festival of which a myth obviously similar to the Cana story was the central theme. [819]

pp. 233-235

Its presumably Jewish source therefore serves to strengthen Bickerman’s theory that it was the Jews of Italy who represented Yahweh as Sabazius in 139 B.C. A century later we find the ivy wreath and grapes on the coins of Antigonus Mattathias (40-37); then, over the entrance of Herod’s temple, the great golden vine which seemed to some a proof that the resident deity was Dionysus. After this comes the coinage of the Jewish revolts in 66-73 and 132-35, with its chalices and amphorae, wine leaves and grape clusters. (The lyre on the coins of the second revolt recalls the one in the hands of the satyr in the Beit Lei burial cave.) [Pausanias had heard of some shrine in Palestine which was said to be the tomb of a Silenus (.24.8).] The [824] evidence of the coins is continued by the decoration of Palestinian tombs and synagogues, much of it using familiar Dionysiac vocabulary.

The popularity of the cult of Dionysus in Palestine, the sense which pagans found in these symbols (as shown by the interpretations already cited) and the frequency with which these symbols were used on religious buildings and funerary objects (where ancient decoration was commonly significant)—these factors taken together make it incredible that these symbols were meaningless to Jews who used them. The history of their use shows a persistent association with Yahweh of attributes of the wine god. This association explains why some Jews identified the two deities, others at least chose Dionysus as the interpretatio greaeca of Yahweh, and yet others contrasted Yahweh—or his logos—as the true vine, with Dionysus the false one.

If we now look for the source of this association we are led back to very early Biblical material. For it cannot be supposed that the wine god came to Palestine only with the Greeks—not even though the Greeks came there in the second millennium B.C., as their pottery indicates. Palestine was presumably a grape growing country from time immemorial, and the god was doubtless as old as the use of his gifts. If the Biblical story (Exod 6:3) is to believed Yahweh was a new-comer in the country. His association with the wine god—and with other deities—will have begun with the conquest or shortly after. By the time of our earliest Biblical texts he had become a rather complex concept: he had been completely syncretized with El, Elyon, and Shaddai; with other dieties, like Tsur, Gad, and Am, his relations were certainly close. As for the wine god(s)—such phenomena as the Rekhabite reaction and, even more, the survival of the nazirate as the status perfectionis of a man devoted to Yahweh, indicate that Yahweh’s original [825] attitude to wine was not a friendly one. Down to the time of Hosea, most Israelites believed that wine was given by Baal, not Yahweh. On the other hand, the author of Judges 21:12ff. thought that in the time of the Judges the girls of Shiloh already went out to dance in the vineyards on the feast of Yahweh—as they still did in the time of the Mishna (Ta’ anit 4:8); the legend of Jepthah’s daughter looks like a nationalistic explanation of a maenadic custom; wine, though secondary in sacrifices to Yahweh, became an accepted element in them after the tribes settled down; and there is no doubt that one of the original elements of Sukkoth was a vintage festival. Plutarch’s source and his own judgment were right about this—the feast was certainly sacred to a wine god. But who was this wine god, and where did he first become associated with Yahweh?

It is possible that a partial answer to these questions may be found in Genesis 18:1-15, the myth of Abraham’s entertaining Yahweh and two angels and receiving as a reward the promise of a son from Sarah. Ever since the time of Delitzsch this myth has been recognized as an example of a common type, known from many Greek and Roman parallels. Numerous scholars have [826] remarked that the myth presumably was that of the sanctuary of Hebron—the center of a grape growing district, as Skinner observes—and many have thought it pre-Yahwist, since it tells of the appearance of three deities, not one. The Yahwist retelling, with its change from the plural to the singular, has created difficulties in the text. It is not improbably that the three deities and their host, the original hero of the shrine (who may or may not have been named Abraham) made up the “four” referred to in the ancient name—or nickname—of Hebron, Kiryat ha ‘arba’, “the city of the four,” commonly syncopated to Kiryat ‘arba’. And it is not unlikely that the three deities may be the three giants whom the Yahwist hero Caleb drove out of Hebron when he took it (Josh 15:14; Judges 1:20; cp. Josh 11:21f.; 14:15).

The names of the three figures at Hebron differ from one Biblical source to another, for reasons we cannot now discern. In one set of stories they are Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai, Aramaic names which, as Moore remarked, tell us nothing. In Gen 14:13, however, they are Mamre, Ehskol, and Aner, all of whom made a covenant with Abraham (As did the deity who appeared to him in Hebron, if Gen 15:18 or 17:1-27 is to be associated with that shrine). Of these, Mamre and Eshkol had their individual holy places, Mamre at his oak grove and sacred well, modern Ramet el Halil, just outside Hebron, Eshkol in his valley famous for its grape vines—his name means “grape cluster.”

p. 237

Sozomen then goes on to tell how St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, got wind of these goings on and persuaded Constantine to build a church on the site and prohibit all non-Christian worship. In this report his narrative is based on Eusebius’ Life of Constatine. From Constantine’s letter, as quoted by Eusebius (3.51f.) it appears that there were pagan idols and a pagan altar on the site. These the emperor ordered destroyed. From their destruction—presumably—came the fragments discovered by Mader in his excavation of the site. Of these fragments the one certainly recognizable was a head of Dionysus. Or should we say, Dionysus-Yahweh-Eshkol?

Orphism and Christianity in Late Antiquity
by Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui
pp. 113-116

Groups of pagans with religious inclinations close to Judaism sometimes associated themselves with local Jewish communities, and this kind of Jewish acolyte — from the ranks of which came many of the earliest converts to Christianity — is likely to have acted as a connection to other Greek cults. A recent study by Stephen Mitchell, for instance, clearly establishes that the pagan cult of Theos Hypsistos — a single and transcendent deity, whose name could not be spoken — was the result of strong Jewish influence on pagan culture in Asian Minor. This is the most spectacular example of Hellenic adoption and appropriation of Jewish beliefs. However, the presence of Biblical ritual and theologcla elements, particularly the use of the name “Iao” — evidently connected with “Yahweh” — in religious and magical papyri of Imperial Egypt, makes clear that this Judaizing influence spread through many other religious and literary circles in which Orphic elements also appear. The existence of Jewish elements is furthermore well established in Hermetic and Gnostic literature, where the influence of Orphism has already been noted. The existence of an Orphic-Jewish or Jewish-Orphic syncretism is a practically inevitable conclusion given such trends.

Ideological assimilation is of course a bilateral process, though ancient apologetic writings tend to transmit only cases of Jewish influence spreading outward to affect the Hellenic culture around it. This bias creates the impression of a Judaism kept free of syncretistic contamination and exerting its energies in a purely unidirectional fashion. It is true that Jewish orthodoxy grows more and more passionate over time in its exclusion of Greek influences: for example, the translation into Greek of the Bible becomes more literal from the Septuagint until the absolutely literal translation of Aquila. However, the strict boundaries set by orthodoxy and apologetics are artificial, and it is not unlikely that users of many of the Orphic-Jewish syncretistic texts were in fact Jewish themselves, or very close to Jewish communities. The motivation behind the reaction of those Jewish purists who resist Hellenic thought and culture, and the work of those internal apologists who seek to reaffirm the strength of orthodox doctrine to the faithful, appears to lie precisely in fear of Jewish religious identity being lost against this syncretistic background. The entirely reactive character of the movement, however, attests to the great fluidity of actual religious practice. It is the same situation the Christian apologists will later confront when they come to polemical attack against a nascent pagan-Christian syncretism — whose strength is revealed not only in the direct references made by the apologists themselves, but also in the vitriol with which they decry it.

It is in Palestine that the dramatic ambiguities in religious cult and belief of the time are revealed in greatest detail and in particular in the cult of Dionysus. The cult in question is connected specifically with Baccus’ role as god of wine, and while we do not have sufficient evidence to link the cult — universal throughout the Mediterranean — with the mysteries or with the Orphic tradtion, the Jewish attitude toward it is precisely the same as is found in relation to cults of a more explicitly Orphic flavour. the presence of the Bacchic cult in Palestine and the assimilation of Baccuus to Yahweh are very well attested, and it is presumably because of the pervasiveness of such syncretism that contemporary denunciations of Bacchic rituals are so harsh. When Antiochus Epiphanesestablished the worship of Dionysus in his attempts to Hellenize Judea in 16 B.C. (2 Mac 5-6), he was doubtless trying to institutionalize an already-existing syncretism for political self-interest. His attempt was nevertheless condemned by the ultimately prevailing orthodoxy of the time as ” the abomination of desolation” (Dn. 12:11). The Wisdom of Solomon, the last canonical book of the Old Testament, was written in Alexandria in the first century BC and harshly criticizes the Bacchic teletai (Wis 12.3-7). Dionysus becomes in this account the heir to the Baal of the Canaantes, an object of worship whose relationship to Yahweh was marked, on the evidence of the Old Testament synthesized in the classic work of Ranier Albertz (1994), by a similarly widespread syncretism existing in the face of constant official condemnation. Pagan authors such as Plutarch, Valcrius Maximus, and Tacticus differ on whether the Jewish Yahweh should be identified with the Greek Dionysus. The Orphic tradition does not appear to play any direct role in this process of assimilation and separation, but the tendency to Bacchic assimilations should be borne in mind when attempting to explain the absence of Dionysiac elements from those aspects of Hellenic culture ultimately accepted into Jewish orthodoxy. From its perspective, the most similar is the most dangerous, for it tends most powerfully towards uncontrolled assimilation.

One may attempt to differentiate from this kind of clear-cut syncretism some instances of cultural assimilation which attest a much more managed process, guided by an orthodoxy that sought to hellenize Judaism while preserving its inner core. External accomodation to the Hellenistic cultural milieu may be in principle distinguished from actual cultic syncretism. For example, when Philo depicts the community of Jewish therapeutai as if they were initiates in the Bacchic mysteries, such assimilation is purely an external metaphor does not mean that these therapeutai adored Bacchus in any way. However, such clear distinction is not always conceptually fixed. The figure of Orpheus, precisely, offers and excellent example. There is one possible textual instance of an external assimilation between David and Orpheus. Psalm 151 in the Septuagint version talks about David — the putative author of the Psalm — praising God with his lyre. The Psalm was only known in its Greek translation until 195, when the Hebrew version discovered in the manuscripts of Qumram was published. This purported original version has two lines (2b-3) which are absent from the Greek version: “And [so] have I rendered glory to the Lord, thought I, within my soul/The mountains do not witness to him, nor do the hills proclaim; the trees have cherished my words and flock my deeds.” These lines that state the power of the singer over nature suggested from the beginning that there was a conscious appropriation of the myth of Orpheus, the singer who enchants nature, to depict David’s song. The reading and translation of these lines is, however, very controversial, and this interpretation has been hotly debated. However, the fact that the Greek version of the Psalm lacked precisely those two verses may be a sign of some censorship of unclear lines whose assimilation of a Greek myth may have been excessive for the orthodox Jewish translators.

Whatever the facts of the case of Psalm 151, this presentation of David as Orpheus is clearly found in several images found in synagogues of the eastern Empire — the most famous being the frescoes of Dura-Europas in the third century AD and a mosaic in Gaza of the sixth century AD. King David is depicted as Orpheus, surrounded by the animals he has attracted to him with is voice. It is clear that the iconography of the singer whose music pacifies those who hear him is perfectly adapted to the representation of David, whose music cured the mad soul of King Saul (I Sm. 16:23). The Orpheus myth furthermore occasions the depiction together of various animals who, in listening to the musician’s song, forget their natural enemity and live together in harmony — an image characteristic of the Golden Age that the prophets announced would witness to the restoration of David’s kingdom (Is. 9:1-11). This kind of appropriation of Greek myths to Jewish contexts can be hard to distinguish from flee-flowing mutual syncretistic exchange. In fact, the following discussion of Christian encounters with Orphic tradition expands the problems raised by the Jewish evidence.

Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan
by John Day
pp. 66-67

So far as the above biblical names are concerned, we cannot be certain whether they simply allude to the Canaanite god Baal, or refer to Yahweh as being equated with Baal, or are simply an epithet “Lord’ for Yahweh without actual identification with the god Baal. Whatever the case with the above names (and the same explanation need not apply to Jerubbaal and the others), we have definite evidence that Yahweh could be referred to as Baal from the personal names Bealiah (2 Chron. 12.6 [ET 5]), one of David’s warriors, and Yehobaal, a name found on a seal,” which seem to mean respectively “Baal is Yahweh and “Yahweh is Baal’. That Yahweh could actually be equated with Baal is clearly indicated by Hosea 2.

In v. 18 (ET 16) Hosea declares, “And in that day, says the Lord, you will call me “My husband”, and no longer will you call me “My Baal”. The following verse goes on to say, ‘For I will remove the names of the Baals from your mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more’. Now the Baals were mentioned earlier in this chapter in v. 15 (ET 13), and these clearly refer to the fertility deity, Baal, whom the people regarded as being responsible for the grain, wine, oil and so on in v. 10 (ET 8), and also the ‘lovers of v. 7 (ET 5). From all this it can hardly be doubted that Hosea was not simply objecting to the epithet “Lord’ (ba’al) being applied to Yahweh, but was countering a tendency of the people to conflate Yahweh and Baal to such an extent that the essential identity and uniqueness of the former was compromised.

Further evidence in support of the view there were some who equated Yahweh with Baal derives from the fact that such a hypothesis has explanatory power in accounting for the rise of the Son of Man imagery in Daniel 7.”

p. 70

Since the Baal promoted by Jezebel was the same Baal who had been worshipped by the Canaanite population of Israel and syncretistic Israelites, it can readily be understood how he gained such a large following. This would not be the case with Melqart, the city god of Tyre, and, as M.J. Mulder has emphasized, Ahab would have commit ted political suicide had he attempted to promote such a foreign god.

p. 74

That the name Baal-Zebul was known to the Jews is attested in the New Testament, where Beelzebul has become the name of the Prince of the Demons, Satan (Mt. 10.25, 12.24, 27; Mk 3.22; Lk, 11.15, 18–19). The reading Beelzebul in the New Testament is certainly original: almost all the Greek manuscripts read Beek e3ot). Only Vaticanus (B) and, in every case except one, Sinaiticus (8) read Beef effou%. The reading Beelzebub is found later in the Vulgate and Peshitta, and is clearly inferior, making the New Testament demonic name agree with the god of Ekron in 2 Kings 1. It is all the more remarkable that the form Beelzebul is attested in the New Testament when we reflect that it is not found in the Old Testament, and it testifies to the continuation of a Canaanite numen in transformed demonized form in popular Jewish religion at a late date.

It is not surprising that the name became a term for the ‘Prince of the Demons’ (cf. zbl, prince’): the name of the leading god, when abomi nated, naturally became transformed into that of the leading demon. The idea that pagan gods are demons is found in Deut. 32.17; Ps. 105.37; Bar. 4.7 and Ps. 95.5 (LXX); also in 1 Cor. 10.20 and Rev. 9.20.

The Early History of God
by Mark S. Smith
Kindle Locations 1553-1682

According to Philo of Byblos (PE 1.10.7), beelsamen was a storm-god, associated with the sun in the heavens and equated with Zeus,305 although Baal Shamem’s solar characteristic apparently was a later product.306 That Baal Shamem and not Melqart was the patron god of Ahab and Jezebel may be inferred from the proper names attested for the Tyrian royal family. The onomasticon of the Tyrian royal house bears no names with Melqart. There is only one exception to *b‘l as the theophoric element in royal proper names from Tyre.307

That Baal Shamem and not Melqart was a threat in Israel in the pre-exilic period might be inferred from the fact that the god in question is called “the baal” (1 Kings 18:19, 22, 25, 26, 40). The invocation of Baal Shamem in the Aramaic version of Psalm 20 written in Demotic may also provide evidence of this god in Israelite religion.308 This version of Psalm 20 belongs to a papyrus dating to the second century known as Papyrus Amherst Egyptian no. 63 (column XI, lines 11-19). The text, which may have come from Edfu, shows some Egyptian influence, specifically the mention of the god Horus. The text may secondarily reflect genuine Israelite features. M. Weinfeld argues that the psalm was originally Canaanite or northern Israelite.309 For Weinfeld, the references to Baal Shamem, El-Bethel, and Mount Saphon reflect an original Canaanite or northern Israelite setting, perhaps Bethel. The biblical version of Psalm 20 would reflect a southern version, which secondarily imported the psalm into the cult of Yahweh. In this case, the Aramaic version may have derived from a northern Israelite predecessor. If so, the reference to Baal Shamem might reflect the impact of this god in Israelite religion.

Some scholars identify the baal of Jezebel with the baal of Carmel, perhaps as his local manifestation at Carmel.310 Like Baal Shamem, the baal of Carmel appears to be a storm-god. A second-century inscription from Carmel on a statue identifies the god of Carmel as Zeus Heliopolis.311 At Baalbek, Zeus Heliopolis had both solar and storm characteristics. According to Macrobius (Saturnalia 1.23.19), this Zeus Heliopolis was a solarized form of the Assyrian storm-god, Adad.312 As with Baal Shamem, the solar characteristic of Adad is a secondary development. Macrobius (Saturnalia 1.23.10) identifies the cult of Zeus Heliopolis with a solarized worship of Jupiter. […]

In sum, the biblical evidence suggests that the Phoenician baal of Ahab and Jezebel was a storm-god. The extrabiblical evidence indicates that the baal of Carmel and Baal Shamem were also storm-gods, whereas Melqart does not appear to have been a storm-god. From the available data, following O. Eissfeldt, Baal Shamem was the baal of Jezebel.

Some reason for the adoption of the Phoenician baal by the northern monarchy may be tentatively suggested. The coexistence of cult to Yahweh and Baal prior to and up to the ninth century may have suggested to Ahab and his successors that elevating Baal in Israel would not represent a radical innovation. Ahab’s religious policies presumably would have appealed to those “Canaanites” living in Israelite cities during the monarchy, if these “Canaanites” represent a historical witness to those descendents of the old Canaanite cities that the Israelites are said not to have held originally (Josh. 16:10; 17:12-13; Judg. 1:27-35);314 however, this witness is difficult to assess for historical value. The religious program of Ahab and Jezebel represented a theopolitical vision in continuity with the traditional compatibility of Yahweh and Baal. Up to this time both Yahweh and Baal had cults in the northern kingdom. Whereas Yahweh was the main god of the northern kingdom and divine patron of the royal dynasty in the north, Baal also enjoyed cultic devotion. Ahab and Jezebel perhaps created a different theopolitical vision. While the cult of Yahweh continued in the northern kingdom, Baal perhaps was elevated as the patron god of the northern monarchy, thus creating some sort of theopolitical unity between the kingdom of the north and the city of Tyre. […]

According to historical sources, support for Baal was severely ruptured at this juncture in Israelite history. Jehu managed the slaughter of Baal’s royal and prophetic supporters and the destruction of the Baal temple in Samaria (2 Kings 10), and Jehoiada the priest oversaw the death of Athaliah and the destruction of another temple of Baal (2 Kings 11). Jehu’s reform was not as systematic as the texts might suggest, however. Jehu did not fully eradicate Baal worship.316 Confirmation for this viewpoint comes from inscriptional and biblical sources. The Kuntillet ‘Ajrûd inscriptions contain the names of Baal and Yahweh in the same group of texts. Dismissing such attestations to the god Baal because the script may be “Phoenician” appears injudicious.317 Indeed, the texts bear “vowel letters” (or matres lectionis),318 which constitute a writing convention found in Hebrew, but not in Phoenician. Unlike Hebrew, Phoenician does not use letters to mark vowels.319

References in Hosea to “the baal” (2:10 [E 8]; 2:18 [E 16]; 13:1; cf. 7:16) and “the baals” (2:15 [E 13]; 2:19 [E 17]; 11:2) add further evidence of Baal worship in the northern kingdom. Hosea 2:16 (E 18) begins a section that recalls imagery especially reminiscent of Baal. According to some scholars,320 Hosea 2:18 (E 16) plays on ba‘al as a title of Yahweh and indicates that some northern Israelites did not distinguish between Yahweh and Baal. The verse declares, “And in that day, says Yahweh, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My ba‘al.’”321 The substitution of Yahweh for Baal continues dramatically in Hosea 2:23-24 (E 21-23). These verses echo Baal’s message to Anat in KTU 1.3 III 13-31 (cf. 1.3 IV 7-20). In this speech, Baal announces to Anat that the word that he understands will be revealed to humanity who does not yet know it. In the context of the narrative, this word is the message of the cosmic fertility that will occur when Baal’s palace is built on his home on Mount Sapan. Upon the completion of his palace, Baal creates his meteorological manifestation of the storm from the palace, which issues in cosmic blessing (KTU 1.4 V-VII). Part of the message to Anat describes the cosmic communication between the Heavens and the Deeps, an image for cosmic fertility […]

Despite royal attempts at reform, Baal worship continued. Although Jehoram, the son of Ahab, undertook a program of reform (2 Kings 3:2) and Athaliah and Mattan, the priest of Baal, were murdered (2 Kings 11:18), royal devotion to Baal persisted. Ahaz fostered Baal worship (2 Chron. 28:2). According to Jeremiah 23:13, Baal worship led to the fall of Samaria and the northern kingdom. The verse declares, “And among the prophets of Samaria I saw an unsavory thing; they prophesied by Baal and led astray my people, Israel.” Jeremiah 23:27 further condemns Israelite prophecy by Baal. Hezekiah sought to eliminate worship of Baal, but his son, Manasseh, rendered royal support to his cult (2 Kings 21:3; 2 Chron. 33:3). Finally, Josiah purged the Jerusalem temple of cultic paraphernalia designed for Baal (2 Kings 23:4; cf. Zeph. 1:4). Prophetic polemic from the end of the southern kingdom also claims that the monarchy permitted religious devotion to Baal down to its final days (Jer. 2:8; 7:9; 9:13; 12:16). From the cumulative evidence it appears that on the whole Baal was an accepted Israelite god, that criticism of his cult began in the ninth or eighth century, and that despite prophetic and Deuteronomistic criticism, this god remained popular through the end of the southern kingdom. There is no evidence that prior to the ninth century Baal was considered a major threat to the cult of Yahweh. […]

The descriptions of Baal and baals in 1 Kings 17-19, Hosea 2, and other biblical texts raise a final issue concerning Baal’s character in ancient Israel. In the Ugaritic sources Baal’s meteorological manifestations are expressions of his martial power. In contrast, 1 Kings 17-19 and Hosea 2 deplore belief in Baal’s ability to produce rains, but these and other biblical passages are silent on the martial import of his manifestation. Indeed, no biblical text expresses ideas about Baal’s status as a warrior. Yahweh had perhaps exhibited and possibly usurped this role at such an early point for the tradents of Israel’s religious literature. This conclusion might be inferred from the numerous similarities between Baal and Yahweh that many scholars have long observed.

The Chosen People
by John Allegro
pp. 19-20

In fact, the names of the patriarchal heroes, as that of the god himself, are non-Semitic, as our recent researches have shown, and go back to the earliest known civilization of the Near East, indeed of the world The language to which we can now trace these names is called Sumerian, and seems to have been the fount of both Semitic and Indo-European and was in use long before these two linguistic families went their separate ways The divine name Yahweh (its purposeful mispronunciation as “Jehovah” was intended to preserve its secrecy from the uninitiated) turns out to have been merely a dialectal form of the Greek god-name Zeus, and both meant “spermatozoa,” the source of all life The very common Semitic word for “god,” El, in its various forms, has a similar connotation, and cognate names such as Ba’al and Hadad, Seba’oth (the Hindu Siva), and the like, refer to the male organ of generation with which the god was mythologically identified He was envisaged as a mighty penis in the heavens which, in the thunderous climax of the storm, ejaculated semen upon the furrows of mother Earth, the womb of creation.

Israel on the steppes of north Arabia before she became tainted with the gross perversions of agricultural fertility cults The whole concept of the desert god owed more to the efforts of later theologians to historicize their mythology than to any authentic tribal memories of Israel’s early experiences We are now able to pinpoint the source of the patriarchal myths in a particular form of the fertility religion, centered on the cult of the sacred mushroom Its devotees conceived the fungus as a manifestation of the phallic god, and believed that eating it brought them into a direct relationship with the deity and enabled them to share in the heavenly secrets The cap of the mushroom, the Amanita muscaria (see below, Chapter 16), contains a hallucinatory drug which imparts a sense of euphoria, coupled with violent physical energy, followed by periods of acute depression This cult was as old as the name Yahweh, and similarly derived from the Sumerians

p. 51

However, much more than fiscal measures was required to weld this heterogeneous collection of peoples together into an organic whole There had to be an emotional rallying point, overriding all other allegiances, ethnic, even familial It could only be religiously inspired, and at its center must be a supranational god, a single deity to whose creative acts was owing all life, on earth or in the heavens, and to whom was thus due the homage of all men The traumatic effects of the Exile upon the minds of the intellectual elite of Judah had already produced the monotheistic ideal of Second Isaiah (Ch 40-55), who uncompromisingly identified the tribal god Yahweh with the sovereign Lord of all history In fact, as we may now appreciate, he was doing no more than perceive in the deity the fertility concept that had been implicit in his name, “Sperm of life,” from the beginning Yahweh, like his exact philological counterpart, the Greek Zeus, and his semantic equivalent, El, chief god of the Semites, was always the one Creator God, the source of all life, and only secondarily appropriated as a tribal deity The Jewish philosopher, wrenched from his homeland by a foreign conqueror, was forced to project his understanding of Yahweh’s dealings with his people against a back cloth of world politics If Israel’s god had any reality at all, he must be able to act over a far wider area than Palestine, and to be able to demand the allegiance of many more peoples than the Jews and the Canaanites The prophet saw Yahweh as a cosmic deity, lord of the heavenly hosts and forces of nature, but at the same time still the special god of Israel, a tribal deity whose main interest was the welfare of his Chosen People Thus it followed that whatever the grand strategy in the Creator’s mind, it involved the destiny of the Jews, and all history was directed to their glorification.

p. 75

For twenty-five years this “Acra,” as it was called, peopled not only by Seleucid troops but other pagans and Hellenized Jews, became virtually the new Greek Jerusalem, a polis, with the Temple serving as the city shrine like that of any other Greek center The “godless” people who inhabited the Acra, led apparently by Menelaus and his friends, were clearly intent on a complete integration with their Greek neighbors The exclusive nature of the Yahwistic cult was to be broken and the tribal god identified with the Greek Zeus.

As we saw, this association between the gods was, in fact, perfectly historical and legitimate Zeus was, indeed, Yahweh in origin; both names meant the same, “seed of life,” or spermatozoa, and both had their common origin in the underlying fertility religion of the ancient Near East Just how far this fact may still have been recognized in popular tradition, even as late as the second century BC, we cannot know Our records were composed by writers utterly hostile to this synthesis.

pp. 78-79

The climax in the Greek campaign to amalgamate the Jewish and pagan gods came, according to our sources, with the introduction of the so-called “Abomination of Desolation” into the Temple, in December 167 BC (Dan 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; I Macc 1:54) The strange Semitic phrase is customarily explained as a pun on the cultic title “Ba’al of Heaven,” designating the ancient Semitic storm god Hadad, with whom Zeus (Jupiter) Olympius had been already identified (cp II Macc 6:2) Much the same syncretism had already been carried out with local approval in the Samaritan Yahwistic Temple on Mount Gerizim, where the god was identified with Zeus Xenius, “Defender of Strangers” (II Macc 6:2) Again, historically, this identification of the storm deity with Yahweh and Zeus was perfectly correct The Jewish god’s accompanying title, Sebaoth, we may now recognize as having originally meant “Penis of the Storm,” reflecting the ancient conception of the phallic deity as a mighty organ in the heavens ejaculating the precious Yahweh/Zeus spermatozoa in his tempestuous orgasm The idea is accurately conveyed in the Semitic divine name Hadad, derived from a Sumerian term for “Mighty Father.”

Whatever the form (probably phallic) in which Zeus Olympius was represented “upon the altar” (I Macc 1:54), it was certainly placed there with the active support of Menelaus and the priestly hierarchy of the Temple, and was doubtless as popular among the laity as were the incense altars “at the doors of their houses, and in the streets” (I Macc 1:55) Furthermore, it is difficult to believe that these cultic “abominations” were instituted overnight; Hellenism had long before made deep inroads into Jewish ideas and practices, and, in any case, many aspects of Greek religion would have found their echoes in the old Israelite fertility worship, which never lay far beneath the surface of the Jewish consciousness. Thus, the worship of Bacchus, in which the Jews joined, carrying the ivy covered thyrsus (II Macc 6:7), was again only another aspect of the ancient fertility cult, on which our recent studies of the religion of the Sacred Mushroom have cast much new light.

Suns of God
by Acharya S (D. M. Murdock)
pp. 109-110

The Hercules myth also makes it into the Old Testament, in the tale of Samson, whose name means “sun” and is the same as Shams-on, Shamash, Shamas, Samas and Saman. Both solar heroes are depicted with their gates or pillars, those of Hercules at Gadiz, while Samson’s were at Gaza. Each is associated with lion killing, and each was taken prisoner but breaks free as he is about to be sacrificed, killing his enslavers in the process. In the end, the Hercules/Samson myths are astrotheological, with the pillars representing solar symbols: “The two pillars…are simply ancient symbol-limits of the course f the sun in the heavens…” “Now just as Samson in one story carries the pillars, so did Herakles…. And in ancient art he was actually represented carrying the two pillars in such a way under his arms that they formed exactly a cross…” Like many others, “St. Augustine believed that Samson and the sun god Herakles were one.”

In addition, the Palestinian term “Simon,” “Semo” or “Sem” is likewise a name for the sun god Shamash/Shemesh, who, like Hercules, has been equated with the Canaanite/Phoenician god Baal. This god “Semo or Semon was especially worshipped in Samaria,” also known as the “Cyrenian Saman,” who is evidently the character traditionally represented among early Christians and Gnostics as “Simon of Cyrene” who legendarily bore Christ’s cross. Interestingly, the Cyrenians were some of the earliest proselytizers of Christianity (Acts 11:20). In Hebrew “Sem” or “Shem” means “name,” which is the term pious Jews use to address Yahweh, the latter being one of the ineffable, unspoken names of God. As “Sem” or “Shem” is a name for the God Sun, so is Yahweh; it is apparent that “Sem” is the northern kingdom version of Yahweh, whence come “Semites” and “Samaritans.” Indeed, the “early Israelites were mostly sun worshippers,” as the fables concerning “Moses, Joshua, Jonah, and other biblical characters are solar myths.”

pp. 116-117

When comparative mythology is studied, the precedent for Christianity becomes evident in numerous “Pagan” cultures. So to is the astrotheological religion present in Judaism, the other predecessor of Christianity. Although Judaism is today primarily a lunar creed, based on a lunar calendar, as a result of the nomadic nature of its early tribal proponents, the religion of the ancient Hebrews and Israelites was polytheistic, incorporating the solar mythos as well. The desert-nomad tribes that Judaism came to comprise were essentially moon worshipping or nigh-sky people, but they eventually took on the solar religion as they came to be more settled. This astrotheological development is reflected in the use of different calendars: For example, the Dead Sea scrolls contained a solar calendar, as opposed to the luni-solar calendar used by the rabbis. The Dead Sea collection also contained treatises on the relation of the moon to the signs of the zodiac, such as the “Brontologion” (4Q318).

The polytheism of the Israelites is reflected in a number of scriptures, including Jeremiah 11:13-14, wherein the writer laments:

For your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah; and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to burn incense to Baal.

The word for “gods” in this passage is Elohim, which is regularly translated as “God” when referring to the Jewish “Lord.” The singular form of “Elohim” is “Eloah” or “Eloh,” used 57 times in the Bible, to indicate both “God” and “false god.” “Baal,” used over 80 times in the Old Testament, means “lord” and represents the sun god worshipped by the Isreaelites, Canaanites, Phoenicians and throughout the Levant. It is noteworthy that at this late date when “Jeremiah” was written (c. 625-565 BCE), the Jews were still polytheistic, as they had been for centuries prior.

This polytheism is further demonstrated in a confused passage at Psalms 94:7, which states: “…and they say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.'” (RSV) The word translated as “The Lord” is actually “Jah,” whle the “God” of Jacob is “Elohim” or gods. A better translation would be “…Jah does not see; Jacob’s Elohim do not perceive.” This Jah is the IAO of the Egyptians, while the Elohim are the multiple Canaanite deities. According to Dr. Parkhurst and others, the Elohim of the Israelites referred to the seven planetary bodies known and revered by the ancients. These seven Elohim are also the seven powerful Cabiri of the Phoenicians and Egyptians, one of who was “Axieros,” whom Fourmont identified as the biblical Isaac. The Elohim and polytheism of the Hebrews are dealt with extensively in The Christ Conspiracy and elsewhere. In any event, the worship of the Hebrew, Israelites, and Jews long ago before the Christian era was both polytheistic and astrotheological, the same as that of their so-called Pagan neighbors.

Did Moses Exist?
by D. M. Murdock (Acharya S.)
Kindle Locations 791-798

In our quest, we must keep in mind the syncretism or merging together of divine figures, such as these various lawgivers, practiced not only by pagans with their numerous gods and goddesses but also by Jews. Regarding the Greco-Roman period (332 BCE– 284 AD/ CE), for example, British New Testament scholar Dr. Ralph P. Martin (1925– 2013) and American theologian Rev. Dr. Peter H. Davids state:

Nowhere is syncretism illustrated more clearly than in the magical and astrological beliefs of the era. In this realm, power takes precedence over personality. Commitment to one deity or fidelity to one cult gives way to rituals of power that work. Thus many gods and goddesses could be invoked at the same time by one person. Yahweh (or Iao) could be invoked in the same breath as Artemis and Hekate. Palestinian and diaspora Jews participated in this form of syncretism. Numerous Jewish magical amulets, spells and astrological documents attest to the prevalence of syncretistic Jewish magic.

Kindle Locations 6114-6165

Summarizing the works by some of these ancient writers, Israeli scholar Dr. Abraham Schalit (1898– 1979) remarks:

The non-Jews of Alexandria and Rome alleged that the cult of Dionysus was widespread among Jews. Plutarch gives a Bacchanalian interpretation to the Feast of Tabernacles… According to Plutarch the subject of the connection between the Dionysian and Jewish cults was raised during a symposium held at Aidepsos in Euboea, with a certain Moiragenes linking the Jewish Sabbath with the cult of Bacchus, because “even now many people call the Bacchi ‘Sabboi’ and call out that word when they perform the orgies of Bacchus.” Tacitus too thought that Jews served the god Liber, i.e., Bacchus-Dionysus, but “whereas the festival of Liber is joyful, the Jewish festival of Liber is sordid and absurd.” According to Pliny, Beth-Shean was founded by Dionysus after he had buried his wet nurse Nysa in its soil. His intention was to enlarge the area of the grave, which he surrounded with a city wall, although there were as yet no inhabitants. Then the god chose the Scythians from among his companions, and in order to encourage them, honored them by calling the new city Scythopolis after them (Pliny, Natural History 5: 18, 74).

An inscription found at Beth-Shean dating from the time of Marcus Aurelius [121– 180 AD/ CE] mentions that Dionysus was honored there as ktistes [founder]. Stephen of Byzantium reports a legend that connects the founding of the city of Rafa also with Dionysus (for the Dionysian foundation legends of cities in the region, see Lichtenberger’s study). It is wrong to assume as some do that Plutarch took his account of the festival of Tabernacles from an antisemitic source, for despite all the woeful ignorance in his account it contains no accusation against, or abuse of, the Jews.

It is more likely that Plutarch described the festival of Tabernacles from observation, interpreting it in accordance with his own philosophical outlook, which does not prevent him, however, from introducing into it features of the cult of the famous Temple of Jerusalem gleaned by him in his wide reading. The description as a whole, however, is of Tabernacles as it was celebrated in the Greek diaspora at the end of the first and the beginning of the second century C.E., and not as it was celebrated in the Temple, which had already been destroyed for more than a generation. The festival undoubtedly absorbed influences from the environment, so that Plutarch could indeed have witnessed what he recognized as customs of the Dionysian feast. 870

In view of what we have seen and will continue to see here, we submit that Plutarch’s account is not “woefully ignorant” and that the influence of Dionysianism on Jewish religion began before the First Temple period, including among the Amoritish proto-Israelites who eventually settled the hill country.

Beth Shean

The important ancient town of Beth Shean or Beit She’an (Bethshan, Βαιθσάν, Βεθσάνη)— meaning “house of tranquility”— was called “Scythopolis” in Greek and supposedly was founded by Dionysus. Beth Shean is referred to several times in the biblical books of 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as in Judges and others, and is located strategically in the fertile Jordan Valley, south of the Sea of Galilee and east of the Samarian hill country. Situated at the juncture between the Jordan and Jezreel Valleys, this region is also deemed the “West Bank” of the Jordan River. It is noteworthy that one of the area’s largest winepresses was found at Jezreel, one of many such devices in ancient Israel. 871

The Scythopolis/ Beth Shean region began to be occupied from at least the fourth millennium BCE, with settlements in the third millennium onward, until an earthquake destroyed it in the Early Arab period (749 AD/ CE).

In the Late Bronze Age (15th– 12th cents. BCE), Beth Shean was an Egyptian administrative center, followed by a Canaanite city (12th– 11th cents. BCE) and then an Israelite settlement (10th cent.– 732 BCE). During this time, the people worshipped many different gods, including those of the Canaanites, Egyptians, Greeks and Philistines. A stele from the era of pharaoh Seti I mentions Egypt’s victory over the neighboring hill tribes, among whom were the Hapiru. 872

Grapevine cultivation in the Beth Shean area apparently began during the fourth millennium BCE, 873 and it may be suggested that the vine and wine cult existed in the region long before the Israelites arrived or emerged. As noted, Greek occupation of Asia Minor to the northwest began by 1200 BCE, leaving several centuries between that time and when the Pentateuch emerges clearly in the historical record.

Therefore, it is probable that the rituals of the Jews during the time of Diodorus and Plutarch derived from many centuries before, with influence from other cultures over the centuries that the area was occupied. This influence, of course, would extend to peculiarities of the Dionysian cultus as developed hellenically. So entrenched was the city’s association with Bacchus, in fact, that Pliny the Elder (23– 79 AD/ CE) equated Beth Shean/ Scythopolis with Nysa, “so named of Father Liber, because his nurse was buried there.” 874

Thus, it should not surprise us if the town was “founded” by the archaic wine god and if the Jewish fertility and harvest festival comprised many elements of Bacchic religion, possibly absorbed during the occupation of Beth Shean by Israelites. Other cities, such as Rafa, Rafah or Raphia (Egyptian Rph) in southern Israel/ Palestine on the border of Egypt, were claimed also, as by Stephanus of Byzantium (fl. 6th cent. AD/ CE), to have been founded by the wine god.

Kindle Locations 6536-6542

Regarding 2 Maccabees and the ancient association of Yahweh with the gods of other cultures such as Zeus or Jupiter, American New Testament professor Dr. Sean M. McDonough remarks:

An even more common identification, however, was Dionysus. Tacitus (Hist. 5.5: 5), Lydus (De Mensibus 4: 53), and Cornelius Labeo (ap. Macrobius, Saturnalia 1: 18: 18– 21) all make this association, and a coin from 55 BCE of the curule aedile A. Plautius shows a kneeling king who is labeled BACCHIVS IVDAEVS. E. Babelon argues that this must be the high priest, “the priest of the Jewish Bacchus.” This identification may have been based on more than mere speculation. According to 2 Macc. 6: 7, the Jews “were compelled to walk in the procession in honor of Dionysus, wearing wreaths of ivy”…

Kindle Locations 6841-6856

It is obvious not only that Jews were well aware of Bacchus but also that they revered his cult enough to feature him prominently, according to Maccabees, as well as Plutarch’s statements and the depiction of Dionysus’s life-cycle in ancient mosaics in Israel.

Indeed, the presence of Dionysus on mosaics from the third to fourth centuries AD/ CE in the finely appointed home of the apparent Jewish patriarch at Sepphoris or Tzippori, a village in Galilee, lends weight to Plutarch’s commentary. 1022 Significantly, this imagery depicts Bacchus and Herakles in a wine-drinking contest, which Dionysus wins, a theme flagrantly featured in the prominent Jewish citizen’s home. Since Herakles was a favorite of the Phoenicians, this symbolism could reflect the defeat of that faction commercially, in the wine trade. This central place for Bacchus indicates the wealth of the community depended significantly on the blessings of the grape.

If these later Jews were aware of Dionysus and unflinchingly revered him, it is reasonable to suggest that Israelites knew about his worship and myth in more remote antiquity, particularly as they became wine connoisseurs, a trade that dates back 3,000 years in the hill country where they emerged.

It is very significant that this site of Bacchus worship, Sepphoris, was deemed the Cana of the New Testament, where Jesus was said to have produced his water-to-wine miracle. 1023 It is clear that the gospel writers were imitating the popular Dionysus worship with the newly created Christ character.

Kindle Locations 7215-7228

The Greek god Dionysus’s worship extends back at least 3,200 years, but the reverence for a wine deity in general is much older. Extant ancient texts describing Bacchus’s myth date from the 10th century BCE to the fifth century AD/ CE. For many centuries since antiquity, scholars, theologians and others have noted numerous parallels between Dionysus and Moses, most attempting to establish biblical priority but some declaring that the former post-dated and was derived from the latter.

We have seen that important aspects of Bacchus’s life, described consistently for centuries dating back to the 10th century BCE at the latest, correspond to that of the Israelite lawgiver. Also discussed is the contention by Plutarch that the Jews practiced Bacchic rituals and that Diodorus equated the Jewish god with Dionysus, a reverence evident from Dionysian artifacts such as mosaics in at least one house of a wealthy and powerful Jew.

Since it appears that the Moses character was not created until sometime during or after the Babylonian exile, possibly with his myth in the Pentateuch not taking its final biblical form until the third century BCE, it is conceivable that Bacchic ideas from the Greek historians and poets prior to that time, such as Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Euripides and many others, were incorporated directly in the biblical myth. It is also possible that the framers of the Moses myth were aware of the Dionysian myths because they had been written into plays performed around the Mediterranean for centuries. The story of Bacchus in particular would have been well known enough not to need to rely on the texts directly; hence, the Dionysus-Moses connection could have been made early.

Kindle Locations 9403-9429


The theonym Iao was used popularly in the magical papyri and other artifacts of the first centuries surrounding the common era: “The name Iao also appears on a number of magical texts, inscriptions and amulets from the ancient world.” 1545 These artifacts include an amulet from the first century BCE that reads: “IAO IAO SABAOTH ADONAI.” 1546 This sort of invocation indicates a Semitic origin but passes seamlessly into the formalized Gnosticism of the second century AD/ CE onwards.

In the New Testament, the word Σαβαώθ Sabaoth is used twice, at Romans 9: 29 and James 5: 4. Strong’s defines the term as: “Lord of the armies of Israel, as those who are under the leadership and protection of Jehovah maintain his cause in war.” 1547 The title “Sabaoth” derives from the Hebrew root צבא tsaba’, which is defined as “hosts,” as in both warfare and heaven. In its astral connotation, צבא tsaba’ means “host (of angels)… of sun, moon, and stars… of whole creation.” 1548 Hence, we see an astrotheological theme in the “host of heavens.”

Concerning the amulets and the YHWH-Iao connection, Classics professor Dr. Campbell Bonner relates:

As to the meaning of Iao, there can be no doubt, especially since the subject was thoroughly investigated by Graf von Baudissin; and, in fact, the combination of Ιαω Σαβαωθ Αδωναι [Iao Sabaoth Adonai] “JHVH of hosts, Lord,” which is common on both amulets and papyri, is convincing in itself. 1549

As noted, “Sabaoth” may be related to “Sabeus,” which in turn is an epithet of Dionysus, who is also equated with Iao by Macrobius. Thus, Yahweh is Iao is Bacchus, and all are the sun.

The Sun

To reiterate, Iao was identified with the sun, as in the mysteries and the oracle of Apollo at Claros. Macrobius (1.18.20) relates that Iao was “supreme god among all,” represented by the wintry Hades, the vernal Zeus, the summery Helios and the autumnal Iao, 1550 also noted as Iacchus or Dionysus, the latter’s role as the sun in the fall appropriate for a wine god.

As can be seen from ancient testimony, and as related by Dr. Roelof van den Broek, a professor of Christian History at the University of Utrecht: “Iao stood for the Sun.” 1551


Once again, both Plutarch (Quaest. Conv.) and Macrobius (4th cent. AD/ CE) identified the solar Iao with Bacchus, who in turn was equated by Diodorus with Yahweh. Plutarch (Symp. 5.3) also associates Bacchus with Adonis.

Did God Have a Wife?
by William G. Dever
Kindle Locations 2668-2800

Thus in the biblical writers’ view, from Moses to Ezekiel – 60o years, Israel’s entire history in Canaan – folk religion is bound up with rites having to do with “green trees;’ rites prohibited, yet practiced nonetheless. Why the biblical writers’ obsession with trees? It seems pretty obvious: a luxuriant green tree represents the goddess Asherah, who gives life in a barren land. (Those of us who have lived in the Arizona desert appreciate why trees seem miraculous.) And on the ridges and hilltops, where one seems closer to the gods and can lift up one’s eyes to the heavens, the trees and groups of wooden poles erected to her added to the verdant setting and the ambiance of luxuriousness, of plenty.

Such “hilltop shrines” with groves of trees are well known throughout out the Mediterranean world in the Bronze and Iron Ages, and they continued to flourish clear into the Classical era. Why should ancient Israel not have participated in this universal oriental culture of “fertility religions,” which celebrated the rejuvenation and sustaining powers of Nature? Perhaps Israel’s only unique contribution was to see over time that Nature is subsumed under Yahweh, “Lord of the Universe,” whose power ultimately gives life to humans and beast and field. But that insight was a long time coming, and it was fully realized only in the wisdom gained from the tragedy of the Babylonian captivity (Chapter VIII).

Despite what seems to me the transparency of the “tree” motif in connection with Asherah, ancient commentators seem to have been confused, fused, and so were modern scholars until recently. As I have noted above (Chapter IV), the Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible in the 3rd-2nd century B.C. were already sufficiently removed from the Iron Age reality that they did not understand the real meaning of Hebrew ‘aherah. Thus they rendered the term by the Greek word ‘alsos, “grove,” or dendron, “tree.” […]

There is, however, evidence of still another goddess who was venerated by the ancient Judeans. The prophet Ezekiel reports that at the gate of the Temple in Jerusalem there sat “women weeping for Tammuz” (Ezekiel 8:14). “Tammuz” was the later name of the 3rd millennium nium Sumerian god Dumuzi. He was a seasonal “dying and rising” god whose consort was Ishtar (Sumerian Inanna). Like Canaanite Baal in the western Semitic world, Dumuzi died annually in the early summer when the rains ceased, and then he descended into the underworld as though dead. Ishtar mourned his passing, but in the fall she helped to bring him back to life, and they re-consummated their sexual union. Thus Nature was fructified in an unending cycle of love, death, and reunion. The Mesopotamian cult of Tammuz was largely the province of women, who naturally empathize with his “widow” Ishtar, and ritually mourn his passing. ing. There seems little doubt that this pan-Mediterranean seasonal myth of Baal and `Anat, Tammuz and Ishtar, was popular in some circles in Judah, especially after the Assyrian impact in the late 8th century B.C. (Ackerman 1992:79-80).

There is also evidence of other mourning rituals in the Hebrew Bible, for other male deities. In Elijah’s famous contest on Mt. Carmel, the prophets of Baal attempt to call up the dead vegetation deity Baal by ritually ally gashing their flesh (I Kings 18:28), a typical funerary rite. Baal is also known by his other name Hadad, and in Zechariah 12:10, 11 there is a description of “mourning for Hadad-Rimmon in the Valley of Megiddo.” Hosea 7:14 may also refer to the same rites, condemning those who “turn to Baal” (Hebrew uncertain), who “wail upon their beds” and “gash themselves.” selves.”

Before leaving what may seem to be a confusing multiplicity of female male (and male) deities, and the question of which cultic artifacts may relate late to which, let me note one fact that may help. In the eastern Mediterranean world generally, there appear many local deities, both male and female, who were probably conceived of as particular manifestations of the more cosmic high gods. Thus in Canaan, we have texts naming Ba`alat (the feminine counterpart of Baal) “of Byblos.” The male deity Baal appears in Canaanite texts as Baal Zephon, “Ba’al of the North.” Baal appears in the Hebrew Bible as “Ba’al (of) Hazor”; “Ba’al (of) Hermon”; “Ba’al (of) Meon”; “Ba’al (of) Peor”; and “Ba’al (of) Tamar.” In the Kuntillet `Ajrud texts discussed above, we find mention of “Yahweh of Samaria,” and “Yahweh of Teman (Yemen).” Thus a number of scholars have called attention tion to the tendency of the High God or Goddess to appear in the form of the deity of a particular local cult, often with a hyphenated name. This would be a sort of “diffusion” of the deity; but on the other hand, these deities ities could coalesce again under different conditions into a sort of “conflate” flate” deity. The result is often great confusion of names and identities. For instance, a long chain of textual witnesses over time result in the following equation: Baal-Hadad = Baal-Shamen (“of the heavens”) = Zeus Helio = Heliopolitan Zeus. All these names, however, are reflexes of the great West Semitic high god Baal, “Lord of the Heavens/Sun” (the Greek equivalent of Baal with Zeus and helios, “sun,” is transparent). Likewise Canaanite `Anat became Greek Athena, the warlike patron deity of Athens. And Canaanite-Israelite Asherah appears later as Greek Aphrodite and Roman Venus, the latter also goddesses of beauty, love, and sexual pleasure. The similarities are unequivocal: Asherah and Aphrodite are both connected to the sea, and doves are symbols of both. Aphrodite’s lover Adonis clearly preserves the earlier Phoenician-Hebrew word ‘adon, “Lord.”

Of relevance for the female deities worshipped in ancient Israel, we should note the work of my teacher Frank Cross and several of his students. dents. They have argued that the three great goddesses of Ugarit – Asherah, `Anat, and Astarte – are all in effect “hypostatizations” of the cosmic Great Goddess of Canaan, all playing the same role but each perhaps haps venerated in a particular local manifestation, tradition, and cult. We could insist on choosing one – but should we? In Roman Catholic piety, especially among ordinary, unsophisticated worshippers we encounter many “Marys” – “Our Lady of Guadalupe”; “Our Lady of Lourdes”; etc. Are these different “Marys,” or one in many guises? Often folk religion may be universal and timeless; but it is always the here and now that matters. Thus women in ancient Israel were probably addressing their special concerns to the Great Mother of Canaan who lived on in the Iron Age, whether they knew her as “Asherah,” the “Queen of Heaven,” or “Ishtar,” or “Astarte.” I think that most conceived of her as a consort of the male deity Yahweh, but others may have seen her more as simply a personification of Yahweh’s more “feminine” attributes.

Early Judaism
by John J. Collins & Daniel C. Harlow
pp. 20-24

Throughout the period under consideration in this volume, Jews lived in a world permeated by Hellenistic culture. The pervasiveness of Hellenistic influence can be seen even in the Dead Sea Scrolls (where there is little evidence of conscious interaction with the Greek world), for example, in the analogies between the sectarian communities and voluntary associations.

Modern scholarship has often assumed an antagonistic relationship between Hellenism and Judaism. This is due in large part to the received account of the Maccabean Revolt, especially in 2 Maccabees. The revolt was preceded by an attempt to make Jerusalem into a Hellenistic polis. Elias Bickerman (1937) even argued that the persecution was instigated by the Hellenizing high priest Alcimus, and in this he was followed by Martin Hengel (1974). Yet the revolt did not actually break out until the Syrian king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, had disrupted the Jerusalem cult and given the Temple over to a Syrian garrison. The revolt was not directed against Hellenistic culture but against the policies of the king, especially with regard to the cult. Judas allegedly sent an embassy to Rome and availed himself of the services of one Eupolemus, who was sufficiently proficient in Greek to write an account of Jewish history. The successors of the Maccabees, the Hasmoneans, freely adopted Greek customs and even Greek names. Arnaldo Momigliano wrote that “the penetration of Greek words, customs, and intellectual modes in Judaea during the rule of the Hasmoneans and the following Kingdom of Herod has no limits” (Momigliano 1994: 22; see also Hengel 1989; Levine 1998). Herod established athletic contests in honor of Caesar and built a large amphitheater, and even established Roman-style gladiatorial contests. He also built temples for pagan cults, but not in Jewish territory, and he had to yield to protests by removing trophies, which involved images surrounded by weapons, from the Temple. In all cases where we find resistance to Hellenism in Judea, the issue involves cult or worship (Collins 2005: 21-43). Many aspects of Greek culture, including most obviously the language, were inoffensive. The revolt against Rome was sparked not by cultural conflict but by Roman mismanagement and social tensions.

Because of the extensive Hellenization of Judea, the old distinction between “Palestinian” Judaism and “Hellenistic” (= Diaspora) Judaism has been eroded to a great degree in modern scholarship. Nonetheless, the situation of Jews in the Diaspora was different in degree, as they were a minority in a pagan, Greek-speaking environment, and the Greek language and cultural forms provided their natural means of expression (Gruen 1998, 2002). The Jewish community in Alexandria, the Diaspora community of which we are most fully informed, regarded themselves as akin to the Greeks, in contrast to the Egyptians and other Barbaroi. The Torah was translated into Greek already in the third century B.C.E. Thereafter, Jewish authors experimented with Greek genres — epic, tragedy, Sibylline oracles, philosophical treatises (Goodman in Vermes et al. 1973-1987: 3: 1.470-704; Collins 2000). This considerable literary production reached its apex in the voluminous work of the philosopher Philo in the early first century C.E. This Greco-Jewish literature has often been categorized as apologetic, on the assumption that it was addressed to Gentiles. Since the work of Victor Tcherikover (1956), it is generally recognized that it is rather directed to the Jewish community. Nonetheless, it has a certain apologetic dimension (Collins 2005: 1-20). It is greatly concerned to claim Gentile approval for Judaism. In the Letter of Aristeas, the Ptolemy and his counselors are greatly impressed by the wisdom of the Jewish sages. Aristeas affirms that these people worship the same God that the Greeks know as Zeus, and the roughly contemporary Jewish philosopher Aristobulus affirms that the Greek poets refer to the true God by the same name. The Sibyl praises the Jews alone among the peoples of the earth. Philo, and later Josephus, is at pains to show that Jews exhibit the Greek virtue of philanthrōpia. […]

The story of modern scholarship on early Judaism is largely a story of retrieval. None of the literature of this period was preserved by the rabbis. The Greek literature of the Diaspora may not have been available to them. Much of the apocalyptic literature and of the material in the Dead Sea Scrolls was rejected for ideological reasons. The recovery of this literature in modern times presents us with a very different view of early Judaism than was current in the nineteenth century, and even than more recent accounts that impose a rabbinic paradigm on the period in the interests of normativity.

No doubt, our current picture of early Judaism is also incomplete. Despite the important documentary papyri from the Judean Desert dating to the Bar Kokhba period (Cotton in Oppenheimer, ed. 1999: 221-36), descriptions of the realia of Jewish life still rely heavily on rabbinic sources that are possibly anachronistic. The overdue study of women in this period is a case in point (Ilan 1995). One of the salutary lessons of the Dead Sea Scrolls is that they revealed aspects of Judaism that no one would have predicted before the discovery. And yet this was only the corpus of writings collected by one sect. To do justice to early Judaism we would need similar finds of Pharisaic, Sadducean, and other groups, and further documentary finds similar to those that have shed at least limited light on Egyptian Judaism and on Judah in the Bar Kokhba period.

Aphrodite and the Rabbis
by Burton L. Visotzky
pp. 56-58

There is even a dual – language inscription, first in Hebrew and then in Greek, of the name Rabbi Gamaliel, possibly the same rabbi who was patriarch of the Jewish community. Artistic motifs on the Beth Shearim sarcophagi include the ark or desert tabernacle, palm fronds, and lions (of Judah?)—all commensurate with rabbinic religion. But there are also eagles, bulls, Nike (the goddess of victory), Leda and the swan (aka Zeus), a theater mask, a spear – carrying warrior fragment, and yet other fragments of busts, statues, and bas reliefs of humans, none of which might be considered very “Jewish” by the rabbis of the Talmud. It’s hard to know what to make of this mishmash of pagan and Jewish burial symbols.

Even more confusing, perhaps, is the fact that in a number of synagogues from the Byzantine period that have been unearthed across the Galilee, the mosaics on the floors, most often in the central panels, display a zodiac with the twelve months, depicted in a circle enclosed in a square frame. At each corner of the square is a personification of the season of the year in that quadrant—except for the one mosaic, where the floor guy got the order of the seasons confused and laid them in the wrong corners. I suppose a zodiac is conceivably within the pale, except it has a whiff of paganism about it. But what is truly astonishing about these mosaics is that in the center of the circle in each of these synagogues, there is Zeus – Helios , riding his quadriga (a chariot drawn by four horses) across the floor – bound sky!

To say the least, the god Zeus is unexpected on a synagogue floor, and there is no scholarly consensus whatsoever as to what this possibly can mean about Judaism in Roman Palestine. The quadriga is, however, a fairly popular and perhaps even universal symbol of strength. Above is the famous quadriga atop Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

But really, Zeus – Helios riding across the floor of Holy Land synagogues? We’ll discuss this more later. But if we add to this artistic record the Samaritan’s Temple on Mt. Gerizim (near modern Nablus), we must conclude that the overwhelming physical evidence of Judaism, even in Roman and Byzantine Palestine, is decidedly not the Judaism of the Talmudic rabbis.

p. 188

The surprise is in the central panel. Here is a zodiac, complete with Greek mythical figures—including an uncircumcised boy representing the month of Tishrei (Libra). Smack in the middle of the zodiac circle is the divine figure of Zeus – Helios , riding his four – horsed quadriga. Depictions of Helios can also be found in synagogue remains at Na’aran (in the South), at Bet Alpha (also in the Galilee), and at Sepphoris.

pp. 198-205

Given the art we have uncovered in the synagogue there, I must conclude that the Jews of Sepphoris also were comfortable living among their pagan neighbors. […]

Of course, Jewish tradition tells of another great musician and harp player, King David. So we shouldn’t be entirely surprised to see him on the mosaic floor of the early sixth – century CE synagogue on the coast at Gaza, looking remarkably like Orpheus. Just in case you might think it actually is Orpheus, the mosaic has a caption to the right of the Jewish king’s head identifying him in Hebrew as “David.” But he is clearly modeled on Orpheus—his harp is charming a snake, a lioness, and even a giraffe (or maybe a long – necked gazelle).

This brief detour to see King David in Gaza has brought us back from pagan gods and heroes once more to Jewish characters in synagogues. Let’s return to Sepphoris now to take a closer look at the art in the synagogue excavated there. The synagogue dates from the fourth century, and its art is typical: menorahs, palm, and citron (the biblically commanded lulav and etrog, used for the holiday of Sukkot), lions, a shofar, and other biblical horns.

As we walk to the front of the main sanctuary, bordered on either side by the Jewish symbols just mentioned, there is a mosaic panel of the Temple—or maybe it’s a Torah ark? In any case, the doors of that building are topped with a shell shape and bracketed by pillars. This ubiquitous depiction of doors is found in many Roman – era synagogues. But it also is found on a sarcophagus in the Naples Museum, there identified as a Christian resting place. And similar sets of doors can be found outside of religious contexts, at least Jewish or Christian ones.

We already have seen “the doorway” in funerary and synagogue contexts, but it is also found on a wall in Herculaneum, the pagan town that was covered along with Pompeii by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. The doorway is flanked by columns on both sides, with the oft – seen shell above the portal. Within the doorway is neither a Torah nor a Temple priest, but two figures: male and female. Most art historians identify them as Poseidon and his wife, Amphitrite. The shell is appropriate for the King of the Sea.

But what can this tell me about the depiction of the shell and the doorway in synagogue art? That type of doorway may be a Torah ark or shrine, since the one depicted in Rome’s Jewish catacomb at Villa Torlonia shows scrolls inside the open doors. It may symbolize God’s house, as it seems to be a portal for the gods in the picture above. But the doorway also may be symbolic of the monumental gates of the Jerusalem Temple. In Jewish Roman art it may even represent the synagogue itself. There are too many options to decide with any assurance what the door is supposed to represent. I would like to think that the one thing the doorway should not represent in synagogue art, however, is a portal for pagan gods. […]

The quadriga and my mention of the Bible brings me right back to the synagogue at Sepphoris and a confusing, complex image there. The central panel of the synagogue floor’s mosaic “carpet” depicts the zodiac, with Zeus – Helios riding his quadriga across the sky as the central focus. The prevalence of the zodiac in synagogue art may indicate an area of divergence between the rabbis of Talmudic circles and the Jews in the synagogue communities of Roman Palestine. The rabbis expressed their stern disapproval of the image, while the Jews in the synagogue seemed to enjoy the motif.

In fact, the zodiac occupies a significant place in the broader Jewish worldview. Each Jewish month is measured by the phases of the moon, visible over its monthly cycle. Given that this is a phenomenon observable in nature, it is not surprising that the months of the Jewish calendar correspond with other cultures’ lunar calendars. Indeed, the rabbis’ calendar borrows the names of its months from Babylonia; and these months are congruent with the signs of the celestial zodiac. However, the rabbis do not believe that astrology rules Jewish fate—the Talmud explicitly rejects this notion when it more than once pronounces: “The astrological signs [Hebrew: mazal ] are not for the Jews.”

Yet in Palestinian synagogue zodiac mosaics, the months are depicted by astrological signs. The roundel of synagogue zodiac wheels, even when they are captioned in Hebrew, depicts those signs. […]

Throughout the ancient world, the sun was the preeminent symbol of daily constancy. The diurnal round of the sun with its warmth and healing power was seen as a benefaction from the gods or from God. In polytheistic pagan cultures, the sun was often seen as a god, Sol Invictus, the invincible sun, also known as Zeus – Helios . Yet anyone who has read the Ten Commandments knows only too well that this is a disturbing, even forbidden, notion. Exodus 20: 3–5 commands:

You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make any statue nor any depiction of what is in the heaven above, nor on the earth below, nor in the waters below on the earth. You shall not bow down to them nor worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God . . .

When Rabbi Gamaliel made his comment about Aphrodite in the bathhouse, which I recounted to you earlier, he offered Jewish legal parameters for representation of living forms in subsequent Jewish art. We do not represent gods to be worshipped but can represent figures, even human, for aesthetic reasons. Beauty is not forbidden; it is rather encouraged, especially as an offering to God. This is how Gamaliel was able to bathe before that statue of Aphrodite. Even so, the center of the zodiac at the Sepphoris synagogue remains challenging, as it depicts the sun god Helios, riding his heavenly quadriga across the daytime sky. […]

Clearly, the community of the synagogue in Sepphoris was not too worried about the Second Commandment’s prohibition against heavenly bodies, even if Helios was depicted only symbolically. This representation might reflect a tradition in the Babylonian Talmud, where Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hannaniah likened the difficulty of looking directly at the sun to the difficulty of beholding God. So perhaps the orb of the sun in the Sepphoris synagogue mosaic is meant only to represent, but not to picture, God.

In truth, this mosaic is hardly unique. The synagogues in Huseifa and Hammat Tiberias also have zodiacs on their floors. At Hammat, Helios/Sol is not merely an orb, but incarnate. […]

Hammat Tiberias and even Sepphoris/Diocaesarea were Roman imperial cities. So it is possible that the Jews there were more assimilated and so were more comfortable with these pagan symbols. Perhaps the urban communities were just that much more cosmopolitan and laissez – faire about their Jewish practice. But in fact there are also zodiacs in the small town synagogues of Na’aran, near Jericho, and at Beit Alpha, in the Galilee. These are not big urban centers, and while the primitive art of Beit Alpha shows a lack of sophistication, it enthusiastically embraces the Zeus – Helios image. […]

To further complicate our understanding of the images found on these synagogue floors, Helios is invoked in a Jewish prayer, recovered in a quasi – magical liturgical text from the fourth century CE among the manuscripts of the Cairo Geniza, the ancient used – book depository. The prayer is in a manuscript called Sefer HaRazim, the Book of Mysteries. We quoted this prayer above, while discussing Gamaliel’s bath with Aphrodite. Here is the line of Greek, transliterated into Hebrew, which names Helios:

I revere you HELIOS, who rises in the east, the good sailor who keeps faith, the heavenly leader who turns the great celestial wheel, who orders the holiness (of the planets), who rules over the poles, Lord, radiant ruler, who fixes the stars.

The Helios prayer gives us a peek at Greco – Roman Jewish folk religion in Roman Palestine during this period. Perhaps it also sheds light on the Zeus – Helios images on the synagogue floors. Helios, or Sol Invictus, as he was known in Latin, apparently was a revered god, at least by some. He was a pagan god who might have been identified with the One and Only God in the minds of the Jews who beheld him riding across their community’s synagogue floor.

The Helios phenomenon is even more complicated than the Jewish evidence alone allows. The last pagan emperor, Julian, who reigned from 361 to 363, wrote about Helios,

What I am now about to say I consider to be of the greatest importance for all things “That breathe and move upon the earth” and have a share in existence and a reasoning soul and intelligence, but above all others it is of importance to myself. For I am a follower of King Helios . . . the King of the whole universe, who is the center of all things that exist. He, therefore, whether it is right to call him the Supra – Intelligible , or the Idea of Being, and by Being I mean the whole intelligible region, or the One. . . .

In Julian’s “Hymn to King Helios,” we see a pagan praise his god as the One. Julian defines attributes of Helios not unlike those that the rabbis attribute to their one God. To the extent that the Jews who placed the image of Zeus/Helios on the floors of their synagogues knew or agreed with Julian’s theology, the image may have been a convenient pictorial stand – in for God. Some synagogue mosaics depicting biblical stories also show the hand of God reaching down from Heaven. So Helios simply might represent the Jews’ God in these synagogue mosaics.


Ancient Social Identity: The Case of Jews

How, then, did you know a Jew in antiquity when you saw one? The answer is that you did not.

I started reading two fascinating books. Both are about Judaism. The first one I was looking at is The Beginning of Jewishness by Shaye J. D. Cohen (the source of the quote above, Kindle Location 796). And the other is The Invention of God by Thomas Römer.

Having read a little bit of each, I realized that they offered a useful angle in thinking about claims of ancient proto-racism. In my recent post on the topic, I did briefly use it an example:

“the early Jews probably were darker-skinned before outbreeding with Europeans and Arabs (Palestinians are descendants of the original Jews that never left). Or consider how those early Jews perceived the Samaritans as a separate people, even though they shared the same holy texts.”

That post was more wide-ranging. My thoughts were fairly general, as the point I was making was general. Sometimes, though, such issues become more interesting as you focus in on the details of a specific example.

In perusing the two books mentioned above, I was reminded me once again of how little I know and hence how much there is to learn. Certain books are able to change how you see something. The second book, The Invention of God, is more familiar territory, although still fascinating. Relevant to my thoughts here, I noticed the following (p. 13):

“Its origins do not lie, as the book of Joshua claims, in the military conquest of a territory by a population invading from somewhere else; rather “Israel” resulted from a slow process that took place gradually within the framework of the global upheavals of the Late Bronze Age— that is, it had its origin in indigenous populations. The opposition we find in the Bible between “Israelites” and “Canaanites” was in no way based on an existing ethnic difference, but is a much later theoretical construction in the service of a segregationist ideology.”

We modern people read ancient texts or, more likely, historical interpretations of ancient texts. In doing so, we come across labels like Israelites, Canaanites, etc. Our frame of reference include modern politics and conflicts along with media portrayals in movies and on television.

Also, there is the issue of how words changed over time. Looking at ancient texts, most people read a translation. But even reading the original language requires care, as there is a vast scholarship analyzing the context of texts and how, intentionally or unintentionally, they were altered over time. (See: David M. Goldberg, Reading Rabbinic Literature; and Michael L. Satlow, Jew or Judaean?)

I just found it fascinating. It turns out, like most people, I had no idea how social identities were formed and perceived in the ancient world. Cohen’s book makes this particularly clear.

There was no certain way to know someone was a Jew, as most ancient people living in the same area tended to look, dress, act, and speak more or less alike. Even circumcision in the Eastern Roman Empire was practiced by other groups besides Jews, and besides no one used circumcision to prove their social identity. Besides, many people who might have been perceived as Jewish because of following certain customs didn’t always perceive themselves as Jews and among those who did identify as Jews there was diverse lifestyles. The rants of the priestly class about what defined a real Jew were more prescriptive than descriptive, which is to say driven by ideology and politics rather than how people actually lived their lives.

It’s not as if there was an official record kept of all Jews. It was originally a rather informal social identity, besides a few basic rules that were more or less agreed upon.

Anyone could become a Jew, as conversion was simple. All you needed to do was be circumcised by a Jew and you were a Jew. No rabbi or ritual was necessary. Conversion was quite common at different points, as their were many incentives. Rulers were known to give special privileges to various groups, depending on the needs of rulership, and that sometimes included Jews having dispensation from certain laws and taxes. There was so much conversion going on that even anyone who claimed to be a Jew was treated as such.

Even the simple act of denying idolatry or abstaining from eating pork because of vegetarianism often got ancient people labeled as Jews, no matter what the individual claimed. If someone did anything like a Jew, however vague, for all intents and purposes they might as well have been a Jew.

There was much permeability of social identities, not just in perception but also in practice—as Cohen notes (Kindle Locations 739-740): “There is abundant evidence that in the first centuries of our era some-perhaps many-gentiles, whether polytheist or Christian, attended Jewish synagogues, abstained from work on the Sabbath, and perhaps observed other Jewish rituals as well.” It went the other way around as well. Some—perhaps many—Jews attended gentile religious services (e.g., mystery schools), participated in gentile holy days, and observed other gentile rituals as well.

“In sum: people associating with Jews were not necessarily Jews themselves. selves. Even people assembled in a synagogue or present in a Jewish neighborhood were not necessarily Jews themselves. In the Roman diaspora social mingling between Jews and gentiles was such that, without out inquiring or checking, you could not be sure who was a Jew and who was not” (Kindle Locations 697-699).

What distinguished and identified people wasn’t religion, ethnicity, or race. It was mostly about location and politics. A Judean wasn’t necessarily a Jew. Rather, a Judean was someone who lived in Judah and fell under Judean law and governance. It was a particular population and nothing more. The idea of a religious identity disconnected from all else would take many more centuries to fully form, under the influence of grand totalizing and imperialistic religions like Roman Catholicism. It was upon that basis that later notions of race would develop.

Even with the early disapora, an absolutely distinct ethno-religious identity hadn’t yet formed. “In the Roman diaspora, certainly after 70 C.E.,” as Cohen explains (Kindle Locations 609-610), “there is no evidence for obsession with genealogical purity and hardly any evidence for public archives and archival records.” Our modern obsessions were irrelevant to ancient people. They didn’t so easily and quickly turn to broad abstract categories. And the categories that did exist, context-dependent as they were, had a mercurial quality to them.

Building and Battling in Ancient Europe

There have been surprising recent archaeological finds. These discoveries represent the earliest evidence of societal change in Europe.

In Britain, the remains of an ancient structure was found. At 11,500 years old, it’s the first known to be built in Europe. That was shortly after the Ice Age, when Britain was still connected to mainland Europe.

For Europe, it is not only the earliest building but also the earliest example of a particular type of carpentry. It was made out of split and hewn logs, and it may have been rebuilt multiple times. Europeans weren’t even a settled people at this time. Yet this was a major building, possibly part of a complex of buildings.

The area, known as the Star Carr site, appears to have been important. Humans had been there since at least 9,000 BC. The foundations of civilization were developing at that time. Over the following millennia, agriculture was spreading and becoming more common. It was an era of innovation.

In the previous millennium, the most famous and earliest structure was built, the temple complex at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey around 9500 BC. It is considered the first temple ever built. Like those initial Turkish builders, the ancient British were still nomadic when they first made permanent structures. This desire for centers of ritual activity seems to go deep in the primate psyche. It can be interpreted that these ancient people built permanent houses for their gods before they did so for themselves, and only later did continuously inhabited settlements form around these sites.

Placed in this larger archaeological context, this early British building might have had religious significance. There were antler artefacts, including headdresses, and it’s likely they were used for ritual purposes. Those otherwise primitive people went to great effort and sacrifice to build and maintain it over generations.

It was well situated as well. There was a lake at the time. Along with the structure(s), the people there had burned the surrounding land to attract animals for hunting. Maybe this was a seasonal stopping point, such as a winter refuge.

The cold season is also a time of the winter solstice that has been ritually central for many societies. To take an example related to the region, the Celtics worshipped the horned Cernunnos who was considered born on the winter solstice. Not far away in France, cave paintings of horned human figures were made during the paleolithic, around the time these British antler headdresses were being used.

The main takeaway is that these Europeans following the Ice Age were more advanced than previously thought. Societies were becoming more complex and . It would be another three millennia before the first megaliths were built and another six millennia before the first pyramids were built.

That brings us to the era of the great civilizations. Vast trade networks had developed. Beads made in Egypt were transported to the far reaches of Northern Europe. It’s true that Northern Europe didn’t have any comparable large civilization, but they did have materials to trade.

Then something happened to bring it all crashing down. War ravaged societies, refugees fled in every direction, and sea marauders appeared as if out of nowhere. Most of the civilizations collapsed and trade ended. That is the infamous 1177 BC.

As another archaeological site shows, this violent chaos also made its way to Northern Europe. There was a battle as never seen before in the region, probably involving thousands of warriors and leaving behind hundreds of dead. The evidence offers a “picture of Bronze Age sophistication, pointing to the existence of a trained warrior class and suggesting that people from across Europe joined the bloody fray.” Something had changed, but the cause remains uncertain.

“But why did so much military force converge on a narrow river valley in northern Germany? Kristiansen says this period seems to have been an era of significant upheaval from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. In Greece, the sophisticated Mycenaean civilization collapsed around the time of the Tollense battle; in Egypt, pharaohs boasted of besting the “Sea People,” marauders from far-off lands who toppled the neighboring Hittites. And not long after Tollense, the scattered farmsteads of northern Europe gave way to concentrated, heavily fortified settlements, once seen only to the south. “Around 1200 B.C.E. there’s a radical change in the direction societies and cultures are heading,” Vandkilde says. “Tollense fits into a period when we have increased warfare everywhere.”

“Tollense looks like a first step toward a way of life that is with us still. From the scale and brutality of the battle to the presence of a warrior class wielding sophisticated weapons, the events of that long-ago day are linked to more familiar and recent conflicts. “It could be the first evidence of a turning point in social organization and warfare in Europe,” Vandkilde says.”

In the centuries following, such things as the violent Greek epics would be produced. This would lead the way into the Axial Age. New kinds of civilizations arose. Besides the Greeks, one of the new societies were the Celts whose culture spread across much of Europe and Britain. Then came the empires that are most familiar to modern people. Much change happened from the Ice Age forward into the ancient world.

It’s hard to comprehend what motivated this transformation. Certainly, the ending of the ice age offered new opportunities. Even so, there were humans in Europe during and before the Ice Age. Those prior people didn’t build anything that we know of nor did they feel inspired to have large battles. Part of it, of course, was simply the increase size and concentration of the human population. When large numbers of people are brought together in close proximity, it does seem to lead to more innovation and conflict.

What do beads tell us about the past?

One common find are ancient beads. A friend of mine found a Native American stone bead nearby. It wasn’t necessarily ancient, considering Black Hawk didn’t surrender in Iowa until 1832. That was an end of an era, the defeat of the last major Native American uprising.

The bead she found was, according to her, in an area that “was the safe place camp for Poweshiek’s women, children, and elderly when the men left to fight in the Indian Wars.” Poweshiek was of a separate tribe from Black Hawk, but Black Hawk’s medicine man also had a village on the Iowa River close to Poweshiek’s village, the location not being far from where I live. The two tribes were allied at times.

(As a side note, Poweshiek was born after the American Revolution and died decades after the Black Hawk War, not too long before the Civil War began. His son, James Poweshiek, gave an interview about his father about the time my own father was born. Not exactly ancient history.)

I mention that bead because there is something compelling about a concrete piece of the past. Jewelry, in particular, is special. It is a personal item and yet serves no practical purpose other than as a trade good, maybe some symbolic significance as well in terms of culture and religion. It is strange what immense value such simple things had for people in the past. These kinds of trade goods made their way across continents, even from one continent to another, heck sometimes even across oceans. Ancient trade routes were vast.

I came across an amazing example of this. It is described in a Haaretz newspaper article by Philippe Bohstrom, Beads Found in 3,400-year-old Nordic Graves Were Made by King Tut’s Glassmaker.

The bead my friend found is probably not that old, but this bead found in Northern Europe is truly ancient. Talk about trade routes. I knew so-called Vikings had trade routes that went around much of Eurasia, included the North Atlantic, and down into the Levant and North Africa. I just had no idea that these trade routes would have existed as far back as some of the earliest civilizations. This Nordic grave bead is seriously old—from the article:

The analysis showed that the blue beads buried with the women turned out to have originated from the same glass workshop in Amarna that adorned King Tutankhamun at his funeral in 1323 BCE. King Tut´s golden deathmask contains stripes of blue glass in the headdress, as well as in the inlay of his false beard.

The date caught my attention. That was during the height of early civilization. A little over a century later, there was a mass collapse. Only Egypt survived and even it wasn’t the same afterward. Those early civilizations were fairly advanced and connected by trade. Different material goods were found in different places and trade was the solution. It’s amazing that this included the Nordic world, an area at that time not known for having any great empires.

Just paragraphs later, the author noted the same thing:

However the glass exchange almost stops around 1177 BCE – probably due to attacks by the Sea Peoples.

I would point out, though, that there isn’t agreement about the cause. The Sea Peoples were involved, but they might have been a result of other changes. In the region of these early civilizations, there was also decades of earthquakes, volcanoes, flooding, and changing weather patterns. More likely than not, the Sea Peoples had societies that also were disrupted which sent them out marauding. They took advantage of already weakened empires.

By the way, these civilizations are what Julian Jaynes considered to be bicameral. It was during this era that nearly all of the Egyptian pyramids were built. Of eighteen pyramids, only two were built after the collapse of the other civilizations. And those two pyramids came five centuries after the collapse when entirely new societies were forming—during the early Axial Age. The kind of society that built those earliest pyramids was entirely different than the world we know—from Harvard Magazine (Who Built the Pyramids? by Jonathan Shaw):

If not slaves, then who were these workers? Lehner’s friend Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who has been excavating a “workers’ cemetery” just above Lehner’s city on the plateau, sees forensic evidence in the remains of those buried there that pyramid building was hazardous business. Why would anyone choose to perform such hard labor? The answer, says Lehner, lies in understanding obligatory labor in the premodern world. “People were not atomized, separate, individuals with the political and economic freedom that we take for granted. Obligatory labor ranges from slavery all the way to, say, the Amish, where you have elders and a strong sense of community obligations, and a barn raising is a religious event and a feasting event. If you are a young man in a traditional setting like that, you may not have a choice.” Plug that into the pyramid context, says Lehner, “and you have to say, ‘This is a hell of a barn!'”

Lehner currently thinks Egyptian society was organized somewhat like a feudal system, in which almost everyone owed service to a lord. The Egyptians called this “bak.” Everybody owed bak of some kind to people above them in the social hierarchy. “But it doesn’t really work as a word for slavery,” he says. “Even the highest officials owed bak.”

It’s hard for us to imagine that world. It seems bizarre to us that there would be such massive, difficult trade going on involving the large-scale movement of gems and beads that served absolutely freaking no practical purpose. A single trade item could travel for thousands of miles and the world was an extremely dangerous place back then. The motivations of ancient people are obscure to us. Why were so many people willing to risk their lives for what to us seems like a mere personal decoration?