The Fall of Rome and Birth of the Middle Ages

In an earlier post, I provided a nice summary of the events that brought about the end of the Western Roman Empire, beginning by noting the first catastrophe to hit the empire in the reign of Marcus Aurelius when the Plague of Galen was imported into the empires frontiers, and ravaged Rome’s populations, to AD 476 when the barbarian officer Odoacer conquered the Italian peninsula and thus effectively ended the civilization of the Western Roman Empire. Western Europe would not be (mostly) united again until the reign of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor who was crowned as such after decades of expansion of the Frankish Empire by Pope Leo III in 800, something that produced much angst in the Byzantine Empire ruled by the empress Irene, which remained a powerful polity and considered itself the true ruler of the Romans, and despite Charlemagne’s efforts, would not recognize him as the Imperator Romanorum, Emperor of the Romans. But before Charlemagne arose, and brought about the Carolingian Renaissance with his reforms and policies, the state of Western Europe had become very dire after the western empire had fallen centuries earlier. Here, I hope to provide a summary of the situation caused by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in Western Europe.

The Western Roman Empire, like its eastern counterpart and the earlier united Roman Empire, was divided into various provinces, each under the authority of a Roman governor, administration, laws and perhaps a professional standing army. The tax collectors would require citizens to contribute to the empire, which in turn was mostly used in the Roman days to fund the army, which was by far the largest expense that the government had to deal with. Roman presence brought about a great deal of consistency and unity between the entire empire, where commercial trade was made possible by a vast territory connected between a network of roads unparalleled anywhere else in the contemporary ancient world. With the collapse of the empire, all this ended. In his monograph The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (OUP, 2005), Bryan-Ward Perkins explains various dimensions of Roman life and society that mets its end with the fall of the empire. Perkins writes;

It is currently deeply unfashionable to state that anything like a ‘crisis’ or a ‘decline’ occurred at the end of the Roman empire, let alone that a ‘civilization’ collapsed and a ‘dark age’ ensued. The new orthodoxy is that the Roman world, in both East and West, was slowly, and essentially painlessly, ‘transformed’ into a medieval form. However, there is an insuperable problem with this new view: it does not fit the mass of archaeological evidence now available, which shows a startling decline in western standards of living during the fifth to seventh centuries. This was a change that affected everyone, from peasants to kings, even the bodies of saints resting in their churches. It was no mere transformation—it was decline on a scale that can reasonably be described as ‘the end of a civilization’. (pg. 87)

In the period of the empire, commercial production and trade had advanced to an enormous scale and linked the entire empire. Not only were there enormous amounts of product being produced and shipped at huge scales, but archaeology has revealed that their quality was also relatively advanced as well. Perkins continues describing the picture at hand;

However, painstaking work by archaeologists has slowly transformed this picture, through the excavation of hundreds of sites, and the systematic documentation and study of the artefacts found on them. This research has revealed a sophisticated world, in which a north-Italian peasant of the Roman period might eat off tableware from the area near Naples, store liquids in an amphora from North Africa, and sleep under a tiled roof. Almost all archaeologists, and most historians, now believe that the Roman economy was characterized, not only by an impressive luxury market, but also by a very substantial middle and lower market for high-quality functional products. (pp. 87-88)

In other words, products were being produced all over the empire by artisans specialized in certain fields and forms of manufacturing, and they were subsequently able to hold large numbers of customers (not only the rich, but also the households of the poor) in markets in entirely different cities, lands, and provinces. Thus, the household products of a Roman may not have been produced in the local village or city, but might come from an array of different locations each shipped to the local marketplace. However, without the complex networks established and maintained by the unity of empire, this would all soon change. As civil wars wrecked armies and consumed taxes, and numerous disparate barbarian tribes invaded, pillaged and slowly conquered Roman lands, the Roman administration slowly disappeared. A good example is provided by the province of Noricum. Perkins explains again the slow dissolution of the Roman administration in this province from the writings of Saint Severinus of Noricum, which allow us to attain a picture of just what happened;

By the time Severinus arrived, Noricum had already experienced nearly fifty years of insecurity and warfare, including a short-lived revolt against imperial rule by the Noricans themselves. It would seem that during these decades Roman administration, and any control over the province from the imperial court in Italy, had already disappeared. There is no mention in the Life of a Roman governor of Noricum, nor of an imperial military commander, and the neighbouring provinces, of Raetia and Pannonia, seem already to have fallen almost completely into Germanic hands. Eugippius indeed describes the Roman defences of the Danube as a thing of the past: ‘Throughout the time that the Roman empire existed, the soldiery of many towns was maintained at public expense for the defence of the frontier. When this practice fell into abeyance, both these troops and the frontier disappeared.’ He goes on to tell a wonderfully evocative story of how the last vestige of imperial military power in the region finally came to an end. Apparently, despite the general collapse of the Roman defensive system, one imperial garrison, that of the city of Batavis, was still in existence in Severinus’ time. But the only way the soldiers could receive their pay was by sending some of their number south and over the Alps into Italy to collect it. On the very last occasion that this was done, the emissaries ‘were killed during the journey by barbarians’; their bodies were later found washed up on the banks of the river. No more imperial pay ever reached Batavis. (pp. 18-19)

The economic situation, before the collapse, was quite good. One way archaeologists have discovered the prosperity of Roman lands during this period is from archaeological remains of … garbage. At Mount Testaccio (Pottery Mountain), a full ‘mountain’ remains from a dumpster of oil amphorae (types of jars) that accumulated over the 2nd and 3rd centuries in the small Roman province of Baetica located south-western Spain. It’s estimated that over 50 million jars remain in this trash pit, that represent over 6 billion litres of oil that were imported into the city where the trash pit was found. An enormous site like this reveals the massive commercial expanse of the Roman world, and there are many other enormous pits of pottery garbage throughout the empire from the period before the fall of the empire that accumulatively help us further understand this complex. Here’s a picture of (a bit of) Mount Testaccio.

None of it was to last, though. Perkins paints the bleak picture that followed.

In the post-Roman West, almost all this material sophistication disappeared. Specialized production and all but the most local distribution became rare, unless for luxury goods; and the impressive range and quantity of high-quality functional goods, which had characterized the Roman period, vanished, or, at the very least, were drastically reduced. The middle and lower markets, which under the Romans had absorbed huge quantities of basic, but good-quality, items, seem to have almost entirely disappeared. (pg. 104)

Anything too complex to produce disappeared from the market, and empire wide transport of goods vanquished. There did not remain a diversity of products anymore, let alone anything high quality, but all your items were crude once more and you certainly had less. You would use locally produced pottery, rather than fancier imported pottery, because no one was able to ship such fine pottery anymore as the commercial networks collapsed, hegemony reigned in with the Germanic invaders who carved out the empire and continued warring with each other ruthlessly and endlessly (and it wouldn’t be any better when Justinian in the 6th century, Byzantine Emperor, sent his generals to regain lost land and crushed both the Vandal kingdom of North Africa, and annihilated the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy, deeply depopulating the Italian peninsula). Your roof of your house was now thatched and no longer tiled, your houses produced from earth. Skills like the potters wheel and constructing from mortar stone and brick, unless you were a member of the wealthiest in the lands, vanished and became inaccessible.

Slowly, the provinces continued degenerating. In fact, complexity in most provinces literally devolved back not only into those of the Iron Age in these places, but even less than that. Whereas in Roman-era sites, coinage was widespread throughout the empire in gold, silver and copper, and is still found in abundance as more sites are excavated, coins almost entirely disappear from sites thereafter the empires fall. An extensive quotation from Perkins is necessary;

It may initially be hard to believe, but post-Roman Britain in fact sank to a level of economic complexity well below that of the pre-Roman Iron Age. Southern Britain, in the years before the Roman conquest of AD 43, was importing quantities of Gaulish wine and Gaulish pottery; it had its own native pottery industries with regional distribution of their wares; it even had native silver coinages, which may well have been used to facilitate exchange, as well as for purposes of prestige and gift-giving. The settlement pattern of later iron-age Britain also reflects emerging economic complexity, with substantial coastal settlements, like Hengistbury in modern Hampshire, which were at least partly dependent on trade. None of these features can be found reliably in fifth- and sixth century post-Roman Britain. (pg. 118)

In the western Mediterranean, the economic regression was by no means as total as it was in Britain. As we have seen, some trade, some trading towns, some coinage, and some local and regional industries persisted throughout the post-Roman centuries. But it must be remembered that in the Mediterranean world the level of economic complexity and sophistication reached in the Roman period was very considerably higher than anything ever attained in Britain. The fall in economic complexity may in fact have been as remarkable as that in Britain; but, since in the Mediterranean it started from a much higher point, it also bottomed out at a higher level. If, as we have done for Britain, we compare pre-Roman and post-Roman Mediterranean economies, in some areas at least a very similar picture can be found to that sketched out above—of a regression, taking the economy way below levels of complexity reached in the preRoman period. In southern and central Italy, for example, both the Greek colonies and the Etruscan territories have provided much more evidence of trade and sophisticated native industries than can be found in post Roman Italy. The pre-Roman past, in the temples of Agrigento and Paestum, the tombs of Cerveteri and Tarquinia, and a mass of imported and native pottery and jewellery, has left enough material remains to serve as a major tourist attraction. The same cannot be said of the immediately post-Roman centuries. (pg. 120)

The only provinces that didn’t descend into hell after Rome fell were those in the Aegean (i.e. around the Aegean Sea, which is located between Greece and Turkey), the Levant (Lebanon, Israel, Cyprus, Jordan, etc) and Egypt. The Aegean collapsed itself around AD 700 (for a variety of factors, mostly including invasions by the Avars, Persians and Arabs) whereas the Levant and Egypt remained stable in their entire history, mostly due to the fact that they were quickly enveloped by the Arabs in the beginning of their conquests and thus didn’t have to suffer further. Indeed, the Arab lands would be quite prosperous for a while themselves.

The population, it’s clear, also greatly declined after the fall of the Western Roman Empire as the first few centuries progressed. The number of rural settlements declined vastly in the post-Roman period, as Perkins shows from diagrams in pp. 140-141 in the book that place points on the areas where rural settlements did exist before the fall, and after the fall. Indeed, the decline is so severe that it’s frankly astonishing. The amount of new construction dramatically fell, and the buildings that were constructed during this period, such as churches, were far more diminished in size in the post-Roman period than in the Roman period. Though St. Peter’s Basilica was built in Rome in the Roman period, no structure like it would ever be constructed in the ensuing centuries (and the Hagia Sophia doesn’t count since, of course, it was constructed in the eastern Byzantine Empire, not in the collapsed western territory). Literacy, which had been not terribly widespread in the Roman period severely plummeted.

On the other hand, the evidence for the very widespread use of literacy, and, in particular, for its trivial use, which is such a striking feature of Roman times, is far less apparent in the centuries that followed the fall of the empire. The numerous stamps, seals, and painted or scratched inscriptions that had characterized the commercial and military life of the Roman world seem to disappear almost completely. The need to label and stamp large quantities of commercial goods appears to have evaporated, presumably because production and distribution were now much simpler and less extensive than they had been before… Most interesting of all is the almost complete disappearance of casual graffiti, of the kind so widely found in the Roman period. (pg. 165)

It was no longer necessary to write as the technologies of the Roman world declined, any social pressure to do so had disappeared. Only the clergy tried to maintain writing, in order to read their scriptures and works of prominent church authors and church fathers, as well as to continue copying them down (indeed, it is due to the clergy and the monasteries why virtually any of the ancient Greek and Roman writings, philosophies and plays were preserved) — indeed, very soon, the clergy made up the vast majority of those remaining who were capable of writing, as archaeological analysis has also shown. It’s not hard to see why the economy, and therefore products of the economy (such as literacy) fell so dramatically. If products could be produced, and then exported and sold in the empire-wide market, then farmers who live in specific local conditions adept at producing certain foods could exploit such lands and then sell their products throughout the empire. However, once the empire fell, and kingdoms and communities became local, you could not ship out your specialized products throughout the empire, and therefore could neither receive them either. If you had a surplus of a certain product of yours, such as oil per se, you could export your oil to the rest of the economy and make more money. Yet without an international trading network, any surplus you have can’t be sold off in markets elsewhere, and in turn you could not purchase such products produced elsewhere. If a product could not be cultivated locally, you were unlikely to be able to acquire it at all. Secondly, without these surpluses that allowed you to accumulate profits and wealth, you were unable to, in turn, invest in more widespread networks to expand your business and technological capability of your business. Yet without these surpluses in profit, you were no longer able to spend in expanding your business at all, and therefore the size of large businesses themselves would have collapsed without a market outside of your local village and/or kingdom. Perkins writes;

Secondly, specialization and the ability to turn crops into cash allowed farmers to invest in improvements, that in turn increased productivity yet further. For instance, the Syrian cultivators of the limestone hills built a large number of solid olive presses around their villages, the remains of which are still standing there today, which allowed them to extract their oil efficiently and locally. At the same time, their counterparts on the plains were able to extend and intensify their arable cultivation by building complex irrigation and water-management systems, involving dams, underground channels, and reservoirs, as well as conventional irrigation ditches. Through capital investment, farmers were able to get much more out of their land. However, in the conditions of later times, without flourishing international and regional markets, specialization and investment became much more difficult, and the inhabitants of areas like the limestone hills were forced to return to a more mixed, and hence less productive, agriculture. When this happened, the population had to fall. It is indeed thought that parts of the Levant did not regain the levels and density of population that they sustained in late Roman and early Arab times until well into the nineteenth, or even the twentieth century. (pp. 144-145)

These are many of the essential reasons why skills and expansive businesses began to fall without the empire-wide trading network, leading to a severe decline in wealth, literacy, products such as pottery, coinage, etc, etc, etc. These were the products of the fall of western Roman civilization, and it would take centuries for the complexity to be rebuilt — some aspects of the Roman economy would not be attained once more until the late modern era. This was the birth of the Middle Ages in AD 476, and everything I have described here were the characteristics of western Europe in the early centuries of this period. As the centuries ensued, the Middle Ages would be where civilization was reborn and, up until its time, the greatest and bloodiest period of human history.

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Christian Fall, the End of History

As I explained in my previous post, a new chapter marked history when Constantine converted to Christianity, formally banned persecution against Christians within the Roman Empire, which had broken out time and time again in earlier decades and centuries. This was a result of Constantine himself converting to the religion, and establishing the city of Constantinople — a city that would serve as the center of Christendom and capital of the Byzantine Empire for the next millennium until its capture by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. However, this was not before the Roman Empire itself would split into the eastern and western halves, something that occurred at the end of the reign of Theodosius I (379-395 AD). What was left was the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire. While the Eastern half of the empire would go on for another thousand years, this would not be before the Western Roman Empire had itself fallen, which would mark the transition of history into the Middle Ages in 476 AD after being captured by the barbarian officer Odoacer who would thus become its king.

Here, I’m going to try to look at and summarize the main factors and events that went into the fall of the Western Roman Empire, focusing mainly on the barbarian invasions, and thus clarify one of the most pivotal moments for the future of the history of Christianity. I will just add that the term ‘barbarian’ was invented by the Greeks much earlier on, in order to originally describe any of those inferior peoples that were not Greek themselves. The Romans used the term to describe a much different, and much more specific peoples.

The empire did not suddenly fall, of course. The fall of the empire was centuries in the making, the first cracks opening up during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161 – 180) when the empire was struck by the Plague of Galen (also known as the Antonine Plague) that may have claimed a fourth or even a third of the inhabitants of the empire, akin to the Black Plague that would become one of the markers of the European Middle Ages during the 14th century. The Third Century Crisis began in 235, and until 284, the empire would be rife with enormous civil wars, inflation and over 60 emperors, each slaying one another in the struggle for power, at least three being slain at the hands of the Persians to the east. Then, in 249, the empire was struck once more by the Plague of Cyprian that lasted from 249-262 (which the pagans blamed the Christians on, and so started the first empire-wide persecution of Christianity).

After the empire was stabilized and strengthened under Diocletian and Constantine, it would not be long before civil war would become constant once more, albeit at a much smaller rate. However, this time, things would be much different, as the barbarians would begin their migrations and invasions into Roman territory. This would all culminate in 476, where the empire was finally conquered by the barbarians. The barbarians were numerous disparate tribes and groups north of the empire, beyond the Danube and Rhine living on the steppes in nomadic lifestyles as they constantly traveled in order to survive. Almost all the barbarian enemies were Germanic, though the Romans would have to also deal with the Huns as the decades went by. These groups were made up of many smaller peoples, such as the Goths (who would split into the Visigoths [west Goths] and Ostrogoths [east Goths] soon enough), the Vandals, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Alans, Alemanni, etc, with each of these peoples being made up of various tribes that may have warred with each other and allied with each other at different times. They desired to enter and live in the Roman Empire, knowing of the riches that lay south of them, and many of them would successfully migrate their, though others had more nefarious motives, sometimes which would become manifest after already having migrated. Many times, different tribes were allied with the Romans themselves, and as the professional army of the Western Roman Empire began to vanish, the Romans would often hire different barbarian tribes to battle against others. However, it would end up the case that the barbarians would slowly conquer, and carve out the Western Empire among them. Here’s an image of the Western Empire before and after the barbarians helped themselves to the Roman lands.

Now that’s a catastrophe if I’ve ever seen one. Adrian Goldsworthy, in his fantastic book How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (2009, Yale University Press) summed up the situation like this;

By the end of the fifth century the territory once controlled by the Western Empire was now split into a number of separate kingdoms. The Visigoths controlled much of Gaul and almost all of the Iberian Peninsula. Only in the north-west did the rump of the Suevic kingdom survive. Similarly, the Vascones – from whom the modern Basques claim descent – were effectively independent in their lands along the north-east coast. The Visigoths, however, were not the sole power in Gaul. There was a substantial Frankish kingdom in the north, and smaller Burgundian and Alamannic states in the east. In the far north some areas had been settled by Saxons. Brittany was controlled by a combination of its old provincial population and the descendants of the refugees who had fled there from Britain. Across the Channel, Britain was divided into many separate groupings, and the east was now overwhelmingly dominated by rulers who were Saxon or from other north Germanic tribes. The Vandals remained in control of North Africa, although to the south they were under pressure from the Moors. Finally, Italy itself was in the hands of King Theodoric and the Ostrogoths. (pg. 370)

At first, the barbarians would only enter the Roman Empire upon admission from the Romans to settle them because, as I mentioned earlier, they originally wanted to migrate in order to inherit the riches of the Roman lands which they could not dream of in their own lands. It was the case, too, however, that many barbarians would want to enter the Roman Empire in order to escape and run away from other expanding tribes. Thus, the first time the barbarians ever forcefully entered into the (eastern) empire was in 376, a group of Goths seeking asylum from the expanding territories of the ruthless Huns. In his now  famous monograph titled The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005, Oxford University Press), Bryan-Ward Perkins writes;

The first people to enter the empire in force were Goths, who in 376 crossed the Danube, fleeing from the nomadic Huns who had recently appeared on the Eurasian steppes. (pg. 1)

They had first made their way to the border on the Danube, and requested permission to settle in the empire. Now, the initial entry would not be forceful, as they were a massive force and the emperor Valens (364-378) found it more secure to settle them in then to keep them out (lest they invade). So, they entered, but things quickly devolved for their situation. They had almost no food, and the Romans were said to have forced them to sell a child per dog they received. The Goths could not take it, and revolted. Thus commenced the Gothic War of 376-382.

This would be a horrible time for the Romans. The Romans had, by this time, already been weakened by over a century of civil war, plague, wars with the Parthian Empire and some battles with the barbarians themselves. Indeed, by this time, they were not powerful enough to command a decisive victory against the barbarians, and so through a period of 6 years were routing their supplies and doing some guerrilla warfare, eventually forcing the Goths to surrender (on rather generous terms). However, the Romans, at one point, did attempt a decisive victory. In 378, the emperor Valens at Hadrianopolis, deciding not to wait for reinforcements to arrive, launched a massive head-on attack against the barbarians. The battle was, against the perceived odds, an utter massacre. The Roman army was utterly destroyed, perhaps losing a war that wasn’t as disastrous since Cannae centuries earlier where Hannibal was said to have slain around 50,000 Romans in a single day, the barbarians even killing the emperor Valens. This disaster was only the beginning of the end, however. Perkins continues;

Certainly any theory that the East was always much stronger than the West is demolished by the fact that it was the eastern field army that was defeated and massacred at Hadrianopolis in 378. This defeat provoked a profound and immediate eastern crisis: the Balkans were devastated; Constantinople itself was threatened (though saved by the presence of some Arab troops); and Gothic soldiers within the Roman army were slaughtered as a precautionary measure. The loss with all its equipment of perhaps two-thirds of the eastern field army took years of expenditure and effort to repair. Indeed, until the Goths under Alaric entered Italy in 401, it was the eastern emperors, not the western, who occasionally needed military help from the other half of the empire (in 377, 378, 381, 395, and 397). In dealing with the Goths, after their entry into the empire in 376, the eastern emperors alternated between a policy of alliance and one of aggression; but their ambitions after 380 seem to have been limited to containing the Gothic menace, with little hope of destroying it or driving it right out of imperial territory. (pp. 58-9)

In 401, the Western Roman Empire would be invaded by the barbarians for the first time, under the Visigothic king Alaric. Alaric would be defeated twice in 402, at the Battle of Pollentia (by Stilicho, one of the last great Roman generals and himself half-barbarian) and Battle of Verona, but was not killed in these engagements and would return once more to cause something unprecedented in almost a thousand years of Roman history. In 408, the emperor of the Western Roman Empire Honorius (393-423, by this time the eastern and western empires had split would be led by different emperors) executed Stilicho and ordered the executions of tens of thousands of Goths, causing many to defect and join the forces of Alaric, swelling the numbers of his army. That same year in 408, Alaric would once again invade Rome, changing history in the process. Until this time, a famous phrase in the empire was ‘Roma Invicta, or ‘Unconquered Rome.’ By 410, Alaric marched his armies into the gates of the great city and sacked it over a period of three days. “The city which had taken the whole world had itself been taken”, was how Jerome summed it up. Coincidentally, Alaric would later die that year. In 455, a few decades later, Rome was sacked once again, this time though, much more systematically by the Vandals over a 2 week period.

Just years prior to Alaric’s sack, the empire had effectively lost control of the province of Britain, first occupied by Julius Caesar and conquered by the emperor Claudius (41-54) when Constantine III, ruler over the province at the time, attempted to usurp the throne of the empire from Honorius with its support in 407. It had never been easy to maintain rule over Britain, but the usurpation of Constantine who crossed back with his army into Europe effectively ended any such reign (Constantine III himself would be killed years later by Constantius III, who would briefly be emperor in 420 before dying of natural causes). And a year before Constantine III, barbarians groups of Vandals, Sueves and Alans crossed into Gaul, and would slowly conquer it. In 429, the Vandals crossed into North Africa, the largest tax revenue base that the Western Roman Empire controlled, and had conquered the capital Carthage by 439. In the 430’s, the Hunnic Empire would be great enough and so large that it itself threatened the empire under its famous leader, Attila the Hun.

At first, Attila bullied the Eastern Roman Empire, forcing it to pay enormous annual sums of gold (which Attila likely required to pay his own generals so they would be at check, it was not only common for emperors to be killed by those in their midst looking to usurp power). To get a scale at how big Attila’s empire was at the time, behold:

Attila had plundered the Balkans in the 430’s (basically, the modern countries that make up south-eastern Europe, that big chunk of land to the east of Italy that connects to Turkey). His success in raiding the Eastern Roman Empire lead him to invade the west, and he went far enough until 451 (as can be seen in the map above) until he was finally stopped at the Battle of Cataulanian Plains, a great alliance between the Romans and countless different barbarian peoples, which ended the expansion of his empire. He raided Italy in the next two years, but eventually died drunken in 453. His empire fractured and dissolved away as competing men vied to take power. One of Rome’s fiercest enemies had fallen, but by then it was too late. Roman control continued to slowly fade away, until Odoacer finally delivered the final blow in 476 when he conquered Italy and became king. Odoacer himself would be killed by the Ostrogoths under Theoderic the Great in 493. And so was the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

By this time, most of the barbarian tribes had converted to Christianity, mostly in the heretical form of Arian Christianity (it would not be until centuries later until they converted into a more orthodox sort (for example, the Visigoths who controlled most of the Iberian Peninsula [essentially modern Spain and Portugal], with their capital at Toulouse, and then Toledo as they retreated from the Franks in the early 6th century, had been Arian Christians since they entered the empire in 376, but would not abandon Arianism until 587, over 200 years later)). Some barbarians, such as the Ostrogoths who controlled Italy, actually favored the concept of the Roman identity so much that they referred to themselves as Romans, and the other tribes as the real barbarians (even their fellow Visigoths). Western Europe would not become much more united until Charlemagne centuries later, sometimes known as the ‘Father of Europe’ who would unite the Western Empire for the first time since classical times. However, that’s a story for another day, and for now, the Byzantine Empire would live on and a new era was being made way for. This was the medieval period, not a ‘dark ages’ (a term given up by historians) where the history of the world would continue until the modern period. I don’t claim to have fully explained all the factors in Rome’s fall — for a fuller explanation, I’d recommend reading the two aforementioned books; How Rome Fell by Adrian Goldsworthy and The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization by Bryan-Ward Perkins.

What on Earth is the Book of Revelation?

“The church’s witness will be of value only if it knows truth worth dying for.” (pg. 160, The Theology of the Book of Revelation)

The Book of Revelation, written toward the end of the 1st century AD, is probably the most confusing book in the entire Bible, and given that it’s also at the end of our modern canon, someone who sequentially reads the all the books of the Bible might come out with an exhilarated yet confused feeling. As my own motto goes when trying to understand Christian ideas, especially ones as important as those in Revelation, you should read the text a lot and see what modern scholarship has to say. Here, I’m going to try to systemize some of what Revelation is.

Revelation is a book that cannot be relegated to a single genre. It is an apocalyptic text, such as the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament. That is to say, it concerns God transferring heavenly information to a human being through an otherworldy mediator (an angel, in the case of Revelation) about the present world and temporal context of the author of the text and its recipients, and in many cases, specifically about how this will play out (alongside judgement) into the end of the world (as is also the case with Revelation). Revelation is also a prophetic text, which is made obvious in Rev. 22:7: “See, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” Thirdly, it is a letter, like the letters of Paul. There is a difference, though, between the way in which Revelation is a letter compared to Paul. Paul’s letters are usually directed to a single church, such as Romans (which is directed to the church in Rome), Galatians (directed to the church in Galatia), 1 and 2 Corinthians (directed to the church in Corinth), and so on. However, Revelation is directed towards seven different churches in the Roman province of Asia: “saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea” (Rev. 1:11). Revelation was written as a circular letter, as it was to be sent to the first of these churches (written in the sequential order in the verse above), then to the second, then to the third, and so on. Why seven churches? Well, besides the enormous symbolic importance of the number seven in Revelation and other texts Christians used at the time, as Richard Bauckham points out, seven was the number of completeness in this time. “We shall observe quite often in this book the symbolic significance which attaches to numbers in Revelation. Seven is the number of completeness” (The Theology in the Book of Revelation, pg. 16). Now, it is not correct to think that Revelation was only directed to these seven churches (i.e. we’re not included), rather, as Bauckham points out, it is the case that these seven churches were representatives of all the churches as is signified by when Revelation continuously says “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches” (2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22).

Since it is addressed to these seven churches, chapters 2-3 of Revelation provide seven introductions, each directed towards a specific church. Here, we encounter another prophet in Asia named Jezebel who is part of the church at Thyatira, who John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, considers a false prophet. He warns the church of Thyatira to avoid this women who entices the church to commit sins of the eyes of God, and speaks vividly of the punishment that Jezebel will have for not listening to change her ways and repent:

Revelation 2:19-25:  “I know your works—your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first. 20 But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. 22 Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve. 24 But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call ‘the deep things of Satan,’ to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden; 25 only hold fast to what you have until I come.

Revelation is a book that is heavily concerned with symbolic meaning and evocation, and it is laden with Old Testament meaning and significance (though it never explicitly quotes the Old Testament). Revelation must be properly understood in the historical context it was written in, just like all other books of the New Testament (and the entire Bible), and this is the only way to understanding its meaning correctly, in the way that it was meant to be taken by the seven churches it was directed to. Revelation was written in a time of Roman imperialistic power, where the Roman Empire had vast control over the known world of Revelation. In this time, and before, many Jews had come to become wary over that God had not come to end the world yet — they saw a world where they were unable to see God’s presence and righteousness, where the people of God were dominated under the great pagan empires, and they saw the evil that the world was ridden in. Thus, many apocalypses were written to engage with such views, and in one sense, Revelation also does this. Revelation, unlike the others however, instills its own context and way and world by which it hopes to instill upon the reader, to give them a new perspective of how to see things. In one way, it is meant to counter the Roman viewpoint, which always surrounded the readers of Revelation, with God’s world and perspective.

Several symbols are very important in the Book of Revelation. Something that Revelation does is play on, and amplify the fears of Rome. This includes, for example, the many earthquakes that the cities of Asia Minor were subjected to, the contemporary Roman fear of the invasion by the Parthian Empire to its east, the recent volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD that which sent shockwaves through the Roman Empire (and famously crushed the city of Pompeii), and more. Although none of these are explicitly mentioned, scholarship has undoubtedly shown the role they play in how Revelation props up its symbols and meaning (to mention Richard Bauckham again, see his 1977 paper The Eschatological Earthquake in the Apocalypse of John to see how this plays out in Revelation). All in all, in Revelation, John is brought to the heavenly throne room of God to see the world from a new understanding, which John hopes that the rest of us will also share. This all culminates in God’s creation of a new heaven, new earth, and a new Jerusalem (“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:1-2)), an idea which first appears in the Old Testament (such as Isaiah 65:17-19) and intertestamental texts at Qumran, and therefore was certainly familiar to the readers of Revelation. Revelation was originally meant to be read aloud to the churches it was sent to, and though it carries much of the meaning of earlier apocalyptic texts, it newly does so through the new understanding of the world and its coming end through the theology and belief in Jesus Christ.

Revelation 1:1-2: The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place; he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

Have we found the Messiah?

Another important question in the quest for the historical Jesus is the Davidic messianic question, that is to say, whether or not Jesus believed that He was the coming Messiah prophesied in the scriptures of Israel. Christ, though we say the word “Jesus Christ”, was not Jesus’ last name, rather it is a title that derives from the Hebrew word for ‘Messiah’: Mashiach. So, when we say “Jesus Christ“, we also affirm that Jesus is the Messiah, a point central to the teachings of Christianity. So, did the historical Jesus consider Himself the Messiah? This has been the subject of critical debate in academia, and recently I’ve read a monograph titled We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help us Answer the Davidic Messianic Question (Wipf and Stock 2016) by the scholar Michael Vicko Zolondek that I think not only comes to the right answer but provides an incredible, and new approach in scholarship to answering this question. As Larry Hurtado, a renowned New Testament scholar and textual critic says, “Zolondek succeeds in the improbable objective of making a fresh contribution to studies of ‘the historical Jesus.'” Here, I’ll follow Zolondek’s approach to seeing how we can answer that yes, Jesus considered Himself to be the Davidic Messiah.

Zolondek’s approach is pretty straight forward. In a short, and tightly argued book, Zolondek first 1) reviews previous scholarship on the studies of the Davidic messianic question, namely whether or not Jesus thought of Himself as the Messiah and identifies problems he sees in this research that is problematic, 2) establishes the methodology he will use to answer the question himself, and 3) investigates the ancient records, draws information and finally 4) comes to his conclusion.

Firstly, Zolondek begins reviewing previous literature of scholarship and how they have answered the messianic question themselves. He goes through the work of scholars including Geza Vermes, E.P. Sanders, Marcus Borg, James Charlesworth, Otfried Hofius, James D.G. Dunn, and some others. Most of these scholars have actually concluded that Jesus either did not consider himself to be the Davidic Messiah, or that there is not enough information to draw any conclusions. However, Zolondek demonstrates three problems in this work: it treats Jesus as if he was an individual personality, rather than looking at him in the dynamical context between him and his followers as a ‘group personality’ (since indeed, as anthropological studies have shown, ones self-views are often shaped by the people around you, and for Zolondek that is the understanding of Jesus that the disciples had of him and how they treated him). Secondly, previous scholarship places far too great emphasis on what Jesus personally said and how he exalted himself. Indeed, as Zolondek shows, other messiah figures of the time of Jesus (and the first kings of Israel, including David) never exalted themselves or proclaimed themselves to be the Messiah, rather, they exalted God and were established and proclaimed as the Messiah by their followers. So, we must look elsewhere to answer the Davidic messianic question. Thirdly, scholars unjustly attribute importance to Jesus’ lack of military earthly ambitions. Although other messiah figures of the time had high military ambitions, and there were expectations that the Messiah would have such ambitions (in order to recapture Israel from the Romans and declare God’s eternal kingdom on Earth), this was hardly the only expectation the messiah had. Indeed, as Zolondek shows, the Messiah was a ‘multifaceted’ figure who had many expectations on top of them, of which Jesus could have taken up if He considered Himself to be the Messiah. As Zolondek says and later shows, “There were various other things that one might do or say, apart from or in addition to harboring earthly military ambitions, if one were taking up the Davidic messianic role” (pg. 53).

Having shown flaws in previous scholarship, Zolondek lays out three propositions what I consider to be a valid approach to demonstrating how we can answer whether or not Jesus considered himself to be the Messiah. They are that “(1) that Jesus behaved in a manner which suggested to the disciples that he might be the Davidic Messiah; (2) that he was viewed and treated as the Davidic Messiah by the disciples; and (3) that in the context of this view and treatment, Jesus behaved in a manner consistent with that role” (pg. 138). Zolondek then examines and establishes a number of points about the historical Jesus in good and highly convincing detail, that among other things, Jesus enacted a number of potentially Davidic messianic acts including that he appointed twelve disciples in His ministry (many messianic figures regularly appointed figures that would have been gauranteed important positions in their future kingdoms), his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (which would have had royal connotations in both the Roman and Jewish context of His day), the confession of Peter in Mark 8:27-30 and in its parallels (where Jesus asks the disciples who they think He is, and Peter eventually says that He thinks Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus warns Peter and the others not to tell anyone about it), and the request of James and John in Mark 10:35-40 and in its parallels (where James and John go for a power grab by asking Jesus for the highest positions in His future kingdom, demonstrating again that the disciples considered Jesus like a royal and messianic figure). All this information (and more), which Zolondek establishes as plausibly historical, is much more consistent and logical under the framework that Jesus considered Himself to be the Messiah rather than a prophet or simply eschatological figure, especially since the disciples themselves surely understood Jesus to be the Messiah.

Zolondek then asks objectors to the framework that he’s has built some several questions that need to be answered if Jesus really did not consider Himself to be the Messiah in light of the several pieces of historical information about him that can be established, such as: why did the disciples misunderstand who Jesus was? Are modern scholars really in a better position to understand who Jesus was than the disciples themselves? Why didn’t Jesus discourage their misguided views about Him? Finally, to deal another blow to the opposition, Zolondek points out that any serious answer to these questions are necessarily conjecture, and seem to be made in the attempt to explain away data rather than to explain data. Therefore, it is the most historically plausible to conclude that Jesus acted in the Davidic Messiah role, Jesus was a Davidic messianic figure, therefore answering the Davidic messianic question.

 

Governor of the City Archaeology Find Made, Bible Corroborated Again

Right before the 2018 year on 31 December 2017, another archaeological finding was made corroborating yet another account of the Bible. Throughout the biblical records describing events of the First Temple Period (930 – 586 BC), we’re told that there was a political position maintained in Israel known as the ‘governor of the city’. In much of today’s world, someone who presides over a city is known as a mayor. According to several accounts in the Bible, this position was known as the governor of the city.

2 Kings 23:8: He brought all the priests out of the towns of Judah, and defiled the high places where the priests had made offerings, from Geba to Beer-sheba; he broke down the high places of the gates that were at the entrance of the gate of Joshua the governor of the city, which were on the left at the gate of the city.

2 Chronicles 34:8: In the eighteenth year of his reign, when he had purged the land and the house, he sent Shaphan son of Azaliah, Maaseiah the governor of the city, and Joah son of Joahaz, the recorder, to repair the house of the Lord his God.

The Israel Antiquities Authority announced a discovery of a seal (also known as a bulla) found in an archaeological dig in Jerusalem dating to the 7th century BC during the First Temple Period bearing an inscription that says ‘belonging to the governor of the city’. With that and to begin our year, yet another minor detail in the corpus of the Bible has been historically affirmed (including that there was a governor in Jerusalem when the Bible describes such). Here is the official, fantastic video released by the Israel Antiquities Authority itself regarding this discovery.

Many ancient Christian texts being discovered

Recently, a growing number of discoveries are being made in regards to ancient Christian texts, especially Gnostic ones. With at least two discoveries in the last several months, one of which I’ve already written about, I’ll document the others a little more here as well.

The first to mention has already gained widespread fame in scholarly and even popular circles, that being the Gospel of Judas. It’s a 2nd century Gnostic text, obviously not written by Judas the brother of Jesus. It was published in 2006. I’ve yet to read the text, but in contrast, the Gospel of Thomas was discovered in the Nag Hammadi collection back in 1945 along with the majority of Gnostic discoveries.

Then, perhaps a much more important discovery was made, of which I’ve written more about here. The discovery of the writings of Fortunatianus of Aquileia was discovered, an author in the mid-4th century AD, whose writings predate even those of Aristotle and Jerome. His work had previously been known about through brief mentions in works such as Jerome’s, but never before have we actually had, in our hands, a copy of his work. It was published in the last few months (open-access, meaning anyone can read it for free), and it is the oldest commentary on the four Gospels in our possession. Before him, we had Origen of Alexandria (perhaps the greatest Christian writer of the 2nd century) who had written two individual commentary works completed on the Gospels of John and Matthew.

Now, we have the Greek text discovered of the First Apocalypse of James announced at the Society of Biblical Literature. Previously, if I’m not mistaken, this work was available in Coptic (since the codices at Nag Hammadi are all Coptic), however, the Gnostic works were originally composed in Greek. Thus, this finding (found at Oxford) gives us access to the text of the First Apocalypse of James in its original language, rare for a Gnostic text.

The rate of new biblical archaeological discoveries is, in my documentation, increasing over the last few years. I’ve recorded only two findings of importance in 2015 and one in 2014. In 2016 and 2017, I’ve documented at least fourteen, many of which you can read here on my site page on Academic Christianity. Fortunatianus and the First Apocalypse of James both came to light in the last few months alone. The findings of these two new manuscripts, including our Gospel of Judas, represents our increasing understanding of the earliest centuries of Christianity and how Christian behavior was developing in this period. For example, Fortunatianus wrote his works in Latin, and as one of the earlier Latin writers of Christianity, what we have of him provides another contribution to our understanding of early Latin Christianity as well. The more we understand this, the better we can look at our predecessors, and the better we can look forwards to the new challenges to Christianity in this century. We’ve gone this far, no point in giving up now!

Psalm 111:2Great are the works of the Lordstudied by all who delight in them.

The Life of David

King David (reigned 1010-970 BC) was the second king of Israel and one of the most famous men of the Hebrew Bible. The king was said to have united the both kingdoms of Israel and Judah and ruled over them as the united monarchy. The life of David is mostly chronicled throughout the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. Some of the most important and well-known events of the life of David include his rise from a shepherd to attaining the throne of Israel, his battle with the giant named Goliath, and his conquering of the ancient city of Jerusalem.

Early Life

The tradition of David’s life starts in his youth. David started out as a young shepherd who cultivated sheep, a typical occupation of his time. Early on, David became interested in music, especially of playing the lyre, and would be soon accredited with writing many psalms in both his youth and his reign as king over Israel.

As Saul, the current king of Israel began to sin, God began to torment him. Through the advice of his servants, Saul had come to the belief that he required a musician to play for him in order to ease him of his anguish. One of his servants said that they may be aware of such a man to help him, the son of Jesse, David. Thus, Saul requested David to become his personal musician, where he would perform his musical tunes in order to help calm Saul. Saul quickly came to trust David, making him into one of his armor-bearers. David had become a member of Saul’s court, and so Saul requested David to play the lyre for him when he felt tormented, which would help calm and ease him.

Fight Against Goliath

Soon after David began playing the lyre for Saul, Israel found itself in a war with the Philistines. The Philistines held a camp at Ephes Dammim, located between Sokoh and Azekah, and the forces of Saul were based in the Valley of Elah, slowly advancing in order to confront the Philistines.

Suddenly, the champion of the Philistines, a man named Goliath (whose hometown was Gath) emerged, towering in height over every man nearby. Goliath was said to have been wearing full-body armor made of bronze and equipped with both a javelin and a spear. Every morning and every evening for forty days, Goliath came forwards to taunt the Israelites and challenge any single man willing to fight him head on. Goliath claimed that if his opponent won, the Philistines would become servants of the Israelite’s, but if he won, the Israelite’s would become servants of the Philistines.

“Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” (1 Samuel 17.8-10)

The three eldest sons of Jesse (David’s older brothers) were also in this war. Jesse, their father, asked David to go to the camp of Saul’s army with some grain and bread to give to his elder brothers. David got to the camp, and when he was looking for his brothers, Goliath again emerged and uttered his regular defiance. In bravery, David wished to personally deal with Goliath. Saul attempted to stop him, telling David that he was still in his youth and not experienced enough for this battle, but David countered by saying that he had killed a lion and a bear when protecting his sheep, and therefore was able to fight Goliath. Saul, convinced by David’s arguments, allowed him to fight.

David and Goliath approached each other, and after remarking some angry words against each other, Goliath began stampeding towards David. David took out a sling and struck Goliath in the head with a stone, and then used a sword to kill the weakened Goliath. David became victorious, and this allowed the Israelite’s to defeat the Philistines and then plunder their camp. David, in his victory, took the head of Goliath to Jerusalem. Seemingly an out-of-the-ordinary act at first, an explanation as to why David did this with Goliath’s head is provided by Hoffmeier;

…it might be suggested that David’s purpose in taking Goliath’s head to Jerusalem reflects the common Near Eastern practice of humiliating one’s enemy by displaying the remains of the fallen hero, chieftain or king, and announcing the good news of an enemy’s defeat. David’s actions in several instances show that he was shrewdly trying to consolidate his claim to the throne after being anointed by Samuel (1 Sam. 16:13)… By taking the giant’s head to Jerusalem David was not just announcing his victory over Goliath and the Philistines, but was also putting the Jebusites on notice that just as he defeated the Philistine champion, Jerusalem’s demise was only a matter of time. (108)

The Psalms of David

David, in the traditions found in the Book of Psalms, Old Testament, and the New Testament, is attributed to have written over 70 of the 150 Psalms. Psalms, in specific, are short songs written in devotion towards God in the Bible. Early on in the biblical account, we are told that David was a man who could play the lyre and conducted music for Saul, and so it is easy to see how and why David would become interested in composing music in devotion to God. In specific, David is attributed to having written Psalms 3-9, 11-32, 34-41, 51-65, 68-70, 86, 101, 103, 108-110, 122, 124, 131, 133, and 138-145. In addition, the New Testament attributes Psalm 2 (Acts 4:25), Psalm 45 (Heb. 4:7), Psalm 69 (Rom. 11:9), and Psalm 95 (Heb. 3:15) to David.

I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart; before the “gods” I will sing your praise. I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name for your unfailing love and your faithfulness, for you have so exalted your solemn decree that it surpasses your fame. When I called, you answered me; you greatly emboldened me. (Psalm 138.1-3)

Historically speaking, it has not been proven that David actually wrote any of the psalms attributed to him, leading many modern scholars to reject Davidic authorship in the Book of Psalms. Other scholars believe that David’s early reputation as a musician and author of songs (as found in the early 8th century BC document, the Book of Amos, 6:5) makes it possible to associate David with writing some of the psalms attributed to him. At best, this aspect of David’s life remains unclear.

David in the New Testament

In the New Testament, David is mentioned several times, almost always in the context of being an ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. The Jews had believed that the Messiah would be a descendant of David, and they believed he would symbolically reign on David’s throne.  In all the Gospels, Jesus is said to be a descendant of David (e.g. Matthew 1.1, 12.23; Mark 10.48; John 7.42; Luke 18.38), and this is repeated in the Book of Romans (1.3), II Timothy (2.8) and the Book of Revelation (5.5). David also has an important appearance in Hebrews 11, which is considered the New Testament “hall of fame” for men in the Old Testament who have done many righteous deeds before God.

David Becomes King

After his battle with Goliath, David quickly built an impressive reputation and soared through the ranks of the military with his countless successful militaristic adventures, pleasing his fellow Israelite’s. Soon enough, David even formed a great relationship with a man named Jonathan, the son of King Saul.

Saul began to notice this, and one day, after yet another fantastic military victory lead by David, Saul heard his men chanting the phrase “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Quickly, Saul became increasingly afraid of David, believing that he could take his throne. As Saul’s fright of David grew, he gave his daughter Michal to David in marriage and watched as David’s adventures and victories continued mounting.

Saul’s fear quickly turned into action, and Saul commanded his attendants and Jonathan to try to kill David. Jonathan greatly loved David, and so decided to warn him of his father’s plans. David, thanks to Jonathan, was able to escape and hide in safety in a Philistine land. Saul pursued David and even attempted to personally kill David multiple times, but every time David would acquire the advantage over Saul, acquiring the opportunity to kill him, but instead spared Saul’s life every time. Caught up in another war with the Philistines, Saul himself ended up losing his life, paving the way for David to become king over all Israel.

David’s Leadership over Israel

At the age of 30, David entered into Hebron, where all the tribes of Israel gathered and anointed him king over Israel (c. 1010 BC). David, who now ruled over the kingdom of Judah, immediately moved to take Jerusalem, which was held by the Jebusites. David was able to defeat the Jebusites and conquer Jerusalem and renamed the fortress located there as the City of David. It is easy to see why David would choose Jerusalem as his stronghold, as it was a politically neutral territory since it was never allotted to any of the twelve tribes of Israel. Soon after this happened, he began building a friendly relationship with Hiram, the king of Tyre, which lead to Hiram helping David build his own palace.

At this point, David now was setting his eyes on the Ark of God (also known as the Ark of the Covenant). The Ark of God was located in Baalah, a Judean city, and so David marched into Baalah in order to take the Ark and move it into the City of David. In the midst of these events, however, one of David’s servants mishandled the Ark, causing God to strike his servant dead. David feared God on that day and did not take the Ark, rather, it stayed with a man named Obed-Edom. David, however, did not give up, and so he tried to take the Ark again after three months, this time succeeding. David managed to bring the Ark to the City of David, and he became so joyful that he started to dance before God.

Eventually, war was lurking, especially from the nearby Philistines. Throughout David’s reign, he defeated the nations of Edom, Ammon, Moab, and Philistia and others. Perhaps one of the greatest moments of David’s life was the birth of his son and heir, Solomon, destined by God to take the throne of Israel during the older years of David (c. 970 BC). And thus, the life of the king comes to an end.

Historical Background of David’s Life

In 1993 AD, excavations were being directed by the archaeologist Avraham Biran in the ancient site of Tel Dan. Tel Dan was located in northern Israel and at the base of Mount Hermon. In 1993, the surveyor of excavations at Tel Dan, Gila Cook, discovered what would become a very important artifact for the determining whether or not David truly existed. In the vicinity of Tel Dan, a basalt stone was found, containing an inscription that dated to the middle of the 9th century BC. The inscription on this stele contained thirteen lines of writing in the Early Aramaic script.

This fragment is known today as the Tel Dan Inscription. On the 9th line of the text, the Tel Dan Inscription mentions the ‘House of David’ (bytdwd), a phrase believed to reference the dynasty of Israel established by David. Soon after publication, this finding was challenged. Scholars immediately began arguing about the translation of the text. Those who did not share the view that the Tel Dan Inscription refers to a historical David preferred a translation of the original Aramaic where, rather than mentioning David, the inscription actually mentioned a deity named Dôd, and some even went as far as to question the authenticity of the artifact itself. However, scholars soon came to the conclusion that the Tel Dan Inscription is authentic and that it mentions a monarch named David. Susan Ackerman gives a full summary of the scholarly debate and argument on the Tel Dan Inscription;

According to the revisionist account, however, the evidence of the Tel Dan stele is to be dismissed either as fraudulent (a forgery planted in the remains of Tel Dan by someone attempting to play a joke on the excavators), or as referring not to the “house of David” but to the “house of [a god] named Dôd.” This reading is achieved by adding vowels to the steles btdwd so that it reads bêt-dôd rather than bêt-dāwīd and then understanding the bêt-dôd by referring to a place or temple name, analogous to, say, the place and temple name bêt-‛el, or Bethel (the “house of God” or “house of [the god named] El”). The revisionist argument concerning forgery is dismissed by most as patently ridiculous and even seems, as several scholars have pointed out, intended as a gratuitous insult directed against the excavation director at Tel Dan, the esteemed Avraham Biran. The latter argument, concerning the reading “house of [a god named] Dôd,” while at one point plausible, is now judged to be extremely unlikely, given that the second of the two Tel Dan fragments (Fragment B), found a year after the discovery of Fragment A, quite arguably contains, in line 7, the name Jehoram, son of Ahab, who reigned from ca. 849-843 BC over the northern kingdom of Israel… This royal name is followed, moreover, in line 8, by what seems to be the name of Ahaziah, son of Jehoram… who, according to the biblical account, was the king over Judah, the southern half of Israel’s divided kingdoms, during part of the time that Jehoram ruled in the North… Such a concentration of royal referents in lines 7-8 virtually demands that the reference to bytdwd in line 9 be read as a referring to the royal “house of David” of which the southern King Ahaziah was a scion. (156-157)

So, although once debated, Grabbe notes that today the Tel Dan Inscription “is now widely regarded (a) as genuine and (b) as referring to the Davidic dynasty and the Aramaic kingdom of Damascus” (333).

In 1994, a single year after the initial discovery and publication of the Tel Dan Inscription, two well-known epigraphers André Lemaire and Émile Puech independently came to the conclusion that the Mesha Stele also likely mentioned the House of David, and this inscription also dates towards the middle of the 9th century BCE.

Our records for David are by no means entirely conclusive, however, they represent an important segment of the archaeological verdict on whether or not David was truly a man in the past, and seem to tilt the argument in David’s favor.

Another issue regarding the history of the life of David is the extent of his kingdom. David’s power had been characterized by some scholars as stretching over a simple and agrarian society that barely had control past the boundaries of Jerusalem. Although technology has greatly advanced, when an archaeologist wants to find out what happened in an ancient city or kingdom, he must still do things the old-fashioned way. Get a team, get some funds, and get digging. This is exactly what Yosef Garfinkel from the Hebrew University and Sa’ar Ganor from the Israel Antiquities Authority did in the ancient site of Khirbet Qeiyafa from 2007-2013 AD. The findings at this site have become very important to modern scholars concerning the debate over the expanse of David’s kingdom.

Khirbet Qeiyafa is located about 30km southwest of Jerusalem on top of a hill, covering an area of about 2.3 hectares and surrounded by a roughly circular city wall stretching approximately 600m. According to radiocarbon tests conducted by the excavation team, the city was occupied in the period of c. 1020 – 980 BC, about the same period as David’s reign. Khirbet Qeiyafa had a centralized administration stretching over 10,000 square feet, requiring over 200,000 tons of stone to construct. Qeiyafa also has various important architectural features, including two four-chambered gates (one in the south, one in the west of the site) and a gate piazza next to each of these gates. This city, if part of the kingdom of Judah under David would indicate that David possessed a kingdom larger than scholars had previously thought, and he may have been a substantial king.

The majority of scholars believe that Khirbet Qeiyafa is, in fact, a Judean site. However, there have been a few scholars who have sought to identify it as Philistine or Canaanite, especially since it is located on Israel’s border with Philistine. The evidence, however, favors the identification of Khirbet Qeiyafa as Judean, for some of the reasons that include the following;

  • Urban Planning – The “urban planning of the site [Khirbet Qeiyafa] includes the casemate city wall and a belt of houses abutting the casemates and incorporating them as a part of construction” (Garfinkel, Ganor, Hasel 55). These urban planning features at Khirbet Qeiyafa are typical of Judean sites, including Beersheba, Tell Beit Mirsim, Tell en-Nasbeh and Tell Beth-Shemesh, making Khirbet Qeiyafa more reminiscent of  Judeans site in this respect
  • Diet – In a typical Philistine site, up to 20% of the bones found will be from pigs, and pig is also a common diet in many Canaanite sites as well. However, pig bones are usually not found at any Judean sites as Jewish beliefs held that pigs were unclean, and so could not be eaten. No pig bones have yet to be found at Khirbet Qeiyafa
  • Jars – Judean cities typically have a large number of impressed jar handles. At Khirbet Qeiyafa, 693 impressed jar handles have been found. Such a high quantity of impressed jar handles are not found in sites at Canaan or Philistia
  • Cult – Sites in Canaan and Philistia are usually filled with hundreds of cultic figurines, however, there is an enormous absence of such figurines at Khirbet Qeiyafa. Only three figurine items have been found at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which are similar to the two found at Moza (another Judean site)
  • Metal tools – Most of the tools found at Khirbet Qeiyafa are made of iron, which had been adopted by Judah at its time, whereas Canaanite sites at the time were still using copper and bronze

Thus, the information we have allows for the identification of Khirbet Qeiyafa as a Judean site, and because it is powerful and heavily fortified, the director of excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa has, therefore, concluded the following about its implications for the account of David’s Judean kingdom;

“The location of Khirbet Qeiyafa and the data uncovered clearly demonstrate that it was a Judean city and not a Canaanite or Philistine one. Nor did it belong to the northern Kingdom of Israel. The new radiometric dating support the biblical narrative about state formation in Judah. The archaeological data and the biblical text both indicate that a new social organization developed in Judah in the late eleventh/early tenth century BC… On the other hand, in the biblical tradition this period is the era of King David. This narrative, like any historical narrative, suffers from various shortcomings but can no longer be rejected out of hand. In the late eleventh/early tenth century BC a small kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah, began to develop in the hills of Jerusalem and Hebron. It’s founding father was David.” (Garfinkel, Kreimerman, Zilberg 236)

Thus, archaeology has shed considerable light on not only the existence of David but the expanse of his kingdom, which it continues to do in several smaller findings throughout Israel. For example, excavations in the Timna Valley (located in southern Israel), currently being excavated by Erez Ben-Yosef from the Tel Aviv University, have found foreign fabrics dating to the time of Solomon’s reign. Such fabrics indicate that the kingdoms of David and Solomon participated in complex trading networks. Another finding in 2016 AD was that of a large palatial building dating to the reign of Solomon (10th century BC) found in the royal city of Gezer, which may be a reflection that the Solomonide kingdom could have had some wealth, and the time of Solomon may have its own implications for David’s reign.

Another archaeological finding that was able to shed some light on the life of David, rather than his rule, has actually come from the land of the Philistines. In 2005 AD, at excavations in the hometown of Goliath, the Philistine city of Gath (modern day Tell es-Safi), a Semitic inscription dating to the 10th-9th centuries BC was found, bearing an Indo-European name that highly resembled ‘Goliath’. Although the name is not exactly equivalent to Goliath, nor is the person’s name to be directly identified with the Philistine giant Goliath, Aren Maeir, the head of excavations at Tell es-Safi says that this inscription reveals the following;

“What this means is that at the time there were people there named Goliath. It shows us that David and Goliath’s story reflects the cultural reality of the time.”

So, did David truly slay Goliath? Perhaps this cannot itself be certainly known one way or another, however, the story seems to possess authentic historical memories, explicitly showing the great importance archaeology has been to historians in uncovering the mysteries of the ancient world. Although, it is true that David was said to have captured Gath sometime after he became king, despite there being no evidence for a destruction of the city of Gath during the time of David. Either David temporarily captured Gath, but did not destroy the city (unlike Hazael, who captured and destroyed Gath in the 9th century BC), or simply did not capture Gath at all contrary to the biblical record. The only thing that can be certain is that David did not destroy Gath.

Conclusion

David was definitely a profound figure, which is something that most scholars seem to be able to agree on despite the differences they maintain when reconstructing the historical background to his famous, and perhaps even infamous deeds. His reputation has broken beyond the boundaries of his home in ancient Israel and has extended over numerous cultures. Today, all three Abrahamic faiths honor David as an extraordinary man, whose reign is considered by many to be the pinnacle of ancient Israel’s history.

Bibliography

Émile Puech, “La stèle araméenne de Dan: Bar Hadad II et la coalition des Omrides et de la maison de David,” Revue Biblique 1994.

André Lemaire, “House of David; Restored in Moabite inscription,” Biblical Archaeology Review 1994.

Aren Maeir et al, “A Late Iron Age I/Early Iron Age II Old Canaanite Inscription from Tell es-Sâfi/Gath,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 2008.

Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh, “Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh,” Israel Exploration Society 1993.

Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh, “The Tel Dan inscription: a new fragment,” Israel Exploration Journal 1995: 13.

David Noel Freedman, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Eerdmans, 2000), 318..

Igor Kreimerman, Peter Zilberg and Yosef Garfinkel, Debating Khirbet Qeiyafa (Israel Exploration Society, 2016).

Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (Touchstone, 2002).

James Hoffmeier, “David’s Triumph over Goliath: 1 Samuel 17: 54 and Ancient Near Eastern Analogues,” Egypt, Canaan and Israel: History, Imperialism, Ideology and Literature 2011.

Lester L. Grabbe, Ahab Agonistes: The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2007), 333..

Susan Ackerman, When Heroes Love (Columbia University Press, 2005), 156-157..

Yulia Gottlieb, “The Advent of the Age of Iron,” Tel Aviv 2010.

The Old Testament and the Tel Dan Inscription

 

In the last century, there has been perhaps numerous paradigm shifts in academia in relevance to the historical reliability of not only the Bible in general, but the Old Testament as well. These paradigm shifts all came, one after another, as archaeology continued to progress in uncovering the ancient world, revealing countless ancient cities, their prominence, and the discoveries of tens of thousands of ancient texts and inscriptions. All these numerous findings have caused our knowledge of the ancient world to simply explode. Some of these marvelous discoveries including the finding of over ten thousand tablets in ancient Ebla, the discovery and excavations of the ancient city of Avaris (biblical Rameses) by Manfred Bietak, and perhaps more recently, the discovery of the Tel Dan Inscription.

Few archaeological discoveries have been as significant as the finding of the Tel Dan Inscription in the last 100 years. This single artifact was discovered in 1993 in excavations at the ancient site of Tel Dan,  biblical city of Dan (mentioned in verses like 1 Samuel 3:20). Indeed, after the publication of this basalt stone, the idea of biblical minimalism was plunged, and a paradigm shift in the way academics view the historicity of the Bible underwent. It is now unanimous amongst scholars that the Tel Dan Inscription is translated something like as follows;

  1. […] and cut […]
  2.  […] my father went up [against him when] he fought at […]
  3. And my father lay down, he went to his [ancestors] and the king of I[s-]
  4. rael entered previously in my father’s land. [And] Hadad made me king.
  5. And Hadad went in front of me, [and] I departed from [the] seven […-]
  6. s of my kingdom, and I slew [seve]nty kin[gs], who harnessed thou[sands of cha-]
  7. riots and thousands of horsemen. [I killed Jo]ram son of [Ahab]
  8. king of Israel, and [I] killed [Ahaz]iah son of [Jehoram kin-]
  9. g of the House of David. And I set [their towns into ruins and turned]
  10. their land into [desolation …]
  11. other [… and Jehu ru-]
  12. led over Is[rael … and I laid]
  13. siege upon […]

The Tel Dan Inscription was found by accident in northern Israel, and dates to the middle of the 9th century BC, uncovered in excavations at ancient Tel Dan, directed by Avraham Biran, a man who unfortunately passed away not too long ago at the age of 98. The significance of the Tel Dan Inscription is voluminous, for both the history of ancient Israel and the great Bible. For example, it is one of the only large writings we possess from the ancient biblical kingdom, and thereby gives us information about literacy at the time. But of course, even more important than that is that it has expanded our understanding and confirmation of the historicity of the Old Testament. Indeed, the Tel Dan Inscription has proven two segments of the Bible, one very major.

Image result for tel dan inscription house of david

Perhaps the first, more well-known and most important, is the phrase “House of David” on the 10th line of the Tel Dan Inscription. The Tel Dan Inscription is our earliest ancient artifact ever discovered to reference the existence of King David, the second king of Israel, the man who slew Goliath, and who established the kingdom of the holy land himself as lead by God. As the prominent archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel has noted;

The Tel Dan stele ended the first phase of the debate regarding the historicity of the Hebrew Bible.

The inscription speaks of the “house of David”, a reference to the Davidic dynasty. According to the renowned scholar Alan Millard who comments on this phrase of the Tel Dan Inscription;

A dynasty was named after its founder, a real man.

Millard specifically noted that in ancient history, the people from the past would name their dynasties off of their living kings for times to come, and thus the fact that David is not only mentioned in this ancient inscription, but is revealed by it to have had a dynasty named after him, speaks extraordinarily strongly that this man did in fact exist, as is now the view of virtually all scholars in the field. This major finding has proven that David, the man lead by God in many of his endeavors, did in fact exist.

There is of course a second contribution of this text to the historicity of the Bible that is well-known in scholarship, but is not as known to the public because it is completely overshadowed by the enormity of being the first discovery to have established the historicity of David. Let us now take turn to what God told us in the story of 2 Kings 9:1-29. Here, we are told that a prophet of God named Elisha came to a man and army commander named Jehu, and anointed him to be king over Israel. However, at the time, Joram was the king of Israel and Ahaziah was the king of Judah (the divided monarchy). So, Jehu took off on his chariot, and in perhaps a single day, slew both Joram the king of Israel and Ahaziah the king of Judah. This magnificent battle and short biblical narrative is vividly affirmed in the Tel Dan Inscription.

Joram king of Israel and Ahaziah king of Judah would both have died about 850-840 BC, making the Tel Dan Inscription virtually contemporaneous to their deaths. In lines 7-9 of the Tel Dan Inscription, someone is said to have killed the king of Israel named […]ram, and the king of the house of David named […]iah. The only biblical king to ever have their name end with ‘-ram’ is Joram, as pointed out by the great egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen in his book On the Reliability of the Old Testament;

In the whole series of the kings of Israel, there is one and only one king whose name ends in -ram, and that is J(eh)oram, son of Ahab, circa 852-841 [B.C.]. Therefore it seems at the present time inevitable that we should restore here “[J(eh)o]ram son of [Ahab], king of Israel.” (pp. 36-37)

And as Kitchen continues to write, he also affirms that the only king of Israel/Judah at the time of the Tel Dan Inscription whose names ends with -iah is Ahaziah, king of Judah. In other words, this virtually contemporaneous document to the events of 2 Kings 9 clearly documents the death of two kings of Israel at the exact same time, both Joram and Ahaziah, just as the biblical narrative records it to have occurred. Indeed, we can consider this biblical battle virtually affirmed by the archaeological record. However, the question arises — if the Bible is simply recording plain history in its common events, such as those recorded in 2 Kings 9, shouldn’t we expect that the biblical authors were doing anything but writing biblical history as they knew it? In fact, the existence of Jehu, the man whom the Bible says to have slain Joram king of Israel and Ahaziah king of Judah, has been confirmed some time ago as well, as his existence as the king of Israel was recorded by the Assyrian inscriptions of the emperor Shalmaneser III.

Truly, the Tel Dan Inscription is a blessing from God and has helped us further establish the historical veracity of the biblical narratives. Countless discoveries in recent times further helps us to shed more and more light on the biblical texts, and this seems to have no signs of ending, halting, or even slowing down in the near future (on the other hand, it has been speeding up in the last decade or two, especially since 2015). Glory be to God.

1 Samuel 17:37: And David said, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine ” And Saul said to David, “Go, and may the LORD be with you.”

….Even more historical confirmation of the Bible

Every now and then I report on another round of historical discoveries pretty much proving and establishing the Bible and several of its narratives. So, here’s yet another one! Even better, all the references I will give here are discoveries that came in the last two years alone.

Up until a few months ago, archaeologists considered the Bible’s narrative on Solomon’s enormous wealth completely exaggerated, and the amount of possessions he had. This was a major historical controversy, and considered a great challenge to the known historicity of the narrative of Solomon’s wealth found in the Bible. This was because that, although there is abundant evidence of mining, copper smelting and metalwork in the 5th century BC, there was hardly any before this, let alone as early as the 10th century BC, the reign of Solomon. This claim came to a halting crash just last month, in January of 2017.

A paper reported the newfound discovery of extensive copper smelting, metalwork and mining exactly in the 10th century BC, in the Timna Valley of Israel. Indeed, these mines were likely Solomon’s mines himself. And indeed, upon their discovery it showed that the wealth of Solomon was something that was not at all being exaggerated. Indeed, the biblical narrative had been established.

In Luke 1:63, we are told that people wrote on tablets. Then, a few months ago, in June of 2016, hundreds of ancient tablets were found, many dating to the first century — confirming Luke 1:63 does in fact reflect an accurate historical representation of the culture of the time, and the ‘technology’ available.

Another ground-breaking discovery made last year (2016). Skeptics use to claim that Galilean synagogues didn’t exist in Israel (and Jerusalem) before the Roman-Jewish War of 70 AD, and so when the Gospels keep telling us Jesus would be preaching in Galilean synagogues (synagogues in Galilee), it was obviously reflecting later writing and a historical error! I have in fact come across one of these myself in a conversation. That is, until a ground-breaking discovery was made last year, discovering a first century Galilean synagogue that dates to about 64 AD, confirming the existence of Galilean synagogues before the Roman-Jewish War of 70 AD, and confirming the very synagogues that Jesus stood and taught in before the Jews.

All of this goes to crushing lengths to establishing the grandeur historicity of the Bible, time and time again heavily defeating the accusations of the unbelievers. It’s rather sad to see them running out of accusations at such a stunning pace, all three of these discoveries were made in a span of less than one year throughout! PRAISE GOD ALMIGHTY, FOR HIS WORDS ARE HOLY!!!

2 Timothy 3:16-17: All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Archaeology proves LITERAL TRUTH of the Bible

I found a recent archaeological discovery that seems to have been almost completely ignored by even the Christian archaeologists of the day that provides a STUNNING confirmation of the Biblical account. Behold.

We all remember the battle drawn between David and Goliath that took place in 1 Samuel 17, correct? Consider this… First of all, we are told Goliath comes from a city called Gath.

[1 Samuel 17:4] Then a champion named Goliath, from Gath, came out from the Philistine camp. He was six cubits and a span.

So Goliath is from Gath.

Now, consider this.

Archaeologists recently found Gath, and at it, they found a ninth bowl that dates to about 900 BC that LITERALLY HAS THE NAME WRITTEN “GATH” ON IT…

SEE: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/13/AR2005111300315.html

This is… INSANE CONFIRMATION OF THE BIBLICAL RECORD. This is not even minor. Now, hold up a second, archaeologists have not found the actual Goliath’s cereal bowl. This bowl dates to about 900 BC, whereas Goliath would have died before 1010 BC… However, this does show something very important. The Biblical record tells us there was  a man named Goliath who lived in Gath who lived in the period known as the Early Iron Age. The archaeological record has also revealed a Goliath who lived in Gath in the period of the Early Iron Age, although not the exact same Goliath. This shows us that the name Goliath was in fact a name that existed, in that period, for people living in the city of Gath — in other words, the Biblical record when naming the man who fought David from Gath is not inventing things, but drawing from known historical fact at the time and likely giving the name of an actual figure from the time. In other words, this evidence shows that 1) There is archaeological and historical fact in the story of David and Goliath and 2) Goliath was likely a real figure as what the Bible tells us about Goliath from Gath matches up with the stratigraphical record on people named Goliath from Gath.

“This is a groundbreaking find… Here we have very nice evidence the name Goliath appearing in the Bible in the context of the story of David and Goliath … is not some later literary creation.” – Aren Maier, professor at Bar-Ilan University

I hope you understand what that means… It seems the more we know about ancient history, the more problematic it is for anyone who doesn’t believe in the Bible… Hallelujah.

HALLELUJAH!