In my senior year of high school, I took a required course known as American Government. Our teacher began by telling us that we had been lied to (literally: “You have been lied to!”), then proceeded to show us examples using the Socratic method.
The lies he was referring to, of course, were those most insidious of all, the lies about history. For example, things like “Columbus discovered America”; how is it possible to discover a place when people are already living there? Or the proposition that the federal government waged the American Civil War mostly to do away with slavery (it was actually to maintain the Union) or the misbelief that the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves (in truth, it freed no one).
Perhaps no other region of the planet is as wrapped in myth, enshrouded in legend, and trapped in a web of lies as the Levant, the area of western Asia bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea, making up the modern territories of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, West Bank, and Gaza Strip; this goes especially for the southern portion of that area.
The problems of using the Tanakh/Bible as a historical source
The fault for this lies completely on the shoulders of Western historians’ assumptions about the accuracy of the pseudohistory in the Old Testament, or Tanakh. None of the purported events in the Pentateuch, or Torah, ever took place, in fact, nor any from the Book of Samuel. The stories in the Books of Kings and of Chronicles, probably based in part on the histories of local “Canaanite” kings, have been corrupted and rewritten to serve the interests of, initially, the political elite who came into power after the conquest of the region by Cyrus the Great and, later, the Hasmonean despots of the 2nd century.
But how can I dismiss, one might ask, the wisdom of the ages, the commonly accepted (without critical judgement I should point out) history of Palestine?
For starters, the Exodus, as portrayed in the Torah, did not happen. In all the centuries in which scientists and historians of various religious affiliation have been desperately seeking signs reaffirming salvation and eternal life, not one shred of physical or written evidence has been found to support any or the story.
Even after infrared mapping by satellites, not one piece of anything exists to demonstrate that half a million people wandered around in the desert of the Sinai peninsula for 40 years. Infrared mapping has, however, demonstrated that the Arabian peninsula some 10,000 years ago was a lush rain forest watered by several large rivers of great length, while in the Sinai itself campsites of that age have been identified that were used only once by a handful of people.
Likewise, the conquests described in the Books of Joshua and Judges never took place either. Jericho, for instance, was destroyed about 1550 BCE and remained uninhabited until the mid-700’s BCE, and was thus not around to have its walls felled by Joshua’s trumphet.
In fact, archaeologist Anne Killebrew (in her article “Biblical Jerusalem: An Archaeological Assessment" in the larger work "Jerusalem in Bible and Archaeology: The First Temple Period") has convincingly demonstrated that cities such as Jericho and Jerusalem (named not for “Peace” but for the Canaanite god of the dusk, Shalem), which were large and prosperous in the Middle Bronze Age (1800-1550 BCE) and Middle Iron Age (722-586 BCE), were on the contrary small and only sparsely inhabited in the Late Bronze Age and nonexistent in the Early Iron Ages.
The sole exception to this was the area of the Philistine cities in the southwest, Gath, Ekron, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Gaza; the area of the later “Judaea” was almost entirely deserted and the city of Jerusalem was a small, unimportant, unwalled hamlet.
The events recorded in the Book of Genesis about the mythical patriarchs, and in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy about the Exodus of the “children of Israel” from Egypt and their wandering for forty years, as well as the conquest of Canaan in Joshua and Judges and the great empire of Israel under David and Solomon in the Book of Samuel, well, for such momentous events there is little record, written or otherwise. They are recorded in the Tanakh and in the Tanakh alone, and regarding physical archaeological evidence, there is none, with that which is present arguing against any of these things ever having happened.
Early mentions of the Levant
A clue to the true origin of the Jews/Samaritans can be found in the fact that Old Hebrew and ancient Canaanite are identical. As in exactly the same.
Speaking of said supposedly disreputable group of people, who were the Canaanites anyway?
Well, there was a people occupying the coast where Lebanon now lies whom the ancient Greeks called the Phoenicians. They knew themselves by the name Kananayim, or “Canaanite”.
The earliest possible mention of Canaan come from Elba, c. 2350 BCE, where records mention a people called the Ganana.
In 1750 BCE, in the Sumerian outpost city of Mari in the modern Syria refers to the Kinahnu as troublemakers.
Around 1600 BCE, the upper Mesopotamian city of Nuri refers to Kinahnu.
The Egyptians knew the land of Canaan by the name Retenu. During the Late Bronze Age, they called its northern confederation Qdesh, after the city of Kadesh, and its southern confederation Djahy.
In the Middle Bronze Age, Retenu was dominated by two coalitions, one in the north centered led by the city of Qatna (near the modern Homs, Syria) and another in the south by the city of Hazor, near the Sea of Galilee between Ramah and the later Kadesh. About 1800 BCE is the first mention in Egyptian records of “Retenu”. The biggest rival of Qatna was the Amorite kingdom of Yamhad.
By the Late Bronze Age, this grouping had shifted to the south, with two coalitions, one dominated by Kadesh in the north and and the other by Megiddo in the south. The Battle of Megiddo, fought about 1457 BCE, was between Pharoah Thutmose III and the two coalitions, with Kadesh in the lead role.
Retenu is mentioned again in the Amarna Letters, a series of correspondence between the Pharoah Akenaten of Egypt (1350’s to 1330’s BCE) and clients or vassals in Retenu and Amurru. The letters are mostly written in Akkadian, the lingua franca of the time (some were written in Canaanite using the Akkadian cuniform). Akenaten, interestingly, was the Pharoah of the Nineteenth Dynasty who attempted to switch Egyptian religion to a monotheistic or henotheistic direction, focusing on “Aten”.
Akenaten’s wife was Nefertiti, by the way, and his son the famous Tutankhamun.
While not mentioning a general name for the states, several of the Amarna Letters report disturbances by the Habiru, portrayed as a heterogenous, polyglot, multiethnic, diverse population rather than as a specific tribe or ethnic group.
The next actual historical mention is in the stele erected by Ramses II to commemorate his victory over the Hittite Empire at the Battle of Kadesh about 1274 BCE, apparently in response to another period of rebellion.
After that, a later historical encounter comes during the Pharoah Merneptah’s (1213-1203 BCE) campaign into Canaan to put down a rebellion by two confederations of city-states in Canaan, though the majority of the engraving is devoted to his Libyan campaign. In the engraving, Menreptah’s commemorates his victory over the city-states of Gezer, Yanoam, and Ashekelon, along with a landless people nevertheless native to Retenu referred to as “Isiriar”, possibly the same as Israel.
Whereas most trade prior to circa 1200 BCE had been conducted by land, improved ship design and methods of propulsion enabled the city-states along the seacoast to eclipse their inland countrymen to become the greatest maritime trading empire the world had yet seen.
Here is when the ancient Hellenes first begin to write of Phoenicia, which alone of all the powers in the eastern Mediterranean seems able to resist the effects of the marauding Sea Peoples. Their main city-states were Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Simrya, Arwad, Beirut, Ugarit, Tripoli, and Ashkelon (before the Philistines).
While their inland brethren engaged in agriculture and husbandry, along with continuing the lucrative land trade, the “Phoenicians” or “Kananayim” spread out across the Mediterranean, founding colonies from nearby to its westernmost limits, most importantly Carthage.
The apex of Phoenician civilization in its homeland began to wane around 800 BCE, certainly by the time the cities were overrun when Assyria invaded the Levant in 722 BCE, though their cities and civilization continued on in a less than independent state.
However, colonies they had spread throughout the Mediterranean region survived independently in Cyprus, Crete, Malta, Sicily, Mauretania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, southern Italy, Sardinia, Spain, and Portugal.
In addition, by this time they had given the world the alphabet, which they had invented and others adapted.
Around this same time, circa 840 BCE, Mesha, the king of Moab, erected a stele boasting of his victory over Omri, king of Israel. The French archaeologist Lemaire contends that the stele also mentions the House of David, but his view is based on him supplying letters which are gone and is not universally accepted.
The Tel Dan Stele of about the same age or possibly a century later mentions a king of Israel again, and once again possibly the House of David. Several scholars have disputed the reading, though there is a stronger case here than in that of the Mesha Stele.
In the late 8th century BCE, apparently influenced by the Pharoah or possibly a dynastic rival, the Canaanite cities, including those under the kings of Israel and of Moab, ceased giving tribute to Assyria and rose up in arms. Sargon II invaded and conquered the entire area in fairly short order.
In his inscription describing the conquest, Sargon refers to the land as Samaria and its people as Samarians, belying the idea that “Samarian” was an appellation which came later. The inscription refers to the Samarians as if they were properly so-called all along. He recounts removing 27,280 persons from Samaria, clearly referring to the entire region rather than just a city. In their place, he says he brought in people from several different Arabian tribes. All this happened in about 722 BCE.
Coincidentally, 722 BCE was about the same time southern Palestine once again began to be inhabited. Well, maybe not so much of a coincidence.
In addition to refugees fleeing Sargon’s army, I can imagine more expedient methods for removing the 27,280 Samarians from positions where they could cause trouble than transporting all of them a thousand miles across the desert. Like driving them into the wilderness south of the civilized part of Palestine, the part where Jerusalem later was built.
People who would have needed a protector and who would have willingly become an outpost of said protector’s army and in turn provided troops for its frontier. Which is exactly what happened.
Kananayim in Egypt
In about 650 BCE, troops from southern Palestine went south to assist the Pharoah Psammatichus I with his Nubian campaign, and many or all of them stayed in an established frontier garrison at Elephantine complete with their own fully-functioning temple to one of their gods, Yahweh, an increasingly popular deity.
Not only was their temple back to back with that of the local god, Khnum, but Yahweh was worshipped together with Anat (Anath), Athtart (Astarte), or Athirat (Asherah), female gods of the Canaanites; of course the latter was also the case in southern Canaan itself.
A little less than half a century later, Nebuchadnezzar II, who had already overthrown the Assyrian Empire to establish his own Chaldean or Neo-Babylonian Empire, took down the last outpost of the Philistines when he finally captured Ashekelon after a protracted siege, then burnt it and dispersed its inhabitants.
Enter the Chaldeans
Two decades later, Nebuchadnezzar II felt safe enough to conquer the new kingdom that had grown up in southern Palestine after the end of Samaria’s independence.
Upon it he erected a province he called, in Aramaic, the lingua franca of that era, Yehuda Medinata. “Medinata” was, of course, Aramaic for province, while “Yehuda” was derived from a local height known in Aramaic as “Har Yehuda” or “mountain of the gorges”. That geographic name is roughly equivalent to the something like "Glens of Antrim" in Northeast Ulster or the "ridges" of Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia.
The name “Jew” never appears in any source prior to this time, really not for some time after, but it was probably about this time that the name came to be used.
This Babylonian king, Nebuchadnazzar II, by the way, is the actual Lucifer, not some fallen angel; read the passage (Isaiah 14) and you’ll get it.
Koroush Kabir takes control
When the forces of the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great overthrew the Chaldeans and inherited their lands, the province kept its entire name since Aramaic was still the lingua franca of Southwest Asia. Unfortunately for Bibliophiles, although Cyrus did in his great Declaration of Human Rights promise to send home the hostages of all the lands, he never mentioned “Jews”, or even “citizens of Yehuda”, specifically and separately from the rest of the exiles.
While southern Palestine had been in Chaldean hands as Yehuda Medinata, the colony at Elephantine had been cut off from their kin. These were reunited, at least politically, with their northern brethren when Cambyses II defeated the Pharoah in 525 BCE and joined Egypt together with Yehuda, Phoenicia, Samaria, Syria, and Cyprus in the satrapy of Abar-Nahara.
In 407 BCE, a riot by local devotees of Khnum destroyed the temple of Yahweh at Elephantine, and Yahweh’s adherents there petitioned Sanballat, governor of Samaria, and Bagoas, Persian governor of Yehuda, seeking permission for and assistance with rebuilding the temple. Not only is this incident recorded in the Tanakh, but their positive answers, in Aramaic, have been found on papyri dated to the time.
Regarding temples, archaeological studies have shown that shrines and religious centers dedicated to Yahweh and other Canaanite gods existed all over the Levant through the Chaldean period. However, soon after Cyrus’ conquest and declaration, and possibly the return of generational exiles from Zoroastrian Iran, worship began to be concentrated at the temples of Jerusalem and at Mount Gerizim, though coins from this period through the Macedonian conquest still bear representations of Yahweh and of one of the three afore-mentioned goddesses.
Clearly, it was during this period that the serious shift from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism among the Kana’anites began. Coinage in the early Iranian period shows Yahweh on one side and Anath, his consort, on the other, for instance. The Kana’anites may have been earlier introduced to heno- and monotheistic ideas through the Neo-Assyrian and Chaldean Empires, bringing Zoroastrianism in their wake. Among the Aramaic-speaking Assyrians, Ahura Mazda becomes Assara Mazas, often simply Mazas, which in Greek becomes Moses.
In Alexander’s conquest, the inhabitants of Yehuda proved to be staunch allies, whom he indeed praised on numerous occasions. He found them especially helpful against the city-states of the tottering Phoenicia, his conquest and destruction of Tyre in 332 BCE being the final nail in the coffin of Phoenicia, which had long been eclipsed by its Tunisian offspring, Carthage.
After Alexander’s death, Yehuda and Samaria fell to the Ptolemies in Egypt, at least for a while. By that time, the last remnants of the Yehudaian community at Elephantine had retreated north into Yehuda Medinata (c. 350 BCE).
Sometime during this period, Canaanite religion shifted from a henotheism with Yahweh at its head (the chief god had previously been Hadad) of lesser gods to a monotheism with Yahweh as the only god.
Foundation myths are born
Along with this new theology came a newly invented history, one in which Jerusalem was named not for the Canaanite god of the dusk but for the ideal of peace and Yehuda not for the mountain of the gorges but for an eponymous ancestor, one Judah, son of Jacob/Israel, and in turn the fiction that this had always been the case forever and ever world without end, Amen.
Thus the elaborate myths and legends of the Torah (Pentateuch) and the Books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel. The Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy fall into a category of literature known as foundation myths.
For comparison, one might read the collected foundation mythology of ancient Rome, beginning with Virgil’s Aeneid (which actually set down older tales) and the story of Romulus and Remus.
Or perhaps you could turn to the Lebor Gabala Erenn, or Book of Conquests, which traces its ancestor back to a Scota, daughter of Pharaoh of Egypt (the Irish were initially called Scotti in Latin).
For another example, see how the monk Nennius traces the foundation of Britannia back to Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, in his Historia Brittonum, the story of which Geoffrey of Monmouth greatly expands in his Historia Regum Brittaniae.
Or for that matter the legend about how the Pilgrims and Puritans sought only to worship God in their own way and had no quarrel with the current inhabitants of the land (somewhat true in the case of the Pilgrims, not at all true in the case of the avaricious Puritans).
Or in a more current light, the mythology that the Southern secession which led to the Civil War was about anything other than preserving slavery for the benefit of the planter-class aristocracy which dominated the economy.
Or for more exotic and probably more entertaining stories, check out how the Great Spirit created the Cherokee/Muskogee/Lakota/Apache/etc. people.
Foundation myths all serve the same purpose and all have the same value. They also have the same amount of historical truth: very little, if any at all.
The rise and fall of the Hasmoneans
In 198 BCE, the satrapy of Abar-Nahara, and with it Yehud and Samaria, passed from the Ptolemies to the Seleucids.
I suspect that the parts of the Tanakh written against foreign forms of government and worship arose during the Hellenistic period, since Alexander’s conquests accelerated the trend begun under the Achaemenids of mixing cultures of the various peoples in order to bring out the best of each.
In this scenario, society becomes more Hellenistic than Samarian or Yehudaean, and naturally there are those concerned about a people losing its individual identity, usually persons whose ambitions incline to the political or have a stake in the status quo. Even their first collection of Scriptures, known as the Septuagint, is written in the “foreign” language of Greek, rather than Aramaic or Hebrew.
This “nativist” opposition came from the family known as the Hasmoneans, who picked the occasion of Antiochus IV’s invasion of Egypt to rise up against his allies in Jerusalem. The high priesthood at the time was held by a scion of the dynasty referred to as the Oniads.
Onias III had held the high priesthood at the time of Antiochus IV’s succession in 175 BCE, and he was replaced by the more regime-friendly Jason, his brother. In 172 BCE, Jason was in turn overbid by another brother, Menelaus. Jason later allied with another dynasty, the Tobiads.
And so on and so on.
In the midst of this chaos, the man who would rightfully have succeeded, the would-be Onias IV, fled to Egypt. There he settled in the town of Leontopolis and with the permission of Ptolemy IV established a new temple in Egypt, smaller than that of Jerusalem but based on its design, in the year 154 BCE.
Despite the reputation the Hasmoneans have in some circles, they were no better for Yehud than the Stuarts were for Scotland. The worst twisting and turning of the Book of Kings cannot begin to approach the convoluted treachery of this period of Yehudaean history.
The intrigues and constant backstabbing of the Hasmoneans eventually led to their demise when Herod the Great, an Idumaean, was at last able to have their final claimant executed for treason in 30 BCE.
Judaism of the Classical era
Out of this mess were the religious factions of the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes born, factions which were more political in origin than over honest religious disagreements, much like the split between the Sunni and Shia in Islam. At one time of another each of these sects backed different claimants as High Priest and as Ethnarch, with the ultimate question always being, “To whom the spoils?”.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, specifically Alexandria, Hellenistic Judaism was at its greatest height.
Here was Philo the philosopher, renowned throughout the ancient world as well as in his own community, though there was less support for him in the Levant or in the Jewish community of Babylon. Around the Mediterranean Sea, however, among the communities of the Jewish diaspora, Philo was a rock star.
It was in Alexandria, home of so many Gnostic schools (Gnosticism predates Christianity by a couple of centuries), the largest synagogue in the world, and the largest Serapeum (temple to Serapis, a syncretic deity) in the Mediterranean that the avidly followed Mystery Cult combined with Hellenistic Judaism to produce Christianity.
The Mystery Cults originated with the cult and rites of Osiris-Isis, and the original communion was beer and barley bread.
Various religions around the Mediterranean and neighboring regions adapted their own version of the cult: Cybele and Attis in Phrygia, Adonis, Dionysus, and Orpheus in Greece along with the Eleusinian Mysteries, Sabazius, Mithras, and countless others.
Eventually, the Alexandrians recycled the legendary or mythical Yehoshua as a central figure in the Jewish version of the rites, and combined with certain aspects of Gnosticism, a new religion was born.
“The land of Egypt, the praises of which you have been recounting to me, my dear Servianus, I have found to be wholly light-minded, unstable, and blown about by every breath of rumour. There, those who worship Serapis are, in fact, Christians, and those who call themselves bishops of Christ are, in fact, devotees of Serapis. There is no chief of the Jewish synagogue, no Samaritan, no Christian presbyter, who is not an astrologer, a soothsayer, or an anointer. Even the Patriarch himself, when he comes to Egypt, is forced by some to worship Serapis, by others to worship Christ.” – Imperator Publius Aelius Trajanius Hadrianus Augustus Pius, to his brother-in-law, Consul Gaius Lucius Iulius Servilius Ursus Servianus, 134 CE
I am not the first to ask from whence all of these exiles scattered around the Mediterranean on Cyprus, Crete, Malta, Sicily southern Italy, North Africa, southern Iberia, Sardinia, southern Gaul, Greece, and Rome itself etc. came from.
In fact, recalling the list of locations of “Phoenician” colonies above will appear quite familiar. The Yehudaean God, Yahweh, developed from an original in the Canaanite pantheon, Kananayim being the name by which the Phoenicians and their inland cousins knew themselves.
Founded 814 BCE as an outpost of the Phoenician city of Tyre, the Carthaginian Republic thrived to become one of the strongest powers in the Mediterranean (along with Syracuse of Magna Graecia and the Roman Republic) in the last centuries before the turn of the era, ruling over 300 cities scattered around the region from one end of the Sea to the other.
With the conquest and destruction of the last of Phoenicia by Alexander, Carthage became THE remaining independent homeland for the Kananayim people.
Its own end in 146 BCE after the Third Punic War left the Kananayim without a solid geographic base for their culture and identity. At such times, ethnic groups often look to religion for a common identity, and I suspect that this was what happened, that many saw the cult that had grown up among their cousins in the Levant of One God as a way to bind them together and maintain their identity.
At the time, the Hasmoneans were throwing off the shackles of the Seleucids (okay, only to put on those of Rome), giving the worship of Yahweh as the One True God a certain amount of prestige.
Several centuries later a man named Mohammad used something similar—Islam—to bind his own Arab people together into something which later became one of the greatest empires of the world.
Separate recent DNA studies have demonstrated that the great majority of Ashkenazim, the largest Jewish ethnic group, hailing mainly from Eastern Europe, descend from four Levantine mothers, and that these Levantine mothers were genetically descended from the people who had lived in the region for millennia.
These same studies have also shown that the overwhelming majority of Lebanese are descended from the ancients who once sailed from their ports across the Mediterranean to its outer limits, possibly even to faraway Britain and Ireland. They share mitochondrial DNA and Y-haplotypes with populations in Cyprus, Crete, Malta, Sicily, southern Italy, North Africa, southern Iberia, Sardinia, southern France, and native Palestine, as well as the Sephardim and various other “Jewish” ethnic groups.
In short, YOU ARE ALL KANANAYIM, SO GET OVER IT!
Holy tourism, Bat Man!
As for the Holy Places in Jerusalem, particularly around the so-called Temple Mount, guess what? THEY ARE ALL FAKE.
Yes, that’s correct. When Titus took Jerusalem in 70 CE, he destroyed it completely, including the walls, all buildings, and the Temple Mound, which he removed as entirely as if he’d bulldozed it.
Should you doubt the Romans had that ability, have a séance and ask the dead of Masada how they feel about Roman engineering ability.
The so-called “Western Wall”? Sure, it’s the Western Wall…of the temple complex to Jupiter built by Hadrian as part of the new city of Aelia Capitolina, capital of the new province of Syria-Palaestina. There were two temples on the rebuilt mound, one to Jupiter and Juno, another to Minerva. Muslims all over the world know them now as the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Wailing/Western Wall? That was not built by Herod, whose walls at similar locations always followed the contours of the land rather than the straight and square which is more Roman in design.
Likewise, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is actually the location of the grotto of the Temple of Venus, and the so-called Upper Room used to be the Temple of Mercury. Aelia Capitolina also had a Temple of Asclepius, the five-sided pool of which is described in the Gospel of John (clearly a work of the 2nd century or later).
The Church of the Nativity? Before Empress Mother Helena, Constantine’s mum, came calling, it was the cave in which Mithras was born; to the locals, one Mystery Cult was the same as any other. As a matter of empirical fact, all these “holy” sites were “discovered” and “revealed” during the imperial Helena’s visit.
There’s one born every minute.
Like I said, though, get over it. Even if all of the events were real, it was all removed by Titus when he effectively bulldozed it.
And the Jewish-Palestinian question? You’re all cousins, so knock it the hell off already. You are ALL descendants of one of the greatest civilizations ever. Get used to that idea, and celebrate it, together.